A mother-daughter conversation on food and cooking (mostly)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Devi Raju

I interviewed Devi, who runs the amazing Touch of India and Touch of India Express restaurants, and wrote a 650-word piece on her for this week's Free Times. I wish I'd had more space; she gave me a lot to work with.

Of the most interest to this blog was the fact that she doesn't taste the food she's cooking. Here's the relevant unedited section of the interview (I cut this way down for the article):


Eva: Do you keep notes about what you put in each dish, or do you have recipes you've written, or is it just all in your head?

Devi: All in my head. That's why it won't taste the same every time you eat it!
I don't have fixed menus because today it may be hot, tomorrow it may be cold, you don't know what...
And plus I don't taste my food.

Eva: I wondered about that, cause you're a vegetarian, right?

Devi: Even vegetables

Eva: So even the vegetables you don't taste...Why's that?

Devi: So that's what we practice in India. We used to offer food to the god when we cook some days, like prayers days. If you’re practicing sucking your fingers all the time, if you taste the food, that is not going to be good to offer to god.
That is the reason we practice when we are gone to mother in law's house, we don't eat food until we feed the family and we later.... Some days offerings may come, priests may come, someone come to eat, and that's why I never eat my food first when I cook.

Do you feel like that affects your cooking somehow?

Devi: No, I don't know, I don't know the taste because I'm cooking that much and I don't know the difference.

Like if someone is there, my son, my daughter in law, my husband there, they will check, they will taste for me. Me, no. I never taste my food.

Eva: So does it surprise you sometimes when you do eat it?

Devi: Nah. But I know when I cook, like the items, when I cook, it's going to taste good anyway. But the item...If I like, like if I do the okra, if I say oh, I like that okra, I like that okra because it tastes so good to me to eat that, then I'll eat afterwards. But not in the beginning.

It won't surprise me at all because I know when it looks good.

When you look you can tell the food usually. That's why I don't have to taste anything to know whether it's okay or not.


It reminds me of something you said to me once, Mom, about being able to smell when food has enough salt in it. Similar thing: Devi can can tell by looking whether the food is right.

I do find myself tasting the food I cook less all the time, but I still usually have to taste for salt. Maybe it's because I use different salting agents -- sometimes fish sauce, sometimes table salt or coarse-ish sea salt, and usually of varying brands, so always different. I don't know; I always have salting problems. Maybe I need to look and smell more.

By the way, Lawson has been a customer of Devi's for many years. He once told me that years ago he was eating some meat or poultry dish at Touch of India and Devi asked him how it was; she had never tried the dish, even though she cooked it, since she was a vegetarian. So that was one line of questioning I wanted to pursue in the interview, and luckily she wanted to go there, too.

This was the first in what will become a series of interviews with local food people -- restaurateurs, farmers, caterers, what have you...I hope they're all so much fun.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Mom, I keep meaning to direct you to this post on homemade spelt crackers. I want you to make some once your life gets back to normal and tell me how they are.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Tamales

This year I used my regular pork filling recipe, though I see now I forgot to use onion. It's missing that flavor base, for sure.

For the dough, this year I rendered my own lard instead of buying the sketchy shelf-stable hydrogenated stuff. I just put some chopped up fatback in the crockpot for a day on low; that worked pretty well. The lard was a little softer and meltier than other lard I've encountered, but mild and delicious.

With the tamales we had homemade beans and a sort of ad hoc cole slaw made from brussels sprouts, lime juice, yogurt, olive oil, salt, pepper, and toasted cumin seeds. I made a batch of classic red chile sauce to spoon over the tamales.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bûche de Noël

I'm not sure I'll ever do this again, but it sure looked cool.

a "hot milk sponge cake" from Joy baked in a jelly roll pan
Kahlua-flavored buttercream

chocolate buttercream
meringue mushrooms
powdered sugar
a rock from the yard
a pine branch with pinecones that I found in the street

The meringue mushrooms got gooey pretty quickly in the humidity.

These shots make it look a little campy, but indoors, in person, it looked quite pretty and log-like.

It tasted merely okay -- the cake was a little bland, and the Kahlua buttercream not quite perfect. The lemon meringue pie I also made for Christmas Eve dinner was much tastier.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Somewhat Chinese Smoked Turkey Noodle Soup

With the leftover Thanksgiving smoked turkey I made some stock and used it to invent a soup.

I simmered together:
  • broth from smoked turkey
  • onions
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • five spice powder
  • soy sauce
After a while I added:
  • carrots
After ten more minutes I added:
  • green onions
  • soba noodles, partially precooked
  • spinach
  • sesame oil
And I served it just like that. Leftover turkey meat would have been good, but we didn't have any.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

After the Open House

We attended a very nice open house party in the neighborhood last night from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. There was lots of wine, a spinach quiche, crostini with tomatoes and cheese, and little quesadillas.

Returning home, we were in a supper quandary--we needed a little more food and drink, but we couldn't exactly start from scratch. We settled on a having a scotch and soda, followed by a light meal of brie, crackers, brussels sprouts with mustard and lemon, eggplant caponata (which I had made for food gifts earlier that day), and some blackberries. It was just right.

I like to make food gifts this time of year. For the end of 2008 I made lemon curd, caponata, chocolate chip cookies, and tomatillo salsa.

Sour Cream Enchiladas

My restaurant mainstay as a vegetarian child in the Southwest, sour cream enchiladas don't sound like they should work...but they do.

I'd never made them before, but we happened to have all the right ingredients around.

The filling was sour cream spiked with a little yogurt and a little Herdez salsa verde and a sprinkling of grated mozzarella.

The sauce was my regular New Mexican red chile sauce.

I used James Peyton's advice to roll the enchiladas loosely, which kept them from unrolling.

I covered them with the sauce, baked them at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes, and served them with a cilantro-red pepper-bean salad similar to the one described here and here.

Please forgive our messy table and the Old Milwaukee.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Back to the Stove

I cooked last night, Manhattan in hand, and felt immeasurably better.

I made a vaguely Thai stir fry of pork, tofu, onion, garlic, purple cabbage from the garden, red bell pepper, green beans, cilantro, and rice noodles. I marinated the pork first in sugar and fish sauce. For sauce I used a blend of fish sauce, chile-garlic paste, and water. Not bad. The whole thing was slightly greasy, but at least it was homemade and home-chopped and very therapeutic to make.

I don't know how it got to be late December. Fortunately, I get to spend the next week cooking. Should be fun. A buche de Noël, lemon meringue pie, tamales, huevos rancheros, Anasazi beans...I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Lunching Out

With Grandma in rehab (that's physical therapy, for those of you who don't know her), the last few days we have fallen into a pattern: we visit her in the morning and take her the paper; we visit her in the afternoon; and in between we go out to lunch. This will have to stop. Thursday we had trendy Italian; yesterday we had Greek (a grilled eggplant sandwich for me--Eva, we must find out how they do their grilled eggplant!); and today a Guatemalan restaurant called Maya Quetzal.

The place is completely uninspiring when you look in the cash register, linoleum floor, and plastic chairs. But if you go through to the back patio, it's pleasant. We were with Mary Ellen, so we could order three different things. She had pork in an amazing pipian sauce, Dad had chiles rellenos containing spinach, walnuts, and more, and I had the divine vegetarian plate. There was a turnover made of a thick corn tortilla stuffed with cheese, walnuts, and spinach; black beans; and then instead of the "Spanish" rice the others had, my plate had a side of white rice cooked with corn, sour cream, and cheese. It was really the best rice dish any of us have ever had.

Now I am going to drag you to that restaurant when you visit, and I'm also going to try to find that recipe.

We went to the local street fair two days in a row, once to look at woodworking vendors with David, and once on a Christmas shopping expedition. The Greek and Guatemalan restaurants were in that district, so we walked to lunch both of those days. It's been in the 70's at midday, with clouds and sunsets in the evening.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winter Summer Pasta

It's mid-December, so all our garden herbs are dead except mint and parsley...so I made pasta with mint and parsley. I do what I can to feel alive during the winter.

Cook very slowly in a big pan until light gold:
  • 3 or more cloves garlic, sliced
  • Several T olive oil
  • some vermouth
  • a can of diced tomatoes
  • red chile flakes
Cook slowly until flavors blend, but don't let tomatoes get that cooked flavor -- maybe 12 minutes?

  • 1/3 cup ricotta
  • a handful of chopped fresh mint
  • a handful of chopped fresh parsley
  • lots of pepper
  • salt
The ricotta should be just enough to make the sauce a little thicker and richer -- it shouldn't be a cream sauce.

Don't put on as much Parmesan cheese as Lawson did above.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Smoked Turkey, Black Bean, and Sweet Potato Enchiladas

Lawson and I invented this dish several years ago after Thanksgiving, and now we make it every year. It's a product of our particular Thanksgiving, which usually involves a turkey smoked by Lawson's brother; we always have a bag full of leftover smoked turkey meat.

We call it Signature Dish. I take no pictures of it because it is a casserole. Instead, here are pictures of the cat trying to help me fix my speaker cabinet:

***Signature Dish***
First, you have to make a batch of classic Southwestern red chile sauce.

At the same time, you have to roast two whole sweet potatoes at 400 degrees until they soften and collapse a bit.

Then you compile the following:

Layer 1
black beans
roasted sweet potatoes, peels removed and innards gently sliced

Layer 2
a few cups smoked turkey meat
a cup of sour cream
several green onions, chopped

You will also need:
corn tortillas
a little bit of cheese for the top

Get out a pan, grease it lightly with olive oil, and pour some sauce in the bottom. Add a layer of corn tortillas. Add more sauce. Then add the beans and the sweet potatoes, evenly distributing them. More tortillas. More sauce. Then carefully spread/dab the turkey filling on for the second layer. More tortillas. More sauce. Sprinkle cheese on top.

Here, I made you a picture. s=sauce, t=tortilla, c=cheese.


It's more than the sum of its parts, this dish. We actually smoked a chicken once just so we could make it.

If I were trying to be fancy, I might make individual plates of stacked enchiladas, New Mexican style, but it's so good left over that I prefer to make a big cafeteria-looking pan full.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Getting over Thanksgiving

Like you, I have had to overcome a mountain of calories (and, by the way, leftover gravy, due to my advance gravy binge) and get back to my true cooking roots. In this house, that means seafood, tofu, and vegetables.

Last night we had curry-seared scallops, a very quick treatment. I especially like to use this with huge scallops cut in half horizontally so they sear quickly.

Curry-Crusted Scallops

12 ounces sea scallops
1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder

Rinse scallops. Dry thoroughly on paper towels. Dredge all sides in curry powder.

1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper

Heat a olive oil in a skillet and cook the scallops for 3 minutes per side. Season with salt and pepper, remove to a bowl and keep warm.

2 tablespoons apricot or other jam (I used plum)
3 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons sliced scallions

Deglaze skillet with the jam and a little water or wine. Add cream and boil briefly.

Serve sauce over scallops and garnish with scallions. I served mine with brown rice.


By the way, I think I should get some kind of honorary degree in Southern cooking. I made pimento cheese from scratch because I couldn't find any here. I used pickled sweet peppers from the olive bar.


Yesterday at the grocery store a college-age boy was standing in the produce section looking confused. When I smiled at him he stopped me and asked me to help him. "I'm supposed to get parsley and rosemary," he said, "but I don't really know what I'm looking for."

It might have just been a line, but he really did seem confused. I showed him the (hideously expensive) prepackaged rosemary, labeled "Rosemary," and he said "Oh!" and nodded. But when I pointed out the parsley, he furrowed his brow. He reached out for a bunch, then drew his hand back. "This is cilantro right next to it," I said. "Don't get that." He looked at me, then back at the parsley. "Thanks," he said.

When I left the produce area he was -- I kid you not -- holding a bunch of parsley in one hand, staring at it, and scratching the back of his head with the other hand.

I wish I'd asked him what he was making (or who he was shopping for). Maybe he'd been told to get flat-leaf parsley, and they only had curly. Maybe he was high.

At a time when gourmet cooking and food snobbery is pushed on even the unwilling, it was kind of neat to remember that not everybody knows the same things. You and I could tell cilantro from parsley at fifty paces. That kid could not. So what? I wish I could make him dinner.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Late Fall Food Doldrums

My cooking seems to be suffering lately, and I don't know why. Maybe I haven't adjusted to the shift in seasons. I know I'm still in mourning for fresh chiles. I haven't been to the grocery store as often these last few months. I'm oversalting, a kitchen problem I have that goes in cycles.

We eat takeout Thai food and Pizza Palace large pies with Genoa salami, mushrooms, onions, and peppers more often. My whole cooking habit is in need of some repair.

I illustrate my lameness with a picture of last night's dinner: leftover Thanksgiving macaroni and cheese and slow-cooked green beans, well executed but straight off any Southern buffet, alongside a grilled Italian sausage. Everything tasted fine, but it was all kind of fatty and bland and uninspired. Midwestern winter food. It wasn't Eva food.

I'll hit the grocery store tomorrow seeking inspiration.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Shrimp Tortilla after Thanksgiving

I somehow managed to not take one single photograph through four days of eating, cooking, and talking about food with Lawson's relatives. We were all socked away in a house in North Carolina miles from anything. In a classic liberal-conservative/Target-Wal*Mart split, Lawson and I worked on the new trail we're cutting up there, while almost everyone else stayed inside or rode ATVs in a circle around the yard.

After all that eating, though, we needed light food yesterday. We saved some leftover shrimp from Saturday night's oyster roast and shrimp boil, so I made a tortilla espanola with them: an onion and four cloves of garlic, sauteed very slowly for about 40 minutes until golden, followed by a diced roasted red pepper, about 15 big cooked shrimp, a handful of parsley, 5 beaten eggs, and salt and pepper. I cooked it in the pan for a few minutes more, then browned the top.