Monday, May 11, 2009

Just when I thought things couldn't get any better..., rev. ed.

Just when I thought uppuma couldn't get any better, along came our friendly neighborhood Fruit Guru to prove me wrong. He arrived with a box of mangoes, but not just any mangoes, mind you, Alphonso mangoes. I liked the look of the box from the moment I set eyes on it.

alphonso in the house fig. a: Alphonso in the house

And when I opened it, I found the mangoes nestled in shredded ruled paper.

delicious mangoes, shredded paper fig. b: shh, they're resting

Adam warned me that this might be the #1 fruit event of the year, but, even so, I really wasn't prepared for these "Indian Farm Fresh" Alphonsos. I haven't had a case of fruit frenzy that was this intense in years. (Come to think of it, the Fruit Guru was the genius behind that fruit event, too.) I had my first bite, and it was pure ecstasy. So sweet, so highly perfumed, so perfectly textured. Within about a minute, I'd finished my first two and was onto my third. Michelle was still hours from returning home. At the rate I was going, the box would be finished within about 15 minutes. It took superhuman will to set my fourth Alphonso back in its place, put the cover back on the box, and tear myself away, but somehow I did. Hours later, when Michelle finally got home from work, she was awfully glad that I had.

The Fruit Guru imparted the following sage words before he left that afternoon: "Every day that begins with an Alphonso mango is a good day." So the next morning, we gave 'em a whirl. First we had them with a fresh batch of uppuma. Then I had some more on yogurt.

alphonsos & yogurt fig. c: can't touch this

He was absolutely right: it was a good day. A very good day.


P.S. The word on the street is that now's the time to find Indian Farm Fresh Alphonsos. The season is short. Call your favorite South Asian grocer and ask for them by name.

P.S. 2 As you can see from our comments, there have been reports of Alphonsos sightings at Marché Thurga on Jean-Talon in Parc Ex and Marché Oriental on Victoria. Good luck!! And TY to our intrepid mango hunters!!!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Uppuma: it's what's for breakfast.

uppuma--it's what's for breakfast fig. a: uppuma: "just try to resist me!"

I first discovered uppuma sometime way back in the 1990s through my friend Carolyn. She'd gotten way deep into vegetarian Indian cuisine. Many of us admired Yamuna Devi's Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Vegetarian Indian Cuisine back then, but I'm pretty sure Carolyn was the only person I knew who owned it. And I'm positive she was the only one I knew who had the guts to actually use Yamuna Devi's Lord Krishna's Cuisine. I, on the other hand, distinctly remember looking at those long lists of ingredients and getting totally overwhelmed. I made Devi's carrot pickle once, but that was as deep as I ever got into her 800+ page tome. Anyway, I also remember the first time I had uppuma for breakfast. Carolyn and I were visiting her parents at the beach, and she just whipped it up one morning. Just like that. I wasn't 100% sure what it was*--I just knew it was South Indian and that it involved a long list of ingredients--but it was a revelation. As much as I loved spicy food at the time, I still had trouble coming to terms with spicy breakfasts--huevos rancheros and New Mexican chile verde breakfasts were about as far as I was willing to roam. Spicy/sweet breakfasts that were egg-free were the height of exotica to me.

The sad thing is, I never watched Carolyn's prep closely enough to figure out how uppuma was made, and therefore it never became a part of my repertoire. I'd think about those uppuma breakfasts longingly from time to time, but it never really went much farther than that. And within a few years I'd lost touch with Carolyn and had totally forgotten the name of her oh-so-exotic breakfast specialty.

Skip ahead about a decade. Michelle and I had just picked up a copy of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Mangoes and Curry Leaves. The first time I leafed through it I knew--I just knew--I'd find the recipe I'd been looking for. Sure enough, there it was on pages 92-3--"Semolina Uppuma"**--with a nice little anecdote about Mr. Alford's affection for the dish, and the daily ritual he had while in Kerala: a swim in the ocean, a walk, and uppuma and coffee every day for breakfast.

Since getting reacquainted with uppuma,*** it's become my #1 breakfast, the breakfast I look forward to the most.**** There's still something unbelievably magical about it, and, as long as you have the necessary ingredients readily at hand, it's dead easy to make. The primary ingredient is semolina, the same substance that's the basis of Cream of Wheat. As much as I love Cream of Wheat, uppuma is something altogether different. For one thing, you start off by dry roasting the semolina. Then you transform it into the most heady concoction of spicy and sweet. You'll never look at hot cereal the same way again. In fact, you should be forewarned: uppuma might very well change your life.

Semolina Uppuma

2 cups coarse semolina flour (if you live in Montreal, look for "semolina #2" in local stores)
3-4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp butter or ghee (if you choose to omit this, use the extra tbsp vegetable oil listed above)
1 tsp black mustard seeds
10 unsalted jumbo cashews, whole or coarsely chopped
2 dried red chilies, stemmed and coarsely chopped
pinch of asafoetida powder (optional)
1 tbsp minced ginger
2-3 green chiles, such as cayenne or even jalapeño
3 cups hot water
1 tsp salt, or to taste

1 lime, cut into wedges
plain yogurt
1 ripe mango
1 ripe banana
handful of cashews, lightly fried in a little butter, ghee, or oil until golden
candied dates and their syrup

Place a skillet, preferably a wide and heavy one, over medium-high heat and add the semolina. Dry roast the semolina, stirring it frequently with a wooden spatula or spoon to prevent burning. The grains at the center, underneath, will start to turn brown first, even when it might seem as though nothing is happening yet, so every minute or so, run your spatula under the center and move the golden grains to the side to let the others take their place and become golden. After 2-3 minutes, lower the heat to medium, and continue to cook for another 4 minutes or so, until all the semolina grains are lightly touched with gold. Pour into a bowl and set aside.

Place a wide heavy pot over high heat and add the oil with the ghee or butter (if using). When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Once they sputter, lower the heat to medium, add the cashews, dried chilies, and asafoetida and stir-fry briefly. Add the ginger and green chilies and stir-fry briefly, then add 3 cups of hot water.

Bring to a boil, add the salt, then add the semolina slowly in a trickle. Keep stirring with a wooden spoon as you add the grain to get it all properly mixed and to prevent lumps from forming, just as you would with porridge or polenta. Continue stirring and turning for another minute to break up lumps and moisten all the semolina. It will absorb the water quickly and if the mixture seems dry (if there are lumps of semolina that have not been fully moistened), add a little more hot water and stir. The semolina should be tender and all the water should be absorbed. Remove from heat and serve with the accompaniments of your choosing.

Our favorite combo is freshly squeezed lime juice, yogurt, fresh mango, toasted cashews, a candied date, and some of the candied date syrup.

Note: traditional uppuma recipes call for a smidgen of urad dal (Alford and Duguid's calls for 2 teaspoons), as well as some curry leaves, both of which can be hard to find if you don't live near any South Asian specialty food stores. We've found that our uppuma is still tremendously satisfying without them.

[based very closely on a recipe from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Mangoes and Curry Leaves]


*Carolyn's parents had even less of a clue than I did. In fact, I think her dad was kinda scared.

**Why "semolina uppuma"? Well, as Alford explains "uppuma" is also a term for a method of cooking involving "flavored oil and hot water."

***I've also gotten reacquainted with Carolyn, I'm happy to report, thanks to the miracle of Facebook. In fact, you'll be happy to know that Carolyn's a food blogger too. A New Orleans-based vegan blogger, no less, and "cake maker to the stars" (with not one, but two food blogs). Check it out. Not only that, but you can find her very own, totally vegan uppuma recipe on her first site. Vegan yum! Vegan super yum!!

****Truth be told, it's not just for breakfast anymore. I've been known to have uppuma for brunch, lunch, and dinner too, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Field Notes: Westmount

appetite for books/thirst for wine fig. a: an appetite for books and a thirst for wine

Appetite for Books

Saying Appetite for Books is the city's best source for cookbooks and food writing really isn't saying much because it's one of the only cookbooks and food writing specialists in town, but if you haven't had a chance to pay a visit yet, Appetite for Books really is an excellent bookstore. Not only do they carry all the latest titles from the world of celebrity chefdom, but they have a very thorough selection of back catalogue classics, and they also carry a lot of less obvious, harder-to-find titles, like John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed, and William McKinney's Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (it being barbecue season,* Appetite for Books is well-stocked with literature for the barbecue aficionado at the moment), one of our favorite recent reads. They also host a very popular series of cooking classes in their beautiful full-service, on-site kitchen. Give them a call or check out their website for details.

Appetite for Books, 388 Victoria Ave., Westmount, (514) 369-2002


Talk about a fabled history. Dentaro and Yone Miyamoto first came to Montreal in 1945 after having languished in British Columbia's internment camp system during the war years. Dentaro got a job in a brick manufacturing factory; Yone worked in the garment industry. Dentaro retired in 1957 at the age of 65, and when he did the couple decided to embark on a new life as grocery store owners. They opened a shop on St-Hubert and ran it until Dentaro's second retirement in 1981. For those of you who aren't great with numbers, that's another 24 years (!), meaning Dentaro was now 89 years old (!!). That same year, the business moved to its present location on Victoria Ave. (just a couple of doors down from Appetite for Books), and Dentaro and Yone's grandson, Wesley, took over.

Today Miyamoto Foods isn't as cute as it used to be when it was located on St-Hubert,

fig. b: Miyamoto on St-Hubert

but it's still an excellent place to shop for Asian specialty foods and kitchen supplies (especially Japanese), and it's the only place in Montreal that we know of that sells fresh wasabe (Thursdays only, special order in advance).

Miyamoto, 382 Victoria Ave., Westmount, (514) 481-1952


* Isn't it sad to live somewhere where barbecue is relegated to a season?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

of beds and fruit and recipes

fig. a: bed-in Montreal 1969

2009 marks the 40th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's famous/infamous bed-ins, one of which took place in suite 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel right here in Montreal. Beginning on May 26, 1969 and lasting one whole week, the Montreal bed-in was the second of two odd, bed-bound happenings they staged as part of their extended honeymoon, and the one that resulted in the "Give Peace a Chance" recording. The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal is currently commemorating the event with an exhibition entitled "Imagine: the Peace Ballad of John & Yoko," and the show is both more extensive and more interesting than one might have, well, imagined.

yoko ono apple 1966 fig. b: yoko ono apple 1966

Among other things, it goes a long way towards setting the, uh, record straight on John and Yoko.

the beatles apple 1968 fig. c: the beatles apple 1968

fig. d: john & yoko acorns 1969

There wasn't any mention of what John & Yoko ate during their stay at the Queen Elizabeth, but fruit are an important motif in the first few rooms of the show,

fig. e: yoko grapefruit 1970 (1964)

and Yoko Ono's 1960s "instruction paintings" and "instruction pieces" are essentially conceptual art recipes.

Sample "recipe":

Painting To Let The Evening Light Go Through (1961)

Hang a bottle behind a canvas. Place the canvas where the west light comes in. The painting will exist when the bottle creates a shadow on the canvas, or it does not have to exist. The bottle may contain liquor, water, grasshoppers, ants, or singing insects, or it does not have to contain.

Back at home our cats were staging their very own 40th anniversary commemoration.

bed-in fig. f: bed-in Montreal 2009*

And out the window the view looked like this:

instant karma fig. g: instant karma

"Imagine: the Peace Ballad of John & Yoko" runs through June 21, 2009 at the Musée des Beaux Arts (1379 Sherbrooke St. W., (514) 285-1600). Admission is free.


* a.k.a. the peace ballad of Boris & Audrey