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Birthday greeting

Birthday card.

My fifty-sixth birthday finds me at home, taking a rare day off the day job (busking in the Berkeley BART station and the Berkeley Farmers’ Market), spreading sheets of newspaper around parts of the backyard, weighting it down with rocks and bricks and whatever I can find. My friend Celi at thekitchensgarden recommended this method of composting after we determined that I could neither keep chickens nor build and turn a compost bin. Underneath the newspaper are used coffee filters and eggshells. The other vegetable and fruit scraps get buried in big pits. My birthday present requests have included bales of straw, seeds, plants and child-sized garden tools — I garden on my knees or sitting on the ground: I am slightly obsessed with the garden and the possibility of growing some of our own food.

I ate oatmeal for breakfast, graced with dried cherries and maple syrup: our kind friend Mary Katherine treated us with a gift certificate to Trader Joe’s as a housewarming present and we bought ourselves a hoard of delicious cheeses, salmon steaks, grass-fed beef steaks and lamb tips as well as the breakfast goods. We are not eating our meat and fish bounty yet because I am still on a soup or stew kick: this week we ate curried yellow split pea soup with spiced yogurt, taken from the Green’s cookbook, along with loaves of Mark Miller’s Cumin Orange Bread and some Asian cucumber salad provided by my friend Elaine. We also went out to Angeline’s in Berkeley for Johnny’s birthday, where we ate voodoo shrimp (me), crawfish etouffee (him) and banana bread pudding with caramel sauce and whipped cream (we split it). Also, on Valentine’s Day we ate a very spiffy dinner at Zatar, featuring lamb and crab salad and a fish tagine, cardamom ice cream and red wine-poached pears. I know, I know: we are a celebrating couple of people in February — it’s a good month to be us. But when I am not dining finely, out or at home, I am grubbing in the dirt,  or putting containers out in the yard to catch water. I have planted my first Sun Gold tomato plant, plus three red cabbages, three chard plants, one kale and one parsley. The parsley did not survive, soaked by the copious rain of the last few days, but the other things are doing fine: my mint plant is glorious and green, thanks to the local abundance of sun, followed by the welcome rain in my drought-stricken state. It was supposed to pour all day, they said. We did have showers in the morning, but I haven’t seen any real rain today yet.

detail from watercolor garden painting.

Detail from “Garden 101” painting.

My covetousness knows no bounds: I want to put in a Meyer lemon tree and a Bearss lime, a Gravenstein apple, maybe a green fig and a persimmon. Apricots and walnuts are supposed to grow well here, too: the neighbor’s have an old walnut — maybe one will grow itself! Fortunately, my thrift is intact: I cart home bags of leaves from parking lots and gutters to enrich our soil and I bought a mixed bean soup mix to plant in the backyard: legumes are good for the soil, breaking up hard dirt with their roots and fixing nitrogen to nuture future plants. If we get some shelling beans, so much the better. I plan to broadcast black-eyed peas as well, which are delicious fresh from the pod, particularly when prepared an Indian way.

It’s getting onto lunch time: I will probably have some more homemade bread and some cheese, a pear and a pot of tea. Johnny is taking me out for dinner, to Ajanta, my favorite Indian spot, where we will taste the new tasting menu. A garden, a blog, a painting, a nice meal with my true love. What else could I want? (Don’t get me started…)

painting depicts backyard garden.

Garden 101. Sharyn Dimmick 12″ x 12″ Gouache and watercolor pencil

Painting of Bengan Bharta and Ingredients.

Bengan Bharta. 8″ by 8″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn DImmick

When I was in my last year of college at U.C. Santa Barbara I lived in an apartment on Pardall Road with a roommate from Thailand and one from India. I had just come from a year as an exchange student in Ireland and was happy to serve as a cultural interpreter as necessary for Karuna and Padma. I also reveled in the exposure I got to Thai and Indian foods and recipes. I ate my first dosa and raita, my first green papaya salad, and got hooked on both cuisines, so, keeping a seasonal and local focus, I sometimes make forays into Thai and Indian cooking.

For me, that requires cookbooks, although I can fake Thai soups and noodle dishes by now (some of you may have seen the peanut sauce recipe recently). I own Charmaine Solomon’s “The Complete Asian Cookbook” and Shanta Sacharoff’s “Flavors of India,” but my favorite Indian cookbook comes from Berkeley’s own Ajanta restaurant: it’s called “Ajanta: Regional Feasts of India” by Lachu Moorjani. Ajanta is simply the best Indian restaurant I have ever eaten at (I have never been to India). Moorjani cooks with what’s in season, rotating regional dishes through his menu each month. If you can go once a month, go, but take other people with you so that you can sample each monthly special.

This week the CSA from Riverdog Farm contained about three pounds of tomatoes, a pound of bell peppers and two purple and white speckled eggplants. When tomatoes and eggplants come together in the fall, I like to make baingan bharta or bengan bharta, an Indian dish of chopped roasted eggplant simmered in a sauce with fresh tomatoes, ginger, onions, a green chile, paprika, turmeric, cumin seeds, coriander and cayenne. I loved this dish the first time I tasted it, right out of the Tasty Bites package, but thanks to Moorjani I now know how to make my own from scratch.

Without further ado, Moorjani’s recipe, followed by food notes from me where I explain a few minor adjustments I’ve made and give some procedural information.

Baingan Bartha (Pureed Roasted Eggplant with Onions, Tomatoes and Spices)

2 large round eggplants, about 1 pound each.

6 Tbsp oil (I used between 2 and 3  of peanut oil — more on that later)

2 tsp cumin seeds

2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped ( I mince mine and don’t bother to peel it)

1 hot green chile (serrano or jalapeno), chopped

3 medium onions, peeled and chopped

6 medium tomatoes, chopped

4 tsp paprika

1/2 to 1 tsp cayenne

2 tsp turmeric

2 tsp coriander

2 tsp salt (I cut it down to one)

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

I began by turning on the oven to 400 degrees, pricked my two eggplants with a fork and let them roast while I had a cup of tea and checked my email. When I pulled them out of the oven and set them on the stove to cool I peeled and chopped my onions and pulled my ginger out of the freezer where I store it. I hacked a slit in it and let it thaw slightly while I chopped a previously roasted green chile (just because I had it — if I hadn’t I would have used a raw one, but I have made this before). By the time I had chopped all of those onions, I could get the knife through the ginger and minced it while I heated 2-3 Tbsp of peanut oil in a big skillet over medium heat. When the oil shimmered, I measured out my cumin seeds and threw them in, quickly adding the ginger and chile, then the chopped onions. I cooked all that over medium heat for about 10 minutes while I chopped a monstrous 1 and 1/2 pound tomato, green in color, not in ripeness, and a smaller red tomato. I threw in another tomato I had roasted yesterday (waste not, want not, and this is a cooked dish). It was lovely to see the soft green, bright red and reddish violet of the vegetables before they cooked down. I cooked the tomatoes for five minutes.

While my tomatoes cooked I measured my salt and spices, scanting the salt and using the smaller amount of cayenne specified. Then I stirred the spices into the tomato mixture and turned to my now-cooled eggplant, stripping off the skin and chopping it finely.

If at any time my onions, eggplant, or tomatoes had begun to stick to the pan, I would have added a little more oil and turned down the heat a notch. This time I didn’t need to do either. Tomatoes, onions and eggplants vary in their water content, so you never know. Also, many cooks use more oil than I do, so I never accept oil measurements at face value unless they are in cake recipes and in cake recipes I might substitute  yogurt for some or all of the oil.

About this time I put on a pot of water for brown rice — I can’t tell you how much water because we measure it by sticking our index fingers into the rice pot and measuring water to the first joint. I can tell you that I have large hands and long fingers, as does my mother, who originated this technique and that we have cooked rice in the same pot since I can remember. The finger measurement is good for one cup of rice, brown or white: I used brown basmati. When the rice was in the pot I scooped the chopped eggplant into the skillet, scraping the bottom with a spatula to check for browning, It was fine, so I left it to go upstairs and ask Mom what she wanted instead of cilantro, which I was out of. I then went out to the garden and picked a combination of Thai basil and mint. I stirred the Thai basil into the eggplant and left the mint minced on the cutting board in case Mom didn’t want any. The recipe is good with cilantro, but one of the house rules here is that we do not go to the store for one ingredient: instead we make do, substitute, cook something else if necessary.

While the rice cooked and the baingan bharta finished cooking, I made a smoothie out of a nectarine, some buttermilk and a small handful of almonds. Because I was eating it with Indian food, I crushed a few cardamom seeds in a mortar and pestle and added them. Had I been at Ajanta I would have finished the meal with cardamom gelato and a pot of chai — and we would have gotten kabuli naan (flat bread with cashews) because my Mom is addicted to it. She would have ordered lamb and I would have browsed through the specials before making my decision.

If you are local, or visiting Berkeley, or, really, anywhere in the Bay Area, you should eat at Ajanta at least once. You will find it on the internet at http://www.ajantarestaurant.com. Moorjani sells his cookbook there, as well as a box of Indian spices, including some hard to find ingredients. This duo makes a fabulous present for the would-be Indian cook and the winter holidays will be here before you know it.

Painting Note: For more information about “Bengan Bharta” or any other original painting, please contact me here.