A cookbook author and food editor for The Washington Post once advised me, “When you write a blogpost include a recipe. Give your followers something to try to keep them coming back.” Therein began the great challenge turned stumbling block. I not only had to write what I really wanted to write–posts that told a food story–I now had to document what I was doing in the kitchen and make it understandable and followable for my readers. “And write at least once a week,” he said. And with that, he delivered several tall orders that I’ve been trying to fill, to some extent, for the past couple of years only to find myself feeling stifled and sometimes downright blocked in terms of writing. So I’ve chosen to reconnect with my original intention for this blog, which was to create a space to write freely about food, a sacred space where critics are not allowed, not the Post food critic and, most of all, not the critic I’ve learned to be by way of grad school and a career as a humanities teacher.
I cook all the time, and, I go through periods where I cook lots of dishes that I’ve never tried before. So much of what I do in the kitchen is improvisational, done without a recipe in front of me, informed by what my taste buds’ prior experiences tell me is in a dish, informed by the mood that I’m in, for something sweet, for something tangy or for something spicy. When I start with a recipe, especially one that was not mine to begin with, I tend to veer off and make it my own to the point where I can’t remember exactly what I did, and so “inspired by” is the most accurate thing I can say about it. So, for the time being, I’ll suspend that food editor’s advice and find my way back to my personal food journey and maybe readers will trust themselves enough to improvise some deliciousness of their own.
For spring break I spent time with my dear friend Kevin in Harlem, New York. I love Kevin because, in addition to being an amazing human being, we vibe about all things creative and cultural, from music to film to food to literature and have been doing so since the early 90’s. He is a literary scholar, professor and musician, and on the morning that I was to leave New York, he shared lots of music with me, including over 17 hours of Coltrane.
Ellington and Coltrane are “In a Sentimental Mood” that pulls me out of a slump that has lasted over 93 days. . .
As an artist whose medium happens to be food, I sometimes ponder what I have in common with other artists. I am no Coltrane connoiseur, but I imagine that he and I need one major thing in common to function, create and thrive–Freedom. Freedom to contemplate, experiment and create without prescriptions, boundaries, critical voices, worry or concern about what has worked, what might not work, or what hasn’t worked in the past. Freedom to imagine a dish, try a note, add a spice, rearrange a rhythm, and add a substitution without fear or judgment. Freedom to create chaos and create again from that.
“Love Thy Neighbor” Coltrane commands. . .
On the night that Yetunde and I arrive by Boltbus at New York’s Madison Square Gardens, there are train delays, and another rider tells us we can take this other train that lands us several blocks away from Kevin’s place. Kevin walks several blocks to meet us at the McDonald’s where we sit for warmth. We walk back to his house with roller suitcases realizing we’ve packed way too much and dressed a little bit too cute for the comfort that New York demands. As we walk and converse, Kevin calls his daughter and tells her to put some rice on. I realize he’s going to cook dinner for us. Considering our vacation budget and remembering his culinary skills, this is a welcomed surprise.
Moments after we reach Kevin’s brownstone, we settle in and commence to cooking. My contribution to the meal is chopping onion, garlic, and squash to which Kevin adds chickpeas, a scotch bonnet pepper, and other spices to create a delicious curry that we enjoy over perfectly cooked rice. I enjoy seconds that evening and leftovers the next day, which were even better because the curry had more time to meld. “I will be making this when I get back to D.C.,” I tell him.
After spring break, I meet one of my bestest girlfriends, Lawanda, at Banana Leaves near Dupont Circle. Though I’ve been to this restaurant several times since I discovered it in December, I suggest we have an appetizer that I’ve never had before. We choose the traditional Malaysian-Indian pancakes served with a spicy curry potato sauce, in which I detect coconut milk, lime and of course curry. It was so delicious I wanted to go back the very next day for more, but with this appetizer, Kevin’s dish, and my budget in mind, I go to Safeway and get ingredients for my own curry.
I get home, rest, fall into a semi-coma while watching Lincoln, watch men’s final four action, and then decide I want to create something delicious.
At about 9:43 p.m., I begin by cooking two cups of brown rice in 5 cups of water with a few dashes of salt. I chop up 8 cloves of garlic, grate about a teaspoon of fresh ginger root, and chop a whole onion. Aggravated that I can’t find the white potatoes that I could have sworn I bought earlier at the grocery story, I peel and slice a large sweet potato instead. I have two carrots that I need to use, and today I bought fresh string beans that I’d planned to make szechuan style, but fresh string beans in curry will be nice too.
I take out a big pot with a tight fitting lid and coat the bottom of it with canola oil. I heat the oil gently and add the chopped garlic, chopped onion, and grated ginger root. I chop a stalk of lemongrass and slit a green, skinny hot pepper and add them too. I add a teaspoon of tumeric, 2 teaspoons of cumin, and a few dashes of cardamom. I heat this until the onion is softened and add a can of coconut milk. I fill the can about half way with water, rinse, and pour it into the pot. I add salt to taste and a tablespoon of agave to round out the flavor. I add the fresh juice of a lime for a nice tangy twist. I taste the sauce to make sure it is just the way I like it, and it is. I add the sweet potato because it will take the longest to get tender and let it cook on medium heat with a tightly fitting lid for about 6 minutes, I add the chickpeas, carrots, and string beans and let cook another 6 minutes or so. I add two freshly chopped tomatoes and about a 1/4 cup of chopped cilantro and cook on medium high heat for about 5 more minutes, making sure to stir occasionally.
The curry turns out delicious. Since it’s late I let it sit on the stove overnight. My neighbor Che Che calls me bright and early the next morning and offers me food that she’s afraid will go bad while she’s out of town for two weeks. I get dressed and quickly go over. I leave her home with two bags filled with some of my favorite things, pistachios, red, yellow, and green peppers, garlic, wild rice and more and deliver them to my kitchen. I go for a long walk around the Anacostia River to clear my mind. When I get home, I reheat the curry while drinking lemonade and eating a few dates that have gotten stale. I sampled a spoonful of curry behind the dates and was reminded of just how much I love the taste of hot and spicy with a burst of sweetness. So I chopped up six dates and added them to the curry along with a little more sea salt.
I took my neighbor CheChe some because I knew she was probably so busy preparing to go out of town and so busy cleaning out the fridge that she had not eaten. She happened to be outside. She opened the container, smelled it, and thanked me. Less than 10 minutes later she had posted the ultimate compliment, a picture of the dish along with the status, “I love my neighbors and living next to a vegan chef. . .” About 5 minutes after I read this, my doorbell rang, and it was CheChe at my door with an empty container asking for more.
Coltrane’s Ascension Edition II is cooking without a recipe. Chaos, passion, intensity. Memory of the deep cultural kind. Like my great great grandfather knew food and, while I never knew him, I now do through the perfect combination at the bottom of this here pot. A discovery that could not be made by way of a documented recipe.