Spring into Spice

Asafoetida. Ajawan. Jaggery. Fenugreek. Curry leaves.* Chaat masala. Urad dal.  Life is getting spicy on Westnedge Hill! Despite not infrequently making Indian dishes, we’d rarely if ever used any of these — the big Cs, cumin, coriander, and cardamom always seemed to take center stage — but then we got Madhur Jaffrey’s latest book, Vegetarian India. A few months back we’d made a lovely radish and orange salad Lynne Rosetto Kaspar had included on her website after interviewing Jaffrey, which had just the right balance of crunchy peppery bite and sweet juiciness.

We checked V.I. out of KPL when it first came in, and it was immediately clear that we wanted to make everything in it. KPL got their copy back quickly, though: we decided this was a must-own book (gotta be able to make notes!). So now we’ve been eating vegetarian Indian food 3-4 nights a week for the last few weeks, and we’re nowhere close to being tired of it or bored with Jaffrey’s book. VI food

Jaffrey’s dishes are not difficult to execute, despite the sometimes formidable ingredient lists. But we’ve learned that when she suggests serving one dish with a variety of others, those lists can get tangled and dinner takes a long time to prepare. So, we’re scaling back, making one- or two-dish meals, with just some rice or bread instead of the spreads she recommends, at least until we internalize recipes enough to more fluently combine them. It’s a good book for seasonal vegetable cooking too: we’ve had great dishes of spinach, potato, turnip, kale, and carrots, all bought at the winter market or Co-op, though, as the above picture attests, we haven’t been able to resist splurging on non-local cauliflower. But eggplant and pepper season approaches, which is also okra season! Jaffrey has several recipes that put it front-and-center, which we can’t wait to try. Dried legume dishes (chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lentils) are year-rounders, of course, and her book abounds in easy and satisfying ones. Make your own paneer (fresh cheese) and you can add that to the mix. Need a new favorite condiment? Try the spiced yogurt (raita). And homemade flatbread is the work of just a few extra minutes (double or triple the recipe and keep it in the fridge or freezer and you can make your day’s bread as needed). What’s not to love?

We wouldn’t be able to make most of Jaffrey’s recipes, though, if it wasn’t for World of Spices, a great little grocer at 5911 S. Westnedge in Portage. I’d driven past it countless times but had never gone into. But what a wonderful store! The spices speak, the dals delight, the rices regale. And the people are friendly and helpful – as who wouldn’t be if you got to breathe in those scents hours every day? I’ve yet to strike out in looking for a needed ingredient there. Now I find myself looking for recipes with new ingredients, just so I can go browse the aisles in search of them.


*Curry leaves, common in Southern Indian cooking, look like long, thin bay leaves, but, unlike bay leaves, they soften when cooked. World of Spices sells little baggies of them in the refrigerated section. Note that curry powder is something completely different: it is a standard-ish spice mixture for use in making curries (mostly by the British), and it rarely if ever has curry leaves in it. Note also that you can talk about a curry as a kind of dish (like one would talk about a stir-fry). If authentic, a curry almost certainly won’t call for curry powder, though it will likely use some of the spices that go into curry powders, and it probably won’t have curry leaves, unless it’s from a region in India that uses them.

Sushi what?

Work recently required a trip to the Bay Area. There’s hardly anything that hasn’t already been said in praise of eating out there, but to those of you landlocked here in the upper Midwest, I present to you two words together that until now you have almost certainly kept apart: sushi burrito. While it sounds like some foul concoction that might spew from the kitchens of the corporate food-fusionists at Taco Bell, it is, in fact, perhaps the world’s most perfect lunch food. Most, upon hearing the name, think: sushi in a tortilla. Rest assured no tortillas are harmed or otherwise utilized in the making of the sushi burrito. (Though why people tend to recoil when they think of sushi in a tortilla, I do not know. Rarely does a tortilla make anything worse. Think about it: anything non-liquid that is good on its own could, in principle, make a good filling for a tortilla.) No, the sushi burrito is essentially just a sushi roll the diameter and length of a standard issue burrito — so seaweed where the tortilla would go — eaten in the same fashion: by stuffing the whole thing a bit at a time into one’s face while doing one’s best to make sure any dropped bits land where fingers can fetch them. I had two such works of magnificence in my days in the Bay, both in downtown SF near where I was conferring, the first at Sushi Taka, and the second at the small local chain Sushiritto, whose name mericifully saves you a syllable’s work when saying, thus giving you more time to eat their eponymous product. At the latter I had the Geisha’s Kiss, a raw tuna wonder that was good enough to make up for its name.


Better, though, was the shrimp tempura burrito at Sushi Taka. The tempura was like a culinary San Andreas fault line running through each bite: its crunch shook all the flavors together into soul-satisfying perfection.


An added bonus: with each burrito came a small cup of miso soup, produced like magic from a machine that looked like one of those devices from which “espresso” drinks now spew in every convenience store and gas station. The West Coast truly does deserve its reputation as being on the leading edge of technological culture. And the sushi burrito, well, I doubt we’ll see anything like that here in Michigan for at least a decade.

Blue Dog Family Farm


Dennis Wilcox doesn’t look like a an old-timer, but by the standards of the local food movement in the Kalamazoo area, he comes pretty close to being one. Dennis started working in Three Rivers for Sustainable Greens (supplier to a number of elite Chicago restaurants) in the late 90s, and, at their encouragement, began bringing their salad greens to the Bank St. market to establish himself there. He then started his own farm, Blue Dog Greens in 2002. I moved here in 2004, by which time Dennis had become known for being one of only two certified organic producers at Bank St., and the only grower selling the bagged, mixed salad greens highlighted in his farm’s name, as well as lots of other delicious, very high quality vegetables. Fourteen years later things are a lot more crowded at the market, and a lot has changed for Dennis, but he’s still got a table full of amazing greens and veggies, and plenty of optimism that his farm will continue to find its niche in the local food network. Continue reading “Blue Dog Family Farm”