Monday, May 14, 2007

Impeccable Potatoes

Biting into a hot crusty chunk of potato tattooed with cumin seeds, I had a clear moment of seeing. There was something tight, precise about the relationship between the two that heightened the understanding of each other. The seared heat and baiting earthy fragrance in tandem, allowed the potato to reveal itself: modestly alluring, moist yet remotely dusty, sweet humble sister of the earth. By the time the remaining ingredients were added and intermittent samples taken, a single thought became clear. These potatoes made me want to be a better person.

Now I am not the sort of person who tucks shirts into pants, nor do I embrace the perfection of white which in any gradation displays tell tale tumbles and misadventures with food. Persnickety details and lofty goals which dogged me in my youth have almost all slid off of me, now ignoring me completely. This odd thought, this declaration which I sounded out first in my head in astonishment and then aloud as if to break the vacuum of a dream, held me under loose spell all week. In truth, the idea of my food counseling me towards higher levels of enlightenment had me a bit unsettled. Was this simply a dramatic flourish, an example of culinary hyperbole?

Inextricable from this dish, heart and center is dear friend J_ who lovingly and laboriously prepared Bhutta aur aloo ki mazedar tarkari alongside lamb with onions, sweet and sour okra, spicy green beans, fried aubergine slices, coriander chutney, Gujerati carrot salad and raita for my first authentic Indian feast. This extraordinary potato side dish was so eye-batting, jaw dropping good it sent me running to the store anxious to buy Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking so that I could relive the ecstasy ad infinitum in the privacy of my lair. But these decorated spuds were really just the crowning star of a whole unseen universe which her friendship richly opened to me. A world traveler, dancer and seeker, Hawaiian born and raised, and lover of inordinately small purses, J_ moved about in poised grace yet relaxed naturalness. Her broad accessible humor, gentle probing intelligence and insight, as well as curiosity always seemed to bring her to new shores whether traversing chocolate drenched fruitcake, conjuring Mexican mole or sharing Cuban black beans. Unwittingly at the table I became travel mate beside her exploring unknown and colorful territories. This week a bubble of time opened up to me revealing a buffet of moments and meals woven together in the delicious span of our friendship. Deeper beyond the contentment of a belly long sated, is the value of opening to new worlds and wearing a rainbow of different perspectives. J_ showed me how to love the world more, through first loving its food.

Further out from this bubble, I consider this extended moment of time, this blink of at least eight years- as a gift, enduring in thought and memory yet ultimately not materially permanent. And this realization which I’ve examined before, only takes on more weight with each revisit. There is something beautiful and poignant, terrifying and potent about the transience of life and its moving inner workings. And it is easy to be struck with this simple truth in the slow amorphous end of a friendship. Long ago as a student this awareness nudged my sleepy corners and pierced me with insight. I needed to open up to the moment: to newness, strangeness, bigness, badness and weirdness. I needed to dissolve my periphery, any vestige of shell holding me back from experience and become one giant eye, thumping heart, hungry tongue, and reciprocal touch; simply whatever is needed. I remember and I forget all over again. And those lustrous pearls of events, people and place glide silently past the strand of time. That is what those potatoes make me think of.

And undeniably, those potatoes stop me dead in my tracks while I hold my breath in feeble attempt to hold onto live ecstatic sensation. They rattle my small world; shake up everything I think I know about starchy stubby tubers. In their own quiet way, they electrify me. It may be the double layered pow of heat achieved by up front, top-note, fruity cayenne pepper blended with the grassy tones of jalapeno. Or perhaps it is the swing of lemon or the curvaceous sway of coconut. Maybe it is the way that mustard seeds and cumin mingle, deepen and ground those potato bits low before the medley of corn, mint and cilantro brighten and take this dish to flight. These potatoes are simply- impeccable. And for these few reasons and probably half a dozen more, make me want to show up completely, for this meal and for thousands more.

Sweetcorn and Potatoes with Mustard Seeds and Mint/ Bhutta aur aloo ki mazedar tarkari serves 4- adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking

3 Tblsp vegetable oil
½ tsp mustard seeds
¼ tsp cumin seeds
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 large potato approx 5 oz. parboiled and cut into 1/3” dice
3 plum tomatoes diced and seeded
4 Tblsp finely chopped cilantro
3 Tblsp finely chopped mint
½ jalapeno, seeded and chopped
1 ½ C fresh/frozen corn
1/3 C coconut milk
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tblsp lemon juice
Fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp ground roasted cumin seeds

Directions: Put the oil into a non stick frying pan over medium high heat. When hot, put mustard and cumin seeds in and then the garlic and potato at the point the seeds pop. Fry until the potatoes turn golden and crisp. Put tomatoes, cilantro, mint, and jalapeno in next and fry for about 2 additional minutes. Next put in the corn, coconut milk, salt, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice. Stir and bring to a simmer, covered for about 3 minutes. Uncover and add black pepper and the ground cumin seeds. Taste and tweak until desired balance is achieved.


JennDZ said...

That sounds great! Especially the way you described it! Nice Work!

Gattina said...

calli, I love you said about 'how to love the world more, through first loving its food'. There are so many places, so many people, or food/recipes I don't know... what to pick, how to approach, then come along a string of complications... I'm not the person like to use my brain; go eat! Mouth opens, mind opens :) :)
I'm imagining how beautiful this bhutta aur aloo is... golden gems studded on red satin sauce... oh boy, that sweet and sour okra also sound wonderful!

Lydia said...

Cumin was a spice totally unknown in the house where I grew up, so it was a complete revelation when I first tasted it. Cumin and potatoes is one of the great combinations of flavor.

Lis said...

I'm pleased that you have such a good friend in J. =)

This dish sounds exotic and wonderful and something I'd really be interested in trying - I can just imagine the pop of different flavors.. lovely!


Nancy said...

Mmm mmm potatoes and cumin. I love hearing how a flavor makes you stop -- allowing a moment to become all moments at once.


Callipygia said...

jenndz- Thank you, I hope you try them for yourself too.

gattina- I like "mouth opens, mind opens". How true, so many meals, so little time.

lydia- me too, my first time with cumin I thought it was too I don't know if there is such a thing as too strong.

lis- we used to say that this was "like candy" it was so good. Now that you are staying away from it...

nancy-hmm I like that each moment is All moments. You know what, I just got a letter from the post with a ripped shred of the package I sent you from January! :(

Freya and Paul said...

Stunning potato dish! I have no option but to use your recipe! I am on the quest to find the best way to serve potatoes and I am in no rush!

Monkey Wrangler said...

I was going to simply put up an expletive or two as a response, but this post is too beautiful for the profane......

Food does take us places. Hopefully. Some folks masticate away, maybe thinking food comes from places, rather than it taking them places as you so eloquently prove. You are blessed to be one who can go far afield while contemplating sustenance. I look forward to the day we all arrive at that place. With any luck, potatoes like these will one day be known as Mahayana Spuds for their ability to transport beings into enlightenment.


ps: the dried basketballs have made it into a cookie that might see the heat of the oven today

Callipygia said...

freya and paul- I'll be curious to know how this one rates, spuds aren't duds.

monkeywrangler- Maybe they should be Madhuryana spuds... free enlightenment, ok close.

sher said...

As I read your post, I became more and more inflamed--i wanted to see the recipe. As a True Believer in the power of potatoes, I was consumed with desire. And then I read the recipe and it was fabulous, of course it had such power over you. Thank you for your writing--it's a gift.

Callipygia said...

Sher, thank you! I haven't had these potatoes very many times but each time I am overwhelmed. I think I now believe in the power of the potato.