please forward to 20 friends . . .

“you have been invited to be part of a recipe exchange. We hope you will participate. Please send a recipe to the person whose name is in position 1 (even if you don’t know him/her) and it should be something quick, easy and without rare ingredients. Actually, the best one is the one you know in your head and can type right now. Don’t agonize over it; it is one you make when you are short of time.”

Sound familiar? Chain letters always promise phenomenal return for small effort. The simplest lists a random number of people and you’re instructed to send something to the top person on the list. In this case, it’s a recipe. Then you remove the top name, bring the second person into the top position, then add yourself at the bottom, then send the same email to 20 of your friends. Theoretically you’ll receive 36 recipes in return, and since there are only two names on the list now–the person who sent it and yourself you’ve just added–the turnaround should be quick.

There are other chain letters, too, those that promise good luck (or money or other enticement) to anyone who sends the message to others–usually within five minutes–and bad luck to those who don’t. Those I ignore. The recipe exchange I’ve tried before, however, and I can’t recall a single recipe I’ve gotten back. Years ago–before self-stick stamps and envelopes and word processing software–these same requests came in the form of hand-written letters, faithfully copied X-times and stuffed into X number of hand-addressed and licked envelopes and stamps. I honored those a few time too, and only remember a trickle of returns–one or two at most–after I’d spent money, time and effort on stationery, envelopes, and stamps. The only plus I can see is that I was contributing to the coffers of the U.S. Postal Service.

Something interesting, or pathetic–depending on how you choose to look at it–has happened over the past couple of decades. The sad truth is, I really don’t have 20 email friends who would want to participate in this kind of thing. When they want a recipe, they go–as I do–to google.com, food blogs, or personal recipe book collections. I suspect also, this may be the consequence of moving around the country–all for legitimate reasons of course–over the past 40 or so years, at least in my case. Even though I’ve gotten better at saying no as I’ve grown older, it’s still not easy. It still feels bad when I decline these innocent chain letter requests. I’m getting practice though–twice in just the past several weeks. So I’m compromising here, trying to make myself feel better by sharing the most recent recipe I’ve tried with not just 20 friends but the whole web-wide world, as the letter stated, something quick, easy, and without rare ingredients, one I know if my head and can type right now from my head.

Hubby and I both enjoy a bite or two of something sweet after dinner, but we both know too much sugar is not good for either of us. So I made chocolate-covered banana bites. They were being sold in Costco a few weeks ago and I reckoned I could make them at home easily and cheaply, without all the preservatives. Most women I know could have figured it out on their own, but the idea may not have occurred to them yet. Here’s how.

(1) Take three ripe bananas–those showing little brown spots on their yellow peel–and cut into bite-size pieces between 3/4″-1″. Lay them in a single layer on a wax-paper-covered cookie sheet (foil would work too). (2) Pop them into the freezer for an hour or two. (3) Melt a 12-ounce package of semi-sweet chocolate chips over a double boiler. TIP: Place over HOT–not boiling–water and stir occasionally until melted. (4) If the chocolate feels too thick for dipping, stir in enough vegetable oil (for me 3/4 tablespoon worked well) to thin. (5) Since the banana bites are frozen, it may be difficult to poke a toothpick or fork tip in, so you’ll need to figure out the best way to drop them into the chocolate, twirl about to cover, and retrieve without getting hot chocolate all over yourself. A teaspoon worked for me. (6) Dip them out and arrange, again in a single layer, without touching each other on that cookie sheet. They’ll dry with a sheen after a moment or two. (7) Put them into a suitable container and store in the freezer.

Next time you crave a little something chocolate or a little something for your sweet tooth without over-indulging, reach in and grab one or two, and pop them into your mouth. Or you can wait a few moments ’til the insides thaw a little if you like. The chocolate stays firm. As you indulge, you can rationalize how good bananas are for you–all that potassium and stuff–and satisfy your chocolate craving all at the same time, and with minimum guilt.

UPDATE: After making this the second time, I discovered it’s best NOT to freeze the banana bites first. If you don’t work real fast, the frozen banana causes condensation that causes the chocolate not only to get too thick, but it loses its sticking power. So, next batch, NO PRE-FREEZING, and that eliminates the problem of what tool to implement in dipping and dropping. A fork works just fine.

colorful, spicy and healthful indian cooking

Over the years I have prepared Indian (or Indian-style) dishes, even developed a few of my own when I used to cook a lot. The past few years, I’ve been very reluctant and usually leave the Indian meals for Hubby to prepare. He does an admirable job, too, but I still have this innate desire to be able to whip up a fantastic Indian meal myself. I have a few good Indian cookbooks, and I’ve turned out some decent meals with the help of some of them, but what I’m missing in (most of) them, is technique. I didn’t grow up in India learning to cook at the knee of an Indian mother, so I’m short on technique as well as imagination.

So whenever a Wintersong reader (and blogger friend) left a comment suggesting some Indian recipes, I remembered a discovery I made months ago that renewed my hope in learning how to cook Indian dishes seat of the pants style, i.e., without recipes. I’m still working on it, and want to share my discovery with my readers. The video below is one of six of a series called Healthful Indian Cooking by Alamelu Vairavan of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In it, Alamelu will show you how to prepare a typical Indian vegetarian meal of Lemon Rice, Eggplant Masala, and Lima Bean Poriyal. She also takes you shopping in an Indian grocery store to explain how different rices taste.

Here’s my tip of the day for you: don’t worry about trying to jot down the ingredients while you watch. At the end of each dish preparation, the ingredients are listed. Just pause the video and copy them down so you’ll be able to actually read it when you’re ready to try them yourself. Also, I’ve made a list of the other five episodes that I consider eye candy for foodies. If you enjoy #101, you’ll probably want to see the others as well. They’re all on YouTube, and each contains nutritional information and tips in choosing ingredients, and runs about 27 minutes.

#102: features a Raita (Cucumber/Tomato/Yogurt Salad), Garlic & Pepper Chicken, a colorful rice dish featuring vegetables.
#103: featuring Cauliflower Masala, Green Beans Poriyal, Black-eyed Peas Kulambu, plus a visit to a farmer’s market to choose vegetables.
#104: featuring Brussels Sprouts Kulambu, Roasted Potatoes, Turkey Podimas cooked with split peas and coconut, plus a tour of an Indian grocery to learn about spices used in Indian cooking.
#105: features Tuna Masala, a Carrot Sambhar, Chickpea & Mango Soondal, and tips of how to select the right kind of lentils at an Indian grocery.

Finally, I thought you might find this little-known fact–about me–a little interesting. It’s my Indian name. An Indian friend of ours since more than 40 years ago, Gangs, an Indian friend of ours at the time, decided I should have an Indian name. Since my real name was and is considered “old-fashioned” in the U.S., Gangs reasoned that I needed an “old-fashioned Indian” and came up with Alamelu. He claimed it was very old-fashioned. Years later, when Hubby and his three brothers were performing a ceremony of homage at the one-year anniversary of their father’s death, the Brahman priest asked for the names of the son’s wives. When it came time to provide mine, they were at a loss as how to translate Alice into Tamil, so Alamelu was substituted. Thus, my (unofficial) Indian name has been Alamelu for about 45 years. Now you understand how I was attracted to this video when it first came to my attention. Since the video Alamelu is actually younger than me, I surmise the name has enjoyed a resurgence as India, just as mine has (in various spellings) in this country.

memories involving food without indulging in sentiment . . . is it possible?

For those who turn up their noses at fruitcake at Christmas, it’s only because you haven’t tasted my slightly altered version of Mama’s. I’m getting ready to make Mama’s Best Every Christmas Fruitcake at Hubby’s special request. (That’s not it, by the way, I’m just trying to jazz up the post a bit.)  So while I was looking through my self-produced memory cookbook locating the recipe, it reminded me how so many of our memories are associated with food. Particularly so around the holidays. Don’t you think so? Were I to ask readers to contribute their own food-associated memory, I expect it wouldn’t be difficult for any of you.

When Amanda Hesser became food editor of the New York Times Magazine in 2004, she asked well-known writers of all kinds–playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, poets, and journalists–to contribute essays about an important moment in their lives involving food. The only caveat was NOTHING SENTIMENTAL. She wasn’t so much interested in grandma’s corn bread as she was in why grandma always made it when she was lonely. In 2008, as a result of those special essays, she published EAT, MEMORY – Great Writers At The Table (W.W. Norton). Some of the selections are so creative that it’s easy to see why they are published.

After reading most of the Eat, Memory 2008 collection, I couldn’t help reviewing my cookbook a little differently. Sure enough, most if not all the reminiscences are of a sentimental nature: Mama’s Fruitcake, Grandma’s Clabber Biscuits, the funeral wake potluck dinners, etc, so I challenged myself. Could I write a food memory without being gushy in that special fifties I REMEMBER MAMA television series way? Were there even any food memories that affected me in ways other than sentimental? Sure, I can think of lots of food-associated things to write about that don’t involve emotion. Or can I?

I could write how Grandma Leona and Great-Grandma Nina ate Ritz crackers crumbled into a cereal bowl with warm milk for Sunday supper. After eons of lavish Sunday dinners prepared for extended family who usually showed up every Sunday, it must have been wonderful to finally take it easy in their later years. No pots or pans to scrub, only two dishes and two spoons to wash up, no one else to clean up after. Since they lived to be 84 and 92 respectively, they may have been on to something in those simple Sunday suppers.

Or I could write how all the kids in my school lunch room scraped their beans into the hog slop barrel instead of eating them because they knew the more you eat the more you toot. Some of them liked to see who had NO beans to scrape so they would have a target to point a finger to should unpleasant balm or flatulent noises strike the classroom later. How I loved those beans, so what was I do to? I’d sneak in a few bites and rearrange those that were left with my fork, then dutifully scrape the rest away for the hogs.

But could I write about either of these in a non-sentimental essay? It certainly wouldn’t be easy.

In EAT, MEMORY are some wonderful stories: One about a couple who nearly break up over a dinner in Paris at a famous restaurant, another by an author who professes to hating ice cream, and my own personal favorite by a famous chef who needed a line cook. He found what he thought might be a perfect match. In the personal interview, he discovered the man was blind, his eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap lobby, yet the chef convinced himself that this blind man had evolved into such a higher species of line cook that HE would learn great things from him. Sometimes we see only what we want to see, after all. The rest of the story is both heart breaking and hilarious. I think I recognized myself in both characters.

I decided writing like this is a good challenge and I hope I can live up to it. So I invite any interested reader to write your own food-associated memory without being overly sentimental if you can! It might be harder than you think. I’m not even sure I can. If you’d like to try sometime–perhaps in a post on your own blog–please link to Wintersong or this post so that I’ll be sure to know and not miss your entry. Or–if you prefer–jot a short memory in the comment section. If the book I’ve talked about here sounds interesting to you, or you’d like to see it yourself, you can probably find it in your local library. You can also get it here real cheap.

Now, I published Mama’s Fruit Cake recipe, along with notes on my slight alteration, in December 2007. If you missed it then, you’ll find it here. It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas around me, and I’m not referring to the beans.