Adventures in Indian Cooking

I have an insatiable curiosity to try as many different types of cuisine and variety of dishes during my lifetime as possible. Apart from simply how food tastes, I’m fascinated by the social, geographical and historical factors that influence the evolution of culinary traditions. Food can bridge understanding between people and I love anything that has the power to do that! It’s so much fun to explore a new ingredient and discover how to coax out and combine flavors to recreate the taste that explodes on my tongue when I have that first bite. But there are cuisines and dishes that are so seemingly complex that it can be daunting to jump in and experiment all alone, so I’m not ashamed to seek out guidance.

As a longtime lover of Indian cuisine (see my experiments with curry in an earlier post), I decided to tackle it in my kitchen. Like the real deal. Even though I’ve explored a bit on my own, I knew it was time to sign up for a class and I chose CulinAerie near Thomas Circle in DC. CulinAerie describes itself as a recreational culinary school. I’ve always described myself as an avid home cook but now I’m officially calling myself a recreational cook! CulinAerie offers hands-on cooking, not just demonstration. And my class focused on Royal Indian cuisine or recipes from the chefs hired to cook for the Indian emperors.

The food preferred by the emperors was as rich in flavor as one might imagine. The royal family would not have eaten tomatoes or cilantro as this was considered lower class food. But nuts and lots of milk and milk products were popular. Our instructor, Rupen Rao, has published two cookbooks on Indian cuisine, one of which features Ayurvedic cooking which is an ancient way of cooking that focuses on the dietary needs of each person depending on their body type. Fascinating stuff. Rupen was friendly, knowledgeable and very funny. And he learned to cook from his mom, so ya know, legit. I’ve very much enjoyed his cookbook. Yes, of course I bought it. I openly admit to having a cookbook problem.

Rupen Rao in action.

He even threw in that tandoori spice mix for free. Such a sucker for a deal.

When we entered the classroom, we found our ingredients laid out for us. We were going to be making Chicken Korma (cashew cream sauce), Kashmir Lamb Stew, Garlic Spinach, Caraway Perfumed Rice and Indian Rice Pudding with Mango Mousse. He actually made the rice pudding for us while we cooked but he showed us every step and offered important tips.

Some of our ingredients ready for cooking. Spice mixtures, ghee, garlic, ginger, yogurt and yes, jalapeño pepper!

The first step of the Korma is to let the chicken marinate. You mix the chicken with yogurt and a bunch of delicious flavors like garlic, ginger, coriander, turmeric, sweet paprika and yes, jalapeño pepper. Huh! I knew that Indian food could be hot but I didn’t realize that the heat came from the jalapeño. Once those flavors start getting to know each other, the next step is to caramelize the onions. Ghee or clarified butter is often used in Indian cooking instead of oil. Making your own ghee isn’t hard at all. It’s really just a matter of removing the milk solids from melted butter. But you can also buy it at Asian markets and specialty markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. We threw the chopped onions in a hot saucepan with ghee and let them slowly caramelize, being careful to stir them regularly and keep the heat at medium.

Red onions just starting to caramelize.

Once the onions are nice and browned, remove them and in the remaining ghee, add all of the spices you’ve been marinating the chicken in and extras like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon stick. You will put the caramelized onions in a blender with cashews, chicken stock, garam masala and nutmeg. Then add this mixture to the chicken and cook. If only I could describe the amazing smells in the air.

This picture does no justice to the amazing aroma in the air.

Saucy Chicken Korma

With this delicious chicken dish, you can serve white basmati rice cooked with ghee, caraway seeds, cilantro and salt. You will be amazed by how much flavor the caraway seeds add to the rice. Absolutely delicious. Once we had some time to appreciate and enjoy all of the complex flavors of the chicken korma, we prepped for the lamb stew.

Before starting on the lamb, we easily whipped up the yummy spinach side dish. Pretty simple but so flavorful. Saute some jalapeño, garlic and onion and when softened and caramelized (that’s how you get the best flavor!), add the spinach to wilt and soften. Salt to taste and voila!

Can I just say how much I love lamb? I order it whenever I can. It’s not a blank canvas flavor of meat like chicken or fish can sometimes be, but it’s richness should be enhanced by carefully selected and time tested flavors. And the best part is that this particular dish is best with cheap cuts of lamb. The key is that you need to let it cook for a long time at a low heat. Low and slow! First step is to saute some of the seasonings like peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, black cardamom, onions and garlic. You will have created a separate mix of ground spices combined with yogurt for the lamb. Once the lamb is cooked with the spices, the yogurt mixture is added and the heat turned down way low.

The finished product!

After hours of cooking at a low heat, the flavors meld and the lamb turns soft and velvety. We didn’t have hours in class to let the lamb cook, so our lamb was a little tougher than the ideal, but the flavors were still amazing. Especially together with the rice and spinach.

Now, while we’ve all been cooking away over the chicken and lamb, Rupen has been working on the dessert of rice pudding with mango mousse. The key to rice pudding is to heat the milk first and then add rice. Once the rice has cooked, add the sugar and cardamom and nuts. Adding sugar will slow down the cooking process so it should come at the end. Thank Rupen for that important tip! I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.

See how that rice pudding shines! The top layer of mango mousse was creamy with just the right amount of sweetness.

I was stuffed by the end of the night but Indian rice pudding is not as sweet as American rice pudding so I managed a few bites of that creamy goodness. And canned Alphonso mangoes from a good Indian market are amazing. As close to right off the tree as you’ll get.

I really enjoyed this class, but I didn’t want to stop there, so I also experimented with another dish in Rupen’s cookbook for a recent dinner party with some out-of-town friends. I made the fish and mango curry. This dish called for green mango which I am very familiar with thanks to my time in the Dominican Republic, but for the first time ever, all the mango I found in the grocery store were ripe! That never happens. I was also having trouble finding curry leaves which have a bright lemony and floral flavor. I went to a mostly Latino supermarket and struck out. I was running low on time and considered substituting the curry leaves with bay leaves but it would have seriously altered the dish so I made a second supermarket run. And so glad I did! When I hit the Asian supermarket, I found both green mangoes and curry leaves.

Awesome fish and mango curry.

None of these meals would have been the same without the proper ingredients. One day, I hope to make and eat them in India. A culinary adventure through this fascinating, complex and stimulating country is on my bucket list. But until then, I will take advantage of living in DC where I can access all kinds of international markets that allow me to experiment with authentic flavors from around the world. No cuisine should be too intimidating to try. Ask for help if you need it but never be afraid to explore, in or out of the kitchen! More than likely you’ll end up with some delicious new dishes to add to your repertoire.



Culinary Experimentation 101: Homemade Curry

While recently texting with a foodie friend who is an amazing cook, I mentioned that I was hungry for curried lentils and planned to whip some up for dinner. His response was that it sounded great but I was going to make my own curry, right? Uh, yes, of course I was going to make my own curry. Who doesn’t?! Pshhh…Well, me. But my friend’s challenge inspired me. I love curry. I seriously think it’s possible to be addicted to curry. As a busy single mom, I’m often looking for the shortcut (pre-cut, pre-cooked, pre-made) that will make getting food into my kids’ bellies easier. But my friend is a purist and on his culinary adventures he has discovered that it’s often just as easy to make from scratch many of the things that we buy prepared. And as we know, the homemade version is often a hundred times better.

So, I was gonna do it. First step was to find a recipe. Sounds easy enough, but there is no one way to make curry. Curry simply means a spice mixture. There’s Indian curry, Thai curry, Jamaican curry, red curry, green curry, coconut curry. Since my hankering was for red lentils, I decided to lean more towards the Indian curries but the long list of spices is what had always intimidated me. Since no two curry recipes that I found were the same, I realized that there is no one right way to make a curry and I could make my own version tweaking the ingredients how I wanted. That took off some of the pressure.

Next step was to get quality ingredients. There were not going to be supermarket spices in this mix. I headed to Bazaar Spices in the new Atlantic Plumbing Building in Shaw. They’re also in Union Market in NE. The staff was extremely helpful and they had everything I needed and even mixed me up some of the ingredients for me in smaller sizes than those displayed in the shop. I ended up finding my coriander seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric powder, paprika, cayenne, garam masala and some beautiful red lentils. They even had tomato paste powder that I could reconstitute for the red curry paste, so I didn’t need to make another trip to the grocery store.

The rich, beautiful colors of all the spices I needed for my curry.

The recipe that I was using for Curried Coconut Lentils called for both curry powder and red curry paste so I decided I was going to make both. I realized that I didn’t have the dried chiles or whole peppercorns that were called for in the paste or the whole mustard seeds for the curry. But I did have mustard powder and ground pepper and I was gonna take a bet that I could omit the chiles and it would still be pretty good. And I was right! What this also made me realize is that – A) I will never be able to make the same curry twice cause I’ll be pinching a bit of this and a bit of that, B) this will be an ongoing process of exploration and experimentation to see how different spices and ingredients impact the overall flavor of the curry, and C) I may never be able to go back to store-bought curry.

The finished curry powder and paste all ready to go.

Once the curry powder and paste were prepared, I was ready for the easy part. My only complaint was that the curry paste did not get as red as I would have liked b/c of the dried tomato that I used. But the taste was phenomenal. So, I sauteed some minced garlic, ginger, onions, carrots and celery with the red lentils and then added the curries and coconut milk and let all the flavors dance together in a slow simmer. Some cilantro as garnish and a mini naan and voila, definitely the best curried lentils I’ve ever made and the closest I’ve ever come to replicating the amazing Indian food I’ve tried in restaurants throughout DC. I would never claim that after one try, I’ve figured out how to make better curry than some of the master chefs around here, but I’m off to a good start. I’ll continue to fuel my curry addiction by perfecting my ideal spice blend.

The finished product! I like lots of cilantro…


WEARHOUSE at the Anacostia Arts Center

In addition to just about everything else in DC, the local arts scene is burgeoning and it’s really exciting to see how many ridiculously creative people we have living and producing beautiful artwork here. The WEARHOUSE event at the Anacostia Arts Center and Honfleur Gallery was an opportunity to get to know local fashion designers and jewelry makers at a night time market that felt more like a party with a DJ and mixed drinks. Note to self – drinking while shopping is dangerous to your bank account.

Before I admit to all of the things I bought and the fun designers we met, I must say that if you haven’t yet visited the strip of Good Hope Road in Anacostia where these galleries are located, you must. The quality of the artwork on display here is excellent and there’s a great community vibe that is so supportive of local artists. There’s even a cafe located inside the Anacostia Arts Center for a snack and coffee. They hold all kinds of great events here too, so it’s worth checking out their events page regularly.


Another gallery on Good Hope Road, the Craig Kraft Studio. Kraft is a light artist and this piece was pretty spectacular. 

Thanks to Instagram, I recently happened upon local jewelry designer Alissa and her design studio Off On a Tangent. Alissa and her husband Tom are both architects by trade and the jewelry pieces are inspired by great works of architecture around the world. I fell in love with her work and couldn’t resist ordering a necklace that was inspired by the stunning new African American History Museum right here on the National Mall. It was through them that I learned about the WEARHOUSE event, and I was excited to see all of their pieces in person and choose another one.


My new necklace from Off on a Tangent Shop. It kinda looks like gold, but it’s actually wood. I love it!

Another gem of a shop inside the Anacostia Arts Center is Vintage and Charmed Classic Clothing. They provided the clothing for the live window models at the event, who were completely still for so long that we didn’t realize that they were real people until one of them moved ever-so-slightly. My friend Mimi (who is a fashion hound like me) and I spent a while going through the great clothing, jewelry, shoes and bags in this small shop. And I came away with some new earrings because I rarely leave a vintage clothing store empty-handed.


My new earrings from Vintage and Charmed. I especially love the big gold earrings. Serious statement pieces.

Over at the Honfleur Gallery, we discovered the black and white screen printed bags of Printed Wild. I loved the clean and bold patterns inspired by nature and finally decided on a square pouch bag because of the unusual shape. Like Off on a Tangent, you can buy Printed Wild products (which are not limited to just bags, by the way, but also towels, pillows and other household stuff) online as well as get lucky enough to stumble upon them at events like this one or find them in small specialty stores around town like Salt & Sundry.


Some of the great, bold prints at Printed Wild.

There were so many other great fashion makers who we met and whose work we admired. And based on the turnout, I think it’s safe to say that the event was quite a success. I know it was for me! I would love to see the nurturing and supportive community of local artists and designers continue to grow, and I can help that happen by not only buying these local products but also telling as many people as I can about them. Shop local, indeed!


Wild Kitchen Summer Dinner Series

On a recent, gorgeous summer evening, I was fortunate enough to experience an incredible dinner party as part of the Wild Kitchen Summer Dinner Series sponsored by REI and Brightest Young Things. The dinner series consists of a number of pop-up dinner parties held throughout the summer in collaboration with local DC chefs to benefit an environmental charity serving our area. Many have already heard that REI is about to open a flagship store here in DC at the historic Uline Arena. It sounds like it’s going to be an amazing place with a cafe, courtyard for musical performances and giant fire pit. They plan to continue to host events like this one. REI recognized the link between people who love great food and who care about the environment and decided to bring them all together as part of their national United Outside campaign. Every single cent of the proceeds goes to the charity of the night. The charity for our dinner was The Chesapeake Conservancy which was exciting since the Chesapeake Bay is near and dear to my heart. As a child, my grandfather had a boat and we spent many weekends exploring the Chesapeake. And I also went to college on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and spent my summers working in Ocean City, MD. So, I was super interested to learn about the work of the Conservancy and all they are doing to protect the Bay and to give people access to this amazing natural resource that is so fundamental to our entire region.

File Aug 09, 10 59 38 AM

My gorgeous friend Haleh and I taking advantage of the spectacular evening light to snap a pic.

One of the reasons I chose this particular dinner is because the chef for the evening was from Whaley’s, the newest member of SE DC’s Yards Park restaurant scene. Whaley’s  has been getting a lot of buzz for its spectacular seafood so I knew there was potential for an amazing food experience here. When we arrived at Wunder Garten, a fun and quirky German style beer garden in NoMa within sight of the Uline Arena and where REI has their community space, we were greeted with a delicious IPA donated by Atlas Works and two long, adorably decorated picnic tables. Since the number of tickets sold for each dinner was limited, we were a small group of about 30 people just sharing a family style meal. First, we heard from REI and learned more about the United Outside Campaign and their plans for the new DC store. Then we met folks from the Chesapeake Conservancy and learned about the great work that they are doing and the improving health of the Bay. And then it was time to dig in.

File Aug 09, 11 00 53 AM

Fresh and briny Oysters Rockefeller

Of course there were oysters. Delicious oysters. Briny and garlicky and amazing Oysters Rockefeller on a bed of rock salt. Everything was served family style and the presentation was just spectacular. The second course was such an unexpected and delicious treat – soft shell crabs with a salad of roasted red pepper and charred corn. The orange of the pepper puree, the red of the actual roasted peppers, bright purple onions and yellow corn topped with the soft shell crabs made for a stunningly beautiful plate. As we learned from our Chesapeake Conservancy friends, the window of time when soft shell crabs can be harvested is very narrow, so we lucked out. I admit that I have only ever tried soft shell crabs fried in a sandwich, but these were grilled which enhanced rather than masked the delicate flavor of the rich meat.


File Aug 09, 11 01 19 AM

Succulent soft shell crab. Can you believe those colors?

And then for another showstopper – Whole Roasted Sea Bass. Delicate and delicious fish with a light rustic herb sauce and fresh tomatoes. It was a work of art but that didn’t stop us from digging in. As we enjoyed the fish and chatted with our dinner mates, the sun began to set and candles were lit casting a magical glow over the garden. By candlelight, we enjoyed the final course of the evening, grilled peaches with marscapone cheese and honey. A perfectly light and seasonal dessert after such an extraordinary meal.

File Aug 09, 11 01 44 AM

Stunning Sea Bass

Every single dinner in the Wild Kitchen series has sold out. And it’s no wonder. This was that rare evening of really special food and drink, great conversation with like-minded folks and philanthropy. It was an evening that I will not soon forget and one that has set the bar high for the perfect summertime dinner party.


Declaration and the Shaw Revolution

It was the first warm, sunny day in weeks when my good friend Haleh and I ventured on over to Shaw to try Declaration. There are so many fun, new eateries and bars popping up in the neighborhood that it’s hard to keep up. Declaration is quintessentially Washington with its Declaration of Independence theme and we’d heard good things about the food so we decided to give it a try. We were also seriously craving some great wood fired pizza so our expectations were high.


The Declaration of Independence themed eatery.


Declaration is just across the street from another one of my favorite new additions in Shaw, Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing Cinema. The theater boasts a great selection of independent and critically acclaimed films, a beautiful bar and lounge and fun movie snacks. The Landmark theaters provide my favorite kind of movie experience. In fact, I’ve filed it away that dinner at Declaration and a movie at the Atlantic Plumbing Cinema would make for a great evening out.

We ordered our drinks promptly upon being seated. I was in a beer mood and knew that there would be many local brews on tap. DC Brau, Atlas Brew Works and Right Proper were all featured. I tried the Atlas Home Rule IPA for the first time and it was perfectly hoppy, not too bitter, with just the right amount of citrus. We ordered two starters, the Roasted Octopus with chorizo white beans, apricot preserves and salsa verde and a small plate of the Brisket Sausage Ragu made with house made lasagna pasta, basil ricotta and pomodoro sauce.

File May 30, 6 07 07 PM

Roasted Octopus appetizer


File May 30, 6 10 42 PM

Brisket Sausage Ragu

Both dishes were excellent. Octopus is one of my favorites, especially when roasted or grilled. This may have been a little too charred for some, but I love “almost” burned things. So much so that I buy special dark pretzels and prefer my pizza crusts blistery and brown. (I was excited that the menu here made a point of saying that their pizzas are cooked well done and may have a darker crust. Yay!) The octopus was incredibly tender and delicious with the smoky roasted flavor. I was worried about the apricot but it wasn’t overly sweet and blended wonderfully with the slight sweetness of both the octopus and the beans and was balanced by the saltiness of the chorizo. The combination of smoky and sweet was killer. The brisket ragu was as rich and velvety as it should be. The delicious flavor of the brisket really stood out and the sauce was so good that we ordered bread to sop up what was left on the plate.

Next up was the pizza. There are thirteen pizzas here inspired by the original thirteen colonies. Some feature pretty non-traditional pizza toppings like the lobster roll theme on the Massachusetts pie, the fried chicken and bread and butter pickles on the Georgia or the braised pork, dijon and smoked pears on the North Carolina. We went for the good old Virginian which featured ham, arugula, olive oil, lemon, roasted tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.

File May 30, 6 11 03 PM

The Virginia Thomas Jefferson Pie

I was obviously happy with the charred crust and I’m a huge fan of arugula on pizza. Overall, it was a great pizza, but the ham did have a strong briny taste. It was slightly overpowering the way that I feel prosciutto can sometimes be. And the crust at the center was really thin so the ingredients slid off when I picked up a piece, necessitating the use of a knife and fork. There’s a big wood fired pizza game in this city these days (Menomale in Brookland is still my number one) but this pie definitely held its own among the competition. I can’t wait to go back to try another less traditional pie and see if some unique ingredients help to make the pizza at Declaration stand out from its competitors even more.

With our bellies satisfied, we strolled around the neighborhood enjoying an absolutely perfect sunset. Shaw seems to be the land of the rooftop bars and my friend pointed out a new addition to the club, Takoda Restaurant and Beer Garden. From the street, the rooftop bar looked perfectly positioned for some prime views, so we headed up to see for ourselves.

File May 30, 6 19 29 PM

Enjoying a Dortmunder Gold Lager while taking in a perfect sunset along Florida Avenue.

The west facing roof top bar was full of removable windows and it was open and breezy and the perfect venue for worshiping the return of the sun. It was, not surprisingly, buzzing with people like us taking in the gorgeous weather. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to end another memorable evening in Shaw.



Treasure Hunting

About a year ago, I was flipping through an issue of Washingtonian magazine reading a feature about the best antique shops in DC. I was making a mental note of where to go for great vintage jewelry, clothing and home decor. A photo of a huge warehouse space filled to the gills with funky, colorful antiques caught my attention and as I scanned for the address, I was excited and surprised to learn that Off the Beaten Track was in my neighborhood of Woodridge! Turns out that, true to its name, it is hidden away in a residential area just beside the railroad tracks. The hours are limited – they’re only open on Thursdays and Fridays from 10am – 4pm and then two weekends a month – but I headed over to check it out right away.

2016-05-19 14.30.17

Warehouse space packed with goodies.

I had so much fun exploring and of course picked up a cute chair for my office. I was struck by the quality of the items and the relatively inexpensive price tags compared to some other antique shops in the city. Speaking of price tags, they use old photos for price tags which is adorable.

File May 24, 12 32 45 PM

Creative price tags.

The owners are engaging and friendly and somewhat willing to negotiate on price, depending on the item and how much they purchased it for. They live in Brookland so they’re happy to support their loyal customer base. And I was quick to explain that this was the perfect spot for me to find gifts for my real estate clients. In fact, I picked up a great mirror for some clients who are renovating an old Wardman rowhouse with beautiful original Victorian details.

File May 24, 12 22 37 PM

The antique mirror made a great client gift.

Since it’s virtually impossible for me to go there without picking up something for myself, I also bought this great carved wooden screen to hang above my bed.

File May 24, 12 23 07 PM

Framed wooden carved screen, likely from Indonesia.

The other really cool thing is that the furniture showroom is not the only business in the warehouse. The rest of the building was converted to affordable artist studios and workshops. You can wander around and visit artists hard at work on their latest projects and the Saturdays when the showroom is open turns into a kind of block party.


Filling the Belly with Goodness at Donburi

It was a bit of a rainy, dreary afternoon when my friend and I found ourselves looking for a quick but tasty lunch in Adams Morgan after an appointment. Having lived in DC for so long, we’ve spent a lot of time hanging out on 18th Street and patronizing the various bars and eateries. We both wanted to try something new and my friend deferred to me since I’m the foodie. We were inspired to go small and local after admiring the mural below and you can’t get much smaller or more local than a tiny restaurant originally launched as a food truck. Since I still hadn’t been to the 18th Street location of Donburi, we agreed to give it a go.

2016-05-23 12.40.03-1

Small Business Saturday Mural in Adams Morgan by Aniekan Udofia.

The space is essentially a galley kitchen with one long counter, which feels intimate and welcoming, at least on a day like this one when it wasn’t packed with people. We ordered our food at the front and took a seat at the counter to watch it being prepared. It’s impossible to hide the freshness and quality of the food when you’re prepping and plating in front of all the nosy patrons watching for their dish. It’s a cozy spot with low lighting and good music contributing to the ambiance. The counter is filled with plenty of condiments – extra Donburi sauce, utensils, tea, water – so you have everything you’ll need.

I decided on the Shiitakedon bowl as I’m a mushroom lover. The menu says a half cooked egg on top but with the scallion it seemed a little like an egg scallion pancake which was fine by me. It was soft and delicious, oozing over the mushrooms. The briny pickles were a great compliment to cut the overall richness of the dish. This is a lot of food! I left super stuffed but that might be because of the side order of Karaagedon or fried chicken. I’ve been on a bit of a Korean fried chicken kick lately and just couldn’t resist some Japanese fried chicken. And it was worth it.

2016-05-23 12.54.32-1

Left to Right: Karaagadon (fried chicken) with Japanese Curry, Side order of Karaagadon, Shiitakedon (mushroom rice bowl with egg)

My friend also got the fried chicken bowl but with the Japanese Curry Sauce. She loved it but the curry sauce wasn’t completely my cup of tea. It just wasn’t the kind of curry that I seek out. It tasted like the powdered curry we find in the spice aisle of American supermarkets, the only kind of curry I knew during my childhood. I was hoping for something a little more unexpected. But overall, it was a delicious lunch. Next time, I want to try the Gyudon or beef brisket and the panko covered shrimp which we were drooling over as we watched them being prepared in the kitchen. I expect to leave just as stuffed and happy as I was today.