Oh, but it’s smelling really good in my kitchen today. Come on in and meet my great friend, Leela Manilal who’s here from New Delhi, India for the next few months. Leela is our Beyond Wonderful International Home Chef, India and we’re preparing lots of sumptuous curries and beautifully spiced vegetable dishes for the website.
Leela and I have cooked together both in India and the Bay Area for over 25 years, uniting our families, friends and readers through the simple pleasures of our food. No matter where we cook, we require lots of fresh, seasonal produce, so we always head to local markets for all our ingredients. This trip, I wanted Leela to meet our produce expert, Dan Avakian and experience his open-air market in Alameda. Leela and Dan were familiar with each other’s work on Beyond Wonderful and soon became fast friends, sharing their vast culinary knowledge.
While my two friends got acquainted, I grabbed a cart and started stocking up on the basics of our Indian kitchen; onions, garlic, ginger, chiles and cilantro. We also needed potatoes for aloo dum (potatoes in a spicy yogurt sauce), so Leela examined all of the different varieties to find one that closely resembled what she uses at home. She finally held up a small red roasting potato and said, “Barbara, we need two pounds of the tiniest, most uniform ones you can find.” I started bagging what I thought was small and she quickly stopped me. “Tiny, we want tiny. These are too big.” As I worked, I wondered who was going to peel these little suckers.
My attitude improved significantly when Leela told me that these potatoes can be substituted for paneer (Indian cheese) in a wonderful spiced spinach dish that she taught me to make last spring in New Delhi. Funny how fast you can find two extra pounds of “tiny potatoes” when inspired.
The autumn citrus displays at the front of the market caught Leela’s eye. Even though they weren’t on our working list, neither of us could resist the juicy red grapefruits, fragrant oranges and lemons. Leela was especially taken with the large, loose-skinned Mandarin oranges because they reminded her of the ones in India. Dan peeled one and gave it to her as she told how her family loves eating these oranges in her Delhi garden on sunny winter days.
I always learn a lot when I hang out with Dan at his market, and love the recipes he offers as we talk produce. Today, he suggested a citrus salad using one grapefruit, two oranges and two Meyer lemons—sliced or segmented. “The dressing is easy: mix some of the citrus juice with best-quality extra virgin olive oil, toss and sprinkle freshly ground black pepper over the top.” Simple. Delicious. Seasonally economical.
As I packed the car with our bounty, Dan handed me a bag of Mandarins for his new friend “to remind her of home.” I smiled, knowing that she would always think of Dan when eating Mandarins on sunny Indian winter day.