Friday, August 20, 2010

Cook the Books Club: Climbing the Mango Trees and Picking the Beans with Madhur Jaffrey

The combo of daily sunshine, just enough rain and warm nights has produced a vegetable explosion in our home gardens this season, and the Crispy Cook has been pretty good at keeping up with the harvest by canning and freezing and cooking up armloads of tomatoes, basil, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini and peppers. I cut back on the number of plants (especially those super-fertile summer squashes) and the variety of veggies we usually grow, devoting about half of our garden space to garlic after seeing how successful that went with last year's first garlic harvest.

But I forgot about how prolific bean plants can be.

I usually grow one or two kinds of string beans each year and this year it was just half a seed pack of wax beans (those yellow string beans that are easier to spy on the green bean plants, I grew the Carson variety) that went into the ground in early summer. The bean plants just went wild this summer and it seemed like no sooner had I picked a colander full of crisp yellow beans, then there was another cluster hanging from the plants. My favorite way to enjoy wax beans is in a salad with tomatoes but after making this excellent dish several times, I turned to my cookbook shelf for more beany inspiration.

Since our foodie book club, Cook the Books, is currently reading Madhur Jaffrey's book "Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India" (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), I turned to her wonderful "An Invitation to Indian Cooking" (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973). This is one of my most well-loved cookbooks since purchasing a paperback copy in a used bookstore many moons ago when I was first living and cooking on my own. I have since upgraded to a nice hardcover edition since my bespatterings and cracking of the spine beat up my original copy. I can recommend it wholeheartedly as a great introduction to the cuisine of Jaffrey's Delhi hometown, especially for American cooks who want to familiarize themselves with Indian ingredients and cooking techniques.

I found the perfect recipe to make: Green Beans with Onion Paste, which really deserves a much more glamorous name as it is redolent of so many spices. The beans are infused with so many levels of flavor as they slow cook in their tomato and onion gravy and it makes a hearty vegetarian meal over rice. Try it over basmati rice for extra fabulousness.

I have made the recipe twice now to rave reviews from my family. It is a slow food dish, requiring a good bit of time in the slicing of the beans, the sauteeing of the onion paste and spices, and then a bit of simmering, but the result is exquisite. You'll also creating a bit of work for the dishwasher, but they will lulled into submission when you make them this dish. Make a double quantity if you have a ton of beans, as I did and you'll have lots of great leftovers to savor.

Back to Jaffrey's memoir. At Cook the Books, participants read a book and then blog up a review and cook a dish inspired by their reading. I've already sung my praises of Jaffrey's great bean recipe, so now here are my thoughts about "Climbing the Mango Trees". Jaffrey provides another great introduction to Indian culture for Western readers with this autobiography. I learned so much about the complexity of modern Indian history from reading about her interesting family.

The Jaffrey clan lived as an extended family of up to 40 people, ruled by Babaji, the grandfather, in a sprawling orchard estate outside of Delhi in northern India. The Jaffreys were Hindus in this part of British India that was ruled by Moghul leaders that were Muslim, so the combination of cultures and religions during the 1930s-50s is interesting to read about. The family was well-off, so that servants cooked the meals. While little Madhur grew up to become a well-known food writer (and actress), she never spent much time in the family kitchen, though her childhood food memories are vivid indeed.

I was particularly enchanted by her description of a wintertime confection that an elderly lady dressed all in white used to bring by for a breakfast treat. Daula Ki Chaat was made by taking rich milk and mixing it with dried seafoam. The Lady in White would then ascend to her roof top and leave little terra cotta cups of this mixture to chill in the night air. In the morning, if the collected dew was in just the right amount, she would froth it up, adding a little sugar, dried sheets of milk and shavings of pistachio nuts. How's that for magical food?

Another evocative passage was about summer mango parties, which her mother called "sweetenings of the mouth", that were held to celebrate successful school exams. Madhur's mother would invite the family to sup on ice cream, rasgulla (cheese balls in syrup) and juicy mangoes and the image of them all whiling away a hot afternoon with jasmine in their hair, trying to avoid drips on their immaculate white saris and kurtas, has stayed with me.

Ms. Jaffrey provides plenty of other wonderful food-infused memories throughout her memoir, which ends when she leaves India by ship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in faraway London. That is where she began to pine for a taste of home, and where her adventures in cooking them up from her mother's handwritten recipes would begin. I look forward to reading what I hope will be another installment of this interesting and extraordinary life.

You can join me in reading, cooking and blogging about this wonderful book by the Cook the Books deadline of Friday, September 24, 2010. My CTB cofounder, Deb, of Kahakai Kitchen, is hosting this round and you can find out the details about how to participate on the Cook the Books website. Perhaps you will be inspired by the collection of treasured family recipes provided at the end of the book to join us at our Cook the Books roundup.


Heather S-G said...

This dish sounds amazing! I've just started the book...and anticipating the lady in white. Great post for Climbing the Mango Trees =)

Alicia Foodycat said...

Delicious use of your beans! I must get onto this book.

Anonymous said...

Just the motivation I needed to put Climbing the Mango Trees on the top of my to read pile. I've been exploring Indian cooking for the past two years and can't get enough. Our garden has been going crazy with the rain and heat, too.

Foodjunkie said...

I loved the WHite Lady part too. What a dreamy thing to eat! Your beans look delicious. I think Indian cooking is so good with vegetarian (and vegan) dishes. I still have to see what I'll cook

Deb in Hawaii said...

So glad you enjoyed the book. She had such an interesting and amazing childhood.

Your beans look delicious. I am going to have to tag this one to make sometime--the combination of flavors is lovely.

Kelly said...

I loved the "Lady in White" passage as well. Your beans look delicious.

Claudia said...

On your recommendation I am going to get that book. I so enjoyed her memoir. And, the dish you picked sounds wonderful. We get lots of green beans from our CSA so I will have plenty of opportunity to try it.

Simona Carini said...

I love green beans so I will certainly try making this dish, which sounds fabulous. I gave up growing green beans in my little garden, but they are still available at the farmers' market, together with many different kinds of onions.

Ann said...

I'm jealous of your beans harvest, and I can totally relate to the work that is involved in cutting and prepping them for a meal. My father used to grown beans in our vegetable garden and I would "hide" everytime we were called to help shell or slice the beans. I do agree the end result is well worth the effort though =)