Mesir Wat, or Ethiopian Red Lentils

For all of my zeal over curry cookery, it is perhaps strange that I had never attempted a lentil dish. Indian cuisine has no shortage of dals (i.e. curry-like amalgams of pulses cooked with spices), but I have never found myself especially excited when I’ve tried them on the buffet. It is surprising, when I consider how much I love black beans and hummus and other such legume-centric foods. Sabrina mentioned recently that whenever she eats a dal on the India Buffet, she thinks that she ought to try making lentils, and I recently had some lentils at Abay that I enjoyed… though, to be fair, I enjoy pretty much everything I eat at Abay.

Two Sundays ago, I was making a rehash of the African Peanut Curry I posted recently, and with all this talk of lentils fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that a lentil dish would make a good compliment, being easy and cheap, and it would give me an opportunity to attempt making a more complex berbere (see previous link for more discussion of berbere and its complications).

I had to do a bit of grocery shopping to get started, and so a brief excursion to the Giant Eagle ensued. I seemed to recall a sector of one aisle in the Giant Eagle with bags upon bags of different dried beans and lentils; I had never really shopped there myself, as I prefer to get my garbanzos and other beans canned, yet surely, I thought, many varieties of lentil would await me there. Well, it turned out they had only two varieties of lentil, regular brown and split green. But all the recipes I’d found for Mesir Wat called for red lentils? Surely such a thing must be had at the Giant Eagle? Looking further in the imported foods aisle, I was also surprised not to find red lentils among the Goya products, but lo and behold, there was a bag of red lentils further down the aisle among the Middle Eastern imports. $3.75. That price might not seem terrible on its own, but considering that the same amount of brown lentils (a 1 pound bag) was only a dollar and change, paying upwards of four bucks for red lentils seemed like overkill. Surely, using brown lentils wouldn’t make that much difference, right?

I went home, looked up some berbere recipes and got to work. I will readily admit that my efforts toward a more complex berbere were not as conscientious as they could have been that day. Nearly every recipe I found for berbere that included more than four or five ingredients (I believe a simpler berbere also has its utility in my spice cabinet) listed fenugreek among the seasonings. I am not a huge fan of fenugreek seed; I do have it in my vast spice collection, but I find it a little too pungent and it does not seem to me to add much in terms of pleasant flavor to dishes where I’ve used it. Methi leaves (the product of a sprouted fenugreek seed) on the other hand, I am more than willing to use and keep a stock of it specifically for my oft-made saag recipe, but I fail to see redeeming qualities in fenugreek seed. Still, I was willing to use it in my berbere for the sake of authenticity, but I couldn’t find it easily (my spice collection is vast and usually in an advanced state of disorganization), and so in a “screw it” moment decided to move forward through the recipe without it. Further down the list of berbere spices, I ran into another roadblock when I also couldn’t find my nutmeg and realized that I don’t have allspice and never did. I substituted mace and a big of pumpkin pie spice. Shrug? There was always a chance it might turn out to be the best berbere ever, right?

Well, it wasn’t the best ever. It wasn’t the worst either. My first attempt at Mesir Wat, using the brown lentils and the cobbled-together berbere was okay. I didn’t mind eating it, but it wasn’t a flavor combination I found myself anxious to make again. And yet, I did not want to give up on lentils; I knew that I had done a half-assed job of the recipe to begin with, so I took to the internet in search of greater authenticity.

One of the better resources I’ve found, oddly enough, for obtaining harder-to-find culinary items at lower prices is Amazon. My first aim was to find red lentils. There were quite a number of good choices, including one that works out to $1.73 a pound (i.e. the size of a standard grocery package), but I opted for a deal that had eight 1 lb. packages for about $18 (i.e. $2.25 a pound), as I didn’t want to commit to an enormous supply of red lentils until I saw if I would actually use them.

Secondly, I did a search for berbere. If Sabrina couldn’t come up with a good berbere on her own, and I couldn’t come up with a good berbere on my own, maybe it was time to use a pre-packaged mix. I have come to favor making my own spice mixes for a variety of reasons. It ensures consistency within my kitchen. I know exactly what’s in my recipes and I know it will come out the same every time. I don’t have to worry that the spice mix I’m using becomes discontinued or is dropped by available vendors, then I’m forced to find a different mix, and inevitably my recipes come out differently. This is why I make my own garam masala; every time I try to use a different version of this spice mix, it seems like there’s always something in it I don’t like or expect. One I tried had way too much hing, another was much too heavy on cloves and anise.

Berbere seemed a promising exception, however, as we were suffering from the opposite problem. The berbere mixes we managed to come up with seemed to be lacking important flavors that we could not uncover. For all its mystery, a pre-packaged mix might be just what we needed. In looking for a berbere online, I wanted something relatively inexpensive, but also something in a smaller package; just in case the berbere had a large proportion of some spice I found particularly offensive, I didn’t want to have to commit to buying it in bulk. I was lucky enough to find a 2 oz shaker of Ajika Berbere for $2.72 (unfortunately, it has since jumped in price, only a week later, which is the great downside of Amazon, and one of the reasons I was hesitant to use a pre-packaged spice mix in the first place).

Armed with two remedies to my last attempt at Mesir Wat, I was ready to try again. Here is the recipe I used:


Mesir Wat1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 teaspoons garlic, minced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or bacon fat
3 tablespoons bebere seasoning
2 cups red lentils
2 cups beef stock, or veggie stock
1 (6oz) can tomato paste
extra water, as needed

Saute the onions and garlic in the fat until onions are softened. If you don’t save bacon fat to keep on hand, simply cut up some bacon into small pieces and fry it up and leave the bacon in pan. The presence of bacon only makes things taste better, right? Add berbere and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes, adding about 1/4 cup water as needed to keep contents of skillet or pan from getting too dried out and burning. Add lentils, stock and tomato paste. Simmer covered on low until the lentils are cooked and liquid is absorbed. Additional water can be added if lentils need to cook longer to desired doneness. Serve with rice and/or flat bread.

Twenty minutes for simmering the spices did seem a little long to me; usually I abbreviate such instructions, but since my first attempt at this dish turned out underwhelming, I decided to follow the base recipe I was using more to the letter than I had before. Frying spices does change their flavor, usually by increasing intensity, so I was game to try it, and the recipe turned out very well, so I’m sticking with the 20 minute instruction.

The unfortunate thing is that I cannot stick with the berbere I found and bought on Amazon. I thought I had finally found a good, cheap, convenient spice mix for Ethiopian… but when I went online to find the link so I could include it in this blog, I found that the price of the 2 oz. bottle of berbere had jumped to $9.62. Really? Almost ten dollars for a spice they offered at three dollars only a week before? I understand that markets change and food prices increase or decrease depending on a number of factors, but the mystery of Amazon’s fast and dramatic price fluctuations eludes me. The spice mix might have been tasty, but it isn’t worth the absurdity of paying ten dollars for a tiny amount.

I am now back to my initial conundrum: Where to find a good berbere? Do I hazard to purchase another pre-packaged mix and risk either hating it… or liking it only to have the price or availability change? Do I go back to my own spice cabinet and try to assemble a worthy berbere on my own? Either way, it’s back to the drawing board with berbere!

The Great No-Paste Thai Curry Experiment

As a fan of most varieties of curry, those belonging to the oeuvre of Thai cuisine certainly have not escaped my culinary notice. The light and tangy flavors of citrus, coconut and cilantro make Thai curries uniquely delicious. Unfortunately, traditional Thai cooking methods make the cooking of Thai curries uniquely inconvenient.

The endeavor of getting into any kind of curry cookery for the Western hobby chef involves a “collection period” of stocking up on the specific, previously-exotic ingredients commonly involved in curry recipes (I say “previously” because things like turmeric, methi and tamarind are now staples of my spice cabinet). For Indian curries, I have such a vast collection of spices and seasonings on hand, now, that I can simply go down a list of recipe ingredients and toss in what I need as easily as I toss basil, oregano and parsley into a marinara sauce.

The problem with Thai curries is that most recipes rely on a tradition of curry paste making. The result is that, in nearly all Thai recipe books I have found, it becomes necessary first to make a quantity of a particular Thai curry paste, only a portion of which will be used in the recipe. This strategy certainly seems like a good idea for those chefs who make Thai curries with any sort of frequency, but for a hobby chef who wants to experiment with different curries (thus requiring different pastes), the workload of making all the pastes ahead of time leads to my easily talking myself out of making Thai curries.

Massaman CurryAuthentic cooking methods are all well and good for people who prize them and relish in the process, but if a particular cooking method becomes a roadblock for a busy professional, I’m all in favor of eschewing authenticity for convenience. In other words, if the trouble of sticking to authenticity is going to prevent you from making it at all, what’s the point? However, when approaching Thai curry, I didn’t want to eschew authenticity so far as to use store-bought pastes. I have no problem collecting the ingredients, I just wanted to use recipes for Thai curry with the same ease as I use recipes for Indian curry: go down a list of ingredients and toss them in.

And so, I resolved that I would take my favorite Thai cookbook and resolve the paste and curry recipes into one. After all, many of the ingredients were in both the paste and the curry, why couldn’t I just add them in one by one?

I enlisted Sabrina to come over and help as both my chronicler and my sounding board as I went down the list of ingredients for each curry and its corresponding paste in effort to make each curry without the extra step of formulating the paste ahead of time. Sabrina, being more of a traditionalist in terms of cookery, was dubious about my efforts, but game to come along for the ride.

It should also be noted that I also make a few specific ingredient substitutions in the interest of convenience and freshness. Keeping kaffir lime leaves and fresh lemongrass on hand is not the easiest (or cheapest) thing for a Western city girl to do, so I prefer to substitute lime and lemon zest to create a fresh flavor, rather than resorting to dried versions of the original ingredients.

The first recipe we tackled was for Massaman curry, which we decided would contain chicken only. Sabrina found the end result to be a bit too lemon-y, but I didn’t think one way or other about the lemon flavor, so I’m including a range for the lemon zest; I zested 1/2 a lemon, but feel free to use any smaller amount. In general, the particular ingredient amounts were decided upon off-the-cuff, so using a little more or a little less to taste is certainly within the reasonable realm of creative freedom.


1 or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped or diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon ground ginger (or more to taste)
2 dried red chilis, pulverized with a mortar and pestle
zest of 1/4 to 1/2 of a lemon peel, shredded finely (invest in an OXO Zester, and you won’t regret it)
1/2 teaspoon ground galangal (can’t find it at the store? Try Penzey’s)
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 cardamom seeds, pulverized with a mortar and pestle
pinch of nutmeg or mace
several dashes of fish sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons tamarind paste (I use Tamicon)
1 (13-15 oz) can of coconut milk
beef, chicken, other meat cubed, mixed vegetables or other protein

Saute onion, garlic and ginger in vegetable oil for a few minutes. Powder the red chilis and the cardamom seeds in a mortar and pestle (or substitute already powdered versions of each). Add the chilis, lemon zest, galangal, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg to the saucepan. Sprinkle in the fish sauce. Add the brown sugar and tamarind paste. Pour in the coconut milk. At this point, you have your curry sauce and meat can be added. If using meat, simmer covered for a few hours until meat reaches desired tenderness. If adding vegetables, cook them to desired tenderness in the sauce. Add peanuts right before serving.

A few of my guests did note the fact that traditional Massaman curry usually includes potatoes. I generally avoid potatoes in recipes because of the unabashed carbohydrate content they add. Cubed potatoes could, however, easily be added to this Massaman curry. One would simply need to contribute additional liquid (water or broth) to the curry as the potatoes inevitably absorbed the curry sauce during cooking.

Green CurryNext up we decided to try a green curry, which would contain both chicken and vegetables. I treat all of my curry recipes as sauces, which could be used over any meat, protein or vegetable, and so these Thai curries are no exception. As a result, I don’t specify exact amounts of meat or vegetables, and further I don’t specify exact vegetables. Chefs should simply put as much in as seems a logical ratio for the amount of sauce. This choice contains a certain amount of creative freedom, as some people may prefer their curries drier and some may prefer them more saucy. I leave it up to you. Again, this approach might not be the most authentic, but it is an easy and convenient way to cook. I put Sabrina in charge of procuring the meat and the vegetables for this one. She came up with boneless chicken thighs (as she and Ted do not eat beef) and fresh broccoli, bell peppers and carrots. I saved the broccoli for our third, all vegetable curry, but did contribute carrots and bell peppers to the green curry along with about a third of the package of chicken (two thirds went in the massaman curry).


1 or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped or diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon ground ginger (or more to taste)
2 green chilis, diced
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground galangal
zest of 1/2 lemon peel, shredded finely
zest of one lime peel, shredded finely
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/4 to 1/3 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon brown sugar
several dashes of fish sauce
1 (13-15 oz) can coconut milk
your choice of meat cubed, mixed vegetables or other protein

Saute onion, garlic, ginger and chilis in vegetable oil for a few minutes. Add coriander, cumin, galangal, lemon zest, lime zest, cilantro and basil. Stir in brown sugar, fish sauce and coconut milk. At this point, depending on how finely you chopped the fresh herbs and chilis, you may want to process this sauce to a smoother consistency. I am a whole-hearted devotee of the immersion blender, as it will accomplish most such tasks in the kitchen without the necessity of dirtying the food processor bowl in addition to the cooking pot. If, however, you are one of the unfortunate class of Americans who do not own an immersion blender, you can always just transfer your sauce to a food processor. If you prefer to be proactive about it, you can take all the ingredients up to and including the coconut milk, combine them in your food processor, and then heat in the saucepan.

Once sauce is desired smoothness, add the meat, if using. If using a combination of meat and vegetables, like we did, the meat should be added first, cooked until tender, and then vegetables should be added and they can simmer together until the vegetables are done. I prefer curry meat to be so tender it easily falls apart under my fork, so there is no such thing for me as meat that is too well stewed.

The green curry turned out to be the standout favorite of the group; not only did it receive numerous accolades, but it was the only curry pan cleaned out by the end of dinner. A note on the green-ness of green curry. I’m ordinarily all in favor or using the dried versions of herbs and spices for the sake of convenience, but green curry is one of those dishes that absolutely requires fresh green herbs. If you don’t use fresh cilantro and basil, the curry will not turn out green and, I venture to say, will not turn out very tasty at all. The fresh herbs really make this dish; increasing proportions of these herbs to taste is never a bad idea.

Sabrina and I had the first two curries well on their way by the time Ted and Roger arrived for dinner, so we let the boys have a say in our final curry of the night. We had already planned for this one to be an all-vegetable curry (after all, the meat supply was exhausted at this point), but had not decided upon the sauce. In the interest of sticking with basic curry recipes, the success of which we could measure from the experience of having tasted versions of these curries before, I put all the more unusual and specialty Thai curry recipes in the book off limits. Our choices, then, were yellow curry, red curry or panang curry. The scales tipped to panang and we were off and running.

Panang CurryPanang curry is the one type of Thai curry I have made a few times before with good success. Because of this fact, I took the liberty of using my own approach to the recipe. In the past, I have basically treated panang as a red curry with peanut, and so instead of drawing from the peanut-based paste, I based this recipe off of the red curry paste, as well as the recipes for panang and for red curry.


1 or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped or diced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon ground ginger (or more to taste)
10 dried red chilis, pulverized in a mortar and pestle
zest of 1/4 lemon peel, shredded finely
zest of one lime peel, shredded finely
1/2 teaspoon galangal
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
several dashes of fish sauce
a few squirts of sriracha sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1 (13-15 oz) can of coconut milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup natural peanut butter
your choice of meat cubed, mixed vegetables or other protein
chopped cilantro, to garnish
peanuts, to garnish

Saute onion, garlic and ginger in vegetable oil for a few minutes. Powder the red chili with a mortar and pestle, or substitute already powdered chilis. Add lemon zest, lime zest, galangal, ground coriander, fish sauce, tamarind paste, coconut milk and peanut butter. Stir over medium fire until well combined.

Add the meat first, if using, and cook to desired tenderness. Add vegetables, if using, and simmer until tender. Garnish with cilantro and peanuts.

The panang curry went over well with all dinner guests. Sabrina mentioned that it was a little peanut-ty for her taste, but acknowledged that such level of peanut flavor was likely not contrary to the nature of the dish, but rather just not to her personal taste. As a result, I built some flexibility into the above recipe; feel free to include less peanut butter for a lighter peanut taste, or more for a thorough peanut taste.

All in all, the No-Paste Thai Curry Experiment was a success; Sabrina expressed congenial surprise that it all turned out so well when the endeavor seemed so free-form at the start. All three curries were much enjoyed with the jasmine rice and Bota Box Chardonnay brought by Sabrina.

One footnote to this curry meal—when everyone arrived and started drinking, we quickly realized that the not-so-imminent readiness of the curries might spell disaster with drinks on an empty stomach. To keep the booze from flooding so quickly to our heads we’d be drunk by dinner, I set out some mango cheese spread and crackers, left over from the holidays. The improvised appetizer was an unintentional hit! This spread doesn’t properly belong to any type of Asian cuisine, but it is curry-inspired, so for the sake of completeness, here it is:


1 (8 oz) package of cream cheese
1/4 cup mango chutney
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup unsalted, blanched nuts (almonds, cashews, etc)
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth. Chill at least two hours before serving.

Cilantro Coleslaw for Tacos

While this coleslaw recipe needn’t be exclusively for tacos, I did originally find it as part of a fish taco recipe, and after bringing it to Taco Night at Sabrina’s house, I have proven that it works just as well with Sabrina’s slow-cooked pork carnitas filling as it does with fish. I imagine the same is true of shredded beef or chicken. What’s great about this slaw is that it contains such a variety of traditional Mexican taco flavors, it makes for an easy and complete way to garnish any sort of taco meat, fish or other protein-rich filling. Put it this way… when I add this slaw to a taco, I don’t even need to add cheese. Ingredients below are given in recommended amounts, but proportions for this recipe are hard to mess up, so if you want more of one flavor or another, feel free to exercise your creative freedom.


1/4 to 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped, or 1/4 cup cilantro chutney
2 green onions, snipped or sliced thin
2 green chilis or jalapenos, minced (optional)
juice and zest of one lime
1/3 cup sour cream (or more, if needed to coat; see below)
dusting of ground cumin, or a sprinkling of cumin seeds
one small cabbage, shredded, or one bag (10 to 16oz) or coleslaw mix

Chop up all of the fresh greens (i.e. cilantro, green onions, jalapenos) and put in a small bowl or container. Squeeze lime juice over them. Stir in mayonnaise and cumin. At this point, the dressing mixture can be stored in the refrigerator until closer to serving time. Dressing the slaw closer to eating time keeps it from getting soggy.

Shortly before serving, place dressing in a larger bowl and add coleslaw mixture a bit at a time until slaw is evenly coated and dressing is used up (i.e. no dressing pooling in the bottom of the bowl). If, at this point, you still have a small portion dry slaw, then you can add additional mayo in order to stretch the dressing to cover the remaining slaw. Serve fresh as a side dish, or as a taco filling with meat or fish.

The Great India Buffet Tour: India Garden in Oakland

Last Sunday night marked the fifth stop on our Great India Buffet Tour of the Pittsburgh area, to take advantage of the Deluxe Dinner Buffet at India Garden on Atwood Street.

Indian Garden OaklandThis was by no means my first visit to the India Garden in Oakland (nor was it Sabrina’s or Nik’s), a venerable institution of cheap spicy eats for the college crowd that has been around since my own college days. I’ve been there before for the late night half priced special, as well as to the lunch buffet on a non-Great-India-Buffet-Tour-related trip.

The evening started with a modicum of confusion. Seeing from the website that the dinner buffet was offered on Sunday night, and that dinner was served until 11:00pm, we naturally assumed that an 8:00 start time for dinner was not a problem. But as we sat and chatted, the waiter confirmed that we were getting the buffet and informed us it would be closing at 9:00pm. Okay… certainly not fatal to our evening, but that would have been nice to know on the website so that we did not risk planning a prohibitively late dinner.

Taking in the buffet, we decided that on the scale of size, this buffet fell somewhere on the scale of smaller than Taj Mahal but larger than Coriander, effectively making it the second largest buffet we have visited so far. There was a wide selection of vegetable curries, including favorites such as Saag and Vegetable Korma. There was a potato and chickpea curry, a yellow dal, a vegetarian Sambar curry and a mattar paneer. There were two chicken curries, as well as a shrimp and a goat curry, making for an impressive non-vegetarian selection. In addition, there were some dry vegetables, and a salad bar with an array of chutney and pickle, but I didn’t avail myself of any of these, save for some hot red pepper sauce.

My favorite item on any India buffet is the Saag (aka the palak, depending on some difference of regional dialects of which I know nothing, or so I presume). That night the saag was served with mushrooms, which was a first in my experience, but certainly no less agreeable than any saag with chicken, paneer, lamb, chickpeas or potatoes (moreso, actually, than the potatoes) I’ve had in the past. It can hold its own against any saag in the city. The vegetable korma was tasty, and no objections were raised on the consistency, as they were at Coriander. The chickpea and potato curry and sambar curries were tasty enough, the yellow dal was nothing special, and the mattar paneer was better than average, as I am usually extremely underwhelmed by mattar paneer, and this one I found okay (though, didn’t encounter any paneer).

The highlight of the buffet was within the meat section. I didn’t try any of the shrimp curry, but Nik highly recommended it (I was too full by that point to go back just to try the shrimp). There was a goat curry offered, but I don’t recall that any of us tried it… mostly we were enamored of the Chicken Chettinad. I have had chettinad from a few Indian restaurants in the past, but it is not a terribly common Indian Restaurant menu item, and this is the first time I have seen it on a buffet. It is a flavorful and fragrant curry which relies on many of the brown spices, such as cinnamon, clove and black cardamom. It was, by far, mine and Sabrina’s favorite item on the buffet. The other chicken offering, the more predictable Tikka Masala, was enjoyable. It was a particular favorite of Nik’s.

The dessert selections were limited: a fruit salad and a rice pudding. I was the only one who availed herself of dessert, enjoying two small helpings of the refreshingly sweet and spiced rice pudding.

A table-wide assessment of the Buffet Tour thus far resulted in the India Garden dinner buffet ending up a solid third on the list. The quality was good, we found, enough to trump Taj and Taste, despite the enormity of the Taj buffet, but it still came in behind Coriander and Tamarind, which remains our leader several stops into the tour after pulling ahead as the early front runner.

India Garden on Urbanspoon

The Great India Buffet Tour: Coriander India Grill

After a long cold winter (well, January and February at least) of struggling to summon the ambition to venture out for any reason, let alone for India Buffet, we finally made a date to check out our next stop on the tour, Coriander India Grill in Squirrel Hill. It was a day only a Pittsburgher could love, 50’s and drizzling, it even inspired two guest critics to come along for the ride: Nik, an India Buffet aficionado and Millvillian, and Jay, an Asian food enthusiast and Squirrel Hill denizen.

Coriander India GrillCoriander Grill is exactly what you would expect, in terms of decor, and then some. The outside and inside plaster wall surfaces are smothered in a lime green color (perhaps “cilantro green” would be more appropriate), which is, perhaps, overkill, but the booths were clean and comfortable, and water served in heavy faux-cut crystal goblets. The lunch buffet at Coriander is offered every day, and a dinner buffet is served on Tuesday and Sunday evenings. The cost is reasonable, being $7.99 during the week, and jumping only to $8.55 on the weekends.

Taking in the scope of the buffet, it became apparent that Coriander’s offerings were more extensive than most, but not quite so gargantuan as the buffet at Taj Mahal. The salad/dessert bar section had a wide variety of chutneys and pickles, including the expected tamarind and mint, as well as the not terribly common coconut. Rice and naan provided the standard starches. Onion pakoras proved to be a crispy appetizer. The meat selections were just as standard as the starch: chicken curry, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala. The vegetarian selection, though, came as a pleasant surprise in its extensiveness. There was mattar paneer, chana saag, an inviting dal, vegetable korma, spiced mixed vegetables and cauliflower. The highlight of of the curry selection was a dish off to the side of red chili paste, very useful for raising the heat level on mild buffet offerings.

Coriander GrillAs we dove into our teeming plates of buffet gleanings, we quickly reached a consensus that the taste quality of coriander’s food was a cut above. There was something intriguing about the taste of each dish. Flavors bespoke fresh ingredients and well-tuned spice mixes. So often buffets rely on over-salting to lend taste to food that does not arrive immediately at the table, but in every dish at Coriander, the salt flavor was low and the spices rang at a good pitch. The pakoras were crispy, but the coconut chutney, while tasty, was uninspired. The saag was one of my favorites, as I am a particular fan of saag, and Nik agreed that it exceeded ordinary Indian restaurant saag. The spinach was still quite green, not too dark and overcooked. The chicken tikka masala was definitely a few flavor levels above typical, a danger that faces any buffet vat of tikka masala since it is practically a requirement. I was even impressed by the mattar paneer, which I didn’t get until my second trip, since mattar paneer is among of my least favorite curries. Sabrina detected a pleasantly sour whisper of vinegar in many dishes, and happily attributed it to the Goan influence that she has noticed on the regular menu, as she frequents Coriander for non-buffet dinner. The dal was a favorite among all the guests at our table, and everyone agreed its appeal lay in its likeness to an Indian-style chili.

Coriander SpecialtiesThe biggest controversy of the day came from the vegetable korma. I enjoyed the flavor of this dish and I was happy to taste a highlight spice—my guess was cardamom—which set it apart in good contrast to the other dishes. However, the korma did suffer one pitfall; it’s a common danger that plagues the preparation of korma, that because of the nut pastes used in its preparation the curry sauce dries out easily, and so water or milk must be added frequently as long as it stews over the fire. Sabrina and Jay agreed that the flavor of the korma sauce was not enough to outweigh their distaste at the pudding-like consistency.

After eating, the table discussed our selections; Sabrina and I compared the experience to our previous buffet stops and we solicited the input of our fellow lunchers that day. Coriander got points for variety, being larger than any other buffet we visited, save the Taj Mahal (what is the appeal of the buffet, after all, if not to sample a plethora of dishes), but it also got points for taste quality. We easily agreed that the flavor of Coriander’s food was second only to the buffet at Tamarind. In the end, we decided that taste trumps size, and so we placed Coriander second to Tamarind in the scheme of buffets we’ve visited so far.

Coriander India Grill on Urbanspoon

Smorgasbord of Randomness, Part 1

Mambo: The Original Smorgasbord of RandomnessThere is a particular pattern on my studio’s advanced mambo syllabus that I have taken to calling the Smorgasbord of Randomness, based on the seemingly arbitrary selection of multitudinous elements packed together in one figure. I could not help, however, thinking of this moniker more literally when I hosted a recent dinner party.

Over the weekend, a confluence of circumstances conspired to bring a somewhat unlikely a collection of guests to my dinner table. Among them were Sabrina and Ted, as they are quite frequently the fulcrum of my guest list for parties, be they dinner or cocktail… or occasionally fondue, fellow dance instructor extraordinaire, Roger, who attended in prelude to his five-day belated birthday bar crawl (more on that to comes), and internet maven Saundra Kane, who has the parallel distinction of being my mother.

As with most modern dinner parties, it happens that many guests have dietary restrictions and strong food preferences. With Sabrina being a vegetarian and Ted being an almost, kinda, sorta vegetarian who also eats chicken on occasion, I decided to make Indian food, a cuisine which is perhaps tastiest in vegetarian form. But with the addition of Saundra, I needed to adjust my strategy. As a borderline diabetic and woman of tried and true American/Western European culinary tastes, Saundra would need, I knew, some non-Asian, low-carb additions to the menu. One side dish was obvious… whipped cauliflower, the diabetic’s answer to mashed potatoes, a recipe that is both easy and delicious. Contemplating the menu further, I asked myself, what low-carb food, within Saundra’s culinary realm, would be most like curry? The answer was, of course, stroganoff.

The Majesty of StroganoffFor years I have endeavored to make a tasty stroganoff from scratch, to find a recipe that requires no McCormick dry mix packets or cans of mushroom soup. I researched a plethora of recipes on, taking what I liked from one or the other to create my own stronganoff recipe. The result is a recipe both delicious and versatile. While I made it as a beef stronganoff, it can easily be converted to chicken or mushroom (i.e. vegetarian) stroganoff to fit a variety of diets and tastes.

Finally, I found myself unexpectedly with a supply of pitted dates, and so, despite the fact that Sabrina had taken on the task of providing a cheese tray, I bought a package of bacon so as to make one of my favorite appetizers, a simple and sinfully delicious finger food I learned from my friend Paloma, master of Spanish cookery.

These three recipes would constitute a meal in themselves for a smaller gathering, but in my case, they were only a few random parts of the smorgasbord.


package of sliced bacon
pitted dates
wooden toothpicks

Cut the bacon in half down the center of the package so the slices are half as long. Roll each pitted date in one half slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick. These appetizers can be fried right away or made ahead and refrigerated for a few hours so that they can be made fresh right before serving. Heat a non-stick skillet to medium or medium-high heat and fry the bundles until bacon is crisp.

I don’t know exactly how Paloma did it, but my strategy for frying these appetizers so that the bacon gets done evenly is as follows. I first place each date bundle on its side with the top overlap of bacon facing down and the tip of the toothpick touching the pan. When that side is done, I flip and do the other side (using a spoon or utensil to manipulate the pieces; the toothpick tip will be hot from sitting in the bacon grease), again with the toothpick tip touching the pan. Finally I stand them upright so that the bottom gets done and the toothpicks cool off a bit before I take them out of the pan and set them on a paper towel to drain.


2 (1lb.) bags of frozen cauliflower
1 (8 oz) package of cream cheese
shredded cheddar cheese, optional & to taste
white pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the cauliflower. Boil at least 10 minutes until cauliflower is tender. Drain the cauliflower in a colander. Use a food processor, immersion blender or electric beaters (the latter makes a more textured or “lumpy” mashed consistency) to whip the cauliflower and combine it with the cheese. Doing this when the cauliflower is still piping hot will help the cheese melt.

The cauliflower can be served hot at this point, but sometimes it can be a little soupy at first. I like to put it in a casserole dish and bake it to give it a firmer texture. It’s convenient to make first and then leave in the oven on low-ish heat while preparing the rest of dinner.


2 lbs beef, chicken breast or wild mushrooms
4 tablespoons butter
1 large shallot, chopped (if unavailable, 1 teaspoon minced garlic)
1 onion, sliced
1 cup beef broth or chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup white wine
1 lb portabello mushrooms, quartered (if not using mushrooms to begin with)
1 cup sour cream

Cube meat or slice mushrooms. Melt butter in a medium to large saucepan and use it to saute the onion and shallot over medium heat, about 10 minutes. Add the meat or mushrooms. Add the broth, mustard, white pepper, wine and additional mushrooms (if using). Heat over low fire to desired doneness. I like to stew slowly all day until the meat falls apart, but to each his own. Once meat and mushrooms are cooked as desired, if there is still a lot of liquid left, strain it out of the pan and into its own smaller saucepan or skillet. Bring liquid to a boil and stir frequently until liquid is reduced to a sauce that will coat the solid ingredients like a gravy. Return the reduction to the solid ingredients. Heat through and remove from burner. Stir in the sour cream and serve!

For people who are not concerned about carbohydrate intake, the reduction step can be eliminated by instead removing enough liquid from the pan to make a paste with 4 tablespoons of flour. Return the paste to the pan and heat until it thickens. I do my best to search for ways to eliminate carbs at every turn, which is also why I didn’t serve it over noodles or rice. Either of these options is, of course, your prerogative for a traditional stroganoff.

So concludes the non-Asian portion of my Smorgasbord of Randomness. Stay turned for vegetarian curries.

“Mary Fucking Poppins.”

In contemplating my inaugural blog for this site, I found myself growing increasingly pensive. With what topic should I begin? What impression should I make? There’s much to talk about in the news, I’ve several social activism subjects close to my heart, I’ve even got a topic in law or two that I think might be of general interest. These kinds of topics all require research and drafting, though, and that seemed daunting – I’d already been procrastinating on a daunting professional project, and there I was, procrastinating on a personal project as well.

Before Sarah approached me about writing a Pittsburgh lady blog together, I’d been ruing the fact that I no longer blogged on my own. I had previously been a MySpace blogger (yes, 100 years ago), and then I had graduated to my own website (some blogs from which I plan to repost here, as I still think they are of their interest and enjoyable). An entire website had proven too time consuming, and I don’t know that it got much traffic anyway. My blogging lapsed. Blogging, of course, it must be said, is not a necessity – everyone enjoys a little narcissism, and are usually willing to indulge it in others, but it’s not as though there is an audience hungering for my thoughts on the tyranny of other people’s Facebook posts, the awful, interminable nature of basketball, or the former Pope’s beatification. Nevertheless, I am actually a trained writer (and a big Fuck You to the University of Michigan, but that’s a subject for another day), and I always have a vague sense that I should be writing, though it’s not really a pursuit of mine anymore, excepting academic work.

I had conceived a blog that I might begin myself. In my head, I had already titled it “The Duncan Street Palimpsest” and I planned to make it a repository of many projects and meanderings I wished to undertake. For instance, I am constantly saying that I will cook more, and so I thought I could do recipe blogs; I am constantly saying that I want to improve my knitting skills, and so I thought I could chronicle my crafting challenges; similarly, I am constantly asserting my desire to learn to sew, to garden, and to in general undertake the kind of betterment of self through skill acquirement that ambitious bloggers have been documenting for years now as they cook their way through massive tomes, recycle rubber bands into minidresses, and create communities for social justice activism and fatshion haute couture.

The problem, of course, is that I almost never undertake these projects. There are all sorts of explanations that a casual observer might surmise to be the cause of this inaction – laziness, fearfulness of failure, a variety of other unpleasant character traits.

As to fearing failure: meh. I’m pushing 30 and haven’t yet earned enough money, total, over my lifetime, to qualify for social security. I have two degrees I don’t use, I’m overdue on pretty much every bill, and none of this troubles me at all. I don’t pluck my eyebrows or shave my legs, and my dining room is filthy at the moment. I’ve got a different sense of the word failure than other people do, let’s say.

In my further defense, let me say that I am lazy, but not when I find the work to be important or enjoyable. I’m a good employee (I teach part-time), I’ve donated hundreds of hours of my time in the past to local political campaigns, I devote time to my own academic pursuits, and I read in my spare time with an eye towards what I hope is my intellectual improvement – nonfiction on various subjects, classics of literature, et cetera. But, true enough, I am sometimes lazy: if the task seems thankless or unimportant – say, that time I worked answering phones for a living – I do the bare minimum, if that. I don’t feel bad about this, either; my time and energy are finite and precious to me, and I see no reason to fritter them on anything other than what I personally wish. “Pride in a job well done,” without taking into account the nature of the job, is a capitalist lie inculcated in the working classes (blue- and gray-collar) to discourage them from refusing to work at degrading tasks for the enrichment of others, and I’ve no truck with that, thank you.

Still, learning to knit or sew, gardening, cooking, deploying my writing to the work of a worthwhile activist community, expressing myself through art or photography or music … these are not thankless or unimportant tasks. Many people undertake them with joy in their hearts and soon see gratifying results. And yet …

Well, a friend of mine put her finger on the problem quickly and succinctly: “You don’t want to do that shit. You just want to be the sort of person who does that shit. You want to be Mary Fucking Poppins.”

I think she’s right; I think, in the cases of many of my ambitions, I don’t actually want to do that shit – I just want to be the sort of person who does. Who doesn’t want to move through the world productively and creatively, mindful and ever-improving, delighting in the growth of skills and the expansion of interests, and receiving the just accolades of all who bear witness to their march of progress?

Except that shit’s hard. And there’s school, work, housekeeping (shudder), maintaining personal relationships, errands … and then I’m supposed to exercise, follow the news, do the basics that a human is supposed to do, I guess, and frankly, once all or at least a respectable amount of that is accomplished, I want to sit on my ass and read a book with a cat in my lap. Go to the bar. Go on a date. Take a fucking nap.

Still, I’m not a child, and I should make myself do some of the shit done by the people who are the sort of people who do that shit. I should write thoughtfully and undertake some of those projects; I should improve myself before I’m dead (though why I should do this, I can’t quite say).

Sarah says I’m completely thwarting the premise of this blog, which is meant to be the solution to both she and I feeling overwhelmed trying to take on bigger and more extensive blogging projects. Just write something. Toss something off. Whatever’s on my mind, it doesn’t have to be a project. That’s good advice. And you see, today, I’ve taken it – this blog required no research, no drafting, and no careful consideration whatsoever, nor did it require me to knit, sew, cook, read, watch, visit, learn, or work in general. High fives all around?

Still, in the future, I’d like to, y’know, maybe try to do some stuff. So if you see me blogging about falteringly attempting accomplishment, pat me on the back, internet-style. But if you also see me running on about where I just had dinner, y’know … don’t hold it against me. We can’t all be Mary Fucking Poppins.

The Great India Buffet Tour: Taste, Tamarind & Taj

There is just something about an Indian restaurant buffet that I find hard to beat. Being mildly obsessed with Indian cuisine, my drive to frequent Indian restaurants is far from surprising, but my particular affinity for the buffet bears special explanation as it is the seed of Sabrina’s and my idea for a progressive tour.

The buffet, of whatever ethnicity of food, is a controversial institution. Health nuts hate them, red-blooded American appetites love them… Perhaps the most compelling cuisine-conscious argument against the restaurant buffet is that the quality of food over the buffet represents a noticeable downgrade in quality from off-menu items.

Be that as it may, from my perspective, a cost-benefit assessment of the India Buffet makes it the most alluring choice for South Asian dining. My own growing skills in curry cookery will satisfy my cravings on the average day and make off-menu dining at your average Indian restaurant a questionable upgrade. Do most Indian restaurants cook with superior skill and authenticity to me? Probably. But will ordering two curries and a basket of naan make me happier than cooking two curries and warming up some store-bought naan? Probably not.

The beauty inherent in the India Buffet is that I cannot attempt to recreate it at home (without ludicrous and laborious effort), and I cannot order the full splendor of an Indian meal off the menu without spending a fortune for more food than I could eat in two weeks. The essential appeal of the India Buffet is bountiful variety. Not only do you get a choice of a few (or more) curries, but you get the condiments, the chutneys, the raitas, the breads, the dry vegetables, the desserts, the unexpected delights…

And so, when I told Sabrina two months ago that I had a craving for India Buffet, and we found ourselves stymied by the choices of restaurant, the idea for our India Buffet Tour was born. We have already made three stops on our tour of Indian restaurant buffets in the Greater Pittsburgh area. Let me catch you up on the results so far.

Taste of India, Bloomfield, 4320 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224

Sabrina, being a Lawrenceville dweller and Indian food aficionado, is such a fixture at Taste of India in Bloomfield that she is, more often than not, the reigning mayor on foursquare, but I had only ever tried food from the CMU cafeteria installation. Still, it was close to both of us, it had a buffet, and so it won out as our first stop on the tour.

The restaurant itself was rather empty with only two other tables occupied when we arrived. The buffet itself was much as expected with all the trimmings, the standard chutneys, rice, naan, kheer, a variety of curries, dry vegetable, green salad and tandoori chicken (the last two of which I always skip over). I was disappointed that day in the lack of color among the curries, specifically the lack of a spinach curry. I expect and enjoy having a variety of color in curries. Some red (makhani, tikka masala, madras, etc), some yellow, white or orange (kormas, dals, chana masala, etc), some green (saag/palak). I understand that buffet offerings change, but that day they were all basically red curries. There was a chicken tikka masala, a basic chicken curry, and a malai kofta. As it turned out the malai kofta was quite good, and something I would not have ventured to try off menu, but I was disappointed in the lack of color variety and specifically in the lack of spinach dishes.

On the upside, there was an unexpected delight in the form of lentil balls. Neither Sabrina nor I had tried this dish before and we were both pleasantly surprised. As it turns out, this is a chilled dish made from white lentils served in a yogurt sauce with garnishes of cilantro and tamarind. They were especially tasty and became an instant favorite.

All in all, the Taste of India offered good quality food and a good variety.

Tamarind, Flavor of India, Oakland, 257 N. Craig Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213

The buffet at Tamarind came highly recommended by Sabrina, and so for our second stop about a month later I was eager to try out her recommendation. That recommendation came with a warning, however, that the buffet would be smaller. Indeed it was smaller than the Taste of India buffet, but not by as much as I had imagined when she first described it.

Smaller, perhaps, but I knew on first glance that the dishes were certainly more unique. Their coconut chutney was a first for me and a welcome change from the usual coriander, tamarind and random pickle. There was naan, of course, but also a savory pastry that resembled small donuts. The curry selection was much more up to my colorful expectations, and I was especially impressed by the presence of a lamb saag. Since I am generally unenthusiastic about chicken, a lamb dish on a buffet was quite exciting… and spinach, nonetheless!

The difference in quality was apparent from the first bite. Whether it was the spice blends or the freshness of the ingredients, I could not say for certain, but the food at the Tamarind lunch buffet was definitely a cut above. The flavors were more intriguing and complex than at Taste. The lamb saag was particularly good, as was an eggplant and cauliflower dish (Sabrina was less impressed than I was with the latter), but nothing on this buffet was a disappointment.

Tamarind took a clear and early lead.

Taj Mahal, Ross Township, 7795 McKnight Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15237

Having a little more time to spare over the holidays, we decided to make our more-or-less monthly buffet trip a bit early. After crunching schedules and evaluating our remaining options, we decided on the Taj Mahal restaurant on McKnight Road, which has a lunch buffet and a dinner buffet, such that it seems whenever they are open there is undoubtedly a buffet.

We attended the dinner buffet on a weekday evening. The building is tarp-draped and under renovation, and no wonder, because even though the seating was only about half capacity, it still felt cramped inside.

Perhaps it was the ambiance, but perhaps it was the enormity of the buffet. The advantage of the Taj Mahal buffet was undeniable even on first sight. It was at least twice as large as the Taste of India buffet with offerings I had not seen anywhere else. There were all the requisite vegetable curries, chana masala, vegetable korma, as well as a few chicken curries and even a goat curry. More impressive there was an entire vegetarian wing with paneer tikka masala and vegetable biryani, along with a peculiar Chinese-style tofu dish. Chutneys were numerous, as were appetizers including fritters and papaddams, the peppery crackers served as a standard warm-up at many sit-down, off-menu restaurants. The dessert selection was also large, with a mango mousse, kheer, a peculiar puffy pancake and a too-sweet blood-orange candy.

The bounty of the Taj buffet was exciting, though ultimately the quality was standard. All the curries were enjoyable, but the quality was not up to par with Tamarind. The highlights for me were the paneer tikka masala, the piquant sauce of the goat curry (still undecided about the goat meat itself), and the papaddams which made a surprisingly tasty, spicy and not-too-filling starchy complement to use in alternation with the naan. Lentil balls were a welcome chance to revisit the flavors we had come to enjoy at Taste of India, but weren’t quite as good as those at Taste, lacking some of the extra fresh flavor of the garnishes we had enjoyed the first time.

In the end, we decided that Tamarind still won out on the basis of far superior taste quality to our other buffet stops, but Taj Mahal gets definite points for the vast and various offerings of its dinner buffet.