Celia Barbour's Beautiful Soup
Florence Fabricant's Swiss Chard Timbales

Neelam Batra's Goan Coconut-Milk Pilaf


Jennifer Steinhauer's New York Times piece on cooking when you're moving house and attempting to use up the half-empty tins, bags, boxes and glasses of spices, rices and beans you've got lying about your pantry made me laugh. I've been in her shoes (haven't we all?) in my moves around this city. I may not have been going far, but from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back again, I certainly felt like emptying my pantry to streamline my spice cabinet and collection of oils, vinegars, and various other sundries was virtuous, if not practically mandatory.

When I saw that Steinhauer included a Goan recipe for coconut rice in her article, my eyes lit up. Since my January discover of Latin-styled coconut rice, I haven't been able to get enough. So I decided to serve the rice along with jalapeno-marinated sea bass (a true keeper in its own right) for dinner. But as I stood over the stove to make the rice, I wondered: would it supplant my beloved Raichlen coconut rice? Something in me couldn't bear it if it did.

Well, I needn't have worried. It's not that it was bad, it wasn't, really. The sizzling spices, the cooling coconut milk: I had high expectations. But the sum of all these parts was less than spectacular. I think the sweetish spices (which, once combined with the sauteed onion, were a sticky pain to cook) overwhelmed the dish, and made it too perfumed. I'm not quite sure what role the toasted coconut played: I couldn't detect those paltry two tablespoons amidst all that highly-flavored rice. Judicious amounts of salt helped tone it all down, but I found myself swallowing each mouthful with a bit of a frown on my face. Even Ben, my barometer for tastiness, had to be prodded to take seconds and that is a sign, in and of itself.

I wonder if cutting back the amounts of each spice, and adding some minced garlic to fry with the onion, some toasted, slivered almonds and twice as much toasted coconut at the end would result in a better dish? I'm not sure I'll try this again - not with the backlog of recipes I've got - but just in case there are some enterprising readers out there who want to take up the challenge, those would be my suggestions.

In any case, I'm going back to Old Faithful and counting this week as a disappointing one, foodwise. But never mind. Tomorrow, we're flying west for our final wedding (my sixth, if anyone's counting) of the year and I'll just have to be patient until next week. Better recipes are waiting to be found!

Goan Coconut-Milk Pilaf
Serves 6

2 tablespoons grated fresh coconut or shredded unsweetened dried coconut
1 to 2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 1-inch stick cinnamon
5 whole cloves
6 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed (or 1 heaping teaspoon ground cardamom)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 ½ cups basmati rice, sorted and washed
1 cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon Goan vindaloo powder or garam masala
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped

1. Dry-roast the coconut in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, but just barely darker in color, 1 to 2 minutes. Cool and set aside.

2. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the cinnamon, cloves and cardamom pods and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the onion (and ground cardamom, if using) and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Mix in rice, coconut milk, 1 ¾ cups water and salt and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce heat to low, cover the pan and cook until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, mix in the coconut, vindaloo powder (or garam masala) and cilantro.