Food. Story Telling. Discovery.

A Cup of Tea & A Plan: A Glutton with Brains ... On A Budget

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Every so often, I get the organizational bug. When this rare instance happens, I sit down with a cup of tea and make a list. Lots of lists. Whether or not they are ever fulfilled is of no consequence, because at this point, it's about getting ideas down, releasing omnipresent anxieties and hopefully, paving the way for new flavors. This time around, no list. But a manifesto, of sorts.

So here goes ... SheCraves has always been about food. Good food. But now, SheCraves will also conform to the realities of my life -- and many others, I suspect -- by sharing honest to goodness food for less.

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It's very much possible. From the earliest of kitchen mavens to M.F.K. Fisher to Marion Cunningham, many before have showed us to savor time in the kitchen (and together) using the humblest ingredients. As of late, we've forgotten the simple joys of blackberries in season or a good pot of Indian-inspired rice and lentils in favor of bits and bobs of disparate ingredients that many to this day couldn't navigate without the advice of some T.V. personality or another.

No, this is about real food. For real people who love real flavor. You could call it budget cookery. But I prefer to think of it as a return to simplicity. Using good ingredients in decent amounts. And spending more time in the kitchen.

A recent New York Times article addressed the issue of the cost of food. How cooking at home can keep you within the budget of the times. One passage that made me laugh out loud: "Those recently laid off from jobs can spend their extra time in the kitchen cooking." I can see kitchenettes in NYC and expansive McMansion kitchen-cum-palaces filled with melancholy souls, freshly unemployed, sullenly stirring pots of Top Ramen.

But if even the financially-inept and deficient like me can manage a comforting, inspiring, entertaining meal, than anyone can. I am after all in the lowest of lowest ranks in society. I chose to be a writer. (That train of thought requires another cup of tea).

I'm not laid off ("intermittent unemployment" is how I refer to my freelance), but spending time in the kitchen has been one of the few ways to stave off the daily anxieties about career, relationships, finances, etc. One recipe in particular does double duty, the way good, humble cooking does -- homemade chai that tastes delicious, but also fills the house with feel good aromas that make you breathe a little deeper. That's something we could all use lately.

So ... let's cook. To start, try my favorite chai. The recipe is an approximation of what I often drank at my friend Binaka's house. Her Gujarati family always had guests over. The cup of chai Binaka's dad, Yogesh, always offered me has a superlative quality in that it summons a quiet mind. I didn't understand a word of of the ongoing discussion, but I sat back and listened anyway. Now, whenever Binaka, a soon-to-be-mother, returns for a visit home, I end up back in their household surrounded by the men-talk and women-talk, as if the past ten years had never gone by. And like clockwork, Yogesh is standing next to me with a stack of styrofoam cups in one hand and pot of hot chai in the other.

"You want chai?" He'd asked, smiling, knowing perfectly well what my answer would be.

A Warming Chai for the Unemployed, the Frazzled, the Debt-Ridden

In a small saucepan, combine 2 cups of water, 1 cup of milk (at least reduced fat, please), 5 whole cloves, 1 cinnamon stick, 3 crushed cardamom pods, 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, 5 white peppercorns, 5 black peppercorns and about 1-inch's worth of ginger root, thinly sliced. I don't bother peeling it. Yes, I have a thing for odd numbers, especially prime numbers.

Don't be appalled by the sheer number of spices used -- contrary to what Morton & Basset may have you believe, good spices can be purchased relatively inexpensively. Do as the Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern ex-pats do and peruse the spice aisles of their community/ethnic grocers. No glass bottles of exotic scents, just unassuming plastic pouches filled with whole cloves, coriander seeds and the like. Thanks to them, I always have whole spices on hand to make something like a cup of tea. [Author's note: I really do dislike the term "Ethnic" markets because in my experience it usually refers to those of us with darker skin tones, Mongolian eye folds, etc. But really, let's all admit we're ethnic and help me find another term to use for these markets.]

Bring to a simmer over high heat and reduce heat. Let cook and steep, uncovered, all its wonderful flavors until reduced by one-third (usually about 15 to 20 minutes of gentle bubbling). Then add three bags worth of black loose leaf tea. Keep simmering for about 5 minutes or until you achieve that desired hue of khaki to the liquid.

Strain out the mixture into a teapot or pitcher or another saucepan. Get rid of the aromatics. And then sweeten the smooth tea with turbinado sugar (the less refined the better -- you need that treacly goodness to add even more depth) to your taste. Finally, add a pinch of salt. Really. It makes everything even more luscious.

Makes enough for 3 servings or one for prolonged sipping over a list and pen and paper. Sip or gulp depending on mood. You don't have to share the pot if you don't want to. But it isn't bad to rack up some good karma.

A cup or two always makes me happy. It's even better with a couple of thick slices of toast, buttered and then drizzled with honey.