DIWALI 2018

I threw my first Diwali party in Arizona twelve years ago.  It’s funny the moves life makes.

 

In 2006, I was living in Tucson, a second-year MFA student whose father had died unexpectedly, searching for ways to honor him and to make something meaningful with my grief.  When I strung lights outside of my little casita on East Elm and cooked up a storm using every pot in my tiny kitchen, I had no idea that I was starting a tradition that would carry me and my family through so many shifts and changes.

 

In 2011, we celebrated Jill’s completion of cancer treatment; in 2012, we welcomed Shiv into the mix; in 2014, we skipped the party completely because the month was already (happily) filled with the weddings of close friends; in 2015, we celebrated finally being able to get married ourselves.

 

2018 will stand out in future memory as the year we started over: new city, new family configuration (three generations under one roof), new job (for me), and new pronouns for Shiv, who is now using she/her/hers.  Moving has provided an opportunity for Shiv to be known and related to in the way that feels right to her.  It’s been a wonderfully smooth transition overall, and we are proud of Shiv for advocating for what she needs.

 

After twelve years, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to predict what our lives will look like this time next year.  But no matter what else is happening at the time, Diwali always serves to reminds me that love is a commitment I can maintain inside of any circumstances.  When nothing else seems to make sense, love always does.

 

So even if we made different food in a different house for a different set of people, even if we invited folks to 1816 E. Alicia instead of 810 North Elder Grove, the core intention for having a Diwali party remains the same as it was in 2013:

 

Our hope is to create something magical, to render our home a sacred space, one in which strangers can meet and connect, feel and share joy, and leave well fed not just in stomach but in soul.  To me, Diwali is, in its essence, an affirmation of the belief that love is the strongest force in the universe; that, no matter how hopeless things seem, human goodness will always triumph.  And each year, the people whom we are lucky enough to have in our lives show up at our house and serve as living proof of that belief.

 

 

 

It wouldn’t be a Diwali post if I didn’t write at least a little bit about the food we made, linking to recipes where I can:

 

food:

homemade granola (spiced with mace, ginger, & cardamom) served with pomegranate seeds & my Mom’s famous homemade yogurt ~ poha (pounded rice) made with sweet potatoes ~  seminya (vermicelli) upma ~ cilantro and tamarind chutneys for serving ~ Nik Sharma’s Bombay Fritatta (please buy that man’s gorgeous cookbook ASAP) ~ candied ginger scones ~ Molly Yeh’s basbousa (semolina-pistachio cake) ~ turmeric snickerdoodles (I riffed on this recipe, using Diaspora Co. turmeric – no other brand can compare – adding cardamom & cinnamon to the cookies & rolling in cinnamon sugar)

 

drink:

homemade chai, Turkish coffee made by Jill, & a mimosa station with guava, grapefruit, and peach-mango-orange juices

 

Diwali posts, previously:

2017, 2016, 2015, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 (no posts from 2007 or 2008 because that was pre-blog; no party in 2014 because of aforementioned flood of weddings!)

ATTACHMENTS

I feel a little silly admitting it, but I’m sad to be leaving Houston restaurants behind.  Not as much as people, of course, but when you live somewhere for a decade-plus, you become attached to not only the food, but the feel of a place, all of the meals you’ve had there, the various phases of your life that can be measured in, say, orders of the #86 coconut curry tofu from Huynh or cups of chai consumed at Pondicheri.

Over the course of this summer, I’ve been trying to visit favorite haunts for a final time, as much as expenses will allow.  In appreciation of the places that have come to mean so much to me and my family, I present a completely biased, somewhat arbitrary list of places I’ve loved in Houston.  Note: I have not included restaurants of days past, simply in interest of time, but I routinely miss date nights at Foreign Correspondents, solo dim sum outings at Yum Yum Cha, & the bread service at Haven, which, to this day remains my favorite bread service of all time.

 

COFFEE SHOPS/CAFES/WRITING SPOTS:

One of the ways that my Jill and I built writing time into the school year was to have her pick Shiv up from school on Wednesdays so that I could go straight from work to a coffee shop and get a few hours’ worth of writing in before heading home to do Shiv’s bedtime.  As a practice, it worked remarkably well, and had the added bonus of giving me a bit of alone time out in the world, a rarity for me since becoming a parent. 

I used this structure to do a bit of exploring of various spots that might serve my somewhat specific purposes: 15-20 minute drive from my school, offering some type of food alongside beverages, quiet enough so as not to preclude the ability to write, open between the hours of 4-7 pm (a harder qualification to fill than you might think), and affordable, which I designated as $25-30 total for a beverage and a small meal, plus tax and tip.  These are the places I ended up visiting most frequently:

 

  • Pondicheri: anyone who knows me knows how much I love this place. I must have written fully half of my book either upstairs in the bake lab or downstairs in the restaurant (though the latter definitely pushed my affordability window, and they changed their afternoon/evening hours, so I usually only wrote downstairs if I was there for breakfast or brunch).  Both spots boast excellent soundtracks and friendly, welcoming staff who eventually recognized me because I was there all the damn time!  You get one free chai refill, which is very civilized, and the baked goods upstairs are unlike any you can find elsewhere in the city—Indian-inspired flavors with a distinct Houston twist, and none of them are too sweet, which I truly appreciate.  This is also a great place to take friends (see photo above), because they have gluten-free, vegan, and dairy-free offerings.

I recommend: the chai (obvs) – it’s the only chai I’ll pay for in this town –mawa cake (especially if you’re cardamom-obsessed like me) & chocolate-olive oil cake.  Shiv & Jill are big fans of the chocolate-orange brioche buns, which are only available on weekends.  When I bring those home, I am a hero.

 

  • Local Foods: Local (as my students refer to it) has become ubiquitous for good reason – it’s consistently delicious and affordable. I usually ended up at the Village location to write, but we’ve had date nights and a couple of family dinners at the Upper Kirby location.  Their portions are very generous, as are their pours of wine, which this lady appreciates.  It’s the kind of place you can hang around for a while and not feel like you’re in the way, and the menu has enough variety that I could go several weeks in a row and not get bored.  The nightly specials are almost always worth having, and the $5 happy hour wine option is an extra bonus.

I recommend: pork banh mi, Mintade, chicken posole, and when it’s in season, the farro/shrimp salad.  Shiv is obsessed with their homemade potato chips!

 

  • Fellini: this Rice Village spot quickly became a favorite, once I discovered that make an excellent cappuccino. It’s never too crowded, so I was always able to find a table, and when the weather allowed, I could enjoy one of their outdoor patio tables.  Another place with excellent, friendly customer service and their pastry case is a joy to behold.  I would often start my afternoon here and then walk across the street to Local Foods when I wanted to eat dinner, but Fellini offers paninis, salads, and wine if you want to hang around here.

I recommend: mini cannoli, pignoli cookies, and tiramisu if you are feeling particularly decadent.

 

  • Blacksmith: I have a soft spot for Blacksmith, since it’s where Jill & I went immediately after giddily obtaining our marriage license in the summer of 2015. Once the barista learned the reason behind our flushed grins, she insisted that our order was on the house and put double hearts in the foam of my flat white.  Of course I’m going to be a loyal patron after that!  Because of their hours, I only visited here on days when we had some sort of early dismissal from school, or I would put an hour or so here before heading across the street to Mala Sichuan (see below).  Great music and people watching; one of the few places where Montrose still feels relatively Montrose-y.

I recommend: biscuit with marmalade and jam – I am a good biscuit maker myself, and this is the only biscuit I pay money for.  Also, if they have donuts, get one.  Shiv recommends the hot chocolate, with a plain croissant for dipping.

 

  • Mala Sichuan: while it may seem an unusual choice for a writing spot, the nice folks at the Montrose location were always very accommodating of my laptop + chopsticks set-up. Sometimes this girl just needs some SPICY FOOD in her life, and Mala does the trick.  I could get myself a nice glass of white wine, fill my spice craving, and end up with plenty of leftovers to take home (which Jill always appreciated).  On a purely aesthetic note, the restaurant’s interior is killer – lined with dark wood and featuring a gorgeous, two-story mural that covers an entire wall.

I recommend: red oil dumplings, dan dan noodles, mapo tofu, sautéed baby bok choy

 

  • Huynh: I’ve long loved this cozy, family-run restaurant. They’re exceptionally friendly, affordable, and consistent.  Because I would get there early, they’d often seat me in a booth, giving me plenty of room to spread out.  This is another place where I’d end up with leftovers to take home, always a bonus.

I recommend: the aforementioned #86 coconut curry tofu, with broccoli added.  I usually order a pot of jasmine tea on the side—perfection.

 

  • Siphon: this Montrose spot can get crowded, but it’s the kind of place where everyone has set up shop to work and is nice about sharing plugs, juggling space and chairs, etc. I like patronizing this business because they buy cajeta from our friends Lisa & Christian, and carry our friend Becky’s baked goods in their case.  And every barista I’ve ever had here takes pains to make sure they know how to pronounce my name before calling it aloud, which may seem like a small thing, but IT IS NOT.

I recommend: the empanadas here are excellent – really flaky and filling, they come with a really good-and-garlicky chimicurri sauce for dipping; add a house salad and you’ve got a light meal.

 

  • Paulie’s: this restaurant gets great light, which is not a requirement, but is definitely a bonus. They also serve both coffee drinks and wine, and also have a great tea selection, something too many restaurants neglect altogether.  Given my timing, I often found myself eating with older couples or families with young kids, but the restaurant is big enough that I could always spread out and find myself a table.

I recommend: the shrimp BLT, and the eggplant parmesan when they have.  Also, I am not usually an iced sugar cookie person, but the shortbread cookies here are famous for a reason – they are as delicious as they are adorable.  The staff is also great to work with if you want to place a custom cookie order; the cookies they did for my friend Megan’s bachelorette weekend were a huge hit!

 

DATE NIGHT SPOTS:

Some of these include places I/we have taken my mom, or are more like “date afternoon” spots, as Jill and I have discovered that happy hours can make our date outings more affordable.  And some of these choices are quirky/unconventional, but hey, we are people who visited the National Museum of Funeral History for our 16th anniversary.    

 

  • Coltivare: this is a splurge spot for us, but so worth it. What I love about this place is how the ingredients truly are treated with respect and allowed to shine – I’ll often eat something here and think How did they make ___________ taste like that?  If the weather is nice, sit outside and enjoy a view of the lovely garden with one of their distinctive and delicious cocktails.  Their pizzas are also fantastic, and many times Shiv and I would call in a to-go order (which you pick up by knocking on a side door, which feels SUPER sketch) and take the pizzas to my friend Megan’s house, meeting her after work for a different kind of date night!

 

  • Helen Greek Food & Wine: another worthy splurge, I absolutely love the aesthetic of the Village location’s interior – it reminds me of a New York restaurant, which I personally find charming. I appreciate that the menu is limited – they do a few things, and they do them really, really well.  Because of their vegetarian offerings, I’ve brought my mom here as well.  I adore their meatballs, and the loukoumades are like the best doughnuts holes you’ve ever had in your entire life.  The wait staff is super-knowledgeable and will help you navigate the all-Greek wine list, which results in fun discoveries.

 

  • Hugo’s: this is a family favorite, particularly because they have an entirely separate vegetarian menu for my mom to order from. I rarely end up ordering an entrée, because their small plates are so interesting and a wonderful way to try and share a bunch of things.  Funny story—my mom and I have had a subscription to the Alley Theatre here for the last several years, and only once have we ever walked out of a show at intermission.  We decided to go to the bar at Hugo’s instead!  If you find yourself in the same position and it’s the right season, order a blackberry mojito.  You won’t be sorry.

 

  • State of Grace: we haven’t been here as often as I’d like, but the few meals we’ve had have been so memorably delicious that I had to mention it. This is another restaurant whose interior transports me—in this case, to New Orleans.  They carry an amazing oyster selection, which Jill and I appreciate because we are raw oyster people, and their bread service is probably my second-favorite to the aforementioned, bread service at Haven, which is now long-gone.  I also recommend State of Grace’s Sunday Supper, which is ridiculously affordable for the amount of food it offers—a really nice way to celebrate a special occasion.

 

  • Night Heron: I lived literally one block away from this location in college, back when it housed Café Artiste; my house-mates and I used to walk over in our pajamas and bring our own coffee mugs. Now, it’s hard to recognize this swank-but-not-pretentious spot with its bright-red patio umbrellas and international music soundtrack.  Jill and I found the happy hour here fed us well for a very reasonable price, and we both loved the frosé, which is super-refreshing and a perfect balance of tart & sweet.  Also: get the crispy potatoes.

 

  • LA Crawfish: we love crawfish. For the past few years, our Valentine’s Day date has been pounds of crawfish plus BYOB champagne at the LA Crawfish location near our house; we also take our dear friend Courtney here when she’s visiting, as she left Houston for places where crawfish is not a thing.  (We are, I now realize, doing the same.  )  Our friend Christian tipped us off to the garlic noodles, which are addictive, and I like the crawfish fried rice doused in hot sauce.

 

  • Kata Robata: we have a long history with this place. When Jill was being treated at MD Anderson, there were very few decent food options nearby (this was pre-Rice Village revitalization).  If you’ve ever spent a lot of time in the hospital, you know that simple things like a nice restaurant and sunlight can go a long way, so we several times found ourselves at Kata for lunch.  Though dinner here can get very expensive, lunch is super affordable; they have bento box specials, sushi specials, and DELICIOUS ramen.  That ramen was my comfort food while Jill was sick, and the day that we learned Jill wouldn’t have to do radiation, we went straight to Kata and sat on the back patio to celebrate.

More recently, we’ve hit up Kata’s super-generous happy hour, which allows us to fill ourselves up and splurge, but not too much.  This is where we introduced Shiv to sushi, which was maybe a mistake.  He’s also a big fan of the salmon carpaccio, and we all love the fried fish collars.

 

  • 100% Taquito: Jill and I go way back with this place, and we recently returned for old time’s sake and I was reminded that their guacamole is my favorite version, outside of my own. Jill loves their elotes, Mexican-style corn off the cob, with crema, chili powder, and lime, and I have many fond memories of their tortas serving as a cheap college dinner.  Also a fan of the shrimp sopes, and the frozen margarita is solid, and comes in a not-small cup!  We did some World Cup watching here the other day, and the atmosphere was so fun.

 

  • 13 Celsius: I love, love, love this wine bar so much.  It manages to be intimate and feel special without being snobby or pretentious, as I find most wine bars are.  The staff are knowledgable and always happy to recommend something based on my clumsy attempts to talk in wine-language, and Jill and I find that some wine and a cheese plate is a wonderful satisfying combination to fuel conversation or just quiet time together on the sweet back patio.  Also, they have half-off bottles on Sundays, which is the perfect excuse to get together with a couple of friends and day drink.

 

FAMILY FAVORITES:

Though I’m excited to explore new restaurants in Phoenix, one of the things that I’ll miss is having a list of reliable restaurants where I know everyone in our family will enjoy eating.  We are lucky to be in the position where eating out a few times a month is feasible, but a restaurant meal for 3 or 4 is expensive enough that we tend to return to the places we know we can count on.  These are our tried-and-true:

 

  • Dolce Vita: beloved by all, our family has spent much time in this remodeled house and on its patio. From the crazy-good pizzas to the delicious vegetable sides (we especially love the beets), this is the place where Shiv ate mussels for the first time, and once ate as much food on his own as Jill and I did combined!  Our favorite pizzas are the Margherita, Siciliana, Romana, & Melanzane.

 

  • Fluff Bake Bar: owned by our awesome friend Rebecca Masson, this midtown spot is one that Shiv will often request when offered the opportunity to have a special treat. It’s become a tradition to head here after attending performances downtown, or to fuel up at one of the Saturday morning bake sales before heading downtown for a protest.  Shiv swears by the birthday cake, while I love Becky’s financiers and black-and-white cookies.  We usually take a peanut butter cookie home for Jill!  Bonus: parents can get coffee drinks OR beer/wine drinks here, plus there’s a courtyard in the back for running off sugar!

 

  • Giacomo’s: one of the first restaurants we ever took Shiv to, he just appropriately requested it for his sixth birthday dinner. We love everything about this cozy spot, from the friendly staff (who remember Shiv and make him feel special) to the affordable bottles of wine to the favorite small plates that we look forward to ordering: gnocchi alla Romana, eggplant involtini, gamberi al diavolo, ratatouille, mozzarella in carrozza.  All of the pastas are divine, but our favorites are the tortelli di bioleta (Jill’s favorite), cavatappi al cinque formaggi (Shiv’s favorite), and the paccheri pucchini (my favorite).  We’ve always finish off our meal with scoops of gelato, and an affogato for Jill.

 

  • Good Dog: I wouldn’t have expected this to become one of our favorite spots, but with two locations close to great Houston parks (Heights location/Donovan Park; Montrose location/Levy Park), we end up here often. It’s kid friendly (coloring sheets and crayons) but also grownup-friendly (great beer selection), and the food is consistently great.  The irony is that we actually never order hot dogs here!  Shiv’s obsessed with their tomato soup, which comes with a mini-grilled cheese, and I am always trying something new, from their thoughtfully-composed salads to tasty sandwiches like a fish po-boy or roast beef.  Shiv wishes to recommend their lavender lemonade, while I am a big fan of the mint limeade.  And the Heights location has a resident kitty on the patio!

 

  • Morningstar: it’s probably best that we live nowhere near this place, because their doughnuts are the best I’ve ever had.  I am not even a doughnut person, but I crave their sea salt & olive oil doughnut – to me, it is the Platonic ideal of what a doughnut should be.  We have a family tradition, whose origins are somewhat indeterminate, of buying Morningstar doughnuts when we an out-of-town visitor arrives or when a family member comes back into town – an opportunity for celebration, I guess.  I’ve also enjoyed doing writing here a few times, and their shaken beef salad is delicious!

 

  • Pico’s: another restaurant that Shiv has been frequenting since a young age, all four of us enjoy dinner here, and have our standard orders: my mom gets cheese & onion enchiladas, Shiv gets the same, but kid size, I order shrimp Tampico, and Jill gets the ceviche. (We can also recommend the spinach quesadillas, smoked salmon quesadillas, chiles en nogada, & cochinita pibil.)  We order guacamole for the table, and then Shiv proceeds to eat basically all of it.  With a spoon.  Since he could sit up in a high chair.  I adore the house salsa, and their Perfect Margarita (which comes it its own shaker) really is perfect.  Shiv would like to add that there are musicians who play inside the restaurant, starting around 6 pm, which is part of why Shiv loves this place so much.

SUMMER FOOD FAVORITES

One of the things I love about summer is the time it affords me in my kitchen; it’s ironic, I guess, that while everyone else is “20 no-cook recipes for summer!,” I’m all about spending full days working my stove, oven, & stand mixer, filling the fridge and freezers and showing up to friends’ houses with pies, cobblers, cakes, and jars of granola (this recipe is still my favorite).

 

But this summer is different.  While I’m still spending a lot of time cooking, my aim is now to empty the fridges and freezers (yes, plural—we have a house fridge, a garage fridge, & a fridge-sized deep freezer).  I really, really hate food waste, so I have been cooking what we have and either eating it ourselves or gifting it to others; I’ve only got a few weeks before two out of those three fridges & freezers need to be emptied and thawed…

 

I quite enjoy this kind of cooking—it’s improvisational, creative, and a little bit scrappy.  The results are sometimes a little strange, but luckily my family isn’t picky.  My only chagrin comes from the fact that there is a whole slew of summer favorites that I probably won’t have the chance to make this time around, as I have sworn to keep grocery store trips to the absolute essentials.  Therefore, I thought I might share some of the recipes that I would be cooking if the circumstances were different; I can’t, but you can!  I hope you’ll try one or two, and please do let me know how they turn out.

 

SWEET THINGS:

One of the best things about summer is that the fruit is so gorgeous, it needs little by way of accompaniment.  But if you want something a little more formal than a bowl of cherries or wedges of watermelon, simple fruit cakes are my recommendation.  Here are some favorites:

 

-Have you ever roasted strawberries?  It’s so easy and they get really jammy and concentrated in flavor, perfect for adding into things.  Hull and quarter them (or halve them if they’re small), then toss with a little bit of lemon juice & sugar (for a pound of berries, I’d say 2 T sugar & 1 T juice).  Roast on a parchment-lined baking sheet (that part is essential, otherwise you will have a HUGE mess) at 400 F for 15-20 minutes.

Use your roasted strawberries in this simple cornmeal cake from Domenica Cooks or for this delicious, dairy-free coconut ice cream from Sprouted Kitchen.

 

-Shiv and I are both nuts for summer stone fruit: peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums.  Since we always have them on hand, they’re an easy go-to for dessert; you can mix and match fruits, so you don’t have to have a certain quantity of any one kind.

I made this stone fruit tea cake (recipe from Hummingbird High) just last night and served it with some brown sugar whipped cream – it’s an unusual recipe in that it has a bottom layer, gets filled with fruit, and then topped with more dough, but the dough requires no rolling and is perfect for someone who is intimidated by pie.  Just note that the dough requires 30 minutes in the freezer before you can assemble the cake.

 

 

FEEDING GUESTS:

Summer is a grazing season – no one wants a heavy main course—so I tend to think of dinner more tapas or small plates style, setting out olives, cheese, and some cured meats along with one or two homemade dishes, preferably those I can make ahead.  Here are my go-tos:

 

-I’ve raved about Saltie’s Focaccia before, but if you haven’t listened to me before, please make this now.   There’s no kneading, you make the dough ahead of time, and it yields a huge quantity.  Oh, and it’s DELICIOUS.  Think of it as the perfect cornerstone for a summer spread and build from there.

 

-There is a jar of these pickled shrimp (recipe adapted from Saveur) in my refrigerator right now; I splurged on some fresh-caught Gulf beauties a few weeks ago, because I know we won’t be getting them in Arizona like we do here.  You can make these several days in advance, if you like, and honestly the most labor-intensive part is peeling & deveining the shrimp, so if you want to pay extra, you can get that out of the way from the get-go.

 

-Should you end up with a surfeit of zucchini in your garden, or gifted to you from a friend’s garden, I highly recommend this Zucchini alla Scapece (also from Domenica Cooks).  You cut the zucchini into rounds, fry it (no batter or breading required), and then pour a mint-basil dressing on top and let it hang out.  I added capers to my dressing, as part of my clean-out-the-fridge effort, and we loved the tart pop they provided.  These zucchini + that focaccia = yes.

 

-Last but not least is this roasted tomato pasta salad from Smitten Kitchen.  I’ve leaned on this one in the past when we had more cherry/grape tomatoes in the backyard than I knew what to do with (see above picture); roasting them, as with the strawberries, concentrates their flavor and gets rid of excess moisture, making them little flavor bombs in this pasta salad.  With basil, black olives, a salty cheese of your choice, and a garlic-oregano dressing, this pasta salad is worth splurging on the ½ cup of pine nuts it calls for.  If you have a potluck to show up to, I recommend this!