All month I’ve been pestering Mom for stories. You’d think I was five again. But no. Truth is, we’ve been in closer proximity than usual. She’s recovering from glaucoma surgery, which has eliminated lifting, bending over, or carrying anything heavier than a supper plate. So I am at her house, lifting, bending over, and carrying. It’s amazing how often we do those things without even noticing. Putting on your shoes, for instance. First you bend over to put on your socks. Oh. No, you put your feet up on a chair and call your daughter over to help you. Then you bend over to pick up your favourite shoes. Oh, maybe not. Then you bend over to pull those dogs onto your feet and tie them up. Ooops. You get the picture. Mom is wearing slippers, laughingly threatening to arrange for a private valet permanently.
Mom’s most recent stories have been about winter, and winter holidays. Our family was poor, just another hardworking farm crew, so winter holidays to Cuba were never part of the gig. Prairie winters have always been harsh, and those days, it was even harder with the absence of electricity. In winter, Mom drove old Mart the horse to school in the cutter and unhooked him before turning him into the school’s barn with his halter on, the bridle hanging under her coat in the schoolroom to keep the bit warm. And come the festive season, my grandparents and mom and my auntie and all their local rellies would drive in the cutters to Mrs. Mike’s, my widowed great-grandmother, for turkey dinner. She would cook all day, then sit back with a glass of homemade rhubarb wine while her daughters-in-law cleaned up her leavings in the kitchen.
Like my grandmother and my mom, Mrs. Mike was a very good cook, but nothin’ fancy. Holiday meals were what you’d expect from a prairie cook – roast turkey and root vegetables, mashed potatoes, pie, steamed pudding, fruitcake. Squash never made it onto her holiday table, but carrots, you bet.
Now I love a good turkey or roasted chicken as well as the next hungry woman. But there are times when I think I am a changeling, at least in a culinary sense. I’d rather eat South Asian food than anything else. You know, food featuring those warm high-C spices – cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves. And a vegetable-heavy feast that might include rogan josh (Kashmiri lamb),but for me the heart of the table are the vegetables: dahl (stewed lentils with ginger), chole (curried chickpeas), basmati rice, aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes with tomato and garlic), bartha (smoked pureed eggplant), palak paneer (spinach and fresh cheese), garlic naan (flatbread), and pakoras (vegetable fritters) with cilantro chutney. That’s my last supper right there. My sons have it in writing.
I’ll share those recipes in the coming year. Meanwhile, a lovely way to introduce South Asian flavours is to add an Indian pickle to your table. My favourite is carrot pickle, and in years like this, when I have many pounds of homegrown carrots in my fridge, gifts of homemade carrot pickle are economical and delicious.
In a family committed to homemade gifts, food is often the medium that makes the rounds at our present exchanges. This is a hot-pack pickle that must be refrigerated, so include a note to that effect when you share it, whether at a Diwali, Eid, Kwanzaa, Hannukah, or Christmas feast. However we celebrate the rebirth of life and return from the dark, first we eat.
Store this pickle in the fridge to let the flavours develop and use it to garnish curries, scrambled eggs, roast pork, smoked or roasted salmon, canapés, and grain dishes. Mustard oil adds a distinctively pungent, spicy note. Buy it at South Asian groceries. If you can’t find it, substitute your best extra virgin olive oil.
Makes 1 quart jar
1 lb. carrots, julienned, raw or lightly steamed
1 head garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
ginger root to taste, thinly sliced
1 ½ tsp. kalonji (black onion seed), optional
1 tsp. fenugreek
1 tsp. anise seed
½ tsp. coriander seed
¼ tsp. cumin seed
1 tsp. mustard seed
½ tsp. cracked black peppercorns
2 lemons, juice and zest
½ c. apple cider vinegar
mustard oil as needed
Wash and sterilize the jar. Pack the carrots into the jar, using a pair of chopsticks or skewer to make the job easier. Combine all remaining ingredients except the mustard oil in a small pot and bring to a boil, then pour over the carrots. Top up with oil so that all the carrots are covered, then put on a snug lid and refrigerate for several weeks before using.