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Feature Story: A World of Comfort

How to serve up simple international foods like the pros.

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Appetizers and Wine

Nora Hickey knew that food was a passion by high school, when she prepared coq au vin for a French class project. It's been high-speed toward a restaurant career ever since, and now she's presiding over the stove at Helen's and gaining a name for her rich comfort-food dishes and her maverick style.

A self-described loner, Hickey says she also loves to entertain and can do a dinner party for eight in her Fan district apartment with ease, but she prefers a larger gathering that's more informal. "I like lighter fare so that people can be up and socializing at the same time," she says, "and where hors d'oeuvres can be passed around."

Hosts should always choose recipes that can be prepared mostly ahead of time, she says, so there's freedom to garnish platters, pour wine and mingle instead of standing over the stove. For this assignment, she considered making a pork and poached pear crepe, but decided instead to whip up a foie gras and pistachio bread pudding. Hickey suggests a not-too-dry pinot noir to complement the luxuriously hearty dish.



Appetizers and Wine

Nora Hickey knew that food was a passion by high school, when she prepared coq au vin for a French class project. It's been high-speed toward a restaurant career ever since, and now she's presiding over the stove at Helen's and gaining a name for her rich comfort-food dishes and her maverick style.

A self-described loner, Hickey says she also loves to entertain and can do a dinner party for eight in her Fan district apartment with ease, but she prefers a larger gathering that's more informal. "I like lighter fare so that people can be up and socializing at the same time," she says, "and where hors d'oeuvres can be passed around."

Hosts should always choose recipes that can be prepared mostly ahead of time, she says, so there's freedom to garnish platters, pour wine and mingle instead of standing over the stove. For this assignment, she considered making a pork and poached pear crepe, but decided instead to whip up a foie gras and pistachio bread pudding. Hickey suggests a not-too-dry pinot noir to complement the luxuriously hearty dish.



Foie Gras and Pistachio Bread Pudding

1/2 loaf French bread, cubed

1 cup pistachios

8 ounces foie gras, diced

1 sprig each of rosemary, sage, thyme and basil, chopped (or, if using dry herbs, 1 Tablespoon of each)

2 cups heavy cream

2/3 cup butter

Salt and pepper



Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Toss the bread cubes and pistachios in a mixing bowl, add diced foie gras, chopped herbs and a pinch of salt and pepper. In a saucepan, warm heavy cream and butter. Once butter has dissolved into cream, pour liquid mixture over dry ingredients. Fold mixture until evenly moist. Put into eight individual ramekins or a 9- by 12-inch baking dish and compress with a spoon. Wrap with plastic wrap, and again with aluminum foil. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool a bit before removing foil. Garnish with rosemary sprigs.



A Simple Indian Supper

Nearly every girl in India learns how to cook at a young age, says Bina Mehta. That way, no matter what she eventually does for a living, she can prepare a flavorful meal for her family and carry on the ancient Indian culinary traditions — all without spending more than half an hour in the kitchen each evening.

Bina and Jack Mehta operate the acclaimed India A Simple Indian Supper

Nearly every girl in India learns how to cook at a young age, says Bina Mehta. That way, no matter what she eventually does for a living, she can prepare a flavorful meal for her family and carry on the ancient Indian culinary traditions — all without spending more than half an hour in the kitchen each evening.

Bina and Jack Mehta operate the acclaimed India Garden & Grill restaurant on Midlothian Turnpike, where dishes are wide-ranging and elaborate. At home they demonstrate the basics of family-style cooking with the same exuberance that Rachael Ray does on her television cooking show. But this is not everyday Italian or meat-centric American food. This is a vegetarian meal, liberally spiced, that is familiar to Indian households of many regions, including the Gujarat area outside Mumbai, where the Mehtas were raised.

Bina Mehta is meticulous about storing staples and spices in her Chester kitchen, and she keeps a drawer next to the stove top with her spice bowls filled and ready. These include cumin seed; mustard seed; coriander and cumin powder, mixed; chili powder; turmeric; cinnamon sticks; and cloves.

For the simple Indian supper, she prepares chapati, the puffy flatbread that is the basic bread of Indian households; basmati rice; yellow dal, a split-pea soup that is high in protein; and cauliflower with peas. A spicy green pepper and green chili chutney accents the plate, along with chopped mango pickled with chili powder, salt and oil.

Bina Mehta chants a Sanskrit blessing of thanks before the meal. The chapati, torn into pieces, is used to scoop up vegetables or dip into bowls of dal. Guests complete dinner with Indian tea, followed by a mouth freshener; they chew a small handful of roasted fennel and sesame seeds mixed with chopped saffron. The fragrance lingers as a heady postlude to the meal.



Cauliflower and Peas

Put 1 tablespoon canola oil in large saucepan, add a pinch of mustard seed and cumin seed, and let it simmer until you hear mustard seeds popping. Add 2 cups chopped cauliflower and turmeric and salt to taste. Cover saucepan and simmer. Add chopped tomatoes ("for taste, color and flavor if you like tomatoes," Bina Mehta says), as well as chili powder and coriander/cumin powder mix to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon each), and stir in 1 cup green peas. Cook until heated through, without letting cauliflower get mushy, and garnish with chopped fresh cilantro.



Yellow Dal

In a soup pan, place 1 tablespoon clarified butter and 1 teaspoon each of mustard seed, cumin seed and dried chili. Add 1 cup yellow split peas (also called pigeon peas or yellow lentils) that have been precooked in a pressure cooker until they are the consistency of a paste. Add hing (powdered tree-bark resin also called asafetida) for aroma and flavor. Add 2 cups water and stir. Add salt, turmeric, chili powder, black seed, fresh cilantro and fresh minced ginger to taste, about 1/2 teaspoon each. Serve with cooked basmati rice and garnish with fresh cilantro.



Chapati

In a bowl, combine 2 cups wheat flour with 1 tablespoon canola oil and 1 cup warm water, and work the dough until it is moist and firm. Add water and a bit more oil as needed. Pinch into balls. Roll out dough into flat circles. Cook in flat pan on medium heat on stovetop, transfer when lightly browned to another pan, cookie sheet or grill on second burner to puff up. Brush with clarified butter and serve immediately.



Shopping in Ethnic Markets

If you're confused about unusual ingredients in a recipe or not sure what to look for when shopping in an ethnic market, a series of guidebooks can help simplify the process and open a new realm of ingredients to your home kitchen.

Kelly Justice, manager of The Fountain Bookstore in Shockoe Slip, recommends these titles as resources that are not only filled with information, but also small enough to take along on shopping trips.



"The Indian Grocery Store Demystified: A food lover's guide to all the best ingredients in the traditional foods of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh," by Linda Bladholm and Neela Paniz (Renaissance Books, 2000).



"The Asian Grocery Store Demystified: A food lover's guide to all the best ingredients," by Linda Bladholm (Renaissance Books, 1999).



"Latin & Caribbean Grocery Stores Demystified: A food lover's guide to the best ingredients in the traditional foods of Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and the Caribbean Islands including Cuba, Puerto Rico & Jamaica," by Linda Bladholm (Renaissance Books, 2001).



"Field Guide to Produce: How to Identify, Select and Prepare Virtually Every Fruit and Vegetable on the Market," by Aliza Green (Quirk Books, 2004)



A Russian Tea Party

Richard and Michelle Price rarely see daylight these days except through the windows of their shop, Cobblestone Bakery Café, in Shockoe Bottom. Their working hours, from before dawn to after sunset, sustain the eight-month-old business and supply some of the city's finest restaurants with breads, cakes, cookies and other specialties.

Michelle does the baking, and Richard runs the cafe's soup-and-sandwich box-lunch business.

When they entertain, which is admittedly a rare thing lately, it usually involves a few beers around the pool table in their Forest Hill Avenue home. But the holidays and special occasions are a chance for Michelle, who's been baking since age 16, to roll out crusts for her French apple pies and make yeast rolls and a sideboard-full of desserts for family and friends. And the couple's wraparound porch provides a gracious outdoor setting for pastries and beverages on their Sundays off.

With these Russian tea cakes, Michelle suggests serving a rich coffee, tea or cider. Because they can be stored for several days, the tea cakes are easy to keep on hand for an impromptu affair. At the bakery, "these sell like mad. People just love them and remember them from their childhoods," she says. "And anyone can make them."



Russian Tea Cakes

1 cup unsalted butter (soft)

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup finely chopped walnuts

3 cups powdered sugar for dusting



Cream butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar and vanilla. Add flour, salt and walnuts to form a soft dough. Roll dough into 1-inch balls and place on baking sheet. Bake cookies at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, remove from oven and roll in powdered sugar. Recoat three times. Store in an airtight container for up to Richard and Michelle Price both worked in local restaurants before opening Cobblestone Bakery Café last year, and they still enjoy sampling each other's creations.



How to Host a Tea Party

Rebecca Lette, former tearoom supervisor at The Jefferson Hotel, says that giving teas "is my calling in life. I feel it's very spiritual, the ritual, as it takes us away from the stress and just refreshens you. It's amazing what tea can do." She directs teas now at Winterham Plantation and offers these ideas for hosting a tea party at home.



1. Choose lovely invitations and be sure guests have adequate time to schedule and respond. For an intimate tea, invite six guests. For a larger gathering, include up to 30.

2. A low tea is served around the coffee or tea table. A buffet tea is served in the dining room, where guests fill cups and plates, and sit in various spots around the parlor, library or garden.

3. Plan to serve three types of tea sandwiches, all cut to finger size. A popular and unexpected selection at Winterham is cheese on cinnamon bread. Scones served with clotted cream, preserves and a selection of small pastries and tarts are traditional menu items, Lette says. Chocolates and fresh fruit are nice additions to the table.

4. Offer two types of tea and steep them in advance so that guests do not handle tea bags. Black tea calls for sugar and lemon; green or white teas are served plain.

5. Use linen napkins and tablecloths to make the occasion special, and always have a flower arrangement as a focal point. Use family china if you have it or your special-occasion cups and plates.

6. "The most important thing is to enjoy your friends," Lette says, "and to relax and let all of these memories dance in your head."



Music to a Guest's Ears

DJ Carlito, otherwise known as Carl Hamm, collects CDs and tapes from around the world for his Sunday-night WRIR 97.3-FM program, "If Music Could Talk." He has an encyclopedic knowledge of — and intense enthusiasm for — international recordings.

Sounds as well as flavors set the stage for a memorable gathering, and when the foods are international, the music should follow suit. Here are Hamm's suggestions for the three types of cuisine we feature in this issue.



With tapas and European appetizers:

Pata Negra, "Blues de La Frontera"; Maria Jimenez, "Donde Mas Duele — Canta Por Sabina"; Joaquin Sabina, "Alivio de Luto"; Gotan Project, a Paris-based electro-tango group, "Revancha Del Tango."



With Indian cuisine:

"You've Stolen My Heart: Songs from R.D. Burman's Bollywood," featuring Asha Bhosle and Kronos Quartet; Talvin Singh, "Back to Mine"; Nitin Sawhney, "Philtre"; Anoushka Shankar, "Rise."



With a Russian tea party:

Fizzarum, a new Russian electronic group (MP3s available through www.fizzarum.com); Ella Leya's "Russian Romance"; and Cinematic Orchestra's "Soundtrack for 'Man With a Movie Camera,'" a Russian film by Dziga Vertov.

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