October 25, 2012

Fall in Upstate California: Homemade Masala Chai

I tasted my first pomegranate of the season this morning.  A few weeks ago I tasted my first fuji apple of the season (from Howard's Organic Produce), and most evenings this week the girls and I have shared slices of Asian pears.  This is why I love eating local.  The pleasure of those first tastes of the season are inexplicably pure and intense.

And fall, of course, is all about plump, leathery-skinned pomegranates, the spicy notes of a crisp persimmon, the home-creating smell of pumpkin bread in the oven, and hand-warming drinks to fight off the chill of the morning.


I went to S&S Produce yesterday.  I like that store.  When I was a kid and my family wasn't much into 'natural foods,' and the building was old and drafty with the feeling that it might fall into Lindo Channel on a windy day, I liked going there and getting coconut popsicles.  Nowadays, I like that they are are locally-owned and sell a good selection of local produce.  I like that they have a real meat and seafood counter (where my cousin works!), and that they have grass-fed beef and organic pork in their freezer. I appreciate that their bulk foods section is neat and tidy and well-stocked with local Lundberg rice, all kinds of local nuts, beans and treats, such as those addictive dried mangoes.  But perhaps the thing I like most is that little nook in the back where they sell the bulk herbs and spices.  They seem to stock every herb or spice blend that I have ever needed (hello, whole cardamom pods, ground cardamom and cardamom seed) and it's very practical to be able to buy just the amount that you need.  They even stock multiple sizes of baggies and multiple measuring units so that you don't have to eyeball proportions.  If I've got a new Indian recipe that calls for 2 tablespoons of garam masala, I can easily measure out just the two 2 tablespoons, and not be left with a bag of powdery what-was-that-stuff? taking up space in my already-crowded spice drawer. 

Yesterday I went to S&S specifically to restock my spices for Masala Chai making.  I was craving the camaraderie of standing at that counter measuring spices into little baggies with another similarly-minded person: someone who's excited to try a new recipe, or who is stocking up on all their favorite spices, someone who cares about where their food comes from and has a real reverence for quality and an enjoyment in the process of creating something delicious.  I'm not the kind of person who makes friends in grocery stores or easily starts up a conversation with someone, well, about anything.  But there's something special about that spice counter and all the wonderful aromas that fill the air when multiple jars are being opened and sniffed and measured.  Engaging in pleasant conversation with a stranger flows naturally---"Ooh, what are you going to use that for?" "Do you know which one of these chile powders would spicier?" and "That's an amazing smell!"---when passing back and forth the containers of ground cumin, fennel seeds, coriander, and ancho chile powder.

I've been making my own homemade chai for 15 years.  My favorite recipe is essentially this one, without the star anise and rose petals.  The fennel seed, which is an ingredient I wasn't familiar with until I found this recipe, adds a certain licorice-y depth to the blend without overpowering it.  I tend to use equal parts water and whole milk and sweeten the brew with two tablespoons sugar in the beginning (with the water, tea and spices) and one tablespoon honey stirred in right before straining.


Looking for a fun weekend morning breakfast that says "I love you" to someone special?

I know I've mentioned this combination before, but it is certainly worthy of a second mention:  David Lebovitz's Sugar-Crusted Popovers served with Masala Chai.