Benign Masochism and Harissa for the Naughty

I really love spicy food. I love the rush of the heat and the thrill of the burn. By the end of a spicy meal, I expect to be a dizzy, fevered and sweaty mess of a human being. Since childhood, I’ve always been partial to strong, bitter and spicy flavors but this preference has grown steadily over my adult life. I think I can pin-point the exact moment when I switched over from “dabbling with spice” to “this boring if I can still feel my tongue”. When I was in Thailand a few years ago, I ordered a green papaya salad because it sounded like a nice, refreshing break from the deliriously spicy meals I’d had there. When it arrived, it made my mouth water just to look at it. The shredded green papaya was mixed with a few vegetables, peanuts and a tasty sauce. Turns out that it also contained a few (dozen?) chilies and was the spiciest dish I’d eaten on that trip.

Harissa splash

I remember the pain distinctly. My mouth and throat burned like hell fire and all orifices on my face were dripping uncontrollably. Possibly bleeding (Well… maybe not). The thing was, I couldn’t manage to stop feeding myself with it. It tasted delicious, and I was actually enjoying the pain of it. Since then, I have become increasingly willing, if not eager, to immerse my senses in the pain of spicy food on a regular basis.

Harissa bowled

Why would I wish to subject myself to this torture intentionally? Do I love pain that much? Doctor Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania theorizes that I, and countless others who share the same pleasure, are benign masochists.


Well, that’s an interesting term. Synonyms of benign are good, kindly, benevolent, tender, humane, gentle and compassionate. Not malignant. NOT disposed to causing harm or suffering. If we look at the meaning of masochism, we discover that it is a condition in which pleasure (notably sexual pleasure) is derived from pain, humiliation or domination. So,… what? I’m a docile pain lover? A gentile who likes naughty time? A humane person who gets a kick out of inhumanity? Kinda confusing. Contradictory, even. But funny!


Hot peppers are all part of the Capsicum family and contain a substance called capsaicin, which is what gives us the burning sensation. Once the pain of capsaicin kicks in, the body releases morphine-like painkillers called endorphins. These pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters are basically nature’s way of making us not hate everything. The same release occurs when exercising. Without endorphins to entice and reward us with good feelings, most of us would probably never do it.

jalapenos 2 

So, if you want to have painfully wonderful day, go for a long run, get out the whips and chains and follow it up by eating some spicy harissa. I made some when I found myself with an excess of various chilies. Harissa is a northern African chili sauce. The recipes for harissa can vary from region to region and the style I made was particular to Morocco. The flavors are delightful and the heat is devilish. Beware. Contents may cause pain… and pleasure.

harissa splash

Spicy Moroccan Harissa


  • 4-5 chilies (I mostly used jalapenos, but any will do)
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 lime


Blend all ingredients until it forms a paste. Spread onto toast with butter or pesto. Or add a dab to your rice. Or eat it with everything, like I do.

Where Cabbage is Concerned…

…size does matter.

Cabbage kiss

This beautiful Brassica came from the Abode farm. We’ve formed a little bit of a love affair, the cabbage and I.

He is such a man. He opens doors for me and he pays for my dinner. He’s got so much green he practically gives it away. As you can see, we are a very affectionate couple.

Last night was a big night for us. First, I quartered him and shredded him with a knife and then I put him in a bowl. Then I added some shredded carrots, chopped onions and parsley to said bowl. Oh, how hearty did we party.

Slaw ingredients

Next, I felt we really needed to grease things up, so I splashed in some balsamic glaze along with sesame and olive oil. Things were getting crazy.

Of course, we couldn’t go further without the added excitement of salt, black pepper, cumin, paprika and dijon mustard. We considered inviting mayonnaise (we have a bit of a dependency) but decided to go without.

Light coleslaw

After shouting out his name a few times, my lovely cabbage and I made beautiful coleslaw together. What a night.

Light Coleslaw


    • A Brassica of your own (cabbage), shredded
    • 1-2 Shredded carrot
    • Chopped parsley
    • Chopped onion
    • Balsamic vinegar glaze
    • Sesame oil
    • Olive oil
    • Salt
    • Black pepper
    • Cumin powder
    • Paprika
    • Dijon mustard


Mix all ingredients to taste.

All spices (including dijon) should be about ½ tsp, but you should adjust according to preference.


Use a more flamboyant purple cabbage, instead of green.

Lemon or apple cider vinegar could be used instead of balsamic.

Stone ground mustard is lighter than dijon, so if you’re a bit squeamish when mustard is involved, it could be a good replacement.

Mayonnaise. Do it.

The Short Reign of the Zataar Tomato and Balsamic Reduction with Mushrooms

Happy Fall everyone! Fall in New England is glorious. It’s been years since I’ve experienced autumn in New York and I’m feeling very lucky to be here now. I like when things change, even if I’m not really ready for it. Part of me misses summer already, but part of me is ready to get snuggled up with winter.

Balsamic Zataar reduction

Making this zataar tomato and balsamic reduction with mushrooms gave me a real cozy feeling. It brought many different flavors together and filled my kitchen with a sweet and warm smell. Making a reduction is easy and very satisfying. It is done by rapidly boiling a liquid in an uncovered saucepan. Keeping it uncovered is important, that way the vapors escape thus thickening the liquid and intensifying the flavor. Sauces, glazes and gravies are traditionally made this way.

Zataar is a Middle Eastern mixture of dried savory herbs, sesame seeds and salt. It’s typically sprinkled on top of hummus or mixed with olive oil as a dip for bread. The very cheap zataar shop I went to in Montreal during my university years pretty much saved my life, so I have fond associations with zataar. There I would get a flatbread covered with zataar and filled with vegetables and yummy sauce.

Balsamic Zataar reduction
Savory, I had, but this reduction needed some sweetness. Tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and a pinch of sugar stepped up for the challenge, and boy did they work it out.
It’s got a slightly sweet and tangy flavor making it a perfect accompaniment to savory or meaty foods. Being a reduction sauce, it is rather bold. It has it’s own ideas about life and where it belongs. It much prefers being placed loftily atop a piece of meat or a bed of couscous than trivialized by many other flavors. It will not be eclipsed and will happily sabotage your meal if you try anything funny. Somehow, I survived my first attempt at using this reduction in a soup (but just barely). The soup was a hearty blended thing that was nice and mild on it’s own, and needed an extra kick to be interesting. I should’ve known better. The reduction does not accept such insolence. The soup was ruined. It was too complex and in the end my taste buds were retching.

Respect. That’s all the reduction wants. To be recognized for the zing that it brings to a meal. All it asks is to be complimented for complimenting so well. So, respect it received.  On top of beef burger it went, as if it were on a meaty throne. The reduction reigned mightily… also briefly as I ate it.

Zataar Tomato and Balsamic Reduction with Mushrooms


  • 1 large (or 2 medium) tomato, chopped
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ½ cup chopped yellow onions
  • ½ cup sliced mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp zataar
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • pinch of pepper


Heat a saucepan on medium high heat and add some cooking oil.

Lightly brown the onions. Then add the tomato, vinegar, sugar and spices.

Once simmering, add the mushrooms.

Reduce heat to medium low when the mushrooms have released their juices (you will know that this has happened when suddenly it looks more like a sauce).

Let the sauce simmer uncovered for 20 minutes.

Eat and love.

Dark Party

Inspired by the restaurant O.Noir, where one can dine in complete darkness while being waited on by blind servers, I decided to have a party thrown completely in the dark (rightly named Dark Party) about 5 or 6 years ago when I was living in Montreal. Eating is such a sensory experience, and all too often our response to food is overly influenced by sight. Well, this party was meant to challenge that.

I had such an intriguing and giddy experience at O.Noir. When entering the restaurant’s dimly lit lobby, my friends and I ordered our meals, paid in advance and left our bags in a locker. Once our table was ready, our blind server led us into the pitch black dining area. My party and I instantly felt uncomfortable with walking for the fear of falling or hurting ourselves, but had complete faith in our server to lead us to our table. Once seated, we relaxed and had loads of fun. Unable to use our eyes, we automatically just kept them closed and let our other senses take control. We marveled about how interesting it was to watch our sense of smell, taste and touch fill in the space to take over for our lack of sight. I ate with my fingers (by choice) because I felt the need to inspect everything. Also, it was fun trying to identify the ingredients.

Since I’m such an experience junkie, I just had to try this in my own home.

What a proper Dark Party looks like.

The Space:

To begin, decide which areas you’d like your guests to have access to and make the rest of your living space off limits for the evening. Remove fragile or sharp obstacles out of the way; anything that is difficult to maneuver around would be best removed.

Get to know your dining area well: Count the steps of the paths you will need to take ahead of time.Window cover

Door plugUse blankets, heavy cloth or black garbage bags to cover windows, plug cracks around doors to remove as much light from your dining space as possible. Test it out ahead of time. If you can see your hand in front of your face, then it isn’t dark enough. To get the full effect, it would be best if the space were pitch black.

Plan to have a candle or flashlight in your prep area so you can assemble individual plates or platters and one in your bathroom, but make sure the light can’t be seen from the dining area. If you cook all the food yourself, do what you can to have everything prepared, divided and easily distributable before your guests arrive. If you decide to have a potlatch, you’ll be thankful for a small light to help you with assembling as your guests (and the food) arrive.

Inform your guests that they have a time frame of 20 minutes or so to make it to the party. After that, the doors will be closed. Once the lights turn off, they need to stay off. Prepare for any situation you can think of so you don’t have to turn on the lights, therefore enabling the full effect.

The Food:

Find out what foods your guests are allergic to and/or despise and make sure they aren’t on the menu. Map out how many courses you will have and how/when they will be served. Try to have an assortment of flavors and textures to keep your guests guessing and excited. Make sure there are plenty of napkins available, because messy it will get. When collecting plates (recommended between courses) be clear with your guests on whether or not they should keep their silverware.

Prepare an individual portion for each of your guests. For those choosing to have a potlatch, be specific with what dish your guests should bring and how many portions.

Here we are playing pin the tail on the donkey

One mistake I made that I feel is important to note is: don’t forget that your guests can’t see. They have no idea of what is going on, so when you serve your courses, make sure to be extremely clear with what is going on. This will include a lot of talking and explaining on your part.

Examples: “Pass your plates and spoons to the left, but leave your fork.”

“This plate can be passed to Bob.”

“Take one item from this plate and pass it on.”

This clarity was slightly lacking at my Dark Party and created a bit of chaos. My first course was an appetizer that everyone was supposed to take from a plate and pass around. When it came time for the main, guests were to have their own plate but I forgot to explain that well enough. As the main plates were being passed, everyone thought they were supposed to take one thing from that plate. So my guests all ended up with bits of food and no plates. Woops! It was still fun.

Avoid this food: Soup, rice, sticky, syrupy, greasy stuff. You’ll be cleaning for days. No one wants that.

Make this food: wraps, sushi or maki rolls, whole pieces of meat (steak, chicken breast), finger foods and food pockets (samosas, empanadas, pasties, pie pockets, burritos, etc…).

There are many ways to make a Dark Party a memorable night. You’ll probably always look back on it as a night you challenged your senses, bumped into things, made a mess and snuck in some naughty behavior because no one could see you. Ahem.Rice paper wrap

Here are some nice, tidy rice paper wraps that I served for my Dark Party.

Rice Paper Wraps

Rice paper wrap ingredients


  • Spring roll rice paper wraps
  • Rice noodle vermicelli (cooked and drained)
  • One small carrot (julienned)
  • Cucumber (julienned)
  • Avocado (julienned)
  • Squash (summer or winter, previously cooked and julienned)
  • A protein (shrimp, tuna or chicken would work best)
  • Tamari or spicy peanut sauce or any dips or sauces you like, really


NOTE: Prepare all of the fillings BEFORE you wet the wraps.

Rice paper dip

Once you have everything you want to put in the wrap prepared, take a large bowl and fill it with warm water. Take one (or two for a stronger wrap) and dip it in the water ensuring all parts get wet. TIP: The wrap will continue to soften after you take it out of the water, so take it out while it is still stiff. If you leave it in too long, the strength of the wrap will be compromised and it will most likely fall apart.


Place the wrap on a plate. In the center, put the ingredients of your choice in small rows. Do not overfill.

Rice paper wrap 2

Carefully pull up the sides of the rice paper and fold inward.

Rice paper wrap 3

Then pull the back over.

Rice paper wrap 4

Tuck any flyaway ingredients back in the center and roll the whole thing towards the front completing the wrap.

Rice paper wrap cut

Dip in your favorite sauce and eat

Roasted Beetroot and The Bridge to Nowhere

Beet Patterns

Habits. Habits are everywhere. You and I are hopelessly bound to them. We cannot resist them. We take comfort in the ritual of them. We admonish the addiction of them. It’s a love/hate sort of relationship we have with habits.

Year after year, time and time again we do the same things over and over. If someone showed me a chart of my life (they’d be revealing their creepy hobby of charting other people’s lives) I’d be pretty horrified to see which activities I spend most of my time doing (cute animals + YouTube = irresistible). Even still, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into change and growth, or at least, I think I have. It feels important to me to not get stuck in life. Actually, it scares the pants off me to look back on my life and feel like nothing’s changed.

B&W beets

Now, I think most would agree when I say that habits and behavior related to family are the worst. No matter how much I think I’ve grown up and changed, I always turn into the misunderstood bratty teenager around my family. I sit and watch myself go from (relatively) logical to utterly irrational. Fully aware of what is happening, I’m somehow incapable of preventing my transformation to She-Hulk.

Bridge to Nowhere

Last weekend, my brother, sister-in-law and a few family friends came to celebrate my new nephew’s naming ceremony. Baby Amos Ramana was, in part, named after my late father who passed tragically just last year.  I was moved to tears when my father’s memory was honored during the ceremony, which was short and sweet, but the festivities that followed were full of celebratory vibes. The weekend itself was stressful. So many family members falling into their old patterns and habits created enough anxiety for all to share. The next day, we all walked up Mount Lebanon to the retreat area. Our destination was The Bridge to Nowhere, a short, suspended bridge that leads….well, to nowhere. It ends abruptly in mid air and the walker is forced to a shaky stop. The idea behind the bridge is reflective. “You can go no further. Either stop, or find another way” is what goes on in my head when I am on that bridge. And so, I must find another way.

bridge feet

Taking family for granted is a bad habit of mine. I have come to realize that I cannot afford to do that anymore. Things don’t always end up the way I think they will and my family won’t always be around for me to finally work out my issues. So, I’ve gotta just suck it up and find another way around my habits. Change my patterns.

Roasted beets

Beets are the inspiration behind this post. They are very plentiful right now, so I’ve spent a lot of time looking at and preparing them. Their patterns are insightful. I am trying to let the wisdom of beets guide me through this challenging journey. I made some very simple and simply delicious roasted beetroots. Do enjoy.

roasted beets up close

Roasted Beetroot Fries


  • 3-4 of your favorite sort of beets
  • Cooking oil
  • ½ tsp coriander powder
  • ½ tsp ginger powder
  • ½ tsp allspice
  • ½ tsp cumin seeds
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  • Preheat oven at 400ºF/200ºC/Gas mark 6. Cut the ends off the beets and peel them. Slice the beets into chunky wedges and place in a large bowl.
  • Add cooking oil and all the spices.
  • Mix with your hands (it works best) making sure that the oil and spices are evenly distributed.
  • Spread the wedges on baking sheets or pans. TIP: If you want your fries to get crispy (recommended!), give them plenty of space. If beets are too crowded they will release juices and start to get soggy. This may require the use of several pans.
  • Bake for 30-45 minutes (convection ovens will take less time).
  • When they are crispy on the edges and soft to the touch take them out.

Back to Basics and Arugula

I have recently returned (from where will have to wait for multiple other posts) to the place of my birth, a spiritual Sufi community called the Abode of the Message in the Berkshires of upstate New York. Though I wasn’t raised here, it is a place where I have spent a lot of time and have grown to have a strong connection with. The Abode is a converted old Shaker Village with beautiful buildings, some of which are as old as 265 years.

Fatah at the Abode

It is a very peaceful (when the bugs aren’t attacking) and quaint sort of place.

About 37 years ago, it was bought by a group of hippies who needed a space to meditate and be self-sufficient. The Abode turned out to be the perfect spot for their needs. Belle, the lovely draft horse plows the organic farm.

Fatah at the Abode red barnBelle

The farm produces food for the community and its events.The Abode Farm

The herb garden is where herbs, spices and edible flowers are grown.The Herb Garden at the Abode

Herbs are harvested, dried and stored in the apothecary for remedies and teas.The Abode Apothocary

And then there’s the kitchen… oh, the kitchen. So many warm memories of my time at The Abode have been spent making food in this kitchen.The Abode Kitchen

It is well stocked and well-loved.Big woks in the kitchen

With its large convection oven, massive woks and high heat candy cooker, the kitchen combines the efficiency of a commercial kitchen with the cozy realness of grandma’s country home.Spice Jars

Original brick façade exposed, warm wood counters and the beauty of old Shaker construction, the Abode kitchen oozes history from its very pores.The kitchen at the Abode

I often wonder what meals this kitchen has seen. What failures and successes have been cooked here? How was the food spiced when my parents were doing the cooking? What methods did the Shakers use?  What has been the largest number of people served here? There are probably ways to find answers, but I don’t think I’d be satisfied with them. Some queries are best left to wonder about.Little woks and iron skillets

Because the reality of this place is entwined with memories from my childhood, I never quite got over my sense of awe. The buildings are old and creaky, there are unused things from previous residents stored all over the property and awesomely creepy cellars in just about every building.creepy basement

I have mixed feelings about being back (the open road calls me constantly), temporary as my stay here will be, but it’s certainly a great place to explore cookery.  And here I am, just in time for harvest season. So many cooking opportunities, so little time.

Here’s a simple summer salad fresh picked from the garden:

Baby Arugula Mixed Salad

Salad Ingredients

  • arugula
  • carrots
  • cucumber
  • celery
  • black and/or green olives
  • roasted almonds pieces

Vinaigrette Ingredients

  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of sesame oil


Wash, slice, mix and enjoy ingredientsArugula salad