The Girl in the Garden

You haven’t heard of Kamala Nair, but you will.


She just sold her debut novel for six figures to Grand Central Publishing. The folks there are either incredibly lucky or insanely smart – or both – because The Girl in the Garden is going to be huge.  I was lucky to read it for the first time several months ago because (full disclaimer!) the author is my best friend.  I started it just before bed, planning to do some nice sleepy reading for a few chapters, then go to sleep and finish it later.  I had to be up in the morning fairly early, and I was tired.  Well: two hours later I looked at the clock and realized it was really late and I’d better go to bed ASAP to have any chance at a functional tomorrow – and I still could NOT put it down!  I read until it was done because I absolutely could not go to sleep without knowing what happened.  It was completely worth it.  It’s a beautifully written family drama that will thrill and delight you, worry you, surprise you and keep you turning the pages until there aren’t any left.  So, buy it!  Though this is rather early – it will probably come out in summer 2011 – but never fear, I will remind you then quite incessantly.

beach read

Ahhhh....summertime reading....

Here is the official synopsis from Publisher’s Marketplace: “Kamala Nair’s THE GIRL IN THE GARDEN, the redemptive journey of a young woman unsure of her engagement, who revisits in memory the events of one scorching childhood summer when her beautiful yet troubled mother spirits her away from her home to an Indian village untouched by time, where she discovers in the jungle behind her ancestral house a spellbinding garden that harbors a terrifying secret.”

The Girl in the Garden will be a fantastic book club selection because there are so many controversial characters that can’t be pigeonholed into good/bad – people will have a lot of different opinions, I think.  Which, naturally, would make for a great dinner party or cocktail party.  I love themed parties like this, but hate for them to be too obviously connected to their inspiration.  For example, the novel is primarily set in India, but serving only Indian food would just be so expected.  And we don’t ever want to be predictable, do we!?  I won’t give much away, but there are other elements of the novel that gave me inspiration with a twist – two primary themes are inner beauty and childhood.  My menu is below, and flexibly works for either hors d’oeuvres or a casual dinner party (everyone will have to feel comfortable about eating with their hands).  You’ll have to read the book to truly understand why I chose these dishes ;)

  • Samosas
  • Hot Peel and Eat Shrimp with Saffron Parsley Butter
  • Arugula with Pineapple and Pine Nuts, served in the pineapple
  • Wedding Cake

I started with samosas, because although they are obviously Indian food, I love them and I refuse to leave them out.  We also needed a little something Indian in the menu.  The shrimp reminds me of the tropical climate of Kerala and in their skins, they are ugly on the outside but wonderful on the inside; a major theme of the book.  Also, you have to eat the samosas and shrimp with your hands, tearing off the unattractive outer covering to get to the tastiness inside, which takes us back to childhood and obviously follows our theme of inner beauty.  The plating of the pineapple salad follows it as well and is evocative of the garden wall, and since the fruit itself has a prickly skin but is sweet inside, it too adds to our theme.  Pineapple is also a tropical fruit, and – an aside – I thought I didn’t like pineapple until I went to Kerala and someone convinced me to try one.  Oh my goodness, I can still remember how sweet that pineapple was.  I’ve been completely converted to pineapple ever since, and love using it in non-fruit salad ways.  Finally, wedding cake (which is really any cake you feel like making as long as you decorate it nicely) for the ending the main character hopes to have – plus, back to our childhood theme: everyone likes cake.

Martha Stewart Weddings

Martha Stewart Weddings

I would serve this on a table designed with a combination of whimsy and practicality.  It’s going to be a messy meal, and one napkin is not going to hold up to that shrimp.  So, two strategically placed paper towel dispensers placed on the table where the candles would usually go will be amusing and purposeful!  Then, with the white paper towels keeping it from getting too crazy, dress up the rest of the table with color: bright pinks, yellows, blues, reds, oranges.  This would be a great time to use the idea of aluminum cans (labels removed) or old jars as vases, again bringing us back to childhood and a casual feeling, and the colors are evocative of India without going overboard with the connection.


Images on left from Martha Stewart Weddings and on right from Snippet and Ink

This is neither a table nor menu that would make sense served without a connection to The Girl in the Garden, and it’s so fun to have inspiration come from extraordinary stories like this one.  I can’t wait for it to be published so everyone can read it!

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The Apple Tart

On Valentine’s Day last year, I ordered a drink at Blue Water Grill that was made up of bourbon and apple cider and it tasted like love in a glass.  So good, in fact, that its taste-memory stuck with me for months, until finally I broke down and decided I had to try to recreate it. Now, this cocktail is so tasty it has erased that memory of the original drink  – which is either the sign that I’ve done a good job or I’ve just had way too much fun testing the recipe :)

With its fall flavors and sweetness, it would be a fantastic Thanksgiving aperitif.

The Apple Tart
Inspired by a cocktail at Blue Water Grill

Makes two fairly large cocktails

  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest (roughly one good-sized lemon)
  • juice of two lemons
  • 3 shots bourbon
  • 1/2 cup apple cider


I love this drink because the apple cider and lemon don’t overpower the heavenly bourbon, and except for the apple cider, I usually have all the ingredients lying around (which means that in a pinch I make it with pomegranate juice or even orange, although orange juice really doesn’t meld as well with the bourbon).

I like my drinks stiff, so if you don’t then only use 2 shots of bourbon; I also like my drinks to not be very sweet, so if you like the sweetness then use an extra tablespoon or two of honey.  Serve over ice or shake it and serve it up in a martini glass: it works no matter how you present it.  Oh, bourbon….


Michael’s Loaded Mashed Potatoes

I kinda like my Thanksgiving dinner to have the same basics every time. It feels reassuring to have the traditional dishes we always have, made with all the weird accommodations we deal with for my family’s different eating requirements: my mom’s vegetarian cornbread stuffing cooked far away from the turkey, the turkey for everyone else cooked somewhere where she can’t smell it cooking (I know, I don’t get it either), homemade cranberry sauce for my mom and my sister and the jellied cranberry sauce from the can for my dad and I (what, the canned sauce is SO superior and if you don’t understand that then I have nothing to say to you), and lots and lots of classic creamy mashed potatoes for everyone.

The best - with the ridges still intact!

The best - with the ridges still intact!

This year we aren’t having a sit-down dinner, but if we were, I’d make sure we have these dishes. Inventive side dishes are fine and even enjoyable, as long as we have these basics on our Thanksgiving table to ensure that no matter what craziness is served beside them, we will have a tasty Thanksgiving. Except that last year, it got all topsy-turvy. I couldn’t fully comprehend it until later, and couldn’t accept it until much later. That’s right: we tried a different recipe for mashed potatoes.  Don’t all gasp at once.


It was all my fault, really. My very good friend Michael came to Thanksgiving, and asked if he could make his traditional mashed potatoes, which are loaded with bacon, cheese, chives and tons of sour cream. I said of course, as long as you don’t mind also having our mashed potatoes on the table because everyone in my family likes them an awful lot.  He felt fine about that. So we agreed to have two mashed potato dishes and everyone could just choose the one they liked (an agreement I made while rolling my eyes and feeling a bit sorry for him and his complicated mashed potatoes that no one would eat and that – worst of all – would make bad sandwich leftovers).

Well. Needless to say, since I’m writing this story, everyone liked his mashed potatoes so much that ours seemed terribly boring in comparison – like someone just forgot to make them tasty and filled with flavor. Including me. Honestly, they are so good that I’m hoping to make them this year – the only homemade thing at our Thanksgiving, which is the highest honor I can confer upon a dish. So just trust me and make them for your Thanksgiving. Your taste buds will thank you. And yes, they are excellent as leftovers too. I was wrong about it ALL, all right?!  Geez!

I’ll post photos of the dish soon, but for now, please continue for the recipe and enjoy the beefcake photo of the chef that I coerced him into letting me put up! Love it!

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Mashed Potatoes by Snoop

To get you excited for the mashed potato recipe tomorrow….ok actually just because it’s hilarious and I adore Martha Stewart and her serene awkwardness….here is Snoop Dogg’s visit to Martha in which he educated her about speaking and his posse (starts around the 45sec mark), while Martha taught him to peel potatoes and exposed a lewd liquor bottle. Thanks to Kim for sending it to me!


It’s been so busy here with the launch of this site that I’ve hardly even thought about Thanksgiving – the biggest national dinner party day of the year! My day of worship at the table of the dinner party gods! An entire government-approved holiday just to have a dinner party! Inexcusable, really.

But this year is a little different, which is why I haven’t been thinking much about my Thanksgiving menu or decor.  My grandpa is fairly ill with cancer and, since he’s the best grandpa a girl ever had, I’m going out to Denver to visit with him over the holiday.  A bunch of other family members are coming too, so we’ll do something Thanksgiving-related, but we aren’t sure yet how up to eating or anything celebratory Gramps will be. My idea is to do a “Thanksgiving Leftovers” Thanksgiving: skip the big dinner itself and go straight to the turkey/mashed potato/cranberry sauce/gravy/stuffing sandwiches!  Come on, you have to admit that’s everyone’s favorite part anyway. We can all sit around and eat whatever we want, and I think Gramps will be more comfortable eating casually than at a big formal dinner.

Since we’re all getting in late Wednesday night and there won’t be much time for cooking, we’ll probably just pickup ready-made fixings at Whole Foods and jazz them up a little. Tomorrow I will post a fantastic mashed potato dish that I will make if I have time on Thursday morning. This year, though, it’s not about the food at all. It’s about just being there together; which, after all, is the real aim of Thanksgiving.

I promise lots of decor and menu ideas next year.

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