A favorite pot

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We had been discussing Christmas gifts.  “I know what we should get for you, Mommy,” said Agastya, very confidently, “a pot.” I was surprised.  “Why?”  I asked.  “Because you love to cook,” he said. I hadn’t realized that my then 5-year old knew this of me.  “But I don’t cook as well as nani or nan-amma“, I said.  “But your food also tastes good, mommy.  It’s very good.”

I swelled up with pride, grasping at that small compliment.  I carried it with me months later, into the Le Creuset store, where I stood gazing, as I always do, at their collection of enameled cast iron cookware, unable to decide what I really needed, hesitant to bring home yet another pot into my 5 x 5 kitchen.  My husband came over, and asked “Would you like one?” I shook my head “No.” He knew better.  We ended up choosing a large, very large shallow fry pan so I could pan roast vegetables in a single layer.  I liked the bright cherry red color, the tidy grasps on either side and no long fussy handle, the smooth creamy interior, the serious weight of the pot.

Now on most evenings I arrive home, wait for my pan to heat up, pour in some olive oil and toss in my vegetables with a sprinkle of kosher salt.  They roast slowly on low heat and emerge slightly charred, tender and sweet.  A warm vegetable side to be eaten just as is or with a dipping sauce (sriracha + fresh squeezed lemon juice + honey).  I especially like cooking Brussels sprouts, asparagus and winter squash this way.

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Imperfect meyer lemon olive oil cake

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My boys were away this afternoon and I woke up from an afternoon nap with a craving for cake and tea, faintly recalling a reference to olive oil cake made at dinner the previous night.  Which had brought to mind fruity olive oil, clementines, lemon zest, and of course a lazy Mediterranean vacation.

This cake came together quickly, but I took many liberties, following this recipe, but with Meyer lemon zest and juice instead of orange and in twice the amount the recipe called for.  I used turbinado sugar instead of white, didn’t sift anything and beat all the wet ingredients at once together and baked in my toaster oven, which one really shouldn’t do.  I ended up with a very lemony cake that was still quite good — especially warm and crumbly from the oven and sending off heady citrus aromas.  It was easy to eat big mouthfuls.

Note: I’ve adjusted the amount of lemon juice and zest used and have left salt out of the cake (although you can add a pinch).  Next time I plan to add a little more olive oil to the cake although it’s perfectly good with less.

Meyer lemon olive oil cake

Dry ingredients, mix well and keep aside

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder, aluminium-free

1/2 tsp baking soda

Wet ingredients

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1/3 1/2 cup olive oil (using a dry measuring cup)

1 tsp vanilla extract

Juice and zest of 2-3 Meyer lemons

1. Heat the oven to 350F and prepare a regular size loaf pan or 4 mini loaf pans by smearing a little butter all over and dusting with flour.  Shake out excess flour.

2. Beat sugar and eggs with a hand-held electric beater on high for 2-3 minutes.  Drizzle in olive oil, followed by the lemon juice and vanilla extract.  Turn off the beater and mix in the zest with a spatula.

3. Gently add in the dry ingredient mixture (flour, baking soda and baking powder) and pour into the loaf pan.  Bake in the pre-heated oven until a tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.  Remove from oven, allow to cool for several minutes and tap out of pan.

4.  Serve warm with ice cream, whipped heavy cream, mascarpone or as is.

Summer corn

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Sometimes, some decisions are not easy to accept. Life might make them. Or we might make them for ourselves.

In a short while, I have found myself everywhere. On and off carousels of different colors. Building relationships where the timing might not work.  Others rising, phoenix-like from ashes in the ground and taking life, quickly and suddenly. My mother always says that there are no coincidences. I think she’s right.

In the middle of all this, winter has been holding me in its grip. It’s February, close enough to March, with the days growing longer.  I cannot help but long for the easy days of summer. With summer tomatoes, heady summer peaches and yes, tender and green summer corn.

While shopping at Sobsey’s recently, I stumble upon fresh ears of corn from Florida. Maybe it’s a sign. Summer beckoning again.

I come home and make corn toast – which brings back my childhood in Calcutta. It’s fresh ears of corn sliced off the cob and pan roasted for a few minutes with a pat of butter, onions and a green bird’s eye chilli or two. A little bit of flour stirred in and then a cupful of milk that cooks for a little while to create a creamy, velvety béchamel-style sauce. Some grated aged cheddar.  Served warm on crispy toast.

Corn Toast
Serves 4

2 cups of fresh corn, sliced off the cob, about 2 medium ears
1/2 cup white onions, diced
1 green chilli, optional
2 tbsps butter
1 tbsp flour
1 cup of milk
1/2 cup of grated cheddar cheese, optional
Toast to serve

1. Heat the butter in a heavy bottomed pan on medium heat. When sizzling, throw in the onions and green chilli and sauté for a minute or two. Add the fresh corn kernels. Cook for a few minutes until the corn is tender and cooked through.

2. Now quickly stir in the flour, followed by the milk. Mix well to combine.

3. Let the mixture come to boil, reduce heat and allow to thicken, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat when the sauce starts coating the sides of the pan. Remember that the sauce will thicken further on cooling. Add salt to taste and optionally, about a 1/2 cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese.

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French fries for dinner

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In Food Rules, Michael Pollan says “The french fry did not become America’s most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes — and cleaning up the mess. If you made all the french fries you ate, you would eat them much less often, if only because they’re so much work…”.  I think of his words as Agastya requests garlic fries, the same ones, he insists that my mother, his beloved nani had made for him before Hurricane Sandy.  I hadn’t been present.

How do I make French fries and should I really be doing this, I wonder, as my husband confidently claims that he knows how.  I put aside my fears of french fries as child food, squelch my anti-McDonald’s sentiments and let him make them from scratch.

It turns out to be simple.  Just potatoes, peeled, chopped and deep fried in an inch of very hot oil until they turn a warm gold.  There is no garlic powder at home so we smash some fat whole cloves of garlic and fry them in the same hot oil until they look a pale gold too.  Dusted with smoky paprika and coarse flakes of kosher salt.  Devoured piping hot and immediately.  Perhaps not as crispy as McDonald’s fries, but cut to my preferred thickness and much more satisfying.

As for Michael Pollan’s words? Yes, plenty of peeling, chopping, frying and cleaning…but possibly not enough to keep us away from home-made french fries.

Savory semolina upma

Upma

I don’t know where to begin.  Let’s just say I’m here.  Back again, happy, optimistic…

My mother-in-law makes a spicy, savory upma from semolina (sooji).  It’s South Indian any time comfort food, and takes minutes to make.  Last week my friend Sukanya made sooji upma as I stood watching.  I love her cooking, and I especially loved standing by her side, handing her things, watching, observing, seeing the meal come together.  Perhaps why this felt so good is because this is how we evolved – women together, cooking in groups over open flames, sharing bits of this and that.

Sukanya’s upma inspired me to comb my notes for my mother-in-law’s recipe.  Here it is, modified from the original to include only half the original quantity of semolina.  I like it better this way, because the bright colors of the vegetables entrance me, and I love the taste of the carrot, cauliflower and peas enrobed in crumbly lumps of moist, comforting, ghee-laden sooji.

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Semolina upma

Serves 2-3

1/2 cup, about 125g semolina

A little less than 2 cups water

1/4 cup milk

For the tempering:

1 tsp urad dal

½ tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1-2 green chillies, minced, optional

10-12 curry leaves

1 tsp ginger, minced

¼ cup cashews, broken into pieces

Mixed vegetables: 

1/2 cup carrot, diced

1/2 cup peas

1/2 cup cauliflower, chopped

Other:

1 1/2 tbsp oil

1 tbsp ghee, optional

Salt to taste

1. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a big pot.  Add in this order: urad dal, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, green chillies, curry leaves, ginger, cashews, and all the chopped vegetables.  Fry for a few minutes.

2. Add water and milk.  Bring to boil.  Cook for several minutes until vegetables are soft.

3. Then turn off and set aside.  Add remaining ½ tbsp oil.

4. Pour the sooji (in a thin stream if possible) gradually into the water and stir continuously to avoid lumps.   Add salt to taste.

Put back on the stove and cook for a few minutes on low heat.  Drizzle ghee on top (optional) and keep aside for 5-10 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Butter pasta

ImageI know that restaurants all over America frequently carry “pasta with butter” on their children’s menu.  When I see these words, I always think, seriously?  no peas, no carrots, no broccoli, not even a soupçon of garlic?  Just butter and pasta?

Until of course one day, when my friend Vrushali begins telling me about the ribbons of saffron pasta at Raffaeto’s in New York where you can choose from a variety of different pasta flavors, in any quantity that you want and they will cut it to your desired thickness.  Raffetto’s pasta is old-world and toothsome and requires just a few minutes of cooking in a pot of boiling salted water.  “So how do you eat it?” I ask, intrigued by the sound of yellow saffron pasta from a store in Soho that I have walked past many times but never entered.  “With just a little butter” she says.

That statement sets me off on a path to pasta and butter.  And indeed, I find that you can begin with a small pat of butter in a hot pan, throw in nothing or some broadly sliced garlic (the finer you mince garlic, the stronger the garlic flavor) or sweet white onions and toss in any pasta + boiled vegetable or even torn fresh spinach along with a little of the (salted) pasta water, finished with some fresh basil and another little pat of butter to arrive at a delicious outcome.

How to cook the pasta is something that takes me a little while to get right.  I watch a “how not to” Andrew Carmellini video on Chow.com, take a class with Patrick Lacey at Eataly and also find myself making pasta with Peter Berley at ICE.

The idea is to salt the water enough such that it “tastes like sea water” in a big enough pot where the pasta can “dance.”  Put pasta in after the water comes to boil.  Make sure to give things a stir once in a while so the pasta doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  Test the pasta by lifting out with a slotted spoon and taking a bite.  When done, don’t empty everything into a colander in the sink.  Gently lift the pasta out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon and dunk directly into the sizzling butter-garlic-onions-wilted spinach (if using). Add a little of the salted pasta water and give a stir – the butter and pasta water form a sort of velvety butter sauce.  Next, add your steamed or boiled vegetables that cooked alongside (or with) your pasta.  Remove from flame, stir in freshly torn or chopped basil leaves (other herbs work well too) and another little golden pat of butter.  The pasta is ready to eat.

Note: you can use plain or filled pastas, like ravioli here.  The four cheese ravioli from Raffetto’s tastes absolutely wonderful with butter, garlic and sautéed spinach.  Some parmesan grated on top is good too.

Mom’s very green rice

I’ve been counting days with a sinking heart.  Three months later is finally here.  Mom and dad are leaving for India.  These parents didn’t give birth to me, but as I keep telling them, they’ve given me re-birth, the chance at a new life.

Until recently, I was a mother who worked part time, working in snatched moments.  My main focus was my children.  It was necessary and important, but I did feel an occasional twinge.  That my universe was not much larger than a family.

I’ve found better balance now, but it’s been like riding a bike on an unknown road.  There’s also been a realization of how fragile and in the end, how short-lived, the past years have been.

“When will you return” I had asked my in-laws anxiously, when they left last year.  “When you find a job,” my mother-in-law had replied confidently.  When the time came, they were here all the way from Vizag, and just a phone-call later it seemed.

I’ve come home every evening in the last three months, found myself a plate, and heaped it full of home-cooked food from the kitchen. Spicy sautéed vegetables, yellow lentil and steaming rice with ghee.  The food has just been cooked or it sizzles on the stove as I wander around, filling the air with a delicious scent.  My belly gets filled, as does my heart.

I’m learning a thing or two about unconditional love.

Mom’s very green rice

I’ve named this dish for Mollie Katzen‘s Very Green Rice from The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without which sounded so much like this one.  I love this dish because it’s so brightly green and because the taste of the fenugreek leaves adds an addictive earthy, leafy aroma to the rice.  The bits of chickpea, green pea and cashew add texture and interest to the rice and make it a whole meal when combined with raita, which is a savory yogurt side with minced fresh vegetables.  My father-in-law makes a fantastic raita with a mix of finely chopped onions, cucumber, de-seeded tomato, green pepper and on occasion, fiery bird’s eye chillies.

I especially like this dish, because the green paste can be made a day or two ahead in time and mixed into leftover rice.  Alternatively the paste can be made while the rice is boiling.  What takes a little time really is the washing and trimming of the gritty fenugreek leaves.

I love serving green rice with paneer butter masala and even with Gujarati or Punjabi kadhi.

Serves 4

1 cup of white rice, boiled (yields about 3 cups)

1-2 green chillies, optional

2 cups of methi/fenugreek leaves, washed well and with just the leaves snipped off from the stems

2 cups of coriander leaves

OR 4 cups of spinach leaves, roughly chopped

Spices

2 whole green cardamom pods

1” piece of cinnamon stick

½ tsp cumin seeds

Additions to toss-in

1 cup of boiled chickpeas

½ – ¾ cup of cooked green peas

¼ – ½ cup of cashews, broken and toasted in a spot of ghee

Other

1 tbsp oil

Salt to taste

1.  Cook the rice and keep aside to cool.  When the rice is boiling, add the boiled chickpeas and fresh green peas towards the end such that everything cooks through with the rice.

2.  While the rice is cooking, blend the coriander and fenugreek leaves along with salt and the green chillies, if using to make a thick paste.  Now bring a tablespoon of oil to heat in a large pan.  When the oil is hot, sputter the cumin seeds, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. Add the green paste and cook for several minutes until it becomes fairly dry and turns a bright green.  Adjust salt if needed.  Remove from flame.

3.  Now add the rice, chickpeas, green peas and toasted cashews into the pan and toss gently until the green paste coats the rice.

4.  Serve hot or at room temperature.