A Secret Garden

My deck is a small square space in the back of the second floor of our home. The entrance is through the living room into the playroom. Suddenly the door opens into an open patio, sky and sun above it, with a view into all the small quiet backyards on this block. You could almost miss it.

For a half of the year, the patio lies unused. It’s too cold and stark. But come spring, the air turns softer, and suddenly the patio turns inviting. It’s cool and shady in the morning. Full, bright sun in the afternoon. Even more alluring in the late afternoon. The patio faces the setting sun which is hidden behind cliffs and buildings, but at twilight the sky lights up in a golden, bewitching, almost magical, way. The air stands suspended, as though something was about to unfold.

Each spring I think – I won’t spend as much time and money on plants for the deck as I did last year. There will be cold spells, vacations with no water for the thirsty plants, violent thunderstorms, big winds that uproot…. but this year, as I do each year, I feel I’ve figured out the right plants for our deck and me – I am sure they will survive my erratic watering habits, my peripatetic behavior, my love of travel.

I make multiple trips to the gardening store and fill the small space with colorful glazed and unglazed clay pots and all the plants I’ve grown to love over the years – petunias, geraniums, marigolds, hibiscus, rose, dahlia, ranunculus, trailing vinca vines, a one pot herb garden. I love mixing and matching into container pots. There is always an explosion of soil and dirt. Both children and now the dog, eager helpers in procurement and planting.

The patio starts looking cosier. I linger with my morning cup, my one-skillet lunch bowl, my afternoon tea. When friends are here, a whole tray with sweet and savory goods and an oversized pot of tea. Often an entire Saturday lunch brought outside and eaten under the red umbrella with the boys.

Bruno and a cookie recipe

A few months ago, Vijnan showed me a picture of a brown haired puppy, a tiny mite pictured on the deck in a basket, that had shown up somewhat unexpectedly in our search for a dog. We were longing for one, both of us secretly hoping for a dachshund, similar to the dogs we grew up with – Tasha, Digby and Tootsie. We were soon driving home with an 8-week old puppy, who was surprisingly calm. He promptly fell asleep, nose deep into Vijnan’s arm, unlike our active human babies as I remembered them.

Bruno the brave, Bruno the strong and Bruno the silly, as I love to call him, is now all of ten months. He follows me around the house, sleeps curled up next to me or between my feet as I stand in the kitchen, snuggles up close for body warmth, greets me every hour with ferocious licks and furiously wagging tail. He has soft velvety red-brown fur, the nicest doggy smell and probably the sweetest disposition of any dog that I have ever met. Of course, I am not biased.

Yesterday, Bruno and I settled down on the deck. It was a perfect spring day – flowers everywhere, sunshine filtering through young green leaves. There was the occasional bird and inquisitive squirrel that popped in for a visit. As tea time drew closer, thoughts of warm home made cookies, melting with chocolate, appeared from nowhere. The boys would soon be home, I was pleasurably surfing the new NYTimes Cooking app and on there showed up a chocolate chip cookie from Amanda Hesser. I scanned the ingredients – could it be that I had everything in my pantry. It was a simple list – all purpose flour (no need for bread or cake flour), unsalted butter (always in my fridge), brown sugar (staple for daily tea), eggs (always in stock), vanilla extract, walnuts, bittersweet chocolate chips (Ghirardelli, good enough)….I was ready to go.

For room temperature butter and eggs, I sat hen-like with a stick of butter and an egg for several minutes under the hot afternoon sun. Next, a few minutes to whip the softened butter and sugar with an electric beater, add the egg and vanilla…then all the dry ingredients whisked separately together – flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda. Last, chocolate chips and walnuts folded in gently. Important step and one that asks for extra patience – cover and refrigerate the dough for 1-2 hours before baking small balls of dough at 350F for fifteen minutes on a sheet tray lined with baking parchment. This was a pro-tip from my pastry chef sister.

Made 16-20 delicious and surprisingly excellent chocolate walnut cookies that held their chubby cookie shape.

Loosely adapted from Amanda Hesser

Makes 16-20 small cookies

4oz butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1/2 tbsp vanilla essence

1 1/4 cup flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp fine sea salt

1 cup walnuts, chopped

1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

  1. Using an electric beater on the lowest setting, beat the butter and and sugar in a large bowl for a few minutes. Add the egg, then vanilla and continue to beat until well incorporated. In another bowl mix together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture – fold in gently. Stir in walnuts and chocolate chips. Cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.
  2. When ready to bake, turn oven to 350F. Prepare baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a small ice cream scoop, create small balls of dough and place them 2 inches apart.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes or so, until cookies look golden.

Cake everyday

I’ve become obsessed with cake and especially with tea cakes. Not once in a while. Not weekly. Every Day.

Last week I started with the orange-lemon-almond-olive oil cake from Orangette to bring to a friend’s home for dinner. Alongside, I made the same cake with lemons only, for our home and as an “experiment.” Lemon cake was very lemony, but we ate it in gobs any way, and it was actually really good by day 3, by which time all bitter lemon flavor from too many lemons in the cake had softened into the almonds and olive oil.

Next, a hazelnut brown butter cake vanilla bean cake for a friend that was less successful from Smitten Kitchen – really delicious nutty flavors but the cake called for too little flour which resulted in an overly moist crumb.  I planned to make it again, this time with a real whole vanilla bean and more flour.

Then, a bake sale at school – for which two large cakes were baked. Banana chocolate chip and orange olive oil, this time all flour no almond and equally good. The banana cake made Vasisht long for one of his own and his writing project in school called for one. So, in the interests of research, we made it again – this time I remembered to use parchment paper at the bottom and bake the cake for longer at a slightly lower temperature, which yielded a moist, very banana and chocolate evenly browned cake. Best eaten warm and straight out of the oven.

In the middle of all this, a recipe for pistachio cake secretly made its way in. I couldn’t help myself – I had read the recipe on Orangette, and could not stop thinking about it. Like the author, I seemed to be not rational when contemplating pistachio cake, who had found this pistachio pound cake recipe in Bon Appetit magazine. And a pistachio cake with three types of citrus, including limes, lemons and pixie tangerines that I had sitting on my counter, and softened butter with lots of eggs – it was only a matter of — hours — before I succumbed.  It was a successful tea cake – and for better or worse that seemed to be my only criterion – how does this cake taste with chai?

Answer: excellent

Weekends – a recipe for

“What are you doing this weekend?”  It was a casual question, asked as I was walking to the train.  And I of course, yet to master the art of the easy answer, wanted to launch into the details of what makes a meaningful weekend for me.  What does the weekend mean, what role does it play in my life, in my well-being.  Precious days to do everything else, the routine of everyday rearranged.  So I can feel that my life is being fully lived, every ounce of my being expressed, returning to the next week fully nourished and renewed.

I stopped, wondering how much my listener wanted to hear.

“Well…it begins with Friday night.” Most Friday nights, I pick a new restaurant to try with my children.  It could be anything.  A new neighborhood, a new food obsession. Pizza, veggie burgers, dumplings, hand-pulled noodles, ramen.

Next, breakfast.

On Saturday mornings  I am woken up by one of my children, usually the younger one, and I open my eyes reluctantly to a bright eyed, fully awake small person who insists that his stomach hurts because it’s hungry.  There is a pertinent question too — “Mama, what will we eat today?”  My own waking thoughts are always about a cup of chai with cardamom, and of late, a few strands of saffron that add a floral note to the tea.

I haul myself out of bed.

We go downstairs and start getting the breakfast things together.  Last week an omelette bar – we chopped up everything that we could find in the fridge – onions, bell peppers, thai chillies, mushrooms, scallions, dill, cilantro…served with avocado, seedy bread from Choc o Pain, a favorite cheese like young pecorino with black truffles, a beloved habanero hot sauce such as Yellowbird.  For a while, I experimented with soft eggs that were slathered with homemade tomatillo salsa.  We had buttermilk pancakes ala Smitten Kitchen.  South Indian uttapams and sooji upma courtesy my mother-in-law.  Three grain steel cut oats with chia and flaxseeds during a healthy phase (didn’t last long). More recently, a savory cracked wheat porridge.

Next, there is a plan to exercise or not, varying from week to week.  Yoga, zumba, running outdoors along the Hudson.  I try to experiment with new studios while the kids are at tennis camp.  Of course, I would much rather sit comfortably with another cup of tea.

Possibly a nap after lunch, best on the couch under a soft cotton blanket, near a window with soft light pouring in or on the deck in the summer.  I read somewhere that afternoon light is an essential component of afternoon naps, ostensibly to ensure the sleeper wakes up within a reasonable time.  I adhere faithfully to that recommendation.

During the summer months, I also like to potter about my plants on the deck.  I love that particular outside- with its smell of soil and plants, red cardinals and robins hopping about, the occasional squirrel and the view of other people’s backyards, plants and trees growing with wild abandon and the sky above my head.

Then, no Saturday is complete without a plan to meet with friends in the evening.  I try to find a new recipe.  It could be one that I am bringing to my friends or one that they are coming over to eat.  I love eating with my friends and family, and I have to confess that I treasure home-cooked meals. Nothing says “I love you” to me more, and there is so much pleasure in the sweet exhaustion that comes from cooking.

Weekends have to also contain elements of indulgence, like an entire pound of tiny butter cookies from Cocoa Bakery or home-made upside down pineapple cake or slow cooked rice kheer.  I like finding kernels of time to settle down with a food book or magazine – Bon Appetit, Saveur, the New York Times Food section, Michael Pollan’s Cooked or an Ottolenghi cookbook.  There could be a guitar lesson.  Some extra time to play ping-pong with Vasisht, or solve a puzzle with Agastya.  Maybe watch a late night movie with Vijnan….

Did I answer your question?

Fall at the Greenmarket

I went to the Greenmarket two days ago in the late evening, an hour before it closed.  The market was down to a few stalls, with some tables scattered with last of the season heirloom tomatoes from New Jersey.  Dark, leafy greens, touched by the cold, reminiscent of dark soil, cold air and days growing shorter.  Bright piles of cranberry beans, newly dug potatoes, and heaps of carrots and other root vegetables.  One stall had sunchokes with black dirt still clinging to the nubby roots.  I found celery root, like gnarled troll feet, caked with dirt at one stand; in other places, bunched with green tops and cleaner.  I could hardly breathe, lest my impractical longing for every meal to be cooked with just these greenmarket vegetables escape and hang heavy in the night air.

I had a first taste of amber green Niagara grapes at the market – their sticky, juicy and candy-like sweetness in pleasant contrast with dark purple concord grapes.  The heady smell of a green and yellow quince, its fuzziness soft against my cheek.  Then rows of rich, deep orange pumpkins at Phillips Farm.  I recently read an article about Sarah Frey who grows heirloom pumpkins and recommends stuffing and baking baby pumpkins with Gruyere and spinach.  I wanted to do the same.

There was a sweet sadness in the air.  It’s Halloween today and soon Thanksgiving will be here.  I can feel time passing, my children growing bigger every day.  It was Diwali this past weekend, the festival of lights and my favorite time of year, and marked in my childhood home with a pumpkin dish – aloo kaddu – that was served with golden puffy puris and boondi ka raita.  I’ve only been back home for Diwali once or twice in the last twenty years, but the excitement of the celebration never fails to fill me each time Diwali arrives.  I wonder if it is that way for my children.

We’ve gone to Sandeep and Prathibha’s home every Diwali since Agastya turned one.  They host a puja that is so familiar because Sandeep is from the same part of India as my family; the food that he cooks is comfortingly similar too.  We attend the puja, light sparklers, eat dinner and then go home — bellies full, our hearts warmed by friendship and filled with the promise of another year.

Pistachio cake

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My heart beats so I can write.  Feel pen against paper.  It’s been so long.  I feel the beckon, the seduction.  Like the smell of warm pistachio cake rising from the oven.  Nuts, vanilla, and a hint of cardamom.  I’m not sure why I don’t give in.  Sometimes it feels as though I would stop breathing if I couldn’t write.  Yet I act indifferent, nonchalant.

It’s like cooking…I love to cook.  It’s always calling me, and I don’t do it.  I am so lazy.

Recently, I have been craving pistachio cake.  I ate a green pistachio cake decorated with raspberries and whipped cream for breakfast in Baltimore.  Before that, a pistachio macaroon cake at Laduree in Paris.  Then, pistachio financiers at Eric Kayser.  I remember how obsessed I got with pale green pistachio gelato in Italy – every gelateria, every day and often twice a day.  We went to so many gelaterias, found off lists and recommendations.  Come il Latte in Rome, the place off the main square in Bologna that served gelato pressed between two thin slices of cake, the shop near the mediaeval church in Bologna that had three different types of pistachio gelato, the chocolate store at the Spanish Steps where the owner told me how he had sourced his pistachios from Sicily – did I like the flavor?  I know nothing about making pistachio anything.  It’s about time to try.

I look through my cookbooks, nothing, and then I start searching online.  I find a Saveur recipe that promises me Maison Kayser style mini pistachio financiers with egg whites only and I turn out a fluffy, nutty, green cake that is surprisingly good.   Over the next two weeks I play with the recipe – two egg yolks, then four – all good.  Vanilla, cardamom…it’s a lot of fun.

I go shopping for shelled pistachios – they are brown outside – but yield a vibrant crumbly green flour with an intense smell of pistachios when ground.  The egg white batter of this cake does taste somewhat like melted pistachio gelato when the ground nuts are stirred in.  The browned butter adds rich, buttery notes (ah what else could it be).  I find myself adding vanilla each time, entirely optional, but I can’t seem to make any cake without a splash of vanilla.  I like the use of half white and half brown sugar. Chopped pistachios on top for crunch and more color.

Such an easy recipe and such a pleasure to make.

Ingredients

1 stick or 8 tbsp of butter, melted over a stove until brown and cooled
12 cup white sugar
12 cup light brown sugar
4 egg whites – can experiment with adding 2-4 egg yolks back in
Splash of vanilla, optional
Pinch of cardamom powder, optional
12 cup flour
12 cup finely ground pistachios, 12 cup finely chopped for topping + 2 tbsp finely ground almonds
1 tsp baking powder
1.  Mix the dry ingredients together and set aside.
2. Using a handheld blender, whisk the egg whites, sugars until smooth and drizzle in the melted butter.  Add vanilla if using.
3.  Mix in the dry ingredients, pour into baking dish and sprinkle chopped pistachios on top.
4.  Bake at 35oF for about 20 minutes until a stick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. The color will be golden brown.
Note – the original recipe asks to rest the batter in the fridge for an hour.  I lacked in patience.

Of love and chocolate cake

“Where were you?”

I’m suddenly shy. I don’t know what to say.

You have that look in your eyes. I have never been able to lie. You know what happened.

I was off exploring a passion, something so deeply fulfilling, I didn’t look back. I knew you were there. But my mind was elsewhere.

I have so much to say. The path that you took me on, it’s real. It started with you. It wasn’t a false start. The way just kept opening up.

I am still falling down the rabbit hole. The view is wondrous.

I have never been more challenged, more exhausted or more in love.  Which brings to mind a new favorite chocolate cake recipe.  It is dark, rich and dense, with a meringue-like crust and chewy interior.

One bite, and I am sealed forever.

Smitten Kitchen’s chocolate cake

Dry ingredients, whisked together

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch process unsweetened cocoa

3/4 tsp baking powder

Wet ingredients

9 ounces butter, melted on gentle heat and set aside to cool

7 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips, about a cup

4 eggs, yolks carefully separated to keep whites clean

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

3 tbsp water

1 cup sugar

pinch of salt

1.  Add chocolate chips to the melted butter with 2 tbsp water, and hand whisk until smooth.  Keep aside.

2. In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, egg yolks and 1 tbsp water.  Whisk together by hand for a minute until pale yellow and smooth. Add this mixture to the chocolate chip and melted butter mix.  Fold in the dry ingredients.

3.  Separately, using an electric beater, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until the egg whites stand in stiff peaks.

4.  Fold in the egg whites gently into the chocolate mix.  Pour into prepared metal baking pan that is lined with baking parchment paper.

5.  Bake at 350F for about a half hour to 45 minutes until tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

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.

Crumbly, sticky jam tarts

I haven’t made jam tarts since I stepped out of the old kitchen in my childhood home at Bright Street.  Yesterday, while searching for an activity to do with five year old Agastya that didn’t involve colorful playdough bits stuck all over the carpet, these buttery jam tarts came to mind.  If you are not too fussy about the exact so and so of your shortcrust pastry, this recipe, dredged up from my memory of an old British Ladybird book recipe can be made in minutes with ingredients straight from your fridge and pantry (cold butter, flour, salt and jam), given to a child to roll out and cut into circles and then pressed into a muffin pan to yield delicious mouthfuls of hot jam and biscuit.  Even better with some whipped or clotted cream and perfect with afternoon tea.  I’ve written about these tarts before here .

What you will need:

Equipment: A muffin or tart pan, a circle pastry cutter that is slightly bigger than tart pan circle, some wax paper, a rolling pin (pastry or otherwise)

Ingredients

To make 10-12 jam tarts

1 cup flour

1/2 stick or 4 tbsp of cold butter (half the amount of butter as flour)

A few tsps of cold water

1/8 tsp of coarse salt, mixed into the flour

About 1/2 cup of your favorite jam, I like strawberry

1.  First, heat oven to 350F and keep your muffin pan ready.  Next, chop up the cold butter into little squares.  Then rub the butter into the flour-salt mixture with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs — let your small helper do this, but don’t let him or her overwork the dough.   Now add water, one teaspoon at a time and keep working the dough until it comes together in a ball.  Divide the dough into 4 pieces and set it aside.  Work in a cool environment if possible.

2.  Place a piece of wax paper on your rolling surface and put one of the dough pieces.  Add another piece of wax paper on top and let your child roll out the dough until it’s of a 1/8″ thickness (doesn’t have to be too even).  The wax paper will prevent sticking.  Now, remove the top wax paper and let your little one cut out circles with the pastry cutter.  Remove the circle from the bottom paper and press carefully into the muffin pan with your fingers such that a little basket shell is formed.  Collect all the leftover bits of dough and roll again until all the dough is finished.  Prick the bottom of the shells all over with a fork — kids love to do this.

3.  Place the tray in the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until the edges of the pastry start to look a tad golden.

4.  Take out and carefully spoon in a little jam in to each shell.  The pan will be hot.  Don’t fill too much jam into the cups as this makes the tarts too jammy and sweet.

5.  Place back into the oven for several minutes – say 7-10 minutes.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

As good as it gets

Do you remember the times that your life moved forward in an almost unseen way?  When in a moment you knew, for certain, that life had changed.  When, despite everything, a shadowy dream seemed to take life. Like the words from Rainbow Connection.

Have you been half asleep?

And have you heard voices

I’ve heard them calling my name…..

I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it

There’s something that I’m supposed to be

It seems to me, that I’m here finally.  I’m filled with warmth, hope, and desire.  In an odd way, I’m reminded of winter, when it seemed that spring would never come.  The trees reached upward with bony, gnarled fingers.  I couldn’t see any sign of buds or blooms.

I should have had more faith.

To celebrate these new beginnings, I’d like to share my mother-in-law’s recipe for seviyan kheer.

This nutty, creamy milk pudding with thin strands of melt-in-your mouth toasted noodles, bits of almond, and crushed cardamom, is filled with the flavor of celebration and festivity. I never thought I’d even like it, let alone fall so utterly and deeply in love with it.  It’s sweet, rich and nourishing.  I can’t stop eating it, and I usually fall asleep at night thinking about when it might be ok to make it again.

Seviyan Kheer

For this kheer, you can use any thin vermicelli noodle.  However, the variety that comes from Pakistan, found in the Indian grocery stores like Patel’s and Bhavani, is far superior in flavor.  Go in and ask for the “seviyan from Pakistan,” and the people in the store will send you to the right shelf.

Serves 4

1/2 gallon milk (about 2 litres)

3/4 roughly filled cup of thin vermicelli noodle

1 tbsp ghee

¼ cup raisins

½ cup whole raw almonds, soaked, skin removed and sliced

about ½ cup sugar, brown or white

1 tsp of cardamom powder, if possible freshly pounded

  1. Bring the milk to boil on medium heat in a big pot until it reduces by ¼ of its original volume.  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  2. Separately, heat the ghee in a small pan on medium heat.  Add the vermicelli and toast for a minute until it turns into a deeper brown.  Turn the heat off, and keep aside until the milk is ready.
  3. When the milk is about ¾ of its original volume, add the toasted vermicelli, the almonds and the raisins.  Keep boiling the milk until it reduces to half its original volume.
  4. Now add the sugar and continue to cook.  Taste for sweetness (be careful not to burn your mouth) and add more sugar if needed.  By now the vermicelli should have cooked through and the pudding should have a fairly thick, dropping consistency.  Test by pinching a strand or two of vermicelli between your fingertips.  Add the crushed cardamom and remove from flame.
  5. Enjoy hot or cold.

Sanjeev Kapoor’s lobia rassedar

Sunday mornings are when I leisurely cook a pot of beans.  I have made rajma for several weekends now, simmering the beans for almost three hours each time.  The boys enjoy sitting down to a hearty meal of rice and beans after their morning soccer class, and I feel sated just watching them eat.  Beans are soul warming and belly filling, and you almost can’t mess them up with long, slow cooking.

This weekend I made Sanjeev Kapoor’s black-eyed peas, his lobia rassedar, from his book of Accompaniments.   Although I already have a good recipe for black-eyed peas that I’ve written about before, his recipe read a little differently from mine.  It called for yellow fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds and dried red chillies sputtered in hot oil (the tadka) and ground up with fresh ginger and garlic.  No garam masala except for a stick of cinnamon thrown into the browning onions at the beginning.  Chopped tomatoes tossed in a little later.  I was intrigued, and excited to pound the hand-ground paste in my granite Thai mortar and pestle that had been acquired in lieu of the Indian sil batta that I so desired.

I was not disappointed.  The tadka spices and ginger-garlic sent up a earthy, heady aroma as I crushed them into a thick brown paste.   My browned onions and tomatoes cooked down into a rich curry.  The stew sent off rich, appetizing smells as it slowly cooked on the stove.  The black-eyed pea was unusual and delicious, and especially tasty with delicate, fresh green methi parathas.

Lobia Rassedar

Adapted from Sanjeev Kapoor’s Accompaniments

Serves 6

1 ½ cups of black eyed peas, called lobia

2 cups of onions, diced

1 cup of tomatoes, chopped

2 tbsp of ginger, chopped

2 tbsp of garlic, chopped

1 tsp of cumin seeds

½ tsp of fenugreek seeds

2 whole red chillies, optional

1 inch piece of cinnamon stick

½ tsp of turmeric powder

1-2 tsps of red chilli powder, optional

A handful of cilantro leaves, chopped

4 tbsps of oil

salt to taste

  1. Boil or pressure cook the black-eyed peas until soft and the peas squash easily between your fingertips.  Set aside and save the cooking liquid.
  2. While the lobia is cooking, heat 3 tbsps of oil in a pan and add the cinnamon stick.  When the oil becomes hot, add the onions and sauté on medium-low heat for about ten minutes until the onions are medium brown.
  3. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat the remaining 1 tbsp of oil, and add the fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds and the dried red chillies.  Fry the spices in the oil for a minute or so (be careful to not burn), and then transfer into a mortar, along with the chopped ginger and garlic.  Grind into a coarse paste either by hand or in a small food processor.
  4. When the onions are brown, add the tomato, ground paste, turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt.  Cover and cook for several minutes until well combined and oil begins to ooze from the sides of the mixture.  Stir occasionally to prevent the paste from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning
  5. Add the lobia with its cooking the water into the pan.  Add a little more water if needed.  Cover and bring to boil, then simmer for at least ten to fifteen minutes.
  6. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve hot with parathas.

Chocolate chip cookies

Once in a while, just once in a while, you have to have a cookie.  A warm, straight from the oven, crunchy on the edges, soft-in-the-middle, tasting of butterscotch and vanilla, chocolate chip cookie.  Especially if you have two boys who mostly eat very good things, that suddenly start expressing desires for vending machine chocolate chip cookies and packaged cookies in the grocery store.

The better way, I figure, is just to make the cookies ourselves.  With my two eager helpers and a quick, easy, excellent recipe from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery featured in the most recent issue of Bon Appetit magazine.  These cookies, that fill your mouth with buttery toffee and vanilla-chocolate flavors, are like no other.

Chocolate chip cookies

Makes about 2-3 dozen depending on size of cookies

adapted from Jim Lahey, in Bon Appetit, March 2012

1 cup plus 2 tbsp all purpose flour

3/4 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp baking powder

3/4 cup or 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter at room temperature

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated white sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Arrange racks in upper and lower thirds of over, preheat to 425F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Whisk flour, salt and baking powder in a small bowl.  Keep aside.

3. Beat the butter and both sugars in a large bowl using an electric mixer on low-medium speed until creamy, about 2-3 min.  Add egg and vanilla and continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy.

4.  Gently fold in dry mixture with a spatula.  Fold in chocolate chips.

5.  Spoon tablespoonfuls of dough onto prepared baking sheets spacing about 1-2 inches apart.

6.  Bake, rotating pans halfway through until edges are golden brown, about 6-8 minutes.  Don’t over-bake, else cookies will get too crunchy.

7.  Cool and enjoy immediately or store in an airtight container.  Note: the cookie dough keeps well in the fridge for 3-4 days.

Better than fries

“This tastes even better than fries,” I thought, as I bit into the crisp red-brown morsels that were soft and a tad chewy inside. They were dusted with salt and chilli powder, and the crackle, softness, spice and salt present in one hearty, umami-filled bite meant that I couldn’t stop popping them in my mouth.

This was my first taste of the vegetable called eddoe or arbi as it is commonly known in India.  When I went shopping for them, I could have entirely missed the nondescript brown-skinned, furry, yam-like vegetable that lay in heaps in forgotten bins in the Indian grocery store. Back home, they sat on my countertop like a pile of small hedgehogs.

First, I boiled the whole arbi.  Either a whistle or two in the pressure cooker or a good boil on the stove in a large saucepan filled with water until a knife slid smoothly into the vegetable.  Next, I peeled off the outer skin and chopped up the somewhat slimy white flesh into small pieces.  The pieces went into a little hot oil in a single layer in a large pan on the stove.

The trick here is to let them cook on medium heat for a few minutes without stirring such that a golden crust develops.  If I turn too quickly then the arbi pieces will stick to the pan.  I discovered this wisdom on an episode of my new favorite show “To Spain with Love” that’s hosted by Annie Sibonney on the Cooking Channel.  The chef who is deftly demonstrating how to grill fish on a flattop tells Annie to let the fish grill for a few minutes before turning otherwise it will stick.

Simple advice, but very effective.  I’ve found that this technique works with all my vegetables – including green bananas, potatoes, eggplant, and it does away with the need for non-stick teflon pans.  I can use cast-iron and stainless steel pans to achieve the same results, and in fact the starchy vegetables brown more crisply in these pans.  For the single layer, work in batches if needed.  Note: it’s helpful to heat the empty pan first and then add the oil.  This makes the pan even more non-sticky.  However, teflon pans should always be heated with a little oil or butter.

Then, flipped over with a sharp edged spatula to scrape off any crusted bits and let the other side brown..and so on.  Salt and chilli powder sprinkled at the end, and served hot with basmati rice, boiled toor dal, ghee and tart, spicy maagai (peeled mango) pickle.  Or enjoyed as is.

A simple chocolate cake


On Sunday, Agastya and I went Valentine cookie decorating with Dani Fiori who designs couture cookies for the likes of Martha Stewart and Real Simple magazine.  There were bottles of pink and white and lavender royal icing all around us on red tablecloths.  We were given cute owls, love-bugs and hearts to decorate with tiny candy decorations in the trademark pink theme.  We enjoyed making eyes for the owl and feet for the bugs, and creating a special “VB” valentine for daddy that was sprinkled with sugar and festooned with a fistful of tiny hearts.

Nothing appeared out of the ordinary until someone pointed out that Agastya was the only little boy in a class that was full of girls and their mothers.  “Why not,” I thought.  Agastya goes to afternoon tea with me, helps me shop at our local grocery store and undertakes all manner of crafting activities.  In turn, he’s insisted that I build train tracks for him, kick ball or play repairman to the scooter on which he whizzes around.  I’ve tried to get him to agree to a doll house but we have settled instead for Tidmouth Sheds and a three-tier garage.  It’s been a give and take.

Here is the recipe for our Valentine’s Day chocolate cake that was made in the same spirit of partnership.  Our recipe comes from the back of the Ghirardelli unsweetened cocoa powder box, one that my friend Sonal recently discovered.  This cake is the ideal chocolate cake – easy to make, with none of the fuss of extra ingredients like sour cream.  It’s slightly dry and hence perfect for devouring with mouthfuls of hot tea or smearing with cream and jam / dousing with buttercream frosting.   Extra note: children love this cake.

Basic chocolate cake

Ghirardelli ‘s Grand Fudge Cake recipe, slightly adapted

Dry ingredients

1 cup all purpose flour

6 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

Wet ingredients

8 tbsp or 1 stick butter, softened at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar less 2 tbsp

1 large egg, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

2/3 cup milk, at room temperature

1. Heat oven to 350F.  Grease and flour an 8″ or 9-inch square or round pan.  Whisk the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl and keep aside.

2. With a hand mixer on a medium setting, cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl for about 2-3 minutes until light and fluffy.  Turn mixer down to a low setting, and add the egg and the vanilla, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl.

3.  Turn off the mixer and add the flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with milk after each addition.  Combine well with a spatula but don’t over-mix.

4.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.  Bake for 30-45 minutes until a tester inserted in the middle of the cake emerges clean.  Remove from oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes and upturn.

 

The proper browning of onions

I feel as though I’ve stumbled upon a profound truth.  That the secret to good, north Indian, punjabi-style cooking is the proper browning of onions.  There I’ve said it.

This summer I was leafing through of a copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking that I had found in our rental home.  We were escaping a hurricane in New Jersey, and had found ourselves in an isolated country home on the outskirts of Chatham in upstate New York.  Our nearest source of food, much to my delight, was the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, that sold cheese and yogurt made from sheep’s milk.

It was late in the evening, and although I have the same book at home, something about the deep silence around the house improved my concentration.  Ordinarily, I would have quickly flipped over the introductory pages and the ‘techniques’ of Indian cooking.  But here I was, sitting at a table in a real kitchen in the middle of nowhere with a book that belonged to someone else.  I started at the beginning, turning the pages leisurely and taking the time to savor Madhur’s writing.  I read “Sometimes a recipe requires that you brown thinly sliced or chopped onions,  I have noticed that many of the students in my cooking classes stop halfway and then when I point out to them that the onions are not quite down, they say ‘Oh, but if we cook them more, they will burn.’  They will not, if you watch.  Start the frying on medium-high heat and turn the heat down somewhat as the onions lose their water and begin to turn brown.  They do need to be a rich reddish brown color or your sauce – if that is what they are intended for – will be pale and weak.”  

“Pale and weak…”  I sat up straighter.  I knew what she meant.  I had been closely observing my mother-in-law’s onions which she patiently cooked until they were a very dark brown, or I suppose, the technical term would be caramelized.  I hadn’t paid too much attention to why she did that, and had put it down to her fastidiousness.  But her north Indian cooking tasted remarkably different from mine and I hadn’t been able to figure out why.  Could it be that the onions made that much of a difference?

It only took a cooking attempt or two to resolve my question.  Indeed, the onions do make a huge difference.  Here lies the key to the essence of flavor in palak paneer, matar paneer, chole, rajma, kali dal, kala chana, lobia. Golden brown, light brown, sweating onions — none of these will do for the aforementioned dishes that really call for those deeply browned onions.

Here is a simple dal recipe that puts browned onions to delicious use.

Dal Tarka

Serves 2-3

1 cup of onions

1/2 cup of toor dal, cooked in the pressure cooker or boiled

1/2 tsp turmeric

Chopped coriander for garnishing

1 tbsp of ghee

Salt to taste

1.  Heat the ghee in a pot and add the onions on medium heat.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are brown.  Now add the toor dal, turmeric, 1-2 cups of water depending on how thick the toor dal is, salt and allow to come to boil.  Lower the heat, and allow to simmer for a few minutes.  Garnish with chopped coriander, and serve hot with rice or rotis.

Note: you can also add cumin seeds, heeng and minced ginger in the ghee at the beginning.

Green banana stir fry

Being married and living in close proximity with another human being means that I sometimes come under close scrutiny.  Not only are my good attributes admired, like my very straight nose or winsome smile, but my flaws are also held up to the light and dissected.

“But I don’t want to change, love me as I am,” I protest.   Especially when that behavior concerns kitchen etiquette.  For instance, too many prep dishes used while cooking.  Cabinet doors left dangerously open.  An unholy profusion of spice jars.  An ever-growing collection of measuring cups, no matter how pretty.  Nothing to be found in its place.

I threaten to stop cooking.  I claim that the kitchen can have only one mistress.  I blame my mother-in-law for the great, big mess that is my kitchen.  Yet somewhere, one ear appears to be listening.

Almost unnoticeably, the dishes start to become less.  I heat the pan, chop simultaneously and throw things into the pot instead of mise en place.  Kitchen shears are back in the allotted slot for next time.  I wipe down the kitchen counter while I work.  The peels previously scattered everywhere go into a “garbage bowl” a la Rachael Ray.  I even wash the dishes that languish in the sink while my masterpiece bubbles on the stove.

I also remember in a flash of inspiration, my sister who would gather the entire household to bake a cake.  There would be one person beating the eggs, one chopping the butter, yet another measuring out the flour and so on, while she presided over the hubbub.  A few months of culinary school later, gone were all the helpers.  She worked in an empty kitchen, efficiently and alone.  The quantities produced were large enough to feed a small army and the kitchen left spotless when it was all over.

There’s no time for cooking school now, but cleanliness might bring me closer to chef-liness.

And in the happy spirit of that, here is a recipe for Andhra green banana stir fry which tastes hearty, nourishing and very delicious with aromatic basmati ghee rice and spicy mango pickle.

Green banana (artikai) stir fry, Andhra style

Peel and chop up about 8 medium green bananas (to serve 4) into 1/2 inch diced pieces and put into a bowl of water to prevent the pieces from turning black.  Heat 3 tbsps of oil in a big pan and toss in the banana pieces.  Fry for a few minutes, then add about about 1/2 – 1  cup  of water and sprinkle salt over the bananas.  Cover and cook on low heat until the bananas become soft.  Stir occasionally to prevent the bananas from sticking to the bottom of the pan.  The bananas should retain a firm texture yet be cooked through.  Uncover and sprinkle chilli powder to taste.  Cook uncovered for a few minutes.  The bananas should appear a warm brown in color.  If serving later, reheat by tossing the bananas in a pan with a little oil to crisper the outer edges.

Serve with rice.

Beerakaya ulli karam: ridge gourd in onion masala

My sister and I dreaded those lauki-toru-parval days that tended to repeat themselves in never-ending cycles in our home.  Mom had decreed that every meal must have a green vegetable, and our green vegetable selection was limited, especially in the summer, to the gourds.  Bottle gourd, ridge gourd, snake gourd, ivy gourd, bitter gourd.  This last one was especially unpopular.  However, as we grew older, the dislike abated to indifference, and now, many years later, that indifference has yielded to longing.  So much longing that when my mother-in-law is here, we go shopping together for all types of gourds in the Indian grocery stores.  I look at her hopefully as we pass each bright green vegetable.  “Can you make something from this,”  I ask holding up a contorted shape.   The answer is rarely no.

Here is her fantastic beerakaya (turayi or ridge gourd) recipe, made in a typical Andhra onion masala called ulli karam, which I’ve used before in a potato recipe called Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam.  The only difference is the addition of a spoonful of sugar in the onion spice paste here that lends itself well to the tender green flesh of the ridge gourds.

This dish is succulent and particularly delicious when eaten with plain basmati rice and a drizzle of ghee.

Beerakaya Ulli Karam

Serves 4

4-5 ridge gourds, peeled and chopped into 1″ pieces that are 1/2″ thick
a little oil

For the wet masala:
1 big onion, diced, about 2 cups
1 tbsp of oil

For the dry masala:
1/2 tbsp chana dal
1/2 tbsp urad dal
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp whole mustard seeds
2 dried red chillies (optional)
A spot of ghee

Sugar and salt to taste

note: steps 1,2,3 can be carried out simultaneously as a parallel process

1.  Ridge gourds: Heat the oil in a big pan and add the chopped ridge gourds.  Cook uncovered as the ridge gourds will release plenty of water.  Cook for several minutes.  Test with a knife and see if the pieces of ridge gourd are soft.  Be careful to not overcook as the gourds will become mushy.

2. Wet masala: Heat the oil in a pan and fry the onions until light brown. Grind to a coarse paste with a little salt.  Set aside.

3. Dry masala: In a little bit of ghee, dry roast the chana dalurad dal, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and red chillies (in this order) until a fragrant smell is released, taking care to not over-darken or burn the lentils and spices.  In a dry grinder or coffee grinder, coarsely grind the spices.  Add this dry spice mixture to the ground onion paste and mix well.

4. Final assembly: Stir in the onion masala into the cooked ridge gourds which should be cooked and moist, but not too watery.  Add salt and sugar, about a teaspoon or so, to taste.  Cook on the flame for a few minutes.  Serve hot with rice.

in love with…Delhi

I love old cities like Rome, Athens, Delhi, where you can feel that you are standing upon history.  There are old stones everywhere with hints of blue glazed tile and flocks of bright green parrots, and you keep passing monuments that have stood witness to centuries.  I always imagine that if I start digging in these places, archaeological treasures will start poking out of the ground.  Layers of civilization will peel away to reveal even deeper secrets.

This time I spent several days in Delhi and managed to visit, with and sometimes without my boys, Humayun’s Tomb, Lodhi Gardens and Qutub Minar.  My discoveries left me breathless and with all sorts of desires: to know more, to paint, to photograph and quite simply to see, again and again. These were not the monuments of my sixth grade history textbook or even the ones that I had visited when I was ten. Seen through my older, perhaps more nostalgic lens, these were works to be yearned for and to be let loose inside my imagination.

In the midst of all this cultural immersion, my sister brought me to eat at her favorite small restaurants, those that only the two of us in the entire family would truly enjoy.  There was one little restaurant called Gunpowder in the Hauz Khas village complex.  Gunpowder’s menu held offerings from the southern, peninsular part of India with food that was rustic, everyday and coastal.  The curries were bold, spicy and full of a subtle heat, doused occasionally with coconut milk or tomatoes and served up with tangy fluffy appams and crisp, many-layered Malabar parathas.  The food defied conventional Udupi or Hyderabadi or Keralan or Andhra or Chettinad definitions…it seemed to be a selection of earthy and not refined dishes from all of those areas, plus from several other undiscovered ones.  Eating there was akin to going on a journey through an unknown south India.

Sanjeev Kapoor’s Punjabi Kadhi

There is a set of little books in my house written by Sanjeev Kapoor, the beloved Indian celebrity chef, that belong to my husband.  The books are so small and unassuming, marked Rs. 89 each, that you could miss them entirely.  One of them has the title “Accompaniments.”  That one I had never even bothered to ever open.  That is until my mother-in-law arrived last summer and bustled around, looking for Sanjeev’s Kapoor’s kadhi recipe.

“But make mine, my Gujarati kadhi,” I wailed, not entirely aware of the differences between kadhi from the north Indian state of Punjab and that from the western state of Gujarat.  I knew that Punjabi kadhi had fried dumplings, but otherwise how different could they be, I thought.  Both were essentially yogurt based curries that were thickened with besan.

Yet the Punjabi kadhi recipe that was found in this useful little book of Accompaniments, had an entirely different tarka of fenugreek seeds-cumin-peppercorn-red chillies, and made generous use of ginger and onion.  Floating balls of chunky, satisfying onion pakoras that had soaked up the tart yogurt curry added another layer of flavor and texture.  The distinct onion flavor of this kadhi ensured that it couldn’t be confused with any other type of kadhi.

I’ve modified the original recipe slightly – doubling the quantity of water added, and cutting down on the turmeric.  Also, I don’t always have fenugreek leaves on hand, so I substitute those with coriander leaves or sometimes with nothing at all.  The kadhi tastes best when  served with hot, fluffy basmati rice.

Note: there is deep frying of the onion pakoras here.  I’m frequently intimidated at the thought of deep frying anything, but my mother-in-law devised an easy set-up.  We filled my tiny 6-inch cast iron skillet halfway with oil to use for deep frying small quantities of fritters.  The pakoras remained halfway covered in oil as they cooked and then we flipped them over to fry the other half.  This way I could discard the oil after completing a small batch of pakoras without feeling wasteful.  Also the smaller set-up made the idea of hot bubbling oil seem less frightening.  In any case, the frying for this recipe was quick and simple.

Punjabi Kadhi

Serves 4

For the pakoras:

3/4 cup besan, black chickpea flour

1 cup onions, finely chopped

1 cup loosely packed chopped fenugreek leaves, optional

1 tbsp of ginger, finely chopped

1 tsp ajwain seeds, carom

1 tsp red chilli powder, optional

1/4 tsp baking powder (don’t omit)

Salt to taste

Enough oil to deep fry (I use canola oil)

For the kadhi

1 cup yogurt

1/4 cup besan, black chickpea flour

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 cup onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped

2 whole dried red chillies, broken in half

2 tbsps oil

1/2 tsp methi seeds, fenugreek

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

6-8 whole black peppercorns

1 tsp red chilli powder, optional

Salt to taste

Make the pakoras:

1. Mix the onion, ginger, methi leaves into the besan along with the baking powder, red chill powder, ajwain seeds and salt.  Add about half a cup of water to form the pakora batter.  The batter should not be too dry.

2.  Heat the oil in a small skillet or kadai and drop in a few small balls of the pakora batter (about 1 tbsp) when the oil is hot in a single layer.  Fry, flipping once or twice, until the balls are a deep golden-brown all over.  Remove with a slotted spoon and put on a plate lined with absorbent paper (like a paper towel) to cool.  Break one apart to see if the pakora has cooked all the way through – the center should not be too moist.  Repeat until the batter is finished.

For the kadhi:

1.  Whisk the yogurt, besan and turmeric until the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps.  Add 4 cups of water and stir.  In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and add the cumin seeds, black peppercorns, fenugreek seeds and red chillies.  Add the ginger and onion and stir fry for a minute or so.  Add the besan mixture to the pot.  Add salt, and bring to boil on medium-high heat while stirring occasionally.  Then lower the heat, and allow the mixture to simmer for 15-20 minutes or so.  Stir occasionally.  The mixture will thicken slightly and should taste well-cooked through without any raw taste of besan.  Now add the pakoras and chilli powder and cook for 3-4 minutes.  Garnish with chopped coriander leaves and serve hot.

How to: Samosas

Before I return home to India, my mother calls and asks me each time”What would you like to eat?  What should I make for you?”  I always find the question amusing and quaint and sweet, and put it down to one of my mother’s quirks.  But recently, I am becoming the same way.  When I’m feeling uncertain, I start with food.  I find that I can’t go wrong with a home-cooked meal for someone that I want to fuss over.  The food says things that I can’t put into words.  It makes things easy and affectionate.

This time when I was home, my mother looked at me on one of those early mornings, and said “what would you like for breakfast?’.  Now breakfast is usually a fruit-cheese-toast type of affair in our home, and so I when I tentatively said “nothing?” and received an odd look from my mother, I knew that she was talking about the real stuff.  Poha, upma, idli… and in my fantasy version of the breakfast menu…samosas.

Now my mother doesn’t care all that much for this delicious deep fried, potato-pea stuffed pastry best eaten hot with a cup of tea, or not anymore at least, and certainly not for breakfast.  Her love affair with samosas are a thing of the past.  Once upon a time, claims my mother, she would make her own samosas from scratch for an after-school snack.  My masi lends credence to this story, and adds that my mother never shared the precious samosas with her two younger sisters.

I’ve always loved hearing the story of those samosas, about how my  mother boiled the potatoes while kneading the dough and then heated the oil for frying while she rolled and stuffed the pastry with the spiced filling.  “It took no time at all,” says my mother, “what’s in a samosa?”

Samosas

Makes 6 samosas

For the filling:

2 small boiled potatoes, or about 1 cup diced

1/2 cup of peas

1/2 tbsp of grated ginger

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp amchur powder

1/4 tsp garam masala

1/2 tsp red chilli powder, optional

1 tbsp oil

Salt to taste

For the pastry

1 cup all purpose flour

3 tbsps of melted ghee

1/4 tsp of salt

Enough water to make a firm dough

Enough oil for deep frying

Filling: Heat the oil, and add the cumin seeds such that they sputter in the hot oil.  Add the ginger and sauté for half a minute.  Throw in the diced boiled potatoes and the peas, and add the rest of the dry spices after a minute or two.  Stir fry for several minutes until the mixture appears cooked and the spices adhere to the potatoes.  The mixture can be coarsely mashed while stirring.  Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.

Dough:  Pour the flour onto a flat surface and make a well in the center.  Add the salt and ghee in the well.  Slowly, rub the  ghee into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  The flour should loosely bind together when you gather it into your fist; add more ghee if it doesn’t bind.  Make a pliable dough with enough water.  Cover and keep aside for 15 minutes.

Divide into 3 balls and roll out little circles, about 6 inches each.  Cut the circles in half and run water with your fingertip around the edges.  Now turn the semicircles into cones, seal the middle by joining the two ends and stuff them with the filling.  Stick the edges together.  This is a simple-to-master but important technique.  Here is a video of my grandmother stuffing the samosas.

Finishing stuffing all the samosas and keep aside.

Finishing: Heat oil for deep frying.  The oil should be hot, but not too hot as the samosas will deep fry for a little while.  Slip in the samosas and let them fry for several minutes, flipping so that each side turns golden brown.  Serve hot with ketchup.

Back from India

I returned from my trip to India.  It was wintry, dark and bleak when we landed.  My house felt stark and empty and there was no food.  I struggled to adjust to the cold, the dry heat from the radiators, the need to cook again.

I’m more homesick than usual this time.  It’s growing harder to leave from the many households that I slip into in India.

The India of my memories is filled with noisy warmth and color and food that is startling in flavor.  In reality, when I arrive in Calcutta and take in the smell of the gray smog, and find myself tangled in the snarl of traffic on my way home, and taste the new cook’s mediocre cooking, I wonder what I was missing.  Then I see my grandparents and get enfolded in their warm embrace.  There’s my mother’s beloved face.  Even her two dogs do a customary dance around my heels, as though to say “where were you?” Agastya races through my mother’s house with the dogs.  I can hear his laughter.  My favorite aunt drops by for a visit.   Endless cups of tea steaming with ginger and cardamom arrive on neat little trays.  I cut into wedges of stinky cheese and pile them up on toast with my father at breakfast.  My grandmother’s cook plies me with hot samosas.

The first few mornings are the ones that I treasure the most.  I wake up early and gaze outside the window.  The same trees have grown older and appear a little fuller.  The boys are still asleep.  The air is cool in December and the feeling of being home, of becoming somebody’s child again, wraps around me like a blanket.  I’ve felt this way each time that I’ve returned.  It’s been more than fifteen years since I left.

Pav bhaji again, with fresh masala

I’ve written before about my favorite spicy street food stew that’s sopped up with buttered bread, but I’ve arrived at a new recipe.   My old recipe for pav bhaji was made with chopped vegetables in a pressure cooker.  Now, I use whole boiled mashed potatoes with lots of tomatoes, onions, ginger and garlic, all simmered in one big pot.  I’ve also given up entirely on pre-mixed store bought masala that’s been languishing on the shelves.  Fresh pav bhaji masala (my mom’s recipe) just brings the bhaji vibrantly to life.  Plus, I’m not left wondering what was in the mysterious store masala.  It also makes me think of the time when my masi brought home some dry ground pav bhaji masala from Mayaram’s in Calcutta to understand what made their bhaji so incredibly lip-smackingly delicious.  Her conclusion was that the masala had nothing special in it – the “secret” ingredient was just fresh grinding of the whole seeds.

Here is how to do it.

Pav bhaji masala (for 2 medium potatoes or to serve 2)

Grind to powder:

2 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp of whole black peppercorns

2 cloves, the round tops removed

1 inch piece of cinnamon stick

1-2 dried red chillis, optional

1/2 tsp amchur powder (add separately)

Tips:

Potatoes: Begin with 1 boiled, mashed potato per person.  If you like, substitute half the potatoes with a mix of carrot, beans, peas, cauliflower.

Tomatoes: The volume of tomatoes must be at least as much as the potatoes or potato-vegetable mixture.  Therefore, a ratio of 1:1 for potatoes:tomatoes.  Very important.  If you feel that your bhaji looks insipid or not brightly colored enough, add more tomatoes, even if it’s late in the cooking.  In pav bhaji you can add raw chopped tomato at various points and keep on simmering the bhaji.  The flavor will be moist and marvelous.

Aromatics and flavor base: Finely chopped onions, ginger and garlic are a must.  About 1 cup of onions, 2 tbsp of garlic and 1 tbsp of ginger to serve 2.  Optional: but almost a must: finely chopped green chillies and diced green bell pepper.

Butter: Always cook your bhaji in butter, about 2 tbsps per potato.

For garnishing: chopped coriander leaves and a squeeze of lime.  Brightens the flavors considerably.

Recipe in a nutshell

1/2 stick butter

1 generous cup onions

2 tbsp garlic, finely chopped

1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped

1-2 green chillies, chopped

1/2 small green bell pepper, diced

2 medium potatoes, boiled and mashed

2-3 medium tomatoes, chopped

Dry pav baji masala, as made above

kosher salt to taste

1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, chopped

1 lime, cut into wedges

First, heat the butter in a large sauté pan.  Add the onions, ginger, garlic, green chillies. and cook until the onions are a golden brown.  Add the bell peppers and cook for a few more minutes.  Add the tomatoes, and cook for a several minutes.  Add the potatoes and vegetables, nicely mashed, into this mixture, and stir well.  Allow to simmer over low heat.  Add some water if needed, a quarter cup at a time, if the mixture starts looking too dry.  You can also add an extra chopped tomato if the bhaji appears to lack in color and vibrancy.  Add the dry masala powder and salt to taste as the mixture cooks.  Keep cooking over slow heat, stirring occasionally.  Remember, the longer pav bahji slow-cooks, the better it tastes (but within reason!).  Taste and adjust any seasonings.  Stir in chopped coriander and serve with wedges of lime and finely chopped red onions, along with pan toasted hot buttered bread rolls.

Maple walnut cake

It’s fall.  The air has turned crisper.  It’s still dark at 6.30am.  The leaves hang suspended in the air, as though awaiting their fate.  Some have turned yellow.  Some will turn into a bright red.  In past years, I’ve bundled my entire family into the car and we’ve set off to look at the changing landscape.  Whenever we’ve thought about moving to a warmer, sunnier climate, I’ve thought to myself “but what about fall?”  The trees appear so dressed up, so bedecked, as though for the grandest ball of the year, that I almost cannot bear to miss seeing them.  Each tree looks different.  When I look upon a hill, the blanket green having given way to individual reds, yellows, oranges that spring up in relief, I wonder how I would never have been able to see that tree and that tree had it not been for the changing colors of the leaves.  Then there are apples, pumpkins and winter squashes of all types.  I love sugar pumpkins and butternut squash.  This year prettily patterned carnival squash and sweet, deep-orange and meaty kabocha have made appearances in my pappu charu, pulusu and aloo kaddu.

This year we will be home for all of October.  I’m terribly nostalgic for the years past.  I’ve therefore decided to write out, briefly, three of my favorite fall day trips below.

I also want to share a recipe for an easy maple-walnut cake that I have *invented.*  It tastes so good, that it’s very difficult to not want to eat it all in one sitting.  If you have a jug of maple syrup sitting in your fridge from a spring maple syrup trip, walnuts lying around for the healthy snack that they make and some good quality vanilla extract, then this cake will be easy to whip up in moments.  This cake has taken a few tries to get perfect – and I’m particularly proud of how moist, walnut-y, vanilla-maple-toffee in flavor it is.

Two hour drives north of the New York city area:

1. Kent, CT: Take the Taconic State Parkway, which will be particularly beautiful at this time of the year, to reach Kent in the Connecticut Berkshires.  Drive across the antique covered Bull’s Bridge to Route 7 that becomes Main Street.  Kent is full of treasures: the House of Books with a lovely children’s reading room, a charming toy store, Belgique Patisserie that offers a fabulous selection of pastries and chocolate.   Further north on Route 7, stop to take the brief hike up to breathtaking Kent Falls before reaching Ellsworth Hill Orchards to pick apples and pumpkins.

2. New Paltz, NY: The I-87 will bring you to New Paltz, which offers beautiful views of the Shawagunk Mountains.  Enjoy a leisurely lunch at the quaint Village Tea Room with its excellent baked goods and local food, before heading over to Minnewaska State Park for stunning views of Lake Minnewaska or a hike to Lake Awosting, time permitting.  Spend some time picking apples at Stone Ridge Orchards.  Before heading home, shop for local dairy and produce at the High Falls Co-op.

3. Woodstock, NY: Woodstock, nestled at the base of the Catskill Mountains, is an upbeat little town.  Eat lunch in Oriole9’s light-filled dining room, with its lovingly crafted food made with local and seasonal ingredients.  Bread Alone Cafe makes delicious sandwiches.  Spend some time browsing the stores along Woodstock’s main street, including the fascinating Tinker Toys Too.  Drive to the little village of Phoenicia, for fabulous views along the way with a mandatory stop at Sweet Sue’s for their famous plate-sized berry pancakes or a fresh-baked fruit muffin.  The Woodstock Inn offers accommodation a block behind Main Street, right next to a stream that cascades into a waterfall.  When driving back to the city, eat lunch at Love Bites Cafe in Saugerties for thoughtfully put together sandwiches, salads and soups, and hearty oatmeal cookies.  For children: The Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, The Woodstock Wonderworks playground, Andy Lee Fields (a short walk from the center of Woodstock).

Maple Walnut Cake

Dry ingredients

1 cup flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/8 tsp kosher salt

1 cup walnuts

Wet ingredients (all at room temperature)

1/2 cup maple syrup, the best quality real stuff that you can find, preferably Grade B

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup or 1 stick butter

2 eggs

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup whole milk

1.  Heat the oven to 350F.  Whisk the flour and baking powder and keep aside.  Butter and flour a 9 x 5 loaf  pan.

2. Toast the walnuts over a low flame in a small skillet until a faint aroma of walnuts is released.  Remove and allow to cool.  Crush coarsely on a flat surface with a rolling pin.  Now collect the walnuts in a bowl and rub a little flour into the walnuts.  This will help them to stay suspended in the batter while baking.

3. With an electric mixer on the lowest setting, cream the butter, sugar and maple syrup for about a minute.  Add the eggs one by one until fully incorporated.  Add the vanilla essence.

4.  Now gently mix in the flour in two parts, alternating with the milk.  Don’t over-stir.  Fold in the walnuts and pour the mixture in the baking pan.  Bake for 30 minutes or so until the cake turns a deep golden brown on top and the sides pull away (the edges will be darker).  A tester poked into the middle of the cake should come out clean.  Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 10 minutes, run a knife around the edges and then upturn.

My adventures with milk

When I visited Ronnybrook Farm last summer, it was out of curiosity to see a big natural dairy brand.  They had a store in the Chelsea Market, a presence in the Union Square Greenmarket, and their products were even available at Sobsey’s in Hoboken.  Ronnybrook’s “beyond organic” milk was sold in quaint, impractical one liter glass bottles that seemed to hark from a bygone era.  A good friend had worked at Ronnybrook for a few months.  “Maybe Ronny will give me a tour if I say that I’m a friend of his apprentice,” I thought.

When we arrived in Ancramdale and followed the winding road across the fields dotted with grazing cows, Ronny’s farm seemed less and less like the huge factory operation that I had imagined.  Ronny showed us his airy cow barn, the bottling operation, the butter churning machine, the yogurt making area. We spent some time discussing pasteurization processes, the homogenization of milk and glass bottles.  Ronny’s views registered on me rather faintly.  We played with Ronny’s calves that morning.  Agastya, then three, and Vasisht, five months old, frolicked in the grass.  We ate a pint of ice-cream and bought every flavor of ice-cream and yogurt to take home with us.  Milk too, but I thought I was drinking very good quality milk already: Organic Valley, ultra pasteurized, homogenized, very “fresh” milk that usually lasted two months from the date of purchase.

In the fall, I met my husband’s friend who said that she found raw milk from her neighboring farm in Vermont easier to digest.  I stared at her, having never met anyone who actually drank raw milk.  We found neatly lined bottles of raw milk in the cooler at Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown on a fall leaf-peeping trip.  I bought the milk but gazed at it with trepidation for the days that it sat in my fridge.  By this summer though, I had grown bolder.  I brought raw milk back from the Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, NY, and proceeded to make delicious chai from it every day.  But raw milk was nearly impossible to find unless I visited a farm that sold it.

More recently I spotted nymilk and milk from Battenkill Valley Creamery at Eataly .  These new brands made me curious.  I found a write-up on nymilk at Serious Eats, that explained pasteurization methods.  There was also a local New York milk taste test on Serious Eats where Ronnybrook and Battenkill had topped the charts.  I was intrigued.

Then a friend sent me a blog post about how the best milk for human beings to drink, if they were to drink milk at all, would be raw whole milk that wasn’t ultra pasteurized or homogenized and that came from free-roaming, organic, grass-fed cows that were raised without artificial hormones or non-therapeutic antibiotics.  Not all of this immediately appeared to be based on scientific fact, but it made me think of those black and white cows grazing contentedly at Ronnybrook Farm.  Of Ronny’s minimally pasteurized and non-homogenized milk.  Of the taste tests that the milk seemed to be winning.  Of that hard-to-find raw milk from Hawthorne Valley and Cricket Creek Farm.

I marched over to Sobsey’s and confronted the kindly proprietor.  “I’ve been reading that ultra pasteurized milk isn’t really that great for you,” I began.  “I thought the Organic Valley milk was better because it lasts longer.”

“The only milk I drink is from Ronnybrook Farm,” he replied.  “In the days when we didn’t have a van, I would carry back the heavy glass bottles in the train for the store.  High heat pasteurization kills everything in the milk, although it does help the milk to last longer.”

I brought home several bottles of Ronnybrook milk that afternoon and stockpiled them in my refrigerator.  The milk tasted absolutely delicious: creamy, cold and straight from the bottle, with a lick of cream at the top.  I hadn’t had a whole glass of milk since I escaped my mother in my late teens.  Ronnybrook milk felt like an indulgence even though the milk tasted perhaps just as real milk should taste.  The kind of milk that my Indian ancestors must have imbibed and loved.  Enough to make them worship cows.  The kind of milk that I’d like my children to drink.  To make dollops of aromatic yellow ghee and creamy, food-for-gods desserts such as kheer.

Here is a recipe for kheer.  It’s basically a sweet rice pudding that’s fragrant with cardamom and basmati rice, but those words sound too mundane for such a soul-filling bowl of goodness.  This is Indian comfort food at its best.

Kheer (picture to come)

Serves 10

1 gallon of milk

1 cup of aromatic, long-grain rice like basmati, if possible from a recent harvest

2 cups, or less of turbinado or white sugar, according to taste

1 tbsp of ground cardamom seeds, preferably crushed by hand in a mortar and pestle

Optional: slivered almonds, a few strands of saffron,  raisins, cashewnuts

1.  Bring the milk to a rolling boil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Wash the rice and add to the milk.  Stir frequently to prevent the milk from coating the bottom of the pan.  Keep cooking, stirring occasionally, allowing the milk to boil until it reduces to about half of its original volume.  The rice will be fully cooked by now.

2.  Add the sugar to taste at this point.  Since the sugar releases water, the kheer will need to cook down further.  Allow the milk to boil down to about 1/3 the original volume.  The kheer should have a thick consistency but should still be liquid enough to pour.  Taste liberally along the way.

3.  Remove from the flame and stir in the cardamom.  Decorate with chopped nuts and saffron.

Eat as you like – hot, cold or at room temperature.

Pineapple upside-down cake

Just the thought of a pineapple-anything brings up faint, early morning memories of my family’s pineapple patch in Assam and of the tins and tins of luscious, golden home-canned pineapple that lined our pantry shelves in Calcutta at the end of pineapple season.  My mother often made pineapple trifle — a simple but delicious concoction of layers of chocolate bourbon biscuit dipped in pineapple juice alternating with whipped heavy cream that was studded with bits of fresh pineapple.  My grandmother’s single concession to Western style dessert was bite sized swiss rolls.  These were soft pinwheels of yellow sponge cake layered with strawberry jam that were topped with a cloud of whipped cream with bits of fresh pineapple and garnished with a sprinkle of chopped green pistachios.  I asked for pineapple upside-down cake to be served at my wedding in Jamaica.  In the excitement of the evening, I forgot to taste it.

That missed pineapple cake put me on a perpetual hunt for a good pineapple upside down cake recipe.  I watched Giada using boxed white cake mix and cooked fresh pineapple puree on television.  David Lebovitz’s upside-down cake recipe was primarily for apricots and nectarines, but I decided to do pineapples instead.  A few attempts with a whole pineapple, then with a half pineapple, one with sliced pineapple and the next with diced pineapple, led to this recipe.   Slicing created big heavy chunks of pineapple that didn’t cook down well, and also made the cake difficult to cut.  So I diced the pineapple instead, and used less, a half pineapple instead of a whole one.  I think Giada’s puree would have worked well too.

For this recipe, I begin by shopping for a ripe Costa Rican pineapple, which looks beautiful and ornamental in my shopping basket and while sitting on the kitchen counter.  The smell of ripe pineapple fills my nostrils as I slice off the top and bottom and firmly run my knife down the sides to remove the rough outer peel.  I remove as many brown “eyes” as I can while peeling.  The pineapple gets quartered, lengthwise, and I remove the hard spine down its middle.  Next, chopping and dicing.  All the while, my hands grow stickier with pineapple juice.  I cannot help but pop pieces of pineapple into my mouth as I work.  The yellow pineapple is sweet and tangy, and intense with tropical flavor. It has a pleasing bite, not too much fiber.  Bits of pineapple come apart in my mouth as I chew.

David’s recipe calls for a 10-inch cast iron skillet, and this is one of the many pleasures of this cake.  The black cast iron pan is heavy and rustic, and all the cooking gets done in this one pan.  At first, I melt butter and brown sugar, until the sugar becomes smooth and bubbly.  The mixture smells wonderful as it cooks, giving off aromas of butterscotch and caramel.  I set the pan aside to cool while I start on my cake batter.  It is very simple – cream soft butter and sugar, add the eggs one by one and then the vanilla.  Next, the dry ingredient mixture – flour, salt and baking powder – alternated with milk.  Voila!  the cake is ready to assemble.  The pineapples go evenly on top of the butterscotch and then the fluffy golden batter is poured in.  Into the oven, and then the smell.  oh the smell.  Of cooking pineapple, caramel and vanilla.  When the cake emerges, it oozes with caramel and pineapple.

This cake tastes particularly delicious when eaten warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Pineapple upside down cake

Inspired by David Lebovitz

Serves 10

1/ 2 a ripe pineapple, diced, about 3 cups

For the caramel:

3 tbsp of unsalted butter

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

For the cake:

Dry ingredients, whisk together :

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder, aluminum free

1/4 tsp salt

Wet ingredients:

8 tbsp butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature

1. Caramel: Heat the oven to 350F.  In a 10-inch cast iron pan, melt the butter, and add the sugar.  Cook until the sugar melts and begins to bubble.  Remove from flame and keep aside.  Allow to cool, then spread the chopped pineapple evenly over the caramel.

2.  Cake: Meanwhile, with an electric mixer on the lowest setting, begin beating the sugar and butter, until fluffy, about two minutes.  Add the eggs, one by one, until each is fully incorporated into the batter.  Add the vanilla.  Now, slowly and gently fold in the dry ingredient mixture in two parts, alternating with the milk.  Pour this batter over the fruit and smooth out.

3.  Baking: Bake for about 30-45 minutes, until a tester or knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.  The cake will have pulled away from the sides and will look firm in the  center.  Allow to cool for 15 minutes or so, and the flip over to serve.

Note: to serve warm, can later reheat in the pan or for a brief time in the microwave.

Grilled eggplant, three ways

Grilled eggplant chutney, Andhra style

How much do I love thee, eggplant?  Let me count the ways…

Alright, in too many ways.  I am beginning with one technique, that of grilling whole eggplant.

Now that the summer is at an end and those big baskets full of shiny eggplant are going to disappear from the farmer’s market, I am already feeling a keen sense of loss.  I wait months for luscious eggplant, that I can buy in armfuls and tote home as though I’m carrying not one but several precious newborns.  “You have the best eggplant,” I’ll say to the tall, white haired, mustachioed farmer from Union Hill Farms.  He smiles, having heard this from me each week.  When buying eggplant, I look for bright, shiny skin, no blemishes and fruit that is light for its size, which means that the eggplant has fewer seeds and is less bitter.

There are two ways to grill eggplant in the kitchen.  The best way is to place the eggplant directly on a gas flame and turn it occasionally, until the skin gets burnt and charred and the entire eggplant becomes tender and very soft.  Line the stove with foil to minimize clean up as the eggplant will shed bits of black charred skin as you turn it with tongs.  Remove from the flame when you are easily able to slide a knife inside the eggplant, and clean off all the bits of skin.  The grilling takes a little while and your home fills with the smell of roasting eggplant, but the result is a very succulent eggplant, buttery, sweet and full of rich, smoky “bhuna” flavor that needs very little else.  Although you can also roast the whole eggplant in the oven at 450F, turning occasionally, for similar results, the bhuna flavor cannot be obtained in any other way.   Note: make sure the eggplant is very well grilled — eggplant that is even a little raw is not edible.  But overcooking in the oven can dry out your eggplant, leaving nothing but an empty shell.

Ways of using the grilled eggplant:

(1) Whole: Recently, my mother-in-law laid out several freshly grilled Italian eggplants with their heads on in a big flat dish.  She drizzled melted butter and sprinkled a generous quantity of red chilli powder and salt over the eggplant.  We ate the eggplant with hot basmati rice and a simple tomato dal. It was easy to eat three or four of these smoky eggplants each.  (pictured below)

(2) As a sweet-sour relish, called vankaya chutney:  This was a surprise discovery from my mother-in-law’s Andhra cooking repertoire.  A surprise, because I couldn’t believe how much I loved the sweet-sour-spicy-bhuna-yet fresh-umami flavor of the dish.  Mash up the eggplant flesh with your fingers.  Dress up the eggplant with strained raw tamarind extract, some grated gur or jaggery and salt.  Add bits of chopped onion, coriander leaves and sputter a tarka of mustard seeds, green chillies, and a dried red chilli in hot oil.  Mix well.  Serve with hot rice or eat it as I do, straight from the bowl with my fingers. (pictured above)

(3) Baingan bhurta: This is a North Indian style eggplant preparation, where the grilled eggplant is cooked with fried onions, ginger, garlic and tomatoes.

Fry in 2-3 tbsps of oil, about one cup of chopped onions per two cups of mashed, grilled eggplant, along with two or three cloves of chopped garlic, a thumb of chopped ginger and one or two green chillies.  The onions should be cooked slowly on medium heat until they turn dark brown.  At this point add one cup of chopped, fresh tomato and the eggplant, and cook, until the dish releases oil.  Add two teaspoons of coriander powder, one tsp of cumin powder, a 1/2  tsp of turmeric powder, 1/2 tsp of garam masala and salt to taste.  The addition of a little red chilli powder is optional. Cook a little longer and remove from flame.  Garnish well with chopped coriander leaves.  Serve hot with rotis or parathas.

Grilled whole eggplant dressed with butter, chilli powder and salt

Mexican wedding cookies

My first cookbook was a Ladybird children’s book called We Can Cook.  I was ten or eleven at the time, and my mother bought it at the annual Calcutta Book Fair.  My sister and I spent hours flipping through the slim hardbound volume, marveling at recipes for strange dishes such as “Welsh Rarebit,” “Shepherd’s Pie” and “Cornish Pasties.”  Most of the recipes required ingredients that appeared to exist only on another continent.

One recipe seemed to be within our reach.  It was called “jam tarts,” and it required a simple shortcrust pastry made of flour, butter and water.  Mom taught us to rub the cold butter into the flour with our fingertips and then add a little cold water such that a dough came together.  The dough was rolled out on a cool marble counter-top.  We cut little circles with a cutter to fit the muffin pan, and then pressed down the circles into the pan, to form shallow rims. Each tart shell was jabbed with a fork before the tray went into our tiny oven.  When the tarts came out, they were filled with spoonfuls of strawberry or mixed fruit jam and baked again for a few minutes.  The jam melted to form a smooth top in the pastries.

The warm tarts were utterly divine to bite into: buttery and crumbly, sticky with bits of warm jam.  This tart became our secret midnight feast snack.  We became adept at pretending to be asleep, and then creeping into the kitchen at night to quickly bake a small order of these treats.  In later years, my sister went on to earn a culinary degree and become a pastry chef.  As for me, well let’s just say that I’m still in search of a good cookie recipe.

Recently, I found myself at a Mexican cooking class at ICE where we made a very easy and tasty Mexican wedding cookie.  The nutty cookie dough had almond and pecan flour and was subtly flavored with vanilla and sweet, fragrant anise seeds.  At home, I decided to beat soft butter and sugar with an electric beater for a minute before gently stirring in all the dry ingredients instead of using a food processor as in the original recipe.  The result was a airier, fluffier cookie than the one from class, although I equally preferred both.  I’ve written out the recipes below.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

Adapted from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York

Makes about two dozen two inch cookies

1/4 cup almonds

1/4 cup pecans

1 stick cold butter, cut into pieces

1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar + more for rolling

1 1/2 tsps vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp anise seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees

2. Grind the almonds and pecans in a food processor until fine.  Add the butter and continue to grind until you obtain a smooth paste.  Add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla and process again.  Add the flour and anise seeds and process until everything is well blended.

3.  Roll the dough into small one-inch balls using your hands.  If the dough sticks and is hard to roll, refrigerate briefly.  Place the balls about 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes or so, until brown on the bottom.

4.  Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes.  Roll the cookies while still warm in the remaining confectioner’s sugar. Let cool slightly more, and roll in confectioner’s sugar again.

Note: if you decide to use my method of using an electric beater, first beat the sugar and room temperature butter for a minute or so on the lowest setting.  Add the vanilla and beat a little more.  Separately mix all the dry ingredients – flour, nut flours and anise seeds.  Fold gently into the beaten butter and sugar, to make the dough.  Proceed as above.

A good egg

A few years ago I began buying cage-free hen eggs that were fed an organic vegetarian diet, and were not injected with hormones etc.  The eggs I presumed would be healthier and would taste better.  I didn’t find anything remarkable about these eggs.  Pale yellow yolks, the usual whites.  There was a subtle taste difference I thought, or maybe it was all in my mind.

Last summer, we were at the now-closed IGA grocery store in Red Hook buying last-minute groceries for breakfast.  In their egg aisle, I found boxes of eggs from a farm called Feather Ridge.  The box with its purple label proclaimed lots of things – more omega-3, quality & goodness from the Hudson Valley, fresh from the family farm — but I weary of labels, of wading through phrases and sentences that had to be researched further and that may or may not stand up to their claims, didn’t pay too much attention.  I returned home with that box and cast it into the refrigerator.

When I cracked open an egg the next morning as early sunlight slanted into the kitchen, I blinked several times.  The yolk that was sitting on the black cast iron pan was a large, brilliant, quivering golden-orange orb.  The whites were thick and firm.  I couldn’t even begin to describe the taste of that egg.  It tasted delicious, wholesome, fresh and I suppose just like a normal, healthy hen egg.   Later I found a write-up that described how Feather Ridge fed its hens a diet that included ground flaxseed.  I also found the following mentioned on Locanda Verde’s menu: We use organic eggs from Feather Ridge Farms in Elizaville, NY.  I pestered my local store to carry the eggs.  Michael Sobsey began making a weekly trip to the Tribeca farmer’s market to source these eggs for the Hoboken market.  He reported them as a best-selling product in the store.  I reasoned that once you had tasted this egg, you just couldn’t go back to a regular supermarket egg.

Since, I’ve become terribly interested in farm-fresh, local eggs laid by healthy and happily roaming chickens.  I’ve taken myself to Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills where Agastya found a precious egg nestled in the grass as we wandered around their huge flock of chickens.  I’ve also found very fresh, bright yellow yolk eggs laid that same morning whenever we’ve visited Sprout Creek Farm.

My recent visit to find eggs at Kinderhook Farm in Ghent, NY was an experience of a sublime sort.  Lee, the kind resident farmer, took me all around his breathtaking property.  It was a misty afternoon, sheep were scattered about nibbling tender green grass.   I could see cows in the distance on the gently sloping hills.  As we walked out to the fields, scores of colorful, plump, healthy and (am I really saying this?) sweet-smelling chickens came running out.  One bold bird stood so close to me, waiting to be fed, that I reached out and ran my hand down its firm, feathery back.  Lee showed us where the eggs were laid, in the front hatch of the red small barn-like egg mobile.  A raising of the hatch revealed a nesting hen and eggs of all colors – blue, speckled, green, beige, brown and white.  I peppered Lee with questions, while I plotted how I could get these eggs back in Hoboken.  For who could contemplate going back to eating an egg not freshly laid by a free-roaming, grass-worm-insect eating hen?  Especially once you’d rubbed the soft back of one.

I like to eat my eggs very simply – usually fried on one side in a small pat of butter, preferably in a cast iron pan.  This way I can taste both the yolk and the white separately, and the yolk remains slightly runny, bright yellow drenching my toast as I bite into an open sandwich of toasted bread and egg, topped with a few crumbly bits of cheese.  I’ve also discovered that any cheese – blue, soft, semi-soft, firm, and made with any type of milk and aged for any length of time – tastes great with egg and toast.  

To make a fried egg: heat up the butter on high/medium heat and break open your egg over the pan.  Turn the heat to low and let the white set.  Remove when the egg unsticks itself from the bottom of the pan.  Flip over if you want a more firmly cooked egg.

I also love an easy unda roti, which is an egg roll or wrap that makes good use of leftover Indian-style flatbread from the previous night’s dinner.

To make an egg roll: Whisk an egg and set aside while a dob of butter heats in a flat pan.  Pour in the egg and let it cook for a few seconds before placing the roti  on top of the still-runny egg.  Cook over a low flame for a few more seconds till you see the sides of the egg setting around the roti.  Flip over, cook for another few seconds and turn onto your plate with the egg side up.  Heap thinly sliced onions tossed in lime juice, add some finely chopped green chillies and sprinkle of chaat masala if you wish, and roll up the egg roti.  Serve with plain or spicy Maggi ketchup.

Of rice and dal…and pulusu

I never know what to make when we return from a trip.  We usually arrive back in time for lunch or dinner, and perhaps there is at most an hour before everyone starts getting really, really hungry.

This time, after a weekend away at Sprout Creek Farm, my mother-in-law promised us a meal in no time.  Four hungry adults milled about the room.  She put rice to cook in the rice -cooker, and toor dal to boil in the pressure cooker.  The dal had a generous pinch of salt and turmeric added to it before the lid of the cooker was closed tight.  Twenty minutes, a dab of ghee, and it would be ready to eat with the rice.  The rice was doing its own thing in the rice cooker.  Almost there, I thought.

Mom chopped up big pieces of eggplant in preparation for her famous vankaya allam karam, as the rice and dal cooked.  While the eggplant melted into thick, tender slices on the stove, mom prepared the onion-ginger-chilli-sesame paste for the eggplant with a quick turn of the food processor.  Unbeknownst to me, she had also set three quarts of water to boil in a big pot.  When she had a minute or two, she threw in vegetables into that pot, along with some tamarind extract and turmeric: small whole red onions that we had found at the farmers’ market; chunks of leftover bottle-gourd from the previous week; pieces of butternut squash and sweet potato.  Towards the end she added a simple tempering of asafoetida, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, and dried red chillies.  She also added a large chunk of jaggery into the pot.

When we sat down to eat, the simmering pot revealed a cooling watery broth that was sweet and sour and infused with the spices in the tempering.  The vegetables had grown swollen and soft, and had absorbed the sweet-sour flavor.  The onion and squash pieces that I heaped on to my plate, swimming in the watery liquid tasted very juicy.  The mixture of eggplant, rice, dal and this new dish, called pulusu was addictively delicious.   I, not a big rice-eater, continued to eat moundfuls of rice soaked in pulusu and mashed with the sweet-sour-spicy vegetables.  Although this pulusu lacked the more traditional curry leaves, green chillies and urad dal in the tempering, the lack of those ingredients somehow made the simple flavors sharper and easier for me to appreciate.  I was pleasantly reminded of my nani’s Rajasthani imli ka pani, a tamarind-sugar water that is served with piping hot bajra ka khichda.

Pulusu

(1) Bring to boil 3 quarts of water with:

  • 1/8 tbsp of tamarind paste (Swad brand) soaked in warm water, and paste extracted

(2) Meanwhile, add vegetables and cook in the simmering tamarind water until soft.  Can add a balance of any and as much as you like from amongst the following:

  • 4-6 small whole onions, outer skin removed
  • 4-6 inch piece of bottle gourd, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • 4 inch piece of butternut squash, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • 2-3 small sweet potatoes, chopped into thick circles with the skin left on
  • Pinch of turmeric, about 1/8 tsp

Tarka, to be added towards the end

  • 1/4 tsp asafoetida
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 2-3 dried red chillies
  • 1 tbsp of oil to sizzle the above spices

Optional in tarka:

  • 2-3 green chillies
  • 10-12 curry leaves
  • 1 tsp of urad dal

For the very end:

  • 8 ounces of jaggery, called gur
  • Salt to taste
Cooking instructions – boil everything together, in the suggested order above, until the vegetables are tender.  Taste for the balance of sour, sweet and salt, along with spice (from the red and green chillies).  Adjust as needed.

My favorite carrot halwa

I’m easily seduced by the sight of orange carrots with their delicate green tops at a farm stall.  Last week, Hearty Roots at the Clermont Farmers market had carrots that looked so earthy, so beautifully sculpted and so vibrant that I couldn’t forget about them.  I didn’t buy any then thinking that I would find the pretty multi-colored bunches from Starbrite Organic Farm at the Hoboken farmers market on Tuesday.  Unfortunately the market got rained out this week, and I had to content myself with supermarket carrots.

The idea of working with lots of spindly carrots always makes me mildly anxious.  First I have to wash, then peel and then chop them.  In India, people also remove the “bony spine” that runs down the center of the carrot, although I’ve never bothered to do that here.  What would make all this work worth it?

Gajar ka halwa, of course.

This is a dessert that in its simplest form, uses lots of carrots, milk, and a little ghee, sugar and crushed cardamom.  The grated carrot turns into sweet melt-in-your mouth bits as it first slowly roasts in ghee and then cooks in milk.  Over an hour or two of slow cooking, depending on how much halwa you are making, the milk and carrot mixture reduces down completely into a rich near-solid mass.  Sugar and crushed cardamom powder get added towards the end, as the milk boils down.  The end result is a bright, soul-warming type of dessert that hums with goodness, celebration and comfort.  I’d like to admit that there is a certain amount of sin involved as well here.  The quantity that you end up consuming, especially over a few days, is quite sinful.  This time, in the spirit of the good Christian school that I attended, I mutter “Dear God, please forgive me”, as I eat mouthfuls of this decadent dessert, sometimes cold and straight from the fridge, and sometimes heated with a little warm milk.

And somehow, every step of this, my first-time making of gajar ka halwa also turns out to be utterly pleasurable.  The carrots give off a fresh from the earth smell as I peel them.  I natter away with my mother-in-law as I grate the carrots on the biggest hole side of my box grater.  The carrots turn the milk into a gorgeous golden pudding as the mixture bubbles on the stove.  I taste plentifully along the way and find that once the carrots are cooked and the sugar gets added, the thickening pudding starts tasting like an incredibly flavorful kheer, only that it has carrots instead of milk.  I giddily believe that I’ve invented a new dish, until I’m told that gajar ka kheer is not uncommon.  In the end, I’m suprised by how easy the dish was to make and how simple the ingredients were.  I’ve made a very traditional Indian sweet, and there’s a small feeling of satisfaction at having connected with all those halwa loving ancestors that I must possess.

Carrot halwa, serves 4-6

1 ½ lbs of carrots, coarsely grated

3 pints of milk, about 1.5 quarts (or a quarter gallon)

6 tbsps of solid ghee

½ – ¾ cup of turbinado sugar, depending on taste

1/2 – 1 tbsp of cardamom powder

1.  Heat a heavy-bottomed pan with about half the ghee.  Add the grated carrots and cook, stirring frequently, until the carrots are soft.  Add the rest of ghee midway, when the carrots start looking a little dry.  Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat the milk and bring to boil.

2.  When the carrots are ready, add the boiling milk and bring to boil again.  When the milk boils, reduce the flame and allow the mixture to bubble away on lower heat.  Stir occasionally to ensure that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan.

3.  Add the sugar when the milk reduces to a quarter or so of its original volume.  Keep cooking, stirring frequently, until the mixture is reduced to a solid mass, but doesn’t look too dry.  Stir in the crushed cardamom and decorate with chopped pistachios.  Serve hot or at room temperature.  note: can add a little milk when reheating.

Potato curry with tomatoes, aloo bhaji

We spent last week in the Hudson Valley north of Red Hook.  The house that we stayed in dated from 1773, and it had an orchard that was brimming with apples that were beginning to turn red.  I loved the warm brick house with its generously sized rooms, well worn wide plank floors and white latticed windows that framed the expansive green lawn with towering trees.

The trip was full of pleasures – a robust family reunion, plenty of good home cooking, the discovery of Tivoli village along with the quaint, handkerchief sized Tivoli Bread and Baking company, the vegan burger at Madalin’s Table, raw honey and pumpkin blossoms at Mead’s Orchard, a succulent pie made with freshly picked golden peaches at Me Oh My Pie Shop, another visit to Mercato for their exquisite handmade pasta, my first taste of Adirondack cheddar and Berkshire Blue cheese at the Clermont farmers market, tiny farmstands that had sprouted everywhere, sheep and cows dotting the rolling meadows, and acres of cultivated farmland wherever I turned.

Back home now, I’m missing the feel of different surfaces beneath my feet – the soft grass studded with tiny pink and purple wildflowers, the prickly gravel of the driveway, the heaviness of the smooth floor planks, the roughness of the unpolished wooden steps that led up to the house.  I’m also remembering the air that was heavy with the heady smell of sweet grass, moisture, fruit.  Outside my window now, my view stops at a lone tree and a parking lot.  Not exactly stretches of never-ending luscious green.

I brought back some dusty newly dug potatoes, ripe red tomatoes and a fragrant bunch of cilantro from Migliorelli’s pretty farm stand in Red Hook.  This morning my mother-in-law made her famous “Bihari” potato bhaji with my produce.  What I loved about the spicy mouth-watering North Indian style curry was that it used only tomatoes as the flavor base with not a hint of the ubiquitous onions, ginger and garlic found so often in Indian cooking.  The curry obtained its great flavor from the use of the Bengali five spice mixture called panch phoran, and from cumin used in three ways: first whole cumin seeds in the tempering, next ground cumin powder in the curry and finally the addition at the end of some dry roasted cumin seeds ground into powder.  We enjoyed big hot ladlefuls of the curry served with rotis at lunch.

Potato bhaji

1 1/2 lbs of potatoes, boiled, skinned and coarsely mashed

4-6 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

2 whole green chillies, optional

1 large handful of cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

2-3 tbsps of oil

Tarka spices:

1 tsp of panch phoran

1/8 tsp of asafoetida

Other powdered spices, to be added later:

1 tsp of cumin powder

2 tsps of coriander powder

1/2 tsp of turmeric

1 tsp of red chilli powder, or to taste

1/2 tsp of garam masala

To add at the end:

1 tsp of dry roasted cumin seeds, ground to powder

Salt to taste

Pinch of sugar, to taste

1. Heat the oil in a large pot.  When the oil is hot, add the asafoetida and the panch phoran.  Wait till the panch phoran sputters.  Now add the chopped tomatoes and the whole green chillies.  As the tomato cooks, add the dry spices: cumin powder, coriander powder, turmeric and red chilli powder.  Add a sprinkle of salt to help the tomatoes to cook faster.  When the tomatoes are done, the oil will glisten separately.

2.  At this time, add about 2-3 cups of water and bring the mixture to boil.  When the water boils, add the coarsely mashed boiled potatoes to the mixture.  Stir and cook for about 10-15 minutes on medium heat.  Taste for spices and salt, and adjust accordingly.  Add more water if needed.

3.  Meanwhile, prepare the roasted cumin by dry roasting cumin seeds in a hot pan until the smell of cumin is released.  Take care that the cumin seeds don’t burn.  Grind to a fine powder and add about 1 tsp of this to the curry.  Cook the potato currry for a minute or two longer and remove from flame.  Garnish with cilantro, and serve hot with Indian bread.

Ivy gourd stir fry (by other names, dondakaya, kundru, tindora)

“Indian cooking is about the right balance of salt and chilli.  There’s not much else to it,” remarked my husband when encountering yet another subtly salted and chilli-less dish.  I had been cooking for the children and for us all together, in one big pot, for months.  That meant no chillies – no cayenne pepper powder, no red chilli powder, no green chillies, not even a stray dried red chilli in the tempering.  One never knew when Agastya, who regularly consumes plenty of spicy bhujia, would declare the food “too spicy.”  My eighteen month-old had also learnt the word “picy” along with “ot.”  About salt, now I had to confess that I liked tasting the food first and then salt.  If salt was the first taste that hit my mouth when I tasted something, I would declare it too salty and continue to eat it very reluctantly.  Most of my cooking, therefore, tasted, somewhat bland despite a careful adding of all the myriad other spices that were called for in Indian cooking.

After my mother-in-law’s visit, I have new respect for this whole deal about chilli and salt.  The reason being that some of my mother-in-law’s tastiest cooking uses only salt and red chilli powder for seasoning.  Take her aloo fry for instance, which is a simple saute of potatoes.  The potatoes are peeled, diced into quarter-inch cubes and then sauteed in oil until they are well done.  Salt, a generous sprinkle of chilli powder, a good stir and to the table.  The potatoes are simply irresistible.

I feel the same way about her dondakaya, which is a stir fry of Indian ivy gourd, also known as tindora or kundru.  I love sinking my teeth into thin, tender strips of her well seasoned dondakaya, and could probably eat a whole bowl of these on my own.  This vegetable sold year round in Indian grocery stores is a smooth vibrant green gourd, about two inches long, that looks somewhat like a cornichon without the puckered flesh.  I don’t remember eating kundru too many times while growing up in Calcutta, but it appears to be a beloved vegetable in Andhra cooking.

For 4 people, start with about 2 lbs of dondkaya.  My mother-in-law recommends splitting each dondakaya into 4 halves, lengthwise.  Heat 2 tbsps of oil in a big, non-stick pan, and add the chopped vegetable.  Cook uncovered on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetable turns soft and starts looking golden and reddish-brown, and loses its bright green color.  At this point, check for tenderness.  If the vegetable is still a little tough, add about a quarter or half cup of water, add salt, cover and cook until the water is absorbed.  Then uncover, and continue to cook until the oil is released, and the vegetable glistens.  Add chilli powder at this time, to taste.  Serve immediately.

Red bell pepper chutney

I love red bell peppers.  Although they are available all year round, for me, the most exciting time of the year is when they show in big piles at my farmers market.  I like to stick a whole bunch of them into my oven and roast them until they are charred and black.  Then I let them cool, peel their skins off, throw away the seeds and stems, and then hoard them in my refrigerator to be enjoyed on slices of toast with fresh mozzarella or cheddar for the next few days.  I’ll add a bit of whatever else I have on hand – basil leaves, basil pesto, a splash of balsamic vinegar, drizzle of olive oil, and even honey mustard.  The whole roasting peppers operation is pulpy and messy, but the resulting pile of sweet red pepper flesh feels like treasure of the most precious sort.  For a different red pepper experience, I make my way to Fiore’s in Hoboken, which stocks a heavily garlic-laced vinegary roasted red pepper antipasti that tastes delicious on a crusty roll with their milky handmade mozzarella.

While I’m waiting for local red peppers to make an appearance this year, my mother-in-law makes a spicy red pepper chutney from store-bought ones.  I can’t get enough of this chutney.  I dab it on everything – idlis, veggie burgers, rice.  The red peppers are sauteed on the stove with a little tamarind and salt, and then mixed with a freshly-made, South Indian podi  or spice powder.  The gorgeous red chutney is sweet from the bell peppers with a touch of tang from the tamarind and then fiery from the dried red chillies in the powder.  I plan to make it again with roasted red peppers instead of sauteed red peppers for an even deeper smokier and sweeter flavor but for now here is the recipe, originally from my sister-in-law, Rohini, who lives in San Francisco.

Red bell pepper chutney

2 red peppers, roughly chopped into 1″ pieces

1 tsp of deseeded solid tamarind paste (Swad brand)

1 tbsp oil + 1/2 tsp

Salt to taste

For the spice powder, called podi: 

1 tbsp urad dal

1/2 tsp black mustard seeds (rai)

1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds (methi)

5-6 dried red chillies, or a few more depending on spice preference

1/2 tsp cumin seeds (jeera)

1/8 tsp asafetida (heeng)

1. In a small pan on medium heat,  briefly fry the spice powder ingredients in a 1/2 tsp of oil, adding the cumin seeds and asafetida at the end, so that they don’t burn.  Keep aside until it cools a little and then grind into a mealy powder.

2.  Meanwhile in a separate pan, add about 1 tbsp of oil and saute the chopped red peppers along with the tamarind and some salt.  Cook until the bell peppers become soft, and a knife slides into the peppers easily.  Churn in the blender to make a paste.

3.  Combine the spice powder and the cooked pepper paste, adding the powder in spoonfuls and tasting along the way to find the preferred balance of pepper and spice.

Enjoy the chutney at room temperature.

Note: the podi or spice powder tastes very good combined with a little salt and ghee, and dabbed onto hot idlis.

Savory toast topped with chickpea flour and vegetables


Every week I think about vegetable pakoras.  Deep-fried, piping hot chickpea flour (besan) fritter like creations that are full of minced vegetables.  Served with a side of Maggi tomato ketchup.  I had some delicious pakoras in Jersey City recently that were stuffed with chopped methi and coriander leaves and green chilli.  I will attempt to make them soon, but for the moment, my mother-in-law shows me how to make these toasts that are a more wholesome cousin of deep fried bread pakoras.

The bread is buttered on one side and placed on a hot griddle with the buttered side down, and then spread with a spiced chickpea flour batter that’s full of chopped vegetables like onions, green peppers and tomatoes.  The flavor comes from minced ginger, red chilli powder, a pinch of whole cumin seeds and some finely chopped coriander.  Try these at breakfast or at tea time or for a quick lunch.  Any regular white or whole wheat bread can be used.

Savory toast topped with chickpea flour and vegetables

2 pieces of white or whole wheat bread

For the besan topping batter:

1/3 cup besan

1/8 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 – 1 tsp red chilli powder

1/2 tsp finely minced ginger

2 tbsp finely chopped onions

1 tbsp finely chopped green peppers

1 tbsp finely chopped tomatoes, deseeded

Some chopped coriander leaves

A little butter and oil

salt to taste

1.  Heat a non-stick griddle.  Butter one side of the bread and keep aside.  Meanwhile, prepare the besan batter by mixing all of the above.  Add water to prepare the batter cautiously – the water is usually 1/2 of the quantity of besan used.  Add a few drops of oil to the batter, about a half teaspoon.  The consistency should be medium-thick, similar to pancake batter.

2.  Place one slice of bread on the hot griddle with the butter face down on medium heat.  On top of the bread spread half the batter.  Allow to cook on medium heat for a little while until the bottom side looks toasted.  Spoon a little oil on top of the battered side.  Flip over quickly, and continue to cook on low heat for a few minutes until the besan batter appears firm, golden brown and crispy.

Serve immediately and enjoy hot with ketchup.

Dosakai pachadi: a creamy cucumber relish

We had hot steaming rice for lunch today with a most unexpected side – a cooling cucumber relish made with a paste of black mustard seeds and white sesame seeds.  Not much else was needed for a satisfying meal.  I was surprised by how good the relish tasted rubbed into the rice – it was mustardy, spicy from green chillies with a hint of sour from tamarind.  Finely chopped cucumbers and the ground sesame gave it an interesting texture – creamy and nutty, but studded with bites of pale green.  A sort of refreshing South Indian summer pesto best enjoyed with warm rice.

Dosakai pachadi

1 large garden cucumber, peeled and finely chopped

Paste ingredients:

3 tbsp sesame seeds

1/2 tsp mustard seeds

2 or 3 green chillies

1 tsp of Swad tamarind fruit paste, deseeded

Pinch of turmeric

Salt to taste

Tarka ingredients:

1/2 tsp mustard seeds

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1-2 dried red chillies, broken into smaller bits

1 tsp of oil

1.  Soak the mustard seeds and sesame seeds in water for a half hour.  Discard the water.  Place all the other paste ingredients in a blender and grind to a fine paste with minimal water.

2.  In a bowl, stir the cucumbers into the paste.  Heat some oil in a small pan and add the tarka ingredients.  Allow the cumin and mustard seeds to sputter, and then pour over the cucumber relish.

Serve at room temperature with warm fragrant rice.

Dahi vada

Vadas are savory lentil doughnuts that are made entirely with urad dal.  You can eat with them as is with coconut chutney or sambar or both or even just plain old ketchup, but my mother-in-law serves them dipped in salty yogurt that is flavored with a paste of green chillies and coriander leaves.  There’s a final tarka of mustard seeds, curry leaves, dried red chillies and green chillies added on the top.  The spicy yogurt soaked dahi vadas are completely satisfying and delicious, and it’s easy to lose track of how many you are eating.

Soak about 2 cups of whole skinned urad dal overnight to make about 30 vadas
Discard soaking water and use a wet grinder or blender to grind the urad dal with minimal water to make the batter. Add salt to taste and keep aside for 15 minutes. Make round balls with your fingers or doughnuts if you are skilled enough, and begin frying on high heat. I am only able to manage round vadas that don't have a hole in the center. Keep a bowl of water on the side to keep your fingers clean of the moist batter in between dippings.
Frying away. Flip over when one side turns golden. Remove when both sides are golden brown. Turn down heat if the oil gets too hot, but the vadas usually cook well in medium-high heat.
Crisp, hot and ready to eat as is vadas, but keep on reading for dahi vadas
To make dahi vadas, at first, soak the vadas, a few at a time, in a mixture of lightly salted yogurt and water for a few seconds. Flip over and keep aside in a bowl.
Here are the soaked vadas. Now separately make a salty yogurt mixture that's been mixed with finely chopped coriander and green chilies. Spoon the yogurt mixture on and around the vadas, covering them completely as shown below.
Here is the last dahi vada, with the tarka-garnish of mustard seeds, red chillies, green chillies and curry leaves sizzled in hot oil. Note: add some sweet-sour tamarind chutney and a sprinkle of chaat masala for a delicious, mouth-puckering North Indian flavor instead of the tarka that is more South Indian.

 

Spicy tamarind rice: pulihora

Last night I found myself mixing plain yogurt into my rice and then spooning it into my mouth with mango pickle.  It tasted soothing, nourishing, spicy….and incredibly delicious.  My husband always ends his meals in this traditional South Indian manner.  He also eats his meals in “courses” – first plain rice mixed with the vegetable of the day.  Next, rice mixed with lentils and finally rice mixed with yogurt.  I have always regarded his step by step meals with some amusement.  Since when had I crossed over to the other side?

I think I sprouted South Indian taste buds at the moment that I first tasted hot curd rice wrapped in a banana leaf in the early hours of the morning at the Tirupati temple.  Later, I stood in line as a priest doled out a palmfuls of pulihora or “tiger” rice as this spicy, sour, yellow, studded with peanuts rice is called, at the twelfth century, intricately carved temple of Simhachalam.  As for the rice and yogurt combination that I’ve been late to adopt, perhaps a dormant taste bud ? gene? was finally surfacing.

My mother-in-law makes a fantastic puli rice, so here it is, freshly cooked minutes ago.  The phone instructions for this rice have never worked for me.  It’s because I’ve not been able to envision how to cook the tamarind sauce for this rice.  How much water in the tamarind as it soaks? How long does the tamarind cook for?  What goes in the tarka and in what order?  While cooking, I find out that it’s much easier to use a small 5-6 inch pot for cooking the sauce as the tamarind water bubbles and releases oil.  My mother-in-law’s secret ingredient here is toasted and ground sesame seeds, along with crushed raw mustard seeds, both of which are mixed into the rice at the end.  I’m missing fresh green curry leaves today, but they are a must.  This rice is eaten entirely on its own.

Pulihora

1 cup white basmati rice, cooked and kept aside

Tarka ingredients:
1/2 tbsp chana dal
1/2 tbsp urad dal
1/4 tsp methi seeds
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/8 tsp asafetida
3-4 whole dried red chillies, broken in half
2-3 green chillies, slit in half
10 curry leaves

Separately roast in a little oil and keep aside:
3 tbsp raw peanuts

Dry roast, grind to powder and keep aside:
2 tbsp white sesame seeds

Grind to powder:
2 tsp black mustard seeds

Other
3 tbsp oil
1 tbsp tamarind fruit paste, soaked in a 1/2 cup of hot water and paste extracted (use Swad fruit paste)
1/2 tsp turmeric
Salt to taste and pinch of sugar

1.  Heat the oil in a small pan and add the tarka ingredients in the order listed: chana dal, urad dal, methi seeds, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, asafetida, red chillies, green chillies and curry leaves.  Importantly, the chana dal, urad dal and methi seeds must cook for an extra half minute before the other quicker-cooking ingredients are added.  Add the tamarind extract in the 1/2 cup of water along with the salt and sugar and  turmeric.  Cook until the oil is released.  This takes at least ten minutes on medium heat.  You will see drops of yellow oil floating on top of the tamarind sauce and the paste will have visibly thickened.  At this time remove the paste and keep aside.  The paste should taste very sour and salty.

2.  Meanwhile, put the cooked rice in a bowl (can be hot or cold) and stir in the paste with your fingers.  Add the roasted peanuts, the roasted ground sesame seeds and the powdered raw black mustard seeds.  Stir well and taste for 1. sourness 2. salt.  3.  level of heat.  Adjust for any of those by adding a little more tamarind soaked in warm water, salt and red/green chillies cooked for a few seconds in a touch of hot oil.

The flavors in the rice deepen as it sits for a few hours.  It’s delicious all by itself and makes a great dish to bring along on a picnic.

The tamarind sauce with the peanuts added to it

Baghare Baingan

What’s on the menu today?  Baghare baingan, meaning tempered eggplants, from Hyderabad.  Agastya fondly calls this dish “eggplants in peanut sauce” but to be fair it also has an equal quantity of coconut and sesame seeds in it.  My husband’s cousin, Kasturi, made this richly flavored eggplant dish for me at our first meeting, about six years ago.  I’ve never stopped thinking about it.  Although I’ve made it a few times since, this time I want to make it again under my mother-in-law’s watchful gaze.  “Come here and see if I’m doing everything correctly,” I call to her.  “I’m coming to watch and learn,” she smiles.  That kind lady always makes me feel better about my cooking abilities.

This dish is best made with small round baby Indian eggplants, but any eggplant sliced up can be used.  First, pan grill the eggplant.  Simultaneously roast the nuts and spices and fry the onions, all of which are ground up into a paste.  For the final step heat oil in a pan and put in the tarka, and fry the ginger and garlic.  Next add in the grilled eggplant and the nut and spice paste.  The steps sound fussy, but having done this dish in pot entirely and then this way, I have to say that the separate roasting and frying and grinding is all completely worth it.  It makes the dish taste incredibly complex with layers and layers of flavor.

Note the recipe below makes enough to serve 6, so halve it to serve 2-4.

Baghare Baingan

About 1 1/2 lbs of baby eggplant

Masala paste:
2 cups of onions, roughly chopped
1/4 cup raw peanuts (about 4 tbsp)
1/4 cup white sesame seeds
1/4 cup chopped coconut, preferably fresh (can use shredded frozen coconut)
2-3 dried red chillies

Tarka or tempering:
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 1/2 tbsp ginger, minced
1 1/2 tbsp garlic minced
5-6 curry leaves
2-3 whole green chillies, poked with a knife

Dried spices
1/2 tsp of turmeric powder
1/2 tsp of coriander powder
1/4 tsp of garam masala powder
1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper powder, can add more if needed

Other:
1 tbsp of tamarind, soaked in a half cup of hot water and paste extracted

Salt to taste
3-4 tbsp of oil

1.  Wash and trim the eggplant, and slit crosswise from the top, stopping towards the bottom.  Alternatively slit the baby eggplant lengthwise into two halves for faster cooking.  Place the eggplant in a large bowl of salted water as you cut them.  This draws the bitterness out of the eggplant.   Put aside for 10-15 minutes.

2. Heat half the oil in a large pan.  Put whole eggplants or the halves face down in a single layer.  Cook on medium heat, turning the whole eggplants once every few minutes until the eggplant cooks through and a knife poked in the middle goes through easily.  Be careful to not overcook the eggplant else it will fall apart in the sauce.  Keep the eggplant aside and keep the pan for step 4.

3.  While the eggplant is roasting, heat up a small pan.  First dry roast the sesame seeds and put into a dry grinder.  Next, roast the peanuts in the same pan, and place into the dry grinder.  Now, roast the red chillies in the same pan and add to the grinder.  Turn the dry grinder on to powder the sesame, peanuts and red chillies.  To this powdered mix add the coconut pieces and grind again.  Keep aside.  Meanwhile heat a little oil in the same pan and fry the onions until golden brown.  Separately grind these onions in a wet grinder.  Now combine the sesame, peanut, chilli and coconut paste and the onions with half a cup of water and pulse once in the wet grinder.  Add salt to this masala paste.

4.  Heat the rest of the oil, and add in all the tempering ingredients in this order: cumin seeds, mustard seeds, green chillies, curry leaves, ginger and garlic paste.  Cook for a couple of minutes.  Now add the roasted eggplants and the masala paste made in step 3.  Add the turmeric powder.  Cook for a a few minutes, stirring to make sure that the paste doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  Now add some water (about ½ cup), the rest of the dry spices – coriander, garam masala and cayenne pepper powder.  Cover and cook for about ten minutes on medium to low heat.  Uncover, and add some of the tamarind extract, tasting to see how much is needed.  Also adjust salt at this time.  Cook for another minute and remove from flame.  Garnish with freshly chopped coriander before serving.  Best eaten with hot rice.

Tomato Dal, Andhra style

My mother-in-law, a sweet bespectacled lady with an infectious chuckle, arrived last week.  She stepped into my fifty square foot kitchen and immediately transformed it into her own space.  The spices were rearranged, the lentil shelves were cleaned out and essentials like garlic, ginger, onion and cilantro were restocked.  We went shopping for bags of basmati rice, toor dal, tamarind, curry leaves and green chillies to ensure that we would have sufficient quantities for all the cooking that was about to take place.

Almost unawares, I found myself peeling, chopping, stirring, taking hurried notes and even faster pictures.  Here was my opportunity I realized, to become an expert. Twelve weeks of immersion in South Indian (more precisely, Andhra) cooking.  In my own kitchen.  And since I’ve been cooking every day for the last two years, I had a foundation to build upon.  Questions I needed answered.  Cooking tips that I had been yearning for.  Recipes transmitted through phone that needed deciphering.  The best part was that I was going to have the memory of taste.

In a week, I am already up to my elbows in recipes and pictures, and if I don’t document these, the backlog will grow alarmingly large. I plan to write a recipe every day and update some of my earlier posts.  Whatever makes it into this blog becomes worthy of consideration for our meals at home.  These recipes, easily accessible online, are the ones that I turn to when I want to review things in a pinch and begin cooking.  This helps me to further refine the recipes.  It’s a happy outcome.

I’m beginning with Tomato Dal, a soupy lentil preparation made with toor dal that has a traditional Andhra dal tempering: urad dal, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried red chillies and asafetida.  The surprise ingredient is methi seeds in the tempering.  My mother-in-law says that asafetida is usually used in sour dal preparations like this one, and that chana dal, another common tempering ingredient in her cooking, is never used in dals.

Tomato Dal

1 cup toor dal, boiled
1 cup onions, chopped
1/2 lb or two large plum tomatoes, chopped
6-7 whole green chillies, optional, but adds great flavor
1 tsp of solid deseeded tamarind fruit paste (use Swad fruit paste sold at Patel’s)
1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
A few curry leaves

For the tempering, called tarka:
1/4 tsp methi seeds
1 tsp urad dal
1-2 dried red chillies
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
a pinch of asafetida

1 tbsp of ghee
Salt to taste

  1. Heat the ghee in a pot.  As the ghee heats up add the tarka spices one by one (in the order listed) and allow them to sizzle for a couple of seconds.  Now add the green chillies if using.
  2. Add the onions and stir-fry for a few minutes.  Add the turmeric powder as the onions fry.
  3. Add the tomatoes, and the tamarind.  Cook for a few minutes until the tomatoes are a little soft.  Add the cilantro and salt.  Cook for another minute or so.
  4. Now add the boiled dal and sufficient water for desired thin soup-like consistency.
  5. Bring to boil and simmer on low to medium heat for about ten minutes.  Add the curry leaves while the dal is simmering.  Serve hot with rice.

Making aloo parathas

“You haven’t cooked even once the entire time I’ve been here,” my mother sniffed, as her ten-day visit came to a close.  “I think you like to eat more than you like to cook.”

I protested “But mom, if you cook I get to taste your cooking.  Then I know what to make, how to make it, and the flavors that I should be seeking in my cooking.”

My mother looked unconvinced.

Now, four year old Agastya has always loved his nani’s cooking.  Even when he was just weeks old, if nani began to fry onions in the kitchen, he’d wake up very hungry and demand to be fed.  As he grew older, he’d sit at the table and lap up her cooking, with an expression of intense satisfaction on his face.  This time, a day or two after she left, Agastya began to ask for nani’s aloo parathas, a traditional Indian potato flatbread that’s toasted on the stove.  My husband, full of praise for my mother’s impeccably seasoned food and crisp hot-off-the-stove parathas, sent me some doubtful, “what can we feed him instead,” looks.

Rolling out fresh Indian bread has been my weakness: I’ve been battling to make good rotis and parathas for what seems like a long time now.  I have been subject to countless self-inflicted stringy, rock-hard and inedible experiments on this topic.

By now, all of this uncertainty and doubt, the weight of all the failed attempts was beginning to get to me.   On this trip I had keenly observed my mother making aloo parathas using a technique that seemed almost gnocchi like in style.   I jumped into replicating her steps, and to my utter surprise, turned out a very tasty easy-to-make potato paratha.

If you are brand new to Indian bread making, this is a good place to begin.  Here is the recipe.

1 lb of boiled potatoes, skinned
½ cup of finely chopped red onions
Juice of one small lemon
Handful of finely chopped coriander leaves
Rock salt (kala namak) or table salt to taste
Sufficient whole wheat chappati flour, called atta

Mash up the hot boiled potatoes with a good sprinkle of rock salt, a generous squeeze of lemon, the onions and coriander.  Do a taste test.

Then liberally dust whole wheat atta flour into the potatoes kneading until the dough comes together into a ball.

Divide the dough into small balls and roll out the dough into a 1/8 inch thick 6-7 inch disc dusting the surface well with flour as you work to prevent sticking.  If the dough refuses to roll out and gets stuck, add a little more flour into the dough.  The balls should roll out fairly easily.  Oil your hands to prevent the dough from sticking.

Place the disc on a hot cast iron skillet, and toast each side until brown dots appear.  At this point spread a quarter teaspoon or so of oil on each side and cook for a few more seconds flipping once.  Remove from flame and enjoy hot with a side of plain yogurt or raita.

Chilli cheese toast

Amul cheese, the medium cheddar kind that comes packaged in a canned tin in India, was my first love.  I remember creeping to our white fridge at night to steal slices of comforting white bread and cheese for a midnight snack.  It was the only cheese that was readily available when I was growing up in India.  I developed a deep affection for this cheese which was used in everything that called for cheese in India – pizza, on top of baked dishes, in white sauces.

I’ve grown to enjoy all kinds of cheese since, but I’m always searching for cheddar.  These are some of my recent favorites: Grafton from Vermont (aged at least 2 years), Tickler (sold at Murray’s Cheese in New York City) and Mrs. Quicke’s Cheddar (also sold at Murray’s).  In my search for local farmstead cheddar, I find Bobolink Dairy at the beautiful Warwick farmers market in Orange County, NY.  Bobolink makes a rich deep yellow crumbly aged cheddar with milk from their own cows.  They also bake some delicious bread that comes out of the oven in batches as you linger in their farm store in Milton, NJ, on a Saturday morning.

Here is one way that I love my cheddar cheese: about a quarter cup coarsely grated and sprinkled on top of a slice of bread (toasted or untoasted) and then sprinkled with a 1/2 tbsp of red onions and a chopped de-seeded green chilli.  Stick under a hot broiler for two-three minutes or in a toaster oven until the cheese melts and the heavenly aroma of baking bread, cheese, onion and chillies fills your nose.  Enjoy with a steaming cup of tea.

Dahi aloo: potatoes in a yogurt curry

Recently, my mom and her sister, my masi, came to visit me for a few days from India.  On the morning that they were about to arrive, I knew that I had to make lunch for them.  What should I make, I wondered?   My mom I’d seen nibbling on lettuce leaves and other bits for lunch since I was a child.  I could talk her into abandoning her newly rediscovered grandchildren and her jetlag to go to an interesting restaurant.  And then what if all she wanted was a really good cup of tea.  Now that I could do.  About my aunt, I was a little less certain.  She might prefer a home-cooked meal after hours of weary travel.  Here I had been telling my mom and masi for months what a good cook I’d become, how I cooked every day for the boys.

I settled on a meal of lobia, black eyed peas, and aloo dum made with potatoes in a tomato sauce.  On this morning the black eyed peas turned into a sticky overcooked mess and the pressure cooker boiled over.   The potatoes remained stubbornly hard.  The clock ticked away.  This is a bad omen, I thought, suddenly all thumbs, as I tried to conceal the mess.  Better stop cooking now.  When mom and masi arrived, they found boiled potatoes idling on the kitchen counter and not much else.  I handed the potatoes off to my mildly surprised mother.  We were soon sitting down to lunch.

In retrospect, this is what I should have made, my mom’s favorite dahi aloo sabzi.  It’s a simple, soothing dish, perfect for hot summer days, that relies upon the flavor of potato, tart plain yogurt, and lots of freshly chopped coriander leaves.  The dish doesn’t make much use of dried spice powder, although you could add some coriander and cumin powder if you like.  It is similar to Gujarati kadhi, but here the potato acts as a binder for the yogurt, not besan, and the dish has chunks of hearty potato floating  in it (not visible in the picture).  It works very well with khichdi and hot parathas.  Here is the recipe, in mom’s words.

Dahi aloo

Boil 1 lb (about 4 medium) potatoes.  Keep one aside, and mash it up.  To this mashed potato, add 1 cup full fat plain yogurt with 2 cups water, and crush with your hands until smooth. This adds as a binder to the yogurt and stops it from curdling.  Roughly break the rest of the potatoes into 1” cubes by hand (can chop, but handbroken tastes better).

Heat 1 tbsp ghee.  Add ½ tsp cumin seeds, pinch of asafetida, 6-7 curry leaves, ½ tbsp finely chopped ginger, 1-2 green chillies, 1 dried red chilli (chillies are optional).  Stir fry for 2 minutes and add potatoes.  Mix well and add 1/4 tsp of turmeric, ¼ tsp red chilli or cayenne pepper powder.  Fry for 2-3 minutes on medium flame, stirring all the time so that the potatoes don’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  Add the curd mixture and allow to come to boil, stirring frequently.  Take care that the curd doesn’t curdle (stirring helps).  When it comes to boil, simmer for 5 minutes on low flame.  At this point add salt (not earlier), pinch of sugar, and 1 tsp of lemon juice if needed.

Garnish well with chopped coriander leaves.

Lavender tea cake

In June last year, I found a lavender pound cake at the Rhinebeck Farmers Market.  I had never encountered lavender in a cake before, and this cake had a sprig of lavender pressed into the middle.  It looked both romantic and rustic.  Slices of this buttery pound cake went wonderfully well with cups of English breakfast tea or masala chai. It had bits of lavender that burst into full flavor in my mouth.

It’s June again, and I’m sure that lavender is in full bloom here in the northeast.  My thoughts keep turning to lavender cake and the promise of summer and romance that each tiny petal-scented bite might hold for me.

I’ve adapted a basic pound cake recipe from Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook for this cake.  I recommend leaving the butter out to soften overnight for this cake, and also keeping the eggs out for a little while to get them to room temperature before using.

Use an electric mixer, beat the sugar and butter well first, and then incorporate the eggs fully into the fluffy batter one by one, along with the vanilla.  Fold in the flour, salt and lavender gently into the batter.  The cake is best made in a 9 by 5  loaf pan, but here I’ve used an 8″ square pan.  The scent of lavender will fill your home as the cake bakes.

Lavender Tea Cake

1 1/2 sticks of butter or 3/4 cup, very soft at room temperature
3 eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp of pure vanilla extract
1 cup of all purpose flour
1/8 tsp of salt
1/2 tbsp of dried lavender flowers

1.  Heat the oven to 350F.  Butter and flour a 9 by 5 loaf pan.  Whisk the flour, salt and lavender and keep aside.

2.  With an electric mixer on the lowest setting, beat the sugar and the butter for 3-4 minutes until light and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one by one, beating each until fully incorporated into the batter.

3.  Fold in the flour mixture gently into the cake in three parts.  Place into prepared pan and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the sides of the cake move away from the pan, the top turns a warm golden and a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.  Cool completely, and turn out of the pan.  If you’d like to place lavender flowers on top of the cake, do so midway through baking, when the batter looks somewhat firm.

Quick matar paneer

Once in a while, the day rushes by without any attention to what we will do for dinner.  I find myself in need of a very simple recipe and a quick dish that I can get on the table in a half hour or less.  I want minimal chopping, uncomplicated prep work and as little clean up as possible.  When making Indian food, I spend plenty of time chopping onions and tomatoes, mincing ginger and garlic, toasting and grinding spices one by one, and then hovering by the stove waiting for each additional layer to cook.  In fact, my original recipe for matar paneer belongs to that category of dishes.  This time I want to find a simple process that still yields a delicious dish.

My mother suggests her version of matar paneer.  Paneer, if not readily available, can be made in the time that the sauce cooks, and the peas are in the freezer.  For the sauce, all I need is three ingredients, tomatoes, ginger and garlic, all blended together with a quick turn in the food processor.  Heat the oil, temper with cardamom and cumin seeds, and then add the sauce.  Add pinches of basic Indian spices — turmeric, red chilli powder and garam masala, along with a little salt and sugar.  Once the oil separates in a few minutes, add some water and the peas.  When the peas are cooked add the paneer.

The aromatic dish, with a lingering taste of ginger and garlic, with soft cubes of cheese and sweet peas that work well with the acidity of the tomatoes, is ready to eat.

Quick Matar Paneer, serves 2

1 cup of paneer, cubed
1 cup of tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 inch piece of ginger, or 1 tsp chopped
1 large clove of garlic, or 1 tsp chopped
1 cup of peas

For tempering:
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
2 green cardamom pods
Small piece of cinnamon stick, optional
1 bay leaf, optional
1 tbsp oil

Dry spices:
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper powder or red chilli powder.  Can add more to taste.
1/4 tsp of turmeric
1/4 tsp of garam masala

Pinch of sugar
Salt to taste

1.  Heat the oil in a pan and add the tempering spices.  Meanwhile, blend the tomatoes, ginger and garlic in a food processor.  Add to the pan after the cumin sputters.   Add all the dry spices.  Now cook for several minutes, until the oil floats on top of the tomatoes.

2.  Add the peas and about a cup of water.  Cook for a few minutes, until the peas are cooked.  Now add the paneer, cook for another couple of minutes.  Serve hot with rice or Indian style bread.

Mint chutney sandwich

On my last trip to Mumbai, I discovered a café in the lobby of our hotel that looked like it had stepped out of New York or London or some other big city.  The menu featured trendy sandwiches and salads and soups.  Where was pav bhaji and sev puri and pani puri,I wondered, as I looked at the menu.  Bombay had so many unique and delicious street foods to offer.  Surely a Chowpatty bhel puri merited the same fame as a portabella mushroom panini?  It was then that I stumbled upon the special of the day which read “Bombay grilled chutney sandwich.”  This was a simple street sandwich, white bread layered with a tangy and spicy green chutney and stuffed with slices of tomato, cucumber and white cheddar cheese.   As I took a bite, I felt that I was tasting something of the real Bombay that lay outside the sublime air of the hotel.

This mint chutney is easy to make, and lasts for a few days in the refrigerator.  It tastes very good with many things, but I love slathering it on open-faced sandwiches with simple vegetable and cheese fillings.

Update July 2011: My aunt who visited recently read this recipe and said that potato is a MUST in chutney sandwiches.  Mix in chopped boiled potato with the chutney and layer into the sandwich.

Mint chutney, adapted from Tarla Dalal

2 cups of mint leaves, loosely packed
1 cup of coriander leaves, loosely packed
1 cup onion, roughly chopped
2 green chillies, or more to taste
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 tsp sugar, or more to taste
Salt to taste

1. Blend all the ingredients with minimal water to make a thick paste.  Use this recipe as a basic guideline, varying ingredients to taste.  Note, you can play with the flavors of this chutney by adding small quantities of garlic, ginger, raw green mangoes, and tamarind pulp.

2. Spread on bread and layer on sandwich fillings of your choice, such as lettuce, cucumbers, tomato, avocado (not Indian, but very tasty with the chutney), green peppers, diced boiled potatoes, cheese, and onions.   The sandwich can also be made with toasted bread or can be brushed lightly with butter and grilled in a pan.  Alternatively, the chutney can be drizzled on an open sandwich.

Cherry cinnamon cake

My birthday weekend featured many treats: a trip to the countryside of Columbia County in upstate New York, a visit to Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, a stop at the Hawthorne Valley farm store, and two cakes: a mango upside down cake and a fresh cherry cinnamon cake.  I made one for myself and the other was made for me.  The cherry cinnamon cake, made early in the morning by my husband and his two elfin helpers, was bursting with juicy bing cherries from California that are in season right now.  Why cherries?  Amma, my paternal grandmother, christened me Cherry before I was given a “proper” name.  I’ve lived with two names since, and cherries, ripest in June, have become my birthday fruit.

Having children around you means that a day that went acknowledged but not wildly celebrated can now return to the giddiness of childhood.  I always woke up with flutters in my stomach on a birthday morning until i turned, say, 18 or so.  Then there were a few years when it was mostly my parents who remembered my birthday.  Now, with happy birthday notes, and songs and cakes and birthday wishes, general merrymaking, and resounding reminders of “Mom, you’re Thirty Four,” birthdays are exciting again.

My husband adapted this delicious cinnamon cobbler meets sweet firm fresh fruit recipe from BBC’s GoodFood.  Here is the original recipe.

For the cake
1 lb juicy, ripe cherries

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
4 tbsp turbinado sugar

1 egg, beaten
6 tbsp milk
6 tbsp butter, melted

For the topping
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp turbinado sugar
2 tbsp firm butter, diced
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting, optional

1. Remove the stalks and stones from the cherries.  Use a pitter if you have one to keep the fruit whole.

2. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Butter and flour an 8 or 9 inch round cake tin.

3. Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and sugar into a bowl.  Make a well in the centre, and add the beaten egg, milk and melted butter. Combine gently with a spatula.  Mix well to make a thick, smooth mixture. Place into the prepared tin and spread evenly.

4. Dot the cherries over the mixture and press the cherries into the batter gently in a single layer, doubling up if needed.

5. For the crumb topping, put all the ingredients into a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingers to make a crumb-like mixture and continue to work the mixture until it comes together in pea-sized pieces. Scatter the topping over the cherries.

6. Bake for 30-40 minutes until a tester pushed into the center comes out clean.  Allow the cake to cool, turn out of pan and continue to cool on a wire rack.  Serve warm by itself or with heavy whipped cream/vanilla ice-cream.

Strawberry cake

We were at a scantily populated park early on Sunday morning.  When we bundled into the car, Agastya piped up from the back “Daddy, let’s not go home.”  My thoughts exactly.  If I had ever needed proof that this was my son, with my exact set of peripatetic genes, here it was.   “How about strawberry picking,” I said, watching Agastya brighten at the suggestion.  The sun was beginning to show through the clouds.

An hour later, we were at Peterson’s Farm in Flemington, NJ.  Little globules of fruit twinkled up from under the leaves of the strawberry runners.  The earth smelled fresh, there was a small breeze, and a friendly dog came to sample our sugar sweet fruit.  I had two small red-streaked helpers who adored strawberries.

We ate some of the berries last night in a salad with a mild honey lavender goat cheese from Nettlemeadow farm.  I ate some plain strawberries this morning for breakfast.  What was of course lingering in my mind was this rustic and pretty strawberry cake from Smitten Kitchen.  I made the cake but cut Deb’s recipe in half to assuage my feelings of guilt.

This precious cake oozes with strawberries, and has a crumbly, biscuit-like texture.  It feels like strawberry cake, scone, biscuit, pie, all rolled into one, and is immensely satisfying to bake and eat.  Small very ripe strawberries taste best in this cake.  On a whim, I’ve used a cast iron skillet but a more conventional pie dish or cake pan would work too.  Double the recipe if you need to serve more than 6.

Strawberry cake

½ lb strawberries, hulled and cut in half

¾ cup flour
¾ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt

3 tbsps of butter at room temperature
6 tbsps sugar + 1 tbsp

½ a beaten egg
¼ cup milk
½ tsp vanilla essence

Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

1. Heat the oven to 350F.  Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt and keep aside.   Butter an 8” cake pan or pie dish.

2. With an electric mixer on the lowest setting, beat the sugar and the butter for about 2 minutes.  Add the egg, milk and vanilla essence and beat for another few seconds until combined.

3. Now gently fold in the flour mixture with a spatula.  Put the batter in the cake pan.  Layer on top with cut strawberries face down as close together as possible in a single layer, doubling up if needed.  Sprinkle the remaining tablespoonful of sugar on top of the strawberries.

4. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 325F and bake for about an hour or more until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

5. Cool, turn out of pan (or can leave in a pretty dish), dust confectioner’s sugar and serve by itself or with heavy whipped cream / vanilla ice-cream.

Capsicum paneer

When I left home, my mother gave me a few cookbooks.  Amongst them was a diminutive volume called Paneer by Tarla Dalal.  I had often seen my mother consult Tarla Dalal’s recipes.  Tarla was a prolific cook and writer, and her books tried to capture practically every cuisine in the world for the Indian vegetarian cook, suitably modified for that palate and sensibility.  Some of her recipes had become family favorites, like the one for Burmese Khow Suey.  I couldn’t leave home without a volume by this venerable, sometimes idiosyncratic kitchen aunt.

The Paneer book travelled with me through many years and during that time, there were only one or two recipes that I dared to make from it.  But given my limited cooking repertoire, I made those recipes so many times that the book got increasingly tattered and splattered with food.  I always felt an odd sense of pride when I looked at a familiar recipe festooned with wavy watermarks and bits of food.  Here was a piece, albeit ragged and out-of-place in this sleek digital age, of what I considered to be my culinary history.

One of my favorite dishes in this book is a simple capsicum paneer stir fry.  I’ve taken lots of liberties with the balance of the ingredients, but have retained Tarla’s basic cooking guidelines.  It is an easy, satisfying dish that puts multi-hued bell peppers to good use.

Capsicum paneer

2 cups firm paneer, cut into 1” cubes
3 cups of bell peppers, chopped into 1” squares
1 cup tomato, chopped

1 green chilli finely chopped
1 heaped tbsp garlic, made into a smooth paste with a little water
½ tsp ginger, minced
1 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped

1 tsp coriander seeds or coriander powder
1 whole dry red chilli
2 tsps kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves)

1 tbsp oil or ghee
salt to taste

1. First, pound the coriander seeds and the red chilli together.  Keep aside.

2. Heat the oil in a pan.  Add the garlic paste and cook on low heat for a few seconds.  Add the capsicum and the pounded spices and cook for a half minute.  Add the green chillies and ginger, and fry again for several seconds.  Add the tomatoes and cook until the oil is released from the mixture.

3. With your palms, crush the kasuri methi and sprinkle into the dish.  Add the salt.  Cook for a few seconds again.  Toss the paneer with the vegetables.  Cook for a few minutes.

Garnish with coriander and serve hot with rotis or parathas and raita.

Carrot loaf cake

I love carrot cake.  However, it’s usually drowning in frosting and while good frosting tastes delicious, sometimes I just want a simple, hearty cake that’s studded with nuts and raisins.

My recipe is inspired by David Lebovitz.  I like this recipe for several reasons.  First it uses the basic cake mix that I love: 1 cup of flour, 1 cup of sugar (I cut it down to ¾ cup though), 1/2 cup of fat (here it’s divided between brown butter and oil) and 2 eggs.  It’s similar to my banana bread recipe.  At least I know I will end up with a cake.

Next, this recipe uses 2 whole cups of carrots.  That’s a very good, probably maximum, amount of carrot for a cake, I reason, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see how well the carrot cooks into the cake while baking.  Lebovitz’s cake asks for cinnamon, nutmeg and clove powder.  I have cinnamon powder, but not the rest, and for now that suffices.  I like his use of brown butter in the cake too – it adds a warm, nutty flavor.  The brown sugar is my own idea, and I’m happy with the moistness and mild caramel flavor that it imparts to my cake.  Lastly, I add pecans, because I’ve got to have nuts in this cake.

This cake is moist, soft and very comforting.  Cinnamon, vanilla and brown butter along with the carrot, pecans and raisins, add lots of interesting flavors to the cake.   It’s a perfect tea or breakfast loaf.

Carrot loaf cake

1 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp coarse salt
1 tsp cinnamon
¾ cup sugar (I used packed light brown sugar)

2 cups carrots, grated finely, loosely packed

2 eggs
6 tbsp butter, melted in a pan on the stove until light brown (can use 6 tbsp oil instead)
2 tbsp vegetable oil (I used safflower oil)
1 /2 tsp vanilla extract

½ cup pecans, roughly chopped
1/3 cup raisins, loosely packed (preferably golden raisin)

1. Heat the oven to 350F.  With a whisk, mix the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and sugar in a bowl and keep aside.  In a separate bowl, toss the raisins and the pecans with a little plain flour and keep aside.  Butter and flour a 8 ½ x 4 ½ or medium loaf pan.

2. With the electric beater on the lowest setting, whip the eggs for a minute.  Slowly pour in the brown butter, the oil and the vanilla while the mixer is still running.

3. Add in the grated carrots to the wet mixture with a wooden spoon or spatula.  Add the dry ingredients in 2 parts, gently mixing it in with the spatula.

4. Place the ready batter into the loaf pan, and bake for about 30 minutes or until a knife inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.  Allow to cool for several minutes before turning the cake out of the pan.

Serve as is or topped with cream cheese frosting.

Kala aloo dum, Calcutta street style



For a long time I couldn’t feel anything that resembled more than a faint sense of contented nostalgia for my home in Calcutta.  I had left home to study, to work and to build a family.  It was the natural order of things.

Yet the minute my children began arriving I started to feel a stomach wrenching unease.  Raising them all by myself didn’t seem as natural as I had imagined.   What surprised me was discovering that my beloved children were after all their own people, separate from me despite all the entanglement of the initial months.  Was I supposed to actively mold them, watch them anxiously or just get out of their way?  I dreamed frequently of opening my front door, and seeing my mother’s face.  She would take over the house, and all of us would become her children.

In this situation, the only thing I am able to do is cook.  My nani’s fiery aloo dum replete with the taste and memory of Calcutta’s dusty streets is the best antidote to fear and homesickness.  One mouthful, and I come alive to the flavors chasing themselves on my tongue.  I become a child again, eating forbidden street foods and surrendering to visceral pleasures.  As for the children, I leave them to chase baby potatoes all over the house with hoots of “aaalu,” and to lick cautious fingers poked into the spicy masala paste.

Kala aloo dum, spicy black baby potatoes, Calcutta street style.

1 lb or ½ kg small baby potatoes, boiled and skinned

½ cup red onions, minced or grated
1 tbsp ginger, minced or pureed
1 tbsp garlic, minced or pureed

Tarka spices
1 tsp of cumin seeds
2-3 bay leaves

Spice paste: grind to a dry powder first and combine with the ginger for a wet paste
1 ½ tbsp coriander seeds
½ tbsp cumin seeds
3 or 4 whole dried red chillies, less if milder taste desired
½ tsp whole black pepper
1” piece of cinnamon stick
1 or 2 black cardamoms
2-3 bay leaves
½ tsp turmeric powder

2 tbsp of solid tamarind fruit paste, with pulp extracted after soaking in hot water

2-3 tbsp of mustard oil, or any vegetable oil + 1 tsp for later
salt to taste
½ tsp sugar

1. Heat  2-3 tbsps of oil.  Add the tarka spices: cumin seeds and the bay leaves.  Wait till the cumin seeds sputter.

2. Add the garlic paste and fry for a few seconds.  Add the onions + ½ tsp of sugar and fry till the onions are golden brown.

3. Add the spice paste and 1 tsp of the oil.  Cook until the oil separates from the mixture.

4. Add the baby potatoes, tamarind pulp and salt.  Cook for a few seconds.  The spice paste should adhere well to the potatoes.

5.  Now slowly, 1/8 cup at a time, add about ¼ – ½ cup of water, waiting until the water is absorbed before adding more. The potato mixture should look moist without becoming watery.  Cook through for a few seconds, garnish with chopped coriander and serve hot.

Can be eaten by itself with toothpicks as an appetizer or with Indian bread.  Piping hot deep fried luchis or puris and parathas taste particularly good with this aloo dum.

The pictures below are from the time when I made aloo dum in nani’s home.  Note the use of the sil batta to make the wet spice mixture.


Rhubarb upside down cake

On Fridays I give myself permission to make dessert.  A whole weekend lies ahead, there may be a friend or two to save me from eating the entire thing myself and it’s entirely pleasurable to have the smell of say, vanilla or pineapple suffusing the home.   I love fruit in my desserts, and a cake baked with fresh fruit tastes terribly exotic to me.  It holds the promise of summer, of warmth, of succulent produce.

Which brings me to rhubarb.  I am new to rhubarb, but I’m seduced by the bright red stalks tied into neat bundles at Sobseys’ store.  Recipes pop up here and there, and I’m particularly drawn to Melissa Clark’s rhubarb upside down cake.  I want to make her cake, but I’m overwhelmed by the desire for an even simpler recipe.

I crave the comfort of familiarity.  Each cake that I make should be loosely based on the same idea – a stick of butter, a cup or so of flour, a cup of sugar and about two or three eggs.  There should be a flavor ingredient or two – here it’s the zest of an orange (Martha Stewart), although lemon would work well too (Melissa).   I don’t add vanilla essence to this cake as Melissa does, but have a suspicion that it will make the cake taste even better.  And one new ingredient is allowed — in this recipe it happens to be sour cream.

The cake that emerges from this experiment is beautiful.  It’s tart, sweet, moist, satisfyingly dense, and topped with an even layer of melting, mouth puckering, pretty pink rhubarb.  It can be served with whipped heavy cream or vanilla ice cream.

Rhubarb upside down cake

1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
zest of 1 orange and 1 tbsp of fresh orange juice

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder, aluminum free
1 pinch salt

1 lb rhubarb
½ cup packed brown sugar
2 tbsps butter, chopped into small cubes

1. Wash the rhubarb and chop into 1 inch pieces cut on the diagonal.  In a bowl, toss the rhubarb with the brown sugar and set aside.

2.  Heat the oven to 350˚.  Butter a 9 inch round pan and dot the pan evenly with small cubes from the 2 tbsps of butter.  Separately, combine flour, salt and baking powder lightly with a whisk and keep aside.

2.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric beater on the lowest setting, until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.

3. Add the eggs slowly, one at a time.  Add the zest and orange juice.  Turn off the beater, and put aside.

4. Gently, with a spatula, add in the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with the sour cream.

5. Place the chopped rhubarb into the prepared pan in as flat a layer as possible, add the batter, and smooth the top. Bake for about an hour, until the cake is golden brown and a knife emerges clean from the center.  The sides will start to pull away from the pan.

6. Cool in the pan for about ten minutes (not more) on a wire rack.  Turn the cake out of the pan.

Orange and apple ricotta cake

We spent a night at Sprout Creek Farm recently.  I’ve often bought their cheeses at the Union Square Farmers Market, but this was our first visit to this picture perfect farm that has cows, sheep, goats, hens and ducks.  They make cheese from goat’s milk and cow’s milk, and I returned home with several pounds of cheese.  Cheese straight from the farm tastes like no other, I discovered, on a cheese trail in Vermont.  This time, amongst my treasures was a small box of ricotta cheese.  I kept promising myself that it wouldn’t end up in a rich cake.  Instead, I would just eat it smeared on toast with the lightest drizzle of olive oil and a shake of salt and pepper.

Yet a few days later, here I was, thinking longingly of Louisa’s ricotta cake along with another one that had caught my interest, Giada’s ricotta orange pound cake.  When I had made Louisa’s cake earlier, I used just lemon zest for flavor as the author suggested.  But the cake turned out a little paler and less flavorful than I would have liked.  What I loved about that recipe though was its use of a cup of grated apple that melted into the cake.  Giada’s cake had amaretto, vanilla and orange zest, but it was a fussier recipe that used cake flour.  What would I do later with that box of cake flour, I wondered?

The cake that resulted was a combination of the two.  It turned out beautifully – moist and golden, with flecks of orange and a heady flavor of almond and vanilla.  Note: serve the cake warm or reheat before eating.

Orange and Apple Ricotta cake

9 tbsps of unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 cup fresh ricotta
1 apple, peeled and grated, about 1 cup

4 tsps amaretto
1 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder, preferably aluminum free
1 pinch salt

For serving, optional
Confectioners sugar, to sift over top
Heavy cream, whipped into soft peaks
Berries or any other fresh fruit

1. Heat the oven to 400˚. Butter and flour a 9 or 10-inch pan.  In a bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder lightly with a whisk and set aside.

2.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric beater until light and fluffy.

3. Add the eggs slowly, one at a time.  Add the amaretto and vanilla essence.  Turn off the beater, and put aside.

4. Gently, with a spatula, add in the flour mixture, ricotta, apple and orange zest.  Stir gently to combine.

5. Place the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and bake for about 30 minutes, until the cake is golden brown.  The sides will start to pull away from the pan.

6. Cool in the pan for several minutes. Turn the cake out of the pan, and cool, preferably on a wire rack.

Spinach paneer

I’d like to believe that my mother always cooked for me, but the truth of the matter is that Sukumar was the king of the stove in our Calcutta kitchen.  Tall, thin and hawk-like, Sukumar was our cook who made a monotonous yellow dal and “mixed” vegetables in a ubiquitous red sauce, day after day.  He made a spinach sabzi too, and what I remember about spinach from those days is that it was a bitter, slimy, sometimes sandy vegetable, best avoided at all times.  Fast forward twenty years, I find myself sitting in a man’s home, eating a creamy palak paneer made with poppy seeds and lovingly fried cubes of paneer.  I find myself exchanging shy glances with the cook behind this creation, and in the end here we are six years later, married with two children.

That spinach paneer recipe is nowhere to be found, so I’ve had to come up with my own.  What has taken me some time to understand is that a richly aromatic palak paneer dish tastes best — meaning plenty of ginger, garlic and onion along with one or two green chillies for spice, since spinach has a very mild flavor.   You can add extra spinach here for a more saucy dish, but in that case add more onions, ginger and garlic.  The amount of paneer to put is really up to you – add more or less depending on the balance that you like.  I like blanching the spinach to preserve its bright green color.

Palak Paneer

Serves 2-3

½ – ¾ lb spinach, or one big bunch
1 cup onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 or 2 green chillis
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander powder
½ tsp garam masala
2 tbsps oil

Paneer made from about a half gallon of milk, cut into cubes

For the finishing:
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 tbsp of kasuri methi

1. Set water to boil in a big pot, and add the washed spinach when it comes to boil. Cut off the spinach roots, but use all the leaves and stems.  Boil for about 5-7 minutes, until the spinach is soft but is still bright green.  Drain, save some of the boiled water, and run the spinach under cold water.  Puree the spinach in a food processor or blender with some of the reserved water about a 1/2 cup.   Set aside.  Note, you can also NOT puree the spinach leaves, but drain and keep aside as is.

2. Heat the oil in a large pan.  Add the cumin seeds when the oil is hot.  Next, add the green chillies and onions and cook until the onions turn golden.  Add the ginger and garlic and sauté for a few more seconds.

3. Add the pureed or whole cooked spinach and cook for a minute.  Add the coriander powder, garam masala and salt and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Remove from the flame.

4.  Blend the spinach mixture in a food processor or with an immersion blender.  Meanwhile, separately fry the half cup of chopped onions and kasuri methi in a little butter until the onions are soft.  Add blended spinach and the pieces of paneer.  Cook for a few minutes and serve.

Nani’s kala chole

A recipe from my nani feels like a fragile thing, like the first blooms of spring.

When I graduated from college in 2000, my maternal grandparents came all the way to the United States from Calcutta.  Just six years later, nani and nana decided that they couldn’t travel to my wedding in Jamaica.  I was startled by their decision.  It was an admission of fatigue that seemed too precipitate.  When I brought my one-year old baby home to Calcutta two summers after that, my nani fell gravely ill.  It occurred to me, again with startling force, that the pale person in the hospital bed could be here this minute and not tomorrow.  Mortal.  It was an ugly and humbling word.  New motherhood had suddenly closed the circle of family and maternal love for me.  I needed my nani’s gentle words, her explanations of things.  She seemed to intuitively understand the overwhelming demands on my time along with the equally overwhelming affection that I felt for my new infant.

Each time I visit India now I’m always looking back, over my shoulder.  I wonder if everything is going to be the same when I return.  I try to cook with nani as much as I can, and I call her when I miss something that she makes.  She usually sighs when I have yet another recipe request.  “I’ve grown old cooking,” she says, perhaps remembering all the sisters and daughters that she has taught to cook.  But it’s my turn now, and this is the love language that I share with my nani.  “I’ll tell your mom when I meet her, and she’ll write it down, type it up and send it to you through that thing, the computer,” she says.  “No, no,” I say, thinking about the number of steps that recipe is going to take to get to me and the near impossibility of its finding its way to me.  “Just tell me right now, nani.”

Nani’s kala chole

This  is a typical North Indian chole or chickpea dish, flavored with tamarind extract and pomegranate seeds.  It uses freshly ground chole masala, along with whole spices, a tea bag and a pinch of soda while pressure cooking.  It’s spicy and tangy, and excellent for dishes like chole bhatura or aloo tikki with chole.  note: when adding the tamarind extract at the end, add it spoon by spoon, tasting along the way.  You might need less or more of it depending upon how sour the tomatoes and pomegranate seeds in the dish are.

In the pressure cooker:
250g or 1 big cup chickpeas, soaked overnight
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom
1 black tea bag
a pinch of baking soda
a big pinch of salt
sufficient water

Chole masala spices: to be dry roasted and ground
½ tsp cumin seeds
1-2 whole dried red chillis
½ tsp coriander seeds
1 inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 black cardamom
1-2 cloves
1 tsp, heaped, of pomegranate seeds, anardana
1/2 tsp black peppercorns

Tarka spices:
1 tsp cumin seeds
1-2 bay leaves

Other ingredients:
1 cup onion, grated or finely chopped
½ cup tomatoes, pureed or finely chopped
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
1-2 tbsps oil
1/8 cup tamarind fruit paste, soaked in ¼ cup of warm water
Salt to taste 

1. Pressure cook the soaked chickpeas with the tea bag, cinnamon stick, cardamom, baking soda and salt, and enough water such that it covers a half inch over the top of the chickpeas.   When cooked, the chickpeas should mash easily between the fingertips.  Remove the flavor ingredients, and keep aside with the cooking water.

2. Prepare the chole masala spices by dry roasting the spices on a hot pan until they release an aroma. Grind to a powder and keep aside.

3.  Meanwhile heat the oil, and add the tarka spices.  After the cumin sputters, add the onions and cook until the onions turn golden brown.  Nani’s tip: add a sprinkle of sugar to hasten the browning.  Add the garlic and ginger, and cook for a few seconds until they become aromatic.  Now add the tomato and cook for several minutes until the oil glistens separately.

4.  Add the boiled chickpeas.  Now, add the reserved water slowly as you cook, a 1/2 cup at a time, waiting until it integrates with the cooked paste.  As you do this, add the toasted and ground chole masala spices.  Strain the tamarind extract and add a couple of tablespoons of it at first.  Stir and cook for a few seconds and taste.  If needed add more tamarind extract.  Add salt to taste.  Bring to a low boil and simmer for about ten to fifteen minutes.

5. Garnish with cilantro and finely chopped red onions to serve.

Stir fried baby potatoes

Whenever I make these golden stir-fried potatoes that are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and coated with a mixture of spices, I think of the word begin.   It’s a good way to begin Indian cooking.  First, it’s potatoes: starchy, universal, comforting and the baby ones, very cute in their roundness.  Everyone loves potatoes, and these are potatoes with an Indian twist.  It’s a low risk and easy dish to try.  Second, it uses most of the basic spices in Indian cooking: asafetida, cumin seeds, turmeric powder, cumin and coriander powder, cayenne pepper powder or red chilli powder, dried mango powder.  So if I went out and bought these spices for Indian cooking, here’s one dish that uses all of those.  Third, it’s a forgiving dish.  I can add a little more spice, a little less.  I continue to be intrigued by Indian spices, and this dish helps with some of the mystery as I use my fingers to sprinkle the spices and watch how the spices coat the potatoes.  I carry over the same technique to cauliflower, peas and other dry vegetable (sookha sabzi) preparations.   The use of dry powdered spices in this manner is essentially a North Indian cooking technique.

I recommend boiling and skinning the potatoes a couple hours ahead in time, leaving them on the counter and stir-frying the potatoes just before you sit down to eat.  It only takes ten minutes or so to make these, and they are best hot off the stove.  You can use any potatoes to make these, including larger potatoes that have been boiled and chopped into chunks, but I love the sweet and waxy quality of whole baby yukon gold or baby red bliss potatoes.

Sookha sabzis and parathas bring memories of picnics and train journeys.  My mother insists on packing paratha rolls for any journey: car, train, plane or otherwise, stuffed with a spicy pea and potato filling.  When I look at the rolls lining her counter, wrapped individually in foil, ready to go early in the morning, I usually protest at how many she’s made. It’s really not possible to eat so many, I tell her.  Yet the rolls always get devoured, quickly and hungrily on the road.

Serves 2

1 lb baby potatoes
2 tbsps oil

1 tsp cumin seeds
A generous pinch of asafetida, heeng
1-2 tsps of coriander powder
½ tsp cumin powder
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp dried mango powder, amchur
Generous sprinkle of kosher or sea salt to taste, although any salt will do

Optional spices (use all or any)
1 or 2 bay leaves
½ – 1 tsp cayenne pepper powder, for heat
1/2 tsp of paprika

Optional additions:
Boiled peas (only with chopped potatoes)
Chopped cilantro at the end

  1. Boil the potatoes in salted water until soft and buttery; peel and set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a non-stick pan.  Add the tarka spices in this order: asafetida, cumin seeds, bay leaves.  As the cumin sputters, add the potatoes.
  3. Allow the potatoes to cook for several minutes until the outside starts looking a little golden.  Add the rest of the spices: turmeric, coriander powder, cumin powder and the dried mango powder, and salt.
  4. Stir occasionally until the spices coat the potatoes and the everything looks golden, crisp and nicely done.

Gujarati kadhi

During my second pregnancy nothing tasted better than a simple meal of Gujarati kadhi and rice.   Kadhi is a light yogurt curry that is flavored primarily with curry leaves and thickened with a chickpea flour called besan.  It is simultaneously spicy, sweet, salty and sour and has a mild, soothing texture.

My recipe for kadhi took a while to perfect.  Instead of experimenting with my usual weekly, let’s try this in any way that makes sense, I tried to be more intelligent.  First I consulted a recipe that I found online, and made it according to the complex, many layered instructions that were provided.  Separate tadka, separate boiling of kadhi in a pot coated with oil, too much stirring.   What I did like was the proportion of water : yogurt : besan which was 2 cups water : 1 cup yogurt : 1/8 cup besan.  Although some of the seasoning ingredients seemed fine: mustard seeds, green chillies, curry leaves, heeng, the kadhi lacked tartness and seemed to be missing several flavors that I couldn’t identify.  I called up Kirti behn, my old Gujarati cook.  Did you add jeera, she asked? How about a clove? And chopped cilantro leaves are a must, she added.  How do I get the sour flavor, I asked, given that my plain yogurt wasn’t too tart?  Keep boiling it for a while longer, and add a few more sweet curry leaves and chopped cilantro, she said.

The next version was much better.  On a recent trip to Rajbhog foods in Journal Square, I discovered pieces of cinnamon stick and bits of minced ginger in their lovely, pale yellow kadhi.  I made another version.  Much better.  Here is my final recipe.

Gujarati kadhi
2 cups plain yogurt, preferably a little tart
¼ cup black chickpea or Bengal gram flour, called besan
3-4 cups water, (3 makes a thicker kadhi, while 4 makes a thinner kadhi)
¼ – ½ tsp turmeric, optional
2-4 tsps sugar, depending on taste
Salt to taste

Tarka
a pinch of asafetida, called heeng
2-4 cloves
1 inch piece of cinnamon
1 dried red chilli
2 green chillies, cut in half on the bias
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ginger, finely grated
2-3 tsps oil

8-12 sweet curry leaves
a handful of cilantro leaves

1. Whisk the yogurt with the besan and turmeric for a few seconds until smooth.  Add 3-4 cups of water and set aside.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pot.  Add the tarka ingredients – heeng, cloves, cinnamon, dried red chilli, green chillies, cumin seeds, and ginger.  The cumin seeds should sputter, and the ginger should cook for a few seconds.  Immediately, add the yogurt mixture.

3. Bring to boil on medium heat and then reduce to simmer.  Add sugar and salt to taste, along with the curry leaves. Continue to simmer on low heat for 15-20 minutes.  Stir occasionally.  When you taste the kadhi, there should be no taste of raw besan flour.  If you find the kadhi bland, try adding a few more curry leaves and a few sprigs of cilantro, and adding a pinch or two more of sugar and salt.  Boiling it a little longer also brings the flavors together.  The kadhi usually improves in taste the next day.  Garnish liberally with coriander leaves before serving.

Chivda or crispy poha

Every other Friday I arrive for a playdate at my friend Dalia’s place with my boys in tow.  Dalia always makes me a comforting cup of tea, and I look very forward to the sharing of tea and conversation with a good friend.  On one occasion, I peer at Dalia’s stove and find thin crispy toasted poha resting in a pot.  Poha is flattened rice, commonly available in big bags at Indian grocery stores.  I am surprised and immediately excited: toasted and seasoned poha is always found in my mother’s cupboard, made when the cook has some time and stocked for those times when you crave a crunchy snack.  You can buy ready made brands from manufacturers such as Haldiram’s, but I so far I have never encountered freshly made chivda made hot, in time for tea.  As we chat and the boys run around and the tea boils, Dalia heats a little bit of oil and puts in the seasoning: a spoonful of mustard seeds, several sweet curry leeves (meetha neem patta), a red dried red chilli, a couple of sliced green chillies, some raw peanuts, and her secret ingredient, some dry shredded coconut.  The seasoning gives off a wonderful smell of sweet curry leaves and green chillies and toasted coconut.  The poha is then tossed into the seasoning, with a little salt and sugar.  It’s a heady, warm and crispy snack, perfect with masala chai or coffee.  I try various versions of it at home, always surprised by how easy it is to make, how good it tastes and how I can adjust the seasoning to my taste: raw cashew nuts instead of peanuts on one occasion, more green chillies on another, golden raisins another time.  Turmeric is commonly added to this snack, but I enjoy the bright colors of the red peanuts and green curry leaves against the white chivda.  Each time I savor a sweet-salty-spicy mouthful, I’m reminded of good friendships and of the flavors of Calcutta.

Serves 2-4

4 cups of poha, preferably thin
1/2 cup or more of raw peanuts, cashews, or dry roasted chickpeas

1 tsp of black mustard seeds
1-2 dried red chillies, whole
1-2 green chillies, chopped or whole
10-12 sweet curry leaves
1 tbsp of dry shredded coconut

Generous pinch of sugar (preferably brown turbinado sugar)
Salt to taste

About 2 tsps of oil

1.  Heat a little oil and toast the poha over a low flame in a pan.  Note: thin poha toasts more rapidly than thick and is also crunchier.  Stir occasionally to prevent it from sticking to the bottom and burning.  It will take about 15-20 minutes to toast.  Taste to see if the poha is done.  It will taste crunchy but will have no flavor when ready.  Remove from flame and set aside.

2.  In a separate pan, heat the remaining oil on medium heat.  Add the mustard seeds, peanuts, red and green chillies (chop into smaller bits if you want spicy mouthfuls), coconut, curry leaves.  Let these roast for a few minutes while stirring occasionally, until the peanuts start looking a pale golden.  Add in the toasted poha, and stir to combine.  Remove from flame. Toss in salt and sugar to taste.   Everything, especially the peanuts, should become beautifully crisp upon cooling.  Serve immediately or store in airtight containers.

Black eyed peas

A few months ago, a friend said casually in passing, “I love black eyed peas.”  That statement intrigued me.  I’d never been too fond of lobia when I was growing up.  It was time to revisit these beans.  At Journal Square, I found them amongst the rows of glistening jewel-like legumes on the shelf at Bhavani’s.  The black-eyed peas were small and perfectly shaped, cream colored with a characteristic dot of black that had another dot of white in it.  They felt smooth and warm falling through my fingers while I filled them in a jar at home.  Upon cooking, the beans turned soft with a melting texture while retaining their shape.  I sniffed and tasted my way through finishing the beans.  The recipe turned out to be chole-like, with pieces of whole garam masala: cinnamon stick, black cardamom and bay leaves, with a spot of gur for sweetness.  The end result was belly-warming and delicious served with rotis and red onions, instantly popular with the boys, especially my 15-month old, who picked the beans out with chubby fingers.  Black eyed peas were here to stay, it seemed.

Black eyed peas
1 cup dried black eyed peas, soaked for at least 6 hours or overnight
1 cup onions, diced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 tbsp garlic, minced
1 cup tomatoes, diced

Tarka spices:
2 bay leaves
1 tsp cumin seeds
A small piece of cinnamon
1 whole black cardamom, gently pounded
Pinch of asafoetida

Dry spices to be added later:
1 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp chole garam masala (see Chole recipe for the garam masala recipe)
Small piece of gur or pinch of sugar (preferably brown)
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper powder, optional
Salt to taste

2 tbsps oil

1. Pressure cook the peas and set aside.   Keep the water for cooking.

2. Heat the oil and add all the tarka spices.  Allow the cumin to sputter for a few seconds.  Add the onions and cook until brown.  Add the ginger and garlic and cook for a few more seconds until the smell of garlic is released.  Add the tomatoes and cook on medium heat until the oil separates, stirring occasionally.

3.  Add the cooked peas, a good measure of the reserved water and the dry spices.  Bring to boil, turn down the heat and simmer for at least 15 minutes.  This is an important step as it brings all the flavors of the dish together.  Remove from heat and serve hot.

Gujarati sweet hot peppers

This is an addictive sweet-spicy dry green chilli preparation.  These chillis are the long hot sweet type that you get in the Indian grocery store or at farmers markets in the summer.  The color varies — the hottest ones are dark green and very gnarled, almost like you’d imagine the fingers of the witch that wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel.   The pale green ones are milder, but all these peppers taste delicious prepared in this Gujarati style.

This recipe uses typical Gujarati spices: ajwain, heeng, dhania-jeera powder along with besan.  The addition of sugar to the peppers magically transforms the dish of ordinary tasting spicy peppers to one that makes the taste buds sing.  These peppers can dress up any meal.  They taste particularly delicious with a simple meal of rice and kadhi.  I also like to serve stuffed baby eggplants with a meal of peppers, rice and kadhi.

Gujarati hot sweet chilli peppers
1lb or 8-10 hot-sweet green chilli peppers, chopped into 1” pieces and deseeded
About 1/3 cup Bengal gram flour, called besan, can use a little less or more

For the tarka:
2 tbsps of oil
1 tsp ajwain
Pinch of asafetida, called heeng, optional

Other spices:
½ tsp turmeric
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp coriander powder
½ tsp of cumin powder
salt to taste

1.  Heat the oil in a non-stick pan, add the heeng and sputter the ajwain seeds.  Add the chopped green chilli peppers.  Cover and cook on low heat.  Check occasionally to stir and see if peppers are soft and cooked through.  When a knife goes through the peppers, add the besan and the rest of the spices.  Note that the peppers should still be bright green color when you add the besan.

2. Cook uncovered for several minutes, stirring occasionally, until the besan is cooked and no longer tastes of raw flour.  The besan should turn into a golden brown color. If the besan flour initially appears too dry, add a little oil to moisten the flour.  By this time, the peppers will have turned a darker green.  Remove from heat.  These addictive peppers can be served hot or at room temperature.

Bise bela bhath

Bise bela bhath, just off the stove

Bise bela bhath means dal and rice in Kannada.  To me, the words always sound like a happy, anytime, tantalize-your-tastebuds type of one-pot comfort.  It’s because this dish engages all my tastebuds with its full bodied spicy, sweet and sour flavor.  The dish uses tamarind extract for the sourness and employs dried red chillies boldly for heat.   There is a hint of sweet from root vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes and pumpkin, along with a touch of bitterness from the spices used, perhaps the fenugreek seeds.  When I stand next to the stove while finishing the bise bela bhath, the aromas of ghee coupled with coconut, mustard seeds, cinnamon stick and hints of roasted chana dal – all rise up to assail my nostrils. It’s all I can do to stop myself from dipping a finger into the steaming pot and licking off the creamy rice dal mixture.   My hands remain aromatic through the day  from all the spices that I handle to make this dish.  It’s a welcome, appetite whetting smell.

This is my dear friend Shruthi’s recipe, and I have lots of happy memories entwined with this bhath, particularly of eating it at her home with crunchy potato chips crushed on top.  Shruthi’s recipe is easy, and I make bise bela bhath every other week now.  I’ve modified her original recipe of 1 cup dal : 1 cup rice : 1 cup mixed vegetables to 1/2 cup dal: 1/2 cup rice: 2 cups of mixed vegetables.  Since I add more vegetables, my rice-dal mixture is more moist and I therefore keep my tamarind extract water more concentrated.  So while Shruthi’s recipe calls for 3 cups of tamarind water, I’ve cut down the water in my tamarind extract to yield 1 – 1/2 cups of spiced water.  I love a slightly more aromatic and spicy bhath, so I’ve used the same amount of spice (but fewer red chillis!) as her original recipe.  I love using root vegetables and winter squash in my bise bela bhath, but you can use any vegetables except for eggplant and okra, which turn mushy when pressure cooked.  Tomatoes and onions are optional in Shruthi’s recipe, but I love adding them, given my Bengali khichri loving roots.

I like serving this rice with a side of simple Indian-style sauteed cauliflower, but it’s perfectly tasty on its own.

Shruthi’s Bise Bela Bhath:

Ingredients

For pressure cooker:
1/2 cup rice, soaked for a half hour
1/2 cup toor dal, soaked for a half hour
1 cup of vegetables, cubed (e.g. beans, carrots, potato, pumpkin, peas)
1/2 cup, onions, diced
1/2 cup tomato, diced
a pinch of turmeric
1 tsp of oil (sesame or canola)

To be toasted in ghee:
1 tbsp chana dal
2-3 dried whole red chilis, more or less depending on desired spice level
2 tsp dry whole coriander seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds or poppy seeds
a small piece of cinnamon stick
a large pinch of asafoetida

Other ingredients:
2 tbsps of grated coconut, fresh or frozen
1/8 cup or lime sized ball of fresh or dried tamarind fruit paste

Final tempering:
1 tbsp of ghee
1 tsp mustard seeds
a pinch of garam masala

1. Heat the oil in a pressure cooker, and briefly sauté the rice, toor dal and all the vegetables.  Add a pinch of turmeric and 2 cups of water.  Close the lid and bring to 3 whistles until the contents are cooked.

2. Soak the tamarind for a few minutes in a cup of hot water and strain vigorously to gather all the tamarind extract.  In a small pot, boil the strained tamarind extract plus salt for about 10 minutes until the raw sharp taste of tamarind goes away.  About 1 cup of boiled mix is needed so add another half cup or one cup of water to the tamarind water before setting it to boil.

3. Meanwhile, in a small pan with a spot of ghee, toast all the dry spices as noted in the ingredient list.

4.  Add 2-3 tablespoons of grated coconut to above fried mixture and grind to make coarse paste.

5. Add the above spice mixture to boiling tamarind water, boil some more.

6. Add boiled tamarind water and paste to cooked rice, dal and vegetables.

7.  Final seasoning: heat 1 tbsp of ghee, sputter mustard seeds and a pinch of garam masala.  Add to the rice-lentil mixture and stir.

Mushroom Crespelle

This baked dish of delicate mushroom crepes topped with tomato sauce and cheese was a childhood favorite when I was growing up in Calcutta. It represented the best of Continental cuisine as I understood it – crepes from France, tomato sauce from Italy, along with exotic un-Indian mushrooms and a crust of delicious melting cheese….

What I love about the dish is that the individual components can be made ahead in time, and assembled just before baking and serving. Don’t assemble the dish ahead in time, as the unbaked dish doesn’t hold up well.

You can also stuff the crepes with other fillings. For instance, you can add or substitute golden corn for the mushrooms in this recipe.  Mixed vegetables, like peas, beans and carrots, work very well too.

Note: my basic savory crepe recipe below has been adapted from Alton Brown.

MAKES ABOUT 15 CREPES

For the basic savory crepes:
1 cup all purpose flour
2 eggs
3/4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon butter, very soft
Pinch of salt

For the mushroom filling:
1 pound crimini mushrooms, chopped into bite sized pieces
1 cup mild white or yellow onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 tablespoon all purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
a handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

For the tomato sauce:
3-4 medium tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic, minced
a generous pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-2 bay leaves
salt to taste

For the topping:
1/2 – 1 cup shredded white melting cheese (my favorite is Gruyere)
a few sprigs of flat leaf parsley, chopped

1. Crepe batter: First, combine all the wet ingredients (eggs, milk, water, butter) for the crepes, and then stir in the flour and salt. You can do this by hand whisking or by pulsing for a few seconds in the food processor. If you are in a hurry you can make the crepes immediately. However, allowing the batter to rest covered in the refrigerator for an hour or so is recommended for easier crepe making. While the batter is resting, you can proceed with making the filling and the tomato sauce.

2. Making the crepes: Heat a small flat pan, coat lightly with butter and place about 1/8 cup of crepe batter. Immediately, swirl the pan around so that a fairly thin 5-6-inch crepe forms. When the edges start curling up, and the crepe seems set in the center, flip the crepe over. Cook on the other side for a few seconds. Remove, and lay to cool. When cooled, you can stack the crepes and store in the refrigerator for a day or two if not using immediately.

3. Making the mushroom filling: Heat the butter in a pan. First, saute the garlic for a few seconds. Next, add the onions and cook until the onions are soft. Add the chopped mushrooms and cook for a little while, until the mushrooms are tender but retain a plump shape and some snap. Sprinkle the flour on the mushrooms and stir. Add the milk and bring to a boil on medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add salt and some freshly ground pepper to taste. Remove from the heat when the mixture begins to thicken and starts to coat the sides of the pan. Note that the filling will thicken further upon cooling, but it shouldn’t be too watery otherwise it will not hold well inside the crepes. Toss in the chopped parsley and keep aside until the mixture cools a little.

4. Tomato sauce for topping: You can make your own tomato sauce or use your favorite mild marinara sauce for the topping. I like to blanch about 3 medium tomatoes for a few minutes in hot boiling water and then put them into cold water so that the skin of the tomatoes peels off. I puree the peeled tomatoes, and then cook them for a while in olive oil, with chopped garlic and a bay leaf or two. Add salt and a pinch of sugar to taste. This sauce can be made ahead of time.

5. Finishing: Place a little mushroom filling inside a crepe and roll it up. Place in a large baking dish that has been lightly dabbed with tomato sauce along the bottom.  Continue until all the crepes are filled. Top the crepes with smears of tomato sauce (not too much, as the sauce shouldn’t overpower the delicate flavor of the crepes and mushrooms), sprinkle the cheese generously over the top along with the chopped parsley, and bake in a 350F oven for about 10-15 minutes until the cheese has melted. Serve hot.

Ginger + garlic momos

In Calcutta you will find little momo shops tucked here and there.  Momos, in my understanding, are steamed Tibetan dumplings, usually not vegetarian and very delicious – doughy, full of succulent filling and served piping hot.

My sister and partner in all things forbidden, introduced me to fragrant herbed minced chicken dumplings at Hamro Momo, a tiny storefront located on a quiet street off busy Chowringhee and Elgin road.  “Didi, you’ve got to try these,” she said.  We escaped from home and waited in the car for someone to bring us a hot plate of steaming juicy dumplings.  We brought the leftovers home for our two dogs, which resulted in getting caught by our strict and very vegetarian mom the next morning.  Despite the thorough scolding, I still remember that dumpling escapade fondly.  When I’m home now with my two children, and my sister with hers, it’s impossible to disentangle ourselves from the four children to make time for momo jaunts.  We settle for mom’s home-made vegetable ones instead.

These light dumplings are full of crunchy vegetables such as cabbage, carrot, scallions and green bell peppers which you can vary according to your taste. Their primary flavor comes from finely minced garlic and ginger. I love throwing in a few shiitake or crimini mushrooms into the mix as well. The beauty of these dumplings is that the filling does not have to be cooked and you can chop the vegetables while the dough is resting. However, the filled but uncooked dumplings don’t store too well, as the raw salted vegetables tend to release moisture. Therefore, I recommend making these and eating them quickly, with a side of spicy ketchup.

In Calcutta style, I have made the wrappers individually with a rolling pin that’s typically used for Indian chapattis. Once you get the hang of rolling out the dough, it’s a fairly quick and satisfying process. I like Andrea Nguyen’s dumpling dough recipe that makes use of just-boiled water with flour; other dough recipes use ½ – 1 tbsp of oil per cup of flour (from mom), and there are some that use one egg yolk per cup of flour.  Having experimented thoroughly with all of these, I find Andrea’s dough recipe easy and effective.

Makes 24 dumplings

Dumpling wrapper and preparing the dumplings:

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cups boiling water, set aside for a minute or so
Pinch of salt

  1. Sprinkle a generous pinch of salt into the flour. Create a well in the middle of the flour, and start by adding the just-boiled water slowly into the flour. Start rubbing the water into the dough and slowly form a smooth ball. Knead the dough vigorously with the heel of the your palm for a few minutes. The dough should feel smooth and pliable, and similar to a baby’s skin. Put the dough into a ziplock bag and rest for 15 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile prepare the filling (see below). Divide the dough into approximately 24 balls. Keep the balls covered, and also cover the prepared dumplings with a dry cloth (or put them in a box) as you finish stuffing them. Roll out dumpling balls into wrappers individually with a rolling pin. The shape should be roughly a 3 to 4 inch circle or oval and should be fairly thin. Stuff with filling and fold into a half moon shape and seal the edges by simply pinching together.  I like my dumplings very stuffed with just a thin line of pinching at the edges.
  3. Bring a steamer to boil. Line the steamer with cabbage leaves or oil well. Steam the dumplings for about 6-7 minutes until translucent. Serve immediately and eat hot with spicy ketchup.

Filling – yields about 4 cups of filling:

2 cups cabbage, finely chopped
1 cup carrot, finely chopped
2-3 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
1/2 cup shiitake or crimini mushrooms, finely chopped
1/4 cup green bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon ginger, finely minced
1/2 tablespoon garlic, finely minced
A big pinch of sugar
salt to taste
1 tablespoon sesame oil or any vegetable oil

1. Toss all the filling ingredients together.  If you want to store the filling, I recommend not adding the salt and sugar as they cause the raw vegetables to release moisture.

Perfect chole

I’ve always been envious of the tasty chole (chickpeas) that my Punjabi friends seem to make so effortlessly.  When I ask for the recipe, often the whole operation seems hopelessly complicated.  One friend slow cooks the raw chickpeas for over 2 hours.  Another places a tea bag in her chole while cooking.  An online recipe suggests that I should put cloves and a piece of cinnamon when soaking the raw chickpeas.  No one seems to go into sufficient detail.  Soak? For how long?  In how much water?  What next?  Do the soaked chickpeas need to be cooked in the pressure cooker?  Again, for how long and in how much water? These questions continue to circle in my head.  In the past I’ve used canned chickpeas.  But my husband turns up his nose at any canned chole recipe.  “Fresh chana tastes so much better than that soapy stuff.  And canned chole never acquire the buttery softness that makes them melt in your mouth,” he says.

I have no idea how to make chickpeas from scratch in my kitchen, and I’m longing for some.  The simple, home-made kind that no restaurant serves.  Steaming hot and eaten with rice.  Or ladled on top of pea-potato patties with a squeeze of lemon and sprinkle of chopped onions and green coriander leaves.   My experiments have failed miserably so far.   I soak the chickpeas in water for too long on one occasion and then it melts into a glutinous mess in the pressure cooker.  Another time I undercook the chickpeas in the cooker, and they turn out pebbly and nowhere close to buttery soft.  On yet another occasion, the pressure cooker runs short of water and the chickpeas get stuck to the bottom of the cooker.

Finally, I make it stubbornly each week in the hope that it’s going to turn out perfectly.  After weeks of experimentation, and no response from my nani who makes delectable chana in a dark tamarind sauce, my mother-in-law gives me a tangy red chole recipe.  Her recipe is sweet and sour from a generous quantity of tomatoes and has plenty of onion and minced ginger-garlic for a delicious earthy aroma.  Cilantro, a staple herb in Andhra cooking, is a must, she says.  Upon her recommendation, I use a simple home-made garam masala which requires no toasting and is ready with a quick turn in the spice/coffee grinder.  Green cardamom in the masala lends an unusual fragrance to the chickpeas while black peppercorns add a spicy bite.  Mummy’s chickpea dish is piquant from tomatoes; other versions use imli, which is tamarind, or  amchur, which is dried mango powder, or a combination of one or two or all three.

Here are some of the valuable lessons about chole and all dried pulses in general that I learn along the way:

(1) Soak the chickpeas in the plenty of water overnight for 8-12 hours, but not more than that.  Drain the water and place the soaked chickpeas in the pressure cooker.

(2) Add enough water in the cooker to submerge the chickpeas and form about a half inch above the chole.  The pressure cooker should be no more than half full of water and pulses.  Later, reserve the excess water and cook the chole in the water that the chickpeas have been pressure-cooked in.  If there is too much water, some of the water can be removed and kept aside.

(3) Bring the pressure cooker to 2 whistles on medium heat, then continue to cook for about 30 minutes on very low heat.  Allow all the steam to escape before opening the pressure cooker.

(4) You can use store-bought chole masala or make your own.  See my mother-in-law’s recipe for home-made chole masala below.

Mummy’s chole

1 cup dried chickpeas, cooked until buttery soft in a pressure cooker
1 cup onions, preferably red, chopped finely
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 tbsp garlic, minced
2 generous cups of tomatoes, chopped finely
a handful of cilantro leaves, washed and chopped, with thick stems removed

For the tarka
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 bay leaves
2 tbsps oil

Chole garam masala: use 2 tsps of this after grinding to powder
1 tbsp whole green cardamom
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsps coriander seeds

Other spices:
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper powder to add heat, more depending on taste
Salt to taste

1.  Heat the oil and add the tarka of bay leaves and cumin seeds.  Wait for the cumin seeds to sputter.  Next, add the onions and cook them with a sprinkle of sugar until they brown.

2. When the onions are almost done, add the finely minced ginger and garlic, stirring to make sure that they don’t burn.  Wait for a few seconds until the unmistakable aroma of garlic releases from the pan.

3. Add the tomatoes along with a cup of water, and let the mixture cook until the oil releases from the edges of the tomato and you can see the oil glistening on top of the paste.

4.  Add the chickpeas and enough of the reserved water to cover a half inch over the top of the chickpeas.  Add the salt, 2 tsps of the chole garam masala, and the cayenne pepper powder if using.  Bring to boil and allow to simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.  This is an important step because it allows all the flavors to come together.  Add chopped cilantro towards the end.  Serve hot with rice or Indian bread.

Bengali mixed vegetable chorchori

Mixed vegetables, Bengali style

In every Calcutta home, you find a flat slab of stone upon which fresh spices are ground by hand.  It’s somewhat like a mortar and pestle, except that the mortar is flat and the pestle is held horizontally with both hands.  My nani’s sharp eyed Bengali cook, Radha, clad in widow white with her sparse white hair knotted back in a severe bun, insists that using this grinding tool, the sil batta, is the only way to make a traditional Bengali fresh curry paste of cumin seeds, coriander seeds and fresh ginger root.  Electric blades generate heat which change the taste of the paste she says.  Also no matter how powerful the machine, the fibers of the ginger get caught in the blades and show up in later fibrous mouthfuls of food.  In Calcutta, with plenty of kitchen help, I am easily persuaded.  Here, in my apartment kitchen with no sil batta or even a decent mortar and pestle, I’m alone with my wet grinder and coffee grinder.  I make compromises: ginger paste with a little water in the wet grinder and dry cumin seeds powdered in the coffee grinder.  The coriander seeds yield to hand pounding in my molcajete.  I combine them all for the wet paste of my earthy, aromatic Bengali mixed vegetables, called chorchori.

This colorful vegetable preparation uses lots of different vegetables that grow in Bengal: pumpkin, sweet potato, eggplant, pui or pohi greens (can substitute with spinach), white potato.  Use what you have, but if you don’t have greens, add a splash of water: the greens give off water that allow the other vegetables to cook.  The tempering of the oil, called tarka is a traditional Bengali one: the five spice mixture called panch phoran, a long red chilli and bay leaves.  A pinch of sugar is a must in the wet spice paste.  This dish tastes delicious rubbed into steamed white rice with your fingers along with sweet Bengali cholar dal.

Bengali mixed vegetable chorchori

Vegetables: balance quantities across whatever you have on hand
1 Asian eggplant, cubed
A medium chunk of butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1/2 a large sweet potato, peeled and cubed
a large handful of pui saag or spinach, washed and roughly torn
1 medium yellow potato

Tarka spices
1 tsp of panch phoran
1-2 dried red chillis
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp of oil

To be made into a wet paste, preferably by hand
2 tbsps of ginger paste
1 tbsp of coriander seeds
1/2 tbsp of cumin seeds

Dry spices
1 tsp of turmeric
½ – 1 tsp of sugar
½ tsp cayenne pepper powder, optional
Salt to taste

1. Heat the oil and add the tarka spices when the oil is hot.  Allow the panchphoran to sputter.  Cook the wet paste for a few minutes.

2. Add the wet spice paste and fry for a few seconds

3.  Add all the vegetables, including the greens.  Stir and allow to cook for half a minute.  Cover and cook until vegetables are soft, stirring occasionally.  When the vegetables are halfway done, add the dry spices.    Taste for sugar and salt when the dish is done.  Cook uncovered for a few seconds at the end, before removing from the heat.  Serve hot.

Lauki chana dal

Lauki chana dal

This warmly spiced lauki chana dal recipe is a childhood favorite.  I grew up in Calcutta, and this nutty, hearty yellow lentil soup studded with pieces of translucent green bottle gourd showed up frequently at mealtimes. It’s a complete and nourishing meal when served with rice or Indian style bread. This dal can be made with carrots and spinach instead of the bottle gourd.  If you plan to use  spinach, you could saute some onions, garlic and ginger in the ghee after the initial tarka, before adding the dal.

Chana dal with lauki

1 cup split Bengal gram lentil, called chana dal
1/2 of a 8-inch bottle gourd, called lauki, peeled and cubed

1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon asafoetida, called heeng
3-4 cloves
1 inch piece of cinnamon
1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 tablespoon clarified butter, called ghee (preferred) or oil

salt to taste

1. Before beginning, wash and then soak the lentils in water for an hour. Discard the water, and place the lentils and the chopped bottle gourd pieces in a pressure cooker. Add enough water to cover the lentils, such that the water level reaches about 1/4 inch above the lentils. At medium heat, wait for 3 whistles on the cooker, which is about 15 minutes of cooking time. Turn off the heat and put the cooker aside. Wait for the steam to release entirely before removing the lid. At this point the lentil and the bottle gourd should be soft and mash easily between your fingertips.

2. Heat the ghee in a separate heavy bottomed pot. When the ghee is hot, add the asafoetida and cumin seeds, along with the cinnamon stick and cloves. The cumin seeds should sputter a little. Immediately add the boiled lentil and bottle gourd mixture and stir. Add turmeric and salt and some water if too dry, and bring to boil on medium heat. Cook for a few minutes, before removing from the heat. You can add a pinch of garam masala if available, a squeeze of lemon and chopped coriander to serve.

from left to right: chana dal, lauki, turmeric, heeng, cinnamon, coriander, cloves

How to make paneer

Soft curds of cheese form after the vinegar is added to boiling milk
Pour into a strainer lined with a muslin cloth
Tie up the bundle and hang over the sink for a couple of hours for a firm, mozzarella-like ball of paneer
An hour or so later

Last year I visited Poonam aunty’s home-run organic dairy operation in rural Assam and learned how to make paneer.  Although paneer making is an everyday event in my mother’s home, standing beside Poonam aunty in her kitchen that overlooked her green kitchen garden and her cow barn, was quite a different experience.  Poonam aunty refined my recipe for paneer in a subtle way: allow the milk to come to a boil, add the vinegar, but don’t stir or touch the bubbling milk.  Soft delicate clouds of paneer will rise to the surface.  Strain, and tie up the cheese in muslin or cheesecloth for a little while to allow the excess water to drain out.

Now whenever I make this fresh Indian cheese, I’m listening to her voice and breathing in the early morning smell of Assam in December.

How to make paneer

Allow a 1/2 gallon of milk to come to a full boil but watch the milk carefully so that it doesn’t boil over.  Add 2-3 tbsps of white wine vinegar.  Turn the heat down to a lower setting.  Wait for a couple of minutes as the cheese rises to the top and the curds separate, leaving behind a greenish yellow liquid.  If the milk is still fairly white, add a little more vinegar, cautiously.  Try not to stir or touch the curdling milk.  Turn off the heat and allow the paneer to sit for a minute or so.  Strain the s0ft cheese into a strainer that is lined with a muslin cloth.  Let drain for a little while, and can use as is.  Optional: tie up the muslin cloth and hang it up for some time to make firm paneer.

note: you can use lemon juice or tart plain yogurt instead of vinegar

Bengali cholar dal

I’m from Calcutta, but I’m new to Bengali food.  I think it’s because I grew up eating North Indian food cooked at home – my mom frowned upon eating out in restaurants when we were growing up, and beyond one or two invitations to meals at my friend Pramita’s home, I don’t think I ever tasted authentic Bengali food.  When I visit Calcutta now, I try to eat Bengali food as much as I can at local eateries.  I also try to pester Sadhana, my mother’s cook, to make traditional Bengali favorites for me: mochar ghonto (a preparation of banana flowers), pui saag (a type of green), aloo dum (potatoes in a spicy sauce) served with cholar dal and puffy fried bread called luchis.

This recipe for easy Bengali style chana dal called cholar dal, is an attempt to recreate those flavors with excellent guidance from a new book called Calcutta Kitchen that I bought on my last trip.  This comforting mildly sweet dal tastes of cinnamon and fennel from the panchphoran mixture used to temper the oil.  The delicate fragrance of the tarka ingredients complement the nutty creaminess of the chana dal.  Cholar dal can be made with or without the addition of bits of coconut.  It’s delicious either way.

Bengali cholar dal

1 cup chana dal, soaked for 1 hour and cooked in the pressure cooker until soft

1 tbsp ghee

1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1 tsp of the five spice mixture called panch phoran
1 long whole dried red chilli
2 bay leaves

1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tsps of sugar
Pinch of garam masala
Salt to taste

1. Heat the ghee in a pot.  When the ghee is hot, add the cinnamon stick, whole dried chilli, bay leaves, and panchphoran. Allow the panchphoran to sputter for a few seconds.

2. Add the boiled dal, along with enough water to make the dal soupy, and the turmeric, sugar and salt.  Stir and bring to boil.  Reduce heat, and allow to simmer for a few minutes.  Add the pinch of garam masala.  Serve hot.

Nani’s paneer with crushed cashews

 

Just before adding the paneer

In the weeks leading up to my recent three month trip to Calcutta, I dreamed of how I would go to my nani’s house and stand beside her and soak in each little thing that she had to teach about cooking. I wasn’t disappointed. I spent several mornings in nani’s house this winter, peering into a blackened wok, learning how to make several beloved family favorites like goond ka laddu, gatta matar ka chaval, paneer capsicum, kala aloo dum, and stuffed green chilli peppers. I brought my camera, my tattered notebook and lots of questions: garlic first or onions? electric blender or mortar and pestle? Nothing seemed too difficult or complicated in nani’s kitchen.

Now that I’m back here, I can feel nani’s snowy haired presence beside me issuing clear, simple and easy directions.   I’m terribly grateful for having had the chance to learn from her.  When I make her paneer at home for the first time, I am pleased to discover that my dish tastes almost like hers.

Nani’s paneer is rich and creamy from the milk and crushed cashews.  The gently pounded whole spices and garlic cooked first add a wonderful aroma to the dish, along with the later addition of kasuri methi.  The green peppers and bits of cashew present a surprise element of crunch.

Paneer with crushed cashews

1/2 cup onion paste
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
1 cup tomato pulp, made by briefly boiling the tomatoes, removing the skin and crushing to pulp
1 cup chopped green pepper, also called capsicum

1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cayenne pepper powder
1 tbsp kasuri methi
Pinch of garam masala

1 inch piece of cinnamon, pounded gently to release aroma
2 black cardamoms, pounded gently
2 cloves, pounded gently

1 tsp cumin seeds
2-3 tbsp of oil

200g or 1/2 lb of paneer, cut into big chunks
1 cup of milk
10 raw cashews,coarsely crushed
salt to taste

1. Heat 2-3 tbsp of oil in a heavy bottomed wok or pan, and sputter cumin seeds. At the same time, add the cinnamon stick, cardamom and cloves. Add the garlic paste and cook for a few seconds, taking care that it doesn’t burn. Next add the ginger paste and onion paste. Add a little sugar (aids in browning the onions) and cook for a few minutes until the onions turn golden brown and release oil.

2. Add the tomato paste, chopped capsicum and turmeric. Cook until the oil is released. This takes a little while.

3. Add the kasuri methi and the roughly crushed cashews. Add 1 cup of milk and 1/2 cup of water. Bring to boil.

4. Add a pinch of garam masala (optional), salt to taste and paneer. Cook for a few more minutes until paneer is heated through. Serve hot.

Ingredients for the paneer

Rajma: red kidney bean stew

Rajma, spicy red kidney beans simmered in onions, tomato and ginger-garlic

Rajma, a spicy stew of red kidney beans, has always been on my mind.  I’ve encountered delicious ones here and there – for instance one that my friend Shalini makes.  When I ask her how and what, she says “It’s easy!”  Armed with those words, along with a recipe in a tattered cookbook that calls rajma, “a favourable from Punjab,” an internet search and newfound confidence after making Antara’s kala chana, I embark on my quest for good rajma.  I piece together insights from here and there, and the dish that results is wholesome and hearty and elicits warm praise from my husband.   Of course I don’t like to reveal that his praise matters, but I have to confess that it does light up my insides as does watching my family consume a pot of home cooked beans with enthusiasm (leftovers pictured above).

Key learnings: plenty of boiled tomato, use a bay leaf and some cinnamon stick, use dry spices sparingly, pressure cook entire dish with 1-2 whistles at end for a well-seasoned, smooth flavor.

Rajma

1 cup dried red kidney beans, soaked in water overnight

1 inch piece of whole cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 tsp cumin seeds, called jeera

1 cup onions, chopped
1 tbsp ginger, finely chopped
1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped

2 cups tomato puree, made by boiling tomatoes in water for a few minutes and pureeing

Dry spices
1/2 – 1 tsp dried mango powder, called amchur (add cautiously, as much may not be needed if tomatoes are sour)
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper powder, very optional

1. Soak the rajma overnight (6-12 hours).  Discard the water, and place in the pressure cooker.  Fill with water that is a 1/2 inch above the rajma.  Cook until soft.  Usually takes 4 whistles on medium heat or 2 whistles on medium heat, combined with 15-20 minutes thereafter on low heat.  Drain the rajma, and save the liquid for cooking.

2.  Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saucepan on medium heat.  Add the bay leaf, cinnamon stick and jeera first, and then the onions.  Cook until the onions are golden-brown, stirring frequently.  Next, add the chopped ginger and garlic and fry for a few minutes, taking care that the ginger and garlic don’t burn.

3. Add the cooked tomato puree along with all the dry spices.  Mix well and cook until the oil floats on top, stirring frequently.  This takes a while.

4. Add the boiled rajma and some (or all) of the reserved liquid.  Simmer on low heat for 10-15 minutes or pressure cook for 1-2 whistles on medium heat.  Serve hot with rice or rotis.

Kala Chana: black lentil stew

Black chickpeas

My friend Antara tells me that she can’t cook.  “It’s too stressful,” she tells me when I try to probe.  “I should have ordered in,” she laments, when we arrive at her home, although an appetite whetting smell of roasted onions, ginger and garlic lingers tellingly in the air.

“What did you make?”  I ask, curious to see what someone who claims they can’t cook, would make.  I barge into her kitchen and peer into a pot of simmering kala chana or whole Bengal gram, which resemble small dark brown chickpeas.  They look hearty and wholesome and tender, perfect nourishment for a late fall lunch.   Home-cooked food speaks to me of love, and I deeply touched that my friend has cooked for me.  Also, unbeknownst to her, I love this dish but have no idea how to make it.  When we sit down to eat, the perfectly seasoned chana melts in my mouth, tasting of old memories and growing up in Calcutta.

“So how did you do it,” I ask, intrigued and impressed by her foray.  “I followed a recipe and adjusted it,” she reveals, and continues to tell me how always following a recipe makes her feel somewhat inadequate as a cook.  “What about andaz” she questions, referring to the Indian habit of cooking by estimation, just instinctively throwing things into the pot, stirring, tasting, adjusting, and reaching the perfectly delicious concoction.  Every good Indian cook that we know from a previous generation cooks perfectly by andaz. Their recipes can’t be written down, and it’s always a pinch of this and a handful of that.

Fast forward into modern times where most of us hapless females were shooed out of the kitchen by our mothers and actively taught not to cook, none of us seems to have any sense of andaz.  I’ve been through the same agony of not knowing why more coriander powder and less cumin powder, and when garam masala, so I’ve succumbed to recipes too.  I’ve had to stand with teaspoons and tablespoons and cups as my mothers have cooked.  I’ve learned to re-read recipes each time I start to make the dish, despite having made the dish many times before.  It’s easy to forget one tiny detail, and although the result is usually edible, there’s always that feeling that something is not quite right.  I’ve also taught myself to write down recipes as I make them.  In the absence of andaz, a good recipe, comforting in its consistency, has had to suffice.

In honor of Antara’s home-cooking, here is her fantastic kala chana recipe.

Antara’s Kala Chana

1 cup dry kala chana, also known as Bengal gram or black chickpeas
1 cup onions, chopped
1 tbsp garlic, finely minced
1 tbsp ginger, finely minced
1 cup tomatoes, chopped
a small handful of coriander leaves, chopped
2-3 green chillies, optional, (omit if cooking for children)
2 tbsp oil

Dry spices
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp dry mango powder known as amchur
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper powder, optional (omit if cooking for children)
Salt to taste

1. Soak the kala chana overnight (6-12 hours).  Discard the water, and place in the pressure cooker.  Fill with water that is a 1/2 inch above the chana.  Cook until soft.  With pressure cookers, I’ve found that one has to understand the idiosyncrasies of one’s own cooker and figure out how long it takes.  Usually 4 whistles on medium heat work or 2 whistles on medium heat, combined with 15-20 minutes thereafter on low heat.  Drain the chana and save the liquid for cooking.

2.  While the chana is cooking, heat the oil in a large saucepan on medium heat.  Add the onions first, and cook until golden-brown, stirring frequently.  Next, add the chopped ginger and garlic and fry for a few minutes, taking care that the ginger and garlic don’t burn.  Add the green chillies at this time if using.

3. Add the chopped tomatoes along with all the dry spices.  Mix well and cook until the oil floats on top, stirring frequently.  This takes a while.

4. Add the boiled chana, some of the reserved liquid, and the chopped coriander.  Simmer on low heat for 10-15 minutes.  Serve hot with rice or rotis.

Agastya’s guacamole

Agastya's guacamole

Agastya has always been in my kitchen, but recently I’ve discovered that he can make guacamole.  If I give him a soft avocado split in half, he scoops out the flesh and pounds it in the molcajete.  A little sprinkle of salt, and it’s almost good enough to eat.  If there is onion at home, I chop a little and give it to him to add to his dish.  Tomato adds a sweet-tart and finger-licking yumminess to the guacamole.  I never seem to have limes or jalapenos/serranos or cilantro around all the time, but any or all of them add texture and flavor and interest to the guacamole.  I would recommend adding these, including tomatoes and onions, cautiously and in small quantities, as they can otherwise overpower the subtle creaminess of the avocado.

Most children love avocado, and it’s often a recommended first food for babies.  Missing in the above picture is my nine-month old, who is always hovering around any food in the kitchen.  He especially loves the guacamole and will lunge full-body into the stone vessel for his share of the feast.

Recipe:

1 ripe Hass avocado, that gives slightly to the touch
2 tbsps onion, finely chopped
2 tbsps tomato, pulp and seeds removed and finely chopped
salt to taste

Optional: a few stalks of chopped cilantro, dash of lime, finely chopped jalapenos for heat

1. First,  in a molcajete, pound together the onion, tomato, cilantro, and jalapeno (if using).  Then add the chunks of avocado.  Smash together.  Leave in a few whole pieces of avocado.  Add a sprinkle of salt and lime juice to taste.  There may be little or no need for lime juice if using tomatoes.

2. Serve immediately with tortilla chips.  My favorite brand is Xochitl.

Update as of 5/12/2011 : I took a Mexican cooking class recently at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York City. Their guacamole was full of sharp and exciting flavors.  Here’s what I learnt:

First, dot the big avocado seeds across your guacamole after you make it to preserve freshness.  Use white onions and plum tomatoes that have their pulpy center removed.  And use deseeded serrano peppers for a sharper flavor.

I’ve typed in their ingredients below.

4 ripe Hass avocados
1/2 cup chopped white onion
2 ripe plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 serrano pepper, seeded, ribs removed and diced
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 freshly squeezed lime
Salt and pepper to taste
Note: for a spicier guacamole, substitute the serrano pepper with a habanero pepper

Will cook for love

On Mother’s Day Agastya came home from preschool with a card that he had made.  Inside, his teacher had transcribed “I love my mommy… because… she makes pasta for me.”  I was surprised.  To begin with, pasta was an occasional quick meal in our home.  It was our equivalent of fast food.  I liked to imagine that I made meals that were more thoughtful for Agastya.   These meals involved lots of chopping, color mixing and patient cooking.  There were omelets, fruit plates, soups, stir-fried vegetables, lentils with rice and roti.  But pasta was a relative newcomer on our table.  Vegetables and sauces would make their way into our pasta over time, but at the moment the versions I made for him were usually small shapes tossed in olive oil with a sprinkle of dried basil.

So I was puzzled.  Why was he talking about simple, plain and often bland pasta?  Did he like pasta that much?  How about all that time spent making variations of khichri?  The hours reading Chrysanthemum yet again, playing Slips and Ladders or making puzzles?  Why was there no mention of those?

It occurred to me that perhaps he was just talking about the fact that I cook for him.  Especially since pasta was usually cooked upon request.   The operational word, then, was “make.”  I realized that I was lazy about many, many things, but never about cooking for him.  For instance, I might have said no to painting, park, play-doh, but I had never said no to pasta.

“Can you make pasta for me?” The words were enough to make me fly into the kitchen to set the water on the stove and to start chopping garlic.  Cooking for Agastya had somehow become an expression of my love for him.  Oddly enough, it was a love that he appeared to recognize.

of guilty pleasures

Photo taken by Vrushali Haldipur

Writing about food is my guilty pleasure.  Recently, with a baby on the move, there hasn’t been time for any sorts of pleasure.  I cannot understand why my six month old baby feels the need to crawl aggressively, clamber up and take flying, frog like leaps on the carpet.  “What’s the hurry,”I wonder, as I follow him around the house, on one hand proud of his persistence and propelling forward type of proclivity and on the other, completely exhausted and numbed from the effort of constantly watching and trying to restrain a strong willed ball of uncoordinated energy.”I’m so tired” I moan to anyone who will listen, and particularly to my family in India that I manage to track down on long-distance calls.  The time difference between India and the U.S. has always worked in my favor.  My day, after a night punctuated with howling children that wake up each hour, begins as they settle into the evening, and I can’t resist reaching out to my mother or my sister for just a little bit of support to get through the day.  The morning is over too soon, though. Agastya returns from summer camp at noon and we launch into the rest of the day.

I’ve learnt some lessons along the way.  One of them involves alone time.  I find that I need to spend time alone with each child to enjoy him and to observe little details about him.  A short walk to the grocery store with Agastya or a trip to the dry cleaners with Vasisht allows me to marvel at how small and how perfect and how wonderful each is.  It’s a change from all the other things that I keep constantly trying to do with or to my kids – feeding, teeth brushing, diapering, potty-training, sleeping, and more recently, bargaining, negotiating and trying to quell tantrums.

I’ve also found that a child’s perspective can make an otherwise boring trip quite fun.  Take for instance a PATH train ride into Manhattan. Agastya walks to the station from home with me, watching for the right turns and forks in the road, feeling very important as he crosses the road at the right signals.  Everything we do at the station – going down the stairs, buying a metrocard, swiping the “ticket” at the gates, finding the right train, settling ourselves into the seat – is new and novel.  We study the map and confirm that indeed we will be disembarking at 33rd St.  On the next platform stands a train that will go to WTC. We can see carriage number 626.  There are H’s for Hoboken on the pillars in the platform.  “Oh look mommy, there’s an EXIT sign,” says Agastya.  When Agastya sees the conductor ambling into the train, he exclaims loudly “all aboard.”  The sleepy looking conductor looks startled for a moment, then catches our eye and hides a small grin.  When the train pulls out of the station, Agastya holds his breath with excitement.  “We’re in the tunnel, mommy” he says as darkness falls around us.  When I ask him what the first stop is, I see a look of intense concentration and excitement on his face.  “The train is going faster” he says, breathlessly.  It is indeed.   I’m almost in his body, feeling the trip for the first time, my face alight with wonder.

A simple corn chowder

Corn chowder made with seasonal and local produce

It seems that I was all alone in an apartment in New York city just a little while ago.  Now life seems like it is bursting at the seams with a growing family.  I always have company for a walk or a talk.  Even my five month old baby appreciates a good stroll with Mommy in the baby carrier.  “Aye” he goes, lifting up his chin and beckoning to me “hmmmm.”  “Booo” I respond.  When things are at their craziest, with a loudly bawling three year who just can’t understand why Daddy has to go to work each morning or a fussy baby who refuses to settle down despite what seems like hours of rocking, I think longingly of my small and quiet space that had a window box for herbs and a hand-embroidered coverlet with fat pink roses on my bed.

This soup, with fresh corn, carrots, onions, potatoes and garlic from the farmer’s market is simple and unfussy – no stock and no heavy cream, and quick, one-step cooking. It’s full of old memories such as the discovery of fresh summer corn  at my local farmers market.  I stand at the counter and run my knife down the sides of the bright yellow, succulent ears of corn and think of those empty swathes of time when I wondered when my life would change.  The kernels are round and juicy, and yield a sweet crunchy taste with a burst of corn milk in my mouth.  I think of how the change in my life is here now, with the plump baby cheeks, soft downy head, chattering toddler and busy, bustling husband.  I throw all the chopped vegetables into a pot with a pat of butter (butter is a must), add 2-3 cups of water and bring to boil.  Cook until the vegetables are soft, puree about half the soup in a blender.  Add the puree back to the whole pieces in the pot, season with salt, garnish with chopped flat-leaf parsley or cilantro and serve.  A little milk can be added for additional flavor, but it is not a must.

And finally, yes, after all the musing, how I wouldn’t change any of it for anything in the world.

Potato, carrot, corn, garlic, onion and sprig of cilantro

A lentil love affair

Chana dal with zucchini

The staple dal of my childhood was a yellow, insipid affair.  A small bowl of yellow lentils, presumably toor dal, that showed up on my plate day after day, usually tempered with ghee and cumin seeds and turmeric.  Monotonous and never-changing and nothing of what I wanted or missed when I came to the United States.  It was left behind with the food that I was required to eat, with my mother’s “finish what is on your plate” instructions.  I was ready to make my own food choices.

That is until I met my husband, who despite his willingness to take me to any restaurant and sample any cuisine, would sometimes remark, just in passing “I long for rice and dal.”  It took me a little while to pick up on this statement.  The years in college and those spent working long hours and living in a matchbox apartment in New York city had not advanced my relationship with lentils.  I had almost forgotten that they existed.

One reason for our estrangement was that I found it difficult to cook them.  I had never paid attention to how lentils were made at home in Calcutta and distantly recollected an ugly snorting hissing aluminum pressure cooker.  In my New York apartment, boiling lentils in a regular pot seemed to take hours and yielded lots of scum that had to be scooped away from the top of the pot.  The plain dal, with a simple tarka of ghee and cumin didn’t taste that exciting either.  Other things were needed to complete the meal: some kind of vegetable sabzi, rice and yogurt.  Too much to ask of one person in a tiny apartment cooking for herself.

When my husband came along, things changed.  Now here was someone, brought up in the proper South Indian way, who ate rice and sambar and yogurt, and could effectively wield a pressure cooker.  Once I learned how to boil toor dal in under fifteen minutes with three whistles in a pressure cooker and 3:1 ratio of water to dal, the seasoning of the dal followed quickly.  I found that no matter what I did, the versatile and encouraging dal tasted great.  First with a basic tempering of ghee and heeng, and cumin seeds and turmeric.  Next bits and pieces of other things into the sizzling ghee.  Onions.  Ginger.  Garlic.  Tomatoes.   Coriander leaves.  Green chillies.  Dried red chillies.  Fresh green curry leaves.  Black mustard seeds.  Any or all of these.  My experiments grew bolder.  Next came different dals: yellow split moong, orange split masoor.  More recently peas and beans such as red kidney beans and black eyed peas and garbanzo beans.  Along the way, I also realized that some dals, like split yellow moong and split orange masoor, boiled quickly and directly on the stove without the use of a pressure cooker.

The recipe below is a Gujarati style chana dal made with chunks of zucchini instead of the more traditional lauki.  Zucchini is so readily available in farmer’s markets during the summer that I am trying to tuck it wherever I can.  This dish is comforting and is a one pot meal, to be eaten with rice or roti.  The dal provides a chunky and hearty base for the sweet-tart tomatoes, mild juicy green zucchini and earthy garlic.

Serves 2

1/2 cup of chana dal, soaked for an hour or overnight and boiled in the pressure cooker

1 zucchini, cubed

1/2 cup onions, diced
A small piece of ginger, minced
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup tomatoes, diced

Spices

A pinch of asafoetida
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
A small lump of jaggery, optional and to taste

1/2 tbsp ghee
Salt to taste

1. Heat the ghee in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and sputter the asafoetida, mustard seeds and cumin seeds.  Add the onions and cook for a few minutes until the onion is translucent.  Add the ginger and garlic and cook for a few seconds.  Next, add the tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes release oil and do not taste raw anymore.  Now toss in the zucchini and the boiled chana dal, with plenty of water, along with turmeric, cayenne pepper, cumin and coriander powder, and jaggery, if using. Add water (depending on how thick the dal is) and bring to a boil on medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Keep boiling for several minutes until the zucchini is soft.  Add salt to taste and serve with rice or roti.

Aloo methi: potatoes with fresh fenugreek

Potatoes with fresh fenugreek leaves

I have recently begun to love cooking with fenugreek leaves.  It started with eating them kneaded into spicy rotis.  All as a result of becoming a frequent visitor of a take-out food counter called Rajbhog Foods in Jersey City.

Rajbhog is a grimy, flourescent bulb-lit store that ladles out Gujarati food.  When I enter the store, I see sweets and savories displayed behind glass counters to my left.  To the right, there are tables.  The back of the store is filled with bags and bags of packaged snacks with the word “Rajbhog” emblazoned across them.  In the middle, there is chaotic confusion.  People mill around trying to get their order in to various people behind the counter.  The people behind the counter prepare the chaats and snacks in a leisurely fashion.  The line for orders keeps growing longer.  Customers jump in and out of the line.  Fights erupt, my server is impossible to find, no one cares if I paid or not, the man behind the counter surprises me by remembering from the last time that raw onions don’t agree with my pregnancy, another man gives me a free taste of the crumbly yellow peda.  I leave exasperated but entertained.

The food here is quite tasty, and I am fond of the tart yogurt kadhi, the  spicy-sweet dal with peanuts and the various vegetable preparations that show up, different each time.  I love buying a packet or two of methi theplas to bring home.  And more recently I have begun buying fresh fenugreek leaves from the equally chaotic Indian grocery store across the street, so that I can pester Jagu, the lady who comes in to make rotis, to make those theplas for me at home.  Her methi rotis are deep yellow and patterned with lacy green leaves, soft, pliable and ready in minutes.  She’s promised me a roti-making lesson soon.

In the meanwhile, my leftover methi leaves find themselves in my mother’s aloo methi and my mother-in-law’s methi-coriander rice. Cooked fenugreek is slightly bitter to the taste, but the flavors are complex and fill my mouth, and it’s a taste that I start to crave.  I’ve tried substituting arugula and spinach for methi, but it never works: the flavor of fenugreek is far richer.  I use one large yellow or Yukon Gold potato and a big bunch of washed, chopped methi leaves (stalks removed) for the aloo methi.

Aloo methi, Potato with Fenugreek

Serves 2

1 big yellow potato, boiled and cubed
1 big bunch of chopped methi leaves, washed well and stalks removed, about 1 cup packed
Bits of ginger, garlic and 1-2 green chillies (use whatever you have of these ingredients)

Spices

1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder

1/2 tbsp oil
Salt to taste

1.  Heat the oil in a pan and sputter the cumin seeds.  Can add a pinch of asafoetida if desired.

2. Toss in the ginger, garlic and green chillies and fry for a couple of minutes.  Add the pieces of potato and stir.  Sprinkle in turmeric, cumin and coriander powder and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the potato is a warm golden brown.  Add salt to taste.

3. Throw in the methi leaves and continue to cook.  The leaves will wilt and cook through in a few minutes.  Serve hot.

Fenugreek

Pumpkin

Potato pumpkin, called aloo kaddu

I’ve grown to love the change of seasons in the northeast United States.  Each year I find that I wait for spring blossoms and fall leaves.  I’ve been here for fourteen years now, but this longing for the change in seasons keeps growing.  I crave it more with every passing year: there is something so satisfying about the expectation of change and its clockwork regularity, along with that feeling of newness and excitement.

So when I start seeing vivid orange pumpkins of assorted shapes and sizes sitting on a bench outside my neighborhood store in the fall, a deep thrill runs through me.  I think of the festival of Diwali in my Calcutta home, where a festive pumpkin dish, aloo kaddu, always makes an appearance.  Year after year.  The aloo kaddu is a humble and rustic preparation, but its presence in tiny silver bowls on a silver thali gives it an air of splendor.  Piping hot and puffy urad-dal kachoris, crunchy boondis in cumin flavored yogurt and sweet milk-rice kheer complete the Diwali dinner offerings.

I have always felt that this is the meal that we eat to celebrate where my family comes from.  The earth on which the pumpkin grows, in the places that my great-grandparents once called home, such as Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Dehradun and Moradabad in Northern India.  I’ve never been to most of these places, but the bite of chunky, sweet and spicy pumpkin and the heavenly aroma of cinnamon, clove and cardamom that fills my mouth permits me to taste what they must have eaten.  And thereby, just for that moment, live the life that they must have led.

This recipe makes use of panchphoran, which is a 5-spice mixture consisting of whole seeds of each of the following: nigella, fennel, fenugreek, black mustard and wild celery (radhuni).  I often use butternut squash pieces instead of pumpkin.  Amma, my paternal grandmother, also uses an unnamed thin-skinned winter squash that is orange on the inside and green on the outside without peeling the skin.  It tastes delicious and the green-orange contrast looks gorgeous.

I like to keep the proportion of pumpkin:potato about 3:1.  The potato gathers all the flavors of the dish and creates a great base for the squares of melting pumpkin.  My mother recently taught me to add pieces of Japanese or Italian eggplant to this dish.  Now I frequently make a simple version with just eggplant, and with even fewer spices: no pieces of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and no amchur.  The fennel seeds in the panchphoran add a sweet and delicate flavor to the eggplant.

Aloo Kaddu, Potato pumpkin

Serves 4

2 cups of potatoes, diced into small cubes (about 2 medium potatoes)
6 cups of pumpkin or butternut squash, diced into small cubes, roughly same size as the potatoes
½ inch piece of ginger, grated
2-3 green chillies, whole

Spices – 1 (for initial tarka/tempering)
1 tbsp of panchphoran
2-3 cloves
2 green cardamoms
1 inch stick of cinnamon, broken into half
2-3 bay leaves

Spices – 2
½ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp coriander powder

Spices – 3 (add at the end)
1 tsp dried mango powder called amchur
½ tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp sugar, optional

1. Heat oil in a medium pan and add Spices 1 for the tarka. Add ginger and green chillies and cook for a few seconds.  Next add pumpkin and potatoes and roast for a few minutes.  Add Spices 2 and cook for a few minutes; add salt.

2. Add about 2 cups water (vary based on how dry or moist you want the preparation); cover and cook until potatoes are cooked through.  I would recommend not adding too much water.

3. Mash a few of the pumpkin pieces but leave potatoes whole.  Add Spices 3 but keep garam masala for the very end.  Cook for a few minutes and remove from flame.

Mixed vegetables, Andhra-style

 

Mixed vegetables, Andhra-style

 

I have to confess that my mother-in-law’s recipes hold an exotic appeal.  Whoever heard of cooking with freshly roasted and ground chana dal and urad dal and white sesame seeds in the form of a spice mixture?

This mixed vegetable dish of hers allows me to throw into a pan every leftover and straggling vegetable that can be found in my refrigerator drawer.  Such as cauliflower, carrots, beans, peas, potatoes, pumpkin, bell peppers.  While the vegetables are cooking, the spice mixture gets prepared by roasting chana dal, urad dal, whole red chilli pepper, cumin seeds and white sesame seeds (called safed til) in a little ghee.  The whole spices are then coarsely ground in the food processor.  When the vegetables are done, the freshly prepared spice powder gets added in at the end.  The spices coat the sauteed vegetables and within a minute or two, I have a dish full of brightly colored vegetables with a nutty, crunchy and warm spice taste that can be eaten with rice or rotis.  I find that this dish tastes especially good with rice: the spice rubs its nuttiness into the rice as I mash the vegetables in with my fingertips.

Serves 4

Mixed vegetables (any combination and could be more or less of the following):
1 medium-sized cauliflower, cut in small florets
1 carrot, diced
1/2 cup peas
1/2 cup beans, chopped
1 large potato, cubed
1 green bell pepper, diced

2 tbsp oil
1/2 tbsp ghee

Spice mixture (order in which added to hot ghee):
2 tbsp chana dal
1 tbsp urad dal
1-2 dried red chilli peppers, depending on desired spice level
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp white sesame seeds

1. Heat oil in the pan.  Add the mixed vegetables and stir.  Cook covered on medium to low heat until soft.  Open occasionally and stir.  Leave uncovered when soft.

2. Simultaneously, heat the ghee in a small pan.  Add the spices in the order listed, pausing for several seconds between each. Roast, stirring frequently, until the smell of the spices is released and the color of the chana dal turns golden brown.  Remove from heat, allow to cool and then grind coarsely in a food processor.

3.  Stir the spice mixture into the pan of cooking vegetables.  Add salt to taste.  Cook for a minute or so and remove from the heat.


Spinach dal

Spinach in toor dal

Mom’s left again.  Her twice daily cooking has left with her too.  Now every time I go into the kitchen and try to toss a bunch of wilted spinach or throw away leftover rice, I’m accosted by the question “what would mom have done?”  That spinach would have found itself in a dal or a soup or in rotis and the rice would have become a tasty stir-fry.  Mom certainly wouldn’t have ordered take-out several times a week.  She would have put together a healthy meal in no time.

I can almost hear her.  Chop vegetables when you can and keep aside.  Pick up crying baby.  Answer phone.  Read one story to older toddler.  Put down soothed baby.  Engage toddler in a writing exercise and go off to saute the vegetables.  Put everything in the pressure cooker.  Wait for 3 whistles while you make a mad dash to straighten the house before your spouse returns home.  and so on.   Before you know it you are sitting down to a simple home-cooked dinner and not one rotten zucchini goes into the garbage.  When I call my mom and tell her this she throws her head back and laughs “That’s the question I usually ask myself.  What would nani have done?”

Mom’s spinach dal is a satisfying lentil and spinach soup with bits of onion, garlic and ginger.  I can’t eat dal without a tarka of ghee and heeng, and I’ve also found that turmeric adds an incredible flavor and color to dal.  This dal makes great use of leftover spinach which you can add in practically any quantity.  It can be served with rice or rotis, with a side of yogurt and red onions.

In pressure cooker:
1 cup of dry toor dal
4-5 cups of roughly chopped spinach
1/2 tsp of turmeric
A little salt

Tarka in a separate pan:
1 tbsp ghee
A pinch of asafoetida (heeng)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 cup chopped onions
2-3 cloves of chopped garlic
1 tbsp chopped ginger

After mixing contents of pressure cooker and tarka add:
1/2 tsp of garam masala
1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper
Salt to taste

1. Pressure cooker: Wash the toor dal and place into pressure cooker.  Add enough water such that there is water about a 1/2 inch above the toor dal.  Throw in several handfuls of washed and roughly chopped spinach.  Add some turmeric and a little salt.  Bring to three whistles on medium heat.  Turn off heat and put cooker aside.  Wait for steam to escape before opening.

2. Tarka: Meanwhile, heat ghee in a separate pan and add asafoetida.  Sputter cumin seeds when hot.  Add the onions and saute.  When the onions are a little cooked, add the chopped garlic and ginger.  Cook for a minute or so, but not too long else the garlic and ginger will burn.

3.  Put the tarka in the spinach and dal mixture and add the garam masala, cayenne pepper and salt to taste.  Cook on medium heat, stirring frequently until mixture comes to a boil.  Cook for a minute or two.  Serve hot.