Monthly Archives: December 2009

Paneer Butter Masala

Paneer Butter Masala

I like looking at cook books, but the Indian cooking ones usually scare me.  The list of ingredients will be long and complicated and some recipes will say something to the effect of “two medium tomatoes” and “one large onion” and “a generous pinch of cumin.” I am unsure of what that means, having had a bad experience or two with such directions in the past.   Invariably my proportion of tomatoes to onions will be completely off, and the overly generous pinch of cumin will have made my food too bitter.  “Spices are supposed to be the seasoning not the main ingredient,” my husband will tactfully remark when he comes home to a rather heavily spiced poorly cooked aloo dum, that tastes even stranger because I’ve tried to add, what I believe to be offsets to the extra cumin and tomatoes, including lots of extra butter and yogurt.   At the other extreme are recipes that spell out 350 grams of potatoes and 200 grams of green beans, and I find these impossible too.  It’s far easier to visualize things in cups and tablespoons than upon a weighing scale.

So when I come across a Paneer Makhani recipe that provides directions such as “two cups of tomato puree, one cup of chopped onions and two cups of chopped paneer pieces” in the process of casually flipping through a cookbook, I get very excited because I know that one cup means one beautiful measurable cup.  About 200ml or 237 ml to be more precise.  Clearly the ratio of tomatoes to onions is two to one.   I try out the recipe, it comes out fairly well, and then it gets added to my limited cooking repertoire.  Each time I have to produce a “party dish” or when my paneer-loving younger brother comes to visit, this recipe makes an appearance.  I never have to think.  The key ingredients are easily measurable and the prep and cooking time is under an hour.  I know the taste of the dish will vary based upon the quality of the tomatoes in season or the pungency of the onions.  But by and large, my paneer is always successful, and over time I start changing an ingredient or two here and there, and soon have my own favorite version of Paneer Butter Masala.

Paneer, a pressed Indian home-made cheese, is sold packaged in the refrigerator section of most Indian grocery stores.  What makes this paneer dish really flavorful is the use of a little chopped onions and dried fenugreek leaves, fried separately and added to the dish at the end, along with a tablespoonful of honey (ideas borrowed from the queen bee of Indian vegetarian cooking, Tarla Dalal).   Red chilli powder is optional as I find that my toddler son is far more likely to enjoy the paneer without the chilli.  I also like to finish the gravy and then add the chopped paneer pieces at the end after turning off the flame.  I let the paneer marinate in the gravy, and then reheat thoroughly just before serving.  You can reheat whenever the dish needs to be served, up until the next day.   The paneer will absorb all the flavors of the sauce, and become juicy and succulent.

Paneer Butter Masala

Serves 4

Initial tarka:
2 tbsps clarified butter called ghee
Optional, pieces of whole garam masala: a 1/2” piece of cinnamon stick, 1 clove, 1 green cardamom pod, 1 large bay leaf

Wet masala, to be ground to a paste together:
1 ½ cup of onions, 1 cup cut into large chunks and the rest finely diced.  Keep the diced portion aside.
2 tbsps of broken cashew nuts, or 7-8 whole pieces
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1” piece of ginger, peeled

To be added later:
2 cups of tomato puree made from freshly chopped or canned tomatoes

Dry masalas:
½ tsp of garam masala powder
1 tsp of turmeric
½ tsp of cumin powder
1 tbsp of dried fenugreek leaves called kasuri methi
1 tsp of red chilli powder, optional

For the end:
1 tbsp of honey
1 cup of milk
2 cups or 400g/14 oz of paneer, chopped into small pieces
salt to taste

1.  Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat and when hot, add the pieces of whole garam masala (optional).  After a few seconds of sizzling, add the ground wet masala paste comprised of onions, garlic, ginger and cashew nuts.  Fry until the paste turns medium brown.

2. Add the tomato puree, along with a ½ cup of water.  Add the turmeric and chilli powder (if using) and cook until the oil floats to the surface of the masala.  This will take a while, about 30 minutes.  Stir occasionally to ensure that the paste is cooking evenly.

3. Meanwhile, fry the ½ cup of chopped onions and kasuri methi in a separate pan with a bit of ghee.   Add this to the cooked paste, along with milk, a ½ cup of water, cumin powder, garam masala powder, honey and salt to taste.  If the sauce seems too thick, add some more milk.  Cook until the mixture comes to a boil.  Add the paneer and continue cooking for a few minutes if serving immediately.  Otherwise, turn off the flame and reheat when ready to serve.

Andhra-style potatoes

Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam

My husband introduced me to the food from his native state of Andhra Pradesh when we were dating.  The cuisine and its cooking style was a revelation for me.  For instance, a simple sookha aloo-pyaaz or dry potato-onion dish tasted completely different because of the cooking process, the treatment of ingredients and a slightly different spice mix.  In my North Indian home, we would have sputtered whole cumin in hot oil, added the onions, then the boiled potatoes along with some turmeric, a pinch of cumin-coriander powder and some dried mango powder called amchur.  All of this happened in one pan and in sequential steps.  My husband on the other hand cooked his aloo-pyaaz in three almost-parallel parts: onions fried first and made into a wet paste, whole spices roasted separately and ground into a dry spice mix, boiled potatoes stir-fried on their own until golden.  The spices he roasted also included lentils like chana dal and urad dal, that were a completely new and surprise addition to my spice palate.  Finally all three parts were combined into the dish called Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam or Potatoes in Onion Masala.  The resulting dish, earthy and hearty, had a strong taste of onion paste and freshly ground spices, and could be very spicy from ground dried red chillies.  We now make it without any chillies so that two year-old Agastya, who loves onions and aloo, can eat it too.

Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam or Potatoes in Onion Masala

Serves 4

2-3 medium-sized potatoes, boiled and cubed into 1/2” chunks.
A little oil

For the wet masala:
2 medium sized onions, diced
1 tbsp of oil

For the dry masala:
1 tbsp chana dal
1 tbsp urad dal
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp whole mustard seeds
3-4 dried red chillies (optional)
A spot of ghee

1. Heat the oil in a pan and fry the onions until light brown. Grind to a paste with a little salt.

2. In a little bit of ghee, dry roast the chana dal, urad 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.

3. Heat a little oil in a pan.  Add the cubed potatoes and fry for a few minutes until golden.  Stir in the onion masala and salt to taste.  Cook on the flame for a couple of minutes.  Serve hot with basmati rice or rotis.

Stir-fried Okra

Okra, called bhindi

Sometimes when I am in the kitchen, the strongest association that I have with the food, in this case okra, is the memory of a two-and-half year old Agastya hovering around, helping in some way or just getting involved in the vegetable that I am making.  My mother has always claimed that all little children love okra, called bhindi in Hindi, and Agastya has been no exception.  He loves eating stir-fried okra on his own, fingers eagerly cramming the crispy green circles into his mouth.  I do not ever need to follow him around with a plate of food that holds okra to bribe or tempt him to eat a morsel.  This means that when I tell him that I am about to make okra, his little body comes expectantly into the kitchen to inspect what I am doing.  He demands to be placed on the counter while I chop.  Agastya excitedly fingers the okra, examines its shape and texture, and counts the chopped pieces that emerge from my board.  He finds it fascinating that I cut off the “heads” and “tails” of the okra, and that the okra has several names such as bhindi and lady’s finger.  His excitement reminds me of how I always imagine chopped bhindi tails to be the fallen tails of house lizards that reside in practically every home in India.  I make a quick mental note that I must point out house lizards to Agastya when we next visit India.

It is very hard to find good bhindi here in the greater New York metropolitan area.  The Indian stores in Jersey City always carry okra, but they are frequently old, fibrous, hard, and nearly impossible to cook.  Another source is an organic store called Sobsey’s here in Hoboken that occasionally carries very fresh okra imported from Mexico.  And for a short while during the summer, local Jersey-grown okra makes an appearance in the farmers’ markets, and these are just the opposite of the ones in the Indian stores: they are a bright emerald green, glistening, thin, fresh, small and very tender.  While holding a basket of these delectable treasures, I will often have a quick daydream that someone has handed me a paper cone with crisply fried whole tiny green okra, tossed with a generous sprinkling of salt and red chilli powder.   Sometimes I am transported to a sleepy afternoon on the Greek island of Hydra where my husband and I stumbled upon a restaurant that brought us small whole okra cooked in a tomato and onion sauce.  Agastya had proceeded to eat the entire plate, savoring each bite.  We had watched on, relieved that our son had found something to satisfy his tummy.

The best way to enjoy okra’s natural rich earthy flavor is to simply cut fresh okra (washed and thoroughly dried) into 1/4″ inch rounds.  Heat a generous quantity of oil in a non-stick pan on medium heat, say about 3-4 tablespoons of oil for 2 pounds of okra, and throw in the chopped vegetable when the oil becomes hot.  There will be a sizzling sound as the okra hits the hot oil.  Cook uncovered, stirring every few minutes, until the okra browns, becomes soft and starts looking crisp at the edges.  This takes a little while, and it is important to not add any salt until the okra is done.  Covering the okra while cooking and adding salt both cause water to be released from the vegetable.  This hampers the cooking process, leaving the okra raw.  After the okra is cooked, add salt and a generous sprinkling of turmeric.  Cook for just a minute or two and the dish is ready to eat.  Note that okra shrinks down to an alarmingly small quantity after cooking.  For instance, 2 pounds of fresh uncooked okra will only serve 2 adults and one or two small children.

The Empty Kitchen

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stir-fried taro root (arbi) made by my mother-in-law

 

My kitchen feels oddly cold and empty.  Everything is in its place.  There is no mad confusion of spices, profusion of dry lentils and messy spread of vegetable peels on the countertop.

My mother-in-law has just left today for India, after almost three months of being here in Hoboken.  When my mother and mother-in-law are here, the stark white kitchen explodes into life and appears warm and welcoming.  All of a sudden there is stuff everywhere.  Spice jars are left open.  The smell of cooking fills the house, enters into crevices, and refuses to leave.  Both women use a variety of pots, pans, prep bowls and implements.  The kitchen appears to hum pleasantly with activity.  My mother-in-law chatters noisily with her sister on the phone while she cooks.  My mother starts innovating and tasting.  She tastes, adds, stirs and tastes again.  As though she is back in her eleventh grade science laboratory.

Both my mothers are excellent cooks.  When they come from India, both women take over the kitchen, coaxing delicious food from the electric stove.  They show no signs of laziness or fatigue when it comes to cooking.  My mother-in-law executes traditional Indian food flawlessly.  My mother I best remember for the interesting global food that makes an appearance in her cooking.  Quinoa starts showing up in our meals after three weeks in Peru.  I watch my mother pack in giant butter beans into her suitcase in Greece. Vegetarian risottos become a regular dinner-time feature after a week in Italy.  I’m not sure where the vegetable stir-fry with couscous that I love so much comes from.   In contrast I, before cooking anything, think about the commitment involved, the long hours, the possibility of grossly inedible food, the wasted effort, the cleaning, the disappointment.  Not cooking becomes a vicious cycle.  I don’t cook, then it gets harder each time I try to cook, and then I don’t feel like cooking the next time.

The kitchen seems to sense that I am an uneasy mistress.   It grows silent and sterile when my mothers leave.  It throws me sullen glances while I tiptoe outside.  It dares me to enter, and when I do, it makes something happen, like upsetting the jar of lentils so that there’s a giant mess and I start losing my sense of balance.  By the time I’m done picking up all the minute grains off the floors, I have lost my nerve and can’t possibly contemplate cooking dinner.  I scuttle away and plunk myself down on the sofa thinking about my limited food delivery choices.   I also think about how my mothers would have never allowed the kitchen to intimidate and bully them in any way.

So, a day later, I decide that I need to gently reintroduce myself to the kitchen.  Make friends again by starting with something simple.  Just a cup of tea, perhaps.  Tomorrow maybe I will try to make one dish from start to finish.

Cauliflower

Sometimes my tiny toddler clambers into his dad’s lap at dinner time and proceeds to messily eat everything on the plate, small fingers moving busily from table to mouth, with a look of intense concentration on his face.  This, in spite of having finished his own dinner just an hour ago.  During such moments, I have an overwhelming sense that I must be doing something right.  My cooking has satisfied this small but very particular critic.  From the entire being-a-perfect-parent spectrum, I have decided that all I want to do is give my son two things, a lifelong love of learning and a love of good food.  As I watch him eating, still surprised that he can actually feed himself out of hunger, curiosity or whatever it may be, it seems to me that Agastya seems to especially relish the gobi or cauliflower stir-fry.   Can it really be that we both suddenly agree on what defines a good food?

The gobi dish has been arrived at after a long while of wondering what I can do with a cauliflower to make it edible, let alone make it taste like an authentic Indian sabji. It’s also meant getting over my fear of the cauliflower.  I have realized that just staring at the heads of cauliflower at the market and timidly considering possibilities will not do.  The first step is to bring home a bright white cauliflower with tightly packed florets, unwrap it and then ruthlessly remove all the greens and chop off a large piece of the stem near the head so that most of the florets are left with thinner, tender stems.  Discard all the green and white foliage over the counter before the mess threatens to overwhelm.  Then chop into bite-sized florets.  The satisfying abundance of cauliflower florets can now be put in a colander and washed.  The cooking possibilities then present themselves.  In the past, I have tried boiling the cauliflower in hot water, steaming the florets, even microwaving the entire head before stir frying, but all of these have tended to kill the flavor of the cauliflower.

Simply heating a few tablespoons of oil in a pan and covering and cooking the chopped cauliflower florets on medium heat until soft, stirring occasionally to ensure that the cauliflower doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, with a generous pinch of turmeric and salt, can yield a bland, but fairly tasty gobi dish.  The recipe can be be varied to add some grated ginger in the beginning, or long chopped onions cooked until they are brown, or even a green chilli or two, split down the middle, or any combination of the three. A sprinkling of coriander powder, cumin powder and amchur at the end adds another layer of flavor.  A raw medium-sized white or yellow potato with its peel, cut into thin slices and cooked with the cauliflower, adds a delicious rustic flavor to the dish.  Alternatively, a half cupful of green peas can be thrown in midway through the cooking to make gobi matar.

Sambar

Sambar with eggplant and okra

Every Sunday, my parents and I would go to eat dosa, or crispy South Indian rice crepes at the Super Snack Bar in Alipore, which seemed at the time a long drive from our home in Calcutta’s Ballygunge neighborhood.  My dad loved dosa, and since he was frequently away on business trips, I looked forward to these dosa expeditions when he was back.

Super Snack Bar was always very busy on Sunday mornings. The air would be heavy with the smell of frying dosas, unfamiliar spices and fermented batter.  I remember being placed on the tall black countertop at the restaurant, small legs dangling over the side, where patrons stood and consumed their dosa.  I would wait impatiently for the food to arrive, and would immediately attack my dad’s plate, dipping bits of crunchy golden dosa and pieces of steamed rice-and-lentil cakes called idli into the very spicy coconut chutney and fiery red-hot lentil soup called sambar. Busy waiters circulated with the tiny cups of extra sambar and coconut chutney.   The spicy sambar was difficult to consume in any meaningful quantity, and I would watch round-eyed as my mother drank hers easily.  “That’s what it means to be a grown-up,” I would think.  “Someday, I’ll be able to take all that heat and spice too.”  Over the years, I encountered many sambars, some tasty and found during South India travels but others mostly bland, lackluster and uninspiring.   It took the finding of a South Indian husband, and the arrival of a South Indian mother-in-law to understand how a proper sambar should taste.

The secret to my mother-in-law’s recipe lies in the sambar powder or dry masala that she makes from scratch instead of using a packaged mix.  Although it may seem tedious to make the masala, it is entirely worth the effort.  This dry mixture keeps well in an airtight container for several months.  I also enjoy adding vegetables, such as small whole eggplant, tiny whole onions and pieces of lauki or bottle gourd to my sambar when the tamarind-water mixture is being boiled, but this is entirely optional.  Sambar is usually served with rice, idli, dosa and fried lentil donuts called vada.

Serves 3-4

To make the sambar powder

1 tsp ghee
2 tsp chana dal
1 ½ tsp white split urad dal
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorn
3-4 dried red chillies

Fry separately in ghee:
Generous pinch of asafoetida
½ tsp fenugreek seeds

Do not fry
2-3 tbsp grated coconut, fresh or frozen and defrosted

1. Heat the first set of spices in a pan with a little ghee, on medium flame for 3-4 minutes until the fragrant smell of spices is released.  Follow this order: chana dal, urad dal, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorn, and dried red chillies.
2. Separately, fry the pinch of asafoetida and fenugreek seeds with a spot of ghee until the fenugreek seeds become a little dark in color.
3. Coarsely grind all of the spices in a dry spice grinder or coffee bean grinder, including the coconut.
4. Add some water and make a paste.

Note: the  dry spice mixture, before adding coconut can be stored for later use.

Making the sambar
1 cup of dry toor dal
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 ½ tsp mustard seeds
Pinch of asafoetida
2-3 dried red chillies
1/2 large red onion cut into long slices
1 large tomato, diced
A handful of cilantro, chopped
Lime sized ball of fresh tamarind fruit paste soaked in 1 tbsp of water

1. Place the toor dal in a pressure cooker with water:dal in the ratio 2:1 and cook on medium heat until the cooker emits 3 whistles.  Meanwhile, heat the ghee in a pan and sputter the cumin seeds, asafoetida, dried red chillies and mustard seeds.  Next, add the onions and fry till they become brown.
2. Add the tomatoes and cilantro.  Cook till tomatoes are tender.
3. Add tamarind and salt to taste.  Add about 2-3 cups of water.  When the mixture comes to a boil, add the sambar masala paste (about 2-3 tbsp or to taste) and the boiled dal to the mixture.  Add water as needed for desired consistency.
4. Bring mixture to boil.  Continue to boil for 1 or 2 minutes until the sambar gets its taste.

Pav Bhaji

Pav Bhaji

Pav Bhaji

When I first came to the United States in the mid-90s, I knew that the food in the college cafeteria and the three local pink-and-gold gaudy Indian restaurants would be different from the food that I had grown up on.  More than my daily meals, I missed the tangy and spicy street foods that are served in various corners of Calcutta.  Pav bhaji, a hot mixed vegetable curry served with bread, was one such dish.

My memories of pav bhaji consisted of first evading my mother who didn’t approve of street food, and then finding the pav bhaji vendor on a noisy and busy street corner in the early evening. The pav bhaji man was dark, thin and intense, with a big moustache.  “How spicy would you like the bhaji, didi, and should I put everything?” he asked in Hindi.  While I waited, he sizzled a pat of yellow butter on a giant round black griddle or tava.  He threw in diced onions, peppers and ginger-garlic paste into the middle of the pan and added some chopped tomatoes and mashed potatoes.  His face shone by the light of the naked bulb suspended overhead and his hands moved deftly, wielding the steel spatula with practiced skill as he sprinkled a generous spoonful of garam masala, a mixture of black pepper, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, cumin and coriander powder, tossed in some amchur or dried raw mango powder, and spiced up the bhaji with red chilli pepper powder.  Finally, the bhaji man scooped up the thick piping hot curry onto a crackling plate made of dried leaves, added another generous dollop of butter and a sprinkle of lime, topped the bhaji with crunchy chopped onions and bright green cilantro, and served it with a side of hot buttered rolls or pav.  When I took a bite, my mouth puckered at the taste of the piquant and spicy concoction.  The roll provided a marvelous antidote to the fire in the bhaji, and I experienced a glorious sense of wellbeing as the hot food slid down my throat and reached my belly.  This is what I craved: a hot satisfying one-pot meal that would taste of the jostling streets of home.

Meanwhile my roommate who had grown up with Chinese immigrant parents in Brooklyn was also experiencing a similar food crisis in the cafeteria.  She had her mother bring us each an electric sauté pot.  Using such devices in our wood-paneled and cramped dormitory rooms was completely against fire marshal rules.  We were in an old and prestigious college, and cooking food drawn from Calcutta’s underbelly in these hallowed halls seemed somewhat sacrilegious.  But we were desperate.

The pav bhaji undertaking began with a phone call to my mother.  I had never cooked anything, ever.  But pav bhaji turned out to be a forgiving dish and one that was hard to botch.  The onions could be a little undercooked, since raw onions were added for flavor on top anyway, and the tomatoes didn’t have to be necessarily cooked until the butter rose to the surface, since the dish was supposed to have a tart flavor.  Potatoes could be boiled and mashed in preparation.  The dry spice mixture, pav bhaji masala, came in a prepackaged box, and could be added to the dish to taste.  Generous chunks of butter masked any other shortcomings.

I still remember my first dorm-cooked pav bhaji, laying magnificently at the bottom of the black plugged-in cooking pot.  The smell of frying onions and masala had wafted and filled the building, perhaps suffocating the inhabitants along the way.  My first few attempts yielded a bhaji that was fairly edible despite some noticeable shortcomings in flavor.

It’s been thirteen years since that first year in college, and my memories of pav bhaji are now entwined with growing up and settling into the United States.  My first attempt at cooking.  The first dish I made for my husband, and  that he has grown to crave as well.  And one that my two-year old now comes to inspect by dipping tiny bits of bread into the edges of the spicy bhaji on my plate and scooping them carefully into his mouth.

Serves 2

2 cups of peeled and chopped potatoes
1 cup of cauliflower florets, chopped
1/2 cup of green peas
1/2 cup of diced carrots

3 tbsps of salted butter
2 cups of finely chopped red onions
1 tbsp of grated ginger
1 cup of diced tomatoes

1 tbsp of pav bhaji masala or more to taste
Red chilli pepper powder to taste
Salt to taste
Lime juice to taste, and some slices of green lime
A handful of fresh coriander leaves, washed and chopped
Soft bread rolls

1. In a pressure cooker, place the potatoes, peas, carrots and cauliflower florets.  Add about 1 cup of water, or enough to just submerge the vegetables.  Bring the pressure cooker to 1 whistle on medium heat.  Remove from heat, mash the boiled vegetables gently with a potato masher in the pressure cooker itself and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a pan, and add half the onions and ginger.  Fry on medium heat until the onions turn brown.  Add the tomatoes, and cook until the oil separates from the paste.

3. Add the cooked onion-ginger-tomato paste to the boiled and mashed vegetables in the pressure cooker.  Add the pav bhaji masala, red chilli powder and salt.  Cook on medium heat for several minutes, until the mixture appears well integrated and thickens slightly.  Add lime juice to taste.  Remove from heat.

4. Garnish with the chopped coriander.  Serve piping hot with a side of split, buttered and pan-toasted soft bread rolls, the remaining chopped red onions and slices of green lime.