Stuffed baby eggplant

At 8am on certain days each week, my door opens to reveal a small, dark lady with a dimpled smile.  I’m usually waiting for her anxiously, and I breathe easier when I hear the doorbell ring.  My morning has started much earlier and fairly reluctantly, with two bright-eyed and widely awake kids.  Kirti behn is our new part-time babysitter who comes in from Jersey City.

I’ve recently discovered that she loves to cook much more than she likes to babysit.  Kirti introduces me to food from her native state of Gujarat which is in the far west corner of India.  She uses lots of ajwain (oregano), besan (chickpea flour), black mustard seeds and curry leaves in her cooking.  There are several interesting dishes that she makes, including a yellow yogurt curry thickened with chickpea flour called kadhi, a mixed vegetable dish called undhia and bread stuffed with fenugreek leaves, called thepla.

We find time to tuck in bits of cooking while pursuing my energetic toddler and taking care of the new baby.  The cooking adds a note of sanity to my day and of course, to my tummy.

I love watching Kirti behn cook.  Like all Indian home-cooks, she has her own way of doing things that is a result of many influences.  Such as mothers, aunts, sisters, grandmothers.

Today I get a cooking lesson in making easy baby eggplants stuffed with peanuts and besan.  The eggplant turns out crisp and juicy, and the filling tastes smooth from the besan and crunchy from the peanuts.  This dish can be served with any Indian bread, especially rotistheplas or parathas, along with a side of yogurt.

Prepare stuffing and split baby eggplants
Stuff eggplants and place in hot oil on low heat. Cover and cook, stirring gently and occasionally.

Serves 4

12 baby eggplant, cut lengthwise and crosswise 3/4 down, with the stem on
Enough oil to cover the bottom of your frying pan, about 2-3 tbsp or more

For the filling, to be mixed together
1/2 cup chickpea flour
1/2 cup ground raw peanuts
1 tsp ajwain seeds
1 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
a little salt

1. Prepare filling, and stuff into the baby eggplant.

2. Heat oil in a nonstick pan.  Fry the eggplant in a single layer on low heat.  Keep covered while frying and and occasionally uncover to gently turn the eggplant so that it cooks evenly.  Cook until eggplant is cooked through (gently poke knife to test) and  the stuffing changes color to a warm reddish brown.

Vankaya Allam Karam

Eggplant in ginger-chilli masala

This Sunday morning we all woke up tired.  My husband rushed Agasyta off for an early soccer class after breakfast while I pottered around the kitchen, thinking about what to do for lunch.   Yesterday, I had found leggy thin-skinned purple Asian eggplant in an Indian grocery store.  I pulled them out this morning, wondering if I could make my mother-in-law’s unusual eggplant in ginger-chilli masala dish.  I remembered the recipe vaguely from watching my mother-in-law make it, but made the wise decision of calling her as I sliced the eggplant into thick 3-inch long by 1-inch wide pieces.

“How much eggplant do you have?” was her first question.  About two pounds, I remembered from the cash register at the store.  She rattled off a list of the simple ingredients needed – onion, ginger, green chillies, fresh coriander leaves, white sesame seeds, cumin seeds – and the appropriate quantities.  The dish embodied everything of Andhra cooking that I had come to learn: simple, fresh and sharp-tasting ingredients, spices used sparingly, and big pieces of vegetable which meant less chopping.

A new recipe.  I was excited but afraid at the same time.  It took at least two more phone-calls to my mother-in-law to report on the progress of the eggplant.  She stayed by my side, guiding me through questions such as “should the eggplant be cooked covered or uncovered?” and “at what point is the wet masala added to the frying eggplant?”  There was a tense moment or two when I discovered that the ground onions were bitter and imparted an ugly taste to the dish (the bitterness of the onion wore off gradually as the dish cooked).  But the finished dish tasted close to my mother-in-law’s.

When my husband came home and found the eggplant on the stove, there was a noticeable softening in his eyes.  His shoulders relaxed and he gazed at me with a new tenderness.  It made me wonder, what is it about one’s mother’s cooking, even a first attempt, that can bring such comfort.

Serves 4

Fry separately in a pan:
2 lbs of purple Asian eggplant (the long and slender kind), sliced into 3-inch by 1-inch pieces
1/2 tsp of cumin seeds
4 tbsps of oil

Wet masala, to be ground to a paste in the food processor:
1 cup of onion chunks
1/2 cup of fresh coriander leaves
2 inch piece of ginger
2-4 green chillies
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 cup of white sesame seeds, ground to powder in a coffee grinder first
salt to taste

Heat the oil in a pan and sputter the cumin seeds.  Cook the eggplant slices in the oil on medium to low heat, covered.  When the eggplant is halfway done (soft but not fully cooked), add the the wet masala.  Cook uncovered for a little while until the masala releases oil or until the raw taste of the onion disappears and the eggplant is cooked through.

This dish is eaten in a traditional Andhra-style, with plain toor dal and white rice.

Kali Dal

Kali Dal, also known as Dal Makhani

My South Indian mother-in-law makes this rustic and hearty North Indian-style kali dal which is a creamy buttery lentil dish made with whole black urad dal and rajma (red kidney beans).  I’m always surprised at how truly North Indian this comforting dal tastes, as if it somehow arrived out of a cold winter evening in Delhi.

I find that the recipe is full of interesting little tips, like the one that says to throw half a stick of butter, along with green chillies and ginger into the pressure cooker at the beginning, and another that asks for yogurt to be stirred into the separately frying onions and garlic.   I’m still suspicious though.  It’s too tasty.  Surely some South Indian influence lurks in it.  When my Punjabi friends taste the dal and exclaim that “it tastes like it’s been made in our home,” I realize that I should have known better than to doubt my mother-in-law’s culinary prowess and the secret source of her recipe, Singh Aunty from Punjab.

This lentil preparation makes an easy and delicious one-pot meal.  It requires some pre-soaking and pressure cooker work that may take a couple attempts to get perfect, but the dal will still turn out tasty no matter what.  It’s completely whole-grain and healthy.

I usually serve it with hot rotis or basmati rice, cucumber raita and a side of raw red onions.  Agastya, who just turned three, enjoys alternating spoons of onion-garnished dal with bites of roti.

Serves 4

In the pressure cooker:
1 cup of whole black urad dal, soaked in water overnight
1/2 cup of red kidney beans (rajma), soaked in water overnight
2 green chillies
1-inch piece of ginger
1/ 2 stick or 4 tbsps of butter

Cooked separately:
1 cup of diced onions
3-4 pods of garlic, minced
1/2 cup of yogurt
2 tbsps of oil

Dry spices:
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt to taste

1. Soak the black urad dal and rajma in water overnight for about 12 hours.  Drain the water in the morning, and place the lentils in the pressure cooker.  Add enough water to the lentils such that there is a 1/2 inch of water above the beans in the pressure cooker.  Add a 1/2 stick of butter, two green chillies and an inch of ginger.  Bring to full pressure on medium heat, and allow 2 whistles on the cooker.  Continue to cook in the pressure cooker for about 30 minutes on low heat.  This makes the lentils soft and buttery with a melt-on-your-tongue texture.  When you open the pressure cooker, the lentils should be in a soupy gravy.  If the lentils appear too dry, you might need to add a little more water to the pot.

2. While the lentils are in the pressure cooker, heat the oil in a pan.  Add the diced onions and cook for several minutes until the onions turn medium-brown in color.  Add the minced garlic and cook for a few more minutes.  Now add the 1/2 cup of yogurt and cook until the yogurt has completely dissolved into the onions, and you are no longer able to see the “white” of the yogurt.

3. After you open the lid of the pressure cooker, allow the steam to escape.  Continue to cook the beans in the cooker for about 15 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally to ensure that the lentils don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.  While the lentils are cooking add the onion, garlic and yogurt mixture, as well as the dry powdered spices: cumin, coriander, garam masala, cayenne pepper and salt.  You can add a little more of the dry spices depending upon taste.  I recommend tasting frequently while you are stirring and adjusting the spices if needed.  The dal keeps acquiring flavor as it cooks slowly over the flame.

a little laddu

Besan ka laddus

My maternal grandmother, nani, makes delicious besan ka laddus.  Years ago I stood by her side watching as she transformed pale yellow chick-pea flour into a dark yellow gorgeously nutty and rich aromatic mixture moistened with a generous quantity of ghee by slow cooking it over the flame.  Sugar and crushed cardamom was kneaded into the hot dough after it was removed from the flame and cooled a little.  She then rolled bits of dough into small round balls in her palms, pressed a thumb into the center and sprinkled some chopped pistachios into the indent.  A perfect contrast of green and yellow.

Nani continued to send me boxes filled with laddus as the years went by.  Whenever she asked “what can I send for you,” I knew she meant the precious laddus.  My husband became a devotee of the laddus, as did Agastya, both the boys consuming them with far more abandon than I ever could.

Our newest addition to the family, Vasisht, arrived a little under three months ago.  When I looked at his rounded limbs and little face with my fond new mother gaze, my first thought was, “what a little laddu.”  His own nani, my mother, arrived the next morning straight from Calcutta, bearing of course the laddus from my nani.  When those ran out my mother boldly approached the stove in her characteristic “let’s try it, how hard could it be, we know how they should taste” way.

What resulted were laddus that, I have to confess, were even better than my nani’s.  Perhaps because they were hot from the stove.  Perhaps because a warm appetite arousing roasted-besan aroma filled our home as they cooked.  Perhaps because they were made with specially ordered organic grass-fed, free roaming cow ghee from Princeton.  Whatever it was.

I stood by and made mummy teach me how to make the laddus again and again.  First I watched, then I made them while mom supervised, and then I made them again.  After working with small quantities a few times – the key here is to experiment with small quantities for faster cooking and to minimize  waste – our recipe was perfect.

These laddus can’t really be found anywhere except in your kitchen or that of your mother or grandmother.  Store-bought ones taste terrible: they are full of compromises on ingredients, cooking time, flavor, love.  Here is the recipe, in honor of the little laddu (or “yaddu” as his brother says) who has just arrived in our home.

1 cup besan (chick-pea flour)
1/3 cup ghee, melted
1/2 cup finely granulated white sugar
2 tbsps sooji (semolina)
1 tsp of crushed cardamom seeds

1. Heat ghee in a non-stick pan on medium flame.  When the ghee is just a little warm (not hot), add the besan and mix well.  Add the sooji and cook on slow flame for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.  Note: the besan becomes very hot over time.
2.  As the mixture cooks, it will become more malleable and start to gather in the middle of the pan.  Watch for this softness and a subtle change where the the entire mixture becomes shiny and smooth, which means that the ghee has released.  As you cook it further, the besan will turn into a deep golden yellow color.  Remove from flame and set aside to cool.
3.  Knead sugar into the dough after a few minutes, when the mixture is still fairly warm, along with the crushed cardamom.  The dough will feel deliciously warm and pliable.
4.  When fully cooled, roll out into little balls, garnish with crushed cardamom (as shown in picture) and serve.