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)


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.



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.

Banana bread

My roommate in college, Serena, taught me how to make a moist banana cake studded with chocolate chips during our sophomore year in school.  I still remember how I fell in love with it at first bite.  And despite having a pastry chef for a sister, it was the only cake that I knew how to make for a long time.  I enjoyed finding excuses to make it, and loved serving it to all my friends.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, my mother paid me a surprise visit all the way from India.  I wanted to make the cake for her.  Mom’s baking skills were honed in my grandfather’s bread factory.  She stood by and taught me how to beat soft butter and sugar together until it turned pale yellow for a fluffier cake.  We discovered that over-ripe bananas added a wonderful, rich banana flavor to the cake.  Mom also recommended adding a splash of vanilla extract to the cake to round out the flavors.

I love this recipe for the simplicity of its ingredients and the easy measures.  Add a half cup of chopped walnuts or pecans or a generous pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg for added texture and taste.  This cake tastes particularly delicious with coconut ice-cream and also works well as a tea cake.

1/2 cup or 1 stick of soft unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated white sugar
2 free range eggs, at room temperature
1 cup mashed over-ripe bananas, or about 2 medium sized bananas
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking soda, aluminum free
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup chocolate chips tossed in a sprinkle of flour

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Butter and flour a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan.  Tap out the excess flour.

2. Using an electric mixer on the lowest setting, beat the soft butter and sugar for several minutes until pale yellow and fluffy.  Add the eggs one by one while the mixer is running.  Add the mashed bananas and vanilla extract and mix well.

3.  In a separate bowl, add the baking soda to the flour and mix with a whisk.  Stir the flour mixture gently into the wet batter.  Add the chocolate chips and stir.

4. Pour the dough into the prepared pan and bake about 30-45 minutes until a knife poked into the center of the cake comes out clean.  Allow the cake to cool, run a knife along with inside of the pan and tap out the cake.  If you like, dust with confectioner’s sugar to serve.  

A daily soup

Butternut squash soup

I’m often at a loss for weekday lunch meals for Agastya.  We did a one-pot khichdi for a long time, but after a while he seemed to crave variety, and I somehow couldn’t manage to gather a proper Indian meal with roti, dal and sabji in time for lunch.  For dinner, yes, but not lunch.  So I determined that lunch would be our easy meal that could be taught to any babysitter, and that could be cooked quickly and consumed just as easily.  A simple soup, made of one vegetable and with half a slice of toasted bread dipped into it, seemed like the perfect answer.

The memory of my mother’s bright green spinach soup, fragrant with black pepper and sharp cheese, inspired me to create one for Agastya.  It soon grew into mushroom, broccoli, butternut squash, carrot and corn soup.  All I needed was butter, onion, garlic and milk – all of which are always to be found in my kitchen – and a food processor or handheld blender to puree the soup.  I also found that versatile produce was better to use given the small quantities of soup prepared.  For instance, mushrooms always made their way into Agastya’s omelettes and pastas, spinach found itself in dal or palak paneer or raita, squash was the basis for a favorite aloo kaddu dish, broccoli in white sauce was a beloved breakfast creation.  As for corn, I always had a bag of yellow kernels in my freezer, to be dispensed in any quantity.

My recipe for soup is simple and grows right with just a little experimentation.  Saute some chopped onions and a clove of chopped garlic in butter, throw in about a cupful of roughly chopped spinach or a few chopped portabella mushrooms and cook for a few minutes until spinach is wilted or mushrooms are soft.  Add a cup of milk and a sprinkle of salt.  Bring to boil.  Remove from flame in a minute or so, allow to cool and puree.

Same for broccoli and corn, except that I reserve a few whole florets of cooked broccoli or whole kernels of corn to add into the pureed soup for additional texture.  I recommend boiling or steaming the broccoli first.  Young, tender or frozen corn cooks swiftly when sauteed in the pan or boiled in milk for a few minutes.  Another way to cook this soup is to add a quarter teaspoon of white flour to the milk and bring to boil while stirring.  The flour thickens the milk and makes a tasty light white sauce for the soup.  The pieces of corn or broccoli can be left whole in the white sauce.

For butternut squash or pumpkin soup, the pieces of vegetable should be added after the onion and garlic have cooked a little, and then enough water should be added to cover the pieces of squash.  Bring to boil and cook until soft.  Cool, add some milk and puree.  Another option for this soup is to add a few pieces of tomato to the squash as it cooks.  The tomato brings out the flavor of the squash, making it tarter and sweeter.  If adding tomato, leave out the milk.  Note: if you pressure cook the sauteed squash and tomatoes in water, it cooks within one quick whistle of the cooker on medium heat.  You can make exactly the same soup with carrots.  A bit of ginger added to the cooking onion and garlic makes the carrot soup even tastier.  Finally, i’ve often made a combination of sweet potatoes, butternut squash and carrot with a slice or two of tomato.  It’s a good way to use  leftover vegetables.

For additional flavor, grate in some parmesan cheese and sprinkle freshly ground black pepper on any of these soups.

Giada’s Nut Torta

Giada's Almond, Pine Nut and Apricot Cake

After each of my two boys was born, my mom arrived from India with strict postpartum dietary instructions from nani, my maternal grandmother.  Never mind that I had been eating all kinds of things up until then. Nani’s recommended diet consisted of ghee, milk, ajwain, and a couple of less-known compounds such as gond, which is a calcium-rich tree sap.  Gassy, acidic and hard-to-digest foods were to be avoided, including most lentils, peas, beans, cauliflower, tomatoes and eggplant.

My mother fussed over me like a busy hen.  She insisting on making each meal from scratch, and peppered me with tasty tidbits, like roasted puffed lotus seeds, through the day.  I, now grown up and starved of her mothering, gobbled up every moment of the attention (and food) that she lavished upon me.

Every morning, mom would wake me up with a fragrant glass of milk stirred with sugar, chopped almonds, crushed cardamom and strands of saffron.  She would then hand me a hot ajwain, almond and gond crumble which had been cooked in ghee.  For the first few days, I was also given a hot toddy of turmeric, gur, ghee, ajwain and heeng called paiji which tasted fairly nasty.  Whenever I protested or tried to indulge in a forbidden food, Mom would look at me sternly and say “Nani would be very angry if she saw this.”  This summoning of my gentle, soft-spoken and white-haired grandmother would quickly stop me in my tracks, and for good reason.  Who was I, after all a mere mortal, to question the wisdom of generations that was embodied in my nani?

So when mom and I chanced upon Giada making a rich melted butter torta on Food television that was enriched with almond and pine nut flour, and topped with lots of almonds, pine nuts and dried apricots, it seemed that this cake would satisfy nani’s postpartum diet dictums.  We made this fluffy, moist and comforting cake almost every week until mom left for India, enjoying the smell of roasted pine nuts and almonds that suffused the air while it baked and the taste of hot, marvelously satisfying slices straight from the oven.  The cake felt celebratory, nourishing and decadent, all at once.

The original recipe tweaked with my comments is below, with the addition of a chopped pistachio garnish that adds a festive touch of green to the cake.  What I really like about the recipe is its easy use of melted butter, and the quick assembly after all the ingredients have been gathered.  Note that the almonds and pine nuts for the flour should be toasted for only a short while on the flame. Also, vanilla extract can be substituted for the almond extract: I’ve used both and found the cake to taste equally delicious either way.  For a smaller cake, halve the ingredients (made easy by the use of an even number of eggs), and use a 6-inch round pan.

1/2 cup whole almonds, toasted, plus 1/4 cup sliced almonds for the topping
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted, plus 1/4 cup for the topping
1/8 cup pistachios, chopped, for the topping
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

4 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 sticks salted butter, melted on the stove, and cooled

1/3 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon almond extract (or vanilla extract)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Meanwhile, butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan.  Tap off the excess flour.

2. Combine the 1/2 cup of toasted whole almonds and 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts in a food processor.  Pulse the machine until the nuts are finely ground. Transfer the nuts to a mixing bowl. Add the flour and baking powder. Stir with a small whisk to combine.

3. In a separate medium bowl, using an electric mixer beat the eggs and the sugar for a few minutes until the mixture becomes thick and pale yellow.  Add the butter and the milk.  Stir in the almond (or vanilla) extract and chopped apricots. Gently stir in the dry ingredients.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Garnish the top of the cake with 1/4 cup sliced almonds, 1/8 cup chopped pistachios and remaining 1/4 cup pine nuts. Bake until a knife comes out clean, about 50 to 55 minutes. Let the cake cool on a wire rack. Use a knife to loosen the edges. Turn the cake out, slice, and serve.

Roasted puffed lotus seeds, known as tal makhana
Almond, ajwain and gond crumble
Sweetened milk with almonds, saffron and cardamom