Monthly Archives: April 2011

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.