Monthly Archives: July 2011

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.