Of rice and dal…and pulusu

I never know what to make when we return from a trip.  We usually arrive back in time for lunch or dinner, and perhaps there is at most an hour before everyone starts getting really, really hungry.

This time, after a weekend away at Sprout Creek Farm, my mother-in-law promised us a meal in no time.  Four hungry adults milled about the room.  She put rice to cook in the rice -cooker, and toor dal to boil in the pressure cooker.  The dal had a generous pinch of salt and turmeric added to it before the lid of the cooker was closed tight.  Twenty minutes, a dab of ghee, and it would be ready to eat with the rice.  The rice was doing its own thing in the rice cooker.  Almost there, I thought.

Mom chopped up big pieces of eggplant in preparation for her famous vankaya allam karam, as the rice and dal cooked.  While the eggplant melted into thick, tender slices on the stove, mom prepared the onion-ginger-chilli-sesame paste for the eggplant with a quick turn of the food processor.  Unbeknownst to me, she had also set three quarts of water to boil in a big pot.  When she had a minute or two, she threw in vegetables into that pot, along with some tamarind extract and turmeric: small whole red onions that we had found at the farmers’ market; chunks of leftover bottle-gourd from the previous week; pieces of butternut squash and sweet potato.  Towards the end she added a simple tempering of asafoetida, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, and dried red chillies.  She also added a large chunk of jaggery into the pot.

When we sat down to eat, the simmering pot revealed a cooling watery broth that was sweet and sour and infused with the spices in the tempering.  The vegetables had grown swollen and soft, and had absorbed the sweet-sour flavor.  The onion and squash pieces that I heaped on to my plate, swimming in the watery liquid tasted very juicy.  The mixture of eggplant, rice, dal and this new dish, called pulusu was addictively delicious.   I, not a big rice-eater, continued to eat moundfuls of rice soaked in pulusu and mashed with the sweet-sour-spicy vegetables.  Although this pulusu lacked the more traditional curry leaves, green chillies and urad dal in the tempering, the lack of those ingredients somehow made the simple flavors sharper and easier for me to appreciate.  I was pleasantly reminded of my nani’s Rajasthani imli ka pani, a tamarind-sugar water that is served with piping hot bajra ka khichda.


(1) Bring to boil 3 quarts of water with:

  • 1/8 tbsp of tamarind paste (Swad brand) soaked in warm water, and paste extracted

(2) Meanwhile, add vegetables and cook in the simmering tamarind water until soft.  Can add a balance of any and as much as you like from amongst the following:

  • 4-6 small whole onions, outer skin removed
  • 4-6 inch piece of bottle gourd, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • 4 inch piece of butternut squash, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • 2-3 small sweet potatoes, chopped into thick circles with the skin left on
  • Pinch of turmeric, about 1/8 tsp

Tarka, to be added towards the end

  • 1/4 tsp asafoetida
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 2-3 dried red chillies
  • 1 tbsp of oil to sizzle the above spices

Optional in tarka:

  • 2-3 green chillies
  • 10-12 curry leaves
  • 1 tsp of urad dal

For the very end:

  • 8 ounces of jaggery, called gur
  • Salt to taste
Cooking instructions – boil everything together, in the suggested order above, until the vegetables are tender.  Taste for the balance of sour, sweet and salt, along with spice (from the red and green chillies).  Adjust as needed.

My favorite carrot halwa

I’m easily seduced by the sight of orange carrots with their delicate green tops at a farm stall.  Last week, Hearty Roots at the Clermont Farmers market had carrots that looked so earthy, so beautifully sculpted and so vibrant that I couldn’t forget about them.  I didn’t buy any then thinking that I would find the pretty multi-colored bunches from Starbrite Organic Farm at the Hoboken farmers market on Tuesday.  Unfortunately the market got rained out this week, and I had to content myself with supermarket carrots.

The idea of working with lots of spindly carrots always makes me mildly anxious.  First I have to wash, then peel and then chop them.  In India, people also remove the “bony spine” that runs down the center of the carrot, although I’ve never bothered to do that here.  What would make all this work worth it?

Gajar ka halwa, of course.

This is a dessert that in its simplest form, uses lots of carrots, milk, and a little ghee, sugar and crushed cardamom.  The grated carrot turns into sweet melt-in-your mouth bits as it first slowly roasts in ghee and then cooks in milk.  Over an hour or two of slow cooking, depending on how much halwa you are making, the milk and carrot mixture reduces down completely into a rich near-solid mass.  Sugar and crushed cardamom powder get added towards the end, as the milk boils down.  The end result is a bright, soul-warming type of dessert that hums with goodness, celebration and comfort.  I’d like to admit that there is a certain amount of sin involved as well here.  The quantity that you end up consuming, especially over a few days, is quite sinful.  This time, in the spirit of the good Christian school that I attended, I mutter “Dear God, please forgive me”, as I eat mouthfuls of this decadent dessert, sometimes cold and straight from the fridge, and sometimes heated with a little warm milk.

And somehow, every step of this, my first-time making of gajar ka halwa also turns out to be utterly pleasurable.  The carrots give off a fresh from the earth smell as I peel them.  I natter away with my mother-in-law as I grate the carrots on the biggest hole side of my box grater.  The carrots turn the milk into a gorgeous golden pudding as the mixture bubbles on the stove.  I taste plentifully along the way and find that once the carrots are cooked and the sugar gets added, the thickening pudding starts tasting like an incredibly flavorful kheer, only that it has carrots instead of milk.  I giddily believe that I’ve invented a new dish, until I’m told that gajar ka kheer is not uncommon.  In the end, I’m suprised by how easy the dish was to make and how simple the ingredients were.  I’ve made a very traditional Indian sweet, and there’s a small feeling of satisfaction at having connected with all those halwa loving ancestors that I must possess.

Carrot halwa, serves 4-6

1 ½ lbs of carrots, coarsely grated

3 pints of milk, about 1.5 quarts (or a quarter gallon)

6 tbsps of solid ghee

½ – ¾ cup of turbinado sugar, depending on taste

1/2 – 1 tbsp of cardamom powder

1.  Heat a heavy-bottomed pan with about half the ghee.  Add the grated carrots and cook, stirring frequently, until the carrots are soft.  Add the rest of ghee midway, when the carrots start looking a little dry.  Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat the milk and bring to boil.

2.  When the carrots are ready, add the boiling milk and bring to boil again.  When the milk boils, reduce the flame and allow the mixture to bubble away on lower heat.  Stir occasionally to ensure that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan.

3.  Add the sugar when the milk reduces to a quarter or so of its original volume.  Keep cooking, stirring frequently, until the mixture is reduced to a solid mass, but doesn’t look too dry.  Stir in the crushed cardamom and decorate with chopped pistachios.  Serve hot or at room temperature.  note: can add a little milk when reheating.

Potato curry with tomatoes, aloo bhaji

We spent last week in the Hudson Valley north of Red Hook.  The house that we stayed in dated from 1773, and it had an orchard that was brimming with apples that were beginning to turn red.  I loved the warm brick house with its generously sized rooms, well worn wide plank floors and white latticed windows that framed the expansive green lawn with towering trees.

The trip was full of pleasures – a robust family reunion, plenty of good home cooking, the discovery of Tivoli village along with the quaint, handkerchief sized Tivoli Bread and Baking company, the vegan burger at Madalin’s Table, raw honey and pumpkin blossoms at Mead’s Orchard, a succulent pie made with freshly picked golden peaches at Me Oh My Pie Shop, another visit to Mercato for their exquisite handmade pasta, my first taste of Adirondack cheddar and Berkshire Blue cheese at the Clermont farmers market, tiny farmstands that had sprouted everywhere, sheep and cows dotting the rolling meadows, and acres of cultivated farmland wherever I turned.

Back home now, I’m missing the feel of different surfaces beneath my feet – the soft grass studded with tiny pink and purple wildflowers, the prickly gravel of the driveway, the heaviness of the smooth floor planks, the roughness of the unpolished wooden steps that led up to the house.  I’m also remembering the air that was heavy with the heady smell of sweet grass, moisture, fruit.  Outside my window now, my view stops at a lone tree and a parking lot.  Not exactly stretches of never-ending luscious green.

I brought back some dusty newly dug potatoes, ripe red tomatoes and a fragrant bunch of cilantro from Migliorelli’s pretty farm stand in Red Hook.  This morning my mother-in-law made her famous “Bihari” potato bhaji with my produce.  What I loved about the spicy mouth-watering North Indian style curry was that it used only tomatoes as the flavor base with not a hint of the ubiquitous onions, ginger and garlic found so often in Indian cooking.  The curry obtained its great flavor from the use of the Bengali five spice mixture called panch phoran, and from cumin used in three ways: first whole cumin seeds in the tempering, next ground cumin powder in the curry and finally the addition at the end of some dry roasted cumin seeds ground into powder.  We enjoyed big hot ladlefuls of the curry served with rotis at lunch.

Potato bhaji

1 1/2 lbs of potatoes, boiled, skinned and coarsely mashed

4-6 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

2 whole green chillies, optional

1 large handful of cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

2-3 tbsps of oil

Tarka spices:

1 tsp of panch phoran

1/8 tsp of asafoetida

Other powdered spices, to be added later:

1 tsp of cumin powder

2 tsps of coriander powder

1/2 tsp of turmeric

1 tsp of red chilli powder, or to taste

1/2 tsp of garam masala

To add at the end:

1 tsp of dry roasted cumin seeds, ground to powder

Salt to taste

Pinch of sugar, to taste

1. Heat the oil in a large pot.  When the oil is hot, add the asafoetida and the panch phoran.  Wait till the panch phoran sputters.  Now add the chopped tomatoes and the whole green chillies.  As the tomato cooks, add the dry spices: cumin powder, coriander powder, turmeric and red chilli powder.  Add a sprinkle of salt to help the tomatoes to cook faster.  When the tomatoes are done, the oil will glisten separately.

2.  At this time, add about 2-3 cups of water and bring the mixture to boil.  When the water boils, add the coarsely mashed boiled potatoes to the mixture.  Stir and cook for about 10-15 minutes on medium heat.  Taste for spices and salt, and adjust accordingly.  Add more water if needed.

3.  Meanwhile, prepare the roasted cumin by dry roasting cumin seeds in a hot pan until the smell of cumin is released.  Take care that the cumin seeds don’t burn.  Grind to a fine powder and add about 1 tsp of this to the curry.  Cook the potato currry for a minute or two longer and remove from flame.  Garnish with cilantro, and serve hot with Indian bread.