Better than fries

“This tastes even better than fries,” I thought, as I bit into the crisp red-brown morsels that were soft and a tad chewy inside. They were dusted with salt and chilli powder, and the crackle, softness, spice and salt present in one hearty, umami-filled bite meant that I couldn’t stop popping them in my mouth.

This was my first taste of the vegetable called eddoe or arbi as it is commonly known in India.  When I went shopping for them, I could have entirely missed the nondescript brown-skinned, furry, yam-like vegetable that lay in heaps in forgotten bins in the Indian grocery store. Back home, they sat on my countertop like a pile of small hedgehogs.

First, I boiled the whole arbi.  Either a whistle or two in the pressure cooker or a good boil on the stove in a large saucepan filled with water until a knife slid smoothly into the vegetable.  Next, I peeled off the outer skin and chopped up the somewhat slimy white flesh into small pieces.  The pieces went into a little hot oil in a single layer in a large pan on the stove.

The trick here is to let them cook on medium heat for a few minutes without stirring such that a golden crust develops.  If I turn too quickly then the arbi pieces will stick to the pan.  I discovered this wisdom on an episode of my new favorite show “To Spain with Love” that’s hosted by Annie Sibonney on the Cooking Channel.  The chef who is deftly demonstrating how to grill fish on a flattop tells Annie to let the fish grill for a few minutes before turning otherwise it will stick.

Simple advice, but very effective.  I’ve found that this technique works with all my vegetables – including green bananas, potatoes, eggplant, and it does away with the need for non-stick teflon pans.  I can use cast-iron and stainless steel pans to achieve the same results, and in fact the starchy vegetables brown more crisply in these pans.  For the single layer, work in batches if needed.  Note: it’s helpful to heat the empty pan first and then add the oil.  This makes the pan even more non-sticky.  However, teflon pans should always be heated with a little oil or butter.

Then, flipped over with a sharp edged spatula to scrape off any crusted bits and let the other side brown..and so on.  Salt and chilli powder sprinkled at the end, and served hot with basmati rice, boiled toor dal, ghee and tart, spicy maagai (peeled mango) pickle.  Or enjoyed as is.

A simple chocolate cake

On Sunday, Agastya and I went Valentine cookie decorating with Dani Fiori who designs couture cookies for the likes of Martha Stewart and Real Simple magazine.  There were bottles of pink and white and lavender royal icing all around us on red tablecloths.  We were given cute owls, love-bugs and hearts to decorate with tiny candy decorations in the trademark pink theme.  We enjoyed making eyes for the owl and feet for the bugs, and creating a special “VB” valentine for daddy that was sprinkled with sugar and festooned with a fistful of tiny hearts.

Nothing appeared out of the ordinary until someone pointed out that Agastya was the only little boy in a class that was full of girls and their mothers.  “Why not,” I thought.  Agastya goes to afternoon tea with me, helps me shop at our local grocery store and undertakes all manner of crafting activities.  In turn, he’s insisted that I build train tracks for him, kick ball or play repairman to the scooter on which he whizzes around.  I’ve tried to get him to agree to a doll house but we have settled instead for Tidmouth Sheds and a three-tier garage.  It’s been a give and take.

Here is the recipe for our Valentine’s Day chocolate cake that was made in the same spirit of partnership.  Our recipe comes from the back of the Ghirardelli unsweetened cocoa powder box, one that my friend Sonal recently discovered.  This cake is the ideal chocolate cake – easy to make, with none of the fuss of extra ingredients like sour cream.  It’s slightly dry and hence perfect for devouring with mouthfuls of hot tea or smearing with cream and jam / dousing with buttercream frosting.   Extra note: children love this cake.

Basic chocolate cake

Ghirardelli ‘s Grand Fudge Cake recipe, slightly adapted

Dry ingredients

1 cup all purpose flour

6 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

Wet ingredients

8 tbsp or 1 stick butter, softened at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar less 2 tbsp

1 large egg, at room temperature

1 tsp vanilla extract

2/3 cup milk, at room temperature

1. Heat oven to 350F.  Grease and flour an 8″ or 9-inch square or round pan.  Whisk the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl and keep aside.

2. With a hand mixer on a medium setting, cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl for about 2-3 minutes until light and fluffy.  Turn mixer down to a low setting, and add the egg and the vanilla, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl.

3.  Turn off the mixer and add the flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with milk after each addition.  Combine well with a spatula but don’t over-mix.

4.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.  Bake for 30-45 minutes until a tester inserted in the middle of the cake emerges clean.  Remove from oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes and upturn.


The proper browning of onions

I feel as though I’ve stumbled upon a profound truth.  That the secret to good, north Indian, punjabi-style cooking is the proper browning of onions.  There I’ve said it.

This summer I was leafing through of a copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking that I had found in our rental home.  We were escaping a hurricane in New Jersey, and had found ourselves in an isolated country home on the outskirts of Chatham in upstate New York.  Our nearest source of food, much to my delight, was the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, that sold cheese and yogurt made from sheep’s milk.

It was late in the evening, and although I have the same book at home, something about the deep silence around the house improved my concentration.  Ordinarily, I would have quickly flipped over the introductory pages and the ‘techniques’ of Indian cooking.  But here I was, sitting at a table in a real kitchen in the middle of nowhere with a book that belonged to someone else.  I started at the beginning, turning the pages leisurely and taking the time to savor Madhur’s writing.  I read “Sometimes a recipe requires that you brown thinly sliced or chopped onions,  I have noticed that many of the students in my cooking classes stop halfway and then when I point out to them that the onions are not quite down, they say ‘Oh, but if we cook them more, they will burn.’  They will not, if you watch.  Start the frying on medium-high heat and turn the heat down somewhat as the onions lose their water and begin to turn brown.  They do need to be a rich reddish brown color or your sauce – if that is what they are intended for – will be pale and weak.”  

“Pale and weak…”  I sat up straighter.  I knew what she meant.  I had been closely observing my mother-in-law’s onions which she patiently cooked until they were a very dark brown, or I suppose, the technical term would be caramelized.  I hadn’t paid too much attention to why she did that, and had put it down to her fastidiousness.  But her north Indian cooking tasted remarkably different from mine and I hadn’t been able to figure out why.  Could it be that the onions made that much of a difference?

It only took a cooking attempt or two to resolve my question.  Indeed, the onions do make a huge difference.  Here lies the key to the essence of flavor in palak paneer, matar paneer, chole, rajma, kali dal, kala chana, lobia. Golden brown, light brown, sweating onions — none of these will do for the aforementioned dishes that really call for those deeply browned onions.

Here is a simple dal recipe that puts browned onions to delicious use.

Dal Tarka

Serves 2-3

1 cup of onions

1/2 cup of toor dal, cooked in the pressure cooker or boiled

1/2 tsp turmeric

Chopped coriander for garnishing

1 tbsp of ghee

Salt to taste

1.  Heat the ghee in a pot and add the onions on medium heat.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are brown.  Now add the toor dal, turmeric, 1-2 cups of water depending on how thick the toor dal is, salt and allow to come to boil.  Lower the heat, and allow to simmer for a few minutes.  Garnish with chopped coriander, and serve hot with rice or rotis.

Note: you can also add cumin seeds, heeng and minced ginger in the ghee at the beginning.

Green banana stir fry

Being married and living in close proximity with another human being means that I sometimes come under close scrutiny.  Not only are my good attributes admired, like my very straight nose or winsome smile, but my flaws are also held up to the light and dissected.

“But I don’t want to change, love me as I am,” I protest.   Especially when that behavior concerns kitchen etiquette.  For instance, too many prep dishes used while cooking.  Cabinet doors left dangerously open.  An unholy profusion of spice jars.  An ever-growing collection of measuring cups, no matter how pretty.  Nothing to be found in its place.

I threaten to stop cooking.  I claim that the kitchen can have only one mistress.  I blame my mother-in-law for the great, big mess that is my kitchen.  Yet somewhere, one ear appears to be listening.

Almost unnoticeably, the dishes start to become less.  I heat the pan, chop simultaneously and throw things into the pot instead of mise en place.  Kitchen shears are back in the allotted slot for next time.  I wipe down the kitchen counter while I work.  The peels previously scattered everywhere go into a “garbage bowl” a la Rachael Ray.  I even wash the dishes that languish in the sink while my masterpiece bubbles on the stove.

I also remember in a flash of inspiration, my sister who would gather the entire household to bake a cake.  There would be one person beating the eggs, one chopping the butter, yet another measuring out the flour and so on, while she presided over the hubbub.  A few months of culinary school later, gone were all the helpers.  She worked in an empty kitchen, efficiently and alone.  The quantities produced were large enough to feed a small army and the kitchen left spotless when it was all over.

There’s no time for cooking school now, but cleanliness might bring me closer to chef-liness.

And in the happy spirit of that, here is a recipe for Andhra green banana stir fry which tastes hearty, nourishing and very delicious with aromatic basmati ghee rice and spicy mango pickle.

Green banana (artikai) stir fry, Andhra style

Peel and chop up about 8 medium green bananas (to serve 4) into 1/2 inch diced pieces and put into a bowl of water to prevent the pieces from turning black.  Heat 3 tbsps of oil in a big pan and toss in the banana pieces.  Fry for a few minutes, then add about about 1/2 – 1  cup  of water and sprinkle salt over the bananas.  Cover and cook on low heat until the bananas become soft.  Stir occasionally to prevent the bananas from sticking to the bottom of the pan.  The bananas should retain a firm texture yet be cooked through.  Uncover and sprinkle chilli powder to taste.  Cook uncovered for a few minutes.  The bananas should appear a warm brown in color.  If serving later, reheat by tossing the bananas in a pan with a little oil to crisper the outer edges.

Serve with rice.

Beerakaya ulli karam: ridge gourd in onion masala

My sister and I dreaded those lauki-toru-parval days that tended to repeat themselves in never-ending cycles in our home.  Mom had decreed that every meal must have a green vegetable, and our green vegetable selection was limited, especially in the summer, to the gourds.  Bottle gourd, ridge gourd, snake gourd, ivy gourd, bitter gourd.  This last one was especially unpopular.  However, as we grew older, the dislike abated to indifference, and now, many years later, that indifference has yielded to longing.  So much longing that when my mother-in-law is here, we go shopping together for all types of gourds in the Indian grocery stores.  I look at her hopefully as we pass each bright green vegetable.  “Can you make something from this,”  I ask holding up a contorted shape.   The answer is rarely no.

Here is her fantastic beerakaya (turayi or ridge gourd) recipe, made in a typical Andhra onion masala called ulli karam, which I’ve used before in a potato recipe called Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam.  The only difference is the addition of a spoonful of sugar in the onion spice paste here that lends itself well to the tender green flesh of the ridge gourds.

This dish is succulent and particularly delicious when eaten with plain basmati rice and a drizzle of ghee.

Beerakaya Ulli Karam

Serves 4

4-5 ridge gourds, peeled and chopped into 1″ pieces that are 1/2″ thick
a little oil

For the wet masala:
1 big onion, diced, about 2 cups
1 tbsp of oil

For the dry masala:
1/2 tbsp chana dal
1/2 tbsp urad dal
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp whole mustard seeds
2 dried red chillies (optional)
A spot of ghee

Sugar and salt to taste

note: steps 1,2,3 can be carried out simultaneously as a parallel process

1.  Ridge gourds: Heat the oil in a big pan and add the chopped ridge gourds.  Cook uncovered as the ridge gourds will release plenty of water.  Cook for several minutes.  Test with a knife and see if the pieces of ridge gourd are soft.  Be careful to not overcook as the gourds will become mushy.

2. Wet masala: Heat the oil in a pan and fry the onions until light brown. Grind to a coarse paste with a little salt.  Set aside.

3. Dry masala: In a little bit of ghee, dry roast the chana dalurad dal, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and red chillies (in this order) until a fragrant smell is released, taking care to not over-darken or burn the lentils and spices.  In a dry grinder or coffee grinder, coarsely grind the spices.  Add this dry spice mixture to the ground onion paste and mix well.

4. Final assembly: Stir in the onion masala into the cooked ridge gourds which should be cooked and moist, but not too watery.  Add salt and sugar, about a teaspoon or so, to taste.  Cook on the flame for a few minutes.  Serve hot with rice.