French fries for dinner

Image

In Food Rules, Michael Pollan says “The french fry did not become America’s most popular vegetable until industry took over the jobs of washing, peeling, cutting, and frying the potatoes — and cleaning up the mess. If you made all the french fries you ate, you would eat them much less often, if only because they’re so much work…”.  I think of his words as Agastya requests garlic fries, the same ones, he insists that my mother, his beloved nani had made for him before Hurricane Sandy.  I hadn’t been present.

How do I make French fries and should I really be doing this, I wonder, as my husband confidently claims that he knows how.  I put aside my fears of french fries as child food, squelch my anti-McDonald’s sentiments and let him make them from scratch.

It turns out to be simple.  Just potatoes, peeled, chopped and deep fried in an inch of very hot oil until they turn a warm gold.  There is no garlic powder at home so we smash some fat whole cloves of garlic and fry them in the same hot oil until they look a pale gold too.  Dusted with smoky paprika and coarse flakes of kosher salt.  Devoured piping hot and immediately.  Perhaps not as crispy as McDonald’s fries, but cut to my preferred thickness and much more satisfying.

As for Michael Pollan’s words? Yes, plenty of peeling, chopping, frying and cleaning…but possibly not enough to keep us away from home-made french fries.

Savory semolina upma

Upma

I don’t know where to begin.  Let’s just say I’m here.  Back again, happy, optimistic…

My mother-in-law makes a spicy, savory upma from semolina (sooji).  It’s South Indian any time comfort food, and takes minutes to make.  Last week my friend Sukanya made sooji upma as I stood watching.  I love her cooking, and I especially loved standing by her side, handing her things, watching, observing, seeing the meal come together.  Perhaps why this felt so good is because this is how we evolved – women together, cooking in groups over open flames, sharing bits of this and that.

Sukanya’s upma inspired me to comb my notes for my mother-in-law’s recipe.  Here it is, modified from the original to include only half the original quantity of semolina.  I like it better this way, because the bright colors of the vegetables entrance me, and I love the taste of the carrot, cauliflower and peas enrobed in crumbly lumps of moist, comforting, ghee-laden sooji.

DSC01524

Semolina upma

Serves 2-3

1/2 cup, about 125g semolina

A little less than 2 cups water

1/4 cup milk

For the tempering:

1 tsp urad dal

½ tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1-2 green chillies, minced, optional

10-12 curry leaves

1 tsp ginger, minced

¼ cup cashews, broken into pieces

Mixed vegetables: 

1/2 cup carrot, diced

1/2 cup peas

1/2 cup cauliflower, chopped

Other:

1 1/2 tbsp oil

1 tbsp ghee, optional

Salt to taste

1. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a big pot.  Add in this order: urad dal, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, green chillies, curry leaves, ginger, cashews, and all the chopped vegetables.  Fry for a few minutes.

2. Add water and milk.  Bring to boil.  Cook for several minutes until vegetables are soft.

3. Then turn off and set aside.  Add remaining ½ tbsp oil.

4. Pour the sooji (in a thin stream if possible) gradually into the water and stir continuously to avoid lumps.   Add salt to taste.

Put back on the stove and cook for a few minutes on low heat.  Drizzle ghee on top (optional) and keep aside for 5-10 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

DSC01525

Butter pasta

ImageI know that restaurants all over America frequently carry “pasta with butter” on their children’s menu.  When I see these words, I always think, seriously?  no peas, no carrots, no broccoli, not even a soupçon of garlic?  Just butter and pasta?

Until of course one day, when my friend Vrushali begins telling me about the ribbons of saffron pasta at Raffaeto’s in New York where you can choose from a variety of different pasta flavors, in any quantity that you want and they will cut it to your desired thickness.  Raffetto’s pasta is old-world and toothsome and requires just a few minutes of cooking in a pot of boiling salted water.  “So how do you eat it?” I ask, intrigued by the sound of yellow saffron pasta from a store in Soho that I have walked past many times but never entered.  “With just a little butter” she says.

That statement sets me off on a path to pasta and butter.  And indeed, I find that you can begin with a small pat of butter in a hot pan, throw in nothing or some broadly sliced garlic (the finer you mince garlic, the stronger the garlic flavor) or sweet white onions and toss in any pasta + boiled vegetable or even torn fresh spinach along with a little of the (salted) pasta water, finished with some fresh basil and another little pat of butter to arrive at a delicious outcome.

How to cook the pasta is something that takes me a little while to get right.  I watch a “how not to” Andrew Carmellini video on Chow.com, take a class with Patrick Lacey at Eataly and also find myself making pasta with Peter Berley at ICE.

The idea is to salt the water enough such that it “tastes like sea water” in a big enough pot where the pasta can “dance.”  Put pasta in after the water comes to boil.  Make sure to give things a stir once in a while so the pasta doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  Test the pasta by lifting out with a slotted spoon and taking a bite.  When done, don’t empty everything into a colander in the sink.  Gently lift the pasta out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon and dunk directly into the sizzling butter-garlic-onions-wilted spinach (if using). Add a little of the salted pasta water and give a stir – the butter and pasta water form a sort of velvety butter sauce.  Next, add your steamed or boiled vegetables that cooked alongside (or with) your pasta.  Remove from flame, stir in freshly torn or chopped basil leaves (other herbs work well too) and another little golden pat of butter.  The pasta is ready to eat.

Note: you can use plain or filled pastas, like ravioli here.  The four cheese ravioli from Raffetto’s tastes absolutely wonderful with butter, garlic and sautéed spinach.  Some parmesan grated on top is good too.

Mom’s very green rice

I’ve been counting days with a sinking heart.  Three months later is finally here.  Mom and dad are leaving for India.  These parents didn’t give birth to me, but as I keep telling them, they’ve given me re-birth, the chance at a new life.

Until recently, I was a mother who worked part time, working in snatched moments.  My main focus was my children.  It was necessary and important, but I did feel an occasional twinge.  That my universe was not much larger than a family.

I’ve found better balance now, but it’s been like riding a bike on an unknown road.  There’s also been a realization of how fragile and in the end, how short-lived, the past years have been.

“When will you return” I had asked my in-laws anxiously, when they left last year.  “When you find a job,” my mother-in-law had replied confidently.  When the time came, they were here all the way from Vizag, and just a phone-call later it seemed.

I’ve come home every evening in the last three months, found myself a plate, and heaped it full of home-cooked food from the kitchen. Spicy sautéed vegetables, yellow lentil and steaming rice with ghee.  The food has just been cooked or it sizzles on the stove as I wander around, filling the air with a delicious scent.  My belly gets filled, as does my heart.

I’m learning a thing or two about unconditional love.

Mom’s very green rice

I’ve named this dish for Mollie Katzen‘s Very Green Rice from The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without which sounded so much like this one.  I love this dish because it’s so brightly green and because the taste of the fenugreek leaves adds an addictive earthy, leafy aroma to the rice.  The bits of chickpea, green pea and cashew add texture and interest to the rice and make it a whole meal when combined with raita, which is a savory yogurt side with minced fresh vegetables.  My father-in-law makes a fantastic raita with a mix of finely chopped onions, cucumber, de-seeded tomato, green pepper and on occasion, fiery bird’s eye chillies.

I especially like this dish, because the green paste can be made a day or two ahead in time and mixed into leftover rice.  Alternatively the paste can be made while the rice is boiling.  What takes a little time really is the washing and trimming of the gritty fenugreek leaves.

I love serving green rice with paneer butter masala and even with Gujarati or Punjabi kadhi.

Serves 4

1 cup of white rice, boiled (yields about 3 cups)

1-2 green chillies, optional

2 cups of methi/fenugreek leaves, washed well and with just the leaves snipped off from the stems

2 cups of coriander leaves

OR 4 cups of spinach leaves, roughly chopped

Spices

2 whole green cardamom pods

1” piece of cinnamon stick

½ tsp cumin seeds

Additions to toss-in

1 cup of boiled chickpeas

½ – ¾ cup of cooked green peas

¼ – ½ cup of cashews, broken and toasted in a spot of ghee

Other

1 tbsp oil

Salt to taste

1.  Cook the rice and keep aside to cool.  When the rice is boiling, add the boiled chickpeas and fresh green peas towards the end such that everything cooks through with the rice.

2.  While the rice is cooking, blend the coriander and fenugreek leaves along with salt and the green chillies, if using to make a thick paste.  Now bring a tablespoon of oil to heat in a large pan.  When the oil is hot, sputter the cumin seeds, cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. Add the green paste and cook for several minutes until it becomes fairly dry and turns a bright green.  Adjust salt if needed.  Remove from flame.

3.  Now add the rice, chickpeas, green peas and toasted cashews into the pan and toss gently until the green paste coats the rice.

4.  Serve hot or at room temperature.

Crumbly, sticky jam tarts

I haven’t made jam tarts since I stepped out of the old kitchen in my childhood home at Bright Street.  Yesterday, while searching for an activity to do with five year old Agastya that didn’t involve colorful playdough bits stuck all over the carpet, these buttery jam tarts came to mind.  If you are not too fussy about the exact so and so of your shortcrust pastry, this recipe, dredged up from my memory of an old British Ladybird book recipe can be made in minutes with ingredients straight from your fridge and pantry (cold butter, flour, salt and jam), given to a child to roll out and cut into circles and then pressed into a muffin pan to yield delicious mouthfuls of hot jam and biscuit.  Even better with some whipped or clotted cream and perfect with afternoon tea.  I’ve written about these tarts before here .

What you will need:

Equipment: A muffin or tart pan, a circle pastry cutter that is slightly bigger than tart pan circle, some wax paper, a rolling pin (pastry or otherwise)

Ingredients

To make 10-12 jam tarts

1 cup flour

1/2 stick or 4 tbsp of cold butter (half the amount of butter as flour)

A few tsps of cold water

1/8 tsp of coarse salt, mixed into the flour

About 1/2 cup of your favorite jam, I like strawberry

1.  First, heat oven to 350F and keep your muffin pan ready.  Next, chop up the cold butter into little squares.  Then rub the butter into the flour-salt mixture with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs — let your small helper do this, but don’t let him or her overwork the dough.   Now add water, one teaspoon at a time and keep working the dough until it comes together in a ball.  Divide the dough into 4 pieces and set it aside.  Work in a cool environment if possible.

2.  Place a piece of wax paper on your rolling surface and put one of the dough pieces.  Add another piece of wax paper on top and let your child roll out the dough until it’s of a 1/8″ thickness (doesn’t have to be too even).  The wax paper will prevent sticking.  Now, remove the top wax paper and let your little one cut out circles with the pastry cutter.  Remove the circle from the bottom paper and press carefully into the muffin pan with your fingers such that a little basket shell is formed.  Collect all the leftover bits of dough and roll again until all the dough is finished.  Prick the bottom of the shells all over with a fork — kids love to do this.

3.  Place the tray in the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until the edges of the pastry start to look a tad golden.

4.  Take out and carefully spoon in a little jam in to each shell.  The pan will be hot.  Don’t fill too much jam into the cups as this makes the tarts too jammy and sweet.

5.  Place back into the oven for several minutes – say 7-10 minutes.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

As good as it gets

Do you remember the times that your life moved forward in an almost unseen way?  When in a moment you knew, for certain, that life had changed.  When, despite everything, a shadowy dream seemed to take life. Like the words from Rainbow Connection.

Have you been half asleep?

And have you heard voices

I’ve heard them calling my name…..

I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it

There’s something that I’m supposed to be

It seems to me, that I’m here finally.  I’m filled with warmth, hope, and desire.  In an odd way, I’m reminded of winter, when it seemed that spring would never come.  The trees reached upward with bony, gnarled fingers.  I couldn’t see any sign of buds or blooms.

I should have had more faith.

To celebrate these new beginnings, I’d like to share my mother-in-law’s recipe for seviyan kheer.

This nutty, creamy milk pudding with thin strands of melt-in-your mouth toasted noodles, bits of almond, and crushed cardamom, is filled with the flavor of celebration and festivity. I never thought I’d even like it, let alone fall so utterly and deeply in love with it.  It’s sweet, rich and nourishing.  I can’t stop eating it, and I usually fall asleep at night thinking about when it might be ok to make it again.

Seviyan Kheer

For this kheer, you can use any thin vermicelli noodle.  However, the variety that comes from Pakistan, found in the Indian grocery stores like Patel’s and Bhavani, is far superior in flavor.  Go in and ask for the “seviyan from Pakistan,” and the people in the store will send you to the right shelf.

Serves 4

1/2 gallon milk (about 2 litres)

2 roughly filled cups of vermicelli noodle

1 tbsp ghee

¼ cup raisins

½ cup whole raw almonds, soaked, skin removed and sliced

about ½ cup sugar, brown or white

1 tsp of cardamom powder, if possible freshly pounded

  1. Bring the milk to boil on medium heat in a big pot until it reduces by ¼ of its original volume.  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  2. Separately, heat the ghee in a small pan on medium heat.  Add the vermicelli and toast for a minute until it turns into a deeper brown.  Turn the heat off, and keep aside until the milk is ready.
  3. When the milk is about ¾ of its original volume, add the toasted vermicelli, the almonds and the raisins.  Keep boiling the milk until it reduces to half its original volume.
  4. Now add the sugar and continue to cook.  Taste for sweetness (be careful not to burn your mouth) and add more sugar if needed.  By now the vermicelli should have cooked through and the pudding should have a fairly thick, dropping consistency.  Test by pinching a strand or two of vermicelli between your fingertips.  Add the crushed cardamom and remove from flame.
  5. Enjoy hot or cold.

Sanjeev Kapoor’s lobia rassedar

Sunday mornings are when I leisurely cook a pot of beans.  I have made rajma for several weekends now, simmering the beans for almost three hours each time.  The boys enjoy sitting down to a hearty meal of rice and beans after their morning soccer class, and I feel sated just watching them eat.  Beans are soul warming and belly filling, and you almost can’t mess them up with long, slow cooking.

This weekend I made Sanjeev Kapoor’s black-eyed peas, his lobia rassedar, from his book of Accompaniments.   Although I already have a good recipe for black-eyed peas that I’ve written about before, his recipe read a little differently from mine.  It called for yellow fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds and dried red chillies sputtered in hot oil (the tadka) and ground up with fresh ginger and garlic.  No garam masala except for a stick of cinnamon thrown into the browning onions at the beginning.  Chopped tomatoes tossed in a little later.  I was intrigued, and excited to pound the hand-ground paste in my granite Thai mortar and pestle that had been acquired in lieu of the Indian sil batta that I so desired.

I was not disappointed.  The tadka spices and ginger-garlic sent up a earthy, heady aroma as I crushed them into a thick brown paste.   My browned onions and tomatoes cooked down into a rich curry.  The stew sent off rich, appetizing smells as it slowly cooked on the stove.  The black-eyed pea was unusual and delicious, and especially tasty with delicate, fresh green methi parathas.

Lobia Rassedar

Adapted from Sanjeev Kapoor’s Accompaniments

Serves 6

1 ½ cups of black eyed peas, called lobia

2 cups of onions, diced

1 cup of tomatoes, chopped

2 tbsp of ginger, chopped

2 tbsp of garlic, chopped

1 tsp of cumin seeds

½ tsp of fenugreek seeds

2 whole red chillies, optional

1 inch piece of cinnamon stick

½ tsp of turmeric powder

1-2 tsps of red chilli powder, optional

A handful of cilantro leaves, chopped

4 tbsps of oil

salt to taste

  1. Boil or pressure cook the black-eyed peas until soft and the peas squash easily between your fingertips.  Set aside and save the cooking liquid.
  2. While the lobia is cooking, heat 3 tbsps of oil in a pan and add the cinnamon stick.  When the oil becomes hot, add the onions and sauté on medium-low heat for about ten minutes until the onions are medium brown.
  3. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat the remaining 1 tbsp of oil, and add the fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds and the dried red chillies.  Fry the spices in the oil for a minute or so (be careful to not burn), and then transfer into a mortar, along with the chopped ginger and garlic.  Grind into a coarse paste either by hand or in a small food processor.
  4. When the onions are brown, add the tomato, ground paste, turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt.  Cover and cook for several minutes until well combined and oil begins to ooze from the sides of the mixture.  Stir occasionally to prevent the paste from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning
  5. Add the lobia with its cooking the water into the pan.  Add a little more water if needed.  Cover and bring to boil, then simmer for at least ten to fifteen minutes.
  6. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve hot with parathas.