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.

Kali Dal

Kali Dal, also known as Dal Makhani

My South Indian mother-in-law makes this rustic and hearty North Indian-style kali dal which is a creamy buttery lentil dish made with whole black urad dal and rajma (red kidney beans).  I’m always surprised at how truly North Indian this comforting dal tastes, as if it somehow arrived out of a cold winter evening in Delhi.

I find that the recipe is full of interesting little tips, like the one that says to throw half a stick of butter, along with green chillies and ginger into the pressure cooker at the beginning, and another that asks for yogurt to be stirred into the separately frying onions and garlic.   I’m still suspicious though.  It’s too tasty.  Surely some South Indian influence lurks in it.  When my Punjabi friends taste the dal and exclaim that “it tastes like it’s been made in our home,” I realize that I should have known better than to doubt my mother-in-law’s culinary prowess and the secret source of her recipe, Singh Aunty from Punjab.

This lentil preparation makes an easy and delicious one-pot meal.  It requires some pre-soaking and pressure cooker work that may take a couple attempts to get perfect, but the dal will still turn out tasty no matter what.  It’s completely whole-grain and healthy.

I usually serve it with hot rotis or basmati rice, cucumber raita and a side of raw red onions.  Agastya, who just turned three, enjoys alternating spoons of onion-garnished dal with bites of roti.

Serves 4

In the pressure cooker:
1 cup of whole black urad dal, soaked in water overnight
1/2 cup of red kidney beans (rajma), soaked in water overnight
2 green chillies
1-inch piece of ginger
1/ 2 stick or 4 tbsps of butter

Cooked separately:
1 cup of diced onions
3-4 pods of garlic, minced
1/2 cup of yogurt
2 tbsps of oil

Dry spices:
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt to taste

1. Soak the black urad dal and rajma in water overnight for about 12 hours.  Drain the water in the morning, and place the lentils in the pressure cooker.  Add enough water to the lentils such that there is a 1/2 inch of water above the beans in the pressure cooker.  Add a 1/2 stick of butter, two green chillies and an inch of ginger.  Bring to full pressure on medium heat, and allow 2 whistles on the cooker.  Continue to cook in the pressure cooker for about 30 minutes on low heat.  This makes the lentils soft and buttery with a melt-on-your-tongue texture.  When you open the pressure cooker, the lentils should be in a soupy gravy.  If the lentils appear too dry, you might need to add a little more water to the pot.

2. While the lentils are in the pressure cooker, heat the oil in a pan.  Add the diced onions and cook for several minutes until the onions turn medium-brown in color.  Add the minced garlic and cook for a few more minutes.  Now add the 1/2 cup of yogurt and cook until the yogurt has completely dissolved into the onions, and you are no longer able to see the “white” of the yogurt.

3. After you open the lid of the pressure cooker, allow the steam to escape.  Continue to cook the beans in the cooker for about 15 minutes on low heat, stirring occasionally to ensure that the lentils don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.  While the lentils are cooking add the onion, garlic and yogurt mixture, as well as the dry powdered spices: cumin, coriander, garam masala, cayenne pepper and salt.  You can add a little more of the dry spices depending upon taste.  I recommend tasting frequently while you are stirring and adjusting the spices if needed.  The dal keeps acquiring flavor as it cooks slowly over the flame.