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.

Matar Paneer

Matar Paneer

This morning I wake up bright up and early.  I am going to make my mother-in-law’s matar paneer for the first time.  Her delicious recipe comes from various North Indian neighbors, such as “Singh Bhabhiji” from her old residential colony in Bombay.  So I call mummy who is back in Vizag to talk about the recipe.  We debate on ratios first, which is a wise thing to do as I have discovered in Indian cooking.  I have a packet of Nanak-branded paneer, which is about 400g or 2 cups of paneer.  Mummy thinks that 2 cups of peas should balance the two cups of paneer, along with a sauce that has been made with 2 cups of chopped onions and an equal quantity of tomato puree.  The tomato puree is going to be different today.  I usually take fresh tomatoes and puree them in the food processor.  Today I am going to dip them in hot water for a few minutes, remove the skins and then puree the tomatoes.  The sauce that results from this process is different in flavor and texture, sweeter and smoother, it seems.

The recipe takes a little while to make, about an hour including clean-up, and I’ve realized that an hour is usually a reasonable time to make an Indian dish.  Shorter doesn’t work, and longer is just depressing.  I start feeling as though I am a kitchen slave when the clock starts ticking over the allotted hour.  The trick to feeling less like a slave, I have learnt, is to indeed watch the clock.  For instance I always believe that emptying the dishwasher, a task that I detest, has taken hours out of my precious lifetime.  When I actually measure how long it takes — I find that it’s no more than a 5 or 7 minute task.  Even the dreaded clean-up after cooking, when timed, seems to take no more than 15 minutes.

I discover that the matar paneer is surprisingly easy to make.  It comes out fairly well but I find that I am searching for my mother-in-law’s dish when I taste it.  To make this dish truly my own, I will have to make it a couple more times, and then I will be certain of what my matar paneer tastes like.

Matar Paneer

400g or 2 cups of paneer, chopped
2 cups of frozen green peas, soaked in warm water to defrost and then drained
2 cups of onions, diced
2-3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
A thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and chopped finely
2 cups of tomato puree, made with fresh whole tomatoes dipped briefly into boiling water and then the skin removed.
1/4 cup of whole fat plain yogurt, called dahi
2 tsps of coriander powder
1 tsp of cumin powder
1 tsp of garam masala
1/2 tsp of red chilli powder, optional
3 tbsps of ghee
Salt to taste

1. Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat.  Add the onions, ginger and garlic.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn a medium brown.  Add the tomato puree and cook until the mixture glistens with the ghee that is released.  This will take a while, about 20+ minutes.

2. Add the yogurt and keep stirring until it disappears into the sauce.

3. Add coriander powder, cumin powder, garam masala and chilli powder (if using), along with salt.  Taste, and add a pinch more of the spices if needed, taking care to not over-spice the dish.  Add the chopped paneer and the drained peas.  Add some water, about 1-2 cups.  Bring to boil and allow to cook for a few minutes in order that the paneer imbibes the flavors of the sauce.  Remove from flame and serve hot.

Andhra-style potatoes

Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam

My husband introduced me to the food from his native state of Andhra Pradesh when we were dating.  The cuisine and its cooking style was a revelation for me.  For instance, a simple sookha aloo-pyaaz or dry potato-onion dish tasted completely different because of the cooking process, the treatment of ingredients and a slightly different spice mix.  In my North Indian home, we would have sputtered whole cumin in hot oil, added the onions, then the boiled potatoes along with some turmeric, a pinch of cumin-coriander powder and some dried mango powder called amchur.  All of this happened in one pan and in sequential steps.  My husband on the other hand cooked his aloo-pyaaz in three almost-parallel parts: onions fried first and made into a wet paste, whole spices roasted separately and ground into a dry spice mix, boiled potatoes stir-fried on their own until golden.  The spices he roasted also included lentils like chana dal and urad dal, that were a completely new and surprise addition to my spice palate.  Finally all three parts were combined into the dish called Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam or Potatoes in Onion Masala.  The resulting dish, earthy and hearty, had a strong taste of onion paste and freshly ground spices, and could be very spicy from ground dried red chillies.  We now make it without any chillies so that two year-old Agastya, who loves onions and aloo, can eat it too.

Bangala Dumpa Ulli Karam or Potatoes in Onion Masala

Serves 4

2-3 medium-sized potatoes, boiled and cubed into 1/2” chunks.
A little oil

For the wet masala:
2 medium sized onions, diced
1 tbsp of oil

For the dry masala:
1 tbsp chana dal
1 tbsp urad dal
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp whole mustard seeds
3-4 dried red chillies (optional)
A spot of ghee

1. Heat the oil in a pan and fry the onions until light brown. Grind to a paste with a little salt.

2. In a little bit of ghee, dry roast the chana dal, urad 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.

3. Heat a little oil in a pan.  Add the cubed potatoes and fry for a few minutes until golden.  Stir in the onion masala and salt to taste.  Cook on the flame for a couple of minutes.  Serve hot with basmati rice or rotis.

Stir-fried Okra

Okra, called bhindi

Sometimes when I am in the kitchen, the strongest association that I have with the food, in this case okra, is the memory of a two-and-half year old Agastya hovering around, helping in some way or just getting involved in the vegetable that I am making.  My mother has always claimed that all little children love okra, called bhindi in Hindi, and Agastya has been no exception.  He loves eating stir-fried okra on his own, fingers eagerly cramming the crispy green circles into his mouth.  I do not ever need to follow him around with a plate of food that holds okra to bribe or tempt him to eat a morsel.  This means that when I tell him that I am about to make okra, his little body comes expectantly into the kitchen to inspect what I am doing.  He demands to be placed on the counter while I chop.  Agastya excitedly fingers the okra, examines its shape and texture, and counts the chopped pieces that emerge from my board.  He finds it fascinating that I cut off the “heads” and “tails” of the okra, and that the okra has several names such as bhindi and lady’s finger.  His excitement reminds me of how I always imagine chopped bhindi tails to be the fallen tails of house lizards that reside in practically every home in India.  I make a quick mental note that I must point out house lizards to Agastya when we next visit India.

It is very hard to find good bhindi here in the greater New York metropolitan area.  The Indian stores in Jersey City always carry okra, but they are frequently old, fibrous, hard, and nearly impossible to cook.  Another source is an organic store called Sobsey’s here in Hoboken that occasionally carries very fresh okra imported from Mexico.  And for a short while during the summer, local Jersey-grown okra makes an appearance in the farmers’ markets, and these are just the opposite of the ones in the Indian stores: they are a bright emerald green, glistening, thin, fresh, small and very tender.  While holding a basket of these delectable treasures, I will often have a quick daydream that someone has handed me a paper cone with crisply fried whole tiny green okra, tossed with a generous sprinkling of salt and red chilli powder.   Sometimes I am transported to a sleepy afternoon on the Greek island of Hydra where my husband and I stumbled upon a restaurant that brought us small whole okra cooked in a tomato and onion sauce.  Agastya had proceeded to eat the entire plate, savoring each bite.  We had watched on, relieved that our son had found something to satisfy his tummy.

The best way to enjoy okra’s natural rich earthy flavor is to simply cut fresh okra (washed and thoroughly dried) into 1/4″ inch rounds.  Heat a generous quantity of oil in a non-stick pan on medium heat, say about 3-4 tablespoons of oil for 2 pounds of okra, and throw in the chopped vegetable when the oil becomes hot.  There will be a sizzling sound as the okra hits the hot oil.  Cook uncovered, stirring every few minutes, until the okra browns, becomes soft and starts looking crisp at the edges.  This takes a little while, and it is important to not add any salt until the okra is done.  Covering the okra while cooking and adding salt both cause water to be released from the vegetable.  This hampers the cooking process, leaving the okra raw.  After the okra is cooked, add salt and a generous sprinkling of turmeric.  Cook for just a minute or two and the dish is ready to eat.  Note that okra shrinks down to an alarmingly small quantity after cooking.  For instance, 2 pounds of fresh uncooked okra will only serve 2 adults and one or two small children.