Country mouse and city mouse – buckwheat pancakes

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Some time ago I hiked up some hills around Lonavla with a friend. We were out having fun, well-prepared with our water bottles and GPS watches and clothes made of modern fabric that is apparently made from gasoline. Our feet were shod in lightweight sneakers that made the shards of rocks underfoot all but disappear.

Incredible views on all sides of us. Buddhist cave carvings from centuries ago ahead of us.

There we ran into a farmer coming downhill on the same trail as us. No gasoline-fabric for him. He had on his airy dhoti around his waist that he probably wore no matter what the situation. A light cloth wound around his head protected him from the sun. Thin as a rake, he walked on those hills as though he didn’t think about it too much, just did it.

I felt weirdly embarrassed. This man naturally belonged here, while we were interlopers from our fat happy internet-savvy world and we clearly didn’t. And he wore no shoes! Shards of rock or not, he was barefoot and scarcely concerned by it. At that moment my shoes happened to pinch a toe or two, and I thought to myself — if the farmer can go without shoes, perhaps I can too. Maybe the rocks are not as bad as they look.

So I tried walking barefoot, hanging the shoes from my neck by their laces. I couldn’t go four steps without hurriedly getting them back on again. Oh, the shooting pain! Tens of jagged rocks at any point poked right into my soft soles.

Marginal environments

As I watched the farmer keep his steady pace down the hill, I realized that although this man had probably never seen a computer keyboard in his life, he had mastered this marginal, mountainous environment and knew secrets about it we didn’t. He fit in here, while the only way we could was to drag paraphernalia from our fat happy internet-savvy world into it.

So…ah yes, buckwheat. Buckwheat is the farmer. Buckwheat grows on mountains with gravelly soil and practically no nourishment and does it six ways to Sunday. It doesn’t need much but gives a lot. Secrets — yes, it knows a few. It scorns pesticides and actively dislikes being coddled with fertilizers. It will grow quickly, produce quickly in a short season from June to September, swamp out the weedy flimflam, laugh blithely about insect pests, and produce a non-grain grain that will feed you all the essential amino acids. Count them — nine — all amino acids essential to humans.

Why a non-grain grain? Because it is a tiny seed and used as a cereal and ground and used as a flour. But it does not come from a grass, as grains usually do. Walks like a grain, quacks like a grain, but is not a grain. As I have gone over before.

Buckwheat certainly has a whiff of the old world. It grows widely in the Himalayas and is used for rotis and gruel. In Japan it is used to make the famous soba noodles. Kasha and blini in Eastern Europe. Immigrants brought this grain to America and in the 18th century 20 times more acreage was devoted to buckwheat than is now.

Then came the use of fertilizer — one of the inventions that fuel our fat happy Internet-savvy generation, and with it crops like wheat and corn that want coddling; and buckwheat was edged out. Makes you wonder what all that buckwheat was being used for, doesn’t it?

Buckwheat pancakes

Undoubtedly a big proportion of the buckwheat flour went into pancakes, given how delicious they are. In our family we were introduced to them via the hippie sensibility of Santa Cruz, where my husband lived for four years. Now they are a weekend staple. They go with maple syrup, but remember to use good, natural, golden maple syrup from the sap of maple trees, not the fake sticky one that comes from corn.

Dry ingredients:
  • 1.5 cups buckwheat flour
  • 1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 1.5 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Wet ingredients:
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • almond oil for cooking
Method:

Stir together the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

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Meanwhile crack the eggs into a separate bowl and whisk. Then whisk in the buttermilk. Melt the butter and whisk that in as well.

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Now that the wet and dry ingredients are separately ready, it is time to combine them. Pour the wet into the dry. Stir gently. Most lumps (almost all) should be gone. The consistency should allow it to pour; you might find you need to add water. I usually add about half a cup.

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To cook, I have a large non-stick griddle on highish heat. (‘High-ish’ is the point between medium-high and high). We found that butter smokes too much so we use almond oil for cooking. It has a high smoke point and a nice aroma. A tablespoon of oil for each batch of six pancakes works nicely. Spread the oil all over. Pour six ladle-fulls on like shown, each should be about four inches wide. All told you will get about 20 such pancakes.

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The time to flip each is when several bubbles have arisen and popped; and the edges look set. Flip and cook on the other side for 30 seconds to 1 minute; it will softly rise in the meantime.

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Here is our nice pile of pancakes. City mouse (wheat flour) meet country mouse (buckwheat).

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A Sindhi breakfast Julia Child might approve of

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If I name the following ingredients: flour, potatoes, salt and pepper, dairy — a very commonplace list, in the Western part of the world — what doesn’t come to mind is a morning in a Sindhi town 60 years ago. And yet, so it is. My grandmother made these very rustic kachoris for my mother’s breakfast decades ago, and it is such a simple idea, but so complex and satisfying, that I still crave it and make it in my 21st century Californian kitchen, and yes, have it for breakfast.

This amount makes enough for a simple breakfast for one.

Potato Kachoris

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium red potato
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour, I use King Arthur Premium
  • 1.5 tablespoon plain yogurt
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1.25 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Oil for frying

Method:

The traditional recipe asks you to boil the potato in lightly salted water until done. I have replaced that step with microwaving in nearly all such recipes that need a tuber to be cooked through before using. Not only is it quicker, but I feel like it avoids some of the nutrients leaching out into the water that one has to then throw away.

So go ahead, nuke the chap. Five minutes should put paid on a medium potato.

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When it is no longer shooting steam lava at you when you touch it, cut it into cubes and roughly mash it, peel and all. It can be lumpy, I personally don’t mind that.

Add the flour, salt, and pepper.

Now. You may be alarmed at the amount of pepper I am having you put in. Don’t be! Remember, pepper drove world-traffic all the way to the South Indian coast for centuries. Pepper is the Helen of Troy of spices. You want to feel it.

Mix and squeeze the flour in with the potato mixture with your fingers, till it is a rough, shaggy mass. Now put in the plain yogurt and knead briefly to make it a rough dough.

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This amount of dough will roll out to about 4 small circles of 5 – 6 inches each. So break golf-ball sized pieces, and roll each out. Now if you are used to rolling rotis you will find that these don’t roll out as smoothly or as thin. This, naturally, is because of the influx of the natural lumpiness of the potato (which I insisted a few lines ago that you don’t quell completely). That’s fine! It all adds to the rustic charm. The only thing you have to be aware of is, you may have to fry them a tad longer than normal, because they are thicker.

OK. So circles rolled out, heat about an inch of oil in a thick bottomed fry-pan. When the oil shimmers (but before it smokes! That is when the oil starts to break down and do Bad Things to us) put in a rolled out circle. Let it cook on one side for about half a minute, bobbing it up and down with your slotted spoon or tongs. Then flip it, and cook it for another half a minute. Take it out and drain it on paper towels.

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Have it with some more plain yogurt on the side. Surprisingly heavenly. Julia Child, eat your heart out.

Masala french toast

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Masala french toast

In India we seem to have a savory correlate for a lot of Western breakfasts. Yes, we have crepes, but we call them dosas and have them with sambhar. Yes we have pancakes, except we call them uttapams and once again dip them in hot chutneys and sambhars. We have our comfort food in cream of wheat (sooji/rawa), except it is cooked with mustard seeds and chilies and onions to make upama.

And of course, we have French Toast, but please stay away from the whipped cream and the sliced bananas and the maple syrup, and instead reach for the chilies and onions — presenting the Masala French Toast. This makes enough  for one serving of brunch.

Step 1: chop the vegetables

Finely chop: half a small onion, half a small tomato, one serrano chili, a fistful of cilantro.

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Masala french toast vegetables

Step 2: combine with eggs

Break two small eggs into a bowl along with the chopped vegetables. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt. Stir with a fork using a beating motion. You could use an egg beater if you like, The eggs will get a little foamy but there is no need to get them completely whipped.

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Step 3: soak the slices of bread

I used two large slices of white French bread. I generally prefer French bread for this recipe because it has no added sugar (most of the store-bought sliced breads will have added sugar, which clashes with the savoriness of this recipe). Lay them flat on a plate, pour about two-thirds of the egg mixture on. Spread it to cover the slices. The chopped vegetables will cover the slices, that is fine. Soak for a few minutes, turn the slices over, and soak the other side as well. All in all, the slices should soak for about five minutes. Help the egg along onto the dry parts if it is being shy.

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Masala french toast soaking

Step 4: shallow fry

Heat a nonstick pan on medium-high with a teaspoon or two of oil. Spread it around the pan with a spatula. When it shimmers, it is time to lay the soaked slices down: carefully, their structure is probably pretty compromised by egg-soaking by now.

Now one side of each slice will be better soaked than the other (this is what usually happens with me). Lay this side down first, with only a minimal amount of vegetables sticking to it. Our plan is to get this side to crisp up in that wonderfully eggy way, and a thick layer of chopped vegetables will only interfere with the browning.

But the top surface is where the thick layer of chopped vegetables belongs. Once the slices are laid down, pour the rest of the egg mixture on the surface of the slices, spread it around.

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Masala french toast shallow fry

Wait about seven minutes on medium-high heat, and the lower surface will start to brown, crisp up, and will smell quite eggilicious. At this point, carefully flip them over with a spatula. No heroics, just gently lift them up, and lay them down the other side, with the help of a fork. If you try the fancy flipping techniques you will have eggy vegetables strewn all over the stove.

Lower the heat, cook for another few minutes, or just long enough to get the egg to set. Serve!

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Masala french toast flipped over

The lowly loli: an ancient Sindhi breakfast

During my mother’s childhood in Sindh, her breakfast every single morning was loli. It was the cornflakes of her day.

What is a loli? It is a whole wheat flat bread (roti) with spices, basically — but here is the interesting thing — it belongs more to the pie crust family than the bread family. The reason I say that is that it employs a twist in its mixing. Instead of adding water first and then fat, the fat is added in first; combined thoroughly with the flour to make sort of breadcrumb-sized balls, then just enough water is put in, just enough to combine. No kneading necessary, just a coming together.

No kneading — hence, not bread, in short. Gluten is not developed.

If you think of the way pie crust is made, it shares its basic method with the loli. Fat is cut into the dry flour, thereby creating pellets of floury fat, then water is added just enough to make it combine into a ball. Then it is rolled out, and the result is a rough, uneven circle, that cracks in various places, but holds together enough to lift carefully from place to place. This method results in a flaky pastry that does not exhibit the stretchy integrity of bread or roti, where the gluten does a lot of the work.

Lolis are similarly flaky, except of course they are spicy, not sweet. So let’s get started. This amount makes enough breakfast for two.

Step 1: Dry mixture

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Spices for loli: onion, chili, cilantro

Chop finely a third of a medium red or yellow onion; two serrano chilies; a third of a cup of cilantro. Add to this 3/4 cup whole wheat flour (I use King  Arthur’s premium whole wheat) and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Stir with your fingers, taking care to break up the onion bits into its layers.

Step 2: Fat

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Loli flour with spices and oil rubbed in

In the old days, one added ghee; I have to admit I use pure olive oil or other cooking oil now. Add about two tablespoons oil to the flour and stir nicely with your fingers, until you get a breadcrumb texture.

Step 3: Water

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Loli dough, combined

Add two tablespoons of hot water (why hot? I don’t know. I do as I’m told). Combine it gently with the flour, not to knead (see above) but just to bring it into a ball.

Step 4: Roll

Take about a tennis ball sized amount: there should be about two tennis balls in the dough that you made. Flatten with your fingers into a circle, either by patting, or by rolling out. The circle will be about a quarter to an eighth inch thick and crack in various places, but try to hold it together. Make diagonal lines on it with a knife to get it to cook on the inside.

Step 5: Cook

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Cooking loli – first flip

Heat a griddle or tawa on medium high heat. When hot, slap the loli on. Wait one minute, then flip.

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Cooking loli – second flip

Wait another minute, and flip again. Wait another minute, spread some ghee and oil on the surface, and flip again.

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Cooking loli — third flip

Wait another minute or thirty seconds, spread another few drops of ghee or oil on the surface, and flip one last time. Thirty seconds or a minute more and you are done.

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My rough and rustic loli

Have it with some nice hot sweet tea.
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Healthy, natural granola

Most newbies to California eventually discover granola, as I did, years ago. Popularized by the hippie movement in the 1960’s, this mixture of crisp roasted oats, dried fruit and nuts is usually combined with yogurt and fresh fruit for breakfast. I first tried it at a cafe and loved it. Of course I tried to recreate it at home, and reached for the many, many, many varieties of packaged granolas in the grocery aisles. I got quickly disenchanted. Why? Let me count the ways.

1. Too sweet!

2. There’s always one ingredient I don’t like. Either it’s coconut; or dried raspberries paired with vanilla; or sesame seeds which I like, but not in this context; or chocolate, good lord.

3. Often stale. The oils used are often rancid.

4. Never tastes quite oaty enough. As my husband says, too much binder, not enough oats.

5. .Some granola makers want to ride on the ‘rustic appeal’ train and make it artificially clumpy, to replicate that homemade look, but honestly people, those clumps are hideous. I’ve had packages of granola that were nothing but clumps. Clumps hide sugar and salt bombs. Yuck.

So I finally decided to make my own and never looked back. The fresh, roasted smell of oats brightens up the kitchen on the mornings that I make it, and I have never had store bought granola that tasted quite that oaty.

Thank you Alton Brown! I first saw this recipe on his show Good Eats, but I have refined, simplified, and de-sweetened it (Americans like their food too damn sweet, even Alton Brown. We are not children people).

Here is the basic recipe, and please experiment by tossing it with fruit and nuts of your choice.

Step 1. Oats

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I use 6 cups old-fashioned rolled oats from Quaker. Put 6 cups oats into a giant bowl.

Step 2: Basic flavoring.

Add one teaspoon granular salt and stir it around with your hands. Then add half a cup of almond oil, and a quarter cup good maple syrup. We use Grade B. Mix it very well with a spatula, until all the oats are shiny and covered.

Step 3: Roast.

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Start oven at 250 F. Spread the oats on a roasting pan in a flat layer about a quarter inch thick. Let it roast for one hour and ten minutes. About 40 minutes into the cooking process, take out the tray, and stir the oats around to break clumps. Put the pan back in to complete the cooking process.

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Once it is done, you have the opportunity to mix in dried fruit or nuts of your choice — some that we have tried are, currants; slivered almonds; flax seeds.

Wait till it cools and save in an airtight jar. It will keep for at least two weeks, never had a chance to keep it longer — we always finish it within that time.

Thepla — spicy flat bread from Gujarat

One of my themes in food is simplicity. Not only because I’m lazy, but also because I like to have each ingredient be meaningful, and not be drowned in a cacophony of flavors.

Few recipes are purer and more basic than the roti recipe. Whole wheat flour mixed with water, kneaded, rolled out, and roasted. Just two ingredients, and yet there is an infinity of variations on that theme.

Add a few ingredients, and a whole new set of possibilities open up. I first tried theplas when I was nine, and a classmates mom made a whole stack to share at school. What I remember is the strong flavor of asafetida (the ‘fetid resin’, or, the ‘devil’s feces’), along with some heat. Just a few additions, and yet, this is an entirely different meal than the basic roti.

Step 1: The flour mixture for one serving.

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3/4 cup whole wheat flour (I use King Arthur’s premium whole wheat), half to one teaspoon asafetida, half a teaspoon turmeric, half a teaspoon or more red chili powder, a fistful of dry methi if you can’t acquire the fresh one, one quarter cup plain yogurt (I prefer Nancy’s plain whole milk yogurt, if not homemade), salt to taste. Knead into a taut dough.

Step 2: Roll out.

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Using sprinklings of all purpose flour as a non-stick device, roll them into five-inch rounds on the counter or wooden board. A ball of dough about two inches in diameter will produce a round that large. Try to get it as thin as you can.

Step 3: Roasting.

Get your griddle nice and hot on a medium-high flame. The roasting follows the standard pattern: first side, about 30 seconds, until the dough turns a shade darker and small air bubbles start to appear; flip it. Second side, another 30 seconds, until the air bubbles combine and form a few large ones; spread a few drops of oil on the thepla and flip it once again; 30 seconds more, spread another few drops of oil, and flip it once more for the last time. So we have had four flips, and each side has been cooked twice, once with and once without oil.

This series of pictures shows the progression.

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Next:

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Next:

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Next (and yes, I got it a little extra burnt):

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Stack up the prepared theplas on a platter. A good accompaniment is a sweet mango pickle; yogurt is a standard too.

Here is my Sunday morning meal: theplas, yogurt, and some sour mango pickle.

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Seyal bread — the panzanella of Sindh

Bread usually goes stale before it starts to rot or mold. And therein lies a whole category of recipes.

When bread goes stale it becomes dry, leathery and unpalatable. Although it seems like the bread is losing water, apparently there is no net loss of water or intake of water from the outside air — it is just that some starch starts to crystallize, drawing water in from the surrounding bread substance. To some extent, this process can be reversed by warming the bread. This book — On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen — has a great explanation of the staling process.

Frugal housewives have always looked for ways to revive that unpalatable brick. Some methods take it all the way to dryness, like croutons and breadcrumbs. Others soak it in liquid. One famous example is panzanella, the Italian bread salad made out of stale bread chunks. Another from Sindh is seyal bread. This is a method of cooking bread with spicy liquid that is often eaten for breakfast.

To get started, cut your stale bread into chunks about and half an inch all around so you have an idea of how much substance you are trying to rescue. I love French bread in this recipe, or leftover rotis, but not enriched sliced breads that have some sugar in them — but that is a personal preference.

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For the amount of bread shown above,  I used:

half an onion, chopped but not too fine; 3 big cloves garlic, minced; one serrano chili, minced; and two medium tomatoes, chopped. For spices, about half a tablespoon of ground coriander, and half a teaspoon ground turmeric. Add some red chili powder to up the heat if you like. Some salt to taste. And for garnish, lots of fresh cilantro, chopped fine.

Heat about two tablespoons of oil in a thick-bottomed pan. Put in the onion, garlic and chili at once and stir. The idea is to not let the onions caramelize, because that sweetens them, and this recipe is all about the savory. In fact, that is a commonality in all seyal recipes (one can seyal fish, meat, etc.) — that the onion is cooked till translucent, but not browned.

This will happen quickly, in about 3 minutes on medium heat. Now put in the tomatoes. At first juicy, like this:

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they will start to dry out in the heat (crush them with the back of your spoon to get them to release their juices sooner).

When most of the liquid is gone, put in your dry spices, the coriander and the turmeric and stir.

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They just need to combine and roast a bit.

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Now goes in about a cup and a half of water, and the whole mixture is brought to a boil. Let it roil for a few minutes, until it goes from looking like this:

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To looking like this:

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At this point, the cubed bread can go in. The mixture should now be salted, because one has an idea of the size of the meal.

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Stir the bread into the liquid to get it to absorb, garnish it liberally with cilantro, and look like this:

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Have the oven ready at 300 F. Cover the pot, make sure the liquid is simmering, and stick it in the oven to cook for 15 minutes. The last step can also be done on the burner with low heat, and in addition a heat reducer between the burner and the pan. Either way, you end up with a steaming pile of this:

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Now, don’t be turned off by its rustic look. Rustic it is, and frugal, but it is delicious; and at least for me, brings back lazy Sunday morning breakfasts with hot tea along with seyal bread.