Four exotic fruits: in which I eat them so you don’t have to

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The other day I went to the grocery store looking for fruit with a pretty standard shopping list. On it were such stalwarts as apples, bananas, perhaps a basket of berries or so.

But that is not what I walked out with: not at all. Instead, my eye was drawn to a particular shelf where some odd shapes sat next to each other. There was the horned one. The spiny one. The dried up purple shell caving in to its hollow center. The one that looked painfully familiar, and yet I couldn’t place (it turned out to be a nightshade).

Like eccentric back-benchers, these oddities sat side-by-side casting baleful glances at the mainstream fruit around them. Well, I never could resist the call of the eccentric back-bencher; and there is no reason to start now.

The apples and bananas had to wait for another day. Here is what I came home with: a shopping bag filled with horned melon, passion fruit, pepino melon, and rambutan. We happened to have a friend over, so we spent a pleasant afternoon cutting open these oddities and chronicling the experience.

Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum)

At first, one is not sure if one is safe approaching a rambutan — it looks like a ruby-toned porcupine with pointy quills. But when you pick it up, you find it fits neatly inside your palm, as big as a ping-pong ball. The spines feel like plastic bristles that fold under pressure.

So far so good. But how is one expected to eat it? The peel offers no clues. It turns out that it takes a rather sharp paring knife to poke a hole in it and keep going. The skin is leathery and tough. You jab with the knife and peel off chunks, revealing smooth, wet, translucent white flesh .

Interestingly, in biological terms, the white flesh is not a fruit part at all, but rather, a thickened seed coat, known as aril. Some plants grow edible and sweet arils, for the same reason that others grow fleshy fruit — to tempt eaters on legs to eat them and thus spread them. Another example of such an aril-based fruit is the pomegranate, where each little seed grows red juicy pockets around it.

The single, oval seed is rather large with a papery exterior. In fact, a note for the squeamish — the taste of the translucent flesh always comes with a hint or two of the papery seed coverings. I don’t mind that at all, but some might.

Rambutan and the closely related lychee are both from the same family as the maple, of the flavorful sap. If I scrunch up my forehead enough I can imagine a maple-like sharpness to the taste of the flesh. It is sweet, resilient, and cool. When overripe, the peel becomes almost as hard as rock, while the pulp develops faintly pineapple notes. Go eat it: you have my blessings. The Odd Pantry rating:FourApple

Horned melon or kiwano (Cucumis metuliferus)

Don’t let those protuberances that make it look like a stegosaurus egg fool you — the horned melon is nothing but a cuddly cucumber inside. With a difference.

It looks rather alike, as you can see from the picture. But the flesh is lime green instead of pale, and much pulpier, so that it needs to be scooped out with a spoon. The seeds that sit inside each little polyp are chewier. With each bite, one notices the chewiness of the seeds, that remains in your mouth once the pulp is eaten. They taste a bit like very thin and small cantaloupe seeds. Some people, I hear, attempt to spit the seeds out, but here’s what I say: why bother?

Mildly sweet with a hint of tartness, the taste is still somehow very close to the watery freshness of cucumber. Unlike a cucumber though this is not a possible salad ingredient at all. Really there seems to be no better way to eat it than with a spoon directly off the cut halves.

So is it actually related to the cucumbers and the cantaloupes? Very closely — about as close as a raspberry to a blackberry (the same genus). Though native to sub-Saharan Africa, it is now grown all over the place from California to Australia. My feeling though, about why it hasn’t caught on, is that it is hard to place it in a food group. Neither a vegetable, nor a hearty fruit that could work as dessert, nor even in a fruit salad — the kiwano is a fruit without a convenient slot to fit into. Nothing that a bit of directed breeding couldn’t fix! The Odd Pantry rating: ThreeApple

Pepino melon (Solanum muricatum)

Sigh. One wants to be polite (and I always, always do) but I don’t see what the point of the pepino is. Perhaps a reader will come along and enlighten me.

It has the shape of a golden eggplant with purple streaks. This is not surprising since the pepino melon is neither a pepino (cucumber) nor a melon — but rather closely related to eggplant and other nightshades. Now this family is known for producing toxins, such as nicotine and capsacain (chili heat), but is also known for its tasty edibles. Eggplants have a unique taste, as do tomatoes and the swollen stems known as potatoes.

But the pepino, alas, is bland. Well, let’s start at the beginning. Cutting it open is easy, because the peel is very thin and presents no barriers. The specimen I got had no seeds. Cut into quarter wedges, as you can see, the flesh was easy to get to.

That’s the good part. There is barely a smell at all, though our friend detected faint notes of nicotine (he used to be a smoker). If you could imagine a barely-sweet cantaloupe with most aromas removed, then enhance that with the blandness of lettuce — that is basically what the pepino tasted like. Perhaps cooking it like a vegetable might lead to a better experience.

One hates to do this, like I said, but I won’t be buying this again. The Odd Pantry rating: TwoApple

Passion fruit (Passiflora edulis)

I have never eaten anything quite like a passion fruit. I didn’t know what to expect from just seeing the shell, which feels like a hard, textured globe with a tendency to collapse inward as it ripens. ‘The oysters of the fruit world’, our friend called it, and I could not understand what he meant at all.

When we cut it open I understood right away. Passion fruit pulp is loosely attached to the shell, much like an oyster is attached to it’s, and lies in a gelatinous mass. Each little black seed is surrounded by pulpy aril (that word again), giving the entire pulp the appearance of a different aquatic object — frog spawn.

The taste is intense: sour, a little sweet, tropical. The seeds are like grit in your teeth, but you can crunch through them. A couple scoops with the spoon and the entire fruit is eaten. This is not the kind of fruit one goes to for calories, but rather, the experience.

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Passionflower

It isn’t surprising that passionfruit is such a unique eating experience, because the flower it springs from — the passion flower — is rather unique too. Most flowers have a row of green sepals beneath the petals; the passion flower alternates a sepal and a petal in a single whorl of ten. Plus, it has a set of purple rays that emanate from the center, called the corona, that look much like the rays of cartoon suns. When early Christian missionaries discovered this plant, they thought its unusual appearance made a perfect teaching aid for the crucifixion of Christ, with each part representing a different aspect of the story. This, by the way, is what the ‘passion’ in the name refers to — the Passion of Christ. It is not a synonym for lust or ardor.

Heavy stuff. In any case, this is a fruit that is worth trying for the experience if nothing else. The Odd Pantry rating: FiveApple

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The original Frankenfoods

Frankenstein 1831 inside cover art (source: https://archive.org/details/ghostseer01schiuoft)

Frankenstein 1831 inside cover art (source: https://archive.org/details/ghostseer01schiuoft)

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein tells the story of a student named Viktor Frankenstein who performs a scandalous experiment — so scandalous that he keeps the knowledge of it from his closest family and friends. Broken, repentant, and emaciated at the end of the story, he pours out the tale of his hubris to a stranger. He has discovered the secret of life, he confesses; obsessed with experiments in ‘natural philosophy’, he has been able to fashion a live human from body parts scrounged from graveyards and slaughterhouses.

The resulting demon’s arms are like those of a mummy; his lips are black and dry; his eyes are yellow. Everyone that looks at him, including his creator, turns from him in utter revulsion. Not even given the dignity of a name, his creator refers to him as the fiend or the wretch. As a sutured set of body parts lying on a gurney he was merely grotesque, but when he moves, makes sounds, becomes animated — this is horrifying. He is not whole. No matter that he can speak or move or think, his origin is not natural. He is an unholy mishmash.

Read the rest here.

My Thanksgiving Recap

Rerunning my thanksgiving post from last year, because it is that time again….

The Odd Pantry

IMG_3855Thanksgiving is one of my favorite American holidays, because — well, that’s easy. It involves cooking!

It took me a long time to warm to the taste of turkey. But having married into an American family that loves their annual turkey dinner, I didn’t really have a choice. It was a love-it-or-leave-it type of deal…well, maybe never quite that harsh. But I was certainly scared straight. I began to not only enjoy that once bland, inscrutable meat, but also crave it. And on the years that we are away from family (like this one), my husband demands a ‘proper’ American turkey meal. In other words, no garam masala in the pumpkin pie, like the White House chef once did¹. No chilies in the cranberry sauce either!

I’ve had a lot of learning to do, but now I can pull off a decent-sized turkey meal with each item made from scratch…

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Green tomato chutney, and the Talented Mr. Late Blight

Green tomato chutney

Green tomato chutney

If you read my last post, you know that I am trying to rescue my harvest of green tomatoes. I made salsa verde out of some of them, but the question naturally arises—how much salsa verde can one family reasonably eat? The answer is—not much. So on we go to other ideas.

Late Blight

But first, I threw out in my last post that my crop was threatening to be swallowed up by late blight. I did not know this at the time, but my tomatoes were brushing up against history. This is the same disease that once struck potatoes in Ireland, in 1845 precisely, and loosed famine upon the land. The cause of the disease is a pathogen known as water mold. An unassuming name, but it hides some points of interest, as Sherlock Holmes might say. You know the game that kids play where the first question asked is: “animal, vegetable or mineral?” Well, a similar first question to ask about lifeforms is: is it an animal, or a plant? Or a fungus (like mushrooms and yeast), or perhaps a bacteria? So which of these is the water mold?

Neither, it turns out. It is not an animal, nor a plant, nor a bacteria, and not, also, a fungus, though it superficially resembles one. Its is in fact from a separate kingdom of life entirely, known as the oomycetes.

Regardless of its pedigree, it has killer intent when it is found on tomatoes. First brown spots appear on leaves, and they dry and fall. The fruit remains relatively untouched pretty late in the game, which is why I was able to rescue most of them. But eventually greasy dark spots appear on the stem side first, and soon the entire tomato is covered with it. San Francisco’s coolness and fog is quite congenial to Late Blight, so much to my regret, this foe might always be dogging my heels.

Tomato chutney

You know that a foreign vegetable has been completely accepted into Indian cuisine when it undergoes chutneyfication. By this metric, the tomato has become a quintessential Indian vegetable since the Portuguese brought it over in the 16th century. The number of recipes for tomato chutney is immense. Here, though, is one that draws from Bengali cuisine.

Garlic and chili

Garlic and chili

Pulverised

Pulverised

Spice seeds

Spice seeds

In oil

In oil

Frying spice paste

Frying spice paste

Green tomatoes enter

Green tomatoes enter

Tossed with oil and spices

Tossed with oil and spices

After a while

After a while

Done

Done

Green tomato chutney

Green tomato chutney

Bengali green tomato chutney

Ingredients:
  • 4 large garlic cloves
  • 4 green serrano chilies
  • 4 cups of sliced green tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup olive or other oil
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nigella seeds
  • 1 teaspoon asafetida
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
  • 2 teaspoon salt
Method:

Pulverize the garlic and chili in a mortar and pestle until it is a paste. Heat the oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan on a medium-high flame. When it shimmers put in the five types of seeds (cumin, mustard, fenugreek, fennel, nigella). When they sizzle and pop, the asafetida and red chili powders. When they foam up, the garlic chili paste. The paste will cook in a few minutes, but make sure it does not burn. Now the rough-chopped tomatoes go in along with the salt. Toss to combine with oil and spice.

Cook on medium-low for a whole hour, turning occasionally and mashing with the back of the spoon. In an hour, it will have dried quite a bit, and the oil will be gleaming through. Mash once again, let it cool, and empty into a jar.


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Salvaging my tomato crop: salsa verde

Green tomatoes

Green tomatoes

Folks, I love my adopted city San Francisco, I really do. I love its hills, its fog, its MUNI and its BART, its rolling jagged windy roads, even its urinaceous sidewalks (with reservations). But really, if there is one thing San Francisco simply cannot pull off, it is ripening a frigging tomato.

And yet, in a textbook example of insanity, I keep growing them year after year, hoping that this will be the year when a perfect storm of global warming and sheer willpower will turn those multitudes of green globes red. Wouldn’t that be nice. But no, San Francisco does not oblige. First, the bush grows wildly, flowers and fruits luxuriantly, and the little berries grow into globes. But they stay green. Even my backyard squirrels sniff at them.

So I have a bush full of green tomatoes, and an impending case of late blight nipping at my heels. If I don’t rescue my green tomatoes now (some with a faint blush on them), I will lose them to the greasy blackness of blight.

So I harvest them, and now I have a basket full of green tomatoes. What do I do with them? So now we come to the fun part. There are certain options. Here is Salsa Verde, in my next post I will explore another one.

Tomatoes, sorted

Tomatoes, sorted

Salsa Verde

California is replete with Latin American culture and food, for which I am very grateful. It is hard to describe the tastiness of pairing earthy rice and beans with these ‘sauces’ or salsas — some cooked, some fresh; some red, some green. One of my favorite ways to dress a Mexican meal is with the triumvirate of guacamole, salsa fresca and salsa verde. The ‘verde’ means green, and usually the color is imparted by the tomatillo, which is a cousin of the tomato, but green tomatoes do just as well.

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Salsa verde

Ingredients:
  • 2-3 cups diced green tomatoes
  • 3 big cloves garlic minced
  • 2-3 green serrano chilies minced
  • 1/2 cup onion cut into small dice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons minced cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
Method:

Put everything except the cilantro and lime into a pot and bring to a boil. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Uncover and check if it looks mostly liquefied, if not, cook for another 5-7 minutes. Mash roughly, add cilantro and lime, cook covered to meld flavors for another 5 minutes.

Serve as a side with chips or any Mexican meal.


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A global stew from my San Francisco kitchen

Global Stew

Global Stew

Once you learn a new method of cooking it can lead to a bit of an explosion of ideas. The new method in this case is the one I wrote about in this post about red kidney beans—it is about cooking beans in a slow cooker or low oven, over six hours. It has all the virtues of crockpot cooking, which is that you set it and forget it; and requires no prep such as soaking, sautéing, except stuffing all ingredients into the pot. Even tough beans that one normally soaks overnight and then pressure-cooks succumb to the slow but steady blandishments of the oven.

Well, there is no reason, obviously, to limit oneself to that one recipe. Here I experimented with a set of ingredients drawn from a variety of regions of the world, that all came together in my Bay Area kitchen.

Global stew with polanta

Global stew with polanta

There is the black-eyed pea, ancestrally African, which itself is a bit of a global traveler, having found its way to Northern India as an occasional character actor, and to the New World on slave ships.

There is the cranberry, that Native Americans first explored the use of and now is a staple of the American Thanksgiving feast.

Pine nuts are a staple of Italian cooking, but the pine is a pretty widespread tree, so their use is known all over the globe. In the Americas, there are treaties that protect the right of Native American tribes to harvest them. In China, a certain species of pine nut has been known to ‘disappear’ your taste (temporarily) and leave a bitter metallic one in its place.

The use of the bay leaf I learned at my mother’s knee; while the use of tomato paste came from my mother-in-law. Butternut squash is my husband’s favorite, and happens to be one of those vegetables that were made by humans by crossing two of nature’s somewhat problematic products—in this case, the gangly gooseneck squash and the ginormous Hubbard.

Spinach on the other hand is just spinach.

On we go. Notice how short the ‘method’ part of the recipe is.

Global Stew

This can be eaten as a hearty soup, or a stew, with some soft rolls or crusty bread on the side. We enjoyed it with polenta. It would also make a very nice all-in-one side for a steak or chicken for a paleo type of meal. None of the beans or the squash turn completely into mush, which is nice; but they are completely tender and cooked through.

butternut squash layer

butternut squash layer

More ingredients

More ingredients

All ingredients layered on

All ingredients layered on

After six hours in the oven

After six hours in the oven

Yum....

Stirred. Yum….

Global stew

Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup black-eyed peas (dried beans)
  • 1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • 4 cups spinach
  • 1/2 onion, diced small
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1/4 cup tomato sauce or 1 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
  • 1/4 cup pinenuts
  • 1/3 cup cranberries
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1.5 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups water
Method:

Layer all the ingredients (order not important) in a dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. Put it in an oven heated to 250ºF for six hours. Take it out, give it a gentle stir, and serve.


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Spice is a state of mind: cabbage thoran

Cabbage thoran

Cabbage thoran

Sometimes spice is just a state of mind. Plants don’t come with Dymo-printed labels that say ‘Spice use recommended’.

Now you might think I’m making an issue out of nothing. Obviously, plants that produce a strong appetizing smell can be used as spices, and others not, right? No mind tricks necessary.

But consider what happens during the process of blooming spices, otherwise known as tempering, or tadka. A sequence of spices are thrown into hot oil. They may be seeds — like cumin or black mustard, dry leaves like the bay, or even bits of bark — like cinnamon.

If the temperature is too low, nothing particular happens, while if the temperature is too high, the spice burns. But if the temperature is just right, two things happen. One, the outer surface of the spice browns. This browning, known as the Maillard reaction, is the perfect state of cooked food sought after by chefs, whether it is grill marks on meat or the browned crust of bread or cookies: Golden Brown and Delicious. Each spice produces its own browned flavor, which is reminiscent of its regular flavor, but sharpened and deepened.

The other thing that happens during blooming/tempering/tadka is that the oils inside the spice, those that carry the aromatic compounds, escape into the pool of oil in which they are cooking. As the oil slithers and smears all over the food, as it is wont to do, it carries the essential oils of the spice around with it too.

Tadka is such a powerful method that it has become a standard way to either begin or finish off most dishes in Indian cooking. But now, listen carefully, because this is the most important part. Once the key to unlock flavor known as tadka/tempering/blooming has been found, one can really excavate flavors from non-spices, from seeds that no one would particularly think of as a spice.

Don’t believe me? What would you say about split lentil beans used as spice? Well, in the south, two kinds of lentils, the urad dal and the channa dal are both used during tempering; they each create a characteristic roasty flavor.

Not impressed? How about rice? One of the unique things about the state of Kerala, which just happens to be the home of such stalwarts as pepper, ginger and cinnamon, is the use of raw rice as part of tempering, usually in coconut oil. Used in this way, bland old rice acquires a golden roasty flavor that permeates subtly throughout the food.

Thoran

i’m also having fun learning about one of Kerala’s signature dishes known as thoran. A simple and soothing preparation, it involves any vegetable cooked with some grated coconut, tempered simply with mustard seeds, curry leaves and possibly a couple other things. In my attempt, I left out the grated coconut, choosing instead to cook it in coconut oil to provide a similar sweetness.

This is the perfect kind of simple background where the use of raw rice in tempering can be shown off. So here we go — cabbage thoran.

cabbage 003

Tempering spices including rice

Tempering spices including rice

Coconut oil

Coconut oil

Urad dal in oil

Urad dal in oil

The rest of the spices

The rest of the spices

Cabbage in

Cabbage in

Cabbage cooking

Mixed with dry spices

Cabbage cooked

Cabbage cooked

Cabbage thoran with roti and dal

Cabbage thoran with roti and dal

Cabbage thoran

Ingredients:
  • Half a head of cabbage, shredded
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon asafetida
  • 2 teaspoons split and skinned urad dal
  • 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • 2 teaspoons raw rice
  • 5-7 curry leaves
  • 3 small dry red chilies
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
Method:

Heat the coconut oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan on medium heat. When completely melted, add the spices in the following order: first, the asafetida; wait for it to foam up, then the urad dal; wait for it to start turning reddish, then, the mustard seeds; wait for them to start popping, then the raw rice; wait for it to all turn opaque and start to toast, then the dry red chilies; wait for them to darken, then the curry leaves.

Once the leaves crisp up, throw in the cabbage and stir to combine with the oil. Add the salt, turmeric and red chili powder and mix it nicely with the cabbage until it is evenly covered.

Cover the pan, turn the heat to a simmer and let it cook this way, in its own steam, for about 10 minutes more.

Serve with white rice, or, as I did, with chapati / roti and another side.


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Unpopular ideas collide in Baba Ganoush

Baba Ganoush

Baba Ganoush

My love affair with eggplant continues. Any confirmed eggplant haters would be wise to click away now. This blog has become nothing but a vehicle for eggplant worship — maybe I should rename it ‘The Odd purple vegetable in your Pantry’.

In any case. The other love affair I have is with mashing things. Now the very word ‘mash’ arouses deeply unfashionable images in the foodie mind. Perhaps images of an eater who has lost their teeth or not yet grown any; or of overcooked and limp strands; or perhaps images of hospital trays with their scanty TV dinners.

But it is time for mashes, and their French cousins, the purées, to get some respect. There is no other method that combines flavors as well; and if some fat is added, as it is in this recipe, the mash gets a sheen and a nice mouth feel. If the ingredients that go into a mash marry well, there is no reason to scorn it. Plus, there is the thrill of pulverizing ingredients together — many adults have attested that their early love for cooking came from the thrill of mixing things up just to see what would happen.

Or, you can call it a ‘dip’ and feel fashionable again.

Pampered Father

Now for the pampered father, or, ‘Baba Ganoush‘ in Arabic. Apparently a sultan in some ancient royal harem in the middle east came up with this particular eggplant mash…or perhaps he just enjoyed it very much, the OED is not clear on this point. Somehow, this pampered, coy father achieved culinary fame that reached across the centuries and empires, all the way to food trucks in contemporary San Francisco.

What is this pampered father? Roasted, pureed eggplant, flavored with ground sesame seeds (tahini), olive oil, lemon, and other flavorings. It can be eaten as a snack with pita points, or as a dressing in a felafel sandwich.

There is a certain amount of freedom on what other flavorings to add; and here I have chosen a rather unusual addition — that of roasted red pepper. Not only does it add a subtle sweetness, but also little flecks of red. Plus — eggplant and pepper being nightshade cousins, it is a bit of a family reunion.

Roasting sesame seeds

Roasting sesame seeds

Roasted sesame seeds

Roasted sesame seeds

Ground sesame seeds

Ground sesame seeds

Roasted eggplant and bell pepper

Roasted eggplant and bell pepper

Peeling eggplant

Peeling eggplant

Peeled flesh

Peeled flesh

Pureeing

Pureeing

Done

Done

Baba Ganoush with red bell pepper

Ingredients:
  • 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
  • 1 large globe eggplant
  • 1 red bell pepper (optional)
  • Quarter cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Juice of half to one lemon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Parsley for garnish
Method:

Heat the oven to 450ºF. Rub a bit of oil all over the eggplant and bell pepper and place them on a tray and into the oven. Bake them for half hour to forty-five minutes, turning once or twice during that time. At this point, the vegetables will have completely collapsed and be soft inside.

Meanwhile, heat a small thick-bottomed pan on medium-high heat. Roast the sesame seeds on it, keeping them moving once in a while. Soon an aroma will arise and the color will darken one shade. Turn off the heat. After cooling them for a few minutes, grind them in a clean coffee grinder.

When the eggplant and bell pepper are cool enough to handle, peel them. The skin should come off quite easily due to the baking. Put the flesh, along with the sesame seed powder, salt, olive oil and lemon juice into a food processor and pulse till smooth.

Taste for salt and lemon juice, add parsley for garnish.


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Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma) with spices

Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma)

Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma)

If you walked down the street around where I grew up in Bombay, say, around noon, you would hear the sonorous pressure cooker whistle sounding out of multiple windows. It being lunchtime, every household had their lunchtime dal or beans going in the pressure cooker. Some might be cooking pigeon pea (tuar), some mung beans, or garbanzo beans (channa), or something else.

But the pressure cooker was a must. It is so much part of kitchen life in India that sometimes two or three layers of pots go in at the same time, so your potatoes or peanuts can be boiled at the same time that the cauliflower and peas dish cooks, both of which cook together with your lunchtime dal. Cooking time is measured in whistles – most dishes take two whistles. The tough ones go on for three.

In my new home though, here in America, I found that the pressure cooker is considered a strange and scary beast. It screams! It is under pressure, it looks like it wants to explode! Most can’t believe the speed with which it does its job, being used to ovens and their longer times. The small, family-sized pressure cooker which can hold two quarts is hardly found in shops, all you find is the industrial-sized seven-quart behemoth that politely raises a tiny yellow hand when ready instead of whistling.

Given the new interest in non-meat protein sources, many evince an interest in the hundreds – possibly thousands – of ways of cooking dal that one sees all over India. The use of the pressure cooker stops many, as well it might, since most people don’t own one. Cooking on the stovetop is possible, but takes so long, and requires so much management, that it isn’t often practical.

Well, there goes that excuse. You may not have the two hours to actively manage a stovetop dal, but surely you have seven hours to not manage dal cooking in the slow cooker? When I heard of this method from my friend Daljit, I had to try it. It dispenses with all the usual steps: you do not need to pre-soak the beans, nor do you need to temper it. Put it in, cover it, forget it. Come home in the evening to a wonderful aroma and dinner.

One note: slow-cookers are great to have, but the oven can do the job as well. The conversion I use is: six to seven hours in the oven in a sturdy, well-sealed pot (dutch oven) at 250ºF for a slow-cooker set to low, for the same amount of time.

Black gram, red kidney beans

Two of the whole beans most often used by Punjabis are the whole black gram (otherwise known as maa ki dal or urad dal), and red kidney beans (rajma). The two are also often mixed, with three times as much black gram as the red beans. The recipe below can be used for either of these beans, or for that matter garbanzo beans as well; though those sometimes like to be more highly spiced.

Mix of black gram and red kidney beans

Mix of black gram and red kidney beans

Red kidney beans

Red kidney beans

Added spices and aromatics

Added spices and aromatics

Sealed pot, substitute for dutch oven

Sealed pot, substitute for dutch oven

Out of the oven after six hours

Out of the oven after six hours

Cilantro added

Cilantro added

Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma) with spices

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup whole red kidney beans (rajma), 1 cup whole urad beans (black gram), or a mix of both
  • 1 tablespoon ghee or oil
  • Half onion, diced small
  • 3 – 4 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 1 fresh green chili
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • quarter teaspoon red chili powder
  • quarter teaspoon turmeric
  • 3 cups water
  • quarter cup tomato sauce, or 1 medium tomato, diced (optional)
  • quarter bunch cilantro, minced (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Method:

Preheat the oven to 250º F. Alternatively, get your slow cooker hooked up.

Put all ingredients except the salt and the cilantro into a pot or dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid. There is no need to presoak the beans. Cover the pot tightly — if the seal is not perfect, you can jury-rig a pretty good one by putting a sheet of aluminium foil between the lid and the pot, and then crunch up the foil edges to block the opening.

Soon a lovely aroma will spread in the kitchen. Leave it in the oven / slow cooker for 6 to 7 hours. At the end of it, take it out, add salt and cilantro and stir them in. Garnish with more cilantro if desired.


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The sweet potato’s diamond-shaped leaves

Sweet potato greens stir-fry

Sweet potato greens stir-fry

The next time you would like greens for dinner, look beyond spinach (the old stand-by) but also look beyond kale (the flashy rising star). You may not find these at a big grocery store, but the farmer’s markets and Asian stores are usually packed with leaves of all shapes and sizes bundled together with a trifling rubber band. Among them, here is what I found the other day — sweet potato greens. Sadly, I have never seen these for sale in any of the big stores, even ones that have piles of sweet potatoes all through the year. If one has any kind of relationship with the growers, one could ask vendors of the sweet potato to occasionally bring in some greens too; or if one has a garden one could try growing them. If all else fails, take a trip to lovely San Francisco for the Alemany farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.

Like its more famous root brother, the leaves are packed with nutrition. Each diamond-shaped leaf is about a few inches long, and the stems are green and look like hollow reeds. They take very little cooking. Once wilted, they are pretty much done, and the tender stems can be eaten too. Only the tougher ends (you can feel them resist as you try to snap them, much like one trims asparagus) must be thrown away. Once cooked this way, their taste is extremely unobjectionable; a slight sliminess is about the only thing that sets it apart.

You know what that means — it is all about the seasoning! A simple sauté will wilt them nicely. We needed a side for an Asian meal that centered around rice. Here is what I did.

Sweet potato greens with ginger, garlic and fish sauce

The ingredients here are so few that the details matter. The ginger and garlic are minced fine and cooked in oil in a slow sizzle. Fish sauce adds a wonderful aroma so I would suggest you don’t substitute with soy (though in pinch, I have).  The leaves and tender stems are cut in two-inch segments, which is large enough to have body and small enough to be bite-sized. And the sesame oil topping is just the thing.

A tip! There are other mild-flavored greens that would do just as well: pea shoots and chard come to mind. This goes very well with some plain white jasmine rice.

Diamond-shaped leaves of sweet potato

Diamond-shaped leaves of sweet potato

Trimmed

Trimmed

Ginger and garlic and greens

Ginger and garlic and greens

Gently saute

Gently saute

Sizzling

Sizzling

Piling greens in

Piling greens in

Wilted

Wilted

Sweet potato greens stir-fry

Ingredients:
  • 1 bunch sweet potato vines
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 inch piece of ginger root, minced
  • Quarter teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • Few squirts of roasted sesame oil (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
  • Red chili flakes or sesame seeds for garnish (optional)
Method:

Wash and trim the greens. Only remove the tough stems; this can be discovered by snapping them at the point where the tender stem ends and the tough stem begins, much like snapping asparagus spears. Mince ginger and garlic.

Heat the oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers, put the ginger and garlic in. Turn the heat to medium-low and allow them to cook slowly. This will ensure that all the aroma is released, but also that they do not brown. When they start to seem shriveled, pile in the leaves along with whatever drops of water cling to them.

Turning carefully with tongs, allow all the greens to be covered with oil. This will take a few minutes; as soon as the bottom ones wilt, turn it over, and shortly all the greens will have wilted. Add the small amount of salt and the fish sauce. If you are adding sugar, now is the time.

This barely needs covering in order to cook; once all the greens have wilted, remove to the serving dish. There will be some flavorful liquid left over, carefully pour that over the greens. Add a few squirts of sesame oil, and the cracked pepper and sesame seeds.


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