Is it a wrap? A donkey? No–it’s a superbaby…burrito!

Made-from-scratch burrito

Made-from-scratch burrito

When I was new to California, Indian friends who had arrived before me told me eagerly about the exciting new cuisines they had sampled around the Bay Area. It became a bit of a parlor game to find the cuisine ‘most like Indian food’ — which meant, in practice, the most highly flavored with spices. People mentioned Thai food and Ethiopian food as contenders. One strong contender that kept coming up was the Mexican burrito.

Of course, I was told about it from an Indian point of view. Imagine this, friends told me, rice and dal wrapped inside a roti! What could be better! The ‘dal’ in question was refried beans and the ‘roti’ was a tortilla. My friends were talking about the Mission Burrito (=’little donkey’), a fat wrap invented in San Francisco from Mexican ingredients, a cheap and healthful all-in-one meal.

The Mission Burrito is meant to be customized. You stand at the counter while your food server moves through an assembly line with a tortilla laid flat in front of her. You can choose or decline each ingredient. Rice is in. You choose your meat, or none. You choose your beans. I quickly learned that I preferred black beans to refried or whole pinto beans. Shredded iceberg lettuce and cheese are usually turned down by me, but are a yes for most.

Fresno chilies growing in my yard

Fresno chilies growing in my yard

Then, if you didn’t forget to use the keyword ‘super’ you get the big payoff. The supremacy of the super burrito lies in having all kinds of blandishments added to it — salsa, guacamole, sour cream, hot sauces, heaps of onion and cilantro. For a recent immigrant from India (me, then) — the word ‘super’ meant ‘chutneys’. Fantastic. Then the tortilla is folded into a roll, tucked in at each end, and wrapped in double layers of foil. It can be eaten on the go, with no forks, plates, even napkins around.

People know Silicon Valley for its technical innovations, but its burrito innovations are not far behind. Some places are famous for offering beef brain and beef tongue in the choice of meats. Some offer vegetables grilled on the spot. Many have adopted whole-wheat, spinach or tomato tortillas. One of my favorite taquerías offers cooked cactus (nopales) upon request. A ‘naked’ burrito is served in a bowl, without a tortilla wrapped around it. A ‘baby’ burrito is a smaller sized tortilla, suitable for lunch for a smaller-sized person.

But here’s the other thing about the Bay Area…we must make this at home, from scratch! So here we go.
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Whole-wheat vegan superbaby burrito

For the tortilla I just made an Indian-style whole-wheat roti/chapati that added a nice wheaty complexity to each bite. They were smaller than the regular tortilla size, making this a ‘baby’ burrito. I bought dry black beans and soaked them overnight, then pressure-cooked them for 15 minutes to have the most luscious, earthy, non-metallic tasting black beans ever. The rice was cooked using the liquid drained from the tomatoes. The hot sauce came from this recipe for Mexican hot sauce. For the guacamole I used a nice large Californian Hass avocado. Cilantro and Fresno chilies from my garden. A mix of green zebra and early-girl tomatoes for the salsa. I made it vegan but my husband added some cheddar cheese. You could add sour cream or thick homemade yogurt, whisked.

Yes, it certainly had some Indian flavors….

Black beans soaking

Black beans soaking

Black beans cooked

Black beans cooked

Black beans

Ingredients:
  • 1/4 dry black beans
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
Method:

Soak the black beans over night or for about 6 hours. If you are short on time, soak them in near-boiling water for an hour. Drain and pressure-cook for 15 minutes with 1/2 cup water. Add the salt after it is done cooking.

Tomatoes for salsa fresca

Tomatoes for salsa fresca

Tomatoes draining

Tomatoes draining

Onion, chili, cilantro

Onion, chili, cilantro

Salsa Fresca

Ingredients:
  • 4 small tomatoes or 2 medium
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped hot green chili
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro
  • Lime juice from half a lime
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Dice the tomatoes and place them in a strainer with some salt mixed in, and allow to drain for half an hour or so. Collect the drained liquid in a bowl, this will be used later for the rice to add a subtle tomato-ness. Meanwhile finely chopped the onion, chili and cilantro. Once the tomatoes seem to be done draining liquid, mix it in with the onion, chili and cilantro. Add lime juice, mix, taste, and adjust for salt.

Beautiful Hass avocado

Beautiful Hass avocado

Garlic, chili, cilantro

Garlic, chili, cilantro

Guacamole

Ingredients:
  • One large avocado
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced chili
  • Juice of half a lime
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Finely mince the garlic, add some salt to it and leave it mixed with salt for about 10 minutes. In this much time it will have turned pasty and ‘cooked’ a little. Cube the avocado flesh, mix it all together with lime juice. You can mash the avocado if you like but I like to leave little chunks.

Rice in pot

Rice in pot

Done

Done

Mexican rice

Ingredients:
  • 1/3 cup rice
  • 2/3 cup water including the liquid drained from tomato
  • 1/4 onion, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon oil
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pot. When it shimmers put in the minced onion, the cumin and paprika. Let them cook a few minutes on medium heat. Now in goes the rice. Stir to coat with oil. Next put in the water (including tomato liquid) and salt. Cover, bring to a boil, then simmer for 7 minutes. Turn off the flame and let it rest, covered, for a few minutes before opening the lid.

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Assembling the burrito

Ingredients:
  • 1 whole-wheat chapati/roti/tortilla
  • Some cheddar cheese, cubed (leave it out if you want it vegan)
  • Some rice
  • Some black beans
  • Some guacamole
  • Some salsa verde
  • Some hot sauce
Method:

I’ve left the amounts vague because you can customize each the way you want to. Layer the ingredients onto the roti laid out flat. Don’t overstuff it if you want a nice roll that you can bind securely. Fold in the two lateral edges to hold the fillings in place, then roll up the entire burrito starting at the bottom. Enjoy.

Found the Vegan Potluck folks who host a wonderful weekly vegan bash! That’s almost poetic. Entering this recipe there. 
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Seeking the heart of fiddlehead ferns

If anyone ever asks me why this blog is called the ‘odd’ pantry — it is named so for vegetables like fiddlehead ferns. When one first encounters them on the grocery shelves one isn’t even really sure what kingdom of life they belong to. They could be worms — no, more like caterpillars — or maggots — curled up. They could be giant microbes, like the spirogyra we learned about in school. They might be seaweed. Have a look:

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Are we really supposed to eat that thing?

Fiddlehead ferns are the baby fronds of various types of ferns. They are harvested wild, not cultivated, which explains their rarity on the shelves. But when you happen to see them, grab some, because they are full of fiber, omega-3’s, potassium, and so forth. I believe the fiddleheads one sees in California are the ostrich ferns.

To clean them, soak them in warm water for a few minutes to shake the dirt off, rinse, and do this again. I don’t think you can get all the brown off (at least I wasn’t able to), but not all the brown stuff is dirt. Do snip off the brown tips of the stems.

Having never tried them before, I had to guess about their taste and how to cook them.

First, I tried a method very much like in this recipe. Good, but the fiddleheads don’t seem to char very easily; and, they have a slippery and chunky texture which needed a stronger set of seasonings to stand up to it, I thought.

So second, I tried a different method, which I thought was better.

Step 1:

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Cut them up in about half inch sized lengths.

Step 2: Saute

Heat about 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan on medium high. When it shimmers, put in mustard seeds; wait till they pop, then put in the fiddleheads. Stir. They will go from looking like this:

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to looking like this in a few minutes of medium high sauteing.

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At this point, I threw in some onions. This time I cut them in thin strips, by first halving the onion, giving it one cross cut from root end to stem end, and then slicing it as narrowly as I can. Put them into the pan and stir for a minute.

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Then it is time for half a teaspoon turmeric, red chili powder, and the salt.

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Now the problem with the slippery texture of the fiddleheads is that spices don’t stick to it. So, we need glue in the dish, that the spices will combine with, and that will stick to the ferns. What ingredient is a good glue? Hmm…I used sesame seeds,  ground up, about a third of a cup (super useful to keep a coffee grinder around, just for spices; takes just a minute for jobs of this sort).

Step 3: Braise.

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Stir the sesame seed paste with the fiddleheads, add a half a cup of water, and there — we have the glue that we wanted. One teaspoon of tamarind paste goes in. Stir, cover, simmer on low for about ten minutes, and what we have is this:

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How did it turn out? Well, we had it as one of the sides with roti, for dinner. I thought it was yummy.

But I don’t think my quest for the heart of fiddlehead ferns is over yet. This dish was good but didn’t show off their quintessential fiddlehead-ness. I will be trying other ways to cook them…watch this space.

Roasted fennel

I have no idea why I planted so much fennel. We don’t much care for it in salad, and although my daughter loves chomping on the seeds, I’m not going to let it go to seed, because it is a noxious weed in California. So why did I do it? There’s all the fennel, waving in the breeze (hi fennel!) that I have to do something with.

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Last afternoon I pulled out one entire plant, mostly to allow the mint hiding under the fronds to get some some sun. Cut out the leaves and the roots, and this is what I was left with: 3 bulbs.

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Don’t they look like three buddies? The short and stout one, the tall and skinny one, and the one right in the middle? Slice them up an eighth of an inch thick, and you end up with this:

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I love how pretty the insides are — the symmetrical petal shapes that emanate out of the center. I focused on one particularly pretty slice below:

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This is one of those recipes where I wasn’t sure what I was going to do until I had done it. I knew baking in an oven was involved, salt and olive oil too. So I started with that. Rub a few teaspoons of XVOO all over them with your fingers. Sprinkle with some salt to taste. Then, squirt a few squirts of lemon around. Now for juicy vegetables roasted in this way where one expects some browning, some crunch on top is desirable. I went with cracked coriander seeds (just pulverized a bit, not ground up completely); and, scanning the pantry shelves, I saw almond meal, so I used that as well. A teaspoon of cracked coriander sprinkled on top, and a teaspoon of almond meal spread around. This is what I ended up with.

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Into the oven it goes. Set to bake at 425 F, for 20 minutes. This is what comes out:

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In retrospect, I could have gone higher on the oven temperature, perhaps 450 F next time?

It made a very nice vegetable side for two. It would also be great on pizza or focaccia. The fennel was still a little sweet and crunchy on top. I loved the lemon but it does make it a little intense, so if one prefers less intensity in flavor one could leave it out.

Oh — and this recipe would be great with belgian endives — a similarly juicy and crunchy vegetable.

Shishito (or padron) peppers with okra

You often see shishito peppers for sale in those little plastic boxes in grocery stores; they look so tempting, but it is often a struggle to know what to do with them. They are not hot at all, and take very well to grilling.The idea is that you pop the whole thing in your mouth and pull out the stem.

I have tried that method, and they were good, but not very versatile, being mostly suited as finger food or appetizer. What does one do with them when one isn’t having a party with a platter full of appetizers?

Well this simple recipe did the trick. It can go with any Indian meal, be a filling in a sandwich, be the vegetable side for a heartily seasoned piece of fish, etc.

I also got to use up the leftover okra in the fridge; and far from being filler, it went very well with the at once dark and bright flavor of the shishitos. In fact, I might have discovered a soul bond between these two vegetables.

Step 1: Wash, prepare and slice the vegetables.

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I used one pint box of the peppers and about the same amount of okra. Rinse and air dry the vegetables; take the stem tops off. Then, slice them into even-sized slices about half an inch wide.

Step 2: Dry-saute.

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I use the same method of dry-saute that I used in this recipe: A way with greens. That method quickly pulls the surface moisture off the vegetables, and sears them; and I believe seals the rest of the moisture in. If grilling is good, this is a facsimile and works in the same flavor profile. Don’t stop the dry-saute until you see many hearty brown spots and the vegetables look completely dry. Something like this:

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Step 3: Saute.

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Now comes the oil. I use pure olive oil for these high heat methods, because the smoke-point of extra virgin is quite low and would work better with a gentle simmering. Clear a spot in the pan, put in the oil, watch it shimmer instantly (because the pan is hot); then stir in the vegetables, thus giving them their first true saute. Now add salt to taste and keep the contents of the pan moving every minute or so. The saute process lasts about five minutes.

Step 4: The seasoning.

I chose a simple, simple seasoning method for this recipe, that hardly betrays its Indian origins. Use two kinds of heat — a healthy amount of black pepper, and some red chili powder. Either could be skipped. I also added a teaspoon of dry mango powder (aamchoor). Most pantries don’t have this, so some squirts of lime juice would work too. Stir for half a minute, while still on a hot pan; then turn off.

We had it with rotis, but it could go with rice and dal, be fabulous in a raita once the vegetables have cooled; or insert them between two slices of focaccia with some avocado, lettuce and cheese.