My view on genetically-modified crops

I had been writing about food for about a year when I sort of fell into the subject of GMOs; I didn’t expect to, but there is something about the process of writing that leads to discovery and ferment. It was then, and remains now, a politically-charged topic that I was driven to make sense of.

I didn’t have any expertise to add; but I did come to the subject with a unique perspective. I had two long-standing interests, though merely as a layperson—bio-diverse food, and biology (especially genetics) and have read on these subjects obsessively. Professionally, I am a software engineer, so I bring that perspective—one that is not afraid of technology, is aware of its power, but also, that knows (from the inside) how fallible it is; how infinitely perfectible it is. Over the last couple years I have written much and plan to write more; so it is probably time for a statement of what I believe.

I found that the popular debate around biotechnology betrays many misconceptions and shows no awareness of how either genetics or modern farming work (or why).

The first is a category error: genetically-modified crops are treated as a type of food, rather than a description of the process scientists used to create it. Thus, rather than each engineered trait being judged on its own merits, judgments seem to smear across all ‘GMOs’ equally.

Here is what I mean: any downsides of a particular product—it appears that RoundupReady crops have indeed contributed glyophosate-resistant weeds, for instance—is not only treated as a final argument against that particular product, but it is also made to stand-in for the entire technology. I am sure this is familiar to most readers: articles making claims about ‘genetically engineered crops’—here is one example—that then turn out to be about, say, herbicide-resistant crops specifically.

They are also judged with the yardstick of perfection. So any harm that comes to any genetically-modified crop anywhere is treated as a final nail in the biotech coffin, whether or not the trait had anything to do with it. A recent whitefly epidemic in Punjab that destroyed Bt cotton fields, for instance, was touted by critics as an argument against the use of Bt cotton. This is a bit like faulting vaccines for a bicycle accident a child got into on the way home from getting vaccinated.

Meanwhile, any benefits that go towards raising yield, reducing chemical pesticides, or making farming more scalable or safe are treated as illegitimate, even as the poorest among us benefit from the lowered cost of food.

Why is this? I believe that some false narratives have taken over the public imagination; and these make it difficult for facts to break through.

False narratives

One is that most people think of farming as continuous with nature, while biotech as a form of human engineering. And they would prefer that engineers not tinker with nature at all.

In my opinion, this view is based on ignorance. Farming has seen plenty of tinkerers, engineers, and nature-meddlers over the millennia; it is just that when a form of engineering becomes widespread, and gets a couple of generations under its belt, it is seen through sepia-toned glasses as part of tradition. This is exactly what happened to another farming technology that one could more properly consider a Frankenfood; it initially raised fears and caused great discomfort among the cognoscenti, but as it took hold, those fears gradually disappeared.

The fact that people do not expect farming to be subject to engineering causes its own blinkered views. When it comes to human engineering, a certain seeking, spiraling improvement is to be expected; early flaws are to be expected. But nature on the other hand is seen as always perfect and any tinkering with it is seen as a fall from that state of original glassy wholeness. This is why, as I pointed out above, people judge biotechnology with the yardstick of perfection.

At heart too is a public mythologizing of the word ‘natural’ that promotes a false dichotomy: that foods either lie on one side of that divide as entirely untouched by human artifice, or on the other, the side of corruption, with industrial ingredients, impenetrable packaging, and refined to the point of pallor and death.

‘GMOs’ in the popular imagination have ended up on the corrupted side of that divide, and hence their many political problems. But what I found, instead, is that biotechnology can produce benefits that environmentalists ought to favor if they look at it dispassionately.

For instance, genetically-modified cotton, used in India since 2002, has allowed farmers to greatly reduce the amount of spraying that they needed before, increased their yield and their incomes. But Western opinion about GMOs in India has become the victim of a third narrative—that of corporate imperialists devastating an ‘old’ country, leading farmers to suicide.

Narratives are stubborn things, specially when they tweak first-world guilt. Neither studies nor data have budged this essentially false narrative.

Looking at the data is one thing; but I had the great privilege of talking in depth with three farmers who shared their stories with me. All three made earnest requests to earnest first-worlders—who they mostly do not have access to—to ditch their false narrative. It isn’t that they do not have problems: but their problems spring from a two-century-long technological upheaval; and while their use of biotechnology cannot solve their deep-seated problems, it can certainly help.

It hasn’t helped that biotech first sprang into public consciousness with their conglomeration of ‘cides’: herbicide-resistant crops, and those that produce their own larvicide, have made up the vast majority of commercially available GMOs. Any word that ends in ‘cide’ of course raises red alerts in people’s minds. In our fear-based society, what most people aren’t aware of is that what can be called ‘poisonous’ is much dependent on how it is used; for instance, both salt and household vinegar are toxic to mammals at lower doses upon ingestion than glyphosate, which is the active chemical in RoundUp. As for the larvicide produced by the Bt crops used by farmers in India, it is a directed poison, only toxic to larva of moths and butterflies upon ingestion, and is safe for other life.

A related narrative is the widespread distrust of corporations. Of course, it is smart to be on guard and never take corporations at their word: they do not have our interests at heart, and their incentives above all are towards making profits. But not everything is a zero-sum game, and this is why it is intellectually lazy to assume that just because a corporation is pushing for a certain outcome, it must therefore be against our interest.

Monsatan

In fact, from what I can tell, distrust of Monsanto in particular has risen to pathological levels, so much that any mention of it can create a reality-distortion field. I have had smart and serious people tell me that somehow Monsanto’s nefarious abilities are so great that it can reach and entirely corrupt people in every corner of the world in every public office, in a completely secret way, and so elaborately that nothing else in their life changes (they don’t start buying yachts for instance) but they start parroting Monsanto’s lines.

Look, this is a conspiracy theory. Like all conspiracy theories, it suffers from the fallacy that humans are actually not that good at keeping secrets.

This particular conspiracy requires public officials, farmers, scientists, regulators, etc. to be in on it, in a devilish collusion across the globe. Monsanto is a medium-sized company that hires its lobbyists and attempts to muscle its way like all the rest. But I know it hasn’t invented mind-control techniques that turn humans into programmed robots.

This is not to knock the milder form of this distrust, which even I subscribe to: you have to consider financial incentives before you take people at their word. And it isn’t just financial incentives: a scientist whose life’s work is in a certain field is not likely to be objective about the value of that work. But this is why it is important to include people of all stripes in the conversation, including non-expert food bloggers like yours truly.

Removing trust from the usual arbiters leads to radical uncertainty. One has to keep in mind that the value of watchdogs like regulatory agencies, science journals, news reporters, and the like, aside from the expertise that they offer, is not that they are incorruptible, but that they also watch each other. Their incentives lie in the direction of uncovering corruption in each other.

The danger of radical uncertainty is that it makes people susceptible to charlatans, who are usually skilled at flaunting the right symbols and claiming to be the sole purveyor of truth while spouting utter nonsense. Do I have someone in mind? Yes, indeed, I do.

The future

Proponents of biotechnology have often touted its potential to deal with some of our food system’s pressing problems: world hunger; drought; soil salinity. In return, critics have often pooh-poohed these claims, saying that so far, biotech has done nothing but create herbicide-resistant crops and crops that protect themselves from larval damage. Why should we trust that it can do more?

This critique so much misses the point that it boggles the mind. Biotech is a few decades old. Judging it now is akin to judging the silicon revolution in the 1960s, when the norm was lumbering mainframes that filled entire air-conditioned rooms that one spoke to with carefully-spaced holes on punched cards. We can as little imagine today what biotech might lead to as we could imagine smart phones tucked into pockets in the 1960s.

(My archive of writings on this subject can be found through this link in the header.)

I would love to hear your thoughts in comments below. What concerns you about genetically-modified food? What would you like to see me write about?

Or follow me on Twitter, like my Facebook page, or email me at aneela -at- theoddpantry.com. You can also subscribe to this blog here:

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Advertisements

One weird trick to make pumpkin death-defyingly delicious

IMG_7296Just think—what is pumpkin, but a combination of excrutiatingly delicious orange pumpkin matter, and water. Water is water. It’s great. Stuff of life, 90% of the body, et cetera, et cetera. But it isn’t where the deliciousness lives. In fact, it mingles with the deliciousness of pumpkin flesh and—waters it down.

Who wants something that is watered down? No—one seeks the emphatic, the bold, the pure. Right?

So the trick to making delicious pumpkin and other winter squash is to remove the water. How to do that. Let’s see…there’s this thing that water does…I know, don’t tell me…it requires heat, but not center-of-the-sun heat…just normal, household-appliance-level heat…starts with ‘e’, ends with ‘e’…yes! It evaporates. Water evaporates when applied heat. Pumpkin flesh, on the other hand, does not.

Therein lies the secret. You’re welcome. Water just ups and leaves when things get hot enough. Pumpkin stays for the long haul.

Here’s what I’m trying to say. Imagine you roast a pumpkin (or other winter squash) so the flesh is easy to scoop off the peel. Then, you cook the pumpkin flesh in a pan for a good long time, stirring, stirring; till the steam rises and keeps rising and rising and eventually most of the water becomes the steam and leaves; and what you are left with is an increasingly pasty, gummy, reduced, deeply orange mass.

This takes only a couple ingredients to become one of India’s famed concoctions, to be had as dessert, or as a side with roti, or snuck in between meals from the fridge. Midnight snack? You wouldn’t dare? Done. Pumpkin halwa is great in all these ways.

Pumpkin halwa

Halwa is a general name for Indian desserts that are pastes. Sorry. What that description lacks in glamour it makes up in accuracy. It can be made of a number of widely disparate foods; wheat farina, whole wheat flour, carrot; and pumpkin. When I say ‘pumpkin’ of course I’m using it as a term of endearment for all winter squashes, those with the hard shell and sweet orange flesh. I used kabocha, which is known by foodies to out-pumpkin even the standard autumn pumpkins in terms of taste.

Made sweeter, it is a nice finish to a meal, served in tiny confection bowls; made a little less sweet, goes great as a side with deep-fried puffed breads, i.e. pooris.

Pumpkin halwa

Ingredients:
  • One medium sized kabocha squash or sugar pumpkin
  • 2 tablespoons ghee or butter
  • Seeds of 6 green cardamoms
  • 1 teaspoon sugar or to taste
  • Pinch of salt
Method:

Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Slice the kabocha/pumpkin through the equator and scoop out the seeds with a sharp-sided spoon. I have found it really helps to pick a spoon that matches the curve of the hollow where the seeds are.

Lay the halves cut side down on a foil-lined cookie sheet along with 2 tablespoons water. Bake in oven for 45 minutes.

At that point the squash should be completely soft and easy to prick through with a knife. Bring them out and scoop out all the flesh.

Heat the ghee or butter in a non-stick, thick-bottomed pan. When melted, add the squash and cook on medium-high, mashing it down into the fat and stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, grind the black inner seeds of the cardamom in a mortar and pestle.

In about 30 to 45 minutes, the flesh should be much drier and also look smoother, as the rough grain disappears with the water content. At this point, add a pinch of salt, the sugar, and the cardamom. Add more sugar after tasting if it is not sweet enough.

Garnish with ground pistachios, slivered almonds, roasted cashews, raisins or any combination.


(Click here to find me on Facebook and here on Twitter.)

The galloping bean: cooking with horse gram

IMG_6504I’m guessing that not many of you will have heard about the dal or bean I’m about to write about today. I certainly hadn’t. It is a small flattened bean, multicolored in a spectrum that goes from beige to dark coffee brown. It is commonly known by the rather picturesque name of ‘horse gram’; and if you think that a word like that harks back to a time when crops were named after farm animals, while animals were named for their use on the farm, you’ve got horse gram pinned.

In more ways than one this is an ancient grain. Grown in South India since the Neolithic, any knowledge of its wild progenitor is lost, though its cousins are found growing wild in the African savannas. It is the kind of grain that families grew in order to feed their cows, and then partook of the excess. Some lovely recipes were created around it nonetheless, particularly in the states of its origin: Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where it is known by the names of huruli, kulith, kulthi, ulavalu, kollu. Invariably it is soaked for a long time, then often left whole, and often sprouted. Its cultivation slowly trickled north over the Eastern ghats to the plain around the Ganges, where it is known as gahat; and they conceived of a way to mash it down with spices. Since I have a batch, I will be exploring a few different ways to cook it in these pages.

It never made it to the chic world of Indian restaurant cuisine (yes, I’m being sarcastic), nor really to urban households. But out there in the villages, this tough little herbaceous legume grows in conditions of utter deprivation, with no irrigation and no fertilization to speak of. Being a legume, it enriches the soil instead of taking from it.

Most other pulses that humans have favored, we have cultivated in our own image, to go soft. They cook down to mush (not knocking mushes!) and take no long soaking. But horse gram, though a tiny thing, must be soaked overnight, then cooked for a while, and even so, still retains its bite. One has to imagine that a grain as tough as this, practically wild, imparts some of its wildness and toughness to the eater.

IMG_6488Some practical matters

Those out shopping for pulses in the US might often visit Indian groceries looking for them. But horse gram is rare even in Indian groceries, as far as I know. So you might turn to online stores. Here are some that claim to stock it:Patel Bros., Big Indian Store, and I Shop Indian.

Now when you have a batch, and are about ready to soak it—this is a good time to sift through it bit by bit, looking for rocks. I have forgotten this essential step a couple times, having been spoiled by the more ‘progressive’ pulses, and been subjected to the unpleasant sensation of my teeth grinding on grit. I will never forget this step again.

About the soaking. Generally an overnight soak in plenty of water is recommended; but what if you find yourself on the very day, the very evening of the meal, and must, simply must cook horse gram that very day and no other? Here is a trick I learned from Madhur Jaffrey’s books: soak in very hot water, near-boiling, covered, for one hour or up to three.

Substitutions: of course, the world of beans and pulses is just dripping with riches. So there is no reason to imagine that this recipe is fused-at-the-hip with horse gram only. Substitute any whole bean of your choice: French lentils will do (with no soaking), or black chickpea (with). Red kidney beans (rajma) would do as well.

Horse gram in tomato gravy

This is a nice simple preparation where the beans float in a mildly spiced gravy of tomatoes and garlic. It goes very well with a steaming hot bowl of white rice on the side. You could also try eating it as a sort of bean soup as part of a Western meal, in which case a garnish of some raw onions, lime and avocado might be nice.

Horse gram in tomato gravy

Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup horse gram beans
  • 3/4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced small
  • 1-2 fresh green chilies, sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons ghee or oil
  • 2 teaspoons udid dal (split & dehusked black gram)
  • 1.5 teaspoons brown mustard seeds
  • Few shakes of black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 3/4 teaspoon salt
Method:

Sift through horse gram to discard rocks. Soak horse gram in plenty of water overnight, or in hot water for one to three hours, covered.

Place the horse gram in a pressure cooker or large pot. Add the turmeric, onion, garlic, chilies, and two and a half cups of water. Pressure cook for about half hour, or, if you used a regular pot, bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered, for about two hours.

Once the horse gram is cooked (it doesn’t turn to mush, but cooks through), add the salt, and keep it aside, covered.

Meanwhile heat the ghee or oil in a small thick-bottomed pan. When the ghee melts or the oil shimmers, add the spices in the following order: first, the udid dal, until it reddens; then the mustard seeds until they pop; then the black pepper shakes; finally, add the crushed tomatoes. After a few minutes of cooking—perhaps up to fifteen minutes—the tomatoes will have turned several shades darker and the oil will have separate. Turn off the heat and empty into the pot of horse gram. Stir it in and simmer gently for a few minutes to meld flavors.

Garnish with cilantro, avocado-onion-lime, or nothing at all. Serve with a hot mound of white rice on the side.


(Click here to find me on Facebook and here on Twitter.)

Easy-peasy split green mung dal

IMG_6395As I have said before, dals are such an integral part of food in India that each type may be used in four different ways: the whole bean, the split bean with the green peel left on, the split bean ‘cleaned’ of the green peel, and ground. And the amazing thing is, that at each of these stages, the cooked dal presents a different look, a different flavor, and a different meal entirely.

Let’s take mung dal. Now this is the most basic of the dals, the cheapest, and the earliest introduced in childhood. One dal, so many meals! The whole bean can be sprouted or boiled without sprouting; either way, it stays whole, earthy and chewy. The split-and-cleaned dal is yellowish and makes a creamy end-product when cooked. Ground, of course, it can be used to make crepes and pancakes, known as adai in the South.

The split-dal-with-green-peel occupies a place somewhere in between all of these methods. Creamy, though not completely mush; earthy but not entirely; a nice meal with roti for cold nights.

Sai dal

My family comes from Sindh which is now lost to Pakistan. If one were to ask me what sets Sindhi food apart from the rest of Indian food, I would say, that it is our extremely vague way of naming dishes. For instance, a gentle stew of split-green-mung dal with some garlic is known, simply, as ‘sai’ (green) dal. Everyone knows what you mean. What’s the point of being more specific?

In our family this was a very frequent lunch or dinner side, that went with chapati (roti) and a vegetable. If you want to add a pickle to the meal, I won’t complain.

The flavor is the very essence of savoriness, with a slightly ‘rough’ mouth feel due to the peel still being left on the mung bean. Plus, you get the fiber which is no small thing, especially in such a delicious way.

Split green mung dal (sai dal)

Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cups split green mung dal
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 medium tomato
  • 1 fresh green chili minced
  • 2-2.5 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 heaped tablespoon minced garlic
  • A few curry leaves (optional)
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
Method:

Wash and drain the dal. Empty it into a pot that is big enough to allow for expansion of the dal’s volume as it cooks. Add two cups of water along with the turmeric, the tomato, roughly chopped, and the minced green chili.

Bring to a boil with the lid mostly off to allow for surging of steam that usually happens when dals cook. After it comes to a boil and the surge is done (around ten minutes), cover and turn the flame down to a simmer.

In around 40 minutes the dal will be softened. Add the salt and turn off the flame, leaving the dal covered.

Meanwhile start the tempering process. Heat oil in a small thick-bottomed pan on medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add the cumin seeds. They should sizzle right away. Add the garlic, and wait until it shrivels. Add the curry leaves, if using. Add the red chili powder; this only needs to cook for a few seconds. Turn off the heat and pour the seasoned oil over the dal, and stir in to meld the flavors.

(Click here to find me on Facebook and here on Twitter.)

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.


(Click here to find me on Facebook and here on Twitter.)

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.

IMG_5716 IMG_5723 IMG_5726 IMG_5736 IMG_5737 IMG_5744 IMG_5747

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.


(Click here to find me on Facebook and here on Twitter.)

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.


(Click here to find me on Facebook and here on Twitter.)

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.


(Click here to find me on Facebook and here on Twitter.)

Truly Tabouli

Tablouli

Tablouli

We are on a middle-eastern kick here at The Odd Pantry, and when I say ‘we’ of course I mean ‘me’. When last seen, your loyal correspondent was flipping falafels like a fiend; this time, let’s take a freshly-scented walk through the tabouli trails, a whiff of mint here, a whiff of parsley there, the tingling freshness of lemon all over.

Tabouli is a salad. Originally from the mountains of Lebanon and Syria, it is adopted all over the middle-east now. Unlike most salads here in the West (slaw being the exception), every ingredient is minced to fineness. For body and bite, it uses bulgur wheat that has been plumped up in hot water; I’m not aware of any Western salad that uses grain in a similar way. The dressing is not premixed, but rather, each ingredient is poured on and mixed in thereafter. And parsley — that sprig that is pushed to the side of every restaurant meal in America — that parsley plays a starring role.

I called it a salad, but it in the middle-east it is considered part of mezze, a kind of smorgasbord of appetizers. When it is part of a mezze platter it may be served on lettuce leaf boats. Or it might be considered a side or condiment to be stuffed inside pita bread along with other ingredients. I personally can eat a plateful all by myself.

Things to watch for

Tabouli is the descendant of an ancient Arab love of herbs, which they called qadb. And the very word tabouli comes from the word taabil meaning seasoning. What I am trying to say is, do not skimp on the herbs. The bulgur grain plays an essential but minor role, while the parsley and mint take center stage. Make sure to salt well, and lemon juice is your friend.

Also, make sure to dry each ingredient scrupulously. The herbs might be washed, then spun-dry, then laid flat on a towel to air-dry. The bulgur must be drained well. Tomatoes can be finely chopped, salted lightly and placed in a strainer to drain for ten minutes.

Armed with these notions, we are ready.

Bulgur and salt

Bulgur and salt

Bunch of parsley

Bunch of parsley

Mincing parsley

Mincing parsley

Mint

Mint

Minced mint

Minced mint

Scallions

Scallions

Herbs piled up

Herbs piled up

Squeezing  a lemon

Squeezing a lemon

Bulgur added

Bulgur added

Pouring EVOO

Pouring EVOO

Tabouli

Ingredients:
  • 1/4 cup bulgur wheat + 1/2 teaspoon salt + 1/2 cup very hot water
  • 4 loosely packed cups parsley
  • 1/2 cup to 1 cup mint leaves
  • 4 scallions, or 1/4 onion, or 1/2 shallot
  • 1 small roma tomato
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice (about one and a half lemons)
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Before you begin, soak the bulgur and salt in half a cup of very hot water. Leave it covered, undisturbed, for half an hour. The grains will slowly swell up to the water line.

While the bulgur is soaking, rinse and spin-dry, then air-dry the herbs. Chop the tomatoes, lightly salt them and place them on a strainer to drain. Squeeze lemons for the juice.

Finely mince the parsley, mint and scallions and collect them in a big round bowl. Add the tomatoes and the drained bulgur wheat. Pour on the olive oil. Toss to combine. At this point, stop to taste for salt and add the required amount.

Pour on the lemon juice and mix nicely. Serve on lettuce leaf boats or as a side in a falafel meal.


(Click here to find me on Facebook and here on Twitter.)

How to make eggplant delicious

Eggplant topped with yogurt

Eggplant topped with yogurt

Call it eggplant, call it aubergine, or call it brinjal. Many will tell you that this is their most hated vegetable. I’m not sure what it is — is it that the flesh turns mushy and dark when cooked? Or that it is studded with seeds throughout? Or is it the sharp and yet bland flavor?

Whatever it is, while most people are cowering in fright from the onslaught of the dreaded eggplant, a vast swath of Asia from Iran to northern India is shoveling great mouthfuls of it down the hatch and passing the dish around for seconds. Why? What have they discovered?

One, that eggplant must be cooked through. Completely soft on the inside, almost charred on the outside. None of this fashionable light grill-marks with the al dente bite remaining. (What is the deal with that anyway? Why can’t we cook each vegetable the way the vegetable itself demands it, instead of applying one fashionable cooking method to all?)

Two, use oil. Enough oil. Be not afraid of the fat — haven’t you heard? Fat is good for you again! Eggplant soaks in oil like a sponge, they say, in faintly disapproving tones; not mentioning the crucial fact — that the oil, once it hits the inside at heat, is turning a rubbery sponge into sheer lusciousness.

The other trick? That eggplant goes well with the aromatic trio — onion, garlic and ginger, used in creative ways; and goes specially well layered with plain, thick, slightly-sour-and-slightly-creamy yogurt.

Eggplant peel — a fraught subject. And pre-salting?

One of the first disputes we had in our marriage was over eggplant peel. I love how it crisps up and adds a nice dimension to each bite of pan-grilled slices. While for my husband the peel sliding off the flesh in long strands causes psychic distress. In order to ever be able to have eggplant for dinner, I had to get him to partake; and in order to get him to eat it, I had to peel it.

So I do. But if you do not have a problem with the peel, you should leave it on, because the purple hues of the peel contain the same purple nutrient that blueberries do.

Also, I read in a lot of cooking advice that one must salt the eggplant for 30 minutes, and drain the resulting liquid, in order to remove the bitterness. I’m not sure what I am missing but I don’t find eggplant bitter in the first place. I never pre-salt it, and the result is not in the slightest bit objectionable. Is it possible that the eggplant of yore was indeed bitter and we have bred it out over the centuries? Yes, it is possible. So, skip the salting.

Baingan ki Boorani

A dish very similar to this was made in our home to be eaten with rotis. It is a classic all over Afghanistan and other parts of North India. Madhur Jaffrey has covered it in several of her books as well. But my recent inspiration came from the Feeding the Sonis blog, where Sanjana has made a dish with the same ingredients but different presentation. Check it out!

It involves pan-fried eggplant slices covered with flavored yogurt. Here, let your imagination be your guide. I did not add any green herbs, but anything from mint to scallions or cilantro would work; I did not make a tomato gravy, but that could be used  to cover the eggplant slices as well.

Slicing eggplant, half inch thick

Slicing eggplant, half inch thick

Tic-tac-toe cuts on one surface

Tic-tac-toe cuts on one surface

Pan-fry

Pan-fry

Flipped

Flipped

Flavor ingredients: yogurt, onions, garlic, ginger, chaat masala, red chili powder

Flavor ingredients: yogurt, onions, garlic, ginger, chaat masala, red chili powder

Salt and mash garlic

Salt and mash garlic

Mashed garlic, mashed ginger

Mashed garlic, mashed ginger

Fried onion

Fried onion

Topped with onion

Topped with onion

Topped with yogurt and spices

Topped with yogurt and spices

baingan ki boorani

Ingredients:
  • One large globe eggplant
  • Up to a quarter cup of oil
  • Half to one cup yogurt
  • Half of a medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, less if you prefer
  • 1 teaspoon chaat masala, substitute with roasted and ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder, substitute with paprika for no heat
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Slice the eggplant into half inch wide rounds. Keep the peel on (see notes above). Make slashes across one surface of the slice, in a vaguely tic-tac-toe pattern. The slashes do not have to penetrate to the other side.

Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a large non-stick pan and when shimmering, lay the eggplant slices out in a single layer, slashed side down. They will start to sizzle and slowly brown. It will take about five minutes. Salt the tops with a light hand. Flip each slice, adding more drops of oil if needed and if it looks too dry. Salt the other side too.

Meanwhile prepare the flavorings. Whisk about half to one cup of plain yogurt to make it smooth. Thinly slice the onion. Mince the garlic, and salt it for about five minutes, then mash with a fork or in a mortar and pestle. Also grate the ginger. For this, I prefer my Japanese ceramic ginger grater, that does the job beautifully. But another means of grating it would work as well.

The garlic and ginger, once mashed, simply get mixed into the yogurt. Fry the onion slices in another tablespoon of oil until browned. Take care to salt the onions lightly as they cook, and add a small pinch of salt to the yogurt as well.

At this point, all ingredients are individually salted and can simply be assembled. Before serving, place some slices of onion on each slice, then a dollop of yogurt. Lastly, sprinkle with some chaat masala and some red chili powder, for color and heat. Or if you prefer, and if your onions are crisply fried, place some on top of the yogurt as well.

Enjoy!