My Thanksgiving Recap

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 (naturally). Here is my cheat sheet for my future self, and perhaps any other Thanksgiving seekers for 2015 onward.

Of course, make-ahead prep is integral to Thanksgiving. Here are the dishes that I made, in order of how early I made them.

pumpkin pie

Pumpkin pie

Pumpkin pie

For the crust, I used lard that I had rendered years ago and saved in the freezer. It makes a nice flaky crust with a hint — just a tiny, imperceptible hint — of gaminess. I did add a couple tablespoons of butter for the flavor. Instead of regular old all-purpose flour I used white whole wheat from King Arthur for the added fiber. Just as good and twice as healthy. (Recipe source: Joy of Cooking.)

The filling came from a decent sized pumpkin that I baked for 45 minutes, halved. It gave me enough filling for two pies plus some extra. Of course, evaporated milk and eggs were added to it, plus some spices. Cloves, allspice pulverized in a mortar and pestle. Nutmeg grated. Ginger grated to pulp using one of these handy-dandy doodads dripping with Japanese know-how. Maple syrup and brown sugar, but quite a bit less than the recipes demanded. Topped with additional cloves and brown sugar. I filled it up as high as I dared, almost to the brim, because the filling collapses as it sets. (Recipes adapted from: Alton Brown and from the Pick Your Own website.)

[11/24/16 Update: Used one medium kabocha squash for one pie. One 14 oz can of evaporated milk and 4 eggs. No sugar needed.]

cranberry sauce:

Cranberry sauce

Cranberry sauce

Cranberries have that lovely earthly grape-peel flavor that they share with wine…so adding wine to my cranberry sauce seemed appropriate. Three cups of cranberries (whole), half as much red wine. Brown sugar added by the quarter-cup-fulls until I deemed it sweet enough. Boil, simmer for a while, popping the berries if they have not popped already. Turn off, cool, and that’s done. The natural pectin in the cranberries will make it gel as it cools.

stuffing-that-you-don’t-stuff-with

Stuffing baked outside the turkey

Stuffing baked outside the turkey

So one thing that I have learnt is that the mixture that one makes for stuffing the turkey with — which I love, by the way — is better baked separately in a casserole than in the body cavity of the turkey. The reason for this is that it actually takes longer to cook the stuffing all the way inside the turkey than it does to cook the turkey itself. So you either have under-cooked stuffing or overcooked turkey.

So…if you cook the stuffing outside, then…it is not really ‘stuffing’, is it? Of course it is, are we going to think up a new word for it? But…why not call it…bread-cubes-soaked-in-chicken-broth-with-onion-and — wait, are you going to name every single ingredient? Stuffing it is. Stuffing you don’t stuff with.

For this, I used 12 cups of stale, cubed French bread. Sauteed 2 chopped onions and 3 chopped celery ribs and some crimini mushroom stems ribs in a quarter cup of butter. Added parsley and fresh sage from the garden. A cup of slivered almonds and a few raw pumpkin seeds. Toss with the bread cubes, drench the whole thing in warmed chicken broth until it is all nicely moistened — this took more than three cups.

Just before serving, stick it in a 400 oven for about 45 minutes. Covered at first, uncovered later to brown the top. (Recipe source: mother-in-law.)

[11/24/16 Update: Do not add mushrooms, instead add sliced radicchio and sundried tomatoes.]

mashed potatoes

Mashed sweet potatoes

Mashed sweet potatoes

Instead of the regular potatoes my husband requested sweet potatoes because of their richer flavor. Important trick — these can be done ahead of time and saved in the fridge in a baking dish, all ready to go. On the day you want to serve it, they just go into a medium oven (covered) for about 30 minutes. All you have to do is add a little extra milk than you normally would. The texture has to be more runny than you would want; by the time it has reheated in the oven (along with the stuffing above) it will have dried a bit.

To boil the four large sweet potatoes (I refuse to call them yams, because the yam is actually this vegetable), I pressure-cooked them for 20 minutes. Peeled; then added some butter and salt and milk while mashing.

bread rolls

I used my own recipe for laadi pav, but used sourdough starter instead of yeast. This was primarily because I had no room in the fridge, and sourdough takes so long to rise that it could be left outside the entire day. Worked out great! (Recipe forthcoming one of these days.)

giblet gravy

So by the time the turkey comes out of the oven and is carved, people are ready to eat and I get too distracted to make a gravy from the pan sauce. The solution? Pre-make a gravy from the innards of the turkey, that either have too little meat to count (like the neck) or make most Americans cringe (like the gizzard and the liver). So pull those out of the turkey before you set out to dress it, cook them with some onions until they leave a deep, rich fond on the pan surface. Add wine, broth, some flour, and you have yourself a gravy. (Recipe source: Joy of Cooking.)

roasted math broccoli

Romanesco broccoli

Romanesco broccoli

Here is a vegetable for math geeks. Romanesco broccoli is a variant that was found in Italy. The number of spirals on its head is from the Fibonacci sequence. Each little flower-head has the same shape as the entire head — so it approximates a fractal. Don’t care about the math stories your vegetables are trying to tell you? Well it tasted great and is a particularly festive looking vegetable. I microwaved them to cook them lightly, then stuck them under the broiler for a few minutes to brown them.

vegetables roasted with turkey

Vegetables roasted with turkey

Vegetables roasted with turkey

I roasted the turkey with vegetables strewn around it cut up in big chunks. Not only are they delicious when they are done cooking, but make for a lovely pan drippings gravy. As a matter of fact that was the highlight of the meal. Here are the vegetables I used — turnips quartered; cipollini onions quartered; celery ribs, cut up in stalks; carrots cup up few inch long; crimini mushroom caps; small bunches of parsley.

turkey

Lately wild turkeys have made a comeback in our corner of Northern California. Driving down windy hill roads, one sees small flocks of them along the sides, oblivious to human habitation. I feel a deep satisfied thrill upon seeing them, as though our generation has reclaimed a bit of wildness that had been lost forever. Then, I turn my thoughts to the domesticated turkey that is raised for food, and how lacking a life it has compared to its wild cousins. I did the best purchase I could, finding a turkey that the makers claim has had a decent life. So when it comes to being thankful, I would like to thank the turkey.

Turkey before roasting

Turkey before roasting

Here are the tricks I used for roasting (recipe sources: this Tools and Resources forum on Gardenweb):

  • Take it out of the fridge a few hours early to bring to room temperature.
  • Leave it overturned in the sink to drain the cavity as much as you can. The rest of the liquid must be dried with paper towels.
  • Lately brining has become very popular, where the entire turkey is soaked in a salt water bath overnight. While this makes for moister flesh, we don’t prefer this in our family because the meat then tastes ‘brined’. Hard to explain, but we have never taken to it. Also the pan drippings simply can’t be as rich and caramelized, I’m guessing, because of the salt water that would be dripped out of the turkey.
  • To prep, rub about one and half tablespoons of kosher salt all over the inside and outside of the bird.
  • Rub about a quarter cup of softened butter all over also.
  • Rub some butter in between the skin and flesh of the breast. This skin is really quite easy to slip one’s hand under. I also deposited some fresh sage leaves under the skin in various places. The point of doing this is to keep the breast meat moist and allow the skin to brown.
  • Leave it unstuffed. I didn’t. I did put some big chunks of vegetables into the cavity because I could not resist filling it. But ultimately, it just slowed down the cooking, and it never achieved safe temperatures, and we just discarded it. The vegetables strewn around the sides were much better.
  • Use the ‘convection’ setting in your oven if you have it, and if you have a ‘roast’ versus ‘bake’ use the ‘roast’. Use the meat probe if you have one, and stick it into the deepest part of the thigh. Set it to 165ºF.
  • Pour about half a cup of chicken broth or water in the roasting pan.
  • Choose a wide, sturdy pan with a low brim. This is to allow air to circulate around the turkey. Also set the bird on a rack for the same reason.
  • Start the roasting high — at 425ºF. Turn it down to 325ºF after 15 minutes. This will allow it to brown right away, and come to the correct internal temperature more slowly. Once the meat probe shows about 140ºF, tent the entire turkey under foil, so it does not burn.
  • The vegetables strewn around will deepen in color right away, and soon start frying in the fat that drips from the turkey. If any of the pieces threatens to char, lift it out of the pan.
  • Baste the breast once every half hour or so.
  • It will take about 3 hours for a 15 pound turkey, unstuffed.
Roasted turkey

Roasted turkey

pan drippings gravy

This was the highlight of the meal, and I needed to do almost nothing to make it happen. Have a look at the rich brown drippings on the roasting pan above. All that needed to be done was to lift the turkey out, lift the large chunks of vegetables out to serve with the turkey, and scrape the rest into a little pot. Over time, the fat cooled and rose to the top, so it was easy enough to spoon it off. The rest of the caramel brown liquid made for an excellent rich gravy.

Pan drippings gravy

Pan drippings gravy

¹Of course, since garam masala is not a fixed recipe but uses ‘warm’ spices like cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, you could say that I did indeed use garam masala in my pumpkin pie filling.

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‘Tis the season for Cranberry Pickle

Cranberry pickle

Cranberry pickle

‘Tis the season for cranberries at all our local markets. ‘Tis also the season for South Asian Indian expats to feel like complete non-entities, because during Thanksgiving all references to ‘Indians’ in America means native Americans. Pilgrims and Indians, Indian corn pudding, Indian harvest feast, and so on.

You guys know that Columbus didn’t really find us, right? While he was knocking around off the coast of America, letters of introduction to Indian emperors in his pocket, we were about to be overrun by the Mughals. Mr. Columbus was nowhere near. Luckily we fared better with the Mughals than the ‘other’ Indians did with Columbus and his descendants.

In any case, ’tis also the season to not be a curmudgeon, and instead, be thankful; and indeed I am thankful for all the bounty of the American continent. Where would we, the Desi Indians be, without the potato, the tomato, the chili…all first harvested here. Can you imagine Indian cuisine without any of those? And corn — without corn, no makki di roti, sarson da saag? Thank you for opening the floodgates to this bounty, Mr. Columbus. For the food. For the feasts. And more importantly, for not finding us.

Cranberries cut in half

Cranberries cut in half

Cranberries

Now here is an American crop that us Indians should take up, given our fondness for sour foods. The European settlers of America learned about cranberries from the tribes that lived around New England. They were used in a number of ways. As fruit; beaten into cakes with meat; the leaves were used for tea; as a natural dye; as a laxative or for treating injuries and fever. However, cranberries really took off among the Europeans only when cheap sweeteners became available, when the sourness of cranberries could be turned into the sweet-tartness of cranberry sauce and be used as a condiment with meat.

Now I love cranberry sauce, and I am about to make some with wine today. But, I think it is a pity that this is the only way they get eaten. Someday perhaps I will try grinding the berries with some meat, the way the native Americans did. And, cranberry leaf tea, anyone?

Cranberry pickle

The sourness of cranberries means that it comes with its own natural preservative, so putting it in a pickle is a no-brainer. I like the sourness so much that I did not add any sugar. I made this pickle in the classic (‘real’) Indian style, with mustard oil. First, cut them in half and mix in salt and leave in a flat layer to dehydrate and ‘cook’. Next, put in a jar with other spices and cover with oil.

Cranberries with salt and red chili

Cranberries with salt and red chili

Tossed with spices

Tossed with spices

After a week, dehydrated

After a week, dehydrated

Add cracked fenugreek seeds

Add cracked fenugreek seeds

In a jar

In a jar

Cranberry pickle

Ingredients:
  • Half a pound of fresh cranberries
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon (or to taste) red chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 cup or more mustard oil
Method:

Make sure the cranberries are completely dry and cut each in half through the equator. Toss them with the salt and chili powder. Lay them out in a glass or other non-reactive tray in a flattish layer, and cover with cheesecloth. If you get sun part of the day, leave them out in the sun. Each day or two, give them a toss with a clean spoon. Over the days the salt will draw out the moisture and the sun and air will dry it. After three to seven days, they will look dehydrated and shriveled as in the picture above.

Break the fenugreek seeds in a mortar and pestle or in a clean coffee grinder. Mix them in with the cranberries. Empty out the cranberries into a clean non-reactive jar. Pour raw mustard oil over them, shaking once in a while in order to remove bubbles, until the oil comes up to the top. Cover and enjoy.

You do not need to refrigerate this. As for how long it will last, well, a few weeks certainly, but if they go bad I will update this post.


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Idiot-proof vegetable pulao

Vegetable pulav with tomato soup

Vegetable pulao with tomato soup

One of the first dishes I ever tried cooking on my own was flavored rice cooked with a few vegetables. This is known as a vegetable pulao — or pilaf — or pulav, the standard-est and basic-est of Indian home recipes. So why has it taken me this long to blog about it?

Because sometimes the simplest things give you the most trouble. It has taken me years for me to get this right. Sometimes the rice isn’t cooked through. If it is, it is cooked too much. Or the vegetables are cut too big and raw on the inside, or they have turned to mush. If all goes right regarding the timing, the thing is tasteless. Gah.

One way to get around these problems is to cook the rice and vegetables separately then combine them. But while there are many perfectly fine recipes that rely on this method (many from the south — yogurt rice, lemon rice, tomato rice etc.), for vegetable pulao, the flavors must fuse, which means cooking together is a must. They must come out with a flourish, all perfectly done at the same time. They say each grain of rice must be separate, so add that to the list of requirements. It must be gently spiced, but not too much — too much would kick it over into being a biryani. That’s fine, but that’s not what we are after.

So now, finally, I present to you my pulao secrets, recently discovered after many years of trial and error, which should make all doubts vanish under the first whiff aroma that hits you when you open the pot. Here they are.

Secrets of pulao

  1. Be stingy with the water. The vegetables you add will leave off some steam of their own, so I would use about a quarter less water than you would with plain rice.

  2. But if you do that, the danger is that the rice will cook and expand and rise above the water line, leaving the upper layer uncooked. Curses! To get around this problem, we use a pressure cooker. (I believe a tightly closed dutch oven slow-cooked in an oven would work as well, but that is not what I did.)

  3. Do not use vegetables that will turn to mush, like tomatoes or zucchini. The vegetables that you do use must be diced. I use vegetables like green beans, carrots, peas, cauliflower, cabbage, bell peppers, celery, etc.

  4. Rice tends to be a bit bland, so you need to fire on all cylinders where the aromatics are concerned. So that means — garlic, ginger, green chilies, onion, and yogurt for richness.

  5. Now this is the most important — do not caramelize the onions! Cook them till softened, but not browned. A lower flame would help. This is because what we are after is a savory flavor, not a sweet caramel browned flavor (there are other excellent rice dishes that explore this profile, we will go into that at some point).

Armed with these tenets we are ready to begin.

Rice soaking and vegetables diced

Rice soaking and vegetables diced

Ginger garlic chili paste with yogurt

Ginger garlic chili paste with yogurt

Onion cooking with bay leaf and cardamom

Onion cooking with bay leaf and cardamom

Paste enters

Paste enters

Paste drying up

Paste drying up

Vegetables enter

Vegetables enter

Rice enters

Rice enters

Done

Done

Vegetable Pulao

Ingredients
  • 1 cup long-grained rice
  • 1.25 cup water
  • 4 cups diced vegetables, mix of carrots, peas, beans, cauliflower (cut slightly larger, because it has the tendency to turn to mush if overcooked), bell pepper, celery, potatoes
  • 1 black cardamom
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/3 cup diced onion (this will be about half a medium onion)
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 inch piece ginger
  • 1-3 fresh green chilies
  • 1/4 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons oil
Method

Rinse and soak the rice for about half hour. Dice the vegetables — those that cook quickly (like cauliflower) can be left larger, those that cook slowly (like carrot) can be cut smaller. Blend the yogurt along with ginger, garlic and chilies to make a paste.

Heat oil in the pressure cooker or dutch oven on medium heat. When it shimmers, put in the cardamom and bay leaf. Let them cook until an aroma arises. Then put in the onion. It can cook for a few minutes until softened. Now put in the paste and stir to combine with the oil. In about five minutes of cooking, the paste will have dried up and the oil will show separating from the paste.

Now you can put the vegetables in, and simply toss them around to mix with the oil. Drain the rice and add that in as well, and stir to coat the rice with the oil and spices. Now put in the water and salt, and pressure cook for 15 minutes. If you are using a dutch oven, cover it tightly and cook it in the oven for about 20 minutes at 250ºF.

Let it sit covered for a few minutes after taking it off the heat. Before serving, fluff it up lightly with a fork.


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Interview with an Indian GMO farmer

Sudhindra Kulkarni at his farm

Sudhindra Kulkarni at his farm

Dear Reader, at this point I’m starting to think that Bt cotton is quite popular among Indian farmers. I got my first hint when I realized that there is a black market for Bt cotton seeds. If you think about it, there isn’t usually a black market for undesirable goods. The second hint came from the reading I did for this post, where I realized that Bt cotton improves yield for the farmers and reduces insecticide use, overall.

The third hint came a couple days ago, but this time it was bigger than a hint, it was more like someone setting off an alarm clock in my ear, kind of like this:

That was this. A Bt cotton farmer from Karnataka state contacted me after seeing my post and wanted to tell me his story. I had a half-hour long conversation with him in Hindi (second language for both of us) and he gave me permission to put his story on The Odd Pantry. Not to put too fine a point on it, he LOVES GMO cotton.

Background:

Sudhindra Kulkarni is a farmer in the Gulbarga district of Karnataka state. He sounds like a progressive and savvy farmer who has improved his lot far beyond the grinding poverty of his ancestors, all of whom were farmers. In 2012 his name was recommended by someone, he doesn’t know who, to join the Global Farmer Roundtable in Des Moines, Iowa. He was also sent to China as a progressive farmer by the Karnataka government. He had a lot of difficulties communicating because his English is not strong but it sounds like he did make a few good contacts there. He sent me this letter, that he calls his autobiography. I’m not sure why he wrote it, but it is also found on another website, exactly as the one he sent to me.

Interview:

(OP is The Odd Pantry, SK is Sudhindra. His answers translated by me)

OP: How long have you been farming?
SK: This is our family trade. I have been farming since my childhood. In my father’s days we grew wheat, cotton, sorghum. We also kept bullocks [OP: Indian cattle]. He practiced traditional farming methods and faced a lot of poverty. I stayed in the farming line when I grew up. My brother is an entomologist in the Dharwad University. I supported him with my farming. He himself was hardworking and smart and got scholarships. I learnt about modern farming methods and was able to pay back debts. I also built a pakka house for my family [OP: Pakka house is a cement house as opposed to a hut].

OP: How much land do you farm and what do you grow?
SK: I have 25 acres that I inherited from my forefathers and I lease about 25 more for Rs. 8000/= per acre per annum. I grow Bt cotton then rotate with pigeon pea and chickpea. I also grow sorghum for cattle feed [OP: I’ll take some too, please]. I have bullocks.

OP: How did you learn about modern farming methods?
SK: I learnt from my interest in improvement. The government has agriculture programs. I learnt from watching programs on TV. I leveled my land and got better yield. Now I use micronutrients for the soil and urea, potash and DAP. But I use organic methods too. In April we spread cowdung on the fields for manure. I used to practice purely organic methods but I had to give that up. In the old days we never tilled the soil, now we do. But we are still completely dependent on the monsoon. Four or five months of the year we get canal water. The rest of the time we depend on the rains.

Sudhindra's Bt cotton farm

Sudhindra’s Bt cotton farm

OP: How has your experience with Bt cotton been?
SK: I have been growing Bt cotton for ten years. It gives me excellent yield. I get one-and-half to two tons per acre. A farmer that I know is getting excellent yield with Bt cotton with purely organic methods. My cattle eat Bt cotton plants with no problems.

OP: Who helped you write your letter in English?
SK: My brother helps me with English. My 9th standard daughter helps me with Facebook and email. My language is Kannada. I don’t speak English well so it is difficult for me to get my message across.

OP: What is your message for my readers?
SK: My message is this. I have a sincere request. Please think about the economic condition of the farmer. Without good yield a farmer is nothing. Without good yield, a farmer cannot survive. My family would be destroyed. Without good yield, we are zero. Please do not listen to all the stories about farmer suicides. This is not just my story, it is the story of my whole village. [OP: He repeated this request five or six times throughout our conversation.] I don’t have good English so I cannot convince anyone. All this talk that the farmers will become slaves, this is all wrong. We need good yield.

[OP: He ended the conversation with inviting me and my family to stay at his farm, as is the Indian way. Perhaps someday. Then, I sent him one last question by email because I could not understand on the phone. What follows is his answer verbatim, not translated by me.]

OP: What difficulties did you face while practicing organic methods?
SK: # Ans: Animal Manure & cow dung not easily available ( Jeevaamruta )..varmi compost . pest control not possible..because environment not help # After that yield not getting..what we expected.. # Cost of production,overheads..all expense..after calculation..i didn’t get rate. # For me not possible to store my agri products till high rate,because i have also financial commitment .whatever rate i should sale.

Thoughts

So there you have it. Before I talked to him on the phone, my husband and I wondered the usual things one has to: like, is he telling the truth? Has he been coached? Or bribed? Once I talked to him, I immediately felt ashamed for wondering those things. He is clearly an intelligent and committed farmer. To think that he must have been coached to have certain thoughts smacks of condescension. Even to think that he is coachable smacks of condescension.

But in a sense, I am surprised at myself for being surprised at his story. The main beneficiaries of agricultural technology from the start have been farmers. This is true for GMO as well. American farmers have certainly voted with their feet to buy these seeds. Indian farmers are not that different, I guess. We are not Martians, after all.

Obviously, he may love Bt cotton for the high yield it gives him and it could still have other problems. The bollworm could develop resistance to it. Or there could be ripple effects in the environment. Or perhaps there really are no other problems, or if there are, they are better than spraying general insecticides. All or any or none could be true. That would be a different post, however.
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The GMO debate as a fable

IMG_2365[1]The other day my daughter and I did a fun kitchen project which had nothing to do with food — we made beeswax hand lotion at home. Never having done this before, I found myself a little befuddled. I had to stir in stuff while the beeswax was still melted. But how to keep it warm and not let it stiffen up while the whisking is going on? Luckily, my experience with a completely different recipe — chocolate frosting — helped me. I stole a step from that very different recipe. I set up a double boiler and kept the beeswax warm in that. It took a while but it worked.

I hope that did not raise any eyebrows. How dare I steal a step from one recipe to another? Did my hand lotion start to smell chocolatey? Of course not, I didn’t add any chocolate to it. Is my hand lotion now forever tainted as being somehow impure? Or unnatural? No — I demand that my misbegotten hand lotion be given its proper place in the pantheon of hand lotions. I ask that my hand lotion be accorded the same respect as other hand lotions, which means, please judge it on its traits. Does it smell good? Does it make your hands feel soft? And so on.

What does this have to do with genes? Everything.

DNA

DNA is a recipe. It isn’t really a recipe for living beings — it is a recipe for proteins, which in turn are a recipe for us. Sometimes biologists stress that all life on earth is related. So every weed you see growing in a sidewalk crack, or every bacteria that you can’t even see — is your cousin. Mostly we know that because all of our DNA’s are written in the same language.

I’m going to call this language Dnaelic, just to irritate my science readers and my Gaelic readers in one stroke. Where English has 26 letters, Dnaelic has just four: A, T, C and G. Words in Dnaelic are made up of 3 letters and are called codons. So CCC is a codon, TGT is a codon, and so on. Just like a sentence in English is a sequence of words that expresses a complete thought, a gene in Dnaelic is a sequence of codons that expresses a complete protein. Dnaelic even has punctuation marks like English to mark the start and end of genes.

Gene splicing

OriginalHandLotion

DNA for hand lotion

Imagine if the chocolate frosting recipe had been written in say, Choctaw, while the hand lotion steps were in English, I would find it pretty difficult to transfer steps from one to the other. Since they were both in English, it was easy. In fact, I will show you what I did.

On the left is my original recipe. I’m going to call it the DNA for hand lotion. Now I am going to ‘cheat’ and drag in an instruction from the DNA for chocolate frosting.

Genetically modified DNA for hand lotion

Genetically modified DNA for hand lotion

Can you spot the difference? My DNA for hand lotion now has an instruction spliced in. It will make better hand lotion, I promise. It will be softer (because the ingredients mixed in better) and will be way easier to grow. Sorry, I mean, way easier to make. And you will certainly be able to sell more of it.

I’m going to call that dragged in step the trans-step. As you can see, it does not look any different than any other step. Theoretically, I could have just thought it up out of the blue (mutation) or, possibly, I might have got that inspiration to use a double-boiler by watching other hand-lotion makers at work (cross-breeding). Nevertheless, I got it from chocolate frosting, and to mark that special history, I will call it a trans-step.

GMO on the Interwebs

No doubt the example I gave above is a bit of a fable and much simplified. But as I read the commentary on GMO all over the Interwebs I find a weird dichotomy; the debate between the science folks proceeds at a very sophisticated level, while the debate between laypeople shows no understanding of the basics of genetics. Once in a while when there is cross-communication between the two communities, the debate devolves into accusations of idiocy and political hackery. The two communities cannot speak to each other! Our DNA’s may speak the same language but we certainly don’t.

As laypeople, we need to understand the basics of this very important debate. We are all voters. So let me reframe some common GMO debates in the light of my hand lotion fable.

The Debate!

Layperson: “Genetically engineered foods have not been proven to be safe or healthy. You keep asserting over and over again that they are safe, but that does not convince me.”

Scientist: “I only keep saying that because I want to keep things simple. In reality what I mean is, ‘genetically engineered food’ is not a useful category. It is like saying all recipes that have borrowed steps from very different recipes are suspect. This is not a useful way to look at it. One has to study each genetically modified creature on its own to see if the introduced traits are good or bad (and, we have). In the hand lotion example, the borrowed step made a good hand lotion. But we could have as well borrowed a step that ruined it — say, a step that said ‘now throw it down the drain’. That would make a terrible hand lotion or actually, not make a hand lotion at all.

“There are many genetic engineering research projects ongoing. Let’s judge each on its merits. Here is one that will control the mosquito population to prevent them causing malaria. Here is one that could help Vitamin-A-blindness in the tropics. Aren’t those good things?”

Educated layperson: “I do actually think that genetically engineered food as a whole is something to worry about. I worry that you don’t understand the recipes of living beings well enough to be tweaking them. What if you put in a gene and it produces a protein as expected but it also has another unexpected effect? I also worry that your actual process is not very precise.

Scrambled instruction

Scrambled instruction

Transgene

Transgene

What if instead of the clean splicing that you showed in the hand lotion above, the spliced gene actually goes in scrambled (left) or like this (right) where the transgene is ‘loose’ inside the DNA or somehow different? What if you are introducing proteins into a creature that has never had a protein quite like that before — does it matter? It is as if you put in a step in the hand lotion recipe to add something no hand lotion has ever seen before — like, say, I don’t know, Coca Cola. Would that cause allergies? Would it still be hand lotion?

The Odd Pantry (moderator): “Good points, Educated Layperson. I might have to do a post on each of your concerns.”

Layperson: “Genetically engineered foods are unnatural. Nature should not be meddled with.”

Scientist: “I find it amusing that you are typing this out on a keyboard and sending me this over the Internet. Did that not strike you as ironic? Everything natural isn’t good. The dinosaurs were wiped out by a perfectly natural asteroid that they would have loved to have meddled with.

“You seem to have insufficient respect for how much humans have meddled with nature already, even before GMO.

Teosinte to corn (source: http://www.kukurydza.org)

Teosinte to corn (source: http://www.kukurydza.org)

We have turned corn from this (left) to this (right) with just conventional breeding (and some help from nuclear technology). No, I’m not joking.

“On the other hand, you have insufficient respect for the tricks that nature gets up to already with DNA. The usual thing of a mother and father mating to produce offspring is one thing. But our DNA is being constantly altered by completely random mutations, most of which are fatal. Did you know that while scientists carefully selected a bacterial gene to put into corn for a specific purpose, nature does this all the time? Bacteria not only transfer genes to each other (without mating), but have known to transfer genes to insects, and even humans. In a completely random, unpredictable way.”

Educated layperson: “You are right, Scientist. Nature is vaster than any of us can imagine and calling something ‘unnatural’ is, well, childish. But I will rephrase my concern. My concern is that GMO foods do not promote biodiversity, on the contrary, they promote an extreme form of monoculture. The corn example you gave — yes, I am aware that we have bred teosinte into corn, a huge distance (and not always for the good). But you know what? The breeding didn’t happen in a lockbox. Corn was always free to spread its pollen far and wide as plants will do. Wild species and cultivated species could mate. With GMO, it is single strain that is expected to be grown in a lockbox and not share pollen with other plants. I’m sorry to go back to that word, but this is unnatural.”

Scientist: “That’s not me demanding that strains of crops grow in a lockbox, that’s Business.”

Educated layperson: “True, but all the fun you have in the lab doesn’t really come to us except through Business.”

The Odd Pantry (moderator): “You are on fire today, Educated Layperson. I might have to do a post on what the problem with monoculture really is, since you didn’t really explain it.”

Layperson: “GMO foods contaminate the environment.”

Scientist: “Oh, that again. Look, I agree with Educated Layperson above that GMO plants will want to cross-breed with wild plants. But whether that counts as ‘contamination’ — doesn’t that depend on whether the GMO plant has good traits or bad?”

Educated layperson: “Good for what, and bad for what? A plant may do exactly what it is engineered to do, for example have insecticide. But if it escapes or mates with wild plants, you now have insecticide plants growing all over (think: superweed). They are going to be quite invulnerable, don’t you think? And what about the decimation of the insect population that might occur? It seems to me that you often ignore the second-order ecological impact of the plants you build.”

The Odd Pantry (moderator): “Oooh, ‘second-order ecological impacts’. Mind if I steal that? Another post, I guess. I better get busy, I have a lot of posts to bore my readers with.”

[Disclaimer: all characters are fictional and not meant to represent any real person. I will admit to having a special fondness for Educated Layperson, though.]

GMO case study: Roundup Ready crops

Herbicide resistant crops in US (source: Colorado State University)

Herbicide resistant crops in US (source: Colorado State University)

If you walk down the aisle of any American grocery store, around four-fifths of the packaged food available for sale to you has some genetically engineered ingredients. And of those ingredients, most have been genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup. So this particular trait is very pervasive, not only in our grocery aisles, but all over the American farmland: most of the corn, almost all of the soybean, most of the cotton is grown to be Roundup resistant. In a sense we are having the debate about whether to label GMO foods quite late; the barn door has been open for a while, the horse has not only exited the barn but is romping around the landscape making daisy chains.

In this particular case, it isn’t the genetically modified seeds that are the issue, but the behavior that those seeds incentivize. The crops have been made invulnerable to Roundup, so that that particular weed-killer can get squirted around with pretty much wild abandon. What does that do?

Roundup

Roundup logo (source: Wikipedia)

Roundup logo (source: Wikipedia)

Glyphosate is a plant poison. It was developed by Monsanto in the 1970’s and, combined with other ingredients (some disclosed, some not) sold as a formulation called Roundup. As a herbicide, it was safer than the others that came before it. The earliest in the 1940’s was 2,4D which formed one half of the ingredients of the defoliant Agent Orange used in Vietnam. Then came Atrizine, which is known to be an endocrine disruptor, and is often found as a contaminant in drinking water.

Glyphosate was a blessing when it was discovered. It works by blocking plants from creating certain kinds of amino acids. Since humans and other animals do not have the ability to synthesize these amino acids in the first place (we must get them from plants), glyphosate simply does not have the power to harm us.

There was another reason why farmers must have rejoiced to have an herbicide like Roundup on their shelves; it is non-selective. A huge variety of plants, whether grasses, leafy plants, woody plants, or conifers, are affected by it. Stepping around on a lawn with Roundup-stained soles will in a few days turn those footsteps into brown patches.

The scientists also found that it generally sticks to the top few inches of soil  and doesn’t easily run off to pollute groundwater. Microbes are able to break it down while it is bound to soil. A miracle herbicide!

Safer but is it safe?

That is the theory. Reality is usually messier. For instance, given a big enough storm, the soil itself (with bound glyphosate) can run off into ground water, and there, microbes cannot break it down. Once in the water, a study showed that it induces changes in frogs by making them stressed as though there is a predator around, even when there isn’t.

Plus, all the studies that talk about the safety of glyphosate miss the point, because the Roundup formulation contains a long list of other ‘inactive’ ingredients that Monsanto is not required to reveal, that are actually more toxic.

A preservative in it — Proxel — can cause dermatitis. Roundup also contains a surfactant called POEA — this chemical allows Roundup to be properly wet, so that the plant can absorb it all the way to its roots — that has been shown to be toxic to fish. It also was found to kill human cells in a test tube, its power magnified by working in concert with glyphosate.

Glyphosate itself has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Monsanto’s rejoinder to that study was basically that the association was weak, and that it proved correlation, not causation, ignoring the fact that while judging the toxicity of chemicals it is difficult to actually prove cause-and-effect without unethically exposing people to high levels of the stuff, just to see what happens.

Plus, one has to remember that while animals don’t create these amino acids, microbes do. So glyphosate has the obvious potential to harm good bacteria in our guts the same way in which it kills plants. In fact, a study found that glyphosate is implicated in celiac disease due to its impact on gut bacteria.

This factsheet from the Oregon state government is a good summary of harms from Roundup.

Despite all this, weed killers have their uses. Environmentalists, forest-management folks, people with the best of intentions, have used Roundup to remove invasive plants and preserve biodiversity. (There is no reason to use it on your ornamental lawn, however. None.) These folks, and farmers, have gotten by with a judicious application of herbicide where needed. Judicious, judicious, judicious, one must emphasize in the manner of realtors.

However, when Roundup Ready crops came on the market, judicious application of Roundup began to sound a little quaint.

Roundup Ready crops

Conventional crops are just as vulnerable to Roundup as any weeds might be. So farmers could not use it with impunity. They couldn’t use a ton of it or spray indiscriminately; for another thing, they couldn’t use it while their crops were growing, it had to be done before they have germinated. Since they didn’t have a magic bullet, they had to use a mix of weed management methods: a mix of herbicides, a mix of crops, and other ways of controlling weeds.

In the meantime, Monsanto’s patent on Roundup expired in 2000, which must have caused quite a bit of fretting among Monsanto’s business centers. They came up with a very ingenious new product that they could patent. They were able to create seeds of soybean, corn, cotton, etc., that weren’t affected by Roundup the way most plants are. How was this done?

It turns out that bacteria need to produce amino acids as well. But the enzyme they use for this purpose is different than the ones most plants use. Different enough that it doesn’t get affected by glyphosate, but similar enough that it can produce the needed amino acids. Scientists were able to take a gene from these bacteria that produces this slightly different enzyme to put into seeds to turn them into glyphosate tolerant crops.

It made the farmer’s life a lot easier, because they could spray Roundup all over without concern for the crops. It was Roundup and only Roundup, and a couple sprays all over did the job. Some called it agricultural heroin for farmers.

For Monsanto, this meant more sales of Roundup and a near-monopoly on sales of seeds.

For farmers, it meant convenience and certainty, at first. But, notice, they are subject to this rather pincer-like business practice of Monsanto — you have to buys seeds from the same company that sells you the spray, and neither can work without the other.

For consumers, it means that we are consuming a lot more herbicide. All samples of GMO soy were found to have residues of Roundup in a study published by Food Chemistry.

What does it mean for the environment? To examine this, we must forget about the marginal toxicities of Roundup that are the subject of endless debates and look squarely at what Roundup is advertised to do.

The missing monarchs

In the insect world the monarch butterfly is a bit of a prima donna. It is not only the showy good looks, but also how exacting it is in its needs. Eggs must be laid on a milkweed plant, because the emerging caterpillar will eat nothing else. Without it, the caterpillar will simply perish. Every year, monarchs migrate down from Canada to Mexico flying over the Midwest where they seek out milkweed. In recent years this population has dwindled down by 81%. The monarch is such a star that people noticed. Not only does it drive tourist business in Mexico, but is also the state insect for several American states.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have now found the cause to be the rampant spraying of glyphosate across farmlands in the Midwest. Milkweed happens to grow in those ignored areas that us humans don’t have much respect for — on the edges of farms, along highway shoulders. An edge of farmland that looks scrubby and pointless does not get the same respect as say a forest would. Since the advent of Roundup Ready crops, milkweed has declined by 58% with predictable devastation of the monarch population.

I want to emphasize that people only noticed the decline in the monarch population because of its glamour. There very well could be many other species that have been affected because of glyphosate use doing exactly what it is advertised to do — kill weeds.

Superweeds

When I’m pulling weeds in my garden I often find that some weeds have deviously designed themselves to escape me. One such is the dandelion. Its leaves lie flat to the ground and spread out, which makes it hard to get a grip under the plant and pull it. If you manage to, you realize that it is anchored to the ground by a thick ropy taproot with a grip of death. Then as I tug on the root, it breaks off easily, leaving a part of it still underground ready to spring up into a new rosette when I’m gone.

Dandelion (source: http://www.garden.org)

Dandelion (source: http://www.garden.org)

Weeds are called that because they are escape artists. They have developed traits that let them survive whatever weed management you might use on them. If it is a lawn that is often mowed, they might lie flat against the mower (again, like the dandelion). If you mostly get rid of them by pulling, they might give you a false sense of security by breaking off easily but leave underground bulbs behind (like Oxalis, Bermuda buttercup). This is why we are forced to use several tricks to adapt to their adaptations; some by pulling, some by letting loose caterpillars that might feed on them exclusively; some by solarization.

With Roundup, it seems, farmers were not this nimble. With active encouragement from Monsanto they came to depend entirely on spraying of glyphosate since the Roundup Ready crops came on the market. While glyphosate use grew a lot in the years since 1997, the use of other herbicides fell.

Well, that was nothing but an invitation to weeds to independently develop their own resistance to glyphosate. Those farms were basically sitting ducks.

Pigweed (source: Wikimedia Commons user Pompilid)

Pigweed (source: Wikimedia Commons user Pompilid)

Two such weeds — pigweed and waterhemp — have become huge problems in the cotton and soy farms of the Midwest. Because of these and others, farmers were forced to use even more glyphosate, based on advice from Monsanto’s scientists, as says this statement from farmer Troy Roush.

Monsanto’s business practices are culpable here. In their 1993 petition to the US government to deregulate the use of Roundup Ready soybean, they insisted that weeds developing resistance to it was “highly unlikely” (the 1993 petition, page 56), mostly because no weeds had become glyphosate-resistant until then. They assumed that there was something about glyphosate that made it hard for weeds to develop resistance; also since glyphosate does not hang around in the soil, they would not have the time. Were their scientists trying to delude the government, or were they deluded themselves?

Nature is nimbler than you think

This ought to be a lesson to both sides — those that insist that GMO is contrary to nature, and those that insisted (above) that nature could never pull off what Monstanto’s smart scientists had taken ten years of intensive research to do. The trait in question — resistance to glyphosate’s ability to block creation of amino acids.

Interestingly, the first discovery of nature’s glyphosate-resistant weeds did not happen in a corn or soy farm, but in the backyard of Monsanto’s chemical factory along the Mississippi river. There, in ditches where glyphosate residue was often discarded, plants had been fighting this particular enemy for a while. By the 1980’s some weeds had already developed resistance to glyphosate in Monsanto’s own backyard and were growing happily in the sludge. When the scientists bothered to look, they found examples of Roundup Ready genes made by nature in their own ditches that did the job far more effectively than the gene they had spent ten years developing.

Yes, nature was easily able to pull off creating resistance to glyphosate. It just needed a reason.

I’m no pastry chef, but look, chocolate cake!

Eggless chocolate cake

Eggless chocolate cake

Situation:

Husband: Has a birthday. Chocolate fan. Not a spring chicken, worries about sugar and fat. But wants cake. Needs cake.

Me: Not a fan of chocolate. Don’t have a sweet tooth. Not much of a pastry chef either. But cake must be had!

Daughter: wants to ‘help’!

I think I did decently. My husband thought so, even though he spent the whole time worrying if I was making the frosting rich enough and covering all the gaps and the rest of the time worrying about how much fat he would be consuming.

In any case, this is about the simplest cake one can make and it turns out great. I got the recipe from the King Arthur site, but just to show how simple the cake and frosting are to make, I will put down the recipe in a sort of telegraphese.

Kiddo helping with the mixing

Kiddo helping with the mixing

 

One layer

One layer

 

Slathering

Slathering

 

Slice

Slice

Cake

In a bowl, stir together the dry ingredients: 1.5 cups all purpose flour, 2/3 cups brown sugar, 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Pour in the wet ingredients: 1/3 cup almond oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 cup milk.

Stir it all together.

Pour half into one 8-inch round cake pan, half into another. Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes. If you pour it all together into a single cake pan, let it bake for about 30-35 minutes.

Frosting

In a bowl, microwave 1 cup cream for 1 minute. Put in 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate and stir, microwave again for 1 minute. Keep stirring, if the chocolate still refuses to melt, give it 30 second whirls at a time and stir, stir, stir. Eventually, it will become luscious and smooth. Allow it to cool slightly, then slather it over one layer of the cake, lay the other layer over it, and slather over it some more, and slather over the sides.

Recipe source: 

King Arthur Flour’s original cake-pan cake

Chocolate ganache

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Global unity through hot sauces

Sambal

Sambal Hebi

The other day I was doing my favorite thing — making a hot sauce, in preparation for doing my other favorite thing — eating a meal with a hot sauce. And I started to think upon the unity of all humanity. While I have been known to have the occasional Deep Thought, I usually need some prodding to produce one. The prodding that produced this particular Deep Thought was the following.

Over the course of the past couple months I had occasion to make a few hot sauces. These were from different cuisines: we made burritos at home, so I made a Mexican hot sauce once; another time, for dosas, I made a tomato chutney; and then the other day, experimenting with Malaysian food, I tried making a chili paste called Sambal Hebi. I seem to be doing the same thing over and over, I thought. With just a couple twists each time to add some local flavor.

Tomato chutney

Tomato chutney

Well, given that they all use dried red chilies for heat, and perhaps some garlic or onions as aromatics, there certainly is commonality. Humans from these three rather disparate regions of the world really do seem to think alike — perhaps we are all the same under the skin?

So here is my global hot sauce template; if you are able to adapt this method to yet another hot sauce from another cuisine I’d love to hear about it.

Step 1: Soak the dried chilies in hot water.

Same for all the hot sauces. Choose a mix of large, not-so-hot dried red chilies, and small, hot dried red chilies, according to your heat tolerance. Bring a cup of water to a boil and soak chilies in it until softened, about 15 minutes. Pull off the stem and remove seeds and ribs if you like. They are ready for the sauce.

Soaking dried red chilies

Soaking dried red chilies

Step 2: Broil the vegetables.

Mexican hot sauce: I used half an onion, 3-4 cloves garlic, 3 tomatoes, halved. South Indian tomato chutney: I used 2 cloves garlic, 3 tomatoes, halved. Malaysian sambal: I used half an onion, 3-4 cloves garlic.

Leave the garlic, onion, tomato unpeeled. Rub some oil over and broil for about 6 minutes. At this point, the papery skin of garlic/onion will have darkened, and the tomato skin can simply be peeled off.

Broiling onion and garlic for Sambal

Broiling onion and garlic for Sambal

Broiling tomato and garlic for tomato chutney

Broiling tomato and garlic for tomato chutney

Step 3: Blender

Vegetables and softened chilies go into the blender together. Along with salt to taste. If you need liquid to make the blender happy, pour in some of the oil and collected juices from broiling the vegetables; if you need more, add some of the chili soaking liquid.

Step 4: Cook

Empty out the blended hot sauce into a pot and bring to a boil. Then simmer. It only needs to cook for a few minutes. The color will change. Give it a preliminary taste to make sure the salt is right.

Tomato chutney on stovetop

Tomato chutney on stovetop

Step 5: Finishing for the Mexican hot sauce:

If you are doing a Mexican hot sauce, add a teeny bit of vinegar or lime; that’s it, you are done. Slather it over some refried beans.

Step 5: Finishing for the South Indian tomato chutney:

You can let this chutney cook longer to dry it somewhat more than the Mexican hot sauce, as it doesn’t have to be of a pouring consistency.

Heat a tablespoon of coconut oil in a pan. When hot, put in a half teaspoon of split and dehusked urad dal (Vigna Mungo), when that reddens, half a teaspoon of black mustard seeds, when they pop a few curry leaves. When they shrivel turn off the flame and pour the coconut oil into the tomato chutney. Stir to combine.

Step 5: Finishing for the dried shrimp sambal (Sambal Hebi):

First, a bit about this chili paste, because it was new to me. ‘Sambal oelek’ is a simple chili paste used all over Singapore/Malaysia as a base for many of their dishes; while ‘Sambal Hebi’ has added dried shrimp, garlic and shallots. With the excellent umami additions, this paste can be had as a simple and delicious accompaniment for rice (that’s not how I used it, but the story of what I did with it will have to wait).

Bags of dried shrimp should be available at an Asian grocery store. Here is an online source of it: The Asian Cook Shop. While you are preparing the rest of the sauce, soak about half a cup of dried shrimp in hot simmering water to soften. In 15 minutes, that should be done; take the shrimp out and smash them in a mortar and pestle if you have patience, if not, whirl them in a blender.

Dried shrimp for sambal

Dried shrimp for sambal

Dried shrimp softening in hot water

Dried shrimp softening in hot water

Now remember for the sambal we did not use any tomato, just the garlic, onion and chilies. So the paste will be drier to start with. When you cook the paste, use a bit of oil, and cook it longer than the above two until the oil separates. Also, I did not use any salt at all, preferring to add enough soy sauce to cover the needed saltiness.

Next put the dried shrimp into the pot: stir to have them cook and the entire paste dry up — about 10 minutes. Add a tablespoon of soy sauce, stir to combine, and you are done.

Pounding dried shrimp

Pounding dried shrimp

Pounded dried shrimp

Pounded dried shrimp

Sambal Hebi is done, ready for use as a base for noodles, as a sauce for vegetables, or simply with rice. Recipe source: Indochine Kitchen.

Pounded shrimp added

Pounded shrimp added

Soy sauce added

Soy sauce added

Mexican hot sauce

Ingredients:
  • 3 large tomatoes
  • Half a medium onion
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice or 1 teaspoon vinegar
Method:

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend along with salt. Cook on stovetop for a few minutes. Add lime juice/vinegar.

South Indian tomato chutney

Ingredients:
  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon urad dal (split and dehusked black gram)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • Few curry leaves
Method:

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend along with salt. Cook on stovetop until reduced a bit. Heat coconut oil until shimmering. Add, in this order, the urad dal, when they redden the mustard seeds, when they pop the curry leaves. Turn off and empty the coconut oil into the chutney and stir well.

Malaysian sambal hebi

Ingredients:
  • Half a medium onion or couple shallots
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • Mix of hot and mild dried red chilies according to taste
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup dried shrimp
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
Method:

Described in detail above but in brief: soak the dried red chilies in hot water for 15 minutes. Cover with oil and broil the vegetables (unpeeled) for 6 minutes. Blend to a paste.

Meanwhile prepare the shrimp: soak in hot water for 15 minutes until softened. Pound with a mortar and pestle.

Heat oil in a small pot. Empty the chili paste from the blender into it and cook until the oil separates. Add the shrimp to the pot, stir well to combine, and cook for 10 minutes until dry. Now add the soy sauce and stir nicely.


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Yellow mung dal with mangosteen

Moong dal served with radish cucumber salad

Moong dal served with radish cucumber salad

People have been eating locally long before it became a ‘thing’ and got its own hashtag. Thousands of years back essentially everyone was a locavore. All food was made out of plants that grew in the backyard fields or roots and shoots gathered from nearby forests. And sometimes a couple of these backyard ingredients came together in recipes that have remained classics.

I like to think of it has the boy-next-door and the girl-next-door getting married. How can a dish like that not be comfort food!

One such ingredient from the West coast of India is mung bean. There is more information about it here. This recipe calls for the split, dehusked form.

The other locally grown ingredient from the same region is the Indian mangosteen fruit. It grows mostly wild around the wet evergreen forests. The website Aayi’s recipes focuses on recipes from the Konkan coast and has great information (and pictures!) about it here. I have to admit that unlike that author, I did not grow up lobbing fresh mangosteen fruit at my brother. In fact I have never seen a fresh one, as far as I know. I had a city upbringing, and we obtained the dried and blackened rinds of the fruit in a bag. This is how it is used in this and in most other recipes.

kokum

Dried rind of Indian mangosteen, kokum

I can only imagine the sizzle and joy when these two ingredients first came together in a pot. Moong dal cooks into a creamy yellow pulpy thing, and the added rind of mangosteen (kokum) adds a very subtle sourness in a way that cannot be replaced by lemon or other souring agent. This dish is made more liquid to go with rice. There are no sharp flavors here — it is pure comfort food. When I was a child I enjoyed making it more bland by mixing it with some plain yogurt.

Some pictures to show the process.

Soaked and drained moong dal, turmeric, kokum together in a pot

Soaked and drained dal, turmeric, kokum together in a pot

Herbs for moong dal, prepared

Herbs for moong dal, prepared

Moong dal, cooked

Moong dal, cooked

Herbs, sizzling

Herbs, sizzling

Moong dal all done

Moong dal all done

Moong dal with kokum

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients:
  • 3/4 cup dehusked and split yellow moong dal
  • 5 or 6 pieces of dried rind of mangosteen fruit (kokum)
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1-4 fresh green chilies (I used serrano)
  • 4-5 large cloves of garlic
  • 5-6 curry leaves, if you don’t have them leave them out
  • 3/4 teaspoon mustard seeds (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
Method:

Rinse the dal in several changes of fresh water, running your fingers through to free up the loose starchy powder, until the water runs somewhat clear.

Put it in a pot along with the turmeric and the kokum and three cups of water. Bring it to a boil, then let it simmer for about an hour, partially covered. Or, you can use a pressure cooker, cooking under pressure for 15 minutes.

Once the dal is cooked down to being completely mashable, whisk the liquid to make it creamy. Add salt and turn it off, covered.

At this point, let’s start the tempering. Slice the garlic and the chilies. Just for the fancies, I sliced one of my chilies and simply vertically halved the other. Heat the oil in a small thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers, put in the mustard seeds. They will presently pop. The rest of the fresh herbs, chilies, garlic, curry leaves go in. They will sizzle and cook. When done, turn off, pour the oil over the dal, and stir it in nicely.

Cilantro for garnish if you like. This goes well with white rice, with some salad or relish of fried stuff alongside.

All about dals in one place

Apologies to anyone who might be expecting a fun and interesting new post about kitchen antics from me…instead what I have to offer today is a dry, pedantic review of some dals. I updated my page about dals, and I plan to keep adding to it with other dals I have not yet covered, and of course adding links to more dal recipes. This page is meant to be a one-stop-shop for all dal-related information on The Odd Pantry. Dull, yes, but someone has to do it.

Check it out

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