Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma) with spices

Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma)

Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black gram, red kidney beans

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

Mix of black gram and red kidney beans

Mix of black gram and red kidney beans

Red kidney beans

Red kidney beans

Added spices and aromatics

Added spices and aromatics

Sealed pot, substitute for dutch oven

Sealed pot, substitute for dutch oven

Out of the oven after six hours

Out of the oven after six hours

Cilantro added

Cilantro added

Slow-cooked red kidney beans (rajma) with spices

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

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

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

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


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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!

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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In my kitchen of #cookingfail

Ship FAIL

Shipment FAIL

The Internet has spawned its own jargon. One of these is the word ‘Fail’ attached as critique to a thought or an image. The classic is the image of a container ship running aground, boxes awry, with the words ‘Shipment Fail’ emblazoned on it. It originated from people poking fun at a late 90’s Japanese video game that used the phrase ‘You Fail It’ as a game over message. It has now become a way to simply interject disdain, without having to explain anything, while nudging and pointing at an unfortunate scene. The anonymity of the Internet sometimes encourages the worst of humanity, allowing one to mock the Anonymous Other without the moderating influence of having to do it in their presence.

In other words, I love it!! Let’s get started! Here is a litany of unfortunate scenes in my kitchen this month, for the IMK party hosted at the lovely Fig Jam and Lime Cordial blog.

One. Broil the Handle.

Broil the handle

Broil the handle

Starving for an eggless omelette made from chickpea flour, but really, starving in general, I brusquely threw some flour in with some water and neglected to measure amounts. Who needs to measure stuff when one’s instinct is so fine-tuned, I thought. Well, the batter was too wet; it wouldn’t set on the stovetop; so I popped it under the broiler for a few, forgetting that plastic and broiler don’t go well together. Result: flames (I apologize I couldn’t take pictures of the flames, since I was too busy dousing them); and next, ashes.

Two. Disembowel the Bread.

Disemboweled bread

Disemboweled bread

Deeply cut slice from disemboweled bread

Sawtooth slice from disemboweled bread

I usually shape the loaf and score it just fine. This time I tried a new method of shaping that involved making a sort of purse with infinitely rolled in edges. Well, you see the result. The process of baking made this loaf sort of explode from the inside and spill all its guts out. Still tasted fine, though.

Three. Flop the Yeast

Poof and its flat

Poof and its flat

Dosa batter is risen with the wild lactic acid bacteria found on the beans. While sourdough bread is risen with a culture of wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria. Slight difference; so shouldn’t sourdough starter work on dosa batter? Well, you can’t reason with the microbes, I found. I tried this experiment, and yes, there was rising activity; but here is what I found.

Bubbles arose within a day. But instead of bubbles foaming nicely everywhere, they seemed to explode out of the middle, as you can see. It smelled nicely sour, but perhaps a bit too sour? Still hopeful, I tried making crepes (dosas) and cakes (idlis) with it. That’s when I realized what had happened: there had been so much microbial activity that the thing was as sour as a lemon and all the bubbles had foamed up and gone, so instead of a nicely risen idli, I got a flat goo. Unfortunate.

Note: This was supposed to be my entry for the first ever Novice Gardener challenge at the lovely blogger Angie’s place. The rules stated it must use yeast and herbs. I used both; consider this my late, rueful, tail-between-my-legs entry.

Four. Dough-rolling Disaster

Sticky dough on waxed paper

Sticky dough on waxed paper

Sticky dough shreds waxed paper

Sticky dough shreds waxed paper

I have been doing this for years, you would think I would have figured it out. While making this weekend staple breakfast from my childhood, I found that the dough had turned out a little too sticky. Instead of doing the smart thing and adding more flour, I thought I would try rolling it out between waxed paper sheets. This is the sort of thing that is supposed to work, right? Well I did get the dough rolled into a nice flat circle, but when I tried to peel the waxed paper off, I realized that the two sheets of paper and my dough circle had fused together into a single mass, and there was no separating them, under pain of death. You can see what happened — the paper ripped apart rather than let go. I had a miserable breakfast.

Five. No gluten FAIL

Flatbread that WILL NOT hold together. Fail.

Sorghum flatbread that WILL NOT hold together.

Falls apart more while on griddle.

Falls apart more while on griddle.

Brunt crumbs. Fail

Burnt crumbs. Fail

Ugh. Epic fail.

Ugh. Epic fail.

I am concerned that they may take away my Indian Food Blogger card if I admit this; but I am a disaster at making gluten-free rolled out flatbreads. The other day I tried doing this with sorghum (jowar). Sorghum has no gluten. Gluten is what holds bread together and allows it to be rolled out. How on earth is one supposed to do this?

Other food bloggers seem to have no problem with it. There must be a secret Twitter group that I don’t belong to where they dispense these secrets. Here’s a blogger (Chef Divya) doing a millet flatbead. Here is a blogger (Food Flavor Fascination) doing a sorghum one. And look what I got. Urrgh.
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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

Image

Beet parathas; a classic recipe book

Beet paratha

Beet paratha

Some years ago I found a book in a used bookstore that really spoke to me in the depths of my soul. It electrified me from the title alone, even before I cracked open the pages.

Now a few books have been known to be enormously influential in people’s lives. For some it may be ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ by Nietzche, or ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand. For others it might be ‘War and Peace’ by Tolstoy. For me, it was this:

tasty dishes from waste items by Aroona Reejsinghani

tasty dishes from waste items by Aroona Reejsinghani

For the 1970’s in India, in the midst of famine, this book was quite apropos. I remember talk of the high prices of vegetables at every social gathering. Meat for many was simply out of the question. This book begins with an acknowledgement of the scarcity that every housewife has to deal with. It goes on to celebrate the leaves, stems, peels, leftovers that most of us throw away. The author painstakingly lists the vitamin content of each of these leaves and rinds, including the mysterious Vitamin P (?)

Not only is it completely impressive that she was able to do this research in the days before Google, it is astounding how many recipes she was able to come up with.

In here one finds 5 recipes that make use of banana peels (throw away the outer green part, she advises), 9 recipes that use turnip leaves, 2 that want you to fry up potato skins. Curdled milk, of course, is an industry, and the author dwells on that for a bit. Stale bread gets its own section with 36 recipes. Leftover fish, meat, chicken each get their own sections as well.

Now we no longer live in a world of food scarcity but quite the opposite. Most developed countries don’t spend over 10% of their income on food, in the US, where I live, it is around 7%. But the message of this book is more relevant than ever. The cost of food production remains very high, it just doesn’t come out of our paychecks, but instead we pay for it with depleted soils and poorer biodiversity.

I have to admit I don’t go scavenging around the thrown away peels for my next meal, but instead compost everything. Given my chunky waistline, I figure it is even better to feed the worms than me.

Beetroot

Beetroot from foodreference.com

Beetroot from foodreference.com

Now, about beets. Here is basically the entire beet plant from roots up to the leaves. Stare at the leaves for a bit. You all know that the greens are nothing but chard, right? Beetroot and chard are not even different species but simply different breeds. Just like a Dalmatians may be bred for running and bloodhounds for tracking a scent, but both remain dogs, chard is bred for fancy leaves and beetroots for fancy roots, but both remain Beta vulgaris. The roots of the first and the leaves of the second can be eaten. This website has more on this: Is chard root edible.

If you have no use for the greens, you could discard them I guess, but for goodness sake don’t throw them away and then go buy chard at the market!

Out of the bunch pictured, here are the parts I ended up throwing away for this recipe, the rest was all eaten. I threw away the long tails of the roots. I threw away the part where the roots turn into stems — that tends to be tough. I peeled the roots thinly with a vegetable peeler. Last, some stems have thick fibers that simply zipper all the way off; if I caught hold of some of those, I threw them away, otherwise I chopped them up along with the stems and leaves.

Parathas with beet root and greens filling

A reader might be forgiven for wondering if I’m going through the little-girl spectrum for my parathas; some time ago I did a recipe for purple parathas, this time they are pink.

Anyway, the idea of the stuffed paratha is simple — it is a whole wheat flatbread stuffed with filling inside. The filling for these consists of the grated root and the finely chopped leaves and stems, cooked together with seasonings. Parathas are great with some plain yogurt on the side.

Tails trimmed

Heads and tails trimmed

Greens finely chopped

Greens finely chopped

Grated, cooking with oil

Grated, cooking with oil

Cooked down and dry

Cooked down and dry

Uncooked paratha, pink showing

Uncooked paratha, pink showing

Cooked paratha, stacking up

Cooked paratha, stacking up

See the pink?

See the pink?

Parathas with beet root and greens filling

  • Servings: 8 parathas
  • Print

Ingredients for filling:
  • 3 medium beetroots with greens and stems
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon chaat masala, substitute with dry mango powder, substitute that with lime/lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon oil
Ingredients for parathas:
  • Roti dough made out of about 1 cup whole-wheat flour as in this recipe
  • Oil or ghee or butter for shallow frying on griddle.
Method:

Make the dough and set aside for half hour to rest. Make the filling: peel, trim and grate the roots. Rinse and finely chop the greens and stems. Heat the 1 tablespoon oil in a wide pan. When it shimmers, put in the beets, greens and all. Stir to coat with oil. They will very quickly start to cook down. Add the salt, the red chili, and the chaat masala and stir. The point is to dry out the filling. Once it looks pretty dry, turn off the flame and wait for it to cool. Taste for seasoning and adjust. I generally prefer the filling to be highly seasoned because the dough does not have any seasoning at all.

To make the parathas you can refer to this recipe, but I’m including most of the steps anyway. The dough is the same as used for rotis/chapatis. Roll out a thin circle about 5-6 inches wide. Place a couple tablespoons of the filling in the middle. Gather up the edges of the disk into a pouch. Flatten the pouch with your fingers, then roll it out again carefully so as to prevent the filling from escaping. Once it is a flat disk once again, about an eighth of an inch thick, it is time to shallow-fry on the griddle.

Heat the griddle on medium-high. When some drops of water thrown on it sizzle, it is time to put the rolled out paratha on. Wait for 30 seconds while the underside cooks; then flip it. Wait for another 30 seconds while the second side cooks. Now spread a few drops of oil or ghee on the top surface and flip it, to have the bottom shallow-fry in oil. A minute of this, now spread a few drops of oil on this surface and flip it again, letting it cook another 30 seconds. This way, each surface has been cooked twice, first roasted dry, then with oil, on the griddle.

Stack up the prepared parathas; enjoy them with some plain yogurt on the side. Greek yogurt is very popular nowadays, it would make a great dip for these.

I’m entering this in the Family Foodies challenge for May, which is to do with frugal eating. Perfect! Minds knitted together across the interwebs…that’s what blogging is all about.

This is hosted over at Bangers and Mash and Eat Your Veg…this is a link to the May challenge. May the cheapest skinflint win!

 

Like bhaji on pav

Pav bhaji stall (Photo credit: http://burrp.in.com)

Pav bhaji stall (Photo credit: http://burrp.in.com)

A couple posts ago I did the recipe for pav bread, and possibly some of you thought — well, ok, but where’s the bhaji? Especially if you have lived in Mumbai for any length of time. Those who have not might be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is all about.

You see, there aren’t a lot of dishes that Mumbai can claim as its own: most are brought in from other regions of India by immigrants. Pav bhaji is one of very few that were invented in the city. Just like the culture of the city itself, it is a bit of a mongrel; just like the city itself, it is imbued with street culture. It is street food, but it is so much more than food. It is a fixture of street life. It is fuel for hungry office-workers, cart-pushers, delivery-boys, ward-boys, brick-layers, day-laborers. A cheap lunch date for college romances. For a city that thrives on masala (spice), whether in food or in movies, it is a way to cram as much masala as is humanly possible onto the smallest paper plate.

The Bhaji

Now the word ‘bhaji’ is a bit like my most hated word — ‘curry’ (read this if you want to know why I hate it), in that it is a generic word for spiced and cooked vegetables. It suggests a hodge-podge, something that is so mixed up that one has to resort to vagueness. But in fact, although this dish was invented as a hodge-podge, it has now come to mean one exact dish, with one exact spice mix and one exact set of vegetables. Especially when used with ‘pav‘, as in ‘pav bhaji’.

This particular hodge-podge consists of several boiled vegetables, fried and mashed with spices. The whole thing is done on a giant griddle. Butter is spread all over the griddle and then the boiled vegetables sautéed. The mashing, as I remember, is done with a flat metal spoon. The mashed mixture is served with two pieces of pav bread, which have been sliced and toasted with butter and some of the spicy mix spread on it. The dish is topped with more butter. So there is butter underneath it, in it, and on top of it. Then, raw onions and cilantro are chopped fine, mixed with lime to make a bit of a relish, and that relish is thrown on top to garnish your paper plate.

The whole thing for less than 20 rupees.

Pav bhaji served

Pav bhaji served

History

Pav bhaji was invented by street-food vendors out of leftovers. In the late nineteeth century Bombay’s main industry was textiles; there were 130 mills in the central area of Girgaon (‘mill village’). The last shift let out at midnight. Street food vendors that sprung up around them threw together whatever scraps of vegetables they had from the day’s cooking and mashed it all up to hide its lack of pedigree. For the masala powder, once again, they threw everything in it indiscriminately, from garam masala (warm) spices like cloves to hot spices like dry red chilies.

From textile mill workers the dish became a standard for the underworld that was just getting started up around that time. A movie from some years ago called Vaastav depicts the story of an underworld don who gets started in business by opening a pav bhaji stall. Here is a clip of a song from the movie. I realize it is a little unconventional for a food blog to showcase Bollywood songs, but this one does show how the dish is made. This time, that is my excuse. (Next time I embed a song I won’t need an excuse.)

(Rough translation: here is a short man with a big belly, a man with money. He is eager for food. The griddle is hot, let’s throw the butter on it.)

Pav Bhaji

Today vendors of Pav Bhaji are everywhere from street-food stalls to expensive restaurants. It has lost its whiff of the underworld. Many variations have sprung up — Jain pav bhaji that omits onions and potatoes, khada pav bhaji that isn’t much mashed, Mexican pav bhaji that includes baby corn.  I’m still faithful to the original, so that is what I showcase here. In fact the spice mix has also become commoditized and is available for sale in most Indian grocery stores in nice neat packages labeled ‘Pav Bhaji Masala’, but of course we have to make it from scratch…so here we go.

First the spice mix:

Whole spices for pav bhaji masala

Whole spices for pav bhaji masala

Roasting

Roasting

Going thru the funnel

Going thru the funnel

My 8-year-old helping with a chopstick

My 8-year-old helping with a chopstick

Done and labeled

Done and labeled

Pav bhaji masala

Ingredients:
  • Quarter cup cumin seeds
  • Quarter cup coriander seeds
  • 2 tablespoons whole black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons cloves
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 3 black cardamom (use half of what I have pictured above)
  • 10 dry red chilies (change amount to suit your taste, this is pretty hot)
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric powder
  • 1 tablespoon dry mango powder
Method

Heat a cast-iron pan on medium heat. We are going to roast spices so be sure you have your windows open and fan on. Roast each spice separately until each is fragrant and slightly darkened. Empty into a plate. Grind them together in a clean coffee grinder. Pour into a jar using a funnel. Now is the time to mix in the already ground turmeric and dry mango powder. Shake to combine. Label and save.

Then the bhaji (vegetables):

Vegetables

Vegetables

Veggies about to be boiled

Veggies about to be boiled

Boiled veggies roughly mashed

Boiled veggies roughly mashed

Saute onions and green bell peppers

Saute onions and green bell peppers

Add ginger-garlic-chili paste

Add ginger-garlic-chili paste

Add tomatoes

Add tomatoes

Dry spices go in

Dry spices go in

Cook dry spices

Cook dry spices

Add vegetables

Add vegetables

Pav bhaji served

Pav bhaji served

Pav Bhaji

Ingredients:
  • Ginger-garlic-chili paste made from 6 garlic cloves, 1 inch piece of ginger, 2 green chilies
  • 1 medium onion chopped up
  • 3 medium tomatoes chopped up
  • 1 green bell pepper (capsicum) diced
  • For boiling:
    • 2 carrots
    • 10 or so green beans
    • 1 medium potato
    • Quarter of a medium cauliflower
    • Quarter of a medium head of cabbage
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter or ghee
  • 2 tablespoons pav bhaji masala from above
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
Method:

Roughly chop the vegetables that are for boiling, add half a cup of water and the 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, cover and cook on a simmer until softened, about 15 minutes. When they are done, roughly mash with a potato masher.

Meanwhile heat the ghee in a thick pan. When it is hot add the onions and bell pepper. Let them soften on medium heat for about 4 minutes. The important thing with the onion is that it must not caramelize — that adds a sweetness and brown flavor that does not go with this dish. Add the ginger-garlic-chili paste and stir, until the oil separates, which means the paste is cooked. Now in goes the tomatoes. They have to first liquefy then dry up. You can turn up the heat for this part.

Once they are dry, you can add the dry spices — the pav bhaji masala and the turmeric powder. Stir them in and cook for a minute. Plop in the mashed vegetables. Mash some more, cook for 10 minutes or so, gently stirring and mashing as you please, until they are well combined.

Give it a taste — now is the time to make adjustments. Adjust the salt. Add red chili if it is not hot enough. Add more ghee or butter swirled in on top for lusciousness.

Serve with pav bread, optionally sliced and toasted on the same pan, with a bit of butter. Garnish with minced onion and lime juice.

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I love you, Alemany Farmer’s Market! Plus: what one does with Bitter Melon Greens

Bitter melon greens with paneer

Bitter melon greens with paneer

I do so love you, Alemany Farmer’s Market! I love all the other farmer’s markets too but you are soooo special.

I have found that there are two types of farmer’s markets in the Bay Area. There are farmer’s MARKETS and then there are FARMER’S markets. The former are a lot about marketing. They sell produce, sure, but a lot of it is overpriced, and more than half the stalls are filled with high-profit-margin goods like infused oils in precious glass bottles. I can do that for free at home in an emptied jam jar and no preciousness.

Alemany Farmer's Market (Copyright: Kurt Rogers, The Chronicle)

Alemany Farmer’s Market (Copyright: Kurt Rogers, The Chronicle)

But Alemany farmer’s market, you truly are a FARMER’S market. I love you because you tickle my fancy every time I visit. Where else can I find corn that is blue and smaller than my palm and sticky. Where else can I find a fleshy, hairy stalk that is labeled ‘wild potato’ (even Google flopped on that one). Where else would I see tiny blotchy eggs that were apparently laid by a quail. Where else would I find a prickly pink egg, and not only giant taro with their purple stem still attached but also taro leaves. Where else can I find not one, not two, but three or four choy-related greens.

And no matter how strange and unfamiliar the sight I see, there’s always a crowd of customers expertly assessing, holding, pressing, rifling through the produce. There I stand, mystified, in awe, only to be elbowed aside by a little old lady with her cloth bag who has zeroed in on the unnamed leaves and is tossing aside the rotten ones and snagging the good ones. She is gone before I can gasp — excuse me, lady, can you save some for me, and by the way, what on earth is it?

In this farmer’s market, advice abounds. As soon as I pick up a fruit or vegetable and stand there regarding it, someone or the other’s voice will speak up beside me — you chop it, you fry it with garlic. Or boil it with chicken. Or what have you. More often than not, the English is broken and heavily accented and the accents could come from any part of the world from Africa to Vietnam. If San Francisco is a microcosm, then Alemany Farmer’s Market is a micro-micro-cosm. Or a micro-cosm-cosm? Something like that.

Best of all is when this market reintroduces me to some childhood friends that I didn’t at first recognize. The other day this happened to me twice. First I see these pretty round leaves tied in a bunch. The person at the stall informs me that they are moringa leaves, grown all over the world from Africa to the Himalayas to South-east Asia, a miracle vegetable that can cure all sorts of ailments. Sounds familiar, but what is it? Hold that thought…a post on that will come next.

Bitter melon greens

Bitter melon greens

Next I see a stall with these simply humungus bunches of bright green leaves with tendrils sticking out all over. Turns out these are leaves from the bitter melon plant — bitter gourd, karela, call it what you will. Well. That is an old friend and I love it. I have cooked with it many times. But I didn’t know that the leaves were edible too.

Bitter melon greens with paneer

Turns out they are, down to the stems. They are certainly bitter though, so I tried cooking them with something creamy to smooth out the bitterness. I used ghee and paneer.

The other thing about this recipe is that it is more of a mindset rather than a fixed set of steps. If you don’t have paneer, you might substitute with ricotta. If you don’t have the bitter melon greens, either dandelion greens, radicchio or frisée would be a great replacement. Out of the spices used, if you don’t have one, just leave it out, although of course the character of the dish will morph. The cumin seeds in particular, I would try not to leave out. Heat can come from any source like the cracked red pepper that the Italians use. Ghee of course, can be replaced with butter. Mmm…now I can’t wait to try this completely new recipe with all the replacements made! Here are pictures of the process.

Slicing the greens

Slicing the greens

Other ingredients: paneer, onion, garlic, chili, cumin

Other ingredients: paneer, onion, garlic, chili, cumin

Frying garlic, chili, onion

Frying garlic, chili, onion

Paneer goes in

Paneer goes in

Powdered spices go in

Powdered spices go in

Stir to coat

Stir to coat

Greens go in

Greens go in

Done

Done

Bitter melon greens with paneer

Ingredients
  • 1/2 pound paneer
  • Half a bunch bitter melon greens
  • 1 large shallot or half a medium onion, chopped fine
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1-3 serrano chilies, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon ghee
Method

Rinse and slice the greens. The finer you slice the greens the better the final result. I ultimately didn’t get it super fine but I did try to ensure no stem was longer than half an inch. Dice the paneer into little blocks about 1/4 inch on each side. Finely chop the shallot, garlic and chilies.

Heat the ghee in a wide pan on medium heat. When it is shimmering, put in the cumin seeds. They will presently sizzle, then in goes the garlic and chilies. Let them get a little shriveled (couple minutes) and put in the onion. The onion only needs to cook until pink and translucent, not browned.

Put in paneer at this point, along with the dry masalas (turmeric powder, red chili powder and salt). Stir to combine. Greens go in next. Toss with paneer and spices. Then don’t need to cook for long. When they look shrunk down and shiny, add about half a cup of hot water, cover and cook on low for just about 4 minutes and you are done.

This goes well with chapatis/rotis or rice.

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