One weird trick to make pumpkin death-defyingly delicious

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pumpkin halwa

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

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

Pumpkin halwa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The parable of food preservation; an Indian carrot pickle

IMG_7128Once upon a time, the dark cold months were months of deprivation. No green shoots appeared in the ground, no fruit swelled on the trees. The young ones went without, or raided the underground cellars for the grains and husks that they shared with their rodents. But the old ones said no, look, here’s what you do. You collect your bounty in the sunlit months; then you preserve it to feast on in the dark months.

“Preserve?” said the young ones, reflecting that perhaps dementia had claimed the old ones. “We have no fridges, nor vacuum packs. Surely, microbes will feast on our bounty before our clumsy hands are able to tear off a single chunk of it to place at the hungry lips of our babes. Surely a week, perhaps two, is how much one can hope to prolong the lives of these frilly delicate vegetables, whose very fronds seem infused with the light of Solis. But all season long? Respectfully, winter is long and harsh.”

“You fools,” said the old ones then, “have we taught you nothing?” They might have cuffed them with an open hand, I’m not sure. Then they drew out jars and jars of fruits and shoots they had taken the trouble to preserve many moons ago. The glass shone with the still preserved colors of the sun’s bounty.

IMG_7143But at first, the young ones shrank from the taste. “Pooh!” they said. “We see that this is imbued with the deep orange of a carrot, but the saltiness scours our tongue. And the mango—did you have to preserve it when green and sour? Could you not have waited for its velvety sweetness to emerge? Ah, we would give our firstborn for the taste of a sweet mango now! That clay jar under the ground—could that be cabbage? But heed the fumes—did a dog die in there?”

“Your trouble,” said the old ones, snatching the kimchee from their hands, “is that your noses are underdeveloped. Look. All of creation loves a good vegetable. You do, and so do the microbes. Food preservation is a race—who shall get to eat the bounty first? The microbes, or the apes known as humans?”

“We are not apes,” the young ones said, with dignity.

“You certainly are,” the old ones returned, “but moving on. Now not all microbes are created alike. Some sicken and extinguish us; others concoct healthful compounds in our foods. Let us call them (because thou hast simple minds, and thy understanding is shallow) the good microbes and the bad microbes. Some of food preservation is nothing but allowing the good microbes to build their colonies in our foods; by their own mysterious devices, the good microbes then form barricades to prevent the bad microbes from entering. Not only that; the guts of these little ones start to break down the foods, thus do our guts get a head start.”

“Shall we then eat microbe-infested foods?” the young ones queried. “Your brains are going soft, perhaps the good microbes have fomented trouble in them.”

“The word is ‘fermented’,” the old ones said, “and you need to understand, your bodies are suffused with microbes at all times. Be not childishly fearful. In fact, in the age of our descendants, fermentation will be thought of with glamour and books and websites shall celebrate the advent of the good microbes in our food, and our partnership with them.”

The old ones then explained how salting the food created a happy place for the good microbes, but instilled fear in the hearts of the bad ones. And how sourness also chased away the bad ones, so one could add to the food an acid-making elixir, such as lemon or vinegar; but if one wanted to be specially tricky, one could have the good microbes produce their own sourness from the depths of their bowels, as they feasted on sugars. Such sourness, the old ones further explained, went by the name of lactic acid, but had little to do with the food of the mammal babes.

IMG_7131“But heed,” the old ones intoned, “while fermentation is hip, do not forget, it is not the only way. Remember, water is needed for all of creation, and all of creation harbors it; the bad microbes desire it with a thirst so deep that it might be a thirst for life itself. What if one were to draw the water out of our foods, and leave it shrunken and dry; the microbes would find it as bare as a moonscape and would not deign to enter. Then: what if one were to cover the whole thing in oil, perhaps an oil such as from the mustard plant, that is practically a warrior against microbes itself, what then?”

What one has, then, is an Indian pickle.

Indian pickles (achar)

It has been a persistent mystery in the minds of some interested parties as to whether Indian pickles are fermented, or not. Among these, I count myself, and also my dear blogger friend Annie Levy from Kitchen Counter Culture. Well, by applying the powers of my mind deeply to the question in a Holmesian sort of way, I think I have my answer. Indian pickles—the typical kind, that are preserved in mustard oil—are not.

Now there are certainly Indian pickles that are fermented, but those are not the norm and the ones that I am familiar with do not use oil at all. But we will talk about those another time.

The typical pickles use a pretty standard method. First, salt the food: salt wants to reach equilibrium, and if the food isn’t salty already, it wants to enter the food from its surroundings. As it enters, it draws out the moisture and takes its place inside the food.

Next, allow the moisture to dry out by placing it in the sun. Once the pieces are much shrunken, jar it up and pour mustard oil over.

IMG_7127This is the basic method I have used with such disparate ingredients as cranberries and sour mango. This time, we have carrots and some green garlic.

The spices tend to be a similar set. Fennel seed is congenial, and so is the use of nigella seed. Turmeric powder has antiseptic properties so that is always used, and the heat comes from red chilies. Usually, the spices are left whole, this time, I chose to pulverize them a bit. They went from looking like this to this:

Of course, a lot of salt is used, and the carrots and green garlic are thoroughly mixed with the spices and salt and laid out on a wide, flat surface. Cover with cheesecloth, place in the sun, and allow the salt and the sun to perform their magic. Watch the slow shriveling of the carrots over the period of a week:

Once the pieces look pretty dry, it is time to mix in some lemon juice, jar it up and pour mustard oil over. Some like to heat the oil to smoking point and then cool it before using, but I don’t see the point because I want the oil to be at peak pungency.

Carrot pickle

  • Servings: 1 pint jar
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • About 10 carrots, washed, scraped, and dried completely
  • About 5 full stalks of green garlic, washed, trimmed and dried completely
  • 3 tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 1.5 tablespoons nigella seeds (kalonji)
  • 1.5 tablespoons fenugreek seeds (methi)
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt
  • 0.5 tablespoons red chili powder
  • 0.5 tablespoons turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • About half a cup of mustard oil

Method:

Once the vegetables are completely dry, slice them up in smallish segments, the exact shape does not matter. You could do longish sticks or smallish dice, as I did.

Pulverize the whole spices (fennel, fenugreek, nigella and mustard) slightly using a mortar and pestle. You can skip this step if you like.

Place the vegetables in a wide platter and cover with the pulverized spices, the salt, turmeric and red chili powder. Give it a thorough mixing so all the pieces are evenly covered with the salt and spices.

Cover the platter with cheesecloth and place at a sunny window. My window only gets sun for about an hour in the mornings and that seemed to be enough. Every couple days, give it another mixing with a scrupulously clean spoon.

In about a week the vegetable pieces will look much shriveled, darker and more leathery. Stir in the lemon juice.

Transfer to a scrupulously clean glass jar (you can sterilize it in boiling water first if you like, I didn’t). Pack it down. Pour some of the mustard oil over it and wait for it to settle; pour more. Do this in a few stages, until a thin film of oil shines over the very top of the jar. For me, it took about half a cup. Cover and store in the pantry.

Your pickle (achar) is done. It is great as a side in minuscule portions (since it is highly spiced). It should last for a good long time, even up to a year.


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The galloping bean: cooking with horse gram

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

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

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

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

IMG_6488Some practical matters

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

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

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

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

Horse gram in tomato gravy

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

Horse gram in tomato gravy

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Easy-peasy split green mung dal

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

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

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

Sai dal

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

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

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

Split green mung dal (sai dal)

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

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

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

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

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

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Spice is a state of mind: cabbage thoran

Cabbage thoran

Cabbage thoran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoran

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

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

cabbage 003

Tempering spices including rice

Tempering spices including rice

Coconut oil

Coconut oil

Urad dal in oil

Urad dal in oil

The rest of the spices

The rest of the spices

Cabbage in

Cabbage in

Cabbage cooking

Mixed with dry spices

Cabbage cooked

Cabbage cooked

Cabbage thoran with roti and dal

Cabbage thoran with roti and dal

Cabbage thoran

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

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

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

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

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


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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!

Is Khichdi the Risotto of India?

Khichdi

Khichdi

Good morning everyone! I have been away from my blog home for a long time, but I have certainly not neglected my kitchen. Meanwhile, global warming has given us the warmest January on record, and our San Francisco February, which ought to be dreary and cold, has instead been sparkling with sunshine.

Still, it is time for some winter cooking, no? Let’s talk about khichdi.

What is khichdi? Simply put, it is comfort food, rice cooked with a dal or two. One of my go-to books on cooking, World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey, describes it as the risotto of India. When I first read this, I had not heard of nor eaten any Italian food other than spaghetti and pizza. So at the time my thought was — aha! so risotto is the khichdi of Italy!

But is it? I suppose, in a vague, cross-cultural kind of way. But really, there are differences.

With risotto, the starchification of the rice is so much fetishized that it impacts many choices. The choice of the grain — Italians use a plump starchy variety, that will nevertheless hold on to a firm core. Khichdi on the other hand, can be made with the ‘normal’ medium or long grained rice that you use for other cooking. The cooking technique — risotto is stirred and stirred with nominal additions of water until the starch is drawn out the the rice. The result is something like the Asian congee, or a porridge, but with more definition. While khichdi — starchy though it may be, the effect is produced just by the addition of more or less water.

More importantly, the additions. Risotto can have vegetables, but also seafood and sausages and other meats. While khichdi must, must, must…simply must! have dals cooked along with the rice. Otherwise it is not a khichdi. Since dals take longer to cook than rice, you are already looking at a somewhat gloopier texture, rather than the ideal of each grain of rice being separate. Vegetables are optional. Meats are never used. Carnivores, look away, khichdi is not for you. Though there is the bastardized British version called kedgeree, where, I hear, fish such as kippers are often added.

The accompaniments. With risotto, it seems, one can never have too much parmesan or cheese of one sort or another. For khichdi however, plain yogurt is utterly appropriate. And ghee is the cooking medium of choice.

Split green mung khichdi

There are probably as many versions of khichdi as there are families in India. In my family, this khichdi was eaten every Monday night, along with this dish. It uses a handful of split green mung cooked along with the rice. The texture is meant to be a little wetter and more gloppy than plain white rice, but don’t go all the way to porridgy.

Now just cooking the rice and dal along with some ghee and salt will give you a good dish. But here I have fancied it up a tiny bit with cashews and fried onions.

Rice and split mung measure

Rice and split mung measure

Whole black pepper and cumin

Whole black pepper and cumin

Washed and rinsed

Washed and rinsed

Black pepper floating to the top

Black pepper floating to the top

Frying onions and cashews

Frying onions and cashews

Cooked

Cooked

Topped

Topped

Khichdi with split green mung

Ingredients:
  • 2/3 cups medium- or long-grain rice
  • 1/3 split green mung
  • 1 tablespoon ghee
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon whole black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2.5 cups water
  • 1/4 medium onion, sliced
  • a tiny fistful raw cashews
Method:

Rinse and drain the rice and split mung together. Put in in a pressure cooker or a nice hefty pot along with two and a half cups water, the salt, the cumin and black pepper. At this point, swish it around so that all the whole black peppers float to the top. This way, it will be easier for you to pick them out after the cooking is done.

Pressure cook for 15 minutes, or, if boiling in a pot, bring to a boil, cover tightly, and simmer for 45 minutes. Uncover and pick out the whole black peppers.

Separately, heat ghee in a small thick-bottomed pan. Fry sliced onions in it until browned; then give the cashews a light browning as well. Mix this in with the rice, but reserve some to add to the top as garnish.

Enjoy it with some plain yogurt on the side and some sharply tasting pickles or chutneys, some kadhi, or this spinach wonder.

A chutney made from Hibiscus leaves

Hibiscus chutney (gongura pachadi)

Hibiscus chutney (gongura pachadi)

If you are at the market and someone tries to sell you what they call ‘sorrel’ leaves, stop and give them the eye. Because you see, sorrel just means ‘sour’ and it does not tell you what kind of sour leaf this is. A few widely disparate plants all get called by this name, so all you know when someone tries to sell you sorrel, is that it is a plant that produces at least one edible part, and those edible parts produce so much acid that it tastes sour to us.

Hibiscus sabdariffa leaves

Hibiscus sabdariffa leaves

The sorrel that I am talking about today is Hibiscus sabdariffa, with the lovely maple-shaped leaves pictured above. It is known by many other names aside from sorrel. It is commonly known as roselle because of the lovely pinkish-magenta of its stems and flower buds. It is gongura in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India where it is a part of many beloved homey dishes. Meshta when it is grown for jute fiber in the north of India. ‘The flower of Jamaica’ in Mexico where the sepals are steeped into a tea. Such herbal teas, or tisanes, are made all over the tropical world from the sepals of this plant.

(Sepals or the calyx are the petals’ baby sisters — they are the row of sometimes leafy, usually unexciting petal-like things that grow on the outside of the flower, under the petals. Most flowers have them, and children usually render them in green when they draw their cartoon flowers.)

Calyx of roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

Calyx of roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

Hibiscus sabdariffa has gorgeous deep magenta arching sepals. The flower with its pink papery petals is even more beautiful, of course. The same magenta color is found in the edges and the veins of the leaves, making this a particularly attractive plant to grow, to look at, and to buy at the market. It decorated my kitchen for the few days that it sat on the counter after I brought it home. Almost seemed like a pity to mash it down into a grim-looking (but delicious!) chutney.

Gongura Pachadi (Hibiscus chutney)

Let me tell you a bit about this chutney. Made from the leaves, it needs no added souring agent (that would usually help preserve it) because the leaves themselves are very sour. I did not grow up in Andhra Pradesh but in that state, this chutney is almost part of the state religion and woven into daily customs.

Now you might think, leaves, yes, grind them in a blender and you are done. But wait. There is a technique to it. First, you dry them completely on sheets of paper towel. Then they roast a bit, dry. Then they sauté and shrivel in a bit of oil. Then you grind it up. The point is to remove all moisture from the leaves, which will help preserve it better.

The taste is wonderfully sour, a bit metallic (maybe from the iron?), and complex. You can mix it with rice or spread it on a slice of bread, then top it with sliced vegetables, as I did.

Dry-roasting

Dry-roasting in batches

Completely dry

Completely dry

Saute with oil

Saute with oil

Dry-roast spices

Dry-roast spices

All destined for blender

All destined for blender

Blending

Blending

Labeled

Labeled

Hibiscus chutney

Ingredients:
  • Leaves from a big bunch of roselle
  • 1 tablespoon sesame, coconut or other oil + more for blending
  • A tablespoon of sliced shallot or onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Half inch piece of ginger
  • 3 dry red chilies, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • Half teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
Method:

Make sure the leaves are completely dry after rinsing. You can do this by spreading them out on sheets of napkins for an hour or so. Dry-roast the plucked leaves in a flat pan in batches. You do not want them to steam, just quickly dry up and darken as they roast. Once all the leaves are dried and roasted in this manner, return them to the pan with a bit of oil to sauté. Remove them to a plate.

Meanwhile roast the dry spices (mustard, fenugreek, red chili) until darkened. Let them cool a few minutes then give them a whirl in the spice grinder to get a powder. Peel and roughly chop the garlic, ginger and shallot. Throw them into the blender along with the salt, the leaves, and the dry spices. The blender will probably need some liquid to make the blades go; for this, add some more of the oil, rather than allow any water to come near.

Save in a jar and label it so you don’t forget to eat it!


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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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