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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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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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.

My slimy old pal, stuffed

Stuffed okra

Stuffed

Here is a riddle for all you wonderful folks. Two cousins. One is hairy, one is slimy. I have talked about the hairy one quite a bit recently. The slimy one doesn’t get much love because many people object to its sliminess. Fear not! There are many ways to make it unobjectionable.

Here is the hairy one. And here is the slimy one. Both from the mallow family.
Cousins

OK I have dragged this one out enough. Of course, the hairy one is cotton. But the slimy one is the subject of today’s recipe — okra. The slime is a form of soluble fiber that has many benefits, from slowing absorption of glucose (diabetics take note) to capturing toxic bile and helping with constipation.

Now okra is often not popular. When I mentioned to my husband that okra and cotton were from the same plant family, he said, ‘no wonder okra tastes like cotton’. Funny guy.

But here’s the thing. You can do one of several things. You can use okra in recipes that absolutely thrive on its sliminess and use it to give cohesion to soups and stews. Like gumbo. Or, you can fry and crisp it up. Once you do that, no one would guess at the great gobs of sticky runny goo that normally erupts out of okra pods.

Or, you could do this.

Okra stuffed with spices (Bharela bhindi)

For this dish, the okra pods are left whole. A slit is made along the length of the pod with a paring knife, taking care to leave a pocket, not bust through to the other side. Stuff the pocket full of spices. Fry it. This process seems to dissolve the sliminess as well and makes it a delicious meal with some roti or rice and dal on the side.

While picking okra one has to be careful to pick the very young pods, where the ribs have not turned fibrous and woody (once that happens, there is no going back, and you will not enjoy eating them). A gentle squeeze while selecting them at the market will tell you if the pods are still young. The pods I found at the farmers market are from a variety that has been bred to have minimal ribs, and can be left on the plant longer without risk of turning woody. Nevertheless, I did find one or two that had, and I discarded them.

Pound of okra pods

Pound of okra pods

Whole spices

Whole spices

Roasting spices

Roasting spices

All spices mixed in a bowl

All spices mixed in a bowl

Pocket

Pocket

Stuffing the pocket

Stuffing the pocket

Stuffed and ready to go

Stuffed and ready to go

Frying

Frying

Add onion

Add onion

Done

Done

Stuffed okra/bharela bhindi

Ingredients for the spice mix:
  • 2 teaspoons whole coriander
  • 2 teaspoons whole cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole fenugreek seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
  • 2 whole red chilies, more if you like
  • 1 teaspoon dry mango powder (aamchur)
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon asafetida
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili (if you want more heat) or paprika (for color and flavor)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Ingredients for okra
  • 1 pound okra pods
  • 3 tablespoons oil
  • 1/4 onion, sliced (optional)
Method

Roast the whole spices from coriander to red chilies in a thick-bottomed pan, just until an aroma arises. Take it off the heat, wait a few minutes for them to cool and grind in a clean coffee grinder. Now mix in the powdered spices from the dry mango powder to the salt.

Wash and completely dry the okra. Take off the very top, the hat that looks like a beanie where the okra is attached to the stem. Using a sharp paring knife, make a slit along the length of the pod, stopping a little short on both ends, to make a pocket. Fill each okra with the spice mixture. A small spoon is very helpful for this. Then using your fingertips, spread spices nicely inside the pocket.

Once all the okra pods have been stuffed, heat the oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan. When it shimmers, lay the okra pods flat in a single layer. Let them cook on medium-high heat for 10 to 15 minutes until each side is browned. Once in a while give them a turn with tongs or a spoon. Mostly just leave them be.

When they look pretty much browned, squished and done, throw in the onions. The onions only need to cook for a minute or two, the hot pan will soften them quickly. They do not need to brown. Turn off and cover the pan for a few minutes to allow the steam to finish the job.


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Gujarati kadhi to soothe the heart of beasts

Gujarati Kadhi

Gujarati Kadhi

I must have had a stressful week at work because this is my second post about comfort food with rice.

It is probably foolhardy to attempt a definition, but ‘kadhi’ is a boiled liquid of yogurt and chickpea flour that is made in various ways all over India. It combines the sourness of yogurt with the body added by the chickpea flour, and some sweetness, usually. The result is so soothing that the aromas can bring the most hardened criminal rushing back home to his mother’s kitchen. While I’m not suggesting you use this for crime management anytime soon, it is certainly one of the simplest Indian recipes to put together for non-Indian cooks.

Now every region of India, even every micro-region, has its own version. But the salience of each of the few ingredients in this recipe is such that each cook’s kadhi will be a little different. The number of tablespoons of chickpea flour used makes a difference, as does the sourness of the yogurt you started with; also how much chili heat has been added or how much sugar.

I grew up eating lunch at Gujarati friends’ houses, so I have a special place in my heart for the Gujarati kadhi. It goes well with soft white rice or creamy khichdis. But we had it with Bhutanese black forbidden rice and green beans on the side.

This version is from Taste of Gujarat by Nita Mehta.

Paste of chili and ginger

Paste of chili and ginger

Blending yogurt, chickpea flour, turmeric, chili-ginger paste

Blending yogurt, chickpea flour, turmeric, chili-ginger paste

Whisking kadhi on stovetop

Whisking kadhi on stovetop

Kadhi ready to temper

Kadhi ready to temper

Tempering spices for kadhi

Tempering spices for kadhi

Cilantro

Cilantro

Kadhi done

Kadhi done

Kadhi over black rice

Kadhi over black rice

Gujarati Kadhi

Ingredients
  • 1 cup yogurt (sour is good)
  • 1 tablespoon chickpea flour (besan)
  • 1 – 3 fresh green chilies, as per your heat tolerence
  • Half inch piece of ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 piece of Indian jaggery, or 1 teaspoon honey, or 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • Some minced cilantro
  • Tempering:
    • 1 tablespoon ghee (substitute with oil)
    • 1 small piece cinnamon
    • 4 cloves
    • 5-6 curry leaves (if you don’t have this leave it out)
    • 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
Method

Make a paste of the ginger and chili in a mortar and pestle. In a blender, put in the yogurt, the chickpea flour, turmeric, salt, the paste from above, and 1 cup water. Give it a whirl to combine. Put this soup in a pot and bring it to a boil. At this point you can add the sweetener. Let it simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes.

Now the kadhi is more-or-less done, all that is left is the tempering. Turn it off and cover it. Heat the ghee in a small pan. When fully melted and shimmering, put in the cinnamon and cloves; when they sizzle the cumin seeds; when that sizzles the curry leaves. They will shrivel up quickly. Turn off the heat and pour the ghee into the kadhi. Also add the minced cilantro (this does not need cooking). Stir nicely and enjoy with rice.

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.

An early summer beverage

Spiced buttermilk

Spiced buttermilk with cilantro flower

Summer has come early to San Francisco this year; sometimes it feels like it never left. With climate change looming, this is not as good news as it might seem. But let’s not worry our pretty little food-blogging heads about this just yet and cool off with this yogurt beverage.

Spiced buttermilk: Neeru majjige

This is another specialty from the southern state of Karnataka from my friend Rashmi. Just think — instead of reaching for a sugary soda you could cool down with a tall glass of spicy yogurty neeru majjige. Better to taste and way better for your body.

Ingredients for Neeru Majjige

All the ingredients

Blend it

Blend it

Strain it

Strain it

Squeeze dry

Squeeze this stuff dry

Spiced buttermilk

Done – spiced buttermilk

Spiced Buttermilk (Neeru Majjige)

Ingredients:
  • A cup of yogurt
  • A cup to cup and a half water
  • Quarter inch ginger
  • Half a green chili
  • Few sprigs cilantro
  • Quarter teaspoon salt
Method:

Simpler than simple. Blend all the ingredients together. Strain it. Squeee–eeee-ze the green remains dry. The mixture is a pale green, the squeezing will drip delicious light green drops on it. Refrigerate for half hour if you like.

Garnish with a sprig of cilantro, or like I did, a cilantro flower from the garden.

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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