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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Truly Tabouli

Tablouli

Tablouli

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

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

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

Things to watch for

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

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

Armed with these notions, we are ready.

Bulgur and salt

Bulgur and salt

Bunch of parsley

Bunch of parsley

Mincing parsley

Mincing parsley

Mint

Mint

Minced mint

Minced mint

Scallions

Scallions

Herbs piled up

Herbs piled up

Squeezing  a lemon

Squeezing a lemon

Bulgur added

Bulgur added

Pouring EVOO

Pouring EVOO

Tabouli

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

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

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

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

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


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Man meets bean: falafel results

Falafel

Falafel with chili paste and tzatziki

Let’s say you are a human being who has encountered a bean for the first time. I’m speaking of a bean with a hard shell, the kind that looks more like a pretty rock than anything to do with food. Your mission — find a way to turn it into food. What do you do?

You could boil it, of course. Boil it and boil it and boil it. This will work, and you will get a nice mushy meal.

Or you could keep that bean dry, and grind it into a fine powder. Then, you can use the resulting flour in all kinds of batters and doughs. This works too.

What else? Well, some creative people in the middle east decided on a third route. Soak it overnight, and when it is plumped up, grind it, and fry the resulting mash. This time it will be more like a dough that clumps together, rather than a fine powder, because the beans have drawn in all that water and gotten rather plump and soft with it. The only cooking the notoriously hard-to-cook bean will get is at the end, frying in a pan. Is that foolhardy? No, the soaking did most of the work.

"Il Falafel di Ramallah" by OneArmedMan - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Il Falafel di Ramallah” by OneArmedMan – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Well, well, falafel! That is what a falafel is, and the bean in question is the garbanzo bean (a.k.a. chickpea).

(Cooks in India discovered this trick also, but with a different bean: vadas are made by first soaking the split urad bean overnight and then wet-grinding it after).

Falafel, though, is made out of the whole garbanzo bean, soaked overnight. Parsley, onion and garlic are ground up along with the garbanzo for flavor. The resulting mash is bound with flour, or left as is. Balls made of this mash can be deep-fried or, as I did, patties formed in one’s palms can be shallow-fried. The result — an outside surface that is crunchy and satisfying, while the insides are still pliable and savory to the hilt.

Falafel: street food and mezze

Now you will agree that this is a pretty neat invention. Nifty, even. Tucked inside a pita bread, drenched with chili pastes and salads and strong stuff like onion, it makes a convenient item to eat while holding in one’s hand without ceremony. This is why falafel is known as the king of street food all over the middle east.

San Francisco has its own share of immigrants from all over the world, and of course we have our share of falafel food trucks and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Some are famous for their hot sauces, others for their pita, and yet others made their name for the pickled or fried vegetables that they tucked into the pita pocket.

Kan Zaman restaurant in SF (source: http://Pakibarbie.blogspot.com)

Erstwhile Kan Zaman restaurant in SF (source: http://Pakibarbie.blogspot.com)

Some serve falafel not as a sandwich or a wrap, but as one of a platter full of appetizers known as mezze. (This word, by the way, comes from the Persian mazze, the root of the Hindi mazza, meaning ‘fun’). One particular restaurant that ran for years near Haight Ashbury — and one that I sorely miss — served their falafel this way, on a giant brass platter with embossed designs, while you lounged on floor cushions and smoked flavored hookahs, and watched a raucous belly dance. Much as I love falafel, that was not the highlight of this particular establishment — it had so many others.

Soaking garbanzo beans and other ingredients

Soaking garbanzo beans and other ingredients

Everything in food processor

Everything in food processor

Ground up mash

Ground up mash

Add some spices

Add some spices

Mixture

Mixture

Pan-fry

Pan-fry

Flipped

Flipped

Stacked up

Stacked up

Served on pita

Served on pita

Falafel

  • Servings: About 10 patties
  • Print
Ingredients:
  • 1 cup dry garbanzo beans (a.k.a. kabuli channa, a.k.a chickpeas), soaked for 8-10 hours
  • 1/2 a medium onion
  • 3 fat cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed parley leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika or red chili powder (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon roasted cumin powder (optional)
  • Oil for pan-frying
  • 1-2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (optional)
Method:

Soak the beans overnight in four cups of water. The next day, they will have swelled enough to fill up almost the entire container. Drain and rinse.

Roughly chop the onion and garlic. Rinse, dry, and take tough stems out of the parsley. Put the beans and vegetables into a food processor, but make sure that everything is well-dried — one does not want extra liquid in the mash. Add salt and the optional spices. I needed two batches of processing.

The resulting mash should be able to clump together, and yet, not be dripping with liquid. At this point, you can add a tablespoon or two of dry flour if you like to bind it. I skipped this step.

When you are ready to fry, get a wide, thick-bottomed pan, preferably non-stick, nicely hot. Add oil generously. Spread oil on your hands and form the patties within your palms. You will need about a golf-ball sized amount of mash for one patty.

Lay it flat on the pan. It will sizzle. Press it flat with a spatula. When the underside seems browned (this will take about five minutes on medium-high heat), put a few drops of additional oil on the top (uncooked) surface of each and flip each gently. Another five minutes and you are done.

Alternatively, you can form balls and deep-fry them. You should make doubly sure that the mash is binding well with the added flour if this is your approach.

Have as a side or in a pita with tabouli (recipe forthcoming), chili pastes, and tzatziki (recipe forthcoming)


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I submitted this recipe to the Virtual Vegan Linky Potluck!

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.

‘Tis the season for Cranberry Pickle

Cranberry pickle

Cranberry pickle

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

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

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

Cranberries cut in half

Cranberries cut in half

Cranberries

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

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

Cranberry pickle

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

Cranberries with salt and red chili

Cranberries with salt and red chili

Tossed with spices

Tossed with spices

After a week, dehydrated

After a week, dehydrated

Add cracked fenugreek seeds

Add cracked fenugreek seeds

In a jar

In a jar

Cranberry pickle

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

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

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

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


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Burmese broth with bitter greens

Burmese broth with bitter greens

Burmese broth with bitter greens

Two things that I’m having a lot of fun discovering — one is Burmese cuisine with its fishy umami and floral flavors . The other is the leaves of the bitter melon. I can’t decide which to be more excited about; but when you combine them? An explosion of flavors!

So let me tell you what I know about both. I have always loved the bitter melon (karela). This is a cousin of your garden-variety cucumbers and cantaloupes, but its seeds are large and hard, its skin is bumpy, and its flesh is scanty and bitter. Certainly for special tastes; but once your tongue has learned to love it, you really love it.

Bitter melon grrens

Bitter melon greens

But then, I recently discovered that its leaves are edible too. One finds them at the farmer’s markets in San Francisco that serve an ethnic clientele. They are sold in giant bunches for a dollar. I leave with my wallet almost intact, and my shopping bag full to bursting with greens, the tendrils spilling over the top.

One of the most enchanting things about buying a bunch of bitter melon greens is the baby gourds one finds attached to some shoots. Normally the gourds are at least six inches long, but with every purchase you also get some baby gourds, some no bigger than your finger tip. These can be thrown into the pot along with the greens, they do not need much cooking.

A baby bitter melon compared to an onion

A baby bitter melon (karela) compared to an onion

Those of you who want to like dandelion leaves, but find that they are just a little too bitter to enjoy, might love the bitter melon leaves. They only have to be cooked long enough to wilt, and have a complex, grassy bitter-tinged flavor.

Now about Burmese cuisine. I admit I don’t know much about it but I’m starting to learn. I recently got a Burmese recipe book; but rather than make any recipe from it, I tried to understand the techniques and flavors and tried to imbue this particular broth with the Burmese gestalt. At the risk of causing derisive laughter among any Burmese readers, I made what I like to think of as a Burmese broth. Unlike Indian food, it only gently cooks onions; it uses lemongrass infusion; and it uses fish sauce instead of the more Chinese soy.

We loved it with some white rice. please let me know in comments if you did too.

Soften vegetables

Soften vegetables

Vegetables in pot

Vegetables in pot

Softened

Softened

Lemongrass

Lemongrass

Add greens

Add greens

Serve

Serve

Burmese broth with bitter melon greens

Ingredients:
  • Leaves and baby gourds from 1 bunch of bitter melon greens (about 4 cups)
  • 4 big cloves garlic finely minced
  • 2 medium tomatoes sliced
  • 1 chili sliced
  • half onion diced or sliced
  • 1 cleaned stalk of lemongrass (optional)
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1.5 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • salt to taste
Method:

Put oil, onions, tomatoes, garlic and chili all together in a thick-bottomed pot and cook gently until softened (about ten minutes). The tomatoes should have liquefied and somewhat dried by now, if not cook a few minutes longer. Now add the broth, the fish sauce, and the lemongrass. Bring to a boil and simmer for ten minutes or so. Add the greens, and allow them to wilt. Turn off the heat.

Serve in soup bowls, with soup spoons and chopsticks for lifting the greens, and some white rice on the side.

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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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Is it a wrap? A donkey? No–it’s a superbaby…burrito!

Made-from-scratch burrito

Made-from-scratch burrito

When I was new to California, Indian friends who had arrived before me told me eagerly about the exciting new cuisines they had sampled around the Bay Area. It became a bit of a parlor game to find the cuisine ‘most like Indian food’ — which meant, in practice, the most highly flavored with spices. People mentioned Thai food and Ethiopian food as contenders. One strong contender that kept coming up was the Mexican burrito.

Of course, I was told about it from an Indian point of view. Imagine this, friends told me, rice and dal wrapped inside a roti! What could be better! The ‘dal’ in question was refried beans and the ‘roti’ was a tortilla. My friends were talking about the Mission Burrito (=’little donkey’), a fat wrap invented in San Francisco from Mexican ingredients, a cheap and healthful all-in-one meal.

The Mission Burrito is meant to be customized. You stand at the counter while your food server moves through an assembly line with a tortilla laid flat in front of her. You can choose or decline each ingredient. Rice is in. You choose your meat, or none. You choose your beans. I quickly learned that I preferred black beans to refried or whole pinto beans. Shredded iceberg lettuce and cheese are usually turned down by me, but are a yes for most.

Fresno chilies growing in my yard

Fresno chilies growing in my yard

Then, if you didn’t forget to use the keyword ‘super’ you get the big payoff. The supremacy of the super burrito lies in having all kinds of blandishments added to it — salsa, guacamole, sour cream, hot sauces, heaps of onion and cilantro. For a recent immigrant from India (me, then) — the word ‘super’ meant ‘chutneys’. Fantastic. Then the tortilla is folded into a roll, tucked in at each end, and wrapped in double layers of foil. It can be eaten on the go, with no forks, plates, even napkins around.

People know Silicon Valley for its technical innovations, but its burrito innovations are not far behind. Some places are famous for offering beef brain and beef tongue in the choice of meats. Some offer vegetables grilled on the spot. Many have adopted whole-wheat, spinach or tomato tortillas. One of my favorite taquerías offers cooked cactus (nopales) upon request. A ‘naked’ burrito is served in a bowl, without a tortilla wrapped around it. A ‘baby’ burrito is a smaller sized tortilla, suitable for lunch for a smaller-sized person.

But here’s the other thing about the Bay Area…we must make this at home, from scratch! So here we go.
IMG_3051

Whole-wheat vegan superbaby burrito

For the tortilla I just made an Indian-style whole-wheat roti/chapati that added a nice wheaty complexity to each bite. They were smaller than the regular tortilla size, making this a ‘baby’ burrito. I bought dry black beans and soaked them overnight, then pressure-cooked them for 15 minutes to have the most luscious, earthy, non-metallic tasting black beans ever. The rice was cooked using the liquid drained from the tomatoes. The hot sauce came from this recipe for Mexican hot sauce. For the guacamole I used a nice large Californian Hass avocado. Cilantro and Fresno chilies from my garden. A mix of green zebra and early-girl tomatoes for the salsa. I made it vegan but my husband added some cheddar cheese. You could add sour cream or thick homemade yogurt, whisked.

Yes, it certainly had some Indian flavors….

Black beans soaking

Black beans soaking

Black beans cooked

Black beans cooked

Black beans

Ingredients:
  • 1/4 dry black beans
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
Method:

Soak the black beans over night or for about 6 hours. If you are short on time, soak them in near-boiling water for an hour. Drain and pressure-cook for 15 minutes with 1/2 cup water. Add the salt after it is done cooking.

Tomatoes for salsa fresca

Tomatoes for salsa fresca

Tomatoes draining

Tomatoes draining

Onion, chili, cilantro

Onion, chili, cilantro

Salsa Fresca

Ingredients:
  • 4 small tomatoes or 2 medium
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped hot green chili
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced cilantro
  • Lime juice from half a lime
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Dice the tomatoes and place them in a strainer with some salt mixed in, and allow to drain for half an hour or so. Collect the drained liquid in a bowl, this will be used later for the rice to add a subtle tomato-ness. Meanwhile finely chopped the onion, chili and cilantro. Once the tomatoes seem to be done draining liquid, mix it in with the onion, chili and cilantro. Add lime juice, mix, taste, and adjust for salt.

Beautiful Hass avocado

Beautiful Hass avocado

Garlic, chili, cilantro

Garlic, chili, cilantro

Guacamole

Ingredients:
  • One large avocado
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced chili
  • Juice of half a lime
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Finely mince the garlic, add some salt to it and leave it mixed with salt for about 10 minutes. In this much time it will have turned pasty and ‘cooked’ a little. Cube the avocado flesh, mix it all together with lime juice. You can mash the avocado if you like but I like to leave little chunks.

Rice in pot

Rice in pot

Done

Done

Mexican rice

Ingredients:
  • 1/3 cup rice
  • 2/3 cup water including the liquid drained from tomato
  • 1/4 onion, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon oil
  • Salt to taste
Method:

Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed pot. When it shimmers put in the minced onion, the cumin and paprika. Let them cook a few minutes on medium heat. Now in goes the rice. Stir to coat with oil. Next put in the water (including tomato liquid) and salt. Cover, bring to a boil, then simmer for 7 minutes. Turn off the flame and let it rest, covered, for a few minutes before opening the lid.

IMG_3054 IMG_3055 IMG_3057IMG_3063

Assembling the burrito

Ingredients:
  • 1 whole-wheat chapati/roti/tortilla
  • Some cheddar cheese, cubed (leave it out if you want it vegan)
  • Some rice
  • Some black beans
  • Some guacamole
  • Some salsa verde
  • Some hot sauce
Method:

I’ve left the amounts vague because you can customize each the way you want to. Layer the ingredients onto the roti laid out flat. Don’t overstuff it if you want a nice roll that you can bind securely. Fold in the two lateral edges to hold the fillings in place, then roll up the entire burrito starting at the bottom. Enjoy.

Found the Vegan Potluck folks who host a wonderful weekly vegan bash! That’s almost poetic. Entering this recipe there. 
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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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