Thursday, January 31, 2008

Indian meals

When we visited India last summer, we were all a little worried that my kids were a bit too Americano, in that they hardly ate any good Desi food for a couple of days. Since India - Madras anyway - now had pasta and pasta sauces in most grocery stores, they certainly didn't starve. I caught some flak for this behavior even though I insisted that they were perfectly well balanced Americans of Indian origin (with eating habits to match!) Well, last night I was thoroughly vindicated. The kids ate rice, chicken curry, cabbage and yogurt dinners. They even volunteered to try the spicy pickle - Dad was ecstatic (though he didn't go that far!)

Friday, January 25, 2008

Cutlets, Indian-style

I remember utterly confusing one of the kids' babysitters when I instructed her to serve them cutlets for dinner. Look as she might, she didn't see any cuts of meat in the fridge. After an unamusing 10 minutes on the phone, she found the patties that I insisted were cutlets - well, that's what an Indian calls them!


These cutlets are definitely not low-fat, since they're fried. However, you can always use exactly the same basic meat mixture to grill into kebabs. I'll have more on kebabs later! I have to classify cutlets as disappearing food. I was frying some up last night for today's lunch, and the kids saunter in and start eating them off the plate. I had to shoo them away, stating the "no eating after 7.30pm rule."

Ingredients:
Half a medium-sized red onion
One pound ground chicken (or turkey)
Four medium potatoes
One tablespoon salt
One tablespoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic paste
One egg
Bread-crumbs
  • Finely chop the onions and mix in the salt, garam masala, cumin powder and garlic paste
  • Let sit for 5 minutes, then mix in the ground meat
  • Beat the egg, which will serve as the binding for the bread crumb coating on the patties. Smooth the breadcrumbs into a layer on a platter
  • Boil the potatoes till they are soft (around 15 minutes should do the trick), skin them, mash them and let them cool. When they are at room temperature, mix the mash into the meat mixture
  • Start heating oil in a small pan, with about a half-inch of oil so the patties can be half-submerged in it
  • Roll the mixture into circular patties, dip them in the egg and roll them in the breadcrumbs
  • Pop the patties into the oil and let cook for about three minutes on each side
  • When evenly browned, take them out of the oil and place them on a napkin to seep away excess oil
  • It's ready to serve
  • If you're serving to grown-ups, cutlets taste great with onions steeped in vinegar with a touch of oil


Thursday, January 24, 2008

You say Kurma...I say Khorma, let's not call the whole thing off

The down-side to shopping with FreshDirect is that I inevitably go a little crazy and order up a bunch of stuff. This time, there are 3 quarts of skimplus milk to finish - right after the two other open quarts in the fridge. I stared at the copious amounts of carrot, broccoli, onion and potato on my counter top and decided I was going to cook up a vegetable khurma. I had memories of my mother's khurma in my head, but it did mean bringing down the blender, so I opted instead to look for a couple of recipes online just to see what my options were. Here are two completely different recipes that I liked: http://www.recipezaar.com/7801 (seemed a little on the fattening side!) and http://arundathi-foodblog.blogspot.com/2007/05/vegetable-kurma.html

I landed up with a rather simple recipe all my own, that I guess doesn't quite qualify as a khurma, but worked really well with rice.
Ingredients:
Two teaspoons cumin seeds
Three tablespoons olive oil
Two bunches of brocolli
Four large potatoes
One bag of baby carrots
One large red onion
Two teaspoons garam masala
Two tea spoons coriander powder
One tablespoon of salt
Half a cup of milk
Chopped tomatoes (I use a 26oz carton of Pomi Chopped Tomatoes)

  • Chop the potatoes into half-inch cubes, and cut the brocolli flowerets into individual bits. Cut the onion into thin slices
  • Start by heating the oil in a deep pan, and popping the cumin seeds in the oil
  • Fry the onion in that flavored oil, and when it starts to brown, toss in the garam masala and coriander powder and fry for a couple of minutes
  • Add in the chopped tomato and cook for a couple of minutes
  • Stir in the vegetables - start with potatoes and carrots, wait for about 10 minutes and then add in the brocolli
  • Once the brocolli is in, give the whole curry a good 10 minutes to cook properly. Then stir in the yogurt and take it off the flames (otherwise, you might see the yogurt separating out rather unattractively)

Nothing fancy, but very tasty!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Winter Grilling at 24° F

It was an extremely cold MLK day this year, and we stayed indoors. We'd hoped to spend the morning swimming, but that fell through as we waited for friends to join us. Instead, we chose to break out our indoor grill. It's a handy dandy, smokeless grill that gets us thinking of the summer even as biting cold winds blow outdoors.

D&K watched as I sliced up the salmon into chunks (2" x 3" x 1"), and helped squeeze lime juice out into pans, added turmeric and salt to one pan, and chilli powder, turmeric and salt into the other pan. The first was the marinade for the kids' batch, and the second for the grown-ups. I use Tupperware with lids for marinading, since it allows you to close the box and shake the meat/ fish and marinade around well and evenly coat the meat. We also halved some white mushrooms and beefsteak tomatoes, and marinaded them in a soy-based seasoning sauce. It takes less than a half-hour for the fish and veggies to take on the marinade flavors. Since we were doing all this on the fly, I can vouch for that (don't over-power the fish and veggies with too much marinading.) I also quartered medium-sized red onions and placed them on the grill. If your grill has a solid portion, choose that for veggies, since it's not like there's fat to drain or any such thing.
Ingredients:
Two pounds of Salmon fillets
One lime (half each for each marinade)
Half a teaspoon of turmeric for each marinade
One teaspoon of salt for each marinade
Half a teaspoon of chilli powder for the grown-up marinade
Maggi seasoning sauce for the vegetable seasoning

Remember to brush the grilling surface with a light coat of olive oil before placing the fish and veggies on it. Even though the grill was at high heat, it was safe enough for the kids to help place the fish and veggies on the grill (make sure there's a lot of hand-washing happening, of course!) Remember to brush the veggies with olive oil every so often, since they tend to get rather dry if ignored. The platter of food shown here was polished off in one short sitting!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rajma (Red Kidney Beans)

Kidney beans are high on fiber and iron, with one cup providing ~50% of your daily dietary fiber needs, and ~30% of your iron quota. An added benefit is that it tastes fantastic (unlike the health food Ezikiel cereal I bought yesterday..."Umm, gravel..." said my husband as he chomped into it this morning!)

I picked up a bag of rajma (red kidney beans) a couple of weeks ago. It's easier if you buy canned kidney beans, but it's easy enough to cook the beans from scratch.

Ingredients:
Two cups of red kidney beans (or two cans of kidney beans)
One onion
One tomato
One teaspoon of coriander powder
One teaspoon of garam masala
Half a teaspoon of turmeric
Two teaspoons of salt

  • Soak two cups of kidney beans in 6 cups of water, since the beans expand - soak it overnight
  • After the 8 to 10 hours of soaking, drain the beans. If using canned beans, you don't need to have soaked the beans, of course!
  • Start by boiling the kidney beans in a pot in fresh water for around 20 minutes with a teaspoon of salt and a half teaspoon of turmeric
  • Chop up the onion and fry it in a separate pan
  • When the onions turn golden, toss in a chopped tomato
  • As the tomato starts softening, add the rest of the dry ingredients (one teaspoon of coriander powder, one teaspoon of garam masala, one teaspoons of salt)
  • Once the onion, tomato and spice mixture softens and gets to a lumpy consistency, mix it into the boiling rajma
  • Stir in the spiced mixture. As the rajma softens, crush some of it - about two tablespoons - against the side of the pot, since that will give the curry some body (otherwise, you'll have the beans sitting separately for the watery liquid).
  • Test the rajma, but about 20 to 25 minutes on the stove should do the trick
Lunch today was interesting: I ate my Rajma rather conventionally with rice, K mixed it in with lettuce as his own impromptu salad dressing and D ate it with pasta shells!

Monday, January 14, 2008

The magic of the moving image...and cake time!

Saturday was S's brother's birthday, and the kids spent the morning creating a rather creative birthday card that looked like a cake! Two large circles for the top and bottom of the cake, a long strip and sticks to give the cake depth and lots of pompoms for the decoration.
They then hopped off for a swim. I was straightening the house up and working on lunch with the TV at the background, not paying too much attention to what was on. When the kids troops back in, they start watching the Barefoot Contessa. Now that's good TV -- they landed up learning about rosemary, thyme, kitchen gardens and such. In addition, they got pretty caught up in the delicious images of her Carrot and Pineapple Cake, and decided that's another thing they wanted to make for their uncle (I suspect there a selfish agenda in there somewhere too!) I gave in after some cajoling, and went off to grab the ingredients. The end result of about an hour of messy collaboration between the three of us is in the picture above. It was delicious - kudos to D&K for their hard work and patience! I have to admit, I replaced the 1 1/3 cup of vegetable oil with a cup of butter and an extra egg (somehow, I can't ever bring myself to use oil in cakes.) NOT diet food, I must say, especially once you factor in the frosting. In the case of both the egg and the frosting, I cut down the sugar as well, and it didn't hurt the cake one bit (one cup of sugar instead of two for the cake and a half pound of confectioner's sugar instead of one for the frosting.) Also, I used canned pineapples which worked out well.

  • I had a hard time explaining how vanilla extract is made. I got pretty close, but some sites that do a good job of explaining are Vanilla Company and Recipezaar
  • Use aprons! D&K have some great ones as goddies from their friend Julian's party at apple seeds

Friday, January 11, 2008

Umm, (Spinach) Pie...

Young E was K's best friend when he was two, mostly because they got to egg each other onto all kinds of mischief at school. E's mom Suzanne, was famous for her Spinach pie - and I remember the kids wolfing it down at a school party. Suzanne was sweet enough to share the recipe with me. But, in the long tradition of women in my family, I admit I tinkered with the recipe from day one and - dare I say?- made it my own. Suzanne, if you're reading this, could you add your original recipe and commentary to this post?
Here's my version.

Ingredients:
One medium sized egg
One egg white
One cup Bisquick
Half a cup of cheese (I think Suzanne's original recipe called for Parmesan, but I've been equally successful with Cheddar, and more pungent flavors like Gruyere with great results)
Half a cup of oil (Vegetable oil, in Suzanne's case. I've preferred melted butter, but also have used olive oil for a truly fragrant dish)
One pack of frozen spinach (approx. 10 oz) OR about two cups of any diced, crunchy vegetable. I've worked with peas, beans and carrots to good effect!
Pepper to taste (a pinch should do)


  • Preheat your oven to 375°. My little Black and Decker toaster oven has been a whiz to bake with, and I don't often bother with my larger stove-top oven
  • Start defrosting the spinach. Once defrosted, drain the excess water
  • Try and use a bake-safe glass bowl or casserole dish - a 5" or 6" dish should do, though it should be around 3" deep, since the pie will rise. I try to be as economical as possible in the use of dishes, since I'm obsessed with conserving water AND about being good to my husband and brother-in-law, who are the designated dish-washers at our home!
  • Get the kids to participate: They'll have a blast learning how to separate the egg yolk from the white, and then beating the ingredients together
  • Beat the egg and egg white well. Once the eggs are a little frothy, mix in the oil/butter and then fold in the Bisquick. Make sure it isn't too lumpy
  • Fold in the cheese and spinach and stir well to make sure the spinach and cheese are evenly distributed
  • Pop in the oven and bake for around 25 minutes, till you get a nice golden crust. Test at the center of the dish with a fork to make sure it's fully cooked

The pie is a favorite school lunch for the kids, since it's yummy, neat and easy to handle. I'm happy because it gets them spinach in all it's glory, and I hardly ever have leftovers! Also, the prep time is less than 10 minutes, so you can read, put your feet up or run around with the kids while the pie bakes!

Some caveats:
- If you're going with olive oil, then stick to one of the simpler cheeses so that the flavors don't overpower each other
- D&K are very active kids who are into swimming, karate and dance. If you're worried about about weight gain, I'd skip this recipe OR make it a rare treat. The chicken with spinach dish may be a better way to get some greens in the diet
- I don't often have the issue of having to reheat the pie (it disappears....) If you've had to refrigerate leftovers, take them out and let them get to room temperature before a quick reheat, since the pie tends to get a little mushy if reheated for too long

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Cabbages for my prince (and princess)

Was chopping into a cabbage last night, en route to whipping up a simple sauteed veggie dish to go with the rotis and fish and realized that it's so simple to go right with vegetables. Yes, go right. Don't get me wrong. I lived in England for more than 3 years, so know how easy it seems to be to go very wrong with veggies. (Ugh, those slops of boiled cabbage they served! Drove me to cooking, they did!)

I can't remember a single meal where we didn't have a vegetable side dish - my mom's beans are to die for! The distinction in Indian cooking is the flavor infused in the oil, and the simple additive that enhances the dish.

I washed the cabbage ahead of time, since you don't want any splattering oil. Also, you do not wash leafy veggies after cutting them, since that leaches away a good bit of their nutrients. Then you set about with the 5 minutes of cooking that gives you a lovely, nutritious side-dish.

Ingredients include: half a cabbage, oil (I prefer olive oil), salt, turmeric, mustard seeds and unsweetened coconut flakes (optional)
  • Slice half a medium-sized cabbage into long thin strips
  • In a medium non-stick pot, start heating a table-spoon of oil. Test the oil with one mustard seed, if it pops, toss in 2 pinches of them (around 10 to 15 seeds)
  • Once they pop, mix in the cauliflower. Stir well, to make sure all of the cabbage gets a thin coating of the oil. Pop in a half tea spoon of salt, and a quarter tea spoon of turmeric
  • Sir in very little water (maybe 2 table spoons at the most.) The cabbage has enough moisture within it to cook well
  • With about 8 minutes on a medium flame, you've got a tasty veggie dish
  • A nice additive is a quarter cup of coconut flakes. Make sure the flakes you have are not sweetened. Sometimes, it's worth soaking about a quarter cup in a little water and squeezing out the "first milk" from the coconut. That way, you don't land up with sweet cabbage. Just toss it into the cooked cabbage and mix it in for an added twist. If you're watching your cholestrol, skip this step!
  • You can use the coconut milk for other dishes such as a curry or even to flavor your rice as it boils

Monday, January 7, 2008

Shopping for ingredients in Manhattan

I've had a couple of enquiries about where to pick up ingredients for recipes I've shared here. I have my favorite store - the appropriately names Little India Grocery - which is an artifact of my having worked around the corner for seven years. At 128 E. 28th St (on 28th Street, closer to Lexington), the store is chock-a-block with all kinds of ingredients from "back home." Another store with a lot of these ingredients, is Kalustyan's (Lexington, between 28th and 29th), which may feel a little neater.

Of course, the largest selection and range of products are at places like the legendary Patel Brothers in places like Queens and Edison, New Jersey. Ditto for the wonderfully named Subzi Mandi chain (literally, "vegetable market"). We go to those places when we find ourselves there with a rental car, but otherwise, have to make do with whatever's in Manhattan. I wish there were a Indian store in the Upper West Side. Sigh.

Just as a general practice, always check expiry dates - I'm not impugning these grocery stores, just making sure you're looking to get the freshest ingredients.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A fun tilapia recipe

I picked up a pound-and-a-half tilapia this morning. In my opinion, salmon is the perfect fish. It's great grilled western style or with Indian spices, fried crisp or as a curry. Tilapia is one I'm just getting used to, and it definitely seems to stand up to some of my usual preparations.

I'm from Kerala, in Southern India. A relatively thin sliver of land defined by the ocean and backwaters, as well as green paddy fields and coconut palms. Of course, there's the rampant unemployment, political ferment, etc. But that's for another blog. It's the fish that I remember - fried, curried, fried then curried, cooked wrapped in banana leaves, the list goes on.

I marinated a pound of the tilapia in tamarind sauce, salt, chilli powder and turmeric. For a pound of fish, I used about four tablespoons of tamarind concentrate, a half tea spoon of chilli powder, a quarter teaspoon of turmeric and a tea spoon of salt. Add a dash of red wine vinegar if it the marinade needs some liquid (depends on how thick the tamarind concentrate is). This is a spicy curry, so tone down the tamarind and chilli powder if you're making this for the kids. When I make curry for the kids, I only add about a tea spoon of turmeric and replace the chilli powder with a pinch of pepper instead.
Fish curry
Ingredients:
1 pound of fish (tilapia and salmon)
1 large onion
1 tea spoon of mustard seed
2 table spoons olive oil
1/2 spoon chilli powder (optional)
1/4 tea spoon of turmeric
1 table spoon of salt
1 cup of yogurt
4 table spoons of tamarind concentrate
Red wine vinegar (optional)
4 to 6 curry leaves (optional, you would find them in the fresh vegetables section of an Indian grocery)

Prep:

  • Slice the fish into 1 inch cubes and marinate in the tamarind concentrate, salt, turmeric and chilli
  • Slice the onion thinly
  • In a small pot, heat oil and pop the mustard seeds. When they have popped, fry the onion till lightly browned
  • Pop in the marinaded fish, with the marinade
  • Cook for 10 minutes, till the pieces of fish turn white (under the coating of the spices, of course!)
  • Add a cup of yogurt to add some body to the curry. Pop in the curry leaves (optional)
  • Mix well, taking care to not break the fish pieces. It should be done as soon as the whole curry comes to a boil

The kids really enjoy fish grilled or fried. In those cases, I marinate the fish (cliched into smaller pieces) in salt, turmeric and a pinch of pepper. For a half-pound, use a half tea spoon of salt, and two pinches of turmeric, pepper to taste. I usually lightly fry the fish (just a table spoon full of oil, in a non-stick pan.)

A good Keralite would eat these dishes with white rice, but they are great with couscous, bread or Indian bread.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Magic of One

Baking is a favorite Sturday afternoon activity. It's a great treat, especially on days when the kids have had a strenuous morning (in our case, swimming or park time.) Today, we cooked up cookies, with a bit of a short-bread taste. The following recipe has an elegance to it, that comes from the uniformity of the ingredients we use. It comes from memories of baking with my own mom, as well as various other sources (I'm sure you'd find many online recipes that look a little like this one.) It's just something I cook up with my kids almost instinctively.

Simple Cookies
Ingredients:
1 cup self-raising flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 tea spoon baking soda
1 egg
1 stick of unsalted butter
1 tea spoon strawberry essence
1 half-teaspoon salt
(All about the number 1, see?!)

  • If you're working with multiple kids, make sure that they know ahead of time what their roles are. In my case, D is in charge of the "wet" ingredients (eggs, sugar and butter batter), and K in charge of the dry ones. They also know that they need my help when using the hand-held beater. Have them choose their favorite decorations, etc., to build the anticipation
  • In a glass bowl, beat the butter, sugar and essence together till crumbly, then add the egg and beat till smooth. I love my little Cuisinart 9-speed hand-held beater
  • Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together
  • Mix the dry ingredients (second bullet) into the wet (first bullet above), a spoon at a time, beating all the time
  • Start pre-heating the oven to 350°
  • Spoon the batter onto baking sheets, a table-spoon of batter should get you a nice-sized cookie. Leave at least a half-inch around all sides of each dollop, since the batter will spread out as it cooks. I tend to use Reynolds wrap on the baking sheet since that makes it much easier to clean up, and you don't need to butter the baking sheet
  • An optional step is to have the kids add in their decorations. D uses her dragon sprinkles, and K uses his rainbow sprinkles
  • Bake the cookies for 12 minutes, till they get to be a nice golder-brown. Take them out, and pop them off the sheets to serve!

You should have about 20 cookies (depends on how big the dollops are - ours are never uniform!) It's loads of fun, and if you draw out the prep time, you can make this into a 1 hour activity. If in a rush, it won't take more than 20 minutes of mommy cooking time!

Kitchen Timesavers

Saw this article on LifeHacker, a cool "get things done" site, that had a bunch of interesting tips. Some I knew from watching mom - a whiz at innovating in the kitchen (she'd be able to add a bunch of new ideas in the garlic section) - but some were new. I'm planning to try out the ice cube advice - to freeze extra herbs with just enough water to lock them in. I can't wait. I've always hated just freezing curry leaves (turns then an unattractive brown), and tend to waste mounds of mint (pudhina) once I've used the pinch needed for the dish. Now anymore!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pappads

The Potato chips and Lays that are the American child's best friend would get a run for their money if Pappads ever got a fair chance here. Granted, they don't come ready to eat (I don't think) and bring up the spectre of hot oil to anyone who's had to make them...BUT, wow, what a tasty treat! Typically served as part of the meal in most South Indian culinary traditions, Pappads (Appalum or Pappadum depending on where in India you're from) are round wafers made from rice and lentils.

In the '80s, my mother and I would drive out to Mylapore, one of the old areas of Madras (now Chennai, India) to the tiny little Ambika Appalam store about once every month or so. She's buy a pack of 500 pappads. We'd fry about 20 of them for each lunch or dinner, and they always vanished. They were deep-fried, and I'm guessing that we weren't being too calorie conscious. However, since the main meal was rather well balanced (some rice, a lentil-based curry, copious amounts of vegetables, fish, etc.), the pappads less positive effect must have been nullified....

I bought a bundle of papads at Edison last week, and the kids got some with their rice and puzhuku. They loved it. A healthy option would be to buy one of the flavored pappads (pepper or cummin, for example), heat an over to around 170, and roast the pappad till lightly browned OR till it puffs up in patches. The time needed will depend on the size and thinckness of the pappad. My sister has figured out a way to zap pappads in the michrowave - more on that soon.



Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year, and Happy Memories

We fell asleep at around 4 am this morning, exhausted but happy to have had a lovely bunch of pals take over at our place for the evening. I hope the new year brings great cheer and good health to all....


Like most people, I tend to get pretty nostalgic at the turn of the year, a condition exacerbated by it being so close to my birthday as well. Something about Indian food makes it central or at least a significant player in most memories - the flavor of a dish, the whiff of a spice on mamma's saree, the slight smell of garam masala as she walked past, dad's perfect tea-making, grandma's stories from the Ramayana told to you at dusk over ghee rice balls.... As I ducked into my kitchen yesterday morning, I glimpsed a bag of Mung Dal (or Moong Dal.) It reminded me at once about evenings in Madras, where mom would whip up the best "Puzhukoo" or moong dal curry with chappati (India think bread). I'd ladle a bowl-full of it that I took in to keep me company as I finished my home-work, then a small bowl to accompany a TV show, and then had just enough space for a small bowl of it with half a chappati for dinner. Of course, her preparation was a little more elaborate than mine, but I've tried to recreate the taste and get pretty close. Try it, you'll get addicted, as will the kids in your life. Introduce them to strong flavors, in this case garlic in all its glory.
Ingredients: 1 cup of moong Dal (should be available in most health food stores, though I picked mine up at one of grocery stores in Oak Tree Road, Edison), coconut powder (I use Krafts), 3 large garlic cloves, coconut oil, turmeric powder and salt. Cumin powder and ghee add to the taste, but are not essential.


  • Start by boiling one cup of moong dal in 3 cups of water, with a tea spoon of salt, and a pinch of turmeric
  • Once it comes to a boil, reduce the flame so medium and cook for around 20 minutes, till the dal becomes soft to the touch
  • Stir in 2 table spoons of coconut powder and a pinch of cumin powder
  • Thinly slice the garlic and fry it till brown in 2 tablespoons of coconut oil. Toss this into the dal
  • The dish is done when some of the dal dissolves, giving the whole dish a thick consistency

While the truly careful cooks could get the same effect by halving the coconut powder and coconut oil used, I was definitely focused on matching the taste of my mothers cooking! Given that I don't do this often, I serve the dal mixed in well into steaming rice with a teaspoon of ghee. Disappearing food! On the side was the irreplaceable Ambika Papdum... (more on Papads later!)