Friday, December 31, 2010

Texas Caviar and Happy New Year 2011

Here's wishing all my readers a Happy New Year 2011. It is considered good luck to eat black eyed peas on New Year's day, especially in the Southern parts of America. Texas Caviar is popular in the Lone Star state as the name suggests, and thankfully has nothing to do with actual caviar. Although the typical 'chavLi AamTi' or 'chavLi UsaL' are popular dishes in our Maharashtrian kitchen, the texas caviar had not made an appearance as yet. Healthy, nutritious and easy to make, this is a great dish to take to a potluck, and that's where I first came across this wonder. This is so easy to make that it was always on the back burner..well, not

As always I scoured the web for recipes and there are several variations. I went with what I had available and made some changes to suit my tastes. Texas Caviar is generally doused in Italian dressing, but I made my own honey/chili dressing. I have used dry black eyed peas from scratch but you can of course use canned ones. The detailed recipe is as follows -

Ingredients -
1/2 lb or 250 g dry black eyed peas/chavLi/lobia
1 medium onion any colour
3-4 stalks scallions/green onions
1/2 -1 rib celery
1 green pepper
1 red/orange pepper
3-4 tomatoes
1 cup sweet corn


2 lemons juiced
1 Tbsp ACV
1 Tbsp chili powder( seasoning)
2 Tbsp EVOO
salt and pepper
1 Tbsp honey
1 tsp minced garlic optional

Method -

1) Soak the black eyed peas overnight or for 4-6 hours. These are less stubborn than beans, and do not need much soaking. Boil the peas until they are tender. Alternately, you can use canned black eyed peas. A note for vegetarians - be sure to check the contents/label of the can to see that they do not have bacon or ham etc.
2) Drain the cooked peas and set aside to cool. You can also do this in advance and refrigerate the peas until needed.
3) Chop all the vegetables - onion, green onions, celery, peppers, tomatoes. Use one whole stalk or half of the celery depending on the size and to your taste. Half a cup of celery will also give great flavour, and we do not want the celery to overpower everything else. You can use any kind of tomatoes or a can of chopped tomatoes even ( easy gets easier).
4) In a bowl, assemble the peas, all chopped veggies and corn(rinsed).
5) Prepare the dressing in a smaller bowl - add all the ingredients and beat with a whisk or fork until emulsified. You can either use plain or apple cider vinegar.
6) Add the dressing to the peas and veggies mixture and toss lightly to mix well. Do not use excessive force to avoid bruising the peas.
7) Refrigerate for 4-6 hours before serving. This gets better as it sits in the fridge and marinates.
It will taste better the next day.
8) Serve with tortilla chips and get ready to party.
9) Alternate serving suggestions - a) eat as a salad on its own b) Fill in a wrap c) Top your breakfast scramble etc.

Texas Caviar is a quick and easy tasty dish you can make anytime with common kitchen ingredients.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review: The Yellow Chilli Restaurant, Pune - Haven for spice lovers

The Yellow Chilli restaurant is situated in Lane 7 in Koregaon Park in Pune and is part of the Sanjeev kapoor brand. It means I suppose that Sanjeev Kapoor is the chef here and all recipes must be by him. The place has ample seating outside, and some inside. The place is somewhat crowded, perhaps due to many tables and people always walking around to and from the buffet tables. We went there on a holiday. This was my second visit to the place and some people in our party were going there for the fifth or sixth time.

The restaurant offers a lunch buffet for 375 without taxes, buffet + one soft drink costs 475, and then there is an option of unlimited beer with buffet for 899. The most irritating thing I find here is that they stop you at the entrance and ask you to fill out a form to write your name and your cell phone number, maybe ask some questions. This is kind of a dampener, 'coz you are all eager to go in and be seated and be wowed with something nice. There is an excess of people in various uniforms, and it is difficult to guage what they really do. After we were seated, we were offered the first two options, but not the third one of the unlimited beer etc. Perhaps they did not consider us able to shell out 899 per head? It is difficult to figure out the idiosyncracies of hotel staff, like why they do certain things.. Anyway, moving on..

The food options are limited here in my opinion. First of all, this is pure Indian food only, and there is no whiff of any alternate cuisine. There is one appetizer - veg or non-veg served at the table. For vegetarians, this has been some kind of fried potato both times -- a gnocchi sized small potato mixture deep fried. They have some salads etc. and a chat counter which is so-so. They generally have 4-5 vegetable curries and 3-4 meat/fish etc. dishes. The preparation is OK, and every thing tastes different, which is no mean feat, I suppose. The food is Very hot and Very spicy. I think they cater more to the local palette which seems to be their customer base. My own heat tolerance being low, I can hardly partake anything here without sniffling or without tears in my eyes. I think smaller children might find it tough too.

One factor that I use to guage any place is how long the food stays with you, or you have a 'heavy' feeling. I am not sure if any of you noticed, but sometimes you can eat a LOT, and then be hungry in 3-4 hours, and sometimes you eat very little, and still not want breakfast or lunch the next day. The food at Yellow Chilli seemed in this category. This could be due to a lot of oil or butter being used, or 'soda', or whatever.

Some other things were a bit 'wierd'. There were people taking soiled, half eaten plates to the buffet and using their 'used' hands to take more food on those plates. I think the restaurant should make an attempt to educate people about acceptable behavoir, at least in the interest of hygiene. It is common to write things on the menu or signs such as - use a fresh plate every time etc.

We were given a feedback form to fill out at the end, and the person kept hovering around us all the time. After submitting the card, he stood right there and read it all, and then questioned us on each point. Since I was in no mood to be given the third degree, I politely declined to explain, but the man persisted and kept questioning us. We finally had to ignore him and make an exit. This behavior was ridiculous. I think Mr.Sanjeev kapoor really needs to teach some soft skills to his employees.

Overall, the Yellow Chilli is a nice place if you are in the mood for hot and spicy Indian food, in a pleasant environment, but there are several other better options in this price range.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Makai Tikki - Sweet corn fritters

These makai tikkis are great as appetizers or cocktail snacks and go really fast. They can be simply served with ketchup or any chili sauce of your choice. Makai Tikkis or corn kebabs as some call them appeared on catering menus almost two decades ago, and were a delectable offering that were difficult to ignore. Now we see Makai tikki on almost every restaurant menu, but alas they are becoming unhealthier and tasteless day by day. The versions we get at the few take out places we frequent are mostly laden with some kind of flour, over spiced, and deep fried. You would be lucky to see any actual corn in them.

I had two large corn on the cobs ( or corns on the cob?) lying around, and a lazy saturday evening ahead. Everyone welcomed the thought of fresh munchies while watching a nice movie. The recipe is simple and lightly spiced, since sweet corn has a subtle flavour that can be easily overpowered by spices, and I wanted the natural corn flavour to come through. I am using partially creamed corn, but with a few kernels still intact, and then the usual base of potatoes and grated paneer. Paneer can absolutely be left out to veganize this dish. You can use tofu instead of paneer, though it will not give the same taste and texture. You can use half a cup cashew paste, however, to get a similar rich flavour. I am using fresh boiled corn, but frozen corn or canned corn will also do. The fresh will give the best flavour. Fresh minced garlic, and dried onion flakes along with some coriander powder provide the spice base.

I am using my favourite 'Appe patra ' or Ableskiever pan to make these. This pan is very handy and I get tikkis that are crispy on the outside using only a few drops of oil for each batch. You have to patiently keep turning the fritters or tikkis till you get uniformly crisped balls. You can always deep fry these, if you do not care about how much oil you use. Alternately, these can be placed in neat rows on a sheet pan, sprayed with PAM etc. and baked in a 350 deg oven ( turned periodically). I got about 4 batches i.e 28-30 of these from these recipes, but they disappeared pretty fast.

The detailed recipe is as follows -

Ingredients -

2 large corns on the cob or whole maize

2 medium potatoes

1 cup grated paneer

1 tsp minced fresh garlic

2 tsp dehydrated onion

1 tsp coriander powder

1 tsp cayenne pepper

2 TBsp rice flour or all purpose flour

salt and pepper


Method -

1) Boil or pressure cook the corn so that it is soft and cooked. Alternately you can boil frozen corn or use washed canned corn.

2) Remove the corn kernels from the cob using a knife ( tricky process) or plucking them individually with your fingers. Add this and 2-3 cloves garlic in the food processor and pulse through until most of it is a thick pulp but some corn kernels remain. This should yield about 2 cups of thick corn puree.

3) Boil, peel and mash 2 potatoes and add them to the corn mixture.

4) Add the grated paneer ( or cashew paste or tofu if substituting paneer).

5) Add all the spices as mentioned, flour, lots of black pepper and salt to taste. Use salt sparingly.

6) Mix everything together with a fork.

7)Heat the ableskieverpan and add a drop of oil to each mould.

8) Take some of the corn mixture in your palm and form small balls, slightly smaller than pingpong balls. You can of course, form these like patties and use a skillet or frying pan by all means.

9)Place the 'balls' in the pan moulds. Gradually turn them using a wooden skewer or fork tip until they are evenly browned.

10) Serve hot with ketchup or sauce of choice.

These makai tikkis or corn fritters or corn balls are very soft on the inside and literally melt in your mouth. These are great as a party appetizer and can also be served with a toothpick inserted in them.

I hope you try this recipe for makai tikkis and let me know how it turns out.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Vegetarian Three Pepper Fajita Burritos - homemade Mexican treat

oooohhh 'Fa-Hee-Taz'!! who doesn't love fajitas..Chili's has one effective ad, I am sure, because everytime the 'Chilis to Go' advertisement aired ( from a couple years ago I think) wooing you with how easily you could pick up a platter of smoking hot fajitas carside, I just wanted to run out, rain or snow, to get some for myself. No pizza ad had me drooling that much.

This is one thing that's readily available for vegetarians in hotels, thank god, and they are either stingy or generous depending on the place. Some chain restaurants just do not have any specific 'vegetarian' fajitas on the menu, and you have to order a meat one minus the meat. Then again depending on the whim of the cook I guess, you sometimes end up with just a few measly onions and peppers, and end up cursing yourself for ordering them. Some local Mexican joints, such as my favourite Mexico restaurant or Mi Hacienda in local Richmond actually have a seperate Vegetarian Fajitas on their menu, and treat you to a veritable feast with every possible vegetable from broccoli to mushrooms and what not on your platter.

My obsession with Fajitas started a very long time ago when I used to work at Mexican joint. They had two signature burritos called 'fajita' and 'mexicali'. The Fajita burrito had onions and peppers with your choice of meat and a very fattening but delish chipotle sauce( which moi had no idea was made of egg yolks), and the mexicali was seasoned mexican type rice with the sauce - and meat, of course! The flavour combination of grilled peppers and onions is unbeatable, and so natural. The slight spice of the pepper, the sweetness from the caramelization, the smokiness from the charring, oye!

Turning the time machine to the present, I had been dreaming about these fajitas for some time, and luckily there was a time when there were all sorts of coloured peppers in the ice box, and loads of onions, corn etc. - in general almost every grain and vegetable that was needed to turn out this delectable treat. The only thing missing was an avocado, that I spent and hour acquiring, which finally turned out to be raw, hence dashing my plans for guacamole :( . But hey, I guess you gotta lose some.

This is a detailed recipe where all the fixings are made from scratch, but doesn't take that long to put together, really. You roughly need the same amount of time to make a small or large batch of this. Leftovers are a MUST!! These can provide you lunch for the whole week, as burritos, salads, bowls etc. etc.

There are multiple ways you can serve this up -
1) Burrito Bowl - if you are interested in 'losing layers', just pile these on artistically one over the other in a bowl, or shallow plate, with lots of crunchy lettuce on top.
2) Taco salad - with or without the bowl - start with a large base of romaine or such, and then dish everything else on top
3) Fajita platter - everything here, plus some beans served with steamed tortillas
4) Burritos - wrap burritos and serve with some chips and salsa
5) soft tacos -You can also create soft tacos with your choice of these ingredients
.... and so on and so forth. The possibilities, my dear, are endless!!

I am listing the various things I made and then will give each recipe seperately -

1) pico de guile or 'pico'
2) corn salsa
3)mexican rice
4)grilled onions and peppers
5)grilled tofu
6) fresh tortillas ( courtesy mater)

Refried beans and guacamole are missing 'coz i decided to go beanless and the avocado turned on me.

We also decided to go sans cheese or sour cream and keep this totally vegan and healthy. We certainly did not miss it amidst all these fresh and flavourful homemade items.

The detailed recipes for each of the above follow -

1) Pico De Guile
I am not sure if I have spelt this correctly, but everyone knows this is the tomato intensive 'mild salsa' or tomato salad that goes with your burrito.

4-5 vine ripe or any tomatoes
1 small onion
1 jalapeno
1 Tbsp chopped cilantro or more per taste
pinch of sugar
half a lime juiced

1)Chop all the above and mix together. You can use canned chopped tomatoes in a bind, but fresh with always always taste best, especially the vine ripe ones. You can use a deseeded jalapeno and only a half one for a mild pico, and more if you like heat.
2) Add the lime juice and refrigerate in a covered bowl for at least an hour before eating. This will allow everything to blend and the tomatoes to soften a bit.

2) Corn Salsa

I just love this - adds a sweet element among other fiery ones.

1 can sweet yellow corn or 2 cups frozen thawed sweet corn kernels
1 onion finely chopped
1 small jalapeno deseeded and chopped
1 small tomato chopped
2 Tbsp cilantro finely chopped
1 tsp chili or taco seasoning
salt and pepper
juice of 1 lime

1)Wash corn well if using canned corn and get rid of the canning liquid. If using frozen corn, you may want to blanch it a bit.
2) Mix all the above ingredients together in a bowl. Add the seasonings and the Fresh lime juice. The chili or taco seasoning will give a slight kick to this otherwise sweet salsa or salad.
3) Refrigerate for a minimum of one hour before use

3) Mexican Rice
Mexican rice recipe can be found here.

4)Grilled onions and peppers

There is no replacing these. They are what make a fajita a fajita :)

3-4 medium onions any colour
2 large green peppers
2 large red peppers
2 large orange or yellow peppers
salt and pepper

1) Cut the onions lengthwise in thick slices. Seperate them with fingers and set aside.
2) De-stem and deseed the peppers and remove all white parts. Cut long strips using a knife or kitchen shears.
3) Heat a non-stick pan and add a couple of drops of oil on a high flame. Add the onions such that they do not crowd the pan. Let them char a bit on one side and then toss them. You can fulfil all your fancies of tossing things in the pan in the air etc. chef style. The onions should only be slightly cooked and charred, but should have a bite to them. Add a sprinkle of salt and pepper and remove to a platter.
4) Repeat the above process with all the peppers in several batches as needed.
Tip - Sprinkle some sugar on the veggies. The sugar will caramelize and give a nice char to the vegetable
( I saw this on tv but honestly can't say if it made a difference)
5) Grilled Tofu

The tofu is our protein here, and needless to say, my carnivore friends can use this same process for any kind of meat etc. they like or dairy lovers can use paneer.

1 packet extra firm tofu
chili seasoning
vinegar or fresh lime juice
salt and pepper
oil for pan

1) Wash and drain the tofu, and cut into longish pieces.
2) Add seasonings, lime juice, dash of vinegar and toss lightly
3) Let it marinate for some time, the more the better. I generally do this first, then cut all the veggies etc., and then by the time I light the pan, at least half an hour has gone by. This can also be done any time beforehand and refrigerated. 4)Heat a non-stick pan and add some oil or PAM type spray. Place the tofu on the pan and grill until browned on all sides. Turn periodically as needed.

6)Fresh Tortillas
You can buy any store brand, but this makes All the difference. It was simply heavenly taking a tortilla fresh off the stove, and this herculean task was graciously undertaken by the mater. Kudos!
2 cups all purpose flour
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1-2 tsp baking powder
salt to taste

1) I have used plain old flour here since this was the first attempt. You can use masa, wheat flour, corn meal etc. -- the choice is yours.
2) Mix all the ingredients together - by hand or FP- to make a dough like you would for roti or chapati.
3) Let the dough rest for some time, maybe half hour.
4) Make rotis as you would usually. I wasn't sure if these should be roasted over the fire like a 'phulka'. My Internet searches revealed nothing about this. They just mentioned turning the wrap in the pan.
5) The wraps were sufficiently 'chewy' thanks to the baking powder I think. The above measurements were my own experimentation, based on a few tortilla recipes I found on the web. Some used butter or lard, and a lot of it, for making the dough. I decided to go with a little bit of oil, or 'mohan' ( funny maharashtrian term for oil that is added while kneading dough).

Whew!! I hope I have covered everything that I set out to portray here.

What method did I use to eat this?? I will let a picture speak louder than a thousand words. Here is a pic of my three pepper fajita burrito before it got rolled and disappeared!!
Now where's that margarita?
Do you love fajitas? Have you ever tried them at home? What other veggies do you add to your fajita platter. Your questions, comments, suggestions are always welcome.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Spanish Style Rice or Mexican rice

I suppose the title of this post sounds a bit unusual, but this is literally about the side of rice that you get in Mexican restaurants, either inside your burrito, or as part of fajitas or as a side of any other dish that you order. Various restaurants have their own versions, of course. Taco Bell has a highly seasoned dry and reddish looking rice, whereas Chipotle simply has pure white rice laced with butter and lime and cilantro. The fancier OTB/Mexico have their take too.

This version is actually a combination of various elements that I personally like, and also has some origins in a recipe called 'Spanish Rice' that I learnt several years ago in a cooking class. I am posting this seperately since I feel this deserves a seperate mention, and is a dish that can hold its own. But this is definitely a precursor to my upcoming post for Vegetarian Fajitas/Burritos.

The recipe itself is pretty simple, using the basic flavours you would find in Mexican cooking - the peppers providing the main flavour here, and chili powder or ready made taco seasoning takes care of the spice aspect. Fresh ingredients will always result in a supreme creation. An optional pat of butter will add some richness. The detailed recipe is as follows -

Ingredients -

1 Tbsp chopped garlic

1 onion chopped

1 tomato chopped

1 green pepper chopped

1-2 Serrano peppers whole or jalapeno peppers

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1 cup tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes

salt and pepper to taste

1 Tbsp Taco seasoning (any brand) or

1 Tbsp ready made chili powder*

1 Tbsp fresh lime juice

1 Tbsp oil/butter

1.5 cups rice
*Chili powder here refers to a ready made spice blend and not just cayenne pepper. If you do not have access to taco seasoning or chili seasoning, just substitute with 1 tsp cayenne pepper and 1 tsp of roasted cumin/jeera powder. Roasting will give a smoky flavour as found in seasoning blends

Method -

1) Chop the garlic, onion, tomato and peppers and set aside. Use either whole Serrano/jalapeno peppers or split into two pieces. If you are using Indian chillies, use whole ones according to your taste or heat level.
2) Heat 1 tsp oil in a thick sauce pan or vessel. You can omit the oil if you wish if you are using a non-stick pot. Add the onion and garlic and lightly saute' till they soften. Add the green chill peppers in whole. Add the green bell peppers and saute for sometime, then add tomatoes.
3) The whole mixture in the pot will be very aromatic. Add the seasonings. Wash the rice, drain and add to this mixture. Fry for some time.
4) Add the liquid now. You will need a minimum of 3 cups of liquid for 1.5 cups rice. Add a cup of tomato sauce and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil and turn down to simmer. Cover and let the rice cook.
5) Check the rice periodically to make sure that it does not stick. You may need to add more water if the rice looks too dry, and is uncooked even after most of the liquid is absorbed. The liquid needed will depend on the quality of rice, and will differ not only according to brand, but also according to the batch of rice.
6) Once the rice grains look cooked, the rice is done. It may look slightly 'saucy' at this point, but that is ok, since it will soon be absorbed even after you turn off the heat. Check for seasonings and adjust as needed.
7) Turn off the heat. Add the chopped cilantro and lime juice and fold it in lightly in the rice.
8) Mexican/Spanish rice is ready to serve.

This is great even on its own, and can be made sumptuous by adding a cup of cooked black or kidney beans as the rice cooks. This mexican rice makes a great filling for burritos or as a side with fajitas(coming up) or in wraps. You can make this ahead of time in the fridge as a large batch, and also other veggies etc., and then assemble wraps on the go.

This Spanish/mexican rice is definitely a must-try on chilly evenings.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Saag Chole - down home comfort that packs a punch

Saag Chole, Chole Palak, Chana Saag etc. etc., there are n number of ways this dish is named or called. The main base ingredient here is Chole a.k.a Chana a.k.a chickpeas a.k.a garbanzos - you know what I mean. The 'Saag' in this word means 'green', any greens but traditionally is either spinach or a mixture of spinach and mustard greens. This can be called a combination of two typical punjabi staples - the chana or chickpeas, and the omnipresent 'saag' or greens. I have typically found that this dish is making an appearance on a lot of Indian restaurant menus nowadays, either due to its increasing popularity, or also maybe in an effort to increase the number of items on the menu without really adding anything different. I hope that does not sound too caustic :o

You can make this for two people or a crowd with roughly the same effort. This is really super easy, especially if you use canned chickpeas and frozen spinach, as I am wont to, especially 'coz I almost always cook this when I am pressed for time. This is a vegetarian's delight, packing a mean nutritious punch, and you can eat it on its own, or with some steamed rice. I dare you to eat a big bowl of this and Not feel full :).

Traditionally, I am pretty sure the hardworking ladies must have soaked the dried chickpeas for 12 hours plus and cooked them in an iron pot, and also this is much cheaper than buying a can, but sometimes the hustle bustle of life just takes over and whats a girl to do. At least its infinitesimally better than takeout, right?

A typical blend of spices is used here, which I call 'punjabi' spices. But these are nothing to be afraid of. They are present in almost all pantries, even American ones, the only difference being that their usage may be different. I make two versions of this dish - the crude one and the finer one. Knowing time constraints, I almost always end up making the crude one( as seen in the crude photo above). Both things taste the same, the only difference is in the presentation. The finer version uses pureed spinach instead of just chopped, hence the added step of using the FP. So without wasting any more time, the recipe is as follows -

Ingredients -

2 cans chickpeas or garbanzo beans
1 packet frozen chopped spinach ( or half spinach and mustard)
1 cup crushed tomatoes
2 medium onions
4-5 cloves
3-4 one inch sticks cinnamon
2-3 black or green cardamom pods
1-2 dry bay leaf
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp garam masala
1 Tbsp fresh chopped garlic
1 Tbsp fresh grated ginger
1 tsp sugar

Method -

1) Chop the onions and finely grate the ginger. Grate garlic if possible or chop it finely. I do not advocate the use of ready made ginger garlic pastes since they are tasteless.

2) Thaw and wash the spinach under hot water and drain in a colander. Try to squeeze any obvious moisture out of it. If using mustard, use 50-50 with spinach. Please do not use mustard on its own since it is very bitter.

3) If you are doing the fancy version with the FP, put the onions, ginger, garlic and the spinach in the food processor and give it a whirl until you get a thick pesto like paste.

4) Wash and drain the canned chickpeas taking care to remove all the water/liquid from the cans. This is laden with who knows what preservatives and they are better down your drain.

5) Assemble all the dry spices in front of you. Heat oil in a pan and add the spices once the oil splutters. If you are using the fancy process, add the pureed spinach mixture to the oil at this point. The process continues here *.

6) Add the chopped onion to the oil and spices and fry till the onion is slightly cooked and changes colour.

7) Add the ginger and garlic and saute for a minute without letting it burn.

8) Add the drained spinach now and cook, stirring for 5-10 minutes until the spinach changes colour and is completely cooked.

9) Step 5 continues here *. Add the cup of crushed tomatoes at this point and also add the drained chickpeas.

10) Add the cayenne and the garam masala, salt and sugar. Stir this together.

11) Cover this and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes. Since the canned chickpeas are already cooked, this time is enough for everything to get friendly.

12) Serve hot with steamed rice, rotis or just in a bowl like a thick bean soup.

This dish is vegan as well as vegetarian and is a powerhouse of nutrition with all the spinach( and mustard if used) and the proteins from the chickpeas. Very little oil is used, but even that can be omitted by using a non-stick pan and using some broth or water in the initial step instead of oil.

Looking forward to finding out what you think of this.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ajwaini Panch Daal - Five lentil Mix spiced with Carom Seeds

I have always liked mixed lentils - be it the 10 bean or 15 bean soup mixes of dry lentils you get in any grocery store or any homegrown/made mix that's born just to clear out the pantry. One of my cousins had a tarla dalal book with a recipe called 'panchmel' daal, and lately even our local Indian grocery store sells a ready made blend called 'paach daal' or 5 lentil mix - one more thing made easy for us to avoid more activity( to our detriment).

This recipe was born when I wanted to create something that tasted a bit different from the usual garam masala type spices that we use in Indian cuisine. Lately, I have started using one or two dominant individual spices to flavour a whole dish, instead of using blends. I feel this not only transforms everyday food to something unexpected, but also does not drown the taste of the main ingredient. This lentil mix looks very colorful when dry, but loses all this colour when it is cooked. I use the pressure cooker to first cook this lentil mix - these are split lentils and there is no need to soak them ahead of time, and this can be ready in half an hour or under thirty minutes :). You can also use a crock pot for this, I suppose, but I have never used them so far.

The dry red chillies are available in any Indian grocery store. I use whole chillies so can get away with the high number I am using. The Ajwain is the star in this dish, giving it the spicy kick. Ajwain or carom seeds are kind of pungent and spicy, as are the leaves, widely used in India as a grandmother's remedy for stomach aches, colds, upset stomachs etc. I chewed on them quite a bit in my college days. They can of course, be an acquired taste, but the taste has also been likened to thyme. I am adding some sugar to make this sweetish tasting like a gujrati daal and also to soften the punch from the Ajwain.

This daal can be eaten with hot steaming rice, or also as a thick lentil soup with some fresh crusty bread. Either way, it is sumptuous and fulfilling and will keep hunger at bay for a long time.

The recipe is as follows. This should make four big servings of thick daal.

Ingredients -

1/4 cup tur daal

1/4 cup yellow mung daal

1/4 cup green split mung daal or chilka daal

1/4 cup red lentil/ masoor daal

1/4 cup black masoor daal

6-8 dry red chillies

3 tomatoes or 1 cup grape tomatoes

1 Tbsp Ajwain seeds

1 Tbsp fresh ginger

1 tsp turmeric

1 TBsp oil/ghee

1 Tbsp sugar/substitute

salt to taste

Method -

1)Combine all the lentils or dry daals together in a pot and cook them in a pressure cooker with the usual time you need to cook daal in your particular cooker. Three whistles and steam for 10 minutes should be enough.

2) Assemble all ingredients that you need for the tempering to avoid scrambling while the oil smokes and burns i.e the dry red chillies - break one or two and keep the others whole. The whole chillies will mostly be ornamental, since the seeds will stay inside; fresh ginger - grated or julienned; ajwain seeds

3) Heat oil or ghee in a wok or thick pan. Add the Ajwain seeds and immediately add the ginger. Add the turmeric powder and the red chillies.

Stand a bit away from the stove at this point, since the chillies might splutter a bit and have the potential to create some art on your forearms.

4) Add the cooked daal and stir. Season with the salt, add sugar and add water if needed to get the desired thickness.

5) Bring the mixture to a boil and let simmer for 5-10 minutes for the flavours to combine. The more you simmer, the more concentrated the taste will be.

6) If you are Not using a pressure cooker, repeat all the above steps and add the uncooked daals( washed and drained) in step number four. You will then need to let it cook in the pot like any lentils and will take a longer time in excess of half an hour. I think the tur daal will take the longest to cook, while the mung or masoor should cook in a jiffy. A crock pot might be a better solution.

7) Cut the tomatoes in long thick slices, or just quarter them. Add them to the simmering lentils/daal just 5 minutes before you switch off the heat. You can alternately add whole grape tomatoes. We want the tomatoes to be barely cooked - just softened but not raw and retaining their shape. I think this looks restaurant style aesthetically, and also adds a nice unexpected tang between bites.

8) Serve hot with steamed rice or crusty bread.

Please note - If you are planning to store this in the fridge for more than a day or two, take care to take out the chillies. This is because the longer it stands, the chillis will gradually soften and release their heat into the daal.

You can further improve the nutritional profile of this meal by adding any vegetables of your choice to make this a vegetable-lentil type stew. I hope you like this Ajwain flavoured daal and make it often as I do.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Jeera Alu Shimla Mirch (Cumin flavoured potatoes and peppers) - quick and easy all-time favourite

Lofty mountains, picturesque valleys, swirling mists, chilly breezes, and tummies grumbling for food - this is how I remember one nostalgic afternoon in Kodaikanal, one of the popular hillstations in Southern India. The resort had a restaurant perched on a hilltop with glass all around where you could see the valley view all around you. The food was piping hot - simple roti and Alu Subji, but with a slightly different recipe than the usual thing we ate at home. The aroma of that dish has stayed with me along with happy memories of a great vacation. As young as I was that time, I did not waste any time recreating the simple comforting dish the moment I got home.
Fast forwarding to the present day, Alu Shimla Mirch has always been a very popular dish in our home, and the goto dish when any last minute guests turned up. The flavour of the green pepper or capsicum elevates the everyday potato to a different level, and a strong dose of cumin with a secret spice further makes this taste exotic.

This vegetable dish is ready in a jiffy, since in a typical Indian home, the potatoes are boiled in a pressure cooker along with the usual rice and daal. The green peppers are coarsel chopped meanwhile and then they are stir fried together with the spices. In the wintertime, we sometimes get small green peppers, and my mother makes a further variation where she stuffs the boiled mashed potatoes into the peppers and then sautees them in a pan. This changes the presentation but the taste is the same as the following recipe.

Ingredients -
4-5 large potatoes
3 green peppers
1 Tbsp cumin seeds
3-4 green cardamom pods(elaichi)
hing and turmeric
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp oil
salt to taste
pinch sugar

Method -
1) Scrub and clean the potatoes and boil them either in a pressure cooker or in a pot of boiling water. You can also microwave them if in a hurry, but the texture is slightly different from boiled potatoes. You can use 4-5 Idaho potatoes or 10-12 small new potatoes. Peel and chop the potatoes.

Note - the ratio of potatoes versus peppers here is more to your liking and also on how much the peppers cost :). There will not be much of a difference in flavour if you add 2 versus three or four peppers, since this is a strong flavoured vegetable. More peppers of course mean more vitamin C and more nutrition.

2) Destem the peppers and remove all white parts. Cut into largish pieces, such that the pieces will be intact even after getting cooked.

3) Heat oil in a pan and add the cumin seeds and cardamom pods. As they splutter, add hing and turmeric powder. Immediately add the chopped peppers. Sautee for some time until the peppers are cooked.

4) Add the chopped potatoes, the cayenne pepper, salt and a pinch of sugar. Stir everything together and cover. Let it simmer for five minutes.

5) Your Alu Shimla Mirch is ready to be devoured.
This is a simple and easy family favourite that is liked by young and old alike. I hope you try this simple recipe and let me know what you think.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Rava Besan Ladu and Diwali Greetings

Diwali is here again, once again reminding us that the year's almost over. Diwali brings with it several twinkling lights, great food, happy times, vacation for the kids, and alas, lots of smoke and pollution due to crackers. I have never really caught on to what fascination people find in things that make a loud bang!

In our childhood, Diwali used to be a leisurely festival. Preparations would start weeks in advance, where initially my grandma would get all the various grains ready to be ground from the 'chakki' or neighbourhood flour mill. A different delicacy would be made everyday, and stashed away out of sight so that we kids could not sneak out anything before the big day. There was the bad with the good, since this was also the time for exams, and it would be torture trying to study with all the different aromas wafting out from people's windows. The dreaded exams would give way to a 2 week vacation, and the first job would be to build the 'killa' or fort. This was almost always a group project, run in grand fashion with the bullies haggling over 'design', and the meeker kids doing menial tasks like filching and carrying bricks, sand , mud etc. from the neighbourhood as needed and assembling it before the 'construction' began. The completed 'fort' would be either painted in a maroon paint called 'geru' and/or sprinkled with mustard seeds so that a verdant fuzz grew over it by the great Diwali day. Lamps would be lit in the fort and crackers burst around it.
I have no idea if kids still do this, or engage in these simple but exciting pursuits since the virtual world of Wiis and Xboxes has taken over. Also, with our busier lives, and the proliferation of goodies available 'ready-made' in the market, the number of goodies made at home is dwindling, and hence the interest in them too. But nothing can really equal the pleasure of feasting on fresh, hot chaklis that your mother is lifting out of the kadai, or home-made shankar palas or laddus. Although I have been away from home for Diwali for most of the last several years, there is one thing that I always make at home, and this to me brings the quintessential feeling of Diwali - rava besan ladus.

These Ladus are slightly time consuming and difficult since they are made with a syrup, and also are mostly common in my family, compared to the pure besan ladu that is more widely seen. I am providing the method and recipe for a small measure, but the quantity can be doubled as needed.
The recipe is as follows -

Ingredients -
1 cup rava/semolina
1 cup besan/chickpea flour
1 cup ghee
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 Tbsp crushed cardamom
5-6 cashew pieces
2 Tbsp raisins

Method -

1) Heat half cup ghee in a kadai and add the Rava to it. Roast the rava on a Very Low Flame until it becomes slightly pink and lets out a nice nutty aroma. Remove and set aside.

2) Add the remaining ghee to the Kadai and add the chickpea flour or besan. The chickpea flour will initially soak up all the ghee. Keep roasting the besan patiently on a low flame. The besan will gradually change colour and at some point dissolve in the ghee and become slightly liquid. Continue roasting till its a nice brown colour - but not burnt. Remove and set aside.
3) Crumble the cashews and the raisins and powder some cardamom pods. You can also add some grated nutmeg if you wish.
4) Put the sugar in a thick pot and add 1 cup of water. Heat till the sugar dissolves and a simple syrup is made. Continue heating until you get a 'ek tari paak'. This is a marathi term that might be difficult to explain, but I am sure that this has some equivalent in candy terminology. I will try to explain this roughly - as the syrup thickens, check if it starts coating the spoon. Take a little of this syrup between your thumb and forefinger( after cooling slightly slightly), press down, and lift your finger. Check if the syrup forms a strand between your thumb and forefinger. IF you see one strand, you have 'ek taari' or 'one strand' syrup. You want something which is slightly thicker than what you get with the one strand. The thicker the syrup, the more rapidly, it will harden. We want a medium syrup so that our roasted flours soak in it for a couple of hours and absorb all the sweetness. This way, the mixture also cools down enough to allow you to roll the ladus. If the syrup is too thick or hard, everything will harden into a solid ball and will not be pliable at all.
5) After you determine that the syrup is a desired thickness, switch off the heat. Add the cashews, raisins and elaichi powder to the syrup. Add the roasted flours. Start mixing immediately.
6) This is the crucial point in this recipe. If your syrup is very thick, everything will start hardening and will dry up at once. You will have to start rolling the ladus right away. Ideally, the mixture will be a thick liquid that you can cover and let rest for some time - anything between half an hour to four hours. Everyone has their own tack here that they develop over years of making delicious ladus. Keep checking periodically to see if the mixture has solidified and come together like a dough ball.
7) Start rolling the ladus. Take a small amount in the palm of your hand, squeeze as you would squeeze a ball and roll on your palm to form round balls.
8) Place on a plate and let cool.
I wished to share this simple and traditional recipe for rava besan ladu. The description here is a bit crude, and especially esoteric to someone not exposed to Indian cooking and I apologize for it. I am not a pro at this myself, and only ever make this once a year. I have tried to describe this as simply as possible, and am posting this for the benefit of anyone who wants to try it out.

So what are you cooking this Diwali?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Review: Indijoe's Pune - Multi-cuisine buffet that ends with chocolate

I had heard about this restaurant, belonging to a big nationwide group(BJN), and had heard various accounts of the diverse cuisine that they offered. Their website calls it an American style diner, but the next paragraph touts it to have Mexican, Italian, Lebanese etc. type of food.

While I did not see any, or many 'American' type of dishes, I can only conclude that it wasn't included in that day's menu, or maybe they have a different a la carte' menu in the evening.

But to begin at the beginning - This restaurant is located in the Jewel Square mall next to the Taj Blue Diamond. For some reason, any reviews that I read had led me to expect a fast food counter, self-service kind of place, so it was a pleasant surprise to find a decent dining space. We got a long picnic style table with attached benches. A glass wall looked onto the terrace where they had a guy making pizzas and prepping vegetables. A tiny bit of the koregaon park skyline was also visible - mostly some tree-tops. We went there on a saturday morning around noonish, and along with one or two other diners, got first dibs on the buffet.

There was an extensive drinks menu, with various cocktails and beers. I don't think I saw wine. Mocktails included sodas, iced teas and some fruit based drinks. The buffet was laid out in a smallish area, but the vegetarian stuff was labeled well. There was a salad section - not a salad 'bar' - that had a bowl of lettuce and some tossed salads. There was a 'mexican cucumber salad' that had some cucumbers etc. tossed in some chilli powder, not particularly mexican tasting. There was a simple salad of sprouts, onions and tomatoes dressed in lime juice. Then there was something with cottage cheese and pineapple in a creamy thick dressing that I gave a wide berth dreading the obvious presence of mayo. There was one salad called tomato mozzarella scallopini, which was thinly sliced tomatoes and mozzarella with some basil. This was just about ok tasting.

There were some assorted breads - dinner rolls and some french type bread and some cubed cheese. There was a tray of chat with some chutneys that I did not taste.

One positive thing was that there were an equal amount of vegetarian and meat dishes. There were two big pots of soup - cream of broccoli and almond turned out to be very watery with a broth like consistency. The soup tasted right, so looks like it was made that way by design. Needless to say, it was not impressive.

There was some thin crust pizza - not too great -- the sort you would get in Cici's e.g. There was one vegetarian and one chicken pizza. There were two vegetarian appetizers - cashew cutlets and vegetarian seek kabab. The Veg seekh was typical -- dry and minty and not something I usually go for. The cashew cutlets were mostly potato based with a cashew inside and deep fried. The meat section had Chicken wings.

There was a lasagna called Cajun grilled vegetable lasagne. This was a creamy concoction with no noodles and lots of vegetables. There also did not seem to be any or much cheese, so I can only assume that the creamy sauce contained the cheese. But there was no clearly visible ricotta layer that you will generally find in a lasagna. There were lots and lots of vegetables which made me happy - thin layers of grilled eggplant, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, beans, mushrooms, baby corn etc. etc. The overall taste was tomatoey and comforting, but once again, I failed to understand what cajun elements or spices it contained.

There was some grilled fish in abundance and a sea-food salad that kept my carnivore companion happy. There was some sort of non-veg thai curry too. The oriental section contained burnt garlic noodles, ginger rice and some green veg thai curry. Although assured by the server that it was totally vegetarian, i detected a slight itch like thing when my throat protested, so that got a wide berth too.

There was a live pasta counter that was not very impressive. There were 2-3 already cooked vegetables, that the chef added less than a spoon of to the pasta. There was a choice of red or white sauce. The dish when put together was ok - not really great.

Moving to desserts - they had a diner style revolving(fast) display where they had mini desserts or 'shots' already assembled and you just had to pick a cup or two. There was a lot of cut fresh fresh fruit (no error), and viola - a chocolate fountain. This is the first time I encountered one in real life and I was thrilled to bits. ( Later my bubble was burst when someone told me how ubiquitous a chocolate fountain is in Pune - it seems even places like Big Bazaar have them). There were some pound cake pieces and marshmallows with skewers that you could dip into the fountain, and dip I did. The chocolate was super rich and super sweet - the kind that makes your eyes glaze and takes you on another plane. I could have gone with a darker, more bitter taste, but I suppose this is mostly to attract the kiddies.

The check, when it came was not much - two buffets costing around seven hundred odd. I think this place was likeable overall. The music was very loud, as seems to be the norm in Pune. The food was above average. The overall ambience was ok. The service was good - there when you need it but otherwise unobtrusive. The one slight disappointment was not finding anything mexican on the menu.

We left the place with a heavy step and a solemn promise that we always make to ourselves while leaving any buffet - No More Buffets!!!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bowtie pasta with Gouda sauce

Down with a cold and confined to bed, I was dreaming of something comforting all day like a mac and cheese or a chowder. After finally getting down from bed, a raid of the fridge revealed a sad lack of vegetables, so pasta was the de facto choice. There are no frozen treats handy here, like stouffer's or AMy's mac and cheese, so I prepared myself to slave some over the kitchen stove, telling myself the heat and steam would only help my cold. I had wanted to try the Amul Gouda cheese for a long time, but hesitated since most stores don't have any refrigeration that lasts 24 hours and who knows what happens during the power cuts? The same applies to buying any expensive imported cheeses. But I had finally taken the plunge this weekend and bought some of the Gouda. A simple cheesy sauce with bowties seemed to be a good test run for the cheese.
The pasta or the cheese is of course just a 'method' as Rachael Ray so often says. You can use any pasta on hand, made from anything. You can also use any cheese you want or any ready made blend you may have. I think I remember one '30 minutes' episode where Rachael made a sauce with smoked gouda and added chipotle peppers. That must definitely have been the inspiration for my sauce, although I used simple or unsmoked gouda and had no chipotle peppers on hand. The small voice in my head that kept screaming 'what, no veggies ????' was pacified by adding some chopped olives and tomatoes. Herb De Provence, my favourite spice blend from the 365 brand, gave this a rosemary intensive flavour. You can of course use any dry or fresh herbs like basil, oregano etc.

The recipe is as follows -
Ingredients -
5 cups dry bowtie pasta

2 Tbsp chopped garlic

2 chopped medium onions

1 tsp Herb de Provence

1 tsp crushed red pepper

1 tsp black pepper

1.5 cups milk any kind

1.5 cups vegetable stock or water

2-3 tsp flour

2 cups grated gouda cheese ( ~ 200 g)

salt to taste

pinch of grated nutmeg

1 cup sliced/chopped olives

2 small tomatoes chopped or 1 cup grape tomatoes

olive oil
Method -
1) Fill a large pot with water and set on one stove to boil. After the water starts boiling, add salt liberally and add dry pasta. I used roughly 5 cups or half of 500g of Barilla Bowtie pasta. ANy brand or type can be used here. ROtini will also be good for this sauce.

2) Chop 2 medium onions and finely chop the garlic.

3) Heat about 2 TBsp of olive oil in a pan and add the onions. Sautee till they are softened without burning. Add the garlic and let it change color slightly but take care that it does not burn.

4) Add 2-3 tsp all purpose or white wheat flour to the pan. I have used ordinary atta or wheat flour in a bind, but it does give a more earthy taste. Stir the flour into the onions and garlic on a low heat. After frying for 3-4 minutes, add 1 cup of stock and one cup of milk. Keep stirring so that no lumps are formed.

5) Once the sauce thickens, guage the thickness and add some water or milk if you need it thinner.

6) Meanwhile keep an eye on the pasta, and after 10-12 minutes check if it is just cooked. Drain and wash with cold water to stop cooking.

7) After the sauce looks cooked, add the seasonings -- peppers, salt, herb de provence or other herb mixture and nutmeg. Stir and let it bubble to absorb the flavours. Add the chopped or sliced olives at this point. Also add roughly chopped tomatoes or whole grape tomatoes. You should be able to see the tomatoes. We do not want them to dissolve in the sauce.

8) Add the grated cheese and stir until it is incorporated into the sauce.

9) Add the cooked pasta to the pan and mix everything. Let it all simmer for 5 minutes so that some sauce is absorbed into the pasta.

10) Serve hot with some pepper sprinkled on top with crusty bread to mop up the sauce :)
You can add a whole lot of veggies in the beginning along with the onion -- mushrooms, coloured peppers, spinach, steamed broccoli, zucchini - the list is endless. This was a very rich treat that made me drowsy, so I am going back to the land of dreams.

Oh yes, the Amul gouda cheese gets a lot of points from me. Though I am not a big cheese fan, it did have a different flavour, and was slightly bitter and sharp. Tasting something like this in India was very welcome, after all the waxy looking and salty 'processed cheeses' that seem to be omnipresent. This cheese did Not taste like the good old 'cheese cubes' and hence seems promising. Costing around 90Rs for a 250 g wheel, it also does not break the bank.

Have you ever tried this kind of sauce, or this cheese? What is your favourite comfort food when you are ill?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Review: Seasonal Tastes at the Westin Pune – an overall unremarkable experience

This blog has been mostly about posting recipes but many a times, I have thought of including a section for restaurant reviews. This has mostly been when I have been awed or highly impressed by any particular restaurants, or to write about places that are all time favourites. After spending a disappointing afternoon at the new Westin hotel in Pune, I decided to get down to it and narrate what I saw and felt. There are plenty of review sites and most of them require you to go through the tedious process of creating logins. But why go through all that when I have my own blog? Now I can only hope that the google gods smile on me and this review comes up in searches to provide people with some useful information. I personally did not find a lot of detail available on the web for this place, and I am hoping to provide a level of detail that will provide people with a better picture of what to expect.

Its been a long time since we had an opportunity to spend some good time as a family and were looking forward to going out some place nice in Pune. There seems to be a proliferation of new restaurants in Pune, most vying for the label ‘multi-cuisine’ and ready to charge you an arm and a leg for it. I also find that frugality or ‘value for money’ seems to be out of fashion, and people seem to take pride in dishing out the big bucks. That’s perfectly fine since this is a free world J
Since this was a special occasion, we wanted to go some place nice and the search narrowed down to three places – Westin, Barbecue Nation and Sen5es. The challenge was having good vegetarian choices and also Indian vegetarian choices. Barbecue nation was ruled out since none of us could bear the thought of having a hot grill on the table, and having to sweat and cook our own food. Isn’t that what we do in our own kitchen anyway? Westin was chosen over Sen5es since it had a buffet that was described in their own words as ‘lavish’ and ‘best in town’. Even taken with a pinch of salt, it seemed to provide more choice than Sen5es which has an eclectic but very limited menu. I personally love Sen5es and as this review will soon portray, it definitely turned out to be much better than the Westin.
‘Seasonal Tastes’ is the casual 24 hour café type place in the Westin that has a ‘big’ buffet. I have never had the chance to visit a Westin anywhere else, even in the US I am more partial to the Marriots or Holiday Inns or Wyndhams etc. The Westin building itself is huge and can be spotted from miles around in the area. There were elaborate security checks where even the bonnet of our car was opened, purses were scanned through an airport style scanner and there was also some body scan type thing. Men folk were frisked. All the restaurants are on the second floor, and Seasonal tastes was situated at the far end of the lobby towards the right. The décor is modern to put it simply. The place is spacious with tall windows that offer a panoramic view of the surrounding area, mostly the urban landscape of the surrounding buildings of Kalyani Nagar.
I had reserved a table and requested for a good quiet spot. But no one there seemed to have our reservation and the only reply given was ‘I am not aware of it, someone else must have taken your call’. We finally got a table with four chairs somewhere in the middle of the floor, while there were several booths facing the windows and facing a pool that were empty but not given to us because they were ‘reserved’. This was our first experience with the mis-management. As I had found earlier from some reviews and from calling the restaurant, the buffet was 900 odd rupees with taxes, coming up to 1200 approximate ( 25$ approx). There was a separate flat charge for alcoholic drinks – only wine/beer. Our server appeared and was totally untrained and unable to explain anything at all. He informed us that if we wanted soda or coffee, there was a separate non-alcoholic package for 300 rupees roughly. There was no separate menu for any other drinks, like cocktails or scotch etc., or there did not seem to be any option for ordering just one soda or one lemonade etc. After being told we would take the non-alcoholic package, the server kept asking us what beer we wanted. After a lot of time spent in trying to explain alcoholic versus non-alcoholic, we gave up and just asked for water. This was a very disappointing beginning, as we would have expected a better mannered and better trained person in a 5 star hotel. This was no different than trying to explain something to a high school kid at the McDOnalds counter.

Although the buffet promised everything under the sky, I had reconciled myself not to expect anything on the lines of a vegas style buffet, and had blotted out images of the MGM Grand or the Rio buffets from another lifetime.

The counter closest to us was the salad/sushi bar. The sushi was unremarkable. There were two kinds – veg/non-veg. The veg rolls had either carrot or cucumber in them, certainly no avocados. The Wasabi was a bit watery but easier to spoon. But hey, sushi in Pune!! Wasn’t that something?? Moving on to the salad bar, my hopes of having some crunchy romaine or baby spinach or micro greens were dashed when I saw some solitary green leaf lettuce leaves in a small bowl. There were a lot of marinated things in oil like garlic and olives etc. The olives were simple green and black olives that you get in a can, and not kalamata or any other gourmet type olive. There were a few pieces of fresh cucumber in a small bowl ( smaller than a cereal bowl) and some various marinated veggies like peppers, mushrooms etc. There was some shrimp and other meats I did not look at and I suppose there were boiled eggs somewhere. They had two kinds of gazpacho in shot glasses – tomato and pepper. Both tasted fine, but were almost room temperature. They would have tasted even better chilled. There was a mushroom pate also served in a shot glass which was creamy and earthy tasting. There was some kind of jelly like strawberry or cherry at the bottom of the glass which I did not much care for. There were some sauces in small bowls that were unlabeled but no dressings in sight. I later saw some bottles on a very high shelf – asian sesame, tahini, etc. There were 4 or 5 bottles, and none of the usual suspects like ranch, honey mustard, Italian, blue cheese etc. I drizzled something from the bottle labeled asian sesame, but it turned out to be mostly sesame oil. There was a glaring absence of plentiful raw veggies on the salad bar. There was some broccoli which was steamed but had almost turned black.
Overall the salad bar was a 2.5 out of 5, points given mostly because there Was something akin to salad, that’s all.

There was a carving station with a deli counter that advertised burgers and sandwiches made to order. None of us wanted to go there. Somewhere down the line, I ventured to the burger station and opted for a vegetable burger with No Mayo – stressed 2-3 times to not put any mayo on the burger. I was not asked for any cheese choices or any other toppings like pickles etc., nor mustard. After a long 20 minute wait, I was served something unimpressive looking. Of course the first dreaded action on my part was to lift the bun and turn it over – it was slathered with mayonnaise. The server of course appeared clueless. One young person questioned another young person and they were happily exclaiming ‘Oh **, it was no mayo’ and laughing. So is the Westin employing trainees from schools or just neglecting to care about the service they offer? After declining to wait again to try my luck, I just opted out of the burger.

There was a teeny weeny Indian section, the reason for the limited Indian food being given as this was a ‘multi-cuisine’ buffet with ‘several other’ options.
There was a mutton biryani and London style butter chicken, no use to vegetarians. There was one daal and one mixed vegetable. It is a bit surprising that a big restaurant should serve something as mundane as ‘mixed vegetable’. The image it conjures up is a bunch of leftover veggies, and in recent times, the ubiquitous packet of frozen ‘mixed vegetables’ in my freezer. There was a paneer dish described as Paneer in a rich and creamy cashew sauce. It turned out to be huge chunks of paneer floating in a white watery liquid, something like half and half. I gave it a wide berth thinking that my neighbourhood small restaurant gave me a much better version of this ‘rich cashew gravy’ ( which is more a dessert than a vegetable, and something people in Pune seem to be fond of). So Indian food was totally ruled out. This was a big disappointment for one of us who only ate Indian Veg and no Paneer. Bread such as roti or naan was served at the table. This was brought almost 20-25 minutes later by which time, the one sole vegetable and dal had been discarded. The whole Indian experience then gets 1 out of 5 from me, so unfortunate since any restaurant in India should proudly be able to cook good Indian food.
There was a big station near the entrance where a lot of South Indian chutneys were displayed along with a sign of dosa made to order. We ordered one dosa from a snooty youngster who seemed to be too good for us. There were other cooked foods in chafers which I will run through real quick.
Bowtie pasta in some creamy tomato sauce – just average with no seasoning
Baked vegetables in a béchamel type sauce – lacking salt or any other seasoning
Huge container of crispy bacon
Pan fried snapper – seemed ok according to one of us who tasted it, but had the skins on the fish
Asian fried rice – Had eggs so ruled out for me
Stir fried vegetables – some vegetables in a watery soy based sauce
Seafood panang curry – Good according to one seafood eater among us – had shrimp, squid, clams and crabs
Some asian noodles
There was a sign advertising various noodles that could be made to order – Singapore, Korean etc. I opted for a pad thai made without any fish sauce or eggs etc. This was brought to my table and turned out to be spicy and tangy and hot. I think this was the one thing I actually ate with relish.
There were 2-3 cheeses – unlabelled along with some crackers that seemed to be more ornamental.

Now we come to the dessert section. There were fifteen plus items and were arranged artistically. There were some eggless desserts. Ras Malai was the only Indian dessert but it was soft and perfect. There was some mango and blueberry mousse in small glasses – average, new York style cheese cake – unimpressive , a few shortcake/ mascarpone type cakes with fruit topping etc. There was Tiramisu which was disappointing as it seemed to be actually made with layers of dry cake, thin layers, but dry layers of what seemed like chocolate cake. There was a chocolate pudding type thing with an exotic name which was good. There was ice cream with a lot of toppings. I had hoped for fudge or caramel sauce but it was not available. The ice cream was strawberry or blueberry. The ice cream was placed on ice like on a salad bar and a lot of it had melted. Ice cream toppings were good – chocolate chips, almonds, raisins, pecans, hazel nuts, gummy worms etc.

Inspite of this pornucopia of ‘options’ I didn’t really eat anything substantial. We mostly grazed on a few fancily arranged things, and then I filled up with a huge bowl of ice cream. The whole anticipation of eating something exotic prepared by a five star trained chef was dashed, and there was not even one sumptuous thing I could enjoy, as a Vegetarian. The omnivores in our group weren’t too pleased either. Overall the whole experience was disappointing and frustrating. Average food and below average service soured the whole experience. I think I have had better food paying 7$ at Golden Corral. Some would argue that it is unfair to compare a place in Pune with a place in the US, but I think it is warranted for a place like the Westin, which is touted as internationally acclaimed. Why shouldn’t a customer expect such a place to live up to some standards? I spent the rest of the day repenting we did not goto sen5es, wistfully recalling our stellar experience over there. Although this is not a comparison between the two, I mention Sen5es since it is the other place I had contemplated.
I hope this review is helpful to anyone who is thinking of visiting the Westin hotel. It is of course written with my perspective, based on my dietary restrictions and personal expectations based on prior experiences elsewhere.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Very Veggie Paneer Bhurji - sloppy spicy scramble

I saw these rolls at the local bakery, not dinner rolls, but something between a hot dog bun and a hoagie, and totally white. They looked soft and just waiting to be filled in with some delicious filling. I decided not to let their colour work against them, and to make up for it with loads and loads of vegetables. I had some Paneer that had to be used up soon and I pretty much cleaned up the vegetable drawer of what I had. Some very pungent celery gave this a kick and a strong flavour. The only other seasonings I used were paprika and black pepper, and some dried
basil. The flavour was unique and just as I love it - spicy with the pepper but not 'hot', minus the heat that you would get with a green or red chilli.

Carrots, peppers, onions, tomatoes, fresh corn, green peas, all went into the pot along with some tomato sauce. You can add anything of your choice really. Squash, zucchini, asparagus, and mushrooms will all taste equally good and add to the veg element.Adding the tomato sauce was a spur of the moment inspiration. The amount of cooked veggies was roughly 3 times that of the paneer. I simmered the mixture long enough to get a thick conconction, but if its left slightly semi-liquid, this will make a great sloppy joe( although without the traditional condiments), whether you use a long roll or a burger bun.In the end I added crumbled Paneer to the mixture. Needless to say, you can easily add tofu instead of the paneer. I will definitely make this with tofu next time. The Paneer being 'rich' in animal fats, made this quite filling and added a creamy texture. The rolls also turned out to have a buttery flavour which I had not expected. I served these simply, just ladling the mixture onto the roll, without any toppings. I did not find the need for any condiments, since the filling was spicy and strong flavoured enough, even when eaten with the bread. If you are a pickle lover, a nice cruncy dill pickle will taste great as an
accompaniement. Add some baked hips of choice, and a cool drink and this is a sure way to bliss.

The recipe is as follows -

3 small onions

1 large carrot

1 large green bell pepper or capsicum

1-2 stalks celery

1 cup fresh corn kernels

1 cup green or sweet peas

2-3 tomatoes1/2 cup tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes

1 Tbsp oil1 tsp paprika

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp dried basil

1 tsp chopped garlic

200g paneer or 1 packet tofu

fresh bread rolls or hoagies

1) Chop all the vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery, peppers and tomatoes in a small or medium dice. Chop or mince the garlic.

2) Heat 1 Tbsp of oil in a pan or wok and start adding the vegetables one by one. Add the carrots first since they will take the longest to cook. Saute the carrots for 2 minutes and add celery. Gradually add onions and saute till they change colour. Add water or broth to avoid
sticking. Add the bell peppers and fry some more. Add the corn and the peas. If you are using frozen sweet peas, add them at the end so they dont shrivel. Mix in the corn and peas and add garlic and chopped tomatoes. Mix and let this simmer until most of the tomatoes are cooked

3) Add seasonings and the tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes. Let the mixture come together and simmer. Add salt to taste, and a pinch of sugar.

4) Add crumbled paneer or tofu. Add half a cup water.

5) Mix this in. As this simmers, this will have a 'sloppy' consistency. You can let it thicken as much as you want, depending on how robust your bread is, or how much of a mess you want to make while eating.

6) Switch off the heat, and let this cool to room temperature.

7) For serving, split the roll in half and ladle enough filling to make this a hearty sandwich. Enjoy!8) This can also be used a filling for regular bread, or in a burrito or wrap with some crunchy fresh veggies.

( the photo does not do justice to the actual product, the colours are washed out due to a low battery)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

General Tso's Tofu - chinese takeout treat

General Tso's is a pretty popular item on the chinese takeout menu. Called by different names such as General Tao etc., it is doubtful if there was ever any such general in the chinese army. But this General is pretty favoured by one and all when they order their favourite takeout. We had a weekly lunch thing at one of the places I worked where we always ordered chinese food, and general tso's chicken was always my favourite. I later found a few places that had General Tso's tofu on the menu. Some joints were obliging enough to substitute tofu for meat in the sauce by special request.
I had no idea of the nostalgia the thought of this would evoke, while I was down with a cold for a week, unable to taste anything, in a land far away without access to my usual speed dial for Chinese Express or City Lights. A little bit of standard browsing via google revealed a few recipes for the sauce. Interestingly enough, I found hardly any food blogs that had posted this recipe. At least, none of my usual 'favourites' of vegan/vegetarian blogs seemed to feature this. I particularly liked the recipe for the general Tso sauce by Tyler Florence given on the Food Network website. Not that I used it verbatim, but I took it as a broad guideline.

I wanted this to taste like American Takeout Chinese, and not like 'Indian Chinese'. Surprisingly enough, to my delight, I found that I did get the taste and flavour I wanted. I have often wondered what makes these two adaptations of Chinese cuisine so different, since most of the sauce ingredients are the same. I think its the particular soy sauce and also the dash of sesame oil that makes all the difference. I spent the big bucks on a small bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce, but it was worth it. I would really have preferred to use Braggs Liquid Aminos, because I have come to love its flavour much more than any ordinary soy sauce. But finding a bottle of Braggs here is as impossible as seeing orange groves on the South Pole. The recipe follows without further ado.

1 Package Extra Firm Tofu
2 cups broccoli florets
1 cup finely chopped scallions
2 Tbsp fresh grated ginger
1 Tbsp fresh chopped garlic
1 cup soy sauce for sauce
3-4 Tbsp soy sauce
Sambal olek to taste
2 Tbsp + 1/2 cup Rice vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1/2 cup honey
Cornstarch as needed for coating
2 Tbsp cornstarch for slurry
Oil for frying
Black/white pepper to taste

1) Wash, drain and cube the tofu in pieces of desired size, and arrange in a large zip lock bag or a shallow dish
2) Sprinkle soy sauce, sambal olek/chilli paste or sriracha sauce, grated ginger and white pepper
3) Toss lightly so that all the tofu is coated with the marinade and refrigerate for an hour or more
4) Add some corn starch to the marinated tofu a little at a time, and keep tossing lightly until all the tofu is lightly coated. This will act as a binder and also give a crispy cover to the tofu when we fry it. Alternately, the marinated tofu can be spread around on a sheet pan and baked in an oven for 15-20 mins at 400F, turning once. Since I was going for the 'takeout' effect, I decided to go all out and fry mine.
5) Heat some vegetable oil, roughly a cup, in a wok and fry the tofu in small batches. Drain on some paper towels. You should not need a lot of oil, and the remaining oil can be used while making the sauce. ( This is a step where you need to guard your tofu. Half of it will disappear as samples. The best thing is to get some more tofu than the recipe demands).
6)Wash and clean broccoli and tear into florets, or you can use frozen florets. Heat water in a saucepan and steam the broccoli for 3-4 minutes until just tender and shock it in cold water. This will help in preserving the colour. Set this aside.

For the sauce -
7) In a bowl, mix all the sauce ingredients such as soy sauce, vinegar, honey ( or sugar), 1 tsp sesame oil, sambal olek, white pepper and grated ginger.
8) Now we can utilize the remaining oil in the wok. Add half the scallions and the garlic to the hot oil and fry for a minute without letting it burn. Add the sauce mixture.
9)Add three cups water. I made a Lot of sauce, but if you want less, you can adjust the soy/vinegar accordingly. I found that this vinegar was a bit much so I will reduce it next time. The soy sauce also had enough salt so that I did not need to add Any salt seperately.
10) Bring the sauce to a boil. Meanwhile, prepare a slurry with 2 spoons of cornstarch and some water. Add this gradually to the sauce and let it thicken. The sauce is done when it develops a glaze. Taste and adjust any seasonings per taste.
11) Add the fried tofu and broccoli to the sauce just before serving or vice versa. Garnish with the remaining scallions. Serve this with hot steamed white rice or any other rice of choice.
This is by no means a 'healthy' recipe, since it is high in sodium and oil. The only solace is that it has a lower calorie count than what you would get in a restaurant, and I know what ingredients, esp what kind of oil went into it. And hey, vegetable/sunflower oil is better than cheesy or creamy sauces anytime, right? ;). As mentioned above, this can be modified to be slightly more figure friendly by baking the tofu and using a low sodium soy sauce.
It certainly hit the spot for me, and more chinese takeout style recipes are coming up soon.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Chickpea and beet salad - Dressed in Pink for Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day to you all. If you read the title of this post and are wondering what kind of fashion disaster I am committing, rest assured. The pink here does not refer to the color of my attire, but my chickpea's costume or dress(ing). This weekend is always long awaited because it is a long time coming after the endless dreary winter, and denotes the beginning of summer to me. This day also reminds me that its been four years since I met a lot of my friends. Folks have moved on in various ways, most have crossed the big 3 mile marker and changed their tax statuses more than once. Time has also flung us over different corners of the globe, making it more difficult to plan any reunions. Which brings me to this quick and easy salad. Not that there is any connection here, just me reminiscing for a few minutes.

This is a pretty simple salad mostly thrown together out of things languishing in the fridge fast nearing extension. A bowl of boiled beets, a cup of boiled chickpeas, red pepper about to wilt, and son get the idea. The dressing is simple - mostly splashed over everything in the pot, instead of any fancy emulsifying by whisks or blenders or in jars etc. I use a couple teaspoons of my favourite hot sauce and several dashes of Mrs.Dash Tomato and Basil. I truly love Mrs.Dash. I feel its copy 'Salt free, Falvour-full' does it full justice. I have tried a lot of these and they are sure to add some zing to all of your dishes without upping your sodium levels. I did not have any Mrs.Dash Lemon pepper blend on hand, otherwise I would have used it here.

Once everything is mixed together, it gets a uniform coating from the beet juice and its all cloaked in pink. Of course, there are the inevitable stains on my clothes too :o

This is my quick lunch as I continue reading old entries from NYtimes's Frugal Traveller blog/column which I stumbled upon today. I also keep looking at this pink salad and dream of SATC2, which sadly I haven't watched yet.

The recipe is as follows -

Ingredients -

1 can chickpeas or 1-2 cups boiled
2-3 boiled beets
one onion chopped
1/2 cup green peas
1 red pepper diced
Hot sauce to taste
2-3 tsp Mrs. Dash
splash of vinegar and EVOO

Method -

1) Assemble all ingredients in a bowl. Dice the red pepper and onion in bite sized pieces. Dice the beets in a medium dice so that they retain their shape. The more you cut them, the more 'juice' they will give away. Add half a cup of rinsed frozen peas for some green color. You can also add scallions, but I did not have any on hand.

2) Add the hot sauce, Mrs.Dash seasoning of choice and roughly one turn of the vingear and the extra virgin olive oil.

3) Season further with salt and pepper if desired.

4) Mix everything and refrigerate for 2-3 hours. As with any salad, the flavours will intensify after chilling and over time.

This can be eaten as a meal served over a bed of lettuce, or in a wrap if desired.