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!!!