Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thai Red Curry - with Tofu and Vegetables

I think Thai food introduces some exotic factor into Asian cooking, and altho' it feels very familiar to the Indian palette in some aspects, there are just two or three typical ingredients that take it over the top. For a vegetarian, eating Thai food in a restaurant can be a challenge. It took me some time to realize why this much liked food often made me sick - addition of fishy ingredients, literally, such as shrimp powder or fish sauce. You have to always remember the special instructions, namely, no fish sauce, dried shrimp or eggs in anything, and if you ever forget this, you end up wasting a fine order of food. It is also tough to find ready-made thai pastes that cater to this requirement, some just don't list out the shrimp powder etc. There are some high-end brands such as those available at Whole Foods that will clearly label that this is suitable for vegans eg. But any ready made sauce in a bottle lacks the quality of freshly ground spices or pastes.

Now that I have made a case for making your own curry pastes, I am going to go ahead and post this recipe with a ready made paste I luckily found in the local store that was vegan. A readymade paste will generally make your red curry really red, or the green really green due to the addition of colour. But I am also giving the recipe for making this paste at home with the disclaimer that you may not get a similar red colour, and thats OK.

After perusing several websites, food tv, chef's sites, blogs etc. and of course my own experiences tasting red curry a million times, I have come up with the main elements that go into a thai curry paste. These are shallots/onions, ginger or galangal, garlic, kafir lime leaves or lemon zest, lemon grass and chillies. A red chilli gives you the red curry, the green gives the green curry, and most everything else remains the same. The sauce is generally made up of coconut cream or milk. I generally use the above ingredients by the 'eyeball' method, not being exacting in using measurements, and almost always add a stock of lemon grass to the boiling sauce, to get more flavour that way. My efforts generally end up tasting 'thai' like enough, for me to have made this multiple times.

You can use your choice of vegetables - carrots, broccoli, green beans, peppers, tofu etc. The recipe/method is as follows -

Ingredients -
2-3 medium onions
1 cup green beans
1 cup sliced carrots
1 cup diced peppers any color
1 cup broccoli florets
1 cup mushrooms optional
1 cup baby corn
1 pack tofu diced
1 can coconut milk
1 -2 tsp oil
salt and pepper

Curry paste -

3-4 Tbsp ready made paste from bottle
1 medium onion
12-15 fresh red chillies
1 head garlic
2 inch ginger
zest and juice of 1 lemon
stem of 3-4 stalk lemon grass

Method -
1) If you are using your own curry paste, roughly chop above ingredients and grind to a smooth paste and keep aside.

2) Slice carrots and onions, chop peppers, mushrooms and dice the tofu.

3) Heat the oil in a skillet and add the vegetables one by one. Add carrots, beans, peppers, onions and tofu.

4) Add the curry paste and fry together with the veggies. Check seasonings and add salt/pepper as needed. Add curry paste a little at a time and taste until you get the required heat level. The coconut will dull some of the heat.

5) Add the can of coconut milk. You can use low fat if you wish. Stir everything and bring to a boil. You can add a stalk or two of lemon grass while this simmers to get more herby flavour. Add some water if needed to get a sauce of the desired thickness.

6) Serve hot with steamed rice.
This is a quick and easy recipe to make at home. The curry paste can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Penne with Homemade tomato sauce

This is a quick and easy recipe, or a non-recipe really. This is just a notch above boiling ramen noodles or maggi, I think, something that can easily be made even in a dorm room or during Exams week when time is really 'of the essence'. I seem to be caught in a nostalgic moment here, since I am shooting off analogies about the good old school days:).

The star of this recipe is the tomatoes. I have used fresh desi tomatoes or 'Indian' or 'gavran' tomatoes, as some people are wont to call them. This is the original variety of tomato, I think, that we grew up eating, and is miles away from the roma, vine ripe, heirloom or any other western variety. This is also totally different from the Italian 'sweet' tomatoes. I am using these for a slightly different taste/flavour and also because I found them very cheap like 10 rupees a kilo, which a very rare occurrence. Needless to say, this recipe can be followed exactly using Any available tomato, or canned crushed tomatoes or Italian stewed tomatoes that you get in a can. It will remain as easy, or perhaps easier. I use a little milk and some sugar to reduce the acid/tang, since these particular tomatoes tend to be quite sour. Any dry spice mix can be used, like Mrs. Dash Tomato Basil Garlic, one of my favourite blends, or just plain dried basil/orgeno/rosemary. I am using Herb de Provence. The recipe or method follows.

This is simple sans veggies, but feel free to add any vegetable etc. that you like to up the ante here.

Ingredients -

10-12 fresh tomatoes

1 onion diced

1 Tbsp garlic chopped

1 tsp dried herbs

2 cups dry penne

1 Tbsp EVOO or olive oil

salt and pepper

Method -

1) Stew, boil or pressure cook the tomatoes until they are completely cooked and the skin starts to come off.

2) After they cool a bit, pull off the skins and squash the tomatoes with hand, or with a masher. You can strain this if you want a super fine sauce, but I like it chunky and rustic, and so leave it the way it is.

3) Chop the onion and garlic. Heat the oil in a pan and add the garlic first. The heat should be very low so that the garlic does not burn. The lower the temperature, the more flavour is released by the garlic. As the garlic starts changing colour, add the onions.

4) Saute until onions soften and add the squashed tomatoes. **This is where you add your can of crushed or italian tomatoes if you are using canned ones.

5) Season the sauce with the dried herbs of choice, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer. 6) Simmer the sauce until it thickens and coats the spoon. Taste and guage the level of sourness. Add about half cup milk and 1-2 tsp of sugar or any sweetener. The amount of tang or sourness you want here is to your taste.

7) Boil water, salt it and add dry pasta. Cook according to given directions until al dente or slightly undercooked.

8) Drain the pasta and pour sauce over it a little at a time and mix. Add sauce until all the pasta is evenly coated but not to create a gravy like consistency. * If sauce remains, keep it on the side to add on top while eating as needed.

9) Serve hot with more fresh black pepper, and some fresh grated parmesan if desired.

10) I think adding crushed red pepper to this sauce will liken it to an Arrabiata, but I want to keep it simple and call it plain old tomato sauce. This sauce can be used as base for any kind of pasta.

I hope you try this simple recipe the next time you start defrosting that Lean Cuisine or open yet another pack of Ramen noodles.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Vegetable Fried Rice - quick and easy homemade chinese

The fried rice is the most ubiquitous thing on any chinese menu, whether it be a chinese takeout in the USA, or any Indo chinese menu in the smallest desi town. Whatever we order, the fried rice is generally a part of it. A special note, as most vegetarians and vegans know - the fried rice is offered as part of the entree in almost any chinese takeout place, but this has pork, so we almost always (have to) go with steamed rice, and then the 'vegetable fried rice - NO EGG' is a seperate order.

I think this may have been the first 'chinese' recipe I may have tried out, several years ago. There have been some changes in the way I make this, over the years. The Indian style 'chilli' sauce has given way to Sriracha or red pepper flakes, the soy sauce has become low sodium or Liquid Aminos(not low sodium), and the MSG or ajinomoto has been abandoned. I also tend to add more vegetables, and more variety of vegetables. I now have access to the exotic genre of vegetables - mushrooms, coloured peppers, coloured cabbage, baby corn etc. etc. Also, my favoured method for making any pulao, pilaf, fried rice etc. is to start out with loads of raw vegetables so that the finished product has at least 50% vegetables even after the veggies cook down, and you get several veggies in each bite, without having to 'search' for them. Each restaurant or takeout joint has their own thing, of course, and my latest favourite as far as fried rice goes has been the newly opened or relatively newly opened Rainbow buffet in the Short Pump Walmart complex. For less than 6 bucks, you get a relatively bottomless paper carton that is stashed with the ultimate fried rice. Slight snag - the oil and salt are on the high side, of course.

So back to our recipe, you start out with several vegetables, anything you have on hand and chop away merrily while your rice cooks. I have used white rice, and always just wanted to try brown rice. But you can use it by all means. There are also other vegetables I did not have such as baby corn, green beans, mushrooms, tofu etc. etc. that can be added to the pot. The detailed description follows -

Ingredients -
1.5 cups dry white long grain rice/jasmine rice
1 cup thinly cut cabbage
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped green peppers
1 cup chopped red peppers
2 cups thick sliced onions
1 cup chopped scallions or green onions
1 cup defrosted green peas or sweet peas
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp sriracha sauce/sambal olek
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 tsp rice vinegar or white vinegar
1 tsp honey
1 Tbsp white or black pepper
salt optional
1-2 Tbsp vegetable oil
Optional vegetables

1 cup each of
baby corn
green beans
chopped tofu
Method -

1) Chop all the vegetables in a similar size. You can either make long thin slivers/juliennes as is common in Indo-chinese food, or fine dice everything. The onion should be thick, so that it retains a slight crunch.

2) Boil or cook rice according to package instructions. As I mentioned before, the water to be added to rice depends on what kind it is. Generally, you can go with 1.5 to 2 cups for Indian Basmati rice, or upto 3 cups for Sona Massorie, Kolamb etc. The older the rice, the more water it absorbs. If you cook rice everyday, you will have guaged how much water your current batch needs to give a dry grainy cooked product. We do not want moist and mushy rice for this fried rice.
3) Empty the rice on a flat colander or a platter and spread out and let it cool some. This seperates the grains and keeps the rice dry, as you are getting rid of any residual steam.
4) Heat a skillet, preferably with a thick bottom and a wide base and add oil. I am using my Calphalon tri ply saute pan, which I have found to be perfect for these kind of dishes such as noodles, pasta, fried rice etc., where I want a wider surface area.
5) Add the vegetables such that the longest to cook goes in first. Saute each vegetable for a minute and add the next. I have come up with my own order depending on how much bite I like in a particular vegetable. Add carrots, peppers, cabbage, scallions and onions.
6) Add the soy sauce, hot sauce, pepper, vinegar and honey. Add salt at the end only if needed. I used Kikkoman soy sauce this time, and it is salty enough that you do not need excess salt. The same thing applies to Braggs Aminos.
7) Stir the veggie mixture around. We want this bite tender since it will cook a bit again with the rice.
8) Add all the cooked rice and mix well. All the rice should be coated with the sauce. You may need to sprinkle some water at this point, or add some more diluted soy sauce if the rice looks too dry.
9) Add the peas at this time. We are adding the peas last so that they retain their fresh green colour.
10) Cover and simmer for some time. This will allow everything to steam together and the flavours to mingle.
11) Serve hot along with any chinese style stir fry, or just on its own.

This is a healthier alternative to the restaurant bought chinese fried rice, and is ready in a jiffy. What is your favourite kind of fried rice? Do you have any particular takeout style recipe? I am all eager to hear your own experiences and comments.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

BaTaTyacha Rassa - Potatoes in a tomato curry

'BaTaTa'( buh'Ta'Tah) in marathi means potato, that humble vegetable that none of us can really ever have enough of. 'BaTaTyacha' literally means 'of potato', 'Rassa' means gravy or curry, so this means potato gravy.

This dish is ubiquitous in all homes and perhaps the go-to dish when either you are out of vegetables, or need something in a jiffy, or want to pacify a fussy kid ( young or old). This curry with hot steaming rice is a perfect lunch or dinner when you are at a lose end and want something comforting and simple.

Now that I have waxed enough over this wonder, lets get down to the basics. There are some ways of doing this, and depending on regional and cultural differences, each family recipe could be slightly different. Like in our own home, I prefer a thick tomatoey version using boiled potatoes, while the older ones prefer starting with raw potatoes that cook in a watery stock.

Tomatoes seem to be very economical nowadays and we are getting the local or 'gavran' version, which are big on taste. Adding a few or more peas easily turns this into Alu Matar, another favourite. Roasted peanut powder or 'DaNyacha KooT' adds thickness and some nutty rich flavour.

So without any further introductions, this quick and easy recipe follows. And if this is a carbfest, who cares? My tummy's happy and so am I.

Ingredients -

5-6 medium potatoes
1 green chili pepper optional
1-2 medium onions
3-4 fresh tomatoes
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
1 tsp goDa masala or garam masala
1 tsp each cumin coriander powder
green peas handful
1 TBsp Peanut powder
oil and salt
Mustard seeds or cumin seeds
Cayenne pepper

Method -
1) Boil the potatoes, preferably in a pressure cooker, or microwave until cooked. Peel and chop them roughly and set aside.
2) Chop the onions and tomatoes, and the green chili if using.

3) For the peanut powder - this is something that is widely used in Marathi homes, and there is almost always a jar of this powder ready to be used in vegetables, salads etc. To make this in a jiffy, dry roast some peanuts - about 1-2 Tbsp in a pan until they are toasty and give out an aroma. Let cool for some time, and then either powder in a 1) spice grinder or 2) mortar and pestle or 3) place in a ziplock bag and beat with a rolling pin or some heavy weight, until coarsely powdered.

4) The process of preparing this dish starts with the 'tempering', the initial sequence that is followed generally while making most Indian style vegetables.
- heat 1 Tbsp oil of choice ( clear oil such as vegetable or canola)
- once the oil is hot, add mustard/cumin seeds, Hing or asfoetida(optional), turmeric

5) Immediately add the onions. There should not be a lag between the above step and adding stuff to the pan, otherwise the oil will burn. Fry onion till tranlucent.

6) Add the green chili if using and then add tomatoes. Fry the tomatoes till they are cooked and give out juices. A rough paste should be formed by this time.

7) Add the cooked potatoes and stir it all together. Now add 2-3 cups of water and mix everything. Adjust so that you have the desired thickness. Please note that this sauce or curry will thicken slightly as it cooks, plus the starchy potatoes and the peanuts will add to the thickness.

8) Now add all the masalas or spices needed. Add salt, pinch of sugar, the goda/garam masala or the cumin or coriander powder. These are all optional and you can use any or all of these. The 'goDa masala' is a traditional spice mix used in marathi cooking and is slightly different from the Garam Masala. If you don't have these, you can either just use cumin powder and that will work fine, or a readymade curry powder if you have it.

9) Add the powdered peanuts at this point.

10) Bring everything to a boil and then simmer for a few minutes till the gravy is thick enough.

11) Add frozen peas a few minutes before switching off the heat.

12) Garnish with cilantro and serve hot with steamed rice or with rotis - Naan or pita bread will also work fine here.
This is a simple recipe that does not use too much oil or any dairy etc. So how do you like your potatoes??