Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Festival of Lights: Diwali

Today is the second day of Diwali (three more to go!), the largest festival in India celebrated by all religions. Pesident Obama has chosen an auspicious time to be visiting India and should see the fireworks at night that explode in fizzy sparks and swirls to ward off evil spirits.  Diwali means "cluster of lights" and the return of light is what the festival is all about. Diwali, also called Deepavali, celebrates the triumph over darkness. On the eve of the festival rows of small clay oil lamps called diya are lit and placed at the entrance to homes to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. The holiday also celebrates a Hindu legend. Rama's beautiful wife had been aducted by the demon King Ravana and held captive in Sri Lanks for 14 years. With the help of Hanuman, the monkey king and his troops of sibians Sita is freed and brought back to Ayodhya, Rama's kingdom in North India. The people rejoiced at their homecoming by lighting oil lamps to illuminate a path for them to follow. Today during the fve day festival homes, temples, churches and other building are lit with electric lights and flickering oil lamps and people exchange gifts and boxes of sweets. Elaborate meals are served to guests with lots of rich creamy kormas thickened with ground amonds, paneer cheese curries, puffy deep-fried poori breads and fragrant pilafs all reflecting the hosts hope for abundance in the coming year. The festival is all about feasting and fun and feels like Christmas and New Years Eve rolled into one. Let there be light in the world.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tea For Two Cookies with Cumin Shortbread Recipe

Note: The pic above is Tea For Two Shortbread Cookies

Cumin Shortbread Wedges

In this spin on traditional Scottish shortbread, renowned Miami pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith found the butter-rich tender, crumbly cookie is the perfect vehicle for the slight bittersweet, warm, peppery bite of toasted cumin seeds. Honey adds a special sweetness and the cornstarch in the confectioners’ sugar insures a very tender cookie. In Scotland shortbread was traditionally only made for Christmas as they were supposed to represent golden pastry suns for the winter solstice. They were cut into wedges called petticoats, as they resembled the bell-hoop petticoats worn by 12th century ladies. In India a type of shortbread called para is made from a mixture of chickpea flour and wheat flour, butter, melted palm sugar and spices with a spicy caramel flavor and firm, yet soft crumbling texture. They are not bad, but hard to find fresh as they are usually sold in packets. When Hedy’s shortbread comes out of the oven, it is hard to resist waiting for the big round to cool long enough to cut along the scores and devour a warm, cumin-laced petticoat. Serve these large wedge-shaped treats with chai (milky spiced tea) for an afternoon snack or as a sweet ending to a spicy meal.


 6 ounces unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), slightly softened
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar (powdered sugar)
4 tablespoons honey
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1 1/4 tablespoons cumin seeds, plus extra for sprinkling
Granulated sugar for dusting

MIXING THE DOUGH. Place the butter in a large mixing bowl and add the confectioners’ sugar, honey and salt. Using a standard electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or hand held mixer), beat on medium speed until pale yellow and light, about 2 to 3 minutes. Sift the flour and baking powder together into another mixing bowl. Add the flour mixture with the cumin seeds to the creamed butter and sugar mixture. Mix on low speed until just combined and transfer to a flour-dusted work surface. Knead the dough lightly until it holds together, about 2 to 3 minutes. Divide into two balls about 3 inches wide.

ROLLING OUT THE DOUGH AND BAKING THE SHORTBREAD. Position oven racks on the rungs in the lower third and middle of the oven and preheat to 275 degrees. Cut 4 pieces of parchment paper into 15 x 12-inch pieces. Press a ball of dough between your palms to slightly flatten and place it on a sheet of parchment paper on a hard work surface. Place another sheet of parchment on top. Roll the dough out into an 8 to 9 inch circle about 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch thick (the edges will be a little thicker than the center). Trim the scraggly edges with a knife, cutting away about half an inch (discard scraps or use to make small cookies). With a knife, cut the circle into 8 wedges like cutting a pie. Using a fork, press the outer edges, leaving small tine marks. Dust with granulated sugar and sprinkle with extra cumin seeds. Slide the parchment paper with the cut cookie dough on a baking sheet. Use the other two sheets of parchment to roll out, trim, and cut the other ball of dough. Slide the baking sheets onto the oven and bake until lightly browned, about 35-40 minutes. Carefully cut over the marks again while still soft and warm and cool completely. Slide the wedges apart. Store in an airtight container up to a week in a dry cool place (but not the fridge).

Tea For Two Cookies

Yesterday I met Kim Neale, a woman in Sunrise Florida who makes shortbread cookies in interesting flavors the buttery cookies also are made an infusion of teas and there are flavors like lavender and rose topped with real dried flowers, orange blossom and some with spices. Kim loves Indian food and her spicy cookies are turmeric and ginger (my favorite) tinted yellow with a touch of ground turmeric and bits of candied ginger and chai with a touch of chai tea spices and tea. Other flavors include rich Mexican chocolate with spices and banana toffee with bits of toffee. The cookies are 90 percent organic and hand made with care. Kim suggests dunking the cookies in port for a real tree. I paired the chocolate with a Chilean red for dessert last night and it was wonderful. What's next cookie and wine tastings? Hmmm. Next up is my cumin shortbread recipe.

Meanwhile check out

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Curry Recipe for Laura the Winemaker

This is a Parsi recipe known as jardaloo murgh or apricot chicken and would go great with Malbec wine from Argentina, especially the Malbec made by Laura Catena.The Parsis or Zoroastrians, are one of the smallest groups in India but are prominent business leaders and gracious hosts,and an invitation to a Parsi dinner party is eagerly anticipated. One dish guests hope to be served is chicken jardaloo.  I learned this recipe for chicken cooked in sweet and tangy tomato sauce with dried apricots from Kitty Bombaywallah when I dined with her family in Mumbai. Cooking with dried fruits dates back to the Parsi's Persian ancestry and they brought this tradition with them when they migrated to Gujarat over a thousand years ago.  The apricots absorb the flavors of the sauce and plump up to succulent softness while the chicken cooks to tender juiciness. Parsi's enjoy wine with meals and often add a splash to their curries and gravies adding body and flavor. Chicken jardaloo is one of my favorite dishes to serve friends as they love the exotic flavor it exudes and I love the simplicity of cooking it. Serve with rice or crispy fried potato wedges.


The Chicken

3 to 3 1/2 pounds of skinless, bone-in chicken thighs or drumsticks (about 8-10 pieces depending on the size)
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 teaspoon garam masala (warming spice blend), store-bought
1/2 teaspoon turmeric

The Apricot-Tomato Sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions (about 1 pound), peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
4 large or 8 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and minced
2 teaspoons peeled and grated gingerroot
1 pound tomatoes (2 large or about 4-5 plump plum tomatoes, chopped (or one 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes with juices)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 cup dried apricots (about 7 ounces) soaked in 1 cup of hot water 15 minutes and drained

 PREPARING THE CHICKEN. Blot the chicken dry with paper towels. Make several deep diagonal slashes to the bone on the thickest part of the thighs or drumsticks. Place in a large non-reactive mixing bowl and sprinkle with cayenne, garam masala, and salt. Using a rubber spatula, toss until well coated in the seasonings on both sides. Marinate about 30 minutes at room temperature.

COOKING THE CHICKEN. Heat the oil in a large wide nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently with a slotted spoon until soft and translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chicken and cook until the flesh changes from glossy pink to yellowish tinted milky-white, and firms, about 5 to 6 minutes, stirring and turning once or twice. Add the garlic and ginger and cook, stirring and scraping up from the bottom of the pan, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes (or canned tomatoes) and about 1/4 cup of hot water, and cook, stirring occasionally 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered about 10 minutes, checking a few times to stir and add a little hot water if necessary. Stir in the sugar, vinegar and apricots; increase the heat to medium-high and cook, uncovered until the sauce is thick and shiny, about 10 minutes. When the thickest part of a thigh is pierced with the tip of a sharp knife the juices should run clear. If the juices are pinkish, cook a few more minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and dinner is ready.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Finally the Perfect Wine to Match Indian Food

Tonight I had the extreme pleasure of meeting and dining with Laura Catena, a winemaker from Argentina with an amazing life and story. We will get to that sometime but what I want to share is she served me the perfect wine to go with Indian food. She also has just had her book Vino Argentino, an Insiders Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina published by Chronicle that is a real page turner. You may have toured the winerys of California, France or Italy but this book will make you book a flight to Argentina to experience vineyards with the snow capped Andes in the background. But back to the wine for Indian food. It is Malbec. What Laura let me taste was her families wine (from great grandparents who settled Argentina from Italy). In her words Malbec is "the black wine with a dark color and intense fruity taste". The grape varietal is perfectly suited to Mendoza's sunny mountain soil and  climate and the slight sweet notes with dark, ripe, concentrated fruit flavors stand up to and enhance the spices in Indian food. I will soon be sending Laura a simple curry recipe that will just make her Alamos Malbec shine and my dish all the more good. Coming soon....

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In the Future Try Okra or How About Right Now?

Okra is believed to be native to the Ethiopian Highlands and is related to hollyhocks with yellow flowers and pods that grow pointing upward. It eventually spread to the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and India where the tapering ridged green pods are evocatively called ladies fingers as well as bhindi from the Sanskrit bhinadaka. Okra are a favored vegetable in India where the pods are prepared in many different ways and added to soups, stews, and curries. The okra dish pictured in yesterdays blog was inspired by Seema in Chicago who liked my roasted pumpkin recipe and said she had just cooked frozen okra. I've only cooked with fresh so I had to try--according to her the frozen--not thawed pods cooked up less slimy when added to a hot pan and what ever metaphysical occurance, it seems to work. No water needs to be added as the the melting ice is enough as the pieces of pod thaw in the pan. To make my dish I simply heated some olive oil in a skillet, added one chopped small yellow onion and one large minced garlic clove. I sauted them until soft and tossed in about 2 cups of the frozen okra, and added a little turmeric, lots of cayenne powder, salt to taste and a few pinches of amchoor (green mango powder) and stirred for about 8 minutes until the okra were soft and any liquid was just about dried up. If you don't have green mango powder use a squeeze of lemon to add a slight tartness. At the very end stir in some dried coconut chips or grated fresh coconut from a cracked coconut (more on how to do this in a later post). Serve garnished with fresh chopped cilantro and a cascade of coconut chips. It is good hot or served cold the next day for lunch. In the future when tired of the same old carrots, broccoli and potatoes, okra can add a new taste to your palette. So if you are an okra hater please give it a try. Soon.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More on okra

I just posted an Indian okra dish pic that will change your mind (maybe) about the slimy finger-shaped pod.

My Indian scientist friend inspired me to toss frozen chopped okra out of the bag! (horrors) into a pan sizzling with onions and garlic with some added spices plus coconut. Yum.  I'll send details tomorrow.

Okra is the Future

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Indian Roast Pumpkin

Now that fall is here, it's time to eat pumpkin! This dish was inspired by a dish I ate as a special at Gigi prepared by Chef Jeff McInnis. For my version, I bought a wedge of calabasa pumpkin, cut off the outer peel and scooped out the seeds and threads they are attached to, cleaned the seeds and cut the pumpkin into slices. Then I oiled a cast iron skillet and rubbed the slices in the oil and sprinkled them with fresh ground black pepper, sea salt, a litte ground cumin  and plenty of cayenne powder. I roasted the pumpkin  for about 30 minutes at 450 degrees and then sprinkled the seeds over the slices and added a few dots of butter and roasted the pumpkin and seeds for another 10 minutes. Serve the slices in a shallow bowl  spread a little thick, whisked Greek yogurt and enjoy! For a wonderful short film look up The Life and Death of a Pumpkin by Aaron Yonda on google or U-tube. You'll never feel the same about carving a Jack-O-Lantern after watching it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Turtle at the Dentist Office in Singapore

My second day after arriving in Singapore I started teaching graphic design at the Nanyang art school almost next door to the building Lisa and Bruce lived in. Every semester they have a guest teacher from England come and the one they had invited couldn't make it so I went and applied and got the job. My students were only a few years younger than me and at first were confused that I was more or less a peer. They mostly copied from books and magazines. I got the idea to take them on location to learn to draw from real life--a shocking turn of events but the school complied and on the second day we were in a hired bus and going around the island--to the bird park, botanic garden and tea house where men bring their prize song birds and hang them from hooks to listen to them sing while sipping tea and then we went to Chinatown, not the disney version that exists today but the real one with cramped lanes and rows of shophouse where one could see wooden gods being carved, a maker of Chinese opera masks, snakes in cages and a dim-lit Buddhist temple that smoked with giant coils of incense. The students were mind boggled and excited to try and draw from life and I was getting to sight see. On the third day we were back in the class room working on the previous days sketches when my back molar begab to tingle. By lunch it was throbbing pain and a student told me to put clove oil on it. It numbed the tooth for a moment but by the end of the day I knew I was in serious trouble. I staggered back to Lisa's. We found a dentist on Orchard Road and I wrote the address on a scrap of paper and took a taxi (Lisa didn't have a car). The cabbie dropped me off in the vicinity of the dental office as he didn't really know exactly where it was and I was wandering the steet in tears the pain was so bad when an Indian man asked me if I needed help. By now I was sobbing and could hardly speak so I showed him the scrap of paper and he took my arm and led me to the office biluding. I wished I could have thanked him, but the second I opened the door I collapsed and the dental assistant dragged me into a dental chair and immediately gave me an injection. Once I was numb the tooth was opened and the infection drained out. It seems I'd had some not so great work done on the tooth in San Francisco where I had a root canal. It hadn't been cleaned propberly before being sealed and the hot climate of Singapore had caused it to swell and put pressure on the sealed tooth cap. The Singapore dentist worked on me while I dozed off in a cloud of pain killer and when I came to I thought I was hallucinating. In the chair next to me was a large sea turtle! Do turtles have cavities, I wondered? It turns out it's shell had been been cracked by a boat propeller and someone had found it on a beach and brought to the dentist. When I left it looked like the operation to glue the shell was working and I'd like to think somewhere in the South China Sea a turtle is swimming around with a shell held together with dental bonding glue. I went back to teaching and was invited to several students homes to eat home cooked Indian, Malay and Chinese dishes. Meanwhile what about the job at FEP (Far Eastern Publishing Company)? A week had passed and I only had one more week on my tourist visa...then I'd have to take a bus across the causeway that connects Singapore to the Malaysian Peninsula  at the city of Johore Bahru. Woud I get another stamp to stay two more weeks in Singapore?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Taking a Risk to get a job: Happy Anniversary!

October 2nd has special meaning for me, not because it is Gandhi's Birthday (although it turned out to be a happy coincidence) but because it is the day I departed San Francisco on a Singapore Airline flight to Singapore many years ago on, get this, a one way flight with no visa (unheard of today). I simply planned to stay for as long as I wanted once I got a job. And, yes I had a sort of possible job offer. Before I became a professional writer I was an artist and illustrator. In high school I went to an art fair in Ravinia Park (near Highland Park) and met a just-out-of-college artist named Tom James. I liked his zany, colorful magic marker work and we chatted all afternoon. I told him my dad was an artist and gave him my address and phone number. He said he'd drop by the next evening. Well I never heard from him. He had kept my contacts in the glove compartment of his car and by the time he called my parents told him I was no longer living at home and was in San Francisco. He wrote me and I sent him some photos of the type of illustrations I was doing. Then one day a letter from Singapore arrived. I looked at the post mark with extreme curiosity as I didn't know anyone in Singapore. Finally I opened it. It was from an American woman named Lisa who was working at a Publishing Company in Singapore. She had gone home to Evanston, Illinois to see her family and went to a party at Tom James house. For some reason he showed her the photos of my work and she said she thought it was more original than the illustrators the company used and asked for my address. When I read her letter she said she couldn't promise anything but if I came to Singapore I could stay with her and her husband who worked for an oil company and she would set up a meeting with the publishing company. I sold most of my stuff and left what I wanted to keep, should I return, with a friend. I got a passport and bought a one way ticket and a group of friends took me to dinner the eveining of October 2nd. Their plot almost worked as at the last minute I remebered I had to catch a flight. Richard rushed me to the airport. I ran up the stairs to plane out on the tarmac just as the doors were about to close. I was the last on and made it by seconds. This was my first international flight and was about to change my life forever. I'll never forget finding my seat and calming down, thinking I could have missed it by a second. We stopped in Hong Kong for a few hours and I learned one cannot leave the airport unless it is their final destination. Then I finally arrived to Changi Airport on October 4th. Everyone on the flight went through customs. Except me. I was taken to a small room and grilled. I got the gist of where this was going when I learned they wanted to see an ongoing ticket. I quickly said I was meeting some girlfriends to go on a tour of Asia and they had the tickets. It worked but I got a 2 week tourist visa dashing my plans to stay as long as I wanted (a few years at least!). Then I made it through customs, got my luggage and found Lisa and felt the hot tropical blast of air as we stepped out of the airport doors. So I made to Singapore, but would I get the job? Thats another story to be continued....

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Cambodian Feast for a Baby

My friends Mony and Neang Lon who are Cambodian had a baby shower Sunday September 19, exactly one month after baby Giovanni was born. In Cambodia it is considered unlucky to throw a shower for an unborn baby because of  age old superstitions. Cambodian showers are just like any you might have been to with family, friends, colleages and neighbrs dropping by all day, some with gifts for the baby or the proud parents but the food is different. Mony and Neang run a restaurant in Miami Springs called Thai Rama (alas no Cambodian dishes) and they know how to enetertain. With Mony's mother cooking you know the food will be delicious. If you are not familiar with Cambodian food, I'll explain. Cambodia lies in the region of Southeast Asia known by the French as Indochine (Indochina) as it lies between the huge countries of India and China. The food has been influenced over the centuries by India (thats where complex spicy coconut curries originated) often served over rice noodles (from China) or sliced baguettes (the gift from the French who ruled Cambodia during the colonial days). Neighboring Vietnam, Laos and Thailand also contributed threads that weave together the tapestry of Cambodian food. It tends to be less spicy and more subtle. On a trip to Cambodia years ago I fell in love with the cuisine, eating roasted chicken that had been smeared in a black pepper, lemongrass, and lime juice paste mixed with salt that was crispy golden on the outside and meltingly juicy within that I tore apart with my fingers. I  also remember eating steamed freshwater fish with green mango salad from the great Tonle Sap Lake area near Angkor Wat (the largest religious structure in the world, now Buddhist but originally built to the Hindu god Vishnu). But back to the shower in Pembroke Pines. When I arrived I was escorted into a room to coo over baby Giovanni who had red strings tied around both wrists for good luck and then headed to the buffet in the backyard overlooking a manmade lake. Canopies shaded tables and guests helped themselves. There were spring rolls with tuk trey (sweet and sour dip made from sugar, vinegar and fish sauce), a huge pan of roasted pork chopped into hunks, ground pork stir-fried with glass noodles, grilled satay sticks of spice-marinated chicken, barbecue chicken smeared in hotly red spices, and a red coconut curry called nom banchock namya served over a skein of soft rice noodles to be mixed with with slivers raw cabbage, bean sprouts and sliced banana blossom. It brought back my trip to Cambodia with its complex spicing and richness, cut with lime juice. Then I was served light spongy slices of cake cemented together with thick layers of whipped cream and bits of candied fruit and sprinkles from an Asian bakery. My friend Perun who is also Cambodian was there and brought boxes of longan from her farm in the Redland. They are a bit like lychees but the size of large marbles, smooth and dark golden with sweet honey-scented translucent flesh. In the center, reached by sliting the thin shell with a finger nail and popping it open is a small shiny black seed you have to nibble and in the end suck around, one reason they are also called dragon eye fruit. I'm sure Giovanni will grow up a happy and well fed little dragon with a good eye as his dad is a graphic designer.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

More on Spices

Indian food is far less complicated to make than it tastes. What can seem intimidating at first are the long lists of ingredients, but when you take a closer look, you’ll find that the majority of the list consists of spices. Once you assemble the spices, the rest is easy. It is the variety and combinations of spices that distinguishes Indian cuisine. Sometimes one spices flavor predominates; more often relative proportions of spices are balanced with seasonings and other flavorful ingredients to compose a vibrant mosaic of complementary and contrasting flavors, including sweet, bitter, nutty, pungent, salty and astringent. Balancing enticing colors and textures is important too.

 How you use spices determine a successful dish. Spices can be used whole, ground, fried or roasted. In this blog you will learn the techniques to unlock each spices special property. As you gain confidence, you will instinctively balance spices and bring out the best flavor of each one. This can be accomplished by dry toasting and freshly grinding spices to add at various stages or sprinkle over a finished dish, or whole spices can be sizzled in hot oil to start a dish or pour over a finished one for extra aroma and flavor. Most of the same spices are used throughout India, but are manipulated differently depending on the region. In the north, whole spices are toasted, then ground and added while cooking. In the south, both whole and powdered spices are blended into wet pastes, often with grated coconut and used in various stages of cooking. A pinch of the warming spice blend, garam masala is sprinkled over dishes in the north. Cooks in the south finish off a dish with a seasoning of curry leaves, dried chiles and mustard seeds spluttered in hot coconut oil.

If spices are the heart and soul of Indian dishes, spice mixtures (masalas) are the spine—the underlying foundation of most Indian dishes. When Indian cooks ask for a recipe, they are requesting the special masala that makes each cooks dish unique. Every housewife has their special blend that makes their fish curry sing or spicy chicken sizzle. Like a musical raga, recipes are melodic patterns with plenty of room for riffs off the classical foundation. Commercial spice blends are sold in Indian markets, but no self-respecting cook uses them—instead the blends are made in the kitchen from freshly roasted and ground spices as the recipe is cooked. Some blends that are used on a daily basis can be made in large batches and stored in airtight containers.

Stay tuned for yet more spice talk with tips on assembling a spice box....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Where Spices Are The Variety Of Life

                                         INDIAN  SPICES AND AROMATICS

For centuries spices have served three important functions in Indian cooking---medicinal, preservative and seasoning. Today the main focus is on the flavor spices impart to a dish, although traces of their original uses still linger. Turmeric with antiseptic properties is rubbed on fish before cooking and is added to pickling mixtures as a preservative Turmeric also stops bleeding and can plug a leaking car radiator, one reason truck drivers in India travel with a bag of ground turmeric for emergency patch jobs. Legumes are usually cooked with a slice of ginger to reduce flatulence. Cumin features in cooling digestive drinks and chiles are used liberally to stimulate the liver, which tends to become sluggish in hot weather. According to Hindu scriptures, spices are classified as “warm” or “cool” depending on whether they generate internal body heat or take away heat from ones system. Black cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, mace, nutmeg, cassia leaf (a type of laurel related to cinnamon), peppercorns and red pepper are warm spices. Larger amounts are used in the winter to create a warming effect. All the other spices fall into “somewhat cool” to “moderately warm” categories and are used anytime in various amounts to keep the system in balance. Herbs and spices that harmonize with certain foods are cooked together to promote the body’s own healing properties. Ghee, honey, rice and yogurt, for example are cooling. Meat, mangoes and cashews are heat-inducing foods eaten in moderation.  Spicy hot foods are eaten in larger quantity in hot weather as they induce perspiration. You sweat, then feel cooler as even tepid air hits your damp skin—all the better if its an icy blast from an air conditioner. Not all Indian food is fiery hot as you might have come to think after a meal in the old guard curry houses that specialized in super macho, hot dishes. Some spices do impart heat, but work in tandem with more subtle aromatics, infusing dishes with heady fragrances, beautiful tints and piquant notes. Many spices also help thicken and bind sauces and some act as a natural tenderizer. A few, such as saffron, turmeric, cayenne and fresh green herbs lend flavor, aroma and color.

Stay tuned for more on spices....

Eggplant and Chickpeas with Garlic

This recipe is from northeast India, a region integrating the cuisines of both the north and Bengal. Anita Sen, a friend and colleague from our days in Singapore cooked this for me when I visited her in Kolkata (Calcutta) on a rain-chilled night when all Bengalis wrap themselves in shawls to ward off the dreaded cold. We sipped spiced chai over stories of her idyllic childhood growing up in Assam on the tea garden her father managed in the foothills of the Himalayas. She recalled the cool mists, the tea shrubs clinging to the hillsides in neat pruned rows and the meals cooked over glowing embers in a clay oven, adding special flavor in her memories. This dish combines succulent chunks of eggplant with nutty chickpeas in a simple spice mixture (masala) with coconut milk and is a family favorite. She learned this dish from the family cook who was a Buddhist descended from a line of Mogs. They were tribal people from the Chittigong hill tracks in Bangladesh bordering Myanmar taken as galley slaves by the Portuguese and later hired as cooks by the British. This is Bengali in essence but less pungent. The flavor is deeper than the list of ingredients implies.  Eggplant and chickpeas are fried with ground spices and slow simmered in coconut milk until the eggplant is tender and falling apart and the chickpeas start to become creamy. The final touch is a to stir in gently fried golden garlic and sliced bits of jalapeño with a garnish of fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves. I prefer the silky texture and mild taste of long slender Asian eggplant, but any type will do, from the small oval ones sold in Indian groceries to the striking mauve and white Pandora Striped Rose or elongated white Casper varieties sold at farmers markets. If using small eggplants halve or quarter them depending on the size.


1 large eggplant or 2-3 slender Asian eggplants (about 1 to 1 1/4 pounds)
1generous tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2-3 small dried red chilies (such as japonés or chile de arbol), snipped in half and seeded
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil, divided use
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
One 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and well rinsed
1 cup canned coconut milk (shake the can before opening to mix the top layer of cream into the thinner milk)
Juice of half a freshly squeezed lime (about 2 tablespoons)
6 large or 12 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
1 jalapeño, halved lengthwise, seeded and coarsely chopped
Chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves (about 1 tablespoon)

PREPARING THE EGGPLANT. If using a large eggplant cut in half lengthwise. Cut into quarters lengthwise and cut crosswise into 2-inch sections. If using Asian eggplants cut them in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise on the diagonal into 2-inch thick slices. Set aside.

ROASTING AND GRINDING THE SPICES. Heat a small heavy skillet over medium heat. Drop in the coriander seeds, cumin and dried red chiles. Roast until the spices darken a shade and smell fragrant, shaking the pan a few times, about 1 1/2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee or spice grinder and grind until fairly finely powdered, stopping once to scrape down the sides with a small spoon, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape out into a small dish.

COOKING THE EGGPLANT AND CHICKPEAS. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large wide skillet over medium-low heat. Add the ground spice mixture and fry for about 1 minute, stirring almost constantly with a slotted spoon.  Add the eggplant, salt, turmeric, and chickpeas and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring and scraping up from the bottom of the pan almost constantly until the eggplant is encrusted in the spice mixture, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan and simmer until the eggplant is tender and all the liquid is dried up, about 20 minutes. Stir in the lime juice and turn off the heat and keep covered.

FRYING THE GARLIC. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and reduce the heat to low. Sizzle the garlic, watching carefully and stirring from time to time until starting to become slightly sticky, in about 6 to 7 minutes. Keep frying until starting to become crispy and light golden, about 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove from the heat and stir into the eggplant and chickpea mixture. Keep covered until ready to serve.

GARNISHING THE EGGPLANT AND CHICKPEA CURRY. Stir in the jalapeño and transfer to a serving dish. Garnish with the coriander (cilantro) and serve. Makes 4-6 servings

Monday, September 13, 2010

Mermaid Seasalt Toffee

Spicy Salty Sweet Toffee is back

Over a year ago I started making toffee under my own label, Mermaid Seasalt Toffee. I've always been intrigued by the idea of mermaids, love swimming in the ocean and grind my own Indian spice mixtures so came up with a toffee infused with spices to create a buttery delicious treat that is brushed with chocolate and sprinkled with homemade curry powder and Himalayan salt ground from marine fossils that are 2 million years old from the time when the mountains were an ocean. Each batch is hand made with the idea of candy that is sweet and just a little bit salty. I'm glad she's back after taking the summer off. It felt good to sweat again, cutting burning hot toffee before it got too hard to cut into bite size pieces.  I like that my apartment is once agian filled with the scent of almost burnt sugar and I have the mantra-like task of cutting wax paper and wrapping the little pieces of toffee. If you haven't tried it, you really should. 

The Bengali feast I cooked with Seema

Sunday, September 12, 2010

An Old Friend Resurfaces and I'm Hungry

A few days ago my friend Seema Desai found me on facebook (isn't the social networking age great?) I met Seema in Miami who is a scientist and was working at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine (she's now an assistant professor in Chicago at RUSH). In Miami we would meet to cook Bengali food and the seafood dishes of the Koli fisherwomen who were the original inhabitants of the cluster of islands that became Mumbai (Bombay). Seema is from the Juhu Beach area of Bombay and worked in the Koli community before living with a Bengali family when she was doing research in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). I haven't told anyone yet about my passion for Bengali food, but my mouth waters thinking about carp in yogurt custard and greens cooked in mustard oil in a paste of ground spices. Bengalis are clever but smart enough to back themselves up and have a creative streak a mile wide. Seema is a genius.  She found frozen smelt to make a deliciuos Bengali fish dish and taught me to stuff mild finger peppers with fake crab among many adapations to life in America. She's not like any woman scientist friend you could have who happens to be Indian in this life (she jokes I must have been Indian in a past life and I'm sure it could be true). She calls me Kalindi Mukherjee, a great Hindi-Bengali pen name. The best news is I'll be seeing her in January when I am in Chicago and we plan to go to Divine Devon Street, a great artery of Indian shops and restaurants mingled with old world Jewish shops selling kosher meats, pickles and yogurt. It is a great river of life like the Indus  that was the birth of one of the great civilizations in the world. There's just some people you meet along the river of life that become a current so strong you can never lose them and Seema Desai in one of them.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dumplings with the neighbors

Last night I met my neighbor Michael, a graphic designer and his wife, Manal an accountant  at their home, three blocks from me. Michael had written to me regarding a barbecue place I wrote about in my column in the Miami Herald. Next thing I know he invited me to his bi-weekly Friday night gathering. Then I am helping make Chinese dumplings with Monica and Theresa--they are from China and Taiwan and friends. I stripped fresh thyme and rosemary from the stem and we mixed the herbs with chopped basil and minced garlic with ground turkey, chopped shrimp and spinach to make the filling for the dumplings. Monica directed us and my job making eggrolls at Jins BBQ when I was at university in Carbondale, Illinois came in handy. I placed a spoonful of filling on a round won ton wrapper and smeared beaten egg around the circle, then folded it up to create a half moon and pinched it closed. We steamed the dumplings in a pot with a bit of oil and water until crusted on the bottom and soft on top. Very delicious plain or dipped in vinegar or fish sauce. We all mentioned the fact that today is 9/11. I remember being on day 11 of a trip to India that started September 1st in Delhi. On September 11th I was in Jaipur in Rajasthan. I went to a village fair, rode a camel, went on a little Ferris wheel and ate the food of the desert at a low table with my fingers, mixing dal and rice and scooping it up with torn pieces of blistered flat bread punctuated with hot and spicy chutneys. I rode home with my Indian host and friend and stumbled into bed dreaming of the village fair and woke up at 4 a.m. to pack and head to the airport to Mumbai. I skidded into the lobby in the dusky early hour and grabbed a newspaper. I saw a picture of the world trade center twin towers collapsing and went into a semi state of shock. I knew my friend was on the way to take me to the airport but another part of me went numb. I saw a TV that was replaying the image of the towers going down and I started to cry. What in the world had happened? Then my friend arrived on his motorcycle and with tears in my eyes and a huge ache in my heart we headed to the airport and next thing I know I was airborne on my way to Mumbai where a friend from Miami I met at Rajas little down town eatery met me and took me for a bite to eat and comforted me in the hour of no mans land. So there I was in Mumbai on 9/11

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Cookie Connection

In my Miami food writings I have met hundreds of people from owners of small cafes with Indonesian and Indian food good enough to make you want to move to Bali or Bombay to homecooks with brillant dishes from Bolivian soup-filled empanadas to Venezuelan corn pancakes folded around cheese, all with various stratifications of stories to accompany the dishes. Last week Gil Katzman, the Israeli-born proprietor of  a  dessert company he runs with his wife Smadar called Cookie Pursonality (the collection of cookies are packed in Deco-style cardboard "purses") got in touch with me and  told me about a book called The Hundred-Foot Journey, written by Richard C. Morais, a classmate of Gil at Zurich high school in Switzerland. I got the book yesterday and finished it tonight. It's about being displaced and having to answer the question, where are you from? In the novel a young Indian boy moves to England, then France discovering his gift for cooking, and after winning his 3rd star for his haute French cuisine, he realizes it is a thousand year journey back to his roots in India when on winning his prestigious star he peers in on a hole-in-the-wall Indian place that has closed but he smells the familiar curry and yearns for home--and a home he is not sure he has after so many years abroad. The lives of the people I write about reflect my own life of living in many countries. My life, Gil and Smadar's, my friend Yonder, my friend Shar, my friend Barry, my friend  Shiny--almost everyone I know has had their life intersected by life circumstances for good and bad.To answer where are we from? The World.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Eggplants of Friendship

On Sunday my friend Lisa brought me a small curry plant (the leaves are added to curries--it's not curry powder growing on a tree!), a mango from her parents tree, her homemade mango chutney and some long slender Asian eggplants that I like as they have smooth (not bitter) skin and sweet flesh that is succulent when cooked and absorbs the flavors of what it is cooked with. They came with the curry plant from Asia Grocery on SW 56th Street in Miami which is really an Indian market where one can get jars of lime, mango and carrot pickles in mustard oil and spices, whole and ground spices, lentils, basmati rice, and Southeast Asian-Indian produce like the slim eggplants, bitter melons and long beans. Lisa had an appointment in that part of Miami and was kind enough to get what items I asked her to get for me. So last night with the leftover curry base from the chef friend, half a can of coconut milk and the eggplants I made eggplant curry. I just heated some olive oil, tossed in mustard seeds and cumin seeds and fresh curry leaves. When they were sizzling I added the chef friends curry base (who he adapted from a North Indain chef he met in Egypt) and chopped up eggplant, turmeric, cayenne, fresh cilantro and salt. I stir-fried the eggplant in a a wok from my friend Eleanor until it started to soften and poured in the coconut milk with a splash of vinegar and cooked it down until the sauce was thick and clinging to the eggplant and then threw in the remaining baby spinach I had in my fridge. I ate it with rice and Lisa's savory mango chutney. Today, Labor Day, Lisa invited me for dinner. By coincidence--or maybe because she had been shopping in an Indian grocery--or because we were on the same wave length--she had cooked Indian. I brought over my eggplant curry and we feasted together on this last night of summer as lightning splintered in the sky and rain streaked her windows. She had made chard with coconut and tamarind, basmati rice scented with cumin and cloves steamed with peas, corn and carrot shreds, potato cubes cooked with whole spices and red lentil dal. It's the end of summer but I'm sure many more Indian meals remain with my circle of friends to extend the season--isn't it called Indian summer?.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Northeast India

West Bengal and Assam form the main mass of the northeastern part of India and share a similar cuisine based on rice, fish, dal (stewed lentils) and vegetables. These regions encircle East Bengal, now known as Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). Most of West Bengal lies on the western delta of the Ganga where numerous rivers, including the Ganges, and its branch, the Hooghly pour out into the Bay of Bengal. The bay is bordered by mud flats and mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans in the far south. To the far north is Darjeeling meaning, “region of the dorje”, or thunderbolt, perched in the shadow of the cloud shrouded Kanchendzonga mountain range and surrounded by forests and terraced tea gardens. In southern West Bengal, summers are hot and humid, followed by cooler, clear winters. This region is called Sonar Bangal, or “the golden land of Bengal”, a rich gold and green landscape of rice paddies with stands of sugarcane, coconut palms, and bananas. Bengalis are crazy about the wild, leafy greens that poke up in the wet lushness of monsoon season and get cooked with coconut, chickpeas and chiles or added to dal (stewed lentils). Water lilies, taro, bitter gourds, banana blossoms, potatoes, crab, shrimp and sweet water fish are all relished and plentiful. Dal-bhat (boiled rice and split lentils) with a little fish is everyday sustenance in Bengal. Rice is a must at every meal, but puffed deep-fried bread is also popular with the soft collapsed balloons torn and used to scoop up fish curries. Panch phoron is a 5-spice blend indispensable to Bengali cuisine. Unlike most spices, the seeds are not ground, but roasted and used whole. Mustard seeds are also widely used, sizzled in hot mustard oil or ground raw into a pungent paste and added to vegetable stews or smeared on fish pieces steamed in banana leaves. White poppy seeds are also wet-ground into pastes for thickening stews. Bengali cuisine is highly ritualized, with emphasis on freshness but also how each fish and vegetable is cut on a boti, a terrifyingly large upright blade clamped onto a wood block.  Also unlike other regions, dishes are always eaten in a precise order, based on age-old beliefs that relate to the aid of the digestive process. A bitter vegetable melange called shuko starts the meal, followed by fritters, rice, lentils, vegetable stew and roasted vegetables then fish, possibly a meat dish and sweet chutney, lentil wafers and thick, sweet yogurt called misti.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Joy Luck Curry

Today I was lucky enough to get a plastic container holding a curry base from a chef-friend who obtained the mother base from an Indian chef working with him in the Middle East. The roots were ground spices with yogurt intended for a north Indian lamb curry. The chef-friend adapted it with coconut and his own spin with the backbone of a ginger garlic paste and onions fried almost to burning and dark brown and pureed with the the ginger-garlic paste and tomato to weld together a great meal that using the base curry can include what ever you can imagine. I thinned the base slightly with a little coconut milk, reduced it down and added fresh spinach by the handful, then some chopped boiled eggs. I added a bit of sambal (Indonesian chile paste) and ate it spooned over rice and was happy. Next time I'll try crab or shrimp or tofu. I just joined the joy cook club.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

South Indian Cauliflower with Scallions

The best food in India is cooked at home, often utilizing just a few spices and market fresh ingredients. Ghar ka khana (home-style) cauliflower radiates deep satisfaction yet is very easy to make. It is always the surprise hit when I serve it at parties. Guests are attracted to the vivid green tangle of scallions atop golden brown clusters of cauliflower speckled in dark mustard seeds. The underlying secret is shallots, which add a delicate complexity when slightly caramelized along with the cauliflower. A short steam bath ensures tender florets that brown as the liquid reduces, encrusting them in the spices. In South India, shallots are sometimes called scallions, probably the origin of the name of this dish. I tasted several versions on my travels through Kerala and Tamil Nadu and none used spring onions. Intrigued with the idea of adding them to the already delicious cauliflower, I tried frying slender stalks of scallion (also known as green onions) to add some color and textural contrast and loved the results. This dish can be made ahead and served at room temperature adding to its allure as a party food.


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch scallions (about 6), trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
1 1/2 teaspoons black or yellow mustard seeds
1 small dried chile, snipped in half and seeded
4-5 shallots (about 8 ounces), peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 medium head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds), trimmed, quartered, and cut into 2-inch florets
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder


Chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves (about 1 tablespoon)

FRYING THE SCALLIONS (GREEN ONIONS).  Crumple several paper towels and place in a shallow bowl near the stove. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over high heat and when the oil is hot, add the scallions. Cook, turning once or twice with a slotted spoon until limp but still bright green, about 2 minutes. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.

COOKING THE CAULIFLOWER. Add the mustard seeds and red chile to the hot oil in the same skillet. When the mustard seeds start to crackle, reduce the heat to medium-high and add the shallots. Cook, stirring frequently until starting to turn pale golden brown at the edges, about 2 minutes.  Add the cauliflower, turmeric, salt, and cayenne, stirring to mix well. Stir in 1 cup of hot water, cover and steam the cauliflower until tender-crisp, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the cover and continue cooking until all the liquid is dried up and the cauliflower starts to brown, stirring and turning from time to time until golden brown all over and crisped in spots, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt.  Mix in the scallions and transfer to a serving dish. Serve garnished with the coriander (cilantro). Makes 4-6 servings.

Goan Chicken and Potato Rechad

Portugal and India collide in culinary beneficiary in this dish. Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India in the quest for coveted spices at the turn of the 16th century. The Portuguese introduced chiles, discovered in the Americas by Columbus who thought they were related to black pepper. From the Iberian peninsula chiles quickly spread along the spice trade routes around the world. Goan rechad--short for recheado (meaning stuffed in Portuguese)--is a bright red spice mixture (maslala) based on dried red chiles and spices ground with vinegar and garlic. It is similar to vindaloo, but used to stuff seafood. In Portugal squid tubes are stuffed with a mixture of rice and spicy chourico sausage and cooked in tomato sauce. In Goa a similar sausage called lingiss in Konkani is seasoned with fiery rechad. The spice paste is also used to stuff whole mackerel and pomfret and used as a base for cooking shrimp, mussels or clams. Chicken rechad is the invention of my friend Ayesha D’Mello who is Goan but grew up in Gujarat where her father is a doctor in the port city of Surat. When she moved to Canada to attend university she started cooking but couldn’t find the fish from home and tried sautéing boneless pieces of chicken in the rechad paste. Rechad is not hard to make but requires two grinding steps. Freshly roasted whole spices are ground in an electric spice grinder then blitzed in a blender with vinegar soaked chiles and garlic. The ensuing brick red paste is cooked with the chicken until it reduces down and glazes the morsels of meat. Ayesha serves her chicken rechad with home made French fries but I’ve adapted the recipe to add boiled potatoes and cook them with the chicken—they become melting soft, offering mellow pillows of starch between bites of spiced chicken. You can use breast but it tends to dry out so cut it into larger pieces. I find thigh meat more flavorful, and it stands up better to the muscular spice mixture. 


For the Red Hot Sauce (Rechad Masala)

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
8 small dried red chiles (such as japonés or chile de arbol), snipped and seeded
One 1-inch cinnamon stick, broken into a few pieces
1 generous tablespoon coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black or yellow mustard seeds
8 whole black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 generous teaspoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
5 large or 10 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped

The Chicken and Potatoes

3 to 3 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 8-10 pieces), depending on size
1 pound red-skinned potatoes (about 3 medium ones)
1 tablespoon olive oil

MAKING THE RED SPICE PASTE (RECHAD MASALA). Pour the vinegar into the jar of a blender; add the chiles and leave to soak half an hour. Meanwhile heat a small skillet over medium-high heat. Drop in the cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and mustard seeds, peppercorns and cloves. Roast, shaking the pan several times until the spices darken a shade and smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee/spice grinder and add the sugar, salt, turmeric and paprika. Blitz, pulsing on and off several times and stopping at least once to scrape down the sides with a small spoon, until fairly finely powdered, about 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape out into a small dish. Once the chiles have soaked long enough, add the ground spice mixture to the blender with the garlic and blend into a smooth paste, stopping once to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula, about 2 minutes.  Scrape out into a cup. There should be about 1/2 a cup of fairly thick brick red colored paste.

PREPARING THE CHICKEN. Blot the chicken pieces with paper towels. Prick several times on the thick meaty side of each piece with a fork to allow the marinade to penetrate. Cut into 2-inch pieces. Place the chicken pieces in a large non-reactive mixing bowl and add the spice paste (rechad masala), and using a rubber spatula mix well, turning the pieces so the chicken is coated on all sides in the paste. Leave to marinate about an hour at room temperature.

BOILING THE POTATOES. Peel the potatoes and cut into quarters lengthwise. Place the potato wedges in a 2-quart saucepan. Cover with water and add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until tender enough to easily pierce with the tip of a sharp knife but still al dente, about 9 to 10 minutes. Pour into a colander and rinse under cold water and leave to drain.

COOKING THE CHICKEN AND POTATOES. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet (not nonstick) over high heat. Add the chicken with the spice paste and cook, stirring fairly frequently with a slotted spoon until the flesh changes from glossy pink to milky-white, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the potatoes, and continue cooking, stirring frequently as the reddish sauce bubbles and begins to thicken, about 3 to 4 more minutes until the oil rises to the surface in small pools. Keep stirring and cook another 3 to 4 minutes until the chicken and potatoes are glazed in the thick sauce and all the liquid has dried up. Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnished with a few sprigs of coriander (cilantro), if you wish. Makes 4-6 servings

Ayesha D'Mello the Indian cooking teacher with bebinca cake

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Southern Peninsula of India

South India is comprised of four states, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The Western Ghats (steps) merge into the Nilgiri, or Blue Mountains and Cardamom Hills near Kerala and continue to the southern tip of the peninsula. At the very tip is Cape Comorin, where Hindus believe bathing in the waters where three oceans meet will wash their sins away. Beyond the Western Ghats a plateau slopes eastward to the broken chain of the Eastern Ghats. The climate is hot and humid except when the cool monsoons blow in, drenching the forests and rice paddies.  Dravidian dynasties competed for supremacy in the south over thousands of years, but no one kingdom ever controlled the whole pendant-shaped tip of the peninsula. The Malabar Coast was strategically important in the lucrative spice trade. Today spices and chiles permeate the cuisine of South India. While each state has their own specialties, similar ingredients are used. Rice is the staple grain and many varieties are grown. Rice, known as sadam in the south is flavored with lemon, tamarind, coconut and yogurt and made into puddings and other sweets. Rice is ground into flour and used to make batter for fritters, steamed cakes, pancakes and noodles. To make string hoppers, cooked rice dough is pushed through the holes of a press, the strands swirled into flat nests and used to sop up curry or sweetened coconut milk. Fish and shellfish come from the sea, rivers and backwater canals. Tropical fruits and vegetables grow in abundance. Tea and coffee are cultivated in the cool hills.  Coconut and date palms sway in the warm breezes. Coconuts, coconut oil, curry leaves, turmeric, mustard seeds, shallots, tamarind, lime juice and smoked kokum called kodampoli or “fish tamarind” are widely used in southern cooking. Two other unusual ingredients are kalpasi, a dried fungus collected from rocks along the beach and vazlapoo, the pale yellow inner buds of banana blossoms. The moss is used in biryanis and the buds are often ground with chickpeas to make fritters. In general, South Indian food is less oily and lighter than in the north where cream and ghee make the food richer and harder to digest. Only in the south are small amounts of split lentils roasted or fried and used as a seasoning, adding a nutty flavor to many dishes. In the south curries are hotter and thinner than in the north, perfect for mixing into the plain foil of rice. Hot, thin rasam (literally “dal water”) and slightly thicker, tangy-hot lentil and vegetable sambar accompany rice at all meals. The duo is also served with paper thin rice and lentil pancakes and spongy steamed rice cakes that resemble flying saucers. Cooling tamarind and other souring agents are used in abundance to help balance the large intake of chiles. Tamarind also preserves the vitamins of vegetables and helps soften the hard water found in many parts of the south. Food is served on banana leaves, which are fed to cows when the meal is over. The size of the leaf and placement of dishes on it differ in each community, and one glance tells a person the status, wealth and origin of a family.  Chewing paan (betel leaf) after meals originated in the south as a digestive.

Goan chicken and okra with fries from Ayesha's class

Ayesha's Kitchen

Six years ago I attended the first cooking class Ayesha D'Mello offered here in Miami, not to learn to cook Indian food but to write about the experience in my weekly column in the Miami Herald called Fork on the Road.  From that article and other media notice, her classes began to fill quickly as word of mouth got around. Now you may have to go on a waiting list. The classes are hands on, fun and a real learning experience. Ayesha is confident, energetic, organized, wise and kind. Her joy for cooking Indian food is as infectious as her mega-watt smile. She is Goan and Goan's are known for their love of life and food and Ayesha is the perfect example of this personality trait.

Ayesha's philosophy: Cook quick, healthy and delicious Indian dishes

She offers scheduled as well as private group cooking classes in her home

Classes range from all about Indian bread, dinner on the spice route and classic Indian cuisine to traditional vegetarian fare and vegan village of India (check the schedule of upcoming classes on the website below)

Gift certificates are available for all occasions including birthdays, anniversaries, reunions, etc and can be personalized

Most classes include 6-8 dishes designed to get a new-to-Indian cook started using readily available ingredients and participants will go home with copies of the featured recipes to make at home

At the end of the class everyone sits down to a full meal that they helped cook from appetizer to dessert

For more information or to schedule a class go to:

Contact info: 305-254-069/

Sunday, August 29, 2010

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Doing an Indian cooking demo (Rajasthani chicken in yogurt sauce)

Goan food (Beef curry, croquettes, green chutney and shrimp curry)

Maharashtra Beet and Coconut Soup

My Spice Box (Masala Dabba)

Indian vegetables with fresh turmeric

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Temple Parrot, Chennai India

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What my blog is about

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Tangy Goan Purple Cabbage Salad

In Goa cabbage replaces lettuce as the main salad green as it keeps fresh longer. This light crisp slaw-like salad is deliciously tart in a vinegar base with a pleasant hint of garlic, crunch of bell pepper, and juicy bits of tomato all jumbled together. The salad is beautiful with the purple cabbage and red onions perking up anything it is plated with. This is the everyday salad of Goa served as a tangy crunchy textural contrast to rich meaty curries and spice smeared grilled chicken and a must with fried fritters and fish. Use good olive oil and vine ripe tomatoes for best results.  Soaking the cabbage for a short time helps crisp it.


1 pound purple cabbage (half a large head or 1 small head), cored and shredded
1 medium red onion (about 8 ounces), peeled, quartered and finely sliced
1 small green or red bell pepper (about 5-6 ounces), cored, inner membranes removed and cut into fine strips
1 large ripe tomato or 2-3 plum tomatoes (about 8 ounces), quartered, sliced into paper- thin half moons (separate with your fingers)
2 fresh green chiles such as serrano or Thai, halved lengthwise, seeded and minced
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, smashed, skin removed and minced
Freshly ground black pepper

CRISPING THE CABBAGE. Place the shredded cabbage in a bowl of lightly salted cold  water to cover and add the sliced onion. Soak 5 minutes and drain well in a colander.

DRESSING THE SALAD. In a serving bowl, mix together the cabbage, onion, bell pepper and tomato. In a small bowl whisk the vinegar with the salt and sugar until dissolved. Whisk in the oil, garlic and ground pepper to taste and pour over the cabbage mixture. Toss to coat well, using a rubber spatula and serve. This salad can be made one day ahead and refrigerated until ready to serve.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Goan Pork Vindaloo

Unlike the molten vindaloos served in many restaurants, a vindaloo should not bite back.  An authentic vindaloo is a glorious balance of heat, tartness, spice, and subtle sweetness.  Vindaloo comes from the corruption of vinh d'alho, meaning wine of garlic in the Portuguese creole spoken in India. In Portuguese, vinho de alho means a slow-cooked stew with wine vinegar and garlic. The Portuguese introduced this method of cooking to Goa, a tiny state on India's southwestern palm fringed coast where it evolved into a spicy braise. Along the way tamarind slipped into the pot, as well as tomatoes and chiles brought from the New World. The vinegar works as a tenderizer and preservative, important in a hot humid place with little refrigeration until recently.  Cooking over low heat also helps tenderize the pork and allows the flavors to meld. To learn about genuine vindaloo, I spent a day with Premila Fernandes in the enormous smoke-blackened kitchen of her friend Mario Miranda at his 300-year-old estate in Loutolim, Goa.  Built in a baroque blend of Iberian and Indian architecture, the mansion is a reminder of four and a half centuries of Portuguese occupation of Goa. Another reminder is the pork. Rarely eaten in the rest of India, pork is a favorite of the Christians in Goa, who roast whole pigs for feasts and turn ground pork into spicy sausages. Over centuries Latin influences mingled with tropical ingredients forming a fusion cuisine unique to Goa.  Premila starts with the basic spice blend of Goa (piri piri masala), blending toasted spices and lots of mild red chiles with tamarind pulp and vinegar into a smooth paste.  After marinating in the dark red paste, the chunks of pork and the marinade are sautéed with onions, then braised until the liquid reduces down to a thick sauce with only a flicker of heat. Vindaloo tastes even better reheated a day after making it as the flavors meld.


Pork and Spice Paste Marinade (Wet Masala)

2 pounds boneless pork leg (fresh ham) or shoulder (often labeled pork for stewing)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1 dried ancho chile, snipped in several pieces and seeded
1/2 cup malt or apple cider vinegar
8 whole black peppercorns
One 2-inch cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces
1 generous teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 whole cloves
6 large or 12 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
1 generous tablespoon tamarind paste (or substitute lemon juice)
1 teaspoon turmeric

 To Finish the Vindaloo

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions (about 1-pound), peeled, quartered, and finely sliced
1 large tomato or 2-3 plum tomatoes (about 8 ounces), coarsely chopped
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons tomato paste, thinned with 2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1 whole star anise pod
2 tablespoons thick, aged balsamic vinegar, optional

 PREPARING THE PORK. Blot the pork dry with paper towels. Trim any excess fat off, leaving a few flecks for flavor and moistness. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Place in a non-reactive mixing bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Mix and toss with a spatula to coat all the sides in salt.

MAKING THE SPICE PASTE. Place the ancho chile pieces in a small bowl, add the vinegar and soak about 15 minutes. Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and drop in the peppercorns, cinnamon, mustard seeds, cumin, and cloves. Roast, shaking the pan from time to time until seeds start to crackle and smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee or spice grinder and blitz, pulsing on and off several times and scraping down the sides with a small spoon until fairly finely powdered, about 2 minutes.  Pour the ancho chile and vinegar into a blender. Add the ground spices, garlic, tamarind, and turmeric. Blend, stopping once or twice and scraping down sides with a rubber spatula until the mixture is smooth, about 2 or 3 minutes (you should have 1/2 a cup of thin mahogany colored paste). Pour over the pork and, and toss with a rubber spatula until evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate at least 24 hours or up to three days.

COOKING THE ONIONS AND PORK. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet (not nonstick) or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the pork and marinade, and cook, stirring frequently and scraping up from the bottom of the pan with a slotted spoon, until the pork changes from pink, becoming firm and light brownish, about 4 to 5 minutes. The pork will begin to exude rich reddish-brown juices that bubble and foam. Stir in the tomatoes, vinegar, tomato paste, sugar, star anise with 3/4 of a cup of hot water and the balsamic vinegar, if using. Bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer, checking and stirring every so often to make sure it is proceeding at a gentle bubble and the pork is not sticking (add a little water if it is), about 1 hour. The sauce will become shiny as it thickens and the pork will be fork tender.  Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnished with paper-thin red onion rings and a few sprigs of coriander (cilantro), if you wish.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Goa’s climate is typical of coastal monsoon lands— the endless cycle of a dry hot season increasing in humidity, followed by monsoon rains that cool the air, then a dry cooler season that gradually gets hotter and humid. During the rains, the thickly forested hilltops of the ghats are capped in clouds and mist. Lower slopes are planted with spices, cashews, teak, guava, jackfruit, custard apples, papayas, pineapples, melons, mangoes, muzambi (sweet limes) and bananas. Between the ghats and beaches, lush rice paddies and fields of vegetables surround villages with white church steeples stabbing the blue skies. The rivers and sea yield fish and shellfish year round.  Rice is the staple grain, eaten at every meal, often with fish curry. The rice grown in Goa is thick, reddish and round-grained with a nutty flavor. Ragi (red millet) is also important, ground and roasted to make thick flat breads. Coconut sap and cashew apples are fermented to make feni, a potent spirit. Dried fish are utilized during the monsoon season when fishermen remain home. Chilies are grown and used in tongue curling abundance. These of course are the legacy of the Portuguese who ruled Goa for 450 years. Before the Iberian colonists and missionaries arrived, this verdant chunk of land was ruled by waves of Hindu dynasties and Arab invaders. The Portuguese however had the biggest impact on Goan food. In Goa, pork and beef is eaten by Christians as well as many Hindus. Brahmins indulge in seafood and vegetables are often cooked with tiny shrimp. A popular souring agent is kokum, the dark purple dried rind of a tart type of tropical plum. Meals often begin with a digestive drink based on kokum extract. The local rice is served double boiled which makes the grains larger and soft, a perfect foil for spicy curries and caldeiradas (layered seafood stews). Pork vindaloo is a fiery, sweet and sour curry with a touch of vinegar. Chouriço is Goan sausage based on chorizo, laced with garlic, spices and chilies, often added to pots of simmered beans or sandwiched inside bread rolls. Muslim cooks add the sausage to rice pilaf with shrimp and spices. Pale poppy seeds are roasted and ground with toasted coconut, chilies and spices to make complex chicken and seafood curries called xacuti (pronounced “sha-koo-tee”) with a nutty flavor. Xec xec is thick coconut curry with crab or lobster. Sukem are dry curries, made with seafood or vegetables, often eaten with bread. Besides flat breads, there are many baked types including crusty bangle-shaped kankon, pao (soft rolls) and ápa (rice cakes) layered with a spicy shrimp filling. Sweets are based on egg yolks, palm sugar and coconut. The most famous of these is bebinca, a cake of layered pancakes made with a coconut milk, flour, sugar and egg yolk batter enriched with ghee. Each layer has to be baked before the next one is added, taking several hours although modern cooks often make do with a modest number of layers, not the traditional sixteen.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Galicia has deep tentacles to the sea and soccer

My musings about Paul The Octopus after a recent trip to Galicia, Spain (can you tell I'm a soccor fan?)

Paul the Oracle Octopus is a national hero in Spain after he predicted they would win the World Cup, creating an international frenzy. Altered Spanish flags with a crowned Paul have been waving in triumph. A Brazilian company is developing a Paul iPhone app and a businessman in the town of O Carballino in Galicia raised a “transfer fee” to have Paul present at the annual Fiesta del Pulpo (octopus festival). Despite the assurances of the head of a local business club that Paul would be alive in a tank and not on the menu, Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany where Paul resides rejected the offer. Germans threatened to eat Paul after their loss in the semi-finals, as did the Uruguayans and Argentines to taunt the Spanish who are famous for their love of boiled octopus. Much of the catch comes from the waters around Galicia in the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula. The Madrid Zoo is negotiating to trump any other offers for the celebrated cephalopod but for now he is staying put. One has to marvel at the joy a little octopus pundit has brought Spain. Pulpo certifies any event in Galicia as a serious celebration, so the next four years should be quite a party.
Sadly, Paul won't be around for the 2014 beautiful games because he is already 2 1/2 years old and Octopuses only live to be about 4. Perhaps he will return reincarnated as a mind reading  monkey from India.

To meet a Neighbor Takes a Column

I will soon be marking the 10th year of writing a weekly food column for the Miami Herald. I started in October of 2000 and have met many interesting people, many who have become friends over the years. I even visited the remote village in South India that is the home of Raja Kandaswammy, the owner of Rajas's in downtown Miami (NE 2nd near Flagler). At one point, faces of the villagers were pressed to each window staring at me. When I walked to the local Hindu temple, everyone followed.  It seemed like I was a strange star that fell from the sky. I then visieted the nearby town where Raja's wife Chitra is from and spent a memorable night eating with her sister and parents. My every move was videotaped and for a year after I had returned to Miami the video played in the small restaurant as Raja proudly shared his parents, his village and way of life with customers.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth St. Theresa, the Albanian Sister who went on to found her charity in Calcutta (now Kolkata). I visited it when I was in Kolkata and you can't but feel the immensity of her faith manifested in her work with the poor.  Tonight several buildings in South Florida are lit in the blue and white colors of the sari she always wore. Let her light shine on forever. And by the way, Kolkata is not a "black hole". It is a vibrant Bengali city known as the intellectual center of India with poets, writers, film makers, actors and artists  contributing to works that are known around the world. The food is very different and based on freshwater fish and rice from the region, but I'll be getting to that later.

And today a person e-mailed with a comment on one of my Herald columns. A random stranger. I found out in replying that we live three blocks from one another. The next time he and his wife have one of their Friday night gatherings, I'll be there. The world works in mysterious ways but I'm glad to be making the connections.

Chaat Masala

                                 CHAAT MASALA (TANGY SPICE BLEND)

In Hindi chaat literally means “to lick”, referring to mouth watering snack salads and finger-licking foods enlivened with chaat masala.  This is a tantalizing blend with a distinctive flavor from earthy ground cumin, tart green mango powder (amchoor) and smoky, sulpherous black salt (kala namak) that tastes tangy, like lemon with a hint of egg salad. These are combined and ground with dried mint, dried ginger, nutmeg, cayenne, salt, and pepper for a well balanced seasoning that is tossed with chaat ingredients (boiled chunks of potato and raw fruit are popular), then smothered in sweet, sour and hot chutneys for full effect. If you for any reason, you can’t find black salt, don’t substitute table salt, as the mix will be overly salty without the special tang. Instead, add a little citric acid (sold in small crystals in Indian markets and finely ground Kosher “sour salt” in supermarkets). Commercial chaat masala blends are sold in small boxes in Indian markets and I find most are more than acceptable in flavor with a good spicy-tart-salty taste. Besides adding allure to chaat salads, try this masala sprinkled over yogurt salads and on French fries and other fried snacks, including samosas and vegetable fritters, added to stewed chickpeas and mixed into coleslaw and other creamy salad dressings.  In India, it is all the rage to dust grilled kebabs, fried fish or shrimp and tandoori chicken with a little chaat masala.

Here's a link to to find Indian ingredients on line:

Makes about 1 cup


3 tablespoons cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns

3 tablespoons dried crushed mint

1/2 teaspoon asafeotida (hing powder)

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, grated on a microplane rasp-style grater or other grater

1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger

4 tablespoons green mango powder (amchoor)

2 tablespoons black salt (kala namak)

1 teaspoon cayenne powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals

ROASTING THE SPICES. Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and drop in the

cumin and peppercorns. Roast, stirring from time to time with a slotted spoon until the

spices smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and add the mint,

asafoeotida, nutmeg and ginger and toast another minute, stirring constantly. Remove

from the heat and cool slightly.

GRINDING THE SPICE MIXTURE (MASALA).  Transfer to a small electric

coffee/spice grinder and add the green mango powder, black salt, cayenne and salt and

blitz to a fairly fine powder, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides with a small

spoon, about 2 minutes. Store in a glass jar or tightly sealed  container and use within 6 months for the best flavor.

Beet and Coconut Soup from Maharashtra

There is nothing shy or retiring about beets. The bulbous burgundy roots are bold, turning everything they touch shades of ruby and hot pink. The roots sweetness is best balanced with the sharpness of an acidic seasoning to bring out the earthy flavor. Beets also need something creamy to soften the assertive edge. To make this soup I simmer boiled, chopped beets in an aromatic herb paste and puree it with coconut milk. Lime zest and juice adds the tang to balance the sweetness while mint, garlic, cumin, chiles and shallots add layers of flavor. The color is a lovely deep magenta-pink garnished with vibrant green fresh coriander (cilantro) and pale chopped shallot. A final dusting of chaat masala (tangy spice blend) adds another contrasting tartness against the bed of subtly sweet, earthy soup. Beets evolved from the wild sea-beet that thrived along coastlines from Ireland to North Africa, India and Asia since prehistoric times. They were eaten for their greens since the roots were small and spindly. The Greeks made offerings of beets to the sun god Apollo and the Romans cultivated beets, calling them beta and used the roots medicinally to treat everything from fevers to toothaches—an irony since beets contain more sugar than any other vegetable. My Indian friend Seema loved beets growing up because they were so sweet, especially compared to karela (bitter gourd) and the tongue-prickling patra leaves from the taro tuber. As a teen she smeared her lips with a slice of beet in place of lipstick that was strictly banned in her Mumbai convent school. When shopping for beets, look for smooth, hard round deep red beets. Avoid ones with soft spots or flabby skins and wilted, yellowing leaves. The smaller the size the sweeter the taste, making for beet soup that is hard to beat,  and is both hearty and and blushingly beautiful. Chat masala is based on black salt and green mango powder and is sold in small packets in Indian grocery stores. I will also post a recipe for making it yourself.


3 medium or 6 small beets (about 12 ounces)
3 large or 6 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
1 fresh green jalapeño, coarsely chopped (seeded for less heat if you wish)
1 1/2 teaspoons peeled and grated fresh gingerroot
2 sprigs of fresh mint (about 12 leaves stripped from the stem)
Zest of 1 lime, removed with a citrus zester or Microplane rasp-style grater
2 limes, divided use
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 generous teaspoon cumin seeds
3 large or 6 small shallots (about 6 ounces) or 1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups vegetable stock (homemade or canned)
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of sugar
One 14 to 15 ounce can unsweetened coconut milk


Sprigs of fresh coriander (cilantro)
2 small shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rings
Chaat masala (tangy spice blend), optional

PREPARING THE BEETS. If the greens are attached, cut them off leaving about 1/2 an inch of stems. Rinse but do not peel or cut off the root end. Place in a saucepan and add water to cover by an inch or so. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil over high heat and boil until tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, about 45 to 50 minutes (a little longer if the beets are large). Drain in a colander and when cool enough to handle trim the root ends and peel the skins off (if the beets are small, the thin skin can be left on).  Chop into rough chunks and set aside.

MAKING THE AROMATIC PASTE (MASALA). Place the garlic, jalapeño, ginger, mint, lime zest and the juice of one of the limes in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal S-shaped blade (a mini one that fits on a blender is ideal). Process, pulsing on and off, stopping at least once to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula until fairly smooth, about 2 minutes (the light green mixture will be speckled with small dark green bits).

COOKING THE SOUP BASE. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over medium heat. Drop in the cumin seeds and fry until the seeds sizzle and darken, about 2 minutes. Add the shallots (or red onion) and cook, stirring almost constantly with a slotted spoon until soft and starting to turn pale caramel, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the beets and aromatic paste and cook, stirring frequently until the paste dries up and clings to the beets, about 3 minutes. Add the vegetable stock and season with the salt, a few good twists of the pepper grinder and the pinch of sugar. Simmer about 10 minutes and turn off the heat.

PUREEING THE BEET MIXTURE AND COCONUT MILK. Transfer half the beet mixture to the jar of a blender and add half the can of coconut milk. Blend until smooth, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes and pour in a clean saucepan. Blend the rest of the beets and coconut milk and add to the pan. Taste and adjust for salt and add the juice of the remaining lime. Gently bring to a simmer over low heat. Pour in to a tureen or ladle into soup bowls. Serve garnished with sprigs of fresh coriander (cilantro) and sliced shallots and sprinkle with a little chaat masala (tangy spice blend). Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chopped Salad With Chickpeas and Minty Yogurt

This is a  type of cachumber (uncooked chopped salad), with the addition of chickpeas and dressed in a creamy mint yogurt dressing, making it similar to raita (curd salad). It is a favorite in Maharashtra State. While not a festival food, I associate it with the celebrations in Pune during the 100th anniversary of Ganesha Chaturthi on my first trip to India many years ago.  This is a mass worship of Ganesha, the beloved deity born of the goddess Pavrati, wife of Shiva who is the remover of obstacles.  Pune is about three hours south of Mumbai (Bombay) by train and I found it a pressure cooker of activity the week in early September that I visited. I was met at the station by friendship guides and bedecked in flower garlands and anointed with red rice paste on my forehead. Electric-lit decorations and makeshift wood stalls festooned with tinsel and crepe paper lined the streets—stage sets for Ganesha statues, which portray the pot-bellied elephant-headed god. He sits cross-legged on lotus petal cushions waving multiple arms, blindfolded with red strips of cloth, removed the next evening in a ceremony that kicks off the festivities, ending eleven days later with a farewell immersion of all the clay statues in a nearby river. Little cafes with rickety tables and chairs set out under the stars sprawled along roadways. Vendors offered tea, cold drinks, hot snacks and various chaat-like chopped salads, including chickpeas, diced cucumber, tomato and red onions tossed in a minty yogurt dressing. The yogurt is blended with mint, coriander (cilantro), ginger, green chiles and garlic with a little lemon juice, creating a cooling, creamy tangy complement to the earthy chickpeas and crisp cucumber. The version I ate during the festival was served in a small leaf bowl and topped with sev, fine broken bits of crispy chickpea flour noodles. These are sold in the snack section of Indian groceries and make a tasty garnish, but the salad still tastes great with just a few mint springs for adornment.


The Creamy Dressing

Chopped mint leaves (about 1/2 a loosely packed cup)
Chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves (about 2 generous tablespoons)
1 teaspoon peeled and grated gingerroot
1 small garlic clove, smashed, skin removed and coarsely chopped
1 fresh green chile such as serrano or Thai, halved lengthwise, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 cup plain yogurt (not nonfat) preferably natural whole milk or strained Greek, divided use
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil

The Salad
One 15.5 ounce can of chickpeas, well rinsed and drained (about 1 1/2 cups)
2-3 plum tomatoes, (about 8 ounces), finely chopped
1 small red onion (about 3-4 ounces), thinly sliced, then coarsely chopped
1 cucumber (about 12 ounces), peeled, halved, seeded and cut into small dice (or use 2 slender seedless Armenian type that don’t need peeling)

A few mint sprigs
Sev (fine chickpea flour noodles), optional

 MAKING THE DRESSING. Place the mint, coriander (cilantro), ginger, garlic, chile,  1/2 a cup of the yogurt, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil in the jar of a blender and blend, scraping down once or twice with a rubber spatula, until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Scrape into a small bowl (makes about 1 cup of thin light green dressing).

 ASSEMBLING THE SALAD. Place the chickpeas, tomato, onion and cucumber in a mixing bowl.  Pour in the dressing and gently combine, using a rubber spatula. Whisk the remaining 1/2 a cup of yogurt until smooth and stir into the salad. Taste and adjust for salt. Serve garnished with a few mint sprigs and sprinkle of sev noodles, if you wish.

THe Deccan and Maharashtra

The Deccan plateau of peninsular India, formed from solidified volcanic lava eruptions marks the great divide between the northern plains and southern regions of India. Deccan comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “south”. The Vindhya Mountain range acts as a natural barrier and for centuries the two halves of India were almost cut off from each other. The region below this range was once the vast kingdom of Marathas, stretching from what is now Gujarat across the plains to the east coast. Chains of hills run parallel to each coast, known as the Western and Eastern Ghats. To the west, the hills flatten out into the Konkan coastal lowlands where alluvial rivers provide enough water for growing rice and other crops. A number of large rivers flow from the ghats (literally “steps”), draining down into the Arabian Sea. Others flow across the Deccan plateau toward the Bay of Bengal, creating fertile swaths. Maharashtra, meaning “great state” is the heart of the peninsula with Mumbai (formerly Bombay) it’s pulsing nucleus. Maharashtra lies between the wheat growing northern regions and rice growing south and both bread and rice are staples, although rice is a little more favored. Many regional variations of cuisine exist. There are the fierce, chili-hot meat curries in coconut milk bases of the Marathis, a former warrior class believed to be descendents of the great king Shivaji. Hindu Brahmins prepare sparsely spiced pure vegetarian food. In the coastal villages seafood is cooked with green chilies, fresh herbs, onions, garlic and coconut. The main spice blend used is goda masala made by dry roasting and grinding together aromatic spices, dried red chilies, coconut and sesame or white poppy seeds. Staples throughout the region are hand patted sorghum and millet breads, often eaten with a few chilies, an onion and leafy green curry as a meal. Puran poli are thin breads stuffed with a filling of sweet dal or palm sugar and sesame seeds, eaten with spicy curries or as a snack. Greens are also cooked with various dals. Roasted, ground peanuts or chickpea flour is often sprinkled over dishes to soak up liquids or thicken gravies.  In Mumbai, every imaginable cuisine can be found in India’s largest melting pots. The Parsis are one of the largest communities who arrived to India centuries ago. They blend Persian influences with the sweet and sour flavors of Gujarat (where they first settled).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gujarati Green Beans with Peanuts & Garlic

In Gujarat the general term for vegetable is shak and the majority of the people are vegetarian. Kutchhis (from the Kutch region), Jains (similar to Buddhists), and Vaishnavs (worshipers of Lord Krishna) are just some of the many sects in Gujarat and while tastes differ from region to region in the state—Jains for instance don’t eat roots or tubers that grow underground—all have contributed to the vegetarian dishes that appear in subtle variations on the tables of Gujarat. This is a very simple, delightful green bean stir-fry I tasted in my hosts home in the Kutch region—the biggest district in Gujarat, bordering Pakistan and containing the vast salt flats called the Rann of Kutch. During the monsoons this area is flooded with seawater and when it recedes the land sparkles like snow with a blinding white crust of salt stretching to the horizon. The people in this part of western Gujarat are mostly tribal and each tribe wears colorful embroidered clothing. Their dwellings are round mud huts called bhungas with a central support pole and thatched roof, with a cluster of huts surrounding a large communal courtyard. The smooth interior mud walls are washed with lime paste and embedded with tiny bits of mirror that throw hundreds of shimmering reflections. When the mud stove was lit, flickering pinpoints of fire spun around the kitchen where I shared a simple meal with a tribal family. Kutchhi cuisine is slightly sweet and spicy. Water is scarce in this harsh region so cooking vegetables in a little oil with mustard seeds, garlic, and crushed hot red peppers is common. The green beans are quickly cooked until tender-crisp with a little salt and sugar and peanuts for crunch.  I often whip up a pan of these spicy-sweet green beans to bring to pot lucks and they are always one of the first dishes to disappear.


1 pound green beans, cut into 2-inch segments (about 3 packed cups), blanched in boiling water about 2 minutes, plunged into ice water and drained
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
4 large or 8 small cloves of garlic, smashed, skins removed and minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals (less if using salted peanuts)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 generous tablespoons skinless roasted peanuts (plain or salted), coarsely chopped

 COOKING THE BEANS. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over medium-high heat. Drop in the mustard seeds and fry until they start turning gray and sputter, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the garlic and quickly stir, scraping up from the bottom of the pan with a slotted spoon, about 1 minute. Add the green beans, red pepper flakes, salt, sugar and peanuts, stirring and scraping frequently until the green beans are tender-crisp, about 3 to 4 minutes (for less crunch cook another few minutes, stirring all the time and sprinkling in a little water).  Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnish with chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, if you wish.

Gujarati Green Pea and Cucumber Curry

This luscious golden creamy pea and cucumber curry is an example of food that looks every bit as good as it tastes. To the uninitiated, adding cucumber to a cooked dish may seem strange as the crisp, watery cucumber is usually used raw. The vegetable is native to India where is most commonly added to chopped salads, grated and blended into yogurt to make raita, a cooling side dish salad and pickled.  Cucumber is also added to soups, stewed lentils, and curries. Both smooth-skinned slender green cucumbers and a round yellow type called dossakai are used like a squash and is the same family as gourds and melons.  Cucumbers are widely cultivated in Gujarat in Western India, adding a crisp-tender texture to many cooked dishes like this curry I cooked with Leela Patel and her daughter-in-law Sheetal near Vadodara in the country side where the two-story family house was surrounded by drumstick trees and fields of cauliflower. This falls in the general category of apnu shak, meaning vegetables dishes (shak means vegetable). We used freshly shelled peas from the pod, but frozen peas work fine are always available. Indian yogurt, made from full fat water buffalo milk is much richer than most yogurts found here so I add a little sour cream (also ensuring it won’t curdle). Diced cucumber is stirred into a mixture of lightly browning onions with cumin and mustards seeds, ginger, jalapeño, turmeric and cayenne and steamed until tender-crisp. The yogurt mixture is stirred with salt and cooked slowly at a low temperature until the cucumber is tender, with the peas stirred in the last few minutes. The thick, creamy light golden curry is irresistible with bright green peas contrasting the icy pale green cucumber cubes in both color and flavor. The peas are meaty and chewy and the cucumber mild and melting tender with just a hint of crispness. The dish is garnisheed with roasted, chopped peanuts, adding nutty crunch.


1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 medium yellow onion (about 8 ounces), peeled, halved with each half thinly sliced then chopped crosswise into small bits
1 fresh green jalapeño, halved lengthwise, seeded and minced
1 1/2 teaspoons peeled and grated gingerroot
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 medium cucumber (about 8 ounces), peeled, seeds scraped out and cut lengthwise into 4-5 strips, the strips cut crosswise into small cubes
11/4 cups plain yogurt (not non-fat), preferably natural whole milk or Greek strained, whisked until smooth and lump free
1 generous tablespoon sour cream, whisked into the yogurt
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals
1 1/2 cups frozen and thawed green peas


1 tablespoon roasted, salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
Chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves (about 1 generous tablespoon)

MAKING THE AROMATIC BASE. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over medium-high heat. Drop in the cumin and mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start to turn gray and sputter in about 1 1/2 minutes, add the onion. Cook, stirring fairly frequently with a slotted spoon until starting to turn pale caramel, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Add the jalapeño, ginger, turmeric, and cayenne and cook, stirring almost constantly and scraping up from the bottom of the pan, about 1 minute.

ADDING THE CUCUMBER, YOGURT, AND PEAS.  Add the cucumber and reduce the heat to medium-low. Add a little water (3-4 tablespoons), cover, and steam the cucumber until tender-crisp, about 7 to 8 minutes, adding another tablespoon of water, if necessary (the onions will be a rich golden brown color).  Add a few spoonfuls of the cucumber mixture to the yogurt-sour cream mixture and stir in (to warm it). Reduce the heat to low. Slowly stir the yogurt mixture into the pan, adding a little at a time and stirring in a circular motion until all of it is incorporated (the yogurt sauce will be creamy golden-yellow). Add the salt and simmer, stirring frequently until the sauce bubbles, about 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and adjust for salt and cayenne. Add the peas and cook about 2 minutes (so they remain a bright green color). Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnished with the peanuts and chopped coriander (cilantro).