Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eating at Indian Thali and a Mashed Eggplant Recipe

Last night some friends and I celebrated the holiday season at Thali Indian & Thai Cuisine, a restaurant on South Beach. Thali is the Hindi word for “plate” but means a meal with small bowls placed on a stainless steel tray filled with vegetables, dal, yogurt, chutney, pickle, and a sweet that comes with rice, bread and  a thin lentil crisp (pappad). Non-veg thalis include meat and seafood. The dinner menu adds Thai dishes influenced by both India and China.  
Owner Denis Nazareth was born in Mumbai and when he was 19 he went to Muscat, the capital of Oman on the southwest coast of the Arabian Peninsula to work at a hotel. He met many American professors who were teaching at the nearby Sultan Qaboos University. In 1984 one arranged for him to attend Western Carolina University where he studied resort management and lived with a host family. After graduation he moved to Miami and managed several chain restaurants he now owns. He opened his latest eatery on Miami Beach.
Indian starters include samosas, pakoras (battered veggie fritters) chicken tikka and bhel puri, a jumble of puffed rice, chips and chickpea flour noodle bits tossed in fresh chutneys. South Indian dosas (rice and lentil pancakes with various fillings), chicken gassi (in coconut coriander gravy with mustard seeds) and Malabar grouper in tamarind-coconut curry are on the menu with Northern-style kormas, biryani and tandoori and a few Indo Chinese snacks from Calcutta like cauliflower in soy tomato masala with ginger and garlic. I tried the diamond thali and chose sambar (stewed red lentils), sag paneer (spinach with cheese cubes), roasted mashed eggplant, tandoori shrimp, chicken makhani (with cream) and gulab jamun (fritters in syrup).
 One friend tried the Thai Buddha’s thali with hot and sour soup (tom yum), mixed salad, green curry with baby corn, bamboo shoots, sweet potato and basil, mild Massaman vegetable curry enriched with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, sweet-sour vegetables with pineapple, and a Thai doughnut. The spice is twice as nice at this new spot.
Thali Indian & Thai Cuisine is at  754 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, 305-216-1234

Mashed Roasted Eggplant (Baigan ka Chokla)

Serve this spicy dish with bread as part of a meal or mix with sour cream for dip.

1 medium globe eggplant, about 1 pound
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1-3 fresh green chile, such as Serrano, minced (scrape out seeds for less heat)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh gingerroot

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Prick the eggplant several times wrap in foil and roast for about 35 to 45 minutes, until soft. Cool slightly and peel off the skin. Place the pulp in a bowl and mash with a fork. Stir in the oil, onions, chiles, garlic, ginger and salt to taste. Mix well. Makes 4-6 servings.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Duck

Christmas is around the corner and I'm sure everyone has their menu planned, most likely what is served every year: glazed ham, roast beef, turkey or goose but I'm posting my South Indian duck recipe for consideration another year or another holiday gathering.  One year I made the duck with several other Indian dishes and my guests swooned as it was something very different and delicious. How much turkey or ham can you eat during the holidays?
In Kerala, Syrian Christians celebrate Christmas with roast pepper duck and cakes filled with plump raisins, currants, and dates that have been soaking in rum for months. Although it is called a roast, the duck is not roasted whole in the oven as until very recently no one had ovens, so “roasts” are really a type of braise. In this recipe pieces of peppery marinated duck are pan-seared, then braised in coconut milk until a thick reduction clings to the meat. The duck is traditionally served with oven-roasted potatoes but for Christmas you could serve cinnamon and nutmeg laced mashed sweet potatoes and green beans with garlic and crushed peanuts for a holiday repast with an Indian accent. In India ducks are hunted when they arrive from northern climes as well as raised in flocks that can be seen waddling along the edges of rice paddies in South India.  The excess fat is always removed, but in this recipe the skin is left on as it is browned until crisp first, adding appealing texture and color. Cinnamon, cloves, and pepper hold up to and enhance the dark rich flavor of duck, balanced with the sweetness of coconut milk, tang of vinegar, and heat of the chiles. If you make the duck a day ahead and refrigerate it, it is easy to remove the congealed fat from the surface before gently reheating. Since there are only eight pieces of duck you can either serve four people two pieces or eight people one and make lots of side dishes or cook two ducks and invite four more lucky guests.
The Duck
One 6-pound duck, thawed if frozen
1 generous teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt crystals 

The Spice Paste (Masala)

One 2-inch cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
3-4 small dried red chiles, snipped in half and seeded
1 generous teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 tablespoons clear vinegar

Finishing The Duck

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1 medium yellow onion (about 8-ounces), peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
1 sprig curry leaves, stripped from the twig (about 12 leaves), optional
One 15 ounce can unsweetened coconut milk 

PREPARING THE DUCK.  Remove neck, giblets, and any pouches of orange sauce hidden in the body cavity and discard (or save for another use). Rinse the duck and using sturdy kitchen shears, trim off the overhanging flaps of fat. Place the duck on a cutting board with the breast side up, and starting at the neck cavity snip in two lengthwise, cutting through the breastbone. Snip down each side of the backbone; remove and discard it. Cut off the joined thighs and legs in one piece. Feel with your fingers for the joint connecting the thighs and drumstick and snip between it to separate the pieces, repeating with the other thigh-drumstick joint. Using a sharp knife cut the breast in half crosswise to make two pieces of breast-only meat and two pieces of breast with a wing attached. There should be 8 pieces of duck. Make several deep diagonal slashes to the bone on the breast and thickest part of the thighs and drumsticks.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and smear in the slits using a rubber spatula.

 MAKING THE SPICE PASTE (MASALA). Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and drop in cinnamon pieces, peppercorns, cloves, chiles, coriander seeds and cumin. Roast the spices, shaking the pan frequently until they smell fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small electric coffee/spice grinder and add the turmeric. 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 to 2 minutes. Scrape into a small bowl and stir in the vinegar and turmeric, making a paste. Using a small spoon, work the paste under the duck skin and into the slashes, smearing on both sides of each piece.  Marinate for 30 minutes at room temperature.

COOKING THE DUCK. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large wide flat-bottomed skillet (not nonstick) over high heat. When the oil is hot, add four pieces of duck, skin side down. Fry until the skin is crispy, about 5 minutes, scraping up several times with a slotted spoon. Turn pieces and fry on the other side, until well browned, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Fry the remaining pieces of duck in the same pan for about the same amount of time turning once. Place two 3 to 4-quart heavy saucepans over burners and add a tablespoon of oil to each pan. When the oil is hot, add half the onions and curry leaves to each pan and cook, stirring frequently until the onions are just starting to turn pale caramel at the edges, about 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and shake the can of coconut milk to make sure the thick and thin layers are mixed together. Pour half the coconut milk and 1 cup of water into each pot, stirring to blend. Place the two wing and breast pieces and one thigh in one pot; add the remaining parts to the other pot. Partially cover and cook, checking to stir from time to time and adding water if necessary until the coconut milk mixture is reduced to a thick sauce, coating the duck, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. As the sauce thickens the oil will separate and pool on the surface and the duck should be buttery tender. Serve heaped in a large platter.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kerala Chicken Fried in Browned Onions for Hanukkah

With Hanukkah around the corner (it starts at sundown December 20th) I thought I would share a
recipe from the very small Jewish community in Cochin, Kerala in South India. Hanukkah is about oil and while the chicken in this recipe is fried, it is in melted browned onions not a lot of oil.

To eat in India is to taste the layers of history as in this chicken dish, a specialty from the Jewish community of Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Jews have been in India for a long time, believed to have come in several waves, the first arriving after the destruction of King Solomon’s temple ( King Solomon had commercial contact with a kingdom along the Malabar Coast of South India). Many Jewish merchants were involved in the spice trade and settled in Cranganore, known as Shingly in the medieval Jewish world. This establishment was known in Jewish communities outside India and more Jewish merchants arrived, helping bring prosperity to the kingdom. The Hindu ruler, Sri Bhaskara Ravi Varman granted the leader of the Jewish community, Joseph Rabban dominion of a village and made him a prince, with all the rights of the ruling families of Hindu kingdoms. The charter was written on copper plates, probably dating from the 10th century, now preserved in the Cochin Paradesi synagogue—the first Jews who arrived in King Solomon’s time are called Malabari, while the ones who arrived at different times from the Middle East, Spain and Eastern Europe are known as Paradesi. Both groups claimed the prince was from their community. Just like Hindus, the Cochin Jews created their own caste system, with freed slaves who arrived with merchants having the lowest ranking, although all are Sephardic whether they have Iberian roots or not. Most of the history of the Cochin Jews is documented in a book called The Last Jews of Cochin co-authored by my Miami Beach neighbors Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg, a husband and wife scholar and journalist team. This chicken recipe is from Glennis Salem and was taught to them by her when they lived in Cochin for a year learning about Indian kosher food and integrating into the small close-knit community. They arrived just in time for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and stayed through the cycle of festivals including Hanukkah, living in an Old Dutch colonial house on Synagogue Lane with Raymond Salem, a bachelor with plenty of space (the majority of the Cochin Jews have emigrated over the years to Israel). The couple gained weight as much of their research was spent happily engaged in conversation around dinner tables—and whenever they dropped in on anyone, food was brought out and could not be refused. This chicken cooked in onions became a favorite. It is very simply spiced with cloves, cardamom, and star anise sizzled in coconut oil with garlic and onions. The onions are cooked down in two steps, first sautéed, then covered and sweated over low heat until they darken and begin to melt. The chicken is cooked with the onion and spice mixture with a liberal addition of crushed red pepper flakes adding heat. The chicken slowly browns, cooked until tender and saturated in the sweet, sharp perfume of cloves. This is a dish that is better the next day, when the warm anise flavors develop, one reason it is a good dinner party dish, as it can be cooked ahead. It won’t look as good, but be reassured the flavor is deeply delicious. Just sprinkle with lots of fresh chopped cilantro just before gently heating serving.


One 3 to 4 pound skinless chicken cut in pieces
4 tablespoons coconut oil (or olive oil)
10 green cardamom pods
10 whole cloves
Half a star anise pod, broken into several pieces (or 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds)
10 large or 20 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
 3 large yellow onions (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
1 generous teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt or sea salt crystals

PREPARING THE CHICKEN. Cut the breasts into 3 pieces, using a large sharp knife. Hack the thighs in half, through the joint. Cut the wings into 3 pieces at the joints. Place in a bowl and set aside.

BROWNING THE ONIONS. Heat the oil in a large wide nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the cloves, cardamom and star anise (or fennel seeds) and fry until the cardamom swells and starts to split and the oil is sizzling, about 2 minutes.  Add the garlic. Cook, stirring constantly and scraping up from the bottom of the pan with a slotted spoon, about 30 to 40 seconds, being careful it doesn’t brown (or it will become bitter). Quickly add the onions and stir, scraping up the garlic from the bottom of the pan and mingling it in with the onions.  Continue stirring and scraping up fairly frequently until most of the water released has dried up and the onions become a sticky mass, and are starting to turn a very pale golden color, about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until the onions are a soft caramel brown mass, about 15 minutes, checking once or twice and stirring.

ADDING AND FRYING THE CHICKEN. Push the onions to the sides of the pan; increase the heat to medium-high and add the chicken. Sprinkle in the salt. Scrape up the onions with the slotted spoon and scatter over the chicken pieces. Cook until the flesh changes from glossy pinkish to milky white, turning several times with the onions, about 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until the chicken is coated in the brown onion paste and brownish all over, about 40 minutes, checking once or twice to stir (no need to add water unless you want gravy). Transfer to a serving dish and serve garnished with cilantro.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I'm back and can be your personal chef!

After taking a year off from my blog, I am back. My best friend passed away very suddenly from cancer on December 8th 2010. We grew up together and it it still hard to believe I will never hear Mary's laugh again. But life goes on and so does the cooking and eating especially this holiday season. If you'd rather do the eating I am now offering to cook for families, couples and small parties offering Indian food. I can bring the food and serve it or come to your house and cook while you watch (the best way to learn a cuisine you might not be familiar with). I can personalize the menu with selections of appetizers, salads, entrees, sides and delicious desserts.
Examples include stir-fried lemon rice noodles with shrimp, samosas (triangular pastries stuffed with potato, peas and cashews, mini pastry cups filled with creamy roasted and mashed eggplant, lamb biryani layered with fragrant basmati rice and spices, butter chicken and Bengali salmon in yogurt sauce. Sweets include sea salt toffee, flourless chocolate cake with cardamom and coconut flan. Impress your guests with exotically spiced dishes that can't be found at any restaurant. Meanwhile as the days grow shorter and darker I will be posting some Indian-style holiday recipes soon like Kerala duck braised in coconut milk and roasted beets glazed in tamarind.