Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy holidays + an edible gift idea!

Happy holidays! I am off on vacation to Colombia, and am super excited since this is my first trip to South America. In the spirit of holiday edible gift-giving, I'm taking this starter Indian spice kit to our hostess in Medellin. She actually lives in Italy, in a small town with limited availability of spices. I wanted to take her a traditional Indian spice box, which typically contains 7 identical open-top cylindrical containers that fit inside a larger round steel box, but didn't think it would transport well once she started using it, since the spices would all get mixed up. My version features these cute magnetic spice containers from Bed Bath & Beyond, set within a bamboo caddy (actually one rack from a 3-piece steamer), along with an insert (see image below) with tasting notes and instructions for use, the companion CD to Camilla Punjabi's 50 Great Curries of India, and refills.
Contents of Spice Box: Karamedhu Podi (South Indian Vegetable Seasoning), Haldi (Turmeric Powder), Kuzhambu Podi (South Indian Curry Powder), Dhaniya-Jeera Masala (Coriander-Cumin Powder), Garam Masala (Best-known Indian Spice Blend), Panch Phoron (East Indian Five-Spice Blend), and Kasuri Methi (Dried Fenugreek Leaves)

Friday, November 4, 2011

What I'm eating now: Shakshuka

If you're a lover of runny yolks, look no further: I have a wonderful idea for your lunch today. Or impromptu weekend brunch party. Or weekday dinner. Yes it's that good, and what's more, it's cheap, healthy, and comes together in a flash. You can make it for one, two, or up to eight people. Technically you could scale it up even further, but that would need a really large pan, which I'm guessing most of us don't possess. Best of all, it really is a one-pot meal. Sold already?

Shakshuka is a Tunisian dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce. I think of it less as a recipe and more of a blank canvas, though. In the mood for Middle Eastern? Stick with the traditional version. Craving some Indian spice? Swap out the harissa for garam masala and add a splash of coconut milk to the sauce. More in the mood for Mexican? Jazz it up with cumin & coriander, serve with dollops of sour cream and sliced avocado.

Recipe: Shakshuka (serves one; scale up if you have more people)

2 large eggs
1 large ripe tomato, chopped (if out of season use equivalent in canned)
1 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno or hot pepper, minced (more or less to your taste)
2 t harissa
1 t sweet paprika
1 T olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Pita, Crumbled feta & chopped parsley or mint for serving
Heat the oil in a small skillet. Add the onion, hot pepper and garlic and cook for a few minutes, till soft. Add the tomato, spices and season to taste. Once the tomatoes have collapsed (about 2-3 minutes) crack the eggs over the surface of the stew, spacing them evenly. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes, or more depending on how you like the eggs. Serve at once, topped with crumbled feta and chopped herbs. Have plenty of bread available to mop up the delicious sauce!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Diwali, via the Silk Route

Happy Diwali! This is a really fun, festive time to be in back home, with lights, color and good food everywhere. Growing up in India, I would eagerly await the arrival of all the gift boxes laden with sweets and dry fruits, and tuck in merrily without a care. Oh to have the metabolism of a teenager again :(
As I've grown older, though, my palate has gradually moved away from the candy-like sugariness of many Indian sweets, towards those with interesting flavors and textures. And as I reflect on my favorites, I realized that many of their ingredients - almonds, pistachios, saffron - came to India from outside, back when caravans traversing the Silk Route dropped these off and picked up ivory, textiles and spices in exchange.
So as a nod to the people who brought me my favorite once-foreign-and-now-quintessentially-Indian foodstuffs, I decided that my Diwali sweet for this year would be baklava. To give it an Indian flair I used our classic badam-pista (almond-pistachio) combination in the filling, and flavored the syrup with cardamom and rose water. The results are delicious! Even though baklava is not a traditional Indian sweet, it fits in perfectly with an Indian meal. I might even try a version with a saffron syrup next time. Now if only the caravans had brought filo pastry with them, I could have learnt how to make that in the kitchen of my grandmother as well...!

Recipe: Almond-Pistachio Baklava, adapted from here.

I halved the recipe and used an 8" square pan, since baklava is quite rich and a small piece is enough to satisfy even a pretty sweet tooth. I used only blanched almonds and pistachios in the filling, in equal quantities. I replaced the cinnamon in the filling with freshly ground green cardamom, and infused the syrup with cardamom pods instead of a cinnamon stick. I added some rose water to the syrup as well.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Summer's last hurrah

Come Labor Day weekend, and it struck me that summer was almost over, and, thanks to all the summer travel, I hadn't made ice cream in the longest time! So off to the farmers' market I dashed, in search of peaches, which will (sigh) be over soon as well.
I made peach ice cream from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, but decided to jazz it up with a swirl of raspberry. Like most of his other recipes, this ice cream recipe is perfect, not too sweet and really allowing the flavor of the fruit to come through. The raspberry swirl adds a burst of bright berry flavor and a beautiful color contrast as well.
Since I love peaches so much, I wanted to also try my hand at preserving them for just a bit longer, but having no experience at jam-making, settled on a simple peach butter instead. Most commercial fruit butters are too sweet and spice-laden for my taste, so I made mine with about half the quantity called for by most recipes, and added only half a vanilla bean to the peach mixture for a subtle vanilla scent. I thought about adding some bourbon, but decided against it, preferring to let the pure peach flavor come through instead.

Is that the limit to how much of a domestic goddess I can be, you ask? Well, the peach butter was crying out for some scones to go with it. What's a scone without clotted cream, though? Rather than dashing out to hunt for a gourmet store that sells it, I thought - why not make my own? I buy lovely cream from Amish farmers to make ice cream, and had a pint of it left over. The solution: Bake it in a low oven (180F) for 5-6 hours, chill overnight, et voila! You have deliciously thick clotted cream, ready to be spread lavishly on your scones :) It isn't as divinely smooth as the store-bought kind, but tastes just as good.

Scones + Clotted Cream + Peach Butter = Weekend brunch heaven!

Recipe: Dried fruit scones (Makes 8)
Adapted from Delia Smith's recipe
1 3/4 c white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose)
2 t baking powder
3T sugar
1/4 t sea salt
6T cold butter, cubed
3T buttermilk
1 large egg
Small handful mixed dried cranberries and golden raisins, chopped
Cream & coarse sugar for topping (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425F (220C).
In a food processor, pulse the first four ingredients briefly to combine. Add the butter and pulse a few times till the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Scatter the fruit over the top, then beat the buttermilk and egg together and add to the processor bowl. Pulse 3-4 times till the mixture comes together. Turn the mixture out on to a floured surface and knead briefly to combine. Do not overwork the dough or the scones will be tough. Pat the dough 1" thick and then cut into rounds using a cookie cutter, re-rolling and cutting out more scones from the scraps. Or, if you're lazy like me, pat the dough into a round and then just cut it into wedges. Transfer the scones to a parchment-lined sheet, brush the tops with cream and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes, until well risen and golden brown. Serve warm with clotted cream and preserves. These are best the day they are made, but any leftovers freeze very well.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chermoula eggplant with bulgur and yogurt

Happy second birthday, blog! Two years ago, the gift of some delicious home-grown cherry tomatoes prompted me to start writing about my culinary experiments. Today's recipe is another lovely summer dish, Ottolenghi's Chermoula Eggplant with Bulgur and Yogurt.

During July and August, my shopping basket each time I visit the farmer's market looks pretty much the same: eggplants, zucchini, corn, tomatoes, stone fruit. I never get tired of them, because summer produce is always bursting with flavor. But I love to try new recipes with them, so that I get enough variety. This salad is a wonderful make-ahead dish that can be served warm or cold. I had it for lunch, followed by a ripe juicy peach - the perfect summer repast. But it would also be a lovely first course for a summertime dinner or as part of the salad buffet at a barbecue. Like many of Ottolenghi's dishes, this dish combines many contrasting flavors and textures with interesting results. The eggplant is roasted with chermoula, a North African spice mixture with notes of citrus, cumin & coriander. The bulgur salad is bright with fresh herbs, while sweet sultanas and almonds add a fruity-nutty counterpoint. The toppings of cool yogurt and olive oil complete the Mediterranean feel. I used a sheep's milk yogurt that I found while browsing at a local health food store - full-fat and decadent, but worth it!

What made this dish stand out for me was the technique used to cook the eggplant. The eggplant is halved, scored and topped with the spice mixture before roasting in a 350F oven for about 30-40 minutes. This yields a crisp skin and meltingly soft interior, almost like it's been deep-fried, but with none of the guilt! Together with the bulgur and yogurt, it makes for a healthy and satisfying meal. I look forward to trying this technique with other spice blends, like harissa, niter kibbeh or this Sichuan peppercorn-infused chile oil.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Foods of my childhood: Sevai and poli

I'm always sad to leave India. Not only is it hard to say goodbye to my family, chances are it will be another year before I get to eat many of the foods I love. I'm a firm believer that terroir makes all the difference when it comes to food - so many of those dishes just don't taste the same when I attempt to recreate them in my kitchen here. Though Indian pantry staples are easy to come by in the US, some of the produce doesn't come close in taste or freshness; and some dishes are just too labor-intensive for me to attempt! The day I left, the kitchen was buzzing with activity for two such foods, sevai, homemade rice noodles, and poli,- a sweet stuffed pancake.

The dough for sevai is made by soaking parboiled rice, then grinding it to a batter. This batter is then cooked with water till a soft dough forms. This dough is then shaped into balls and steamed. The final step is to extrude the dough through an old-fashioned cast-iron press. Though this looks like a medieval torture instrument, it's fairly easy to use: just pop in a ball of hot dough into the cylinder, and twist the handle down with all your might. Et voila, fresh rice noodles, ready to eat. What makes them unique is that the noodles need no further cooking as the dough they're made from is cooked twice before extruding.They can be eaten plain, with any curry of your choice, or stir-fried with seasonings or vegetables of choice. My favorite accompaniments are sevai urulai masala (spicy potato curry) and pulisseri (coconut-yogurt gravy). The icing on the cake: plenty of fried pappadums, of course!
Polis are also a multi-step process, but the end result is well worth the effort - that is, when I'm not doing it! First, the filling is made by cooking together a mixture of cooked lentils (chana dal) and sugar, flavored with nutmeg, to a soft paste.The next step is to make the outer shell, a pastry enriched with ghee and saffron. Next, each poli is painstakingly shaped by hand, by stuffing a bit of the filling in a pastry case and rolling it out into a round. The rounds are then shallow-fried in ghee. A final sprinkling of powdered sugar and you're ready to dig in. They're delicious hot or cold!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Moroccan mezze for mum

I love being back home in India on vacation. It's always a treat to be surrounded by my family, made even more special by the appearance of all of my favorite foods at every mealtime! So to return the favor to my mum, who loves mezze, I cooked up this spread from Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.

Of late, I'm drawn to cookbooks that go beyond mere recipes, those that offer a glimpse into worlds I've not traveled to yet. The Washington Post calls this book "A wonderful journey for love and loaves", and I can't think of a better way to describe it. The husband-and-wife team of Alford and Duguid have traveled extensively across Europe, North Africa, Asia and North America chronicling people's lives through their daily bread. It's one of those books from which picking a recipe is really hard, since they all sound amazing. Fenugreek Corn Bread or Georgian Cheese-filled Breads, anyone? Finally, I chose this set of dishes since all of the ingredients are readily available here in India. The bread, scented with anise seed, is called ksra. We ate it with bessara, a kidney bean dip; harissa, the popular North African chile paste; and a herbed carrot salad. Only dessert was a departure from this region: I can't get enough of Indian mangoes while I'm here!

The mezze meal was perfect for the hot Madras weather, since everything is eaten at room temperature, except for the bread which I pulled out fresh from the oven. The different flavors and textures come together into a harmonious whole: crusty-soft bread, tangy-velvety bean puree, sweet and fresh-tasting carrots and spicy-hot harissa. I'm thinking this would be a great summer brunch as well, with the addition of some shakshuka, that wonderful Tunisian dish of stewed tomatoes and poached eggs. Now on to the next region...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Singapore sojourn, part 2: Potato rendang

One of my favorite things to do when traveling abroad is to visit local food markets and come back with bags full of exotic ingredients. Usually, thanks to US customs rules, I am limited to spices and pantry ingredients. On my recent trip to Singapore, happily, I had access to a kitchen (my sister's), so aside from palm sugar, Sichuan peppercorns and the like, I also set out to gather the ingredients for rendang, a famous Malay/ Indonesian specialty.
I had long been wanting to try a recipe for West Sumatran Potato Rendang from James Oseland's Cradle of Flavor, a James Beard award-winning book featuring recipes from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. This is a fantastic book, which introduces a great many flavors and cooking techniques from this part of the world, along with several recipes painstakingly gathered from home cooks across the region. When browsing through the book, I was immediately drawn to the description of the technique for making rendang. This is essentially the reverse of a Western-style stew, in which the item is first browned, then simmered in a liquid. Here, you start by simmering the item in spiced coconut milk, and then finish it off by browning it in the coconut oil that is left after all the liquids have boiled away. This ingenious technique developed as a way to preserve food without refrigeration!

Making rendang is a pretty time-consuming affair, which involves prepping, chopping and grinding the ingredients for the flavoring paste, long and slow stewing of the potatoes in the coconut milk, and gently browning the potatoes and aromatics as the final step. But it's so worth it: you're left with a unique vegetarian dish that even the most confirmed carnivore would love. The potatoes are sweet and spicy at the same time, subtly flavored with ginger, shallots, garlic, chile and lemongrass. The long cooking process ensures that the insides of the potatoes are creamy soft, with crispy jackets coated with caramelized aromatics and coconut solids.

The author recommends pairing this dish with goat curry, sauteed greens and rice, though I imagine it would also make a wonderful side dish to roast chicken, eggs or just about anything. We ate it with Malaysian flaky flatbread (prata) and sauteed baby greens. I'm also considering a version with traditional South Indian flavorings replacing the more Asian ingredients like lemongrass and galangal! It can be made up to five days ahead and stored in the refrigerator - just make sure to serve the dish warm (not hot) or at room temperature.

Recipe: Potato rendang (rendang kentang), serves 4-6
Adapted from James Oseland's Cradle of Flavor

2 1/2 cups coconut milk
1 1/2 lb baby potatoes
3 whole daun salam leaves
3 sprigs Thai or Italian basil
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
Peanut oil, if needed
Flavoring paste:
1 thick stalk fresh lemongrass
4 shallots, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
5 red bird's-eye chillies, chopped
5 green bird's-eye chillies, chopped
1 2" piece fresh turmeric or 2 tsp ground turmeric
1 2" piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 2" piece fresh galangal, peeled and thinly sliced

First you will need to simmer the coconut milk in a large 12” nonstick skillet over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes. While it is simmering, make the flavoring paste by whizzing all the ingredients together in a food processor, adding a few tablespoons of water if necessary to keep the mixture moving. Add the flavoring paste to the simmering coconut milk, along with the daun salam and basil. Continue simmering the mixture, stirring occasionally, until it is reduced to half its original volume, about 45 minutes. While it is simmering, scrub the potatoes and slit each one half way through to help the flavors penetrate. Do not peel the potatoes as this will cause them to disintegrate from the long cooking.

When the coconut milk mixture is reduced, add the potatoes and salt, and continue cooking the mixture, stirring often to prevent sticking. Cover the potatoes and cook for about 10 minutes to make sure they cook through. Continue this until the liquid has dried up completely and the fat is rendered out. Add some peanut oil to the pan, if necessary, to have a total of 2 tablespoons of oil in the pan.

Turn the heat down to low and brown the potatoes and aromatics in the oil until medium-dark brown, about 20-25 minutes. The finished dish should be quite dry. Transfer the potatoes and the sautéed flavoring paste to a serving dish. Allow to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Singapore sojourn, part 1: Scenes from the market

Colorful shophouses in Singapore's Geylang neighborhood

A bewildering array of tropical fruit. Clockwise from top left:
Baskets of stinky durian; pomelo, dragon fruit and star fruit;
mangoes aplenty; mangosteen and rambutan

Bright and perfumed garlands of flowers in Little India

Exotic produce of every stripe in Tekka Market.
Clockwise from top left: Four angled beans; turmeric and galangal;
Asian greens galore; Fresh tofu and egg noodles.
Fresh fish! It's luverly!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ice cream adventures

Rum raisin ice cream
I was really excited to receive a Cuisinart ice cream-maker over the holiday season. How cool is it to be able to have custom ice creams to accompany any desserts I make? And having homemade ice cream in the freezer is great for those days when you just want a bit of something sweet at the end of a meal. I was waiting eagerly for some mild spring weather to start churning out the frozen treats. Of course, that hasn't exactly happened as yet, but I decided to start churning away anyway!
My first attempt was not exactly a success. I made a batch of vanilla creme anglaise, intending to churn it into ice cream to accompany an apple tart I was taking to a friend's place for a dinner party. I thought a dash (okay, a healthy dose!) of bourbon would elevate this pairing from the classic to the sublime, but alas, in my enthusiasm, I forgot my middle-school science lessons: alcohol retards freezing! So my delicious custard never made the leap from liquid to frozen, and I had to resort to the making-ice-cream-without-a-machine technique of open-freezing, which yielded decidedly icy results.
The next recipe I tried, Butterscotch Pecan Ice Cream from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, also called for whisky, but I decided to add the alcohol in the last few minutes of churning and everything worked just fine. Ditto the Rum Raisin ice cream I made to celebrate India's victory in the Cricket World Cup. I didn't know that India was going to win when I made the ice cream, but I reckoned that a boozy flavor would help us drown our sorrows if we ended up losing!
Coconut Ice Cream
My latest ice cream success is a recipe for Quick Coconut Ice Cream with Saffron created by Nicole Stich of Delicious Days. It's a wonderfully simple concoction to whip up, just four ingredients get simmered together for 10 minutes to make the ice cream mixture. The results are fantastic! I used jaggery (an unrefined Indian sugar) instead of regular white sugar, because its dark, rich flavor complements the sweet creaminess of coconut milk beautifully. I can't wait to try other versions of this. How about one flavored with cardamom, and with roasted cashews mixed in, as a finale to a South Indian meal? Or a plain white sugar version to accompany grilled pineapple, great for barbecue season? Or a version with canned lychees mixed in, perfect for dessert after a spicy Thai curry. My mind (and soon my ice cream maker!!) is churning with all the possibilities.

Recipe: Quick Coconut Ice Cream with Saffron
I replaced the sugar with jaggery. I also scaled the recipe up by 50% (and am happy I did!) to use up the cream I had left over from my previous week's Rum Raisin ice cream, and it worked fine.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Weekend brunch and a trip to a Korean store

Top: Gateau Basque, homemade granola, vanilla yogurt
Bottom: Winter fruit salad, green bean-tomato salad, ricotta tart
Not pictured: Bagels and cream cheese, mimosas/ bellinis
I love an American-style brunch on weekends. It's always the most relaxed meal, one you can linger over as long as you like, sipping mimosas, nibbling on food from time to time, with all the time in the world to catch up properly with friends. Best of all, it's easy to put together a luxurious brunch with relatively little cooking! When entertaining, I like to do things ahead as far as possible to be able to completely relax when my guests arrive. I chose a winter fruit salad that has to be made the day ahead, and for dessert we had a Gateau Basque, a confection which tastes like a cross between a cake and a giant cookie, which also tastes better the day after it is made. So all that I had to do the morning of was to bake my savory tart, toss a salad and buy fresh-baked bagels from the store. The only extra bit was making my own granola, hardly necessary since you can buy excellent ones in many gourmet or health food stores. However, I have had my eye on this Nigella recipe for a while now, intrigued by the mix of sweeteners and also the unusual use of applesauce, so this was the perfect excuse to try it. (And I have a whole jar now! Yippee!) The granola turned out very tasty, though next time I may reduce the nuts to two cups and use a mix of pecans and almonds.

Gateau Basque, cherry preserves filled in a cake-like cookie crust

My Saturday brunch this past weekend was extra special because a friend who came over later took me grocery shopping in a Korean store. Now, I love Korean food, but have never attempted to cook it before. I even have a store near me that sells a number of Korean products, but unfortunately the packages are all in Korean, leaving me wondering if they are safe to buy for vegetarians or not. It was great to get a guided tour from someone in the know, and I came back happily armed with rice sticks, Korean red pepper paste, kimchi and three different kinds of mushrooms! I'm excited to expand my culinary repertoire some more.

Spoils from my trip to the Korean store
Recipe: Gateau Basque
Adapted from Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz
Crust: 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ground almonds (I used Bob's Red Mill almond flour)
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg + 1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
Filling: 1 cup good-quality cherry preserves (Raspberry might be nice too)
3 tsp brandy
Egg wash: 1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tsp whole milk
To make the dough, put all the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse till combined. Add the butter and process till it is in small pieces. Add the egg, yolk and extracts and pulse till the dough comes together in a ball. Divide it into two pieces, one larger than the other, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour.
To make the filling, stir together the preserves and the brandy.
Preheat the oven to 350F(180C). Butter and flour a 9" springform pan. Roll out the larger piece of dough into a 10" circle between two sheets of lightly floured plastic wrap. Line the pan with this circle of dough, then spread the filling in the center, leaving a 1" border. Similarly, roll out the smaller circle of dough into a 9" circle and place it on top of the filling. Press the edges to seal, then brush the top of the cake liberally with the egg wash and run a fork diagonally across to create a criss-cross hatch pattern. Bake the cake in the preheated oven for about 40 minutes, or until the top is deep golden brown. Cool completely before serving.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Holiday baking photoblog

Clockwise from top left: Meyer Lemon-Almond cookies and World Peace cookies, Pear Frangipane tart, Meyer Lemon Curd petits fours and Bourbon-Pecan Caramel tart
Here's to a sweet new year in 2011!