Tuesday, March 28, 2006

ARF/5-a-Day #13: Whole Wheat Pasta with Spinach and Feta

For this week's ARF event, I prepared a one-dish-meal rich in not one, not two but THREE ingredients from the top 10 Antioxidant foods - whole grain, spinach and garlic. Mediterranean style Whole Wheat Pasta with Spinach and Feta Cheese - One pot meal with a side of quick garlic bread. The recipe is adapted from the book "Vegetarian Times Cooks - Mediterranean". This book by the way, is an excellent collection of unique vegetarian recipes from France, Italy, Spain and others in the region. The savory tarts, focaccia and pizza recipes are in my must try list. Many traditional recipes are modified to include vegetarian or even vegan ingredients.
Ok, on with the recipe.

Spinach and whole wheat pasta taste great together. To vegan-ize the recipe, you can replace milk with oat or soy milk, and substitute feta cheese with one cup of well drained, well pressed crumbled firm tofu which has been sauteed over high heat with garlic in olive oil.

Whole Wheat Pasta with Spinach and Feta CheeseServes 6
1 lb dried whole wheat pasta (I used fusilli)
1 bag (10 ounces) spinach leaves, washed
Add pasta to large pot of salted boiling water. Cook till al dente, about 11 mins. Stir in the spinach during the last 2 minutes of cooking.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp all purpose flour
1 cup milk
Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, cook until soft. Add flour and cook stirring continuously for about 2 mins. Remove from heat and add the milk. Return to the stove, and cook stirring continuously till the sauce boils.
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white pepper (freshly ground)
1/4 tsp nutmeg (I skipped this one)
Remove from heat and add salt, pepper and nutmeg
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup minced dill (I skipped this one too)
Drain pasta and spinach and transfer to serving bowl. Add the sauce, feta cheese and dill. Mix well. Serve with garlic bread.

One dish to rule them all, one dish to find them, one dish to bring them all and in the heat of the stove, bind them. erm... the essential food groups (carbs, protein, fat, fibre and minerals) I mean :-)

Visit Sweetnicks place to read this week's ARF roundup!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Tyrannosaurus Veg?

Presented below is an editorial by Chandan Mitra, verbatum from The Pioneer . Then I shall present my 'thoughts' on it :)

Tyrannosaurus Veg
That vegetarians are relatively docile beings is an extremely misleading notion. In my experience, they are actually quite tyrannical. Take for example dinosaurs. Even the biggest of them, Tyrannosaurus Rex was a veggie. As the name itself suggests, it must have tyrannised the rest of its tribe as well as other prehistoric beings.
I had a taste of vegetarian intolerance during the last few weeks of the bird flu hoax that swept across much of the country. The story, in my firm opinion, was a media creation and served certain interests (especially those of pharma companies with excess inventory) rather well. Of course it was blown out of all proportion and cost almost a million chickens their lives. The dreaded flu, if it was indeed bird flu, was confined to a small area in Maharashtra and did not warrant the nationwide panic that ensued. But taking advantage of the scare scenario, veggie fanatics went on the rampage, whipping up frenzy against all forms of flesh.
It is rare for such viruses to survive India's heat and dust as we saw earlier during the much more serious SARS scare. I was sceptical about the alleged bird flu epidemic especially its purported threat to human lives, from the day the story broke. In fact, I argued (unsuccessfully) with my colleagues against making it the main story on the front page. They were all petrified at the prospect of contracting the flu and insisted that it was our professional duty to scare our readers too. Faced with their fundamentalist conviction, I conceded and The Pioneer like every other paper in the country gave full play to the story while it lasted. Occasionally, I managed to squeeze in a report doubting the extent of the disease or pointing out that all blood samples had returned a negative reading.
Armed with these alarmist media reports, veggies ran riot. Non-veg food was unceremoniously turfed out of trains and planes. The few diehard meat eaters like me were compelled to furtively shop for fish or mutton, whose prices skyrocketed. As it is, I belong to an endangered minority since I smoke. With vegetarian cacophony reaching a crescendo, I faced double jeopardy. Travelling to Mumbai at the height of the bird flu hoax, I gingerly asked the airhostess what was on offer for non-vegetarians. Scowling most disapprovingly, she asked me whether I never read newspapers. Apologetically, I ventured to tell her I edited one.
Unfazed, she informed me with all the official authority at her command that non-vegetarian meals had been discontinued in view of the bird flu. Infected chicken being banned, I understood, I plaintively argued back. But what about serving mutton or fish? She didn't bother to reply. From her looks it was apparent she was a vegetarian fundamentalist - the type that drools at the mere mention of the word 'paneer' or 'gobi parantha' or worse, kaddu and arbi! Anyway, I was instantly saddled with a meal of hara-bhara kebab, cabbage-stuffed spring rolls and alu-matar.
Conventional wisdom has it that meat is bad for the heart, cholesterol and what not. Ayatollahs of vegetarianism would probably insist deep fried spring rolls, frightfully spicy hara kebabs and subzi preparations that float in an ocean of oil at wedding meals do wonders to your lipid profile or cardiac condition! Agreed, all vegetarian food is not disagreeable; in fact, Rajasthani food is rather tasty, South Indian is delicious and even Bengali veg is fabulous at times.
Still, I ardently believe that there can be nothing more offensive to the human taste buds than paneer or lauki or kaddu. Tons of paneer invade my house every week because my Canadian-origin, pedigreed Labrador finds that gruesome thing delightful, and gobbles up dollops in seconds. Needless to add, I never touch the stuff.
My suffering at the hands of tyrannical veggies didn't end with the plane journey. Rushed for time in Mumbai, I decided to pick up some fast food to eat in the car en route to Nariman Point from Bandra. Since no McDonald's or Dominos was conveniently located, my colleague suggested a croissant joint, which apparently served some super chicken or sausage croissants. We entered to find two sad-looking cheese and onion variants - the last croissants left in the shop's display cages by hungry Mumbaikars of the locality. Anything non-veg, I dared to query, undeterred by my airline experience. The shocked expression on the salesman's face was reply enough. Okay, okay, sorry I even asked, I mumbled, picked up the dilapidated remnants and forced myself to gulp them down with some diet Coke.
A week later, I took the Shatabdi to Ludhiana to be greeted by the same intolerance. Since chicken was taboo, there was no doubt about which ban came first. Eggs were nyet, nyet. The waiter, who recognised me presumably from my TV appearances, was at least apologetic. Come back next week, Sir, and we will start serving eggs again, he said as if to console. I was served me some cold vegetable cutlet stuffed with yet another subzi I happen to hate - carrots. I have never understood why carrot is referred to with such approval in the expression, 'carrot and stick policy'.
Give me the stick any day, if the alternative is carrot! I had hoped my hosts in Ludhiana would spread out a sumptuous non-veg meal, for the earthy Sardar usually finds a meal inedible without generous helpings of kukkad. Chicken is, indeed, Punjabi by nature and the vice versa is not true. But for once the reverse appeared correct. There was no chicken on the menu, although they tried to make up with lots of fried fish, which didn't quite gel with the rest of the fare.
Mercifully, the conspiracy against non-vegetarians is finally petering out. The Parliament House canteens have resumed chicken. So I gather have airlines. But I am sure the tyrants are displeased about it. This was probably the second time in Independent India's 58-year history that democracy was brutally throttled. I have no doubt that given half a chance their latent tyranny will resurface. I recall an incident when I moved to a rented house in A-1 block of South Delhi's Panchsheel Enclave. This was located just behind Soami Nagar. One day, some worthies from the neighbouring colony landed up, saying nobody was allowed to consume fish or meat in their locality. They produced a document regarding the rules of conduct in Soami Nagar. I was rather baffled, not knowing what they were cribbing about. Finally, they demanded rather categorically that we discontinue our 'obnoxious' non-vegetarian culinary preference for theirs was a 'holy' colony. Angrily, I told them to keep their holiness to themselves and not attempt to expand their zone of intolerance beyond the boundaries of their 'sacred' Soami Nagar.
I am told that a particular shop in Bengali Market is boycotted by the rest of the shopowners because it serves chicken cutlets, shami kebabs and cakes that contain eggs. But unknown to rabid vegetarians, they end up consuming vegetable oils or using soap said to contain beef tallow!
Don't get me wrong, dear vegetarian reader. I uphold your right to vegetarianism. I accommodate sensibilities by shifting to another table if a vegetarian friend seems uncomfortable looking at my plate laden with non-veg delicacies. Live and let live should be one's mantra. But the unseen hand of veggie tyranny doesn't seem to be too happy about that philosophy.

Mitra humorously lashes out his friendly frustration towards fundamentalist vegetarians in India! Mr. Mitra - Have you considered that the pharmacutical industry is behind the situation you describe and is cashing in this uproar surrounding the bird flu? Recently, I read a not so nice article about the 'self-absorbant' vegetarians. I will not even bother quoting the immature article from a juvennile college publication. Being a vegetarian, I can understand Mitra's frustration, but the second publication I mentioned is the one which is 'self absorbed'. Now that I have a wonderful medium of this blog to express my opinions on this, I will do so without further ado.

I prefer to practice a live and let live attitude towards all kinds of diets and hopefully my dealings with my diverse population of friends exemplify that. I don't appreciate infliction of opinion on others. By now, I am used to the blank stares I sometimes get at restaurants when I ask them if they can modify one of their menu items to not include the meat. Some times the restaurants oblige graciously but many times, point me towards their over-priced, wilty garden salads. Luckily for me, I like salads and steamed veggies with salt and pepper :) Lately I have taken to really read food labels and discuss about ingredients with friends and sometimes call the company. It is surprising how many ingredients can be animal derived.

I am a vegetarian due to religious and some personal standards regarding cruelty. The meat industry has become a slaughter factory today, with the most attrocious measures of cost reduction. I won't get into the details here, but there are various grim and graphic resources available, just a google search away. The same cruelty unfortunately is true of the diary industry today. I am determined to pay the extra price for kindness and make necessary life style changes to switch to organic milk and eggs. I agree with the views expressed by Barbara of Tigers and Strawberries in this article (a very well deserved 'Best Post' food blog award). If people killed their own animals for meat, there will be a lot less non-vegetarians in the world today.

I am proud to be a vegetarian, not because my beliefs are supreme, but because for once, I have been able to stand up for something. Among my resolutions to wake up earlier in the morning, complete items on my to-do list, restart abandoned projects, I have been able to continue practicing vegetarianism and stick to my beliefs, in an uninvasive way. If the above sounds fundamentalist, then, well - bring me a dictionary.

I've met my share of 'tyrannous' vegetarians - people who insist on muttering incoherantly under their breath while carrying a raw egg (with shell and all) covered in kitchen napkins, staring disgustingly at their already apologetic room-mates. I understand, and find that over bearing too! But, please, don't blame a poor unsuspecting vegetarian who screams at the sight of raw squids lying in his/her kitchen sink, left by inconsiderate house-mates! Vegetarians come in many flavors, and it is wrong to stereotype them all as 'self-absorbed' or 'fundamentalist'. They are a minority and hence a somewhat oppressed population. Think of the number of products that don't completely reveal their ingredient sources or worse mask ingredients under the two words 'Natural Flavors'. Being a vegetarian in the vast outside world is like having a food allergy, the more information you can extract about the food, the better for you.

I hope this post is not overly opinionated! I express my appreciation to many non-vegetarian friends for their thoughtful consideration every time they have us over! Also, I thank them for accepting food invitations at our place, knowing very well that they will be served boring vegetarian food. Sorry, Mr. Mitra that vegetarians have troubled you :) It is not easy being a vegetarian either (in the US). I do see the satire in your article. It is difficult being different in a crowd... a meat eater in a majority of vegetarians in India or as in my case a vegetarian in a country of mainly meat eaters. Who said life is fair :)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Frequently asked food questions - about Indian food?

How many times have we heard that India is a land of diverse culture? Experiencing diversity can be a very enjoyable experience, but learning about the nuances, names and the history of different foods can be pretty confusing and contradicting! Every region in India has a signature cuisine that uniquely identifies it. Each is unique in its main ingredients used, spices and cooking methods. Yet there is some common thread that ties them, hence the confusion. I am myself faced with some daunting questions about Indian foods and its terminology. Here is one question that has bothered me for a long time and I was determined to find the answer. Here is what I have gathered from various sources.

Is there a difference between a ‘roti’, ‘phulka’ and ‘chappati’?
On hind sight, all three terms seem to mean the same. Wheat flour mixture called ‘atta’, combined with a proportion of salt, oil and water to form dough. Small portions of the dough rolled out into thin discs, which are toasted on a griddle (tawa). This is the basic Indian bread, consumed in most Indian homes. So why the different names for the seemingly same things?

Roti is the universal term for all Indian breads. It might just be the most ambiguous term in the Indian cuisine terminology. Just plain roti can mean phulka roti, naan roti, double roti (bread make after double rising of dough), rumali roti, makki-di-roti, tandoori roti or any other form of desi bread.

Phulka is a thin roti, which is oil or grease free. The dough is made with just water, sometimes even omitting salt. Then portions of the dough is rolled out into thin discs about 6 inches in diameter and half roasted on a tawa, then on an open flame. The phulka puffs up into a ball due to accumulation of steam inside it. Once it puffs up, it is removed from heat and served sooka (dry) or without any added grease. This becomes a phulka (literally means swollen) roti.

Chappati can be a thin or a thick roti. It is called a chappati because it is traditionally made by patting the dough balls between the palms of the two hands and flattening it(chappat in hindi means flat). So some veterans would say that it is not a chappati if it is not flattened by hand, i.e. without the use of a rolling pin. A chappati may or may not puff up like a phulka. Some also cook it completely on a tawa, by applying slight pressure on the surface of the dough-disc thereby cooking it completely. But I have noticed that chappatis cooked this way tended to harden up quickly, atleast on my electric stove. I did get much better results on my gas stove at my previous abode. If you have an electric stove like me and are wondering how to puff up your chappati-phulkas, look no further. Thanks to my friend V, I am now cautiously satisfied with the quality of my chappati-phulkas! Here is what a chappati-phulka grill looks like (available under $5 in most Indian stores)

You need to have the tawa on one burner, and the chappati-phulka grill on the other, on high heat. Then once the rolled out disc on the tawa is half roasted on both sides, transfer it to the grill with tongs and watch it puff :).

Anyway, with all the above discussion, I think the ‘rotis’ I make at home are rolling-pin-rolled-chappati-phukas! I could just call them rotis - the generic term, but would that be misuse of terminlogy? I would love it if anyone can add more insight into the name origins.

Now that we are somewhat clear on that, what on earth is a Rotli and a Rotla?
If you ever had that question, congratulations, you are truly experiencing the diversity and getting into the regional terms. Rotli and Rotla are Gujrati terms. Rotli, I believe is Gujrati (Gujju) for roti. And Rotla is Gujju for the Marathi word Bhakri. Bhakri is term given to thick 'rotis' made from non-wheat flours like sorghum (jowar) and millet (ragi or bajra). These 'rotis' are patted by the palms of the hands on a flat surface and cooked on the tawa.
Any other questions you've had out cooking terms, bring 'em on. We will ponder on them together!
Another question that has bothered me is one about South Indian, Tamil food. What, if any, is the difference between a kozhumbu, kootu and sambar?

  • Kozhumbu (pronounced something like: ko-eyh-m-bu.) seems to be the universal (tamil) term for all south Indian main dishes which have thick, yet liquid consistency.
  • If any kozhumbu contains sambar powder it becomes a sambar, I guess.
  • If kootu is the name given for all dishes with contain dal and veggies, why does a dish called poricha kozhumbu (dal and veggies, spiced with coconut paste) not called a kootu?
  • If a kootu must not contain coconut, how do we explain Mor (buttermilk) Kootu (contains coconut, buttermilk and veggies)? For that matter what is the difference between Mor Kootu and Mor Kozhumbu
  • If kozhumbu must contain a dal, then why is Mor Kozhumbu (doesnot contain dal) or Vatral Kozhumbu have that name?
  • If kozhumbu must have tamarind, what about Mor Kozhumbu (no tamarind, contains buttermilk and coconut)?

    See how terminology can quickly get confusing? Please anybody out there care to shed light on this? If I get sufficient info on the comments, I intend to compile the answers for other obsessive people who might be wondering about the issue!
  • Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    ARF/5-a-Day #10: Grape Nuts Date Bread

    After my earlier post on the 'non'-Grape nuts ceareal, several bloggers kindly shared serving suggestions for this whole-grain packed cereal! While I wouldn't mind eating it just for the sake of nutrition, real victory in my opinion would be to get Hubbie to eat the cereal too. We have moved on to other cereals which are tried and tested, so the grape nuts are at my disposal to be disguised in various forms. First up, I took-up a suggestion to add this cereal to baked goods. I found a recipe for Grape Nuts bread with dates here. As soon as I saw the recipe, my first instinct was to change a couple of things like eliminate the use of eggs and the white flour. Then, Hubbie's wise words came to mind. Though he uncomplainingly puts up with some of my weird kitchen productions, he always wonders "Why I would change some recipe without knowing how it would have turned out in the first place?". So, the only teeny change I made was to substitute 3 cups of flour for 2 cups of flour + 1 cup wheat flour :) I really couldn't help myself!

    Anyway on to the weekly Anti Oxidant Rich Foods (ARF) event hosted by Sweetnicks... Sadly I missed last week, didn't get much time to blog. But I am back! Did you know that coffee is the number 1 antioxidant food consumed in America. Whether its effects are good or bad is up for debate. I would have expected chocolate to hold that top spot:)

    Dates have the high amounts of antioxidant foods per serving size, and are ranked up there with the berry family. They are also considered to be rich sources of iron. Also, they are naturally very sweet, so great for deserts without additional refined sugars!

    This bread recipe turned out great... and it quick (no double rising). Going further, I would like to experiement with using yeast to leaven the bread and eliminate egg, baking powder, and see if the recipe can withstand more whole wheat!

    Grape Nut Date Bread
    2 cups milk, scalded
    1 cup Grape Nut Cereal
    Pour hot milk over Grape-Nuts; cool.
    2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
    1 cup whole wheat flour
    4 tsp baking powder
    1 tsp salt
    1/2 cup sugar
    Sift flour, baking powder and salt. Add sugar to the mixture
    1 egg, well beaten
    3 tablespoons melted butter
    1 cup dates, pitted and chopped
    To the cereal mixture, add egg, butter and dates. Blend Well.
    Add dry ingredients, stirring just enough to moisten (I found it best to use hands)
    Transfer into a greased 9x5x3 loaf pan. Let STAND for 20 minutes and bake at 350F for 1 hour 20 minutes

    The bread turned out well, with a nice crumbly crust. It seemed to go dry with time, after which we toasted it briefly to perk it up. All in all a good way to use up the cereal, though the dates were the reason I liked the bread :)