Saturday, October 23, 2010

Potato of Color: Ratala Kees

Sweet potatoes are quite a misunderstood species of vegetable. Life is tough for a vegetable of color, especially when it is distantly related the world's most popular 'vegetable'. The 'sweet' in the name made me approach it cautiously, but I am glad that years ago, I gave this tuber a shot on my dinner table. The mild sweetness of the complex sugars melds beautifully in any spicy preparation. The orange hue is an eye pleaser, quite literally and figuratively. That beta-carotene will keep your eyesight sharp even in inevitable old-age. Like any misunderstood human being, the sweet potato has a tough exterior that is hard to penetrate. Just the sheer number of times I have cut open my fingers with my knife skills trying to create beautiful, even bite size chunks of the sweet p' ought to have scarred me for life. But, with the correct tool anything is possible. For me, cutting raw sweet potatoes without a mandolin slicer or a box grater is equivalent to a kitchen blood bath. Fortunately, using those very tools automatically cuts down on cooking time drastically. Baking, boiling, the sweet potato before using in a recipe works quite well too. If you thought the potato was ubiquitous, let me introduce you to his sweeter cousin. He can do anything the potato can do -- only better. Bake it, broil it, braise it, steam it, saute it, mash it, or fry it if you must. Whatever you do be sure to season well with salt and a touch of chili spice. Let the complex carbs keep you going and going... even when you don't feel like it.

Try this super-simple preparation; Ratala Kees (Grated Sweet Potato) regional to the Indian state of Maharashtra, and chronicled at Nupur's steaming hot stove. This is exactly the sort of stuff that you will not find at Indian restaurants. The recipe is pretty much verbatim from aforementioned source, replicated only for my records.

Ratala Kees (Grated Sweet Potato Curry)

1 tbsp oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
5-6 fresh curry leaves
2-3 (or more) dried red chilies

Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan. When hot add the cumin seeds, curry leaves and dried red chilies. Cook for about 30 seconds.

2 sweet potatoes, washed, peeled and coarsely grated
salt to taste (about 1/2 tspns)
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper powder (optional)

Add the sweet potato, salt and cayenne pepper. Mix well, and cover and cook for 4-5 mins till tender.

2 tbsp crushed, roasted peanuts Add the peanuts and combine well.

1 tbsp lemon juice
2tbsp chopped cilantro

Turn off the heat, combine lemon juice and top off with cilantro

Make this a complete everyday Indian meal, paired with some rotis and a cup of yogurt on the side.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How to quit whining: Trader Joe's Masala Burgers

The first few weeks after a move to a different city can dampen your style. You have to learn the ways of your new home and navigate the new lifestyle. One of things that slowed me down since my latest move was finding things on my list at the grocery store. The aisles were arranged in a manner completely counter intuitive to me. Tofu was is in the meat section, sometimes in the diary aisle and sometimes in the produce aisle. None of the stores have quite the variety and novel items as Trader Joes.

We often grossly underestimate just how much we value something until we don’t have it anymore. My pantry misses the TJs vegetarian pasta sauces, rennet free cheeses, real fruit juices, granola bars and breakfast cereal. My soul and saliva glands miss the 'Vegetarian Masala Burgers’. These frozen patties made from real vegetables can debunk any veggie burger stereotype you may have.

After 6 months of moaning and complaining about non-exciting grocery shopping and tasteless burgers, I decided to take matters on my own hands and decided to quit whining. You see, to quit whining, you need to suck it up and find an alternative. I decided to recreate the flavors of the burger in my own home based on memory. One look at this recipe and I felt greater confidence that I could bring the TJ magic into my kitchen. What the burger needed was mealy potatoes mashed with lots of vegetables and some smoky Indian spices and herbs.

Vegetable Masala Burgers

4 large potatoes, boiled, peeled and grated
1 green poblano pepper, grated
2 ears of fresh corn, with the kernels grated
1 carrot grated
A handful of peas
Big generous handful of chopped coriander leaves

Mash the vegetables together in a large mixing bowl

1 tbsp freshly ground coriander seeds
1 tbsp finely chopped green chilies
1 tsp red chili powder
2 tsp dry mango powder
Salt to taste

Stir in the spices and incorporate completely into the potato vegetable mixture. Form into patties, you should get about 5 medium sized patties

a few tbsps oil to fry

Heat oil in a griddle and cook the patties about 4 mins on each side until brown

1 onion sliced
1 bell pepper sliced

In the same griddle, drop the onions and bell pepper and brown them till slightly tender.

Burger buns
Sriracha hot sauce (rooster sauce)

Assemble the burger by squirting on some hot sauce on one side of a bun, place the cooked patty on it. Top it off with some browned onions and peppers and cover with the second bun. Open wide and stuff your face.

This burger is going to feature on my dinner table quite often. I still miss my TJs, and stock up on their merchandise at every available opportunity. Meanwhile, I will try to do a little less of whining and perhaps the occasional wining. But I won't promise anything.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Stuff it, if you can: Tofu Stuffed Bell Peppers

She was wandering the aisles of the grocery store, loosing all track of time. So many pretty little treats were loaded up her cart and she barely managed to peek through the top of her pile. She walked through the produce shelves picking up this and that; then did a screeching double take as she passed these adorable baby peppers in bright pastel red, yellow and orange. "Come home little beauties in to my kitchen. I'll stuff you up with flavors and have you smitten", she said to them. She hurried home passing all the slow-coaches on the highway, donned her apron and gathered her ingredients.

She crumbled some firm tofu into bits and set them to brown. In another pan she dropped sliced onions, chick pea flour and crushed roasted peanuts with spices and seasonings. In a few minutes, the tofu was thrown into this with some
tomato paste to bring the stuffing together. Then she happily stuffed each of her tiny peppers with this mixture setting them on a cookie sheet (trimming off the bottom of each pepper so it stands on its own). When the oven was preheated to 400 she popped them in and skipped off to stir other mischief in the house. Some of the stuffing mixture remained in the pan, so she poured some stock in to it and let it come to a boil. She made a slurry of chickpea flour with water and
thickened her quick pan sauce in no time at all.

When the timer (15 minutes) reminded her of her peppers in the oven, she took her mind off the sauce. She poked the peppers to check for doneness and pulled them out of the steam room
(oven) dropped them into the hot tub (sauce). She rang the bell for dinner and the family(husband) came bounding to the table. She served the little stuffed babies (peppers) with some hot fresh naan.

Tofu Stuffed Bell Peppers

2 tsp vegetable oil
½ block extra firm tofu crumbled

Heat oil in a heavy pan and add the tofu. Allow it to brown about 7 mins. Check on it once or twice

2 tsp veg oil
1 onion sliced
½ cup crushed roasted peanuts
2 tbsp chickpea flour
2 tbsp tomato paste

Heat oil in another pan, and fry the onions till soft. Add the chick pea flour and peanuts and cook till the raw smell of the flour is lost. Add the tomato paste and a splash of water to combine

1 tsp dry mango powder
1 tsp red chili powder
½ tsp sugar
1 tbsp cumin and coriander powder
Salt to taste

Add the spices and seasonings, stir to combine. Mix in the browned tofu into this pot.

6 small peppers in assorted colors

Trim the bottoms of the peppers, cut of the top and remove the seeds. Stuff the peppers with prepared mixture till filled to the top. Bake for 15 minutes in a 400 deg F oven

Remaining stuffing
½ cup vegetable stock (or water)
Salt to taste
1 tsp chick pea flour dissolved in ¼ cup water

Add the stock to the remaining stuffing in the same pan and bring to boil. Add salt or adjust seasonings to taste. Add the chick pea flour slurry to thicken sauce.

Get the peppers out of the oven, add to the saucepan let it soak in the sauce before plating.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Whats that smell?

How many times have you heard that we eat with all five of our senses? Olfaction, or the keen human sense of smell learns of an imminent treat even before the eye or tongue get a ‘whiff’ of any sensory stimulus. Ever had the 3 o’clock feeling when you pass by your office kitchen as the butter from just-popped corn disperses from the microwave? Or walked past a boulangerie or bakery and developed a healthy appetite? Or had a sweet heady high feeling from just smelling good coffee? Lingering food smells are always dreamy unless of course your cuisine of choice is Indian; In that case it is a wardrobe and hair nightmare.

The trouble is that Indian food smells extremely inviting when it is fresh and hot and oh so delicious. There have been many days in my years of apartment living when I felt instantly homesick having woken up to the smell of ‘khichdi’ or ‘paratha’ or ‘rasam’ from the kitchens of my many Indian neighbors, dispersing through the long carpet lined corridors in the building. That same night as I would return home, I would be instantly nauseated by the weakened, yet prominent elements of the same morning smells in the corridors. Like the smell of cooked basmati rice. Or cooked lentils. It is never the freshly ground spices you smell at this time long after the food has been cooked and perhaps even eaten. Those volatile pleasant odors just disperse into thin air. What you smell are the persistent remains of background ingredients that penetrate through everything. You skin, your clothes, your hair. No amount of perfume or cologne in the world can help you. The only solution is a nice long soak in the bath, good amount of scrubbing and some rinsing with scalding hot water. Lather, rinse, and then repeat. Do that for yourself then for your entire closet.

Now it is my personal belief that the smell is mainly due to the type of oil used and type of degeneration it goes through at the temperatures it is heated to. Olive oil can stink up a whole neighborhood if heated high enough to make a proper Indian ‘tadka’. You need a good heat friendly vegetable oil or sunflower oil for that. Even then there is a chance you will be walking around smelling like ‘dal’ depending tadka ingredients and how long you let them brown. About 65% of all Indian food calls for frying in hot oil – and invariably the oil gets beaten and battered at high temperatures and the aromas of the oil fumes just envelope and eventually overpower your natural scent.

So, am I saying avoid Indian food? No, absolutely not. The best thing you can do to your palate is to experience the flavors of Indian cuisine. Ask any Indian worth his/her dhoti/dupatta – they will tell you that when it comes to combating the strong, complex aromas of Indian cooking, prevention is better than cure. I assure that like my husband, there are many of them out there have tried to study the wind patterns in their poorly ventilated North American kitchens. Many a ‘gadgets’ have been invented to direct the air from the kitchen out through the closest windows. We used to have a dedicated fan near the kitchen that had to be turned on high speed and angled just right to sweep the cooking air out through the back door. This was in addition to a loud vacuum inducing exhaust over the stove. I no longer mind that the exhaust drowns the sound of the TV or music playing in the background.

Allow me to offer some wisdom on dampening the possible effects of Indian cooking on your home atmospheric air. Before entering the kitchen to begin prepping for cooking, be sure to close all other doors to all rooms in the house, including closet doors. Make sure you are not wearing your ‘going out’ clothes, because you are going to have to put everything you are wearing for wash as soon as the cooking is done. Put away any odor sensitive items such as blankets, sweaters, coats etc behind closed doors. Open up windows on two opposing walls if available, to induce some healthy cross ventilation in the kitchen and attached living areas. You want to leave the air only one place to go – out the open windows. Remember warm air rises like a cloud. So a cold breeze from a fan or AC vent near the heat source can greatly improve circulation. A good quality over-the-stove exhaust is absolutely essential – be sure it is on before your stove turns on. Proceed to enjoying the cooking process at your leisurely pace now. Keep the exhaust fan going for atleast 30 minutes after the cooking is done. With these precautions alone you can minimize damage area. Don’t wait too long before cleaning up the kitchen after all the cooking. Store your leftovers in airtight containers in the coolest part of your refrigerator (top shelf closest to the freezer). Now you may light up some fragrant candles or oils until you get your house back.

Say you forgot to take some of the precautionary measures and your house now smells like last night’s dinner. Allow me to impress upon you the fact that I told you so. But I will also offer some possible solutions. Close all the windows, and turn up the heat in your house to a level above the outside ambient temperature. I know you will get sweaty, but don’t be impatient. Now turn the heat off and open all doors and windows for about 15 minutes. The warmer inside air will escape out while you welcome the cooler fresher air in.

So while the popular stereotype about the exotic Indian food staying with you long after coming in contact with it may have some truth – hope by now I have helped you lose some of your fear of trying out the cuisine for yourself. As for the other myths and stereotypes like imaginary ingredients, namely ‘curry powder’, well, that’s a whole another topic for another day.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Think Pink: Beetroot Roti

Have you seen 'Chopped' on food network? I absolutely love the show. The creators of 'Chopped' go out of the way to select the most outrageous food combinations -- quail eggs, fish and dried cherries for instance, and have chefs compete against each other by cooking up the best possible appetizer/entree/dessert dish using the chosen ingredients.

As I opened my refrigerator door looking for some sort of dinner inspiration, I found the beetroot stashed behind the bag of apples with half a squash tucked in between. If I was at my creative best perhaps I could have used all three ingredients. I picked out the beets and squash.

I don't like to cook with beets that much. They make too much of a mess and stain everything on their path. If they were not so good for you and taste so darn good -- I would never bother with them. So, whenever I have to prepare beets, I prefer to cook and eat from the same apparatus. Tonight I grated the beets and squash into a giant bowl, mixed up seasonings (chili powder, ginger + garlic paste and vegetable bouillon cube) and whole wheat flour, made a dough out of it. Then took lumps of the dough between two large gallon sized freezer baggies and flattened then into flat discs using my palm . Then transferred the disks to a hot griddle and cooked them till done on both sides. Ate them with some sriracha hot sauce. Dinner accomplished yet again.

The sweet from the beetroot and spice from the chili powder made for a very interesting combination. The pink hue looked bright and pleasant on my white dinner plates.