Sunday, July 24, 2011

Almond Nankhatai: Indian shortbread cookies

Every cook needs to have that tried and tested recipe to fallback on during dire times.I have a cookie recipe that has come in handy during several emergencies. Say I need to impress the in-laws in a flash, or cook a last minute dish for a potluck, bring that a-ha cookie to a bake sale or fedex a mothers day gift that wont spoil in transit? Out pops the recipe of this unassuming cookie, all battered and bruised from the elements in my kitchen. I am talking of course of, Almond Nankhatai. No egg, Indian shortbread style cookie with the flavours of almonds and cardamom. Each cookie is feather light, crumbly and melts readily in the mouth. Ofcourse thats because of all the butter that goes into it. But hey, you don't have to eat them all. This recipe is meant for sharing.

You can customize the master recipe by replacing some of the almonds with other nut powders, adding a tad bit extra cardamom or saffron to please you palate. Roll our the dough and use a cookie cutter to shape the cookies any which way you please. Or just shape them into the traditional rounds and flatten them slightly between your palms. What ever you do, make sure all your cookies are evenly sized. And time them closely, since cooktime will vary based on the shape.

Almond Nankhatai (Indian Shortbread Cookies)
3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
4 tablespoons ground almonds
½ lb or 2 sticks of butter
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp freshly powdered cardamom
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl. Use your
hands to bring everything together into a ball

Shape your cookies anyway you want. I simply take about 2 tablespoons
of dough, roll it into a round and lightly flatten in my palms.

Bake at 350 degree F for 15 – 20 mins or
until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Note that the cookies will still be soft to the touch when they are hot/warm out of the oven.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Chappati Heartache

How do normal people react to reading their own past work ? Everytime I re-read something I have written, I cringe a little bit. To me, my work always seems juvinile, with plenty of room for improvement. Recently, I stumbled upon a piece that was published about 7 years ago on Sulekha. This was back when postings on that site had to be edited and approved by a reviewing team. I titled the article 'The chappati heartache' and it was meant to be a sarcastic yet useful guide for the kitchen self-starter to make their own chappatis/rotis from scratch. I have come a long way in my kitchen experiences since then, yet many of my feelings about making rotis have not changed. I still enjoy the whole process and more so enjoy complaining about it. As I read this article, I had an instant urge to edit my own work. But the older and wiser me decided that any changes would just ruin the innocence and the sheer geekiness that shines so proudly from it. So here, for your reading pleasure and for my records, I present to you the unedited 'Chappati Heartache' -- an account of my culinary frustrations more than 7 years ago.

The Chappati Heartache

The soul of Indian food is composed of rotis. These complex carbohydrates form the staple food of a billion people worldwide. They are delicious to eat and highly nourishing for the body (proteins and fiber). So naturally, they are a delightful pain to make. The procedure is messy, time consuming, exhausting and at the end of it all, you are just glad there is something to eat! I would attribute getting consistent (good) chappati results over and over again to a stroke of pure luck. At every attempt at chappati making, you get closer to getting better. Which only means that you will never be perfect, just like an infinite series only promises to converge at infinity. Are you willing to wait till eternity to eat perfect chappatis made by you?

If you don't believe me, allow me to exemplify my theory with -- myself! I am your average girl next door, have been away from home for several years, eating copious amounts of rice and pasta during those years and close to being sick of rice and any form of beans. I greatly enjoy (and sorely miss) my mother's cooking. I have been trying to make chappatis for a while now but the art of chappati-making completely eludes me! Sure, every once in a while, I have the blessing to enjoy my own handmade steamy, puffy, soft, melt-in-my-mouth chappatis, but the sheer amount of times I have had to eat thick, hard, chewy chappatis just ruins the pleasure. It's like my chappatis are forever jinxed by a cosmic conspiracy. How else would you explain that in say, x number of times I have made chappatis, 10x! uniquely different things have gone wrong? Now, do I see some heads nodding in agreement? Haven't we all been there, ladies (and um... the real gentlemen)? Hence the chappati heartache -- consistency is the key in chappati making, but the lock is unfortunately password protected.

Don't get me wrong. I love the entire cooking process, but failure frustrates me. Repeated failure prompts me to write about it. It is my belief that cooking results directly indicate the mood and frustration level of the chef. I have noticed that if I am frustrated about something (other than cooking), my chappatis come out great. This I believe is because, frustration is good for the dough-making process, you have all the motivation to beat the crap out of it and the dough comes out soft and smooth. Ironically, if I am frustrated about how my chappatis are turning out, their quality just goes downhill from there.

For the benefit of the naive beginners and the entertainment of the (self-proclaimed) chappati experts, allow me to explain the nuances of the fine art of chappati-making. It is hoped that in spite of some not-so-subtle sarcastic (frustrated) statements, this will be considered a useful guide.

The chappati making process has 4 main steps:

Kneading the dough
Making small balls of the dough
Rolling out chappatis
Roasting the chappatis

It is difficult to judge which one of the above steps is the most idiot proof, because like I mentioned, I have goofed up every step of the way, and still discovering new goofs and mutations of old ones.

Step 1: Kneading the dough

This process is a little messy. Beginners, please remember to clip your nails and wash hands with soap and water! Use a nice broad mouthed vessel for this process, one that would have room for various violent arm movements.

Start with some atta (wheat flour) in the vessel, and add salt to it.

Then add 1 teaspoon of oil and rub into the mixture.

Now gradually add water, rub into the mixture. Continue adding water until the mixture looks like dry scrambled eggs.

Now sprinkle about a fistful (?) of water and combine into a single dough structure.

Knead and knead, till your knuckles give out, and your carpal tunneled wrists are permanently hanging at right angles to your arm.

Wash hands and cover and keep dough aside for at least 10 minutes.

Tips on kneading dough

Start making the dough when you are frustrated. Imagine the dough as the object of your frustration and vent it out. Start at the end of the long school/ workday for the ideal frustration level.

Salt is an important and easy-to-forget ingredient!

Keep in mind, the physics theories of relativity and the uncertainty principle.

Why? If you made nearly perfect dough today, measured the amount of ingredients with astronomical precision and the next day mixed up the exact astronomical amount to make the dough, the result will almost always never be perfect. According to my research, this is due to the fact that your experiments can be affected by the plethora of factors, your sense of measurement, instruments used, number of experimental trials, temperature, humidity, sweat level of the palms, magnitude and direction of the force vectors applied to the dough, quality of the mill that ground the flour, entropy of the atmosphere, pollen count etc., to name a few. In the big picture, all this boils down to the following factors: the speed of light, the speed of kneading relative to the speed of light, the orientation of the earth, its rotational speed and the resulting centripetal force and the gravitational pull of other celestial objects to name a few of them. That is how physics becomes involved. As you will soon realize, it is difficult for an uninformed mind to keep all these factors in mind. For a more detailed guide for this step, please refer to another guide that will be written after the completion of research: “No Two Dough Balls Are The Same – Why?”

Rare second chance opportunity, If dough turns out too dry/hard, try adding water and knead extra hard to incorporate in the dough.

If dough turns out too soft/sticky, You have messed up. You can try adding more dry flour and knead till you pass out, but I doubt if the situation is recoverable.

A word of confidence: Whatever the end doughy result is, try to continue with the following steps, because after all, you can always eat thick, ugly chappatis.

Step 2: Making balls from the dough

1. Break the dough into 'ping-pong size' balls, smooth, no cracks or gradations on the surface. Opinions vary among the chappati gurus, some say 'marble sized', some say 'lemon sized' and some others say 'small melon' sized. My short stint of experience seems to suggest that 1.45” would be more or less the precise diameter.

This sounds a little too easy but believe you me, if you mess up here this could jeopardize the next steps.

Step 3: Rolling out chappatis

Keep dry flour handy for dusting purposes (a little more if your dough is on the sticky side)

Take each ball from the previous step, flatten on the rolling board, apply flour and roll with the rolling pin. In the beginning, the rolling process would seem more like flattening. But this is a delicate process; one has got to respect the chappati.

Roll out into rounds of about 6-7 inches in diameter. And that's it!

Tips, Tricks and Strategies for rolling

You have to talk to the chappati, sometimes curse at it. Show who the boss is. At the same time, be gentle. Just like teaching a kid how to tie his/her shoelaces (except for the cursing part).

The trick is to roll such that the chappati rotates with your motions, so that it is even throughout.

A neat little trick that my mom once taught me: Once the chappatis are about 1 inch in diameter, roll with even pressure (not measurements again), trying to roll out the edges to prevent overworking the center.

If you worry too much about the shape, it will never come out round.

Remember that you cannot get the round shape by tricky rolling pin movements in the end. That is why step 2 is so important; you have to make the balls such that if you flatten it, it is a perfect round. Now rotate it and roll evenly to try and maintain that as far as possible.

Step 4: Roasting the chappati

Preheat the tawa/griddle.

Wait till small bubbles are formed and the surface facing the tawa has small brown spots.

Use a paper towel or clean kitchen cloth and apply pressure on the chappati to cook it from within.

Remove and apply ghee to the surface that has just left the tawa. As a wise man once said, “It is very important to realize that in the real world, everything has a right side and a wrong side.” Truer words have never been spoken.

If you followed all the above steps 100% correctly, there is about 50% probability that the chappati will puff up nicely. Tips and Tricks for roasting

Keep your eyes peeled at the chappatis; they love to burn.

When in doubt, turn the chappati over to check for doneness. If it is not done, flip it back. Defense is the best strategy you can use here.

Keep the flame on 'high' while cooking the chappatis. This is supposed to prevent them from becoming hard on cooling.

Now that the process is outlined, do you feel you are up to it yet? Here is the final twister that adds slight complications – multiplexing.

Yes, you are expected to perform the rolling, toasting and greasing processes in a parallel, pipelined fashion for optimum time and fuel efficiency. By the time you lovingly roll out the chappati at hand into a semi-circle with Australia on top, the one on the tawa has turned to coal and the ones piled up waiting to be greased have turned to stone.

As with most things in life, one should start with this adventure simple and add the multiplexing to give themselves a challenge along the way. Unfortunately, such people are considered lowly novices among the chappati elites.

I can almost see those chappati experts rolling their eyes saying, well, Rome wasn't built in a day! My answer to them would be, of course that makes sense, Romans were so preoccupied with making pizza dough that they procrastinated building Rome!

They say perseverance pays and practice makes perfect (or nearly perfect in this case). In the meantime, misery loves company, so I am sharing my whines and complaints. Then again, a new day will come and I will go through the process once more, and maybe one day I will be close to getting better at it. Remember, he who says he is perfect, lies. She, who says she is perfect, usually lies.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Spicy Granola aka Bhel Puri

You know, we Indians may not be born sophisticated like the French, or have a sexy accent like the Spanish or Italians, or be as athletic as the Chinese or Americans, but dammit, we can eat really spicy food! We would put spice on our morning cereal if it didn't curdle the milk! Occasionally you get the rare Indian with a sweet tooth, but by golly we love our steaming stack of spicy aloo parathas. Our dosas aren't the same with out being smeared with spicy gunpowder masala. And, no experience with Indian food is complete without getting a taste of our Chaat.

Chaat is the blanket name given to all kinds of heavenly street food in India and quite aptly, the word 'chaat' literally means 'to lick' in Hindi. While 'chaat' stalls are easy to spot in any busy marketplace or street corner, the best 'feast for the eyes' experience comes from eating from a
chaat vendor at the beach. There are several dishes that make the chaat category chief among them are:
  • The tiny, round, puffy, crisp semolina puris that are stuffed with warm boiled potatoes and silky legumes, then filled with a cold, minty, spicy and tangy, green liquid. Once filled with the liquid you move really quickly and put the puri as a whole into a wide open mouth. As your teeth sink into it, there is a gush of warm meeting the cold. The crisp meeting the soft. The spicy and tangy meeting a very satisfied palate. A complete balanced meal if you asked me! This is called the Pani Puri -- and undoubtedly my favorite in the chaat family. One day, I will tell you more about the experience if you have never had the good fortune of enjoying this at an Indian street corner.
  • Then there is the Pav bhaji. A spicy medley of vegetables - potatoes, cauliflower, green peppers etc, simmered in a tomato based sauce with a special blend of spices. This is served with a slab of butter melting on top with a side of pillows of soft bread rolls toasted slightly on a hot griddle. Here is a picture of a the street side chef cooking up a batch of Pav Bhaji, taken during a recent trip to Mumbai.
  • Next, there is the Ragda Pattice. A layered dish of crisp potato cutlets, with a generous helping of spicy chickpea/white pigeon pea curry (similar your usual chana masala from the neighborhood Indian restaurant), topped with condiments such as spicy mint and tangy tamarind chutneys, chopped raw onions and crispy fried chickpea flour noodles. The aroma of the cutlets frying up on the extra large griddle is not easily resisted. Neither can you miss the metallic din of the stainless spatula used to flip and cook the Pattice or cutlet on the cast iron griddle the size of Texas.
  • Vada Pavs are to Mumbai what Hot Dogs are to New York City. The original veggie burger, simply dressed in fresh out the frying pan warmth. A spicy mixture of mashed potatoes with onions, garlic and spices are formed to round balls. They are then dipped in a thick chick pea batter and fried to crispy goodness to form the vada. Then, the softest imaginable dinner rolls called Pav are split and slathered with a red chili garlic powder. The beloved vada is held between two halves of the Pav. The whole snack is only palm sized, and is devoured in only a few bites but packs a devastating punch in flavor. No need for any other fancy toppings, or dipping sauces, this is the on the go snack for the city that truly never sleeps. Just watching the efficient supply chain management of one of the vada pav vendors can easily form a case study lesson for business schools. Not Kidding!
  • The most popular and easily portable snack among the masses is undoubtedly the bhel puri. You could think of it as the Indian trail mix. It is a mixture of churmura or puffed rice, sev or crispy fried noodles, papdi or flat fried chick pea disks and mungfalli or peanuts, roasted together with seasonings and spices. Just before serving, this is folded in with mint and tamarind chutneys, minced vegetables onions, tomatoes, boiled potatoes green chili (yes, ofcourse it counts as a vegetable!).
The bhel puri man is by extension, the most portable snack man in India. He carries a tall wicker stool on top of which he transports all the ingredients. He will settle himself at different strategic spots depending on the time of the day. During lean periods, he will mince onions, tomatoes, boiled potatoes, green chilis, coriander leaves into the finest confetti you can imagine using a tiny paring knife. All the knife skills prized by the modern culinary world are shattered as you watch this man at work [without using a cutting board]. Then when a customer approaches him, he portions out a serving of the dry bhel puri mix into a little container. Then the adds the onions, tomato, chili, coriander and the spices. At this point, he will let you interject if you want to customize your serving with extra spice or additional crunch or another shot of chutney. He will give this mixture a squeeze of lemon, then mix it with great pomp and show attracting passer-bys. Then he forms a rectangular piece of newspaper into a cone and fills it with the bhel puri and hands it over to you. You then walk away, munching in happiness.

If you don't live in India, you can still replicate the Bhel puri as close as possible, with the ingredients available in ethnic stores. Here is a link to a basic traditional recipe video for bhel puri. Now, not to defy tradition, but I don't always shop at ethnic stores or sometimes I am unhappy with the products they carry, and occasionally I get bitten by the healthy eating bug. So I make this healthier version of bhel puri, which can be made from ingredients available at your regular North American grocery stores.

For the Bhel Puri Mix:

Bhel Puri Mix

2 tsps vegetable oil
1/8 tsp mustard seeds
A few sprigs of curry leaves
A dash of asafetida
4 green chilis, minced

Heat the oil in a pan. Add the mustard seeds, once they pop, add the remaining ingredients and fry for a 30 secs or so.

2 cups Kashi 7 Grain Puffed cereal
1 cup baked salted pita chips, broken up
¼ cup roasted peanuts

Add the puffed cereal, peanuts and the pita chips and roast till the mixture is crispy

Once cooled, store this mixture in a airtight container. Just snack as is or make into bhel puri.

For the Bhel Puri:

Bhel Puri

1 cup of bhel mix
½ onion, minced
½ tomato, minced
1 small cucumber, minced
1 ear of corn, separated and roasted
A generous handful of coriander, minced finely
1 tbsp of mint, green chili chutney
1 tsp lemon juice

Toss together all the ingredients on the left!

Thats it. A healthier, unorthodox way of enjoying Bhel Puri. Not the same as the street side counterpart, but a close nostalgic fusion.
Of course during my rather long discourse on chaat, I have not included other chaat items like Frankie rolls, chole bhatura, snow cones, and beverages like chai, sugar cane juice and many others that I will remember with extreme, inexplicable guilt once this post is published.