19 October 2007

Old standbys are there, as always.

Of course, since the move is coming up so soon, Steve and I are streamlining our lives, as well as our pantries and fridges and the like. Unfortunately, that means that we've more or less eaten everything else. It's vaguely embarrassing when the child of a mother whose cupboards are overflowing with food, who had to buy a second fridge to keep up with the amount of food, and whose family entertained almost every night is down to the components of food-like things.

There's split peas. There's oil, but I'd rather not bother with it, because I used it for frying a few too many times, and I think it answered back last night. Either that, or I was a lot more tired than I thought I was. Of course, there's rice. Spices are there, because my mother seriously has extreme stores of spices. No, I'm serious; she bought out stores with spices, and kept them in long term storage at home. Extreme, see?

It's not exactly torture, of course, when the pieces fall into place, and I make that old favourite, Venn Pongal. This time, I decided to be even more lazy than I normally am with this dish. I threw two cups of rice, and five cups of water into a large microwave safe dish. I microwaved it at 70% power for 15 minutes, then again at full power for 20 minutes. While that was going, I set a pot of water to boil (roughly 2 litres) and added 2 cups of yellow split peas to it.

As I said, that oil was giving me dirty looks, so I figured it'd be best to avoid that line of questioning, and tipped in a few stout teaspoons of my mother's Sambhar powder. (Google is your friend. I have a recipe in my book, but if you don't have my book, google "Sambhar powder recipe" and click around till you find one with the ingredients you have.) I also tipped in a scant teaspoon of turmeric, and a few scrapings of ginger root (fresh; powdered doesn't taste close to the same, so omit it if you don't have fresh). Of course, in went the ever present red chili flakes, and quite a lot of freshly ground black pepper. I could have added curry leaves, but I didn't feel like walking out into that rain.

I picked up my book, reclined on the couch to listen for the beep, and read avidly when the first 15 minutes were over. The water on the stove was cheerfully boiling, but the rice wasn't nearly cooked at all. In fact, at 70%, the water wasn't even boiling. I got annoyed, set the time for 20 minutes, and hit the start button. I added in the cooked rice. I replaced a bit of the water in the pot (as it was evaporating fairly fast), and put the lid on it. I dropped down the flame to medium low. Covering the lid and lowering the heat would maintain the temperature without my having to expend so much fuel. Besides, with Venn Pongal, you need the rice to be mushy in any case.

At the end of the 20 minute beep, the rice was done, and the split peas were almost done. I decided to have some toast, wash my face, do some tidying up, and get ready for dinner. The rice continued to merrily simmer away. About ten minutes later, the yellow split peas were done through (they sort of fell apart), and the rice was that proper mushy consistency. I generously salted the dish, and turned off the stove. It was still in that sloshy stage. I gave it a good strong stirring, to loosen up any bits that were stuck to the bottom of the pot, and covered the lid tightly. I relaxed with a glass of water, and knew that Steve would be coming home shortly. Just about ten minutes later, when the pongal had just set, he walked in, sniffed the air, and dug right in!

I'm surprised that it came out so well without any of the fat. Interesting ...

If, however, you don't particularly mind a bit of fat, here are some nifty and easy
Ideas for Jazzing Up Pongal
  • Raw or caramelised onions, sprinkled on top of each diner's bowl
  • Crushed toasted nuts
  • A drizzle of tahini, thrown on just before serving
  • Indian pickles (it's in the book, I swear)
Other than that, you really don't want to fuss around with the flavours or textures too much. Feel free to add more heat, or salt, or a kick more of spices. However, pongal is such a classic that it's hard to improve on something that's such a staple for so many people across the world.

That's right, world, not just India. I've noticed that all over the world, in the older civilisations, you had some mix of rice and lentils/beans/legums/pulses, that was cooked together, gently spiced, and eaten as a staple dish. The reason is that when you're feeding a family with such varied needs and tastes, as you did in those days when you lived with your family, you'd want to get something on the table that everyone could enjoy comfortably, from the very young to the adult to the very old. Regardless of what the culture would call it, it'd be fairly mushy, gently spiced, and cooked for a fairly long time (since the grain and the legume was cooking together). Cultures who don't quite have that art down (the younger, meat based ones) tried to emulate it, but would fall short of the whole point of the dish: it was meant to be a staple, it was meant to be cheap, and it was meant to be something that the whole family could easily enjoy.

Look at the traditional comfort foods of the American south. Macaroni and cheese. Smashed potatoes. You could certainly feed it to everyone, but it's not something you could eat every day as a staple. They're just searching for their lost bowls of pongal. It's OK, folks. There's a large pot of it waiting patiently on my stove. Come. Eat. :)

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