17 January 2013

Self Call-out

I knew that this was coming, so I shouldn't exactly be surprised. It's filthy outside, between the blistering cold and the overcast days. The sun hasn't properly shined in longer than I care to remember. As the wind blows harder, I turn more inwards. It's like clockwork. The cold weather hits with a vengeance, and I start going into full hermit mode.

And it's not that I dislike being with people. I'm generally happy when I'm around people whose company I enjoy. It's why I love working where I do--I genuinely like the people I work with, and being there is a pleasure and not a pain. Same thing goes for visiting my friends, having friends come visit me, being close with my husband, spending time with him, and doing things people-related.

All those feelings are fleeing. I'm finding reasons to cut things short. To go home early. To get off from work at the very moment that I start feeling a little shaky. The worst is that I know there's more to be done, and I'd like to have a few minutes at the end of the day to review with my boss, but I feel so frayed at the edges that I just want to be out of there as fast as I can, so I can huddle under my covers and pretend that I never woke up. I can even feel the threads of my grip on things start to come unravelled, and I know that if I don't make a quick exit, I'm going to have some kind of emotional, sobbing meltdown.

I get home, I make dinner, I talk to my husband for a few minutes, and then I retreat from everything. Either I'll read or do something else that doesn't involve being with others.

To get past this, I'm really pushing myself to have people over. Last week, we had friends from the neighbourhood come to hang out on Thursday. Then on Saturday, my boss and his son came over to hang out for a bit. So far, this week has been more or less solitary, but Saturday I'm going to teach a cooking class to a very lovely lady. Then next weekend, starting Friday early in the morning, Puppy and I are going to Virginia to visit my brother and sister.

I'm hoping really hard that it ends up being sunny out there, because these overcast days have me in a pretty nasty funk that I'm really ready to be over already.

Greens Mixed Rice

Kalantha saadam (literally "mixed rice") is a delicious group of South Indian dishes, that include lemon rice, tomato rice, coconut rice, and tamarind rice. This one isn't quite so common, but I still found it to be delicious. If you're looking to develop your own type of kalantha saadam, here are some considerations:

1) The rice should be separate and fluffy. It's why I frequently call for basmati rice in these specific recipes.
2) The dish itself should end up dry. Even in the case of tomato rice, where you have a fair bit of wet ingredients (i.e., fresh tomato), you still want to cook the spice mix down until the liquid evaporates enough to make the rice stay fluffy, dry, and separate. Mushy or wet kalantha saadam is an embarrassment. If it ever happens to you, add a bunch of other vegetables, and call it something else.
3) Nuts are always appreciated. No exceptions (unless you have some kind of horrible allergy).
4) Curry leaves are nice to have, but aren't strictly required. If you can't find it, leave it out.
5) You're focusing on the /rice/ and anything else that is with it is a condiment. That is, the bulk of the dish should be rice. The spice blend is a seasoning.
6) These are all my own opinions. If you show this to another Indian, they'll likely nod along to a couple of points, and then scream and rage with fury at the rest. This is the beauty of the food of my country. It's varied in the extreme, while still being delicious. Everyone who cooks (and frequently, even those who eat) will have strong opinions on how it should be done. That is OK.

This is a picture of what it looks like. (Please click the small picture to see the bigger version.) Notice how the rice dominates the whole thing.This is good. This is but my own version; where you can substitute, I have made notes. In this version, I skipped the nuts, but I added a large handful of curry leaves, and a few heaping tablespoons of dried fenugreek leaves. You may also add dill, cilantro, parsley, basil, or any other fresh herbs you like.

4 cups cooked rice
1 bunch collard greens (you can also use kale, any fresh herbs of your liking, or spinach. if using spinach, don't microwave. I used collard greens, curry leaves, and fenugreek leaves)
1/3 cup water
1 onion
1 TB canola oil (peanut, or other vegetable oils are fine too)
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp urad daal
1/2 tsp cumin seed
3 tsp sesame seed (optional)
1/4 cup roasted nuts (optional)
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp turmeric

Chop the greens (but not the herbs) roughly. In a large microwave safe container, add the water and the greens. Microwave for 6 minutes, until lightly wilted.

While the greens cook, chop the onion, and gather your spices. Heat up your wok over high heat. Add the oil, and let it get hot. Add the mustard seeds, and let them pop. Add the urad daal, cumin seeds, and sesame seeds. Let the cumin and sesame seeds pop. You might want to use your lid, because they will violently pop all over the place. Once the popping subsides, add your onions, and drop down the heat to medium (so the onions don't burn).

When the greens are wilted, chop as finely as you can with the chopping blade of your food processor. Don't add the water from the steaming unless you absolutely need it. Because they've wilted down, you should be able to fit the entire bunch of collard greens along with any herbs you like into a 7-cup food processor (which is the kind I have). This will make short work of the greens. Chop until finely processed.

Crank up the heat of the wok to as high as it'll go. Add the greens, some turmeric powder, red pepper flakes, and the roasted nuts. Toss to combine with the spices, and continue to cook for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and toss the greens with the cooked rice.

Serve piping hot, with any vegetable side that you like.

16 January 2013


I don't have cheesecloth. I don't have a large jar. I do have plenty of tupperware though. Not the cheapo kind that's "disposable" (and there's a misnomer if ever I heard one; you go to any thrift store or yard sale, and I guarantee that you'll find actual tupperware cheaper than that stuff they sell as disposable), but the actual kind with those lids that are flexible. This is important, so stay with me.

What I did was that I started with 1/2 cup of mung beans, and soaked them in 3 cups of water overnight (8 - 10 hours). The next morning, I drained off the liquid, and rinsed them well under running water. Then, I threw it into a square tupperware container, and only locked down two corners of the lid. I kept the other two open. This will work with pretty much any container you have. Just leave the lid propped open somewhat. I used a tupperware, but you can use a pot with a slightly ajar lid. For the next three days, you'll need to rinse your sprouts at least once a day. You'll want to keep your container in a warm place that won't see much light. I used the cupboard under my sink. I vaguely recall that when you do expose them to light, you'd get some pretty foul smells going.

Anyway. Once all that's done, you'll have beautiful long sprouts from your beans. The point is that regardless of whether or not you've got the things lying around that most people say you need to make sprouts. When I read those instructions online, I tend to mentally shut down, and say "Well, that's me then. No cheesecloth, so I don't have to bother."

But you should bother. In the winter, when the days are all short and horrible, and it gets dark by 5:00, you need things in your diet that are rich in nutrients. Take the mung bean sprouts. A cup of the stuff has like 30 calories, and has all kinds of vitamins and minerals in it. It's got fibre, it's got protein, and vitamin C. Seriously, you can't go wrong. That said, if you really can't be bothered to sprout your own beans, even though I've just told you how easy it is, just go buy them. Eat your sprouts either way.

Bean Sprout Salad

1 cup of bean sprouts, rinsed
1 lemon, juiced (or 3 TB lemon juice)
1/2 tsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp sesame seeds
Big pinch cayenne pepper
Salt, to taste

In a skillet, heat the oil over high heat. Add the mustard seeds, and allow them to pop. Add the cumin seeds and sesame seeds, and turn off the heat. They will pop in the residual heat. Add the bean sprouts, lemon juice, and cayenne. Toss to combine with the seasoning and juice.

This dish is done lightning fast, and tastes very good. Because the sprouts are so tender, they don't really need to be cooked. A gentle warming through does the job.

15 January 2013

Quick "Tomato Sauce"

Yes, I'm using scare quotes around tomato sauce. Why? Because I don't want to get (1) angry letters from chefs or (2) death threats from Italians who know what real tomato sauce is. Why am I posting it then? Because it's really really quick, and still serviceable. I noticed one day that I was looking for a cheap tomato sauce in a jar, because I was tired after work, and wanted to make a quick dinner. However, I read the ingredients, and they were water, tomato paste, spices, modified food starch, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated cottonseed, canola, or soybean oil, and salt. I have no objection to salt. I love it. I also like tomato paste. But what the heck is modified food starch? Why are they using partially hydrogenated oil? And why the heck does my savoury tomato sauce need high fructose corn syrup? I HATE sweet sauces for pasta.

So, I got to thinking that if I were to make my own version, I'd use real tomatoes (or tinned diced tomatoes) along with the tomato paste, some spices, a bit of oil, and corn starch to thicken it up if necessary. Fast forward to tonight, when I opened the pantry to see that there was no diced tomato to be found. Drat. Also, I'm out of olive oil, and I'm not about to buy any more in the near future. Double drat. Also, it was past 8:00. I didn't want to make a trip to the store, because I was hungry right then, and didn't want to put back on my shoes and coat, go all the way down the four flights of stairs, and walk across the street to the dollar store to grab some tinned diced tomato. So I improvised.

I will repeat myself: this is not authentic tomato sauce. It most closely resembles a flavourful version of the jarred stuff. It's also really quick. The gin was there because I have it around the house. I don't care for vodka, and generally, wine doesn't last but a day, because if I have a bottle of wine, I'm calling friends over to help drink it. Also, gin has all kinds of botanicals in it, giving the final sauce a really nice flavour. Trust me. Use the gin. All said and done, this barely took 10 minutes or so, including chopping time. It's a lot cheaper (for me) to buy a large can of tomato paste, and make this sauce at home than it would be to spend $3+ for a jar of the sugar filled one from the store. It was also really quick.

1 TB vegetable oil of your liking
1 medium onion, diced
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/3 cup gin (substitute water if you don't have gin)
1 cup water
2 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in 1/4 cup of water from the ingredient above this one
1 tsp salt
1 tsp red pepper flakes
2 tsp oregano
1/4 tsp thyme
1 tsp garlic powder

In a pot, heat up the oil and the onion. While the onion cooks, add the oregano, red pepper flakes, and thyme. When the onion cooks through and is softened, add the tomato paste, and stir well. Cook over high heat for about two minutes or so. You want the raw taste of the tomato to cook out, and the paste itself to lightly coat the bottom of the pot.

When you have some coating going on, throw in the gin. The tomato and gin will smell pretty great. Add about 3/4 of the water (using the last 1/4 cup or so to dissolve the cornstarch). Add the garlic powder, and stir well. Let the water come to a boil, and let it boil for about five minutes. Keep boiling, and add the cornstarch dissolved in water. Let the whole sauce come up to the boil for about a minute, until it thickens to your needs. Toss with 1 lb of pasta.

13 January 2013

Mexican Chayote Latkes

Because that's exactly what you think of when you think of latkes, right? Mexican food? No? I wanted to keep them gluten free. If you don't care, you can use whole wheat flour.

1 cup chickpea flour
2 heaping TB rice flour
1/2 tsp cumin seed, crushed lightly (do not substitute cumin powder; if you don't have any, substitute your favourite chili powder blend)
1/3 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
1 chayote, grated
2 medium carrots, grated
1 small red onion, grated
Salt, to taste
UP TO 3/4 cup of water
vegetable oil, OR cooking spray

In a bowl, toss together the chickpea flour, rice flour, cumin seed, red pepper flakes, chayote, carrot, and onion. Coat all the vegetables with the flours. Then, a little at a time, add the water until you have a batter going. You're looking to have the flour combine with just enough water that it just comes together. You don't want too much water, or else you'll end up with ugly looking latkes like mine. You're going for pancake batter consistency.

In a large nonstick skillet, lay down a thin coat of oil. I use nonstick, because these don't stick hard, but they're heartbreaking to lose because they're so tasty. Heat the skillet over medium heat. Add, by 1/4 - 1/3 cupfuls, the batter to the skillet. Fry on one side, until you see the edges of the latke dry up. Then, using a plastic turner, flip each latke over to cook on the other side. Press down gently to get some of the liquid to leech out of the chayote, and prevent too much sticking from going on. If it looks sticky, pour a bit more oil around the edges.

Then, flip over once more to see how the bottom is coming along. If it's beautiful golden brown like mine are in the picture, remove from the heat, and serve.

12 January 2013

Quick Daikon Pickle

There are times when I want something to go with my beans and rice, but I don't quite feel up to making a whole vegetable dish. There are other times when some pickled daikon will hit the spot. These aren't really the sour type. Instead, they're more salty. I eat them like snacks all the time.

1/4 Daikon, peeled

Slice the daikon into 1/4 inch slices. Stack up three of the slices, and slice them into 1/4 inch sticks. Sprinkle generously with salt. Toss to combine, and let sit for five minutes. Rinse off, and eat immediately. They're so delicious!

The charm of this dish is that it happens so quickly, because of the small size of the daikon.

10 January 2013


There are nights when I crave cabbage. These are frequently those nights when I'm home late from work, and already have some beans cooked up in the fridge, and some rice. I'm usually happy with just daal and rice, but on those occasions that I want a bit of vegetable to go with it, Cabbage Curry does the job admirably well.

This is the version I make when I'm in a hurry, and want something done cheap. The same recipe works for those bags of pre-washed spinach, kale, or collard greens, but I use cabbage, because I can find it really cheap most of the time. Also, I find that cabbage doesn't shrink down like spinach, which is why I like to use it when I want something cheap.

½ head cabbage, shredded (or 1-lb bag of shredded cabbage & carrots)
2 TB canola, peanut, or vegetable oil
½ tsp black mustard seed
½ tsp cumin seed
1 tsp urad daal
2 pinches asafoetida (optional)
1/3 tsp turmeric
Salt to taste

In a large frying pan or wok, heat the oil over high heat. Add the black mustard seeds, and allow them to pop. Add the cumin seed and urad daal. When the cumin seeds pop as well, add the asafoetida, and stir once. Add the sliced cabbage, and the turmeric. Vigorously stir the cabbage to combine it with the spices and the fat. When all the cabbage has turned a beautiful shade of yellow, let the cabbage sit for a minute or two. Stir again, and let it set for another minute. You’ll notice the cabbage begin to caramelise.

The trick is to not crowd the pan. Add the salt at the last minute, and taste for seasoning. You may want to add some red chile powder (cayenne pepper works great here). If you do, please turn off the heat before adding the heat of the chiles. Why? Because the smoke bomb of pain and burning that will happen if you try to add ground red chiles to a hot pan will burn your insides.

Pongal, the lazy way

So Thai Pongal is coming up. It's a Tamil harvest festival, where we celebrate the sun, the harvest, and delicious food. Traditionally, white rice and yellow lentils are cooked together with ginger, black pepper, mustard & cumin seed, asafoetida, and curry leaves. Nuts are added if you can afford them, and the whole thing is sort of the ultimate comfort dish. It's a bit mushy, and creamy. It's got this real stomach-filling, comforting feeling whenever I eat a bowl. Think of it like the South Indian answer to macaroni and cheese.

I don't quite have the patience, however, to fiddle around with white rice, and its propensity to stick to the bottom of any cooking pot I put on the stove. I also don't much care for the long cooking time. When I want pongal quickly, I cheat. I use cooked rice, and cooked mung daal (the split one).

4 cups cooked brown rice
2 cups mung beans, soaked for 1 hour
4 cups water
3 TB vegetable oil (preferably a mix of peanut and sesame oil)
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp cumin seed
1/8 tsp asafoetida
1/4 tsp turmeric (optional; I like a bright yellow pongal, but you may prefer yours more light coloured)
1/4 cup grated ginger (do NOT substitute dried or candied ginger)
2 stalks curry leaves (if you can't find them, substitute 3 leaves of sage for a wonderful flavour)
Salt, to taste
Generous grindings of black pepper
2 cups water, reserved

In a pot, add the vegetable oil, and let it heat over high heat. While the oil heats, drain off the mung beans. Add the mustard seeds, and allow them to pop. Add the cumin seeds and asafoetida. Wait 5 seconds. Sprinkle in the turmeric, and stir well. Add the ginger, curry leaves and a generous bit of salt. Add the drained mung beans, Add the 4 cups of water, and allow to come to the boil. Because the stove is so hot, the water should take about a minute flat to come to the boil.

Let the beans boil for a good 7 minutes. They should be mostly cooked by now. Stir around, to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. In another 5 - 8 minutes, the mung beans should be cooked through. Add the cooked brown rice. Stir well to combine.

Keep cooking over high heat. Once the pot comes to a boil, you'll notice the brown rice try to absorb all the liquid remaining. Pour in some of the reserved water, and let it come back to the boil. Let the brown rice and beans cook together for another 5 minutes. By now, you'll have likely used about 1 cup of the reserved liquid (or more, if your stove is very hot, or your brown rice was on the firm side).

Once everything is boiled together, check for salt. Add generous grinds of black pepper, and serve piping hot, with coconut chatni, kootu, sambhar, or green beans curry.

07 January 2013

Ten Minute Chili

There are times when you need a small quantity of a dish, quickly. This means that you're not trying to cook for 10 people at once. Instead, you've already got a meal set out, and need an extra dish, because a guest just let you know at the last minute that there will be an extra person coming. Rather than trying to stretch out what you already have, just make an extra dish, even if it is in small quantity, and the food will stretch further.

There are nights when you need something fast, because you got home from work really late. However, you still want it to have vegetables in, and be relatively healthy. The Minute Meals tag is meant for such dishes. This is the first of what I hope will become a series of recipes.

1 TB vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds (the whole seeds are important)
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, sliced
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 zucchini, sliced lengthwise, and cut into half-moons
2 cups cooked beans of your choice (I used canned black beans)
1 cup frozen corn (or canned is fine too, if you drain the liquid)
Pinch of salt to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste

In a pot, add the oil, and heat it on high heat. Add the cumin and coriander seeds. The seeds will toast and pop. Add the onions, garlic, paprika, and oregano (in that order). Stir well. Drop the heat to medium. While the onions and garlic cook down, chop the zucchini, open the can of beans, and measure out the corn (I usually just dump in a couple of handfuls, but some people like to measure). Add the tomato paste after the onions have had a chance to cook for a couple of minutes, and stir well. This will cause some sticking. This is OK. Essentially, you want to add the onions, chop the zucchini, add the tomato paste, stir, and then open up the cans/measure the corn.

Once the vegetables are chopped, the beans are opened, and the corn is at the ready, crank up the heat to as high as it'll go. Stir vigorously, until the onions are browned slightly, and the house smells awesome. You should hear the onions sizzle loudly by this point, and the bottom of the pot should start catching some of the spices and making it sticky. This is good.

Add the zucchini, and stir completely until the zucchini is lightly browned. Add the beans, the corn, and the cayenne pepper. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, and taste for salt. Because you're using canned beans, which contain a fair bit of salt, you might not need to add any salt. If you do, feel free to adjust as necessary. For better flavour, you can use soy sauce instead of salt.

I don't typically encourage you to use canned beans, which is why I've included the measurements of beans rather than a particular can size. However, the charm of this recipe is that you can run to the local bodega, grab one or two ingredients, and have food done fairly quickly. If you have a well-stocked pantry, you probably won't even need to hit up the store. If you don't have zucchini, any quick-cooking vegetable will do. Kale would be great. Cauliflower would be lovely too. If you had any leftover cooked vegetables from a previous night, this is a great time to use it up.

The point of this recipe is that you'll have exactly enough food for two people, done very quickly. While the water comes to a boil (in the last step), you could warm up some corn or whole wheat tortillas in a skillet to serve alongside the chili. If you have a pot of brown rice on, that's even better. If you want something fresh on the side, just do a quick salad of a sliced cucumber tossed with a few slices of onions, and a squeeze of lemon juice. If you drain the beans, and add a minimum of water, you'll have a lovely burrito filling.

I'm going to try to post more of the things that I cook during the week, when I'm tired, and it's late. Hopefully, you'll also get inspiration to try something out, and post your results.