Sunday, August 19, 2012

A week of vegetables, and eggplant dal

You know what I love even better than local food? Local food blogs. I read a long list of St. Louis based food blogs and always find interesting information on restaurants and stores, events and places that I would never hear of otherwise. This week, my penchant for reading St. Louis based blogs reaped me a large vegetable harvest. 

It started when Melissa of Her Green Life posted that she had too much of a good thing with an overflowing garden harvest that was keeping her tied to the kitchen. I proposed a swap: I would trade some of my home-cooked Indian food for her vegetables. Happily, she accepted and came over on Monday. I pictured her bringing over a grocery sack or two full of vegetables. Nope. There was a huge box of tomatoes. A huge sack of cucumbers and summer squash. A bucket (!) of eggplant. Plus arugula and okra and bags of peppers. I was blown away by Melissa's generosity and thus started the week of vegetables. I cooked and cooked and we (V and I and also many of our friends) enjoyed fresh, organically grown vegetables in so many different ways: curries and rice dishes and pestos and salads and pickles. The week went by in a blur of gorgeous, colorful vegetables. 

Tomatoes on their way to being slow roasted for 12 hours 

A jewel-like assortment of peppers of all kinds: mild, sweet and hot
Red pepper chutney and tomato pickle
In celebration of this summer vegetable fest, I thought I would post an eggplant recipe. This is one I made a few weeks ago. It is a humble staple of the everyday Maharashtrian meal- DalVangi or eggplant  dal. Just your simple pantry ingredients plus fresh, sweet seasonal eggplant will give you this savory dal. The goda masala (the quintessential Maharashtrian spice mix) is absolutely optional so if you don't have any, rest assured that you will get tasty results anyway (I often make it without goda masala). My favorite way to serve it is with fresh, steamed rice, a dollop of ghee and some mango pickle on the side. 

The recipe is adapted from the Marathi cookbook Ruchira by Kamalabai Ogale. It is not just a cookbook but an encyclopedia of Maharashtrian cooking. I'll spend a lifetime exploring this cookbook (actually, a set of 2 books). 

Eggplant Dal 
(Adapted from Ruchira by Kamalabai Ogale) 

  1. Soak, rinse and pressure cook 1 cup toor dal.
  2. While the dal is cooking, make a dry spice mix by toasting 1 tbsp. coriander seeds, 2 tsp. cumin seeds and 1/4 cup dry coconut flakes and then grinding them to a fine powder.
  3. Chop eggplant (any size, any variety) into cubes to yield 3 to 4 cups.
  4. To make the dal, heat 2 tsp. oil. Make a tempering with 1 tsp. mustard seeds, a pinch of asafetida, a sprig of curry leaves and 1/2 tsp. turmeric.
  5. Immediately, add eggplant cubes and salt to taste and saute for several minutes. Cover and let the eggplant steam for a few minutes until par-cooked.
  6. Add cooked dal, 2 tsp. tamarind paste, 1 tbsp. jaggery powder and the dry spice mix made in step 2. You could also add 1 tsp. goda masala at this point.
  7. Add enough water to make a thick or thin consistency as desired and bring to a boil. Simmer until the eggplant is fully cooked.
  8. Add a handful of minced cilantro and serve. 

Here's another fun experience that came to me this week via another local blog called St. Louis Eats and Drinks. Ann Lemons Pollack wrote a restaurant review with an interesting nugget at the end about a halwa poori brunch special at a restaurant near our home. Within 12 hours of reading the review, V and I were in Spice -n- Grill (owned by a couple where the wife is the chef and the husband is at the front of the house), tucking into this meal. Ah, the joy of puffy fried bread dipped into two spicy curries, and a contrasting sweet halwa to top things off. Don't miss this if you live in St. Louis.

I'll definitely go back for this meal, even though the lady who owns the place spotted Lila, then told me in no uncertain terms that she looks too small for her age, and proceeded to tell me what I should be feeding her to fatten her up. Yeah, brunch was inexpensive and the advice- totally free!

Do you seek out food blogs local to you? I will miss my favorite STL food blogs very much when I move. Athens, GA (our new home) does not have any food blogs that I know of. 

On The Bookshelf

Apart from vegetables, I've been devouring books this week. Lila likes to nap on my lap, and while she naps, I read. After she goes to bed, I read. And lately, all the books have been outstanding and ones that I highly want to recommend to anyone who cares to listen.

The first two fall into the category of Mama Goes to Parenting School and will be of special interest to those with kids.

What's Eating Your Child by Kelly Dorfman is written by a nutritionist and explores the link between nutrition and common (and uncommon) childhood ailments. My two favorite things about this book:
1. It is written without judgement in a sensible tone with practical advice.
2. It is highly readable, presented in the form of case studies where the readers get to play along as "nutrition detectives". It is not every day that a book on this subject is such a page-turner. It will be interesting even for those who don't usually enjoy reading non-fiction.
Some interesting concepts that I took away from this book:

1. Nutrition problems fall into two categories: either something that the child is eating is bothering the body, or the child is not getting enough of something. Sometimes both these things can occur at the same time.
2. Kids act badly when they are not feeling well. They are often unable to express discomfort or pain and instead they act out and misbehave. Instead of punishment, parents may need to dig deeper and find out if something in the diet is making the child act out.
3. Many children are picky eaters (often eating only plain "white" foods like bread, rice, pasta, milk and little else). Consider that the child might have a zinc deficiency which causes loss of sense of smell and taste making food unappetizing or even revolting. This problem can be easily corrected with a zinc supplement. The author also provides a simple program for trying new foods one bite at a time to expand a picky eater's food repertoire.
4. Individuals have very different reactions to common foods. Many kids are intolerant of dairy or gluten. If the child has a mysterious illness which has not been helped by conventional medicine, it is worthwhile to look for nutritional causes.
5. This book is about children's nutrition but many of the same concepts apply to adults.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish is one of the most beloved and famous parenting books, and for VERY good reason. 
Faber and Mazlish are very down-to-earth and respectful of both parents and children. In an easy to understand workbook style, with very specific examples and tips, they lay out ways to better communicate with children. If you find yourself struggling to make your kids do something (or stop doing something), and it seems like all parents are caught in this struggle, this book is absolutely worth a read. How many times do you see a child and a parent together, and soon enough, you hear cajoling, arguing, then perhaps a voice raised, then threats and tears? I will be buying this book and essentially memorizing it. And while it covers communication with kids, the principles apply to communication with just about everybody. So much of the stress in life comes from being frustrated with the people in our life, and learning better ways to communicate is so worth the time.

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi
Neighbor girl was surprised to see me reading this book. I didn't know you liked tennis, she said. And I didn't know you liked Andre Agassi. Well, long story. I am no sports fan but tennis does have a special place in my heart. My sister played competitive tennis in the junior (Under 12 and Under 14) category at the district and state level and while I've never held a racket in my life, tennis was a big part of my life at one point. We watched matches incessantly and followed the careers of all the pros. I took her to tennis tournaments occasionally. At the junior level, the chaperones (parents, other relatives) of the kids would double up as umpires (also as ball boys) so I knew the rules of tennis enough to be able to call matches. Anyway, we had our favorite players and I loved Steffi Graf (such a dignified and no-nonsense player) and hated Andre Agassi (full of every kind of nonsense). 
Now those two are married to each other- go figure. Anyway, this book is an EXCELLENT read. I recommend that you read it whether you care about tennis or not. This book is about parenting. It is about life and the crazy journey it can be. It was very hard to read about Agassi's cruel and violent father, endearing to read about his romance with Graf, and overall the book is just a funny and a rollicking good read. Seriously. And Andre Agassi has a new fan in me.

The last two books fall into the category of children's literature or kid lit. Many adults enjoy kid lit books. The good ones are every bit as deep and memorable and touching as the best literature for grown ups. I picked up these two at the suggestion of bloggers that I like and admire and sure enough, they were very good reads.

The first recommendation came from Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. She is crazy about kid lit and in the first installment of her book club, mentioned The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars, calling it "a perfect book". This book moved me to tears, made me laugh and had a happy ending. Perfect indeed.

The second recommendation came from my favorite book blog, Niranjana's Brown Paper in an author interview. Vanished by Sheela Chari took me straight back to my childhood summers and reading mysteries while munching on salty snacks. Read this book and escape from your grown up worries for a few hours.

Did you have a good week? What was the highlight of your week? See you in a few!

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Processors, Pesto and Pins

A few times a week, someone will e-mail me with a cooking-related question. Some questions are recurring, like the one about food processors. What food processor do I use and do I recommend it? Are food processors worth it in the first place? What do I use my food processor for? That sort of thing.

So for anyone who is curious, I bought my food processor in 2007 (using wedding gift money from my aunt and uncle. Thank you, Terry kaku and Prasad kaka...I think of you every time I use the food processor which is several times a week). Mine is a KitchenAid 9 cup KFP740. I have not checked whether this model is still available. Companies tend to keep retiring models and coming up with new and hopefully improved ones. All these years later, I am very happy with my purchase. 

The two best known food processor brands are KitchenAid and Cuisinart and they are very comparable. The standard full sized food processors have a 12 cup or 14 cup capacity, and they have powerful motors. A smaller capacity food processor takes less space but has a concomitantly less powerful motor. With a 9 cup processor, I feel like I have the best of both worlds- compact but powerful. I would really suggest not going smaller than that, because the processor is just not going to be heavy-duty enough. The 9 cup size is just right for my needs with a small family. If you cook larger quantities, a 12 or 14 cup may be more appropriate. Magazines like Consumer Reports and Cook's Illustrated often do independent tests comparing food processors and it might be a good idea to look there for recommendations of particular models.

In an Indian kitchen, grinding is a BIG DEAL. Between the dry masalas and the wet masalas and the batters, there's much pulverizing going on. I don't own an Indian style mixie which is the usual workhorse for that kind of thing so my food processor gets used for grinding everything except idli/dosa batter (the stone grinder does that) and dry spices (I have a coffee grinder for that) and soups and smoothies (that's the job for the immersion blender). By the way, I make liberal off-label use of my coffee grinder as a mini wet grinder too. Much of Lila's baby food gets made in there. But if you decide to follow my bad example, do so at your own risk.

Yes, if you're counting, that makes it several different gadgets but each one is loved and used a great deal. I'm a use-it-or-lose-it kinda gal. In this case, it means that any thing that I own and don't use regularly gets tossed out (which is to say donated to the thrift store or sold on Craigslist) ruthlessly.

What do I use my food processor for? 
1. Kneading dough: the food processor makes excellent roti/paratha dough (like this one for rajma parathas) and pizza dough. I have used it in the past to make pie dough but these days I make pie dough by hand and it is better with less clean up. 
2. Chopping nuts and making dry nut chutneys like this peanut chutney
3. Shredding vegetables: You can make a huge and tasty koshimbir (mixed Indian salad) in a couple of minutes flat with the shredder disc. Or shred the veggies for kheer instead. This is especially true when shredding hard vegetables like raw beets and carrots. I'm wimpy and my wrists ache after the second carrot. I regularly shred potatoes for potato par eeda
4. Shredding cheese: Vast amounts can be shredded with a flick of the button for casseroles, enchiladas etc. 
5. Purees and Dips such as hummus, spinach dip and salsas.
7. Wet masalas, especially onion-tomato purees for rajma and other curries.
8. Finally, some miscellaneous recipes use the food processor such as this vegan thumbprint cookie recipe that many of my friends are just. crazy. about.

If you own a food processor, what are your favorite ways of using it? 

Last week, I used the food processor to make a quick and tasty roasted red pepper pesto. I found large sweet red peppers on sale and roasted them myself on the flame (the way we roast globe eggplants to make bharta). That's a bit more time consuming and messier than buying jarred red peppers but it was the weekend and I had a few extra minutes. The smoky taste was well worth it.

Roasted Red Pepper Nut Pesto 
In a food processor, add the following and process until smooth, drizzling extra virgin olive oil as required:
  • 3 roasted and peeled large red bell peppers (remove seeds and stem)
  • 1 roasted and peeled jalapeno pepper (or red pepper flakes to taste)
  • 1 large fresh tomato
  • 1/2 cup roasted walnuts
  • 1/4 cup raw cashews (that have been soaked for 15 minutes in warm water)
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • Salt to taste

While making the pesto, I also sauteed some zucchini, onions, corn etc. The mixed vegetables and pesto were used in two different dishes. The first night I made a big pasta salad with whole wheat spirals, pesto, vegetables and parmesan cheese. The second night we made wraps using the pesto as a spread and the vegetables as a filling.

Trish, the blogger over at Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity took on the challenge of using her food processor in several different ways and came up with this fun post. Check it out for many more ideas on making the best use of your food processor.

This blogger is also hosting an event on her blog called Pin It and Do It: A Pinteresting challenge. Are any of you on Pinterest? It is a website that allows you to "pin" images onto virtual pinboards so you can collect your ideas and inspiration in one spot. I have been using Pinterest to bookmark all sorts of recipes that I want to make, books that I want to read and clever craft ideas that I want to try. The Pin It and Do It challenge is fairly straightforward: don't just collect pins, use them and try the ideas for yourself.

I am a fan of Pinterest as long as everyone follows basic rules of etiquette by (a) crediting the source of the pin, (b) verifying the original source before pinning (eg. not just pinning an image from Google Images) and (c) not lifting sections of the source's text into the pin's textbox (eg. copying the recipe into the pin). I promise to use these rules while pinning images from other blogs/websites and would appreciate it very much if others used them when pinning images from this blog. As long as you play by the rules, pin away from One Hot Stove if you want to.

My first entry for the Pinteresting Challenge: Last week, Lila had her last day at the daycare that looked after her lovingly 5 days a week since she was a bitty 3 month old. I wanted to give a small gift to her teachers and my favorite way of showing love and gratitude is with handmade gifts, so I bought plain cotton bags online and decorated them with each teacher's monogram.

My original pin is here and the tutorial is here from the blog Under the Sycamore. It is such an easy and clever idea, using paper doilies as stencils and some fabric paint to make these personalized gifts. I used freezer paper stencils for the letters.

I'm adding this post to the Pin It and Do It link-up. If you are on Pinterest, will you share your user name in the comments? I'd love to see what you're pinning! 

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Curry Mixes and Quick Fixes

In the last few weeks, I wrote over a dozen blog posts. But no one ever got to read them because they were all written in my head. There was that one little step - the actual sitting down and typing- which I never did find the time for, and hence those posts never saw the light of day, or the glow of your computer screen.

Well, August is here and it brings some big changes to my life. In preparation for our out-of-state move, I resigned from my job and Tuesday was my last day. Lila and I are adjusting to a new routine and I am trying to cross off things from a long and ever-growing to-do list.

Last month when life was more hectic than usual, I got to use every time-saving tool, trick and technique in the home cook's arsenal. One of these tricks is to use commercial spice pastes occasionally. I am passionate about cooking from scratch and equally passionate about not letting perfection get in the way of a good meal. So this post is a little nod of appreciation to good quality commercial spice pastes where you just add vegetables (lots and lots of them) and some pantry staples to make a wonderful meal.

I promise that I have no affiliation with any of the brand names I mention in this post. I'm a happy customer and that's about it.

The first is Parampara brand biryani paste which comes in a little packet. A dear friend (and ex-neighbor) was in town with her family, including her in-laws and I invited them all over for lunch. My friend's in-laws are from the deep Southern US and this was the very first time her mother in law was tasting Indian food. No pressure or anything! With only a couple of short hours to pull the meal together, I made a short-cut biryani as the main dish. To my intense relief, all the guests ate seconds, seemed to enjoy the meal and I believe we may have a couple of new fans of Indian food.

Vegetable Egg Biryani 
(using a packaged spice paste)

This recipe makes a 9 x 13 tray, enough for 6 to 8 servings.
1. Rice: Rinse and cook 2 cups Basmati rice in a rice cooker or on the stove top in salted water until it is just tender. Stir in 1 tbsp. ghee and spread the rice out to cool.
2. Vegetables: Saute 6 to 8 cups of mixed vegetables until tender. I used summer squash and mushrooms cut into hearty chunks. Any of these will also work: carrots, cauliflower, peas, green beans, broccoli, zucchini, peppers. To the vegetables, add 1 packet Parampara biryani paste. Stir well to get the paste uniformly mixed in (you may find it helpful to mix in the paste with some warm water first). Stir fry for a few minutes and turn off the heat. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.
3. Other additions (optional): Chop a handful each of fresh cilantro and mint. Shallow fry one sliced onion, or use a handful of store-bought fried onions. Boil 6 eggs, then peel and quarter them.
4. Assembly: Grease a 9 x 13 baking dish with some ghee. Layer half the rice evenly. Add the entire vegetable mixture and spread evenly. Scatter the eggs. Sprinkle with herbs. Add the other half of the cooked rice and spread evenly. Top with fried onions if using. Cover with foil or oven safe lid and bake for 45 minutes at 350 F. Alternatively, if you want to avoid firing up the oven, make the layers in a dutch oven or large pan and finish the biryani on the stove top, covered, on low heat.

Palak Chana (Spinach & Chickpeas) 
(using a packaged spice paste)

1. Soak 1.5 cups dried chickpeas overnight. Rinse and pressure cook them until tender.
2. Heat 2 tsp. oil.
3. Add 1 packet frozen chopped spinach or 1 lb. chopped fresh spinach and stir fry for a few minutes.
4. Add 1 packet Parampara chole paste and stir well.
5. Add the cooked chickpeas and enough water to make a curry (thick or thin, however you prefer it).
6. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Taste and adjust salt if necessary.

Serve with rice or rotis or bread, lemon wedges and a tomato-onion salad.

Another quick weekday dinner in my home: With a can of Thai curry paste (I like Maesri) and a can of coconut milk (Chaokoh is a favorite), it is so easy to put together a delicious Thai-inspired curry that includes whatever fresh or frozen vegetables are on hand.

She Simmers is an excellent blog on Thai home cooking that I stumbled upon quite recently. In particular, this essay on Thai curry pastes is worth a read. The blogger explains why she uses commercial curry pastes, saying "unless you have all of the fresh herbs and spices required to make authentic and traditional Thai curry pastes, you're better off using commercial curry pastes than trying to make do with ill-advised substitutes." Now I feel much better about using canned Thai curry pastes. The green curry paste is a particular favorite but we enjoy most of them.

Thai-Inspired Vegetable Curry

1. Heat a couple of teaspoons of oil.
2. Saute 6 cups or so of mixed vegetables.
3. Add 1 can curry paste and 1 can coconut milk.
4. Add cubes of tofu (optional).
5. Simmer.
6. Taste and adjust flavor using salt, lemon juice and sugar.

Add herbs (cilantro/mint) if available and serve on rice or quinoa.

I would not be surprised at all if the local Thai restaurants that I like to frequent use these very same curry pastes. The taste is so similar and so good for something that comes out of a can. And that's my story of how sometimes using packaged ingredients can save dinner and be a excellent alterative to getting take-out.

Do you use any commercial spice pastes? What are your favorites?

On The Bookshelf

Our friends who also have a small baby recently asked me how on earth I find time to read. I don't know what to say except that I need to read. In busy periods, it can take me weeks to finish a book that would normally take a day. But I find time to read a few pages every day no matter what else is going on in my life- it is necessary for my mental health.

This is what I have been reading this past month. None of these books are light and fluffy (and my two sentence descriptions probably sound very bleak) but I really enjoyed each one.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, Ina Rilke (translator): A slim, magical tale about teenage boys exiled to a remote and poor village during the Cultural Revolution. Their love for books and the need to keep it a secret leads them to adventures.

In The Woods by Tana French: A cozy mystery this is not. It is a richly written and quite unsettling psychological thriller about a detective who faced a horrific trauma in his childhood and is back in the same place to investigate another murder.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler: A very engaging family drama that follows the lives of three siblings who are raised by a bitter and angry mother after their father deserts the family. Anna Tyler has a remarkable talent for describing ordinary people and inconsequential everyday things in a way to captivates the reader. I also enjoyed her book Breathing Lessons.

Bad Animals: A Father's Accidental Education in Autism by Joel Yanofsky: Yanofsky is brutally candid, angry, tender and loving as he describes the challenges of parenting a son with autism. A must read memoir.

And I continued reading my beloved Precious Ramotswe series with The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party and just borrowed the latest The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection from the library yesterday.

Are you reading anything fun this summer? See you very soon (I promise..)