Lazy Saturday Sambhar

Aside from being with my family, one of the things I miss most about Delhi is a South Indian restaurant called Sagar, in my neighborhood market (Many neighborhoods—or “colonies” in Delhi speak—have their own little shopping markets). Sagar, a veritable culinary institution as far as I’m concerned, has remained remarkably unchanged in the twenty or so years since my family has been eating there (a weekly culinary expedition started by my grandmother, who was a huge fan of dosas, South Indian savory crepes usually with a spicy potato filling). Yes, the prices have crawled up, but Sagar is still very affordable. The restaurant has a no-frills approach (despite occasional menu revamps) to food and produces consistently delicious dishes. I must have eaten there hundreds of times, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad meal. Best of all, the flavors never seem to change, and I love the sense of security that comes with that.

With your idli, dosa, uttapam, or thali, you receive unlimited bowls of coconut chutney, a spicy tomato chutney, and steaming, sippable bowls of sambar. In Durham, unable though I am to fully recreate the Sagar experience, I have, nonetheless developed a sambhar recipe that I think has some capacity to transport its consumer to Def. Col. Market.

This dish does require a trip to the Indian store, but I think it’s worth it. My shortcut is buying already-mixed sambhar powder, rather than making my own (you also get sambhar paste at Indian groceries, which also works fine here. Just follow the same steps). Sambhar powder is a combination of coriander seeds, turmeric, cumin, red chillis, salt, fenugreek seeds, black pepper, brown mustard seeds, cassia, dried ginger, large cardamom seeds, nutmeg, cloves, mace, caraway, and asafetida. Phew! So rather than assembling all of those spices on your own (which is of course highly enjoyable and fun, but time consuming), I recommend buying the powder as is. It smells fragrant (from the cloves, nutmeg and cardamom seeds) and has a lovely marigold color. The key to this dish is to “fry” the sambhar powder to release all the oils in the spices. If you don’t fry the sambhar powder, the curry will have a raw flavor to it.

Easy Sambhar is another one of my one-pot meals. It’s delicious with white or brown rice or with idlis. You want the sambhar to be a bit watery—more like a soup than a stew. It should taste tangy, sour, and spicy, but the level of chili is up to you. This can be very mild or very spicy hot, depending on your own personal taste preferences.

Mustard seeds are one of the stars of this show...
Mustard seeds are one of the stars of this show…
My bruised and well-loved packet of sambhar masala
My bruised and well-loved packet of sambhar masala

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EASY SAMBHAR

Prep. time: 1 hour

Servcs: 2

Ingredients

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 dry red chili (more, if you like)
5 curry leaves (dry or fresh)
1 pinch asafetida
½ onion, cut into slim half-moons
1 roma tomato, chopped
½ cup red lentils
8 tsp. sambhar powder (I know it sounds like a lot but that is what you need to make the flavors pop)
1 tbsp. tamarind concentrate (I’ve found that tamarind concentrate varies quite a lot depending on what brand you buy. I recommend starting off with 1 tbsp. but feel free to add more as you go along)
8 cups boiling water
1 medium white or red potato, chopped into 1” pieces
1 carrot, cut into 1” rounds
½ pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 2” pieces
½ tsp. salt
Coriander leaves (as garnish, optional)

  1. Put some water to boil. In the meantime, heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan on medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds, dried red chili, curry leaves, and tiny pinch of asafetida. Once the mustard seeds start sputtering, add the onion. Add a pinch of salt and sauté until the onions are brown, about 3-4 minutes (You can sprinkle a few drops of water if you feel that the onions are dry and may burn).
  2. Add the tomato, sambhar powder and ½ cup of water. Stir the mixture into a paste. Saute for 3-4 minutes, until the powder has fully dissolved (the texture should be creamy, not grainy).
  3. Add the rest of the water, red lentils, potatoes, and tamarind concentrate and bring to a simmer.
  4. Simmer on low heat, uncovered for 20 minutes, until lentils dissolve and the curry thickens. Add salt, taste, and adjust spices as necessary. Periodically check the mixture to make sure its not too dry. Add a bit of water if necessary.
  5. Add the carrot and simmer for another 5 minutes.
  6. Add beans and simmer for 5 minutes. Garnish with coriander leaves, if you like.
  7. Serve with rice.

A Hoisin Feast for a Chilly Night

I love hoisin sauce, and this dish is an homage to hoisin.  This soupy bowl of goodness is so satisfying, and its a great thing to make when you are feeling slightly under the weather—like me tonight—when the prospect of pho, my go-to in times of illness, might not be within reach.  Its also perfect on a slightly chilly night, or a day, like today, when the skies drizzled feebly and nonstop.

I had the good fortune of taking a trip to the Asian grocery store (Li Ming) this past weekend and was able to pick up some of my favorite ingredients, including black dried mushrooms and pressed tofu.

dried mushrooms
I love that the brand of mushrooms is “gorgeous memory”

tofu

I know it doesn’t look like much now, but mushrooms and tofu are not the most attractive raw ingredients…

soaking mushrooms
Mushrooms in their soaking liquid

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TOFU AND MUSHROOMS IN HOISIN SAUCE

(Adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)

Prep and cooking time: 40 minutes

Serves: 2 (with leftovers)

Ingredients

2 dozen dried Chinese black mushrooms

1 block firm tofu, drained and pressed to remove any excess water or 1 block pressed tofu

3 tbsp. sesame oil

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

8 oz., white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Salt

Mushroom-soaking water

¼ cup rice wine vinegar

4 heaping tbsp. hoisin sauce

1 tbsp. soy sauce

1 small tomato, chopped

3 scallions, chopped at a diagonal

  1. Put water on to boil. Once its boiled, pour it over the dried mushrooms, cover and soak for about twenty minutes.
  2. In the meantime, drain the water from the tofu and press with paper towels to remove any excess water. Cut the tofu into cubes and fry in 1 tbsp. sesame oil in a sauté pan. You want to sear both sides of the tofu, so that the texture is firm with a crunchy crust. (You can skip this step if you have pressed tofu).
  3. Heat a wok or deep pan, add 1 tbsp. sesame oil and swirl it around the sides. When it’s hot, add the garlic and stir fry for about thirty seconds, until fragrant. Add the white and dried mushrooms (save the water) and ½ tsp. of salt and stir fry for two minutes, until the mushrooms soften.
  4. Add the mushroom water and bring to a simmer. Once it’s simmering, add the vinegar, hoisin sauce, sesame oil (1 tbsp.), and soy sauce. Add the tofu cubes, stir everything together, and let simmer for five minutes.
  5. Add the chopped tomato, simmer for another minute, and turn off the heat.
  6. Garnish with scallions and serve with brown or white rice, or on its own.

Going Analog

The (re)turn to analog has taken the food, music, art, and culture scene by storm. The massive popularity of analog synthesizers in electronic music has its, well, analog, in cooking as well, with artisanal edibles, the turn to canning, the move to slow cooking, etc. The movement has its critics—it can be elitist, bourgeois, and obnoxious. These things bother me as well, along with the fact that the basic contradiction that DIY, back-to-basics, Etsy things cost a fortune and ultimately rest on increased consumption. (This is, of course, nothing new, and speaks to the way capitalism hungrily incorporates its own critiques. See the history of punk). At the same time, the base impulse—the desire to return to simplicity, freshness, and homemade things—seems not entirely unworthy.

I’ve been reluctant to make hummus from scratch (i.e. the analog way), probably because, like you, I tried it a few times and it came out grainy, thick, and weirdly colored, and because its not atrociously expensive at the grocery store and is of passable (not great) quality, and because the only decent recipe I found called for removing the skins of individual chickpeas one by one and the thought of that made me want to put my eyes out. Thus, there is much in the ‘against making hummus at home, from scratch,’ column. I understand.

However, after impulsively buying a 5-kilo bag of chickpeas from the Indian store, I decided, with trepidation, to rethink my approach and to go for it. I found a recipe that was definitely analog by my standards, requiring 12 hours of foresight (the chickpeas have to be soaked overnight or all day), which is not usually how my cooking happens temporally speaking. However, the recipe saved me from shelling individual chickpea heads and for that, I was already grateful. That is, until I scooped up the luscious, creamy deliciousness that is—and can be—hummus. I couldn’t stop licking the spoon I used to scoop this up with. This is so, so, so good. A revelation.

hummus

 YOTAM OTTOLENGHI AND SAMI TAMIMI’S BASIC HUMMUS

From: http://food52.com/recipes/22888-yotam-ottolenghi-sami-tamimi-s-basic-hummus

Prep time: 12 hours+

Serves: 6

Ingredients

1 ¼ cup dried chickpeas

1 tsp. baking soda

6 ½ cups water

1 cup tahini

4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

4 cloves garlic, crushed

6 ½ tablespoons ice cold water

Salt

Good quality olive oil, to serve (optional)

Zatar, as garnish (optional)

  1. The night before, put the chickpeas in a large bowl and cover them with cold water at least twice their volume. Leave to soak overnight.
  2. The next day, drain the chickpeas. Place a medium saucepan over high heat and add the drained chickpeas and baking soda. Cook for about three minutes, stirring constantly. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cook, skimming off any foam and any skins that float to the surface. The chickpeas will need to cook for 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the type and freshness, sometimes even longer. Once done, they should be very tender, breaking up easily when pressed between your thumb and finger, almost but not quite mushy.
  3. Drain the chickpeas. You should have roughly 3 2/3 cups now. Place the chickpeas in a food processor and process until you get a stiff paste. Then, with the machine sill running, add the tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Finally, slowly drizzle in the ice water and allow it to mix for about five minutes, until you get a very smooth and creamy paste.
  4. Transfer the hummus to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes. If not using straightaway, refrigerate until needed. Make sure to take it out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before serving. Optionally, to serve, top with a layer of good quality olive oil. This hummus will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Shakshuka: a Middle Eastern Breakfast Delight

Shakshuka is one of those Middle Eastern recipes that is claimed by different ethnic communities across the region. According to Yotam Ottolenghi, the dish was created in Tunisia but was brought to Israel by Jewish communities. However, I’ve also heard that the dish originated in Yemen or Saudi Arabia.

The first time I ate shakshuka was in 2006, in the Sinai peninsula in northern Egypt, where Hani, our Bedouin host, served it for breakfast along with homemade tahini and hummus, pita bread, and guava juice. I loved–and still do–the simplicity and vibrancy of the dish, and its one of my favorite breakfast dishes of all time.

When I eat it, it still brings up memories of the Mars-like landscape of the Sinai peninsula and the simplicity of vacation time. That’s me, sleeping on the beach as the sun rises…

beachsinai

Yotam Ottolenghi has a recipe for shakshuka that is different from mine (he uses saffron and other ingredients, which I omitted here), but, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I find my version simpler and closer to what I remember from my experiences in Egypt.  But really, you can be flexible with what herbs you have on hand. Ottolenghi uses parsley and coriander, which works very well, but I love the combination of basil and coriander too.

I had the pleasure of procuring some beautifully bruised red and yellow peppers at the Farmer’s market today.  Shakshuka is the perfect showcase for them, not to mention a great way to wander back to a serene holiday.

Farmer's market produce
Farmer’s market produce
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Onion half moons frying


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shakshuka final

SHAKSHUKA

Serves: 2
Prep and cooking time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 tbsp. olive oil
4 eggs
1 white onion, cut in half moons
½ red pepper and ½ yellow pepper (or just one)
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp. cayenne pepper/red pepper flakes
Handful of basil
Handful of coriander
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a saucepan on medium heat.
  2. Add the onions with a pinch of salt and fry till yellow, about three minutes.
  3. Add the peppers and saute for another three minutes until softened.
  4. Add the tomatoes and cayenne pepper. Mix everything together. Add a tbsp. of water in case the mixture is dry. The texture should be thick and a bit wet – like a chunky pasta sauce. Add half of the coriander leaves and half of the basil leaves to the mixture.
  5. Once the tomatoes have softened, crack four eggs on top of the mixture, being careful not to break the yolks. Add a few grinds of black pepper and a dash of salt. Reduce the heat to low.
  6. Cover the pan and cook until the eggs are no longer wobbly, but the yolk is still runny (about four minutes) on low heat.
  7. Garnish with the remaining coriander and basil. Serve with pita or any good bread. Hummus (homemade if you can do it) is a great accompaniment!