Nani paneer (paneer with half moons)

onion11The name of this recipe is not a poor translation, but is my way of making the original name of this recipe, paneer do pyaza (or “two onion” paneer) sound more appealing. I’m not sure if I succeeded. 

Monikers aside, this is one of my favorite paneer dishes, something my Nani enjoyed, and which I will always associate with lunches in her house.  Although heavy on the onions, this is not a pungent dish.  Rather, the onions are slowly caramelized and intended to impart a sweetness to the dish, which goes very nicely against the black pepper.  I also love the way these onion skins look in this boat shape.  For those of you who hate chopping onions, the shape of the onions here mean very little chopping, and hopefully, few to no tears.  This recipe is delicious with naan, paratha, or roti.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Serves: 2

Ingredients

For the onion half moons:

1 tsp. canola oil

1 yellow onion, cut into quarters (like so), and then each layer of skin removed.

onions1 tsp. sugar

Pinch of salt

For the paneer:

1 tsp. vegetable/canola oil

2 green cardamom pods

1 bay leaf

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1 green chilli, chopped

1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped

2 roma tomatoes

1 tsp. coriander powder

1/2 tsp. turmeric powder

1 tsp. garam masala

1 tsp. red chili powder

1 tsp. black pepper (preferably freshly ground)

100 gms (3 oz.) paneer (preferably home made), cut into cubes

1 tbsp. ginger-garlic paste (or 2 garlic gloves and 1″ ginger, mashed in a mortar and pestle)

1/4 cup warm water

Handful of coriander leaves (for garnish)

Salt to taste

  1. First, start on the onion half moons. Place a saucepan, with 1 tsp. oil, on low heat.  Chop one yellow onion into quarters and remove the skins.  Place the skins into the pan, along with a pinch of salt and 1 tsp. sugar and let the onions soften on low heat.  Shake the pan occasionally to make sure that the skins don’t burn.  Once the onions are softened and gently charred on the edges, turn off the heat (about 10 minutes).onions2
  2. In the meantime, chop 1/2 a yellow onion and one roma tomato. onions3
  3. In another pan, add 1 tsp. oil. and put the pan on medium heat.  When the oil is hot, add the cumin seeds, cardamom pods, and bay leaf.  When the cumin seeds start sizzling, add the green chilli, half the chopped onion, and the ginger-garlic paste.  Add a pinch of salt and cook the onions for about two minutes, until softened. onions6
  4. Add the chopped tomato, along with the spices (turmeric powder, coriander powder, red chilli powder, black pepper and garam masala).  Stir everything well.  When the mixture starts getting dry, add 1/4 cup warm water and cook for another 3-4 minutes, until the spices are well blended.   onions7
  5. Add in the caramelized onions and mix everything together. 
  6. Cut the paneer into cubes and gently fold them into the onion and tomato gravy.  Mix everything well.onion9
  7. Garnish with coriander leaves.

onion10Serve and enjoy!

Paneer from scratch

It’s hard not to love paneer–the Indian ricotta–unless you’re vegan of course, in which case you have my eternal gratitude for making the world a better place.  While paneer is readily available in most Indian groceries, it comes frozen and loses some of its texture by the time it gets to you. By contrast, homemade paneer is remarkably soft, silky, and fresh. I’m a huge fan. It’s also very easy and quick to make, requiring just a couple of ingredients: a muslin cheese cloth, some white vinegar (or lemon juice) and whole milk (preferably organic). The photos for this are not going to be very pretty, but the results will be! This recipe makes about 200 grams of paneer (about 7 oz).  What you don’t use, you can wrap in plastic and keep in the fridge for up to a week.

paneer1

Prep time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

1 cheese cloth

A large strainer

½ gallon whole milk (preferably organic)

1/3 cup lemon juice or distilled white vinegar

A pinch of salt

Heat the milk on high heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir occasionally to make sure that the milk doesn’t stick to the bottom. In the meantime, fold your cheese cloth in half and place on top of a strainer.

paneer2

When the milk starts bubbling and rising up, turn the heat down to low.

Add the lemon juice, pinch of salt, and stir once or twice.  Let the mixture stand for 10 minutes. You’ll see curdles or chunks forming as the whey and cheese separate.

paneer3

Strain everything into the cheese cloth, letting the whey drain out, preferably in a pot under the strainer (There are many uses for leftover whey and its packed full of nutrients, so you could keep it, if you want.   Here are some ideas: http://www.theprairiehomestead.com/2011/06/16-ways-to-use-your-whey.html).

paneer4

Squeeze out any excess water. Place a heavy pot, such as a dutch oven, on top of the cheese cloth and let sit. Leave this to sit for another 10-15 minutes.

paneer5

Gently squeeze out any water from the cheese cloth and gently flip over the brick of paneer.  Its ready to use!

paneer6

paneer7

Ful medames (Stewed fava beans)

Driving home one day from a cafe, my partner and I noticed a new Middle Eastern market which has opened up in what is fast becoming the Durham Muslim community’s hub (yay! finally!).  It was spring break, and with time on our hands, we decided to stop and browse.  My partner, who lived for some time in Jerusalem, was thrilled.  Though the selection of fresh vegetables was limited, we loaded up on lots of other goodies: a sturdy jug of Lebanese olive oil for $10, bulgur wheat (in lots of different sizes), fava beans, eggplant spread, pickled labneh, tahini, fresh pita…. There is also halal meat available, for nonveggies. 

I’ve been having a Middle Eastern spell lately, and this morning, I created my version of Ful Medames – a super easy, fast, delicious, and healthy breakfast.  It takes about 10 minutes and is fantastic with some pita bread, warmed and slightly crisped in the oven, and some soft or hard boiled eggs.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Serves: 2

Ingredients

1 can fava beans, drained and rinsed

1 clove garlic, grated or mashed

Juice of half a lemon

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 tsp. cumin powder

1 tsp. cayenne pepper

Bunch of parsley, finely chopped

  1.  Drain and rinse the fava beans well under cold running water.  Place the beans in a pot and cover them with water (there should be at least 1″ more water than beans). Bring the water and beans to a boil on medium heat.  Let the beans boil for about 8 minutes, until soft.
  2. While the beans are boiling, mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl.
  3. Transfer the beans into the bowl and mix well.
  4. Using a fork, lightly mash the fava beans, making sure to leave some unmashed, so that you have different textures.
  5. Serve with pita/bread and/or some eggs!

fulmedames

Malaysian Coconut Curry (with okra chips)

I don’t know about you, but no matter the weather, my craving for Southeast Asian food – sweet, sour, hot, and spicy flavors – is always strong. There’s something about being jolted out of the dullness of the heat and humidity with a bowl of steaming pho or, in this case, being warmed up on a cold winter day with a spicy, sweet and sour Malaysian curry.

Malaysian cuisine, highly underrated and woefully absent in the US (at least outside of urban centers), is usually described as a mix of Chinese, Indian, and Thai flavors. However, there’s nothing derivative here; the fact that this curry is balanced and entirely distinctive speaks to its sophistication. Believe in the harmony of turmeric, tamarind, coriander powder, and soy sauce!  Having said that, I have no idea how “authentically” Malaysian this curry actually is. My dear and talented foodie friend, Tim, first gave me this recipe, along with Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. However, I have made several adjustments, mostly to turn up the flavors.

This thick, delicious, golden curry is perfect with a bowl of white or brown rice.  Today, I paired it with okra chips, which were a perfect complement (recipe here).  My friend stef, who is vegan, gave me a photography lesson today and joined us for lunch–so plus point, both recipes are also vegan. These photos are a product of their gentle but precise direction.

malaysiancurryraw

 

curryokra

Serves: 2
Total prep. and cooking time: half an hour

Ingredients:

2 tbsp. vegetable/canola oil
½ red or white onion, sliced in half moons
2 tbsp. chopped garlic
2 tbsp. ginger
1 can coconut milk (400 ml. or approx. 13 oz.)
1 cup warm water
1 box firm tofu (preferably pressed or the firmest you can find)
1 tbsp. tamarind paste (you can add more after tasting)
1 tbsp. light soy sauce
2 tsp. Madras curry powder
2 tsp. coriander powder
2 tsp. red chili powder
1 tsp. turmeric powder
2 tsp. light brown sugar or palm sugar
1 roma tomato, chopped
1 scallion stalk, finely chopped
Chopped cilantro (a handful)
1 lime, cut in wedges

  1.  If using tofu that is in water, remove the tofu from the container and using a few paper towels, gently press down to release any extra water. Cut the tofu into 1” cubes.
  2. Put 1 tbsp. of oil in a pan on medium heat.
  3. Once the oil is hot, slide your tofu cubes into a sauté or sauce pan. You want to gently sear or brown them on both sides. After about 2-3 minutes, check to see if they are browned and turn them over to sear them on the other side. (If you are using pressed tofu from an Asian grocery store, you can skip this step).
  4. In a wok, add 1 tbsp. vegetable oil.  When the oil is hot, add the onion and a pinch of salt, and cook, until the onions start to brown (about 2-3 minutes).
  5. Add the garlic and the white parts of the scallions to the pan with the onions and saute for 30 seconds.
  6. Pour in the coconut milk along with 1 cup of warm water. Once the mixture starts boiling, turn down the heat slightly, to a gentle simmer. Add the tamarind paste, sugar, Madras curry powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, and red chili powder. Add the seared tofu as well.
  7. Using a grater or zest, grate about 2 tbsp. of ginger directly into the curry.
  8.  After about ten minutes, add in the soy sauce and chopped tomatoes.  At this point, taste the curry and adjust the spices as per your taste. Add more tamarind if necessary.
  9. Cook for another 2 minutes, until the tomatoes soften slightly, but they should still look fresh and brightly red against the golden, thickened curry.
  10. Add the green part of the scallions and chopped cilantro. Turn off the heat.
  11. Serve with brown or white rice and a wedge of lemon on the side.

Okra chips

A lot has been written and said about kale chips (2014 was apparently the year of kale), but I strongly recommend giving okra chips a try. I know some people don’t like the slimy quality that okra sometimes has, but by frying it, you change its texture completely.  These chips are crunchy, crispy, salty–the perfect replacement for a potato chips craving (I have a lot of those).  The chaat masala (easily available at any Indian grocery store) and squeeze of lemon at the end add a salty and sour note which make this the perfect snack, appetizer, or side dish.  From start to finish, your chips will be ready in 15 minutes. Eat ’em hot.

bhindi

bhindifry

friedokra
A squeeze of lemon at the end and a few coriander leaves, et voila.

Serves: 2

Prep time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

2 cups vegetable oil (for frying)

4 cups okra, sliced lengthwise, and then halved

2 tbsp. chickpea flour

1 tbsp. chaat masala

1 tsp. coriander powder

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. turmeric powder

Squeeze of lemon

Coriander leaves (for garnish)

  1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat up 2 cups of vegetable oil.
  2. Cut the okra in half, lengthwise, and then into half again, as shown in image 1.
  3. Mix the chickpea flour, chaat masala, coriander powder, salt, and turmeric powder together, and then pour over the okra.  Mix well.
  4. When the oil is hot, add about half your okra mixture in.  Fry for about 2-3 minutes, until the okra turn brown.
  5. Using a slotted spoon, remove the okra from the pan and transfer to a paper towel, to let the excess oil drain.
  6. Repeat with the remaining okra.
  7. Once the oil has drained, add a little more chaat masala on top, a squeeze of lemon, and garnish with coriander leaves.  Serve immediately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easy Peasy Creamy Dal

I’m excited to write my first post by request.

“I can’t get dal quite right,” my friend Nandini said one recent afternoon, as we shared a lunch of veggie burgers and salad.   My eyes widened.  I think I mumbled something about the magic of the pressure cooker. She said something about its scary whistle.

It has taken me years to get dal right—that deceptively simple staple in every north Indian household. I wholeheartedly agree that pressure cookers are kind of scary. But after having bought one and using it regularly, I can tell you that it is totally worth it and only a little scary, and that too, only in the beginning.  Don’t let this baby intimidate you. You get used to the whistling sound pretty quickly, and then it stops being quite so alarming. Pressure cookers, in my humble view, are one of the best kitchen gadgets a person can own. Mine is similar to this one, which has an easy button that you slide down to click it open or closed, with two settings (1 and 2—I always use 1, the lower setting). Also, as I have learned from many-a- Top-Chef episode, pressure cookers are fantastic for braising meats, so definitely a worthwhile investment. Best of all, the pressure cooker enables your dal to be ready in a mere thirty minutes total, including prep time. It takes 5 minutes to chop up your ingredients and another 5 to sauté them, put the lid on and let your dal cook for twenty minutes and voila!

After years of frustration , I promise that you will not be able to replicate the creaminess of a pressurized dal using an ordinary pot. The pressure simply breaks down the lentils so that the entire mixture is smooth and the dal and water have literally become one. There are few things better in life than some steaming rice soaking up creamy dal, with a side of lemon or mango pickle. Heaven.

PS—The secret of my dal recipe is the squeeze of lemon at the end. Lemon with Indian food is a must; it really brings out the flavors. This will make a great soup for lunch, or served on top of rice makes a truly complete meal.

dal2

Prep time: 30 minutes

Serves: 2

Ingredients

1 tbsp. vegetable oil

1 dried red chili

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1 medium yellow/red onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp. ginger-garlic paste (or 1” fresh ginger and about 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped)

1 roma tomato, chopped

1 cup red lentils

1 tsp. turmeric powder

1 tsp. coriander powder

1 tsp. red chili powder (optional)

8 cups of warm water

1 tsp. salt

Squeeze of lemon

Cilantro, for garnish

  1. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in the pressure cooker on medium heat. When the oil is hot, swirl it in the pot and add the red chili and cumin seeds. When the cumin seeds start to sizzle, add in the chopped onion (The onions will start to brown the bottom of the pressure cooker – don’t worry – this will be deglazed once you pour in the warm water.)
  2. Add a pinch of salt to the onions and sauté until brown, about 3 minutes. Add in the garlic, ginger, and chopped tomato. Saute for another minute.
  3. Add in the red lentils and water and gently stir everything together.
  4. Add the turmeric powder, salt, coriander powder, and red chili powder, if using. Mix everything together.
  5. Put the pressure cooker lid on. Your stove should be on medium heat and you should use the lower pressure cooker setting. If you don’t have multiple settings on your pressure cooker, just time the whistles.  Once the whistle goes off, cook the dal for 15-20 minutes.
  6. Remove the lid, squeeze in some lemon. Taste for salt. Garnish with cilantro and serve!

 

 

 

 

Breakfast in a Jiffy

Poha is a super easy, very delicious, and highly transportable breakfast dish (makes a great packed lunch). It’s great when you are not in the mood for eggs or bread, but want something savory. Imagine this as a South Indian version of fried rice. The main ingredient is flattened or pressed rice – poha – which is jazzed up with curry leaves, mustard seeds, red onion, turmeric, coriander leaves, and a nice bright acidic kick at the end, which brings the flavors to life. What I love about this dish is also that, unlike many Indian recipes, the different elements remain distinct, making it visually appealing, which is, as we all know, more than half the battle with food. I’m also amazed at how quickly this dish can be ready. This does not take more than 15 minutes to make, from start to finish.

PS—You can see that I used a wok to make this, but feel free to use any large saucepan or frying pan. I will extol the virtues of a wok in some other post…

poha dagdi
This is not the prettiest picture, but I just wanted to show you what uncooked poha looks like
poha2
A few of my favorite things: red chilies, curry leaves, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and peanuts

poha3

POHA, OR FRIED RICE, SOUTH INDIAN STYLE 

Prep time: 15 minutes

Serves: 2

Ingredients

3 cups poha (flattened rice)

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

1 medium red/yellow potato

2 red chilies, dried

1 tsp. mustard seeds

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1 tbsp. channa (chickpea) dal

1 stem curry leaves

¼ cup peanuts

Asafetida, a pinch

1 tsp. turmeric powder

1 small red onion, cut into half moons

1 cup green peas (optional)

Bunch of coriander/cilantro leaves

Juice of ½ lemon

Salt – to taste

  1. Put the potato in a saucepan, cover with water and boil until soft, about 10 minutes.
  2. In the meantime, put your poha in a large bowl and wash with cold water as you would rice.  Keep rinsing the poha until the water goes from starchy to clear (this will take a few rinses). Strain the water and gently press the poha—don’t squeeze it—to release the remaining water. Transfer the poha to another bowl.
  3. Heat oil in a large saucepan or wok on medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the red chilies, mustard seeds, and cumin seeds.
  4. When you hear the mustard and cumin seeds crackle, add the curry leaves, channa dal, peanuts, and pinch of asafetida and sauté for another minute.
  5. Add the red onion, turmeric powder, and a pinch of salt and sauté for another two minutes.
  6. Once the onions start browning, add the poha into the pan. Mix everything together and lower the heat. Taste and adjust salt if necessary. Add your peas, if you are using them and mix everything together once more.
  7. In the meantime, remove the potato from the boiling water. Once it has cooled, cut it into cubes. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a separate small saucepan and sauté the potato, until the skin crisps up (about 2-3 minutes).
  8. Add the potato to your poha mixture. Turn off your stove.
  9. Squeeze juice of half a lemon on top of the poha mixture. Garnish with a bunch of coriander leaves. Serve with a slice of lemon.

 

 

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

onionssambhar

 

dalsambhar

sambharontable

sambharrice

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

tofumushroomfinal3

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.