Monday, March 31, 2014

Halubai/Halbai made easier - celebrating Ugadi with a traditional sweet from Karnataka

Happy New Year!!

Wondering why I am wishing a happy new year when the calendar is turning to month 4 in a day? New Year is celebrated on different days/months in different cultures and parts of the world. Where I come from, traditionally our festivals follow what is called as Chandramana calendar (based on the lunar months) and Ugadi is the beginning of new year, it is celebrated in the month Chaitra representing the beginning of Spring. Every year has a name and it is called 'Jaya' this time meaning 'victory'. I wish you all a wonderful year filled with many great victories. It is celebrated today in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra - three southern states in India. Personally for me Ugadi stands for tender green mango leaves adorning the front doors of every house, smell of raw, green mango chitranna and bele obbattu coming from the kitchen along with a serving of bevu-bella symbolizing the two facets of life :-). My bevu-bella has morphed into Ugadi pachadi ever since I got married (more flavors) but the rest of the menu remains pretty much same every year if I can pull it off.

Our local grocery stores ran out of green mangoes last evening, I saw many disappointed faces as I stopped for a quick shopping. I just turned a little smarter getting a mango a couple days ahead of time, honestly it as not planned :-). But the surprise package was the small packet of tiny white neem leaves nestled in a few inches of the stalk along with one or two tiny, green neem leaves. I got a packet too to add it into my Ugadi pachadi. With the sole mango I had reserved for the pachadi, I couldn't make the mango rice so switched to Puliyogare (recipe to follow) and as obbattu is already featured here on the blog :-), I chose to make a different sweet to celebrate the new year.
This funny sounding dish is from Karnataka (I haven't seen anything close to it in other regions, let me know otherwise) and is made either with rice, wheat or ragi while retaining the rest of the ingredients same. Nammamma makes this almost always with rice and that is our default setting too. We all love this dish very much. Very minimalist in the number of ingredients required, this dessert however is fit for an occasion when made well. Without a fancy face to put forward, this sweet has mostly remained in the confines of private homes (or the reason being the professional chefs can never get it right unlike the home cooks :-)), so you will not find it on the menu in any restaurants. If craving hits, you make it yourself and enjoy.

I have seen nammamma soak rice, grind, grind and grind some more of the coconut to extract milk, then grind, grind and grind more of the rice to eliminate any traces of the grain when you hold it in between fingers. I know I said grind multiple times, that was my way of emphasizing the grinding involved and the effort and time it took in the days when the kitchens were not equipped with high powered electrical blenders. Imagine doing this on a large scale, amma would be spending an entire day preparing the delicious halbai. Once the coconut milk was extracted and grinding done, the next phase is to reduce it to the required consistency by constantly stirring it on heat. This not only required a fair bit of patience but also a flexible wrist and some good muscle power in the arms. So when nammamma slipped and fell and had her right wrist broken, her first reaction was 'How will I ever make Halbai again' :-), funny priorities she has in life. But her hand healed well and she made many more halbais before finally retiring from the kitchen recently. I miss that texture and taste of her halbai, nothing can ever come close to that. The only reason I can think of for her astonishingly delicious, melt in the mouth halbai is her love in what she cooked and served.
Though I crave for that halbai beyond any words, I am still a lazy person unlike my mom and look for short cuts. When I asked for the recipe a while ago, she said that it takes a lot of time, so instead I should get the quick version from my sister :-), Since it was a referral from Amma, I made my next phone hop, pestered akka to give me her quick recipe though I have not tasted it myself. Surprise, surprise, I made it and it was a very satisfying Halbai though I will say this, "not what amma made". But BH who has indeed eaten this in nammamma's kitchen said it was a very close attempt. DD who doesn't remember eating ajji's halbai said it was very delicious. That is a confidence boost and here I am with a family certified recipe for a traditional halbai. Thanks G for the recipe.

A halubai/halbai is made with fresh coconut, jaggery, a little bit of rice and a tiny bit of ghee (clarified butter). When I introduce most of Indian mithai or burfis to my non Indian friends or colleagues, I say it is similar to fudge so they can relate it. However Halbai is not as firm as the other burfis we make, there is infact a word in Kannada called 'Baluku' - if I were to translate it without doing an injustice, it probably would be called 'swaying'. So if you held a piece of halbai at one edge with your finger tips, the rest of the piece should gently sway down without breaking into two, but it is a completely non-sticky piece unlike the halwa in Indian cooking. Hope I made the consistency clear with all that banter :-). The best part of halbai making is that it doesn't have a 'take me off the stove now or I am ruined' kind of consistency of the burfis, it will stay soft even if you go over a couple of minutes. If it is underdone and sticking to the knife, put it back on the stove and continue to stir.

Before you attempt making halbai, here is something really, really, really important (I am not trying to fill my page by repeating words though it may look like that, it is my feeble attempt at trying to drive home a point :-)). Use fresh coconut in this recipe, no canned coconut milk or reconstituted dry/desiccated coconut please. The short cut will just not cut here. Sometimes, jaggery tends to have impurities, if you do not get good quality jaggery, melt it on heat in a couple of spoons of water, strain it through a fine sieve and reserve the clean, melted jaggery for use in the recipe.
What do you need to make Halbai? 
Makes about 15-18 1 inch pieces
2 cups grated fresh coconut (fill the cup loosely)
4 Tbsp rice flour
1 cup grated jaggery/palm sugar
1.5 cups water
1/2 Tsp ghee
1/4 Tsp freshly ground cardamom powder
How do you make Halbai? 
  • Grind coconut with water into a very fine paste. Texture of your halbai is determined by how smooth this paste is. 
  • If you have the time and inclination, pass the ground mixture through a cheese cloth or a fine sieve and extract the milk from it. This is recommended.
  • Take the coconut milk in a pan (do not switch on the stove yet), add the rice flour and mix well to remove any lumps. The mixture will resemble a dosa batter at this stage. 
  • If you have good quality jaggery, you can pound them in a mortar & pestle and add it directly to the mixture at this time. Else, melt the jaggery in 2 Tbsp of water, sieve it to remove any impurities and add the sieved jaggery to the mixture. 
  • Prepare a plate (I use my steel plate, anything that can stand the heat and provides a flat surface to the halbai will work) by smearing a couple of drops of ghee on the surface. 
  • I like to add cardamom powder on top of the ghee so that my pieces get coated with the powder on their smooth surface (looks better in pictures :-)), you can sprinkle cardamom powder on top if you choose. 
  • Set the plate aside, add 1/2 Tsp ghee to the pan, switch on the stove and start stirring on low to medium heat. 
  • The quantities given here took me 30 minutes from start to finish once I switched on the stove. Side note: that mine is an electrical stove that takes a couple of minutes to heat up. 
  • The mixture starts to thicken and also change color gradually, do not rush the process, it needs to be done on low heat. 
  • After about 20 minutes, it becomes a blob and starts to leave the sides of the pan. 
  • At 25 minutes, you will see the minuscule half Tsp of ghee doing its magic and giving a shiny coat to the underneath of the blob. 
  • Watch the mixture at this stage, take a small blob, drop it on the plate and flatten it, if it doesn't stick to your fingers when you smoothen it, you are ready to switch off the stove. Else, continue for a few more minutes. 
  • Once done, pour the mixture into the prepared plate and flatten it to the desired thickness. Dip your hand lightly in water and smooth the top surface. 
  • Make markings to cut the piece with a sharp knife, let it cool down for about 10-15 minutes before cutting and separating the pieces. 
  • Enjoy the delicious, melt in the mouth Halbai. 

  • You will notice that there are no flavor agents other than cardamom here, that is to let coconut milk take center stage and play out. Do not add nutmeg, cloves etc that will overpower the halbai taste. 
  • I do not decorate or garnish the halbai with the usual dry fruits either, while it is not illegal to do it :-), it is just against the principle of Halbai. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Haagalakayi gojju - bitter gourd in a sesame flavored, tangy, spicy, slightly sweet sauce

Here I am today with one of my favorite vegetables cooked in my favorite way :-), this is nammamma's signature haagalakayi (bitter gourd) dish. I am sure I have professed my love for this bitter veggie on the blog here, here & here but I kept the best to later (not last, there are many other ways to cook this delicious veggie and I will introduce them to you over time). I know many people shy away from eating bitter gourd, it is an acquired taste but once you catch on, you are hooked and it is a never diminishing love story.
How many of you are readers? What kind of books do you read - fiction, non fiction, historical, scientific... I am so habituated to fall asleep only after reading some pages, no amount of web browsing brings me the kind of satisfaction and happiness that an old, wrinkled book in my hand does. Over the years, my taste in books have changed and the genre I read have morphed. I have some favorites that I go back to without fail after a decent gap :-). While in school, influenced heavily by nammamma's reading, I was a fan of Bengali literature. One of my uncles is well known in Kannada literary field and has translated a short stories collection from Bengali to Kannada. Most of these books were set in pre-independence India, of middle class or lower middle class struggles. Sharath chandra chattopadhyay was one of my favorite authors, it felt like all his women had strong characters and yet vulnerable in a very appealing sort of way. It must be my generation, I tried to feed the story to my 'Harry Potter' devouring daughter once and she had this incredulous look of disbelief about the story line on her face :-), I guess she just couldn't relate to it, not at her age atleast, either that or I made a very sorry attempt at bringing Sharat's novels to life by my limited imagination.

Why did I jump from bitter gourd to Sharat novels? here is why.. One of his very famous books is called 'Biraj Bahu', it is about this very sweet couple who have been married since they were little kids, are soul mates and go through many pains and pleasures in life with pain taking the upper hand. The story begins at the peak pf prosperity with bustling family home, happy joint family, multi coursed meals and lot of visible wealth but as the downhill becomes evident, they don't have much to eat on a daily basis. They become poor as the husband trusts everyone including a half brother who takes control of all the family fortune. So one of the days, the wife goes out and all she can find are a couple of bitter gourds, she brings it home and cooks something out of it and makes an excuse that she is not well at lunch time so she doesn't have to serve it to her husband. Only her sympathetic sister in law understands why she won't sit next to her husband during lunch time. To set this in context to anyone that don't relate - those were the generations when wives dutifully sat by the husband as they ate, serving them, making sure they were fed well, for her to give up her wifely privilege would have been akin to doing the 'unheard of'. It is a really emotionally charged and sad scene but every time I read it (yes, I read it more than once) my bitter gourd crazy mind would be asking the wife, "what is wrong with you woman? Go & enjoy the haagalakayi with your husband" :-) which totally broke the seriousness of the novel. Every time I make hagalakayi, I remember Biraj Bahu. Fortunately for me, my BH is as much in love with this gourd as I am and so we make it often and without feeling sorry for anyone except the gourd itself, we enjoy our food.
Here is a gojju that you will fall in love whether you like bitter gourd generally or not. Both nammamma and chikkamma(aunt) make this very deliciously albeit with certain differences of their own. Nammamma chops the bitter gourd very finely, doesn't peel the skin, makes it a slightly gravy gojju. Chikkamma cuts them into bigger pieces, cooks for a verrrrrry long time and brings it to an almost sticky, soft gum consistency. I like them both ways but like nammamma's version better :-) as it works well for both mixing with rice or as a dip for dosa, rotti etc.

You can use either white or black sesame seeds but the black ones give a stronger flavor and darker, more traditional color to the gojju. I used the black ones today.

Other than as a side dip that I can lick, I love to eat this gojju mixed with hot rice, a couple of drops of oil and a side of chopped onions, yummmm. Here is my lunch box for tomorrow - seasoned yogurt rice topped with haagalakayi gojju, I will think of you all when I eat it :-), have a great weekend and I will see you next week.
What do you need for Haagalakayi gojju?
4-5 medium sized bitter gourd/haagalakayi
Big gooseberry sized tamarind
1/2 Tsp grated/crushed jaggery/bella
1 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
1/4 Tsp turmeric powder
3 Tbsp shredded coconut
To roast: 
1 Tbsp chana dal/kadle bele
1 Tsp coriander
1/2 Tsp cumin
4-6 black pepper
1.5 Tbsp sesame seeds/ellu (black/white)
4-5 red chilies
For seasoning: 
3 Tbsp oil
1 Tsp mustard
2 dry red chilies (broken into pieces)
1/8 Tsp Asafoetida
8-10 curry leaves
How do you make Haagalakayi gojju? 
  • Wash, pat dry and chop off the ends of the bitter gourd. 
  • Cut them in half vertically, remove all the seeds, cut them into thin strips and chop into tiny bits. 
  • Dry roast all ingredients under 'To roast' except for sesame seeds for 4-6 minutes on medium heat.
  • When the chana dal starts to turn light pink, add sesame seeds and continue to roast.
  • Continue roasting until sesame starts to pop, set aside to cool. 
  • Once cold, grind it into a thick chutney consistency along with coconut. Keep aside until ready to use. 
  • Soak tamarind in water for 20-30 minutes and extract the juice, discarding the pith and seeds. See notes for a quick & easy way to get the tamarind juice. 
  • In a heavy bottom pan, heat oil, add mustard seeds and let them start to pop. 
  • Add asafoetida powder, broken red chilies, curry leaves and give a mix. 
  • After 10 seconds when the red chilies start to turn crisp and bright red, add the finely chopped bitter gourd. 
  • Add salt and turmeric, mix well, lower the heat, cover the pan and cook for about 15-20 minutes. 
  • Stir a couple of times in between and continue to cook until the pieces become soft and lose the raw bitterness. 
  • Add the tamarind juice, continue to cook for another 5-7 minutes until the juice reduces, thickens and loses the raw smell. 
  • Add the ground masala, jaggery and about a cup of water to thin it down, adjust salt and let it boil without covering for 7-8 minutes. 
  • Keep stirring in between ensuring the mixture doesn't stick to the bottom, the sauce will thicken and you will start to see oil leaving the sides. 
  • Switch off, let cool completely before storing in dry, air tight containers. 
  • This gojju will stay fresh for upto a week if refrigerated. 
  • I add about quarter to half cup to cover the tamarind in a microwave safe bowl and zap it for 30-45 secs. Let it stand for a minute before squishing the softened tamarind and extracting the thick juice. 
  • I use my heavy gauge aluminium pan for curries with tamarind or tomatoes instead of the cast iron or non stick pan to avoid chemical reactions. 
  • You need to add water along with the ground masala, else the thick mixture will start sticking to the bottom before it has a chance to cook.
  • Instead of fresh coconut, you can use desiccated or dry coconut (kobbari/kopra), this enhances the shelf life of gojju. 
  • I gave jaggery a slip today but the gojju tasted awesome. 
  • If you want to be completely rid of the bitterness of the gourd, mix the chopped pieces with a few drops of oil, pinch of salt and turmeric, keep aside for 15 minutes and then wash it under running water. Squeeze the wet pieces to remove any water before using them.
  • You can also lightly scrape the top skin of the gourd to mellow down the bitterness. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dal Makhni - I wont say it again but it is without makhan :-)

I won't even go about explaining my vanishing act this past week, just suffice to say life has been busy and wonderful. We watched a very unique and wonderful dance performance over the weekend of which DD was part of. Awesome choreography, beautiful music and flawless performances made the long, hard months of toil totally worth it. Anything more will be divulging personal details which I avoid meticulously on the blog, but wanted to share the happiness with you all :-).

On a different topic, I got hold of Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri's latest work. I have read all her work so far and admire her very visual prose that makes you feel the story and this novel was no different on that aspect. With the Mao inspired Naxalite movement as background, she explores her human interactions and relationships. I felt let down as it didn't get to the depths of any of its characters but seemed to just graze on the surface. It is a compelling story and is backed by her brilliant writing but for me personally, it fell a little short. I am still a great fan and will read her Interpreter of Maladies or Namesake all over again but this latest read was a little disappointing. Maybe, it will work if I read it again sometime in a different mood. I have a new writer (to me)'s book on my nightstand now which I haven't started yet, will tell you all what I discover next time.

Back to today's recipe, how do you like your Dal? In our home, we like it any which way it is made from the oh-so-regular saaru, huli/sambar to patholi & nuchinunde to ambode to various pachadis to uslis to payasa/kheer, I am sure I left out a bunch of other dishes there :-). Dal here is a very loose term I use to include all kinds of legumes, lentils, pulses etc. Being the key source of protein in a vegetarian kitchen, this ingredient is something that shows up in a different avatar every single day. A true blue Andhraite that my BH is when it comes to his pappu(dal), any cooked dal/lentils is heaven for him while tempered and seasoned Dal is pure nirvana. So, if he is around in the kitchen taste testing while I am cooking, I need to readjust my calculation of spices as the dal vanishes and reduces in quantity every time I turn around :-).
Don't worry, I removed all that butter from the top before eating :-)
I bring you a special kind of dal today, this should not be a stranger to you if you eat Indian food regularly, atleast you would have heard about it. A typical punjabi fare, you will find it on most restaurant menus. These are best eaten in road side dhabas, tear a piece of warm naan, use it as a mop to scoop up a spoon full of dal makhni and put it into the mouth along with a bite of green chili or raw onions... I will let you enjoy that morsel for a few seconds.

If it is such a common dish and easily available, why do I write about it? Just because my version is different :-), stripped off of its unnecessary ingredients yet retaining all the flavors and taste, this version will make your taste testers and hungry eaters drool with every bite. I have nothing against butter but just don't feel like using so much saturated fat on a daily basis. I spell it as T.a.s.t.y and not as B.U.T.T.E.R :-) Try this awesome dal makhni and you will never order the loaded, greasy stuff in restaurants that tends to make you queasy in the stomach soon after you have paid for it.
What do you need to make Dal Makhni?
1 cup whole black urad dal
1/3 cup red kidney beans (use 1/4 cup if you like them to show up sparsely)
1 Tblsp oil
1/2 Tsp ghee/clarified butter
1/2 cup milk (I used 2%)
1.5 inch piece of raw ginger
2 green chilies
2 cloves garlic (increase if you are a garlic lover)
2 large tomatoes (makes 3.5 cups when chunked)
1/4 cup finely chopped onion (grating or mincing works well too)
1 Tsp salt
1/2 Tsp garam masala powder
1/2 - 3/4 Tsp red chili powder (adjust to taste)
1/2 Tsp kasoori methi
chopped cilantro to garnish

How do you make Dal makhni?
  • Wash and soak both the beans in plenty of water over night.
  • Next morning, drain all the water, pick any dirt and pressure cook it with 3 cups of water for 15 minutes after the first whistle. The beans should be cooked soft and almost mashed. This is what gives it the creamy consistency.
  • Pound peeled ginger and green chilies to a coarse paste in a mortar & pestle. Peel and finely chop garlic.
  • Make a puree of the raw tomato chunks and keep it ready.
  • Heat oil+ghee in a heavy bottom pan, add the ginger & green chili paste, sauté for 30 seconds.
  • Add the chopped garlic and sauté until it turns light brown, about 30-45 seconds.
  • Add the finely chopped/minced/grated onion and fry for a couple of minutes until they sweat and turn soft. Do not brown the onions.
  • Add the tomato puree and let it come to a boil.
  • Add salt and red chili powder and continue to boil until the liquid evaporates and you see a nice, soft, goop in the pan - about 6-8 minutes on medium heat.
  • Mash a spoon full of cooked lentils (you can run it in your blender to make it smooth), add it to the pan along with the rest of the cooked lentils.
  • Once you see a couple of bubbles on top, add garam masala and mix it in.
  • Add milk and bring it to a slow boil - about 4-5 minutes.
  • Reduce heat further and cook for another 10 minutes until everything comes together into a creamy, sauce consistency.
  • Crush the kasoori methi between palms and sprinkle on the top.
  • Switch off and garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve with hot phulkas, naan or Makki ki roti.
  • If you are one of those young at heart AND young in body :-) enjoying excellent health and your diet regularly has butter, cream, ghee etc in it, go ahead and top this dal makhni with a dollop of butter while serving. But I can guarantee that the extra dose of saturated fat is not going to change this already yummy dish much further :-)
  • Black urad dal takes longer to cook than usual lentils, so soaking overnight helps cut the time down.
  • Homely Punjabi dal makhni adds 1/3 cup of chana dal to the above and also gives onion a skip. Try this variation if you like.
  • The secret to a deliciously creamy dal makhni is well cooked lentils and keeping them on the stove on low heat for a long time as the spices and seasoning work their magic. This is a perfect recipe to make in a slow cooker if you are a fan of that mode of cooking. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Saltine crackers - Move aside store brands, here comes the home made!

Happy Holi to all my readers who are celebrating the festival of colors! The smell of Spring is definitely in the air and flowers are already blooming and leaves showing up on all the bare tree limbs. Looking forward to a great Spring and Summer in the near future.

The only two biscuits (that is what they are called in India where I grew up) I was aware of as a kid and liked to munch on were Parle-G (sweet) and Monaco (saltine). Then came many varieties of sweet, salt and something called 50-50 :-) among other things. They were all still called biscuits - prefixed with either sweet or salt to qualify them appropriately. Then I grew up, came to the US and saw that there were unimaginable number of different types of biscuits - only they were not called biscuits because biscuits was a word reserved for the soft, leavened bread served with gravy for breakfasts. While I picked up the appropriate usage of cookies (sweet tasting) and crackers (saltine), I was still gaping open mouthed at the different brands trying to determine what was best for me and family. We are not regular consumers of either cookies or crackers, I like crackers more but haven't found many that fit my criteria of good crackers :-) except for the relatively recent discovery of some whole grain crackers I get from Costco. These are tasty without leaving a sweet after taste on the tongue and something I can bite into in between meals. DD loves it too so I don't feel very guilty bringing home the big box from Costco once in a while.
So when Swathi announced this month's baking partner's challenge, I was happy to find a cracker recipe in it suggested by Arthy. Though there were 2 recipes listed for choice, I knew immediately which one I would go after :-). I saw the recipes a couple of weeks back and made sure I had the ingredients at home and then just didn't follow up. All of a sudden it was the 15th of the month when the post was due and I had not even made the dough. So promptly asked Swathi for an extra day of extension which she very sweetly said yes to and then set out to mix my dough. Saturday morning, the dough was mixed and went into the refrigerator, I pulled it out today and made the crackers. They are very easy to make, the only caveat being the really loosey-goosey soft dough. There is no kneading or any other hard work involved but if you can manage the sticky dough, you will be in for a treat.

The best part of the whole recipe is the wonderful flavor of the crackers, No store bought cracker can compare or compete with this one on that aspect. I am sure the over night (or more) refrigeration and the slow fermentation has a lot to do with developing that strong flavor. This is not a very healthy option if you are on any special diet, it has the processed flour and some butter but if you want to bake it once in a while and take it to a party, I am sure you will have brought in a star appetizer to the table. I want to try mixing the flours next time to make it a tad bit healthier, will keep you all posted on that front.
On the note of healthy diets, I was part of a conversation Friday evening when DD was playfully complaining about her 'health freak' mom with a friend :-). We were making pizza that night and the kitchen counter was full of pizza ingredients including some pan sauteed Asparagus which may seem like a very unlikely pizza topping for most people (we like asparagus and it really goes well on the pizza). I am not sure if that was the reason her friend refused to stay for dinner or she was really full and needed to be someplace else :-). Just to make my girl feel better, I went all 'non-healthy' today and made her favorite Poori, palya and maagai combination for lunch. She thinks mom is cool today :-).

These crackers use baking soda but with the tiny amount used, I am not sure whether they qualify to be called 'Soda crackers', I will leave that to the experts. Original recipe called for cream of tartar which has been replaced with vinegar. If you are a baking enthusiast, this is a recipe you would want to try and add to your repertoire. It is really a no-fuss and not much effort recipe and so a very easy win and it makes a good snack box option for kids. Go ahead and bake a batch, pop a couple into the mouth and enjoy the taste. Keep munching on them and I will see you with more recipes next week.
What do you need to make Saltine crackers?
Makes about 35- 1X1 inch crackers
3/4 cup all purpose flour + 1/2 Tbsp for dusting
1/8 Tsp baking soda
1/8 Tsp salt
2-3 drops of vinegar
1/2 Tsp sugar
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1.5 Tsp active dry yeast
1 Tbsp oil (I used canola oil)
3 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp butter
For the topping: (This is what I used today, go creative and use herbs/spices of choice)
1/2 Tsp coarse salt
1 Tsp dry rosemary
How do you make Saltine crackers? 
  • Take 3 Tbsp water, oil & butter in a microwave safe bowl  and heat it for 30 seconds, mix once and if the butter has not melted, heat for another 10 seconds. 
  • Take it out of microwave and let it cool down slightly to warm. You can do this on stove top too. 
  • Heat the 1/4 cup of water to just lukewarm, add the sugar and yeast, mix and keep aside for yeast to get active. 
  • In a bowl, take flour, salt and baking soda, mix them together. Add vinegar and mix it in. 
  • Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, add the yeasted water and the water with oil & butter. 
  • With the help of a spoon, bring everything together. It will be a sticky dough. 
  • Put it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for 14-16 hours (I left it refrigerated for 24 hours). 
  • This dough will not rise very much (do not look for a double the volume kind of rise) which is perfectly normal for this dough. 
  • Take out the dough when you are getting ready to bake, let it come to room temperature for an hour or so. 
  • Generously dust your working surface with AP flour, take the dough out of the bowl and pat it into a rough rectangle. 
  • This dough is very soft and sticky so you can thin it out with hands. Use dry AP flour as needed. 
  • Once you have a rectangle of about 8X10 inches, fold the long edge over to the middle and fold the opposite edge over the top of the first folded edge. This gives the crackers the layers inside. 
  • Turn the folded dough sideways and roll (or pat) into a thin rectangle. I would recommend doing this on top of a parchment paper so you can easily transfer it to the baking sheets. 
  • With a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, cut the rectangle into small pieces of desired size. 
  • Sprinkle the toppings and using a fork, make indentations all over the crackers - This is very important if you don't want them to puff up like puris which they will without the forking. 
  • Preheat oven to 425F, put the baking sheet in the middle of the oven and bake for 10 minutes, turn the baking sheets 90 degrees and bake for another 2 minutes. 
  • Take them out immediately and let them cool for a couple of minutes before popping them into the mouth. 
  • Oven temperatures differ vastly, keep an eye on the crackers after 8 minutes and do not let them burn. 
  • Forking is essential to get flat crackers that are crispy. 
  • Overnight refrigeration develops the ultimate taste in these crackers, do not try to bake them as soon as the dough is mixed. The flavors come in over time. 
  • These crackers turn out really crispy and flaky inside, make sure you roll the dough out as thin as possible without tearing it apart. 
These crackers are off to the Baking Partner's monthly challenge. Thanks Swathi & Arthy for the flavorful crackers recipe. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Quinoa bhaath with Multicolored bell peppers - simple tastes best

Say this with me, "Delicious doesn't have to be complicated". I know this by many years of having fun in the kitchen. I will prove it to you with this post today. I have a really delicious, light and healthy dish that has proteins, fiber and nutrients with some extraordinary taste. Perfect for a lunch at home or at work.

Before we get into the works of the dish, here is a little bit of acquired gyan on Quinoa (Keen vah). It is a whole grain(actually a seed but that is merely a technicality), high in proteins and fiber and is easy to cook. It is a grain native to South America. Over the last few years, it has shot to fame because of the complete protein (9 amino acids - look up why they are good for you) it offers along with being gluten free.

I am a true blue South Indian, though I eat a lot of different types of cuisines, when it comes to comfort food, I love my fluffy white rice with a simple saaru & palya. I was so habituated to eating the sona masoori rice all my life that eating anything else left me wanting it very badly. When we first moved to the US and when we were automatically multiplying every dollar we spent with the Indian exchange rate and feeling guilty for spending so much money over groceries, I tried buying other lower priced varieties of rice. But nothing seemed to bring that feeling of joy you get after eating a bowl of light, fluffy white rice. While the brain kept saying that it was polished off of its nutrients, the mind kept staying hooked to the color and taste :-).
But life has a way of bringing in wisdom at the right time. I started experimenting with whole grains and healthy foods a few years back and slowly started eliminating the processed stuff from the pantry. I still use white rice and still bake with all purpose flour but the frequency is very much reduced.

The first time I heard the name Quinoa was from a cousin some years ago. It took me a couple more years from there to actually try it. Honestly, I didn't relish it the first time I ate it but had to try a few more times as I had brought a big packet from the store :-). I tried mixing it with the regular side dishes and it worked really well as you won't notice the slight smell of the grain and thus the grain became a main stay in my kitchen. I cook it atleast 3 times a week and alternate it with other grains like millet or broken wheat and they all work beautifully as replacements to white rice. If you are looking for alternatives to rice, go ahead and give quinoa a try, I am sure you will love it. Though many people seem to turn their noses up because of its inherent taste, I enjoy the nutty flavor very much.

Quinoa has come a long way from being the hard to find ingredient available only in the specialty food/health food stores to being spotted in the bulk bins of regular grocery stores. Though it is well suited in most dishes where rice is used, I like to surround it with other familiar flavors and give it a robust taste.
Onto today's recipe, it is a version of the very famous Karnataka vangi bhaath or brinjal rice. Many of my non kannadiga friends are surprised when they eat my vegetable bhaath without brinjal in it :-), it is actually quite common in Karnataka. We use the same vangi bhaath powder but use different vegetables. I do not make vangi bhaath unless I find the right variety of brinjals since it is sacrosanct to not spoil the authentic vangi bhaath :-), you cannot use any altoo-faltoo brinjal and make vangi bhaath, you are better off eating something else instead. But vegetable bhaath has no such restrictions, have a handful of green beans and some carrots, you are good to go. Next to vangi bhaath, I love the bhaath made with bell peppers especially the colored ones, these are milder than the green peppers. So here is a bhaath made with vangi bhaath powder and with colored bell peppers and quinoa. It is one of my favorite lunch box items to carry.

I have organized the ingredients and preperations in 3 distinct steps. Most of these can be done in parallel and the total time would not be more than 30 minutes and you can beat Rachel Ray hands down with this healthy, super yummy dish any day :-).
What do you need to make Quinoa bhaath? 
Bhaath powder: 
2 Tbsp chana dal
1 Tbsp urad dal
1.5 Tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 Tsp cumin
1/4 Tsp fenugreek seeds
2 - 1 inch piece cinnamon
4-6 dry red chilies
4-5 black pepper corns
2 cloves
2-3 strands of mace/javitri
1/8 Tsp asafetida
marble sized tamarind
1/4 cup grated dry coconut
4-6 curry leaves
For Bhaath
1.5 cups quinoa
3 cups water
1 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp bhaath powder
2-2.5 cups chopped bell pepper (see variations)
1/4 Tsp turmeric
1/4 Tsp crushed jaggery/brown sugar
For seasoning: 
2 Tbsp oil
1 Tsp mustard
1 Tsp chana dal
2 Tbsp raw peanuts
4-6 curry leaves (optional but gives the authentic look :-))
How do you make Quinoa bhaath? 
Cook Quinoa: 
  • In a heavy bottom sauce pan on medium heat, add quinoa along with 1/2 Tsp oil.
  • Stir to coat the oil and roast for 4-5 minutes stirring frequently until quinoa starts to pop. 
  • Add 3 cups of water and mix well. 
  • Bring the water to boil, lower the heat, partially cover the pan and set the timer to 20 minutes. 
  • After 20 minutes, water would be all absorbed and quinoa cooked. 
  • Close the lid completely, switch off the stove and let it stand for 5 minutes before fluffing it up with a fork or spoon. 
Making the Bhaath powder: 
  • Heat a heavy bottom pan (I prefer cast iron for all my roasting) on medium heat. 
  • Add all the ingredients under bhaath powder except for dry coconut and asafoetida.
  • Stirring frequently, roast the ingredients for 7-8 minutes or until the dal turns golden brown and the spices give out the aroma.
  • Add grated coconut and asafortida, mix, switch off the stove and let it cool completely. 
  • Once cool, grind into a fine powder. Keep aside covered until ready to use. 
Assembling the Bhaath: 
  • Heat a wide pan (so you can mix everything in it without transferring the contents to another bowl), add 1 Tbsp of oil. 
  • Add the chopped bell pepper, salt and turmeric powder. 
  • Do not cover the pan, let the peppers cook for 4-5 minutes. They just lose the rawness but stay crunchy on bite. 
  • Add 2 Tbsp of the masala powder, jaggery and mix well. 
  • Switch off the stove. add the cooked, fluffed quinoa and set aside until it is cool to touch. 
  • Heat the remaining oil in a seasoning pan, add the seasoning ingredients listed and roast until mustard pops and peanuts turn crunchy. 
  • Pour the seasoning over the quinoa and let it come to room temperature. 
  • Mix everything together gently with a light hand, taste and adjust masala, salt as needed.  
  • Pack in lunch boxes, eat when warm or cold. A side of yogurt goes very well. 
  • Roasting quinoa before cooking brings out its nutty flavor very well. 
  • You can also wash quinoa in couple of changes of water if you are just getting introduced to the grain until you get used to its faint smell. I soak and wash it thoroughly when I use it in Dosas. 
  • Follow package instruction for the exact amount of water, generally it is 1:2 for quinoa to water. 
  • Patience is the key to roast the bhaath masala ingredients, low to medium heat, a sturdy pan, frequent stirring all bring out the best flavored powder. 
  • You can scale up the ingredients and make bhaath powder in larger quantities, remember to store in air tight, dry containers. Refrigerated powder stays longer. 
  • Tamarind I get here is usually quite dry and is easy to powder with the rest of the ingredients. If your tamarind is sticky or you are using tamarind paste, skip it from the powder but add it to the vegetable and fry until the juices are absorbed. Make sure to adjust the cooking time to keep the vegetables as crunchy as you like. 
  • Like I said in the beginning of this post, you can make this bhaath with other vegetables - beans, carrots & green peas is a good combo, just plain brinjal tastes delicious (it is the famous vangi bhaath), cabbage bhaath is a family favorite - quick and easy but don't take it in lunch boxes :-), another delicious variety is made with cluster beans (Gorikayi in kannada). 
  • You can use the same powder to make bhaath with regular white rice. Cook rice making sure the grains are separate and mix in the vegetables/masala. 
  • A typical vegetable bhaath in Karnataka is a treat with its spices, salt, sourness and a very faint sweetness. Roasted dry coconut and the little jaggery help add the right amount of sweetness to the dish. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ambode or Chattambode or Masala vade - memories of a small store from my home town

I missed talking to you all for the last 2 weeks, didn't mean to go away for this long but getting adjusted to the new changes in life (and ofcourse the ever present laziness) took longer than anticipated. I think I have things in a flow now and ready to resume my blogging more frequently than I have done in the recent past :-), wish me luck and stay with me as I bring you new and old stories and recipes.

Something new for today - I am settled (as well as anyone can be in 2 weeks) at my new job, loving it. I like my team, the work, office and everything else from what I have seen so far. The commute is not as romantic as I thought it would be - the bus is crowded and I do have to stand sometimes depending on the time but it is not bad really. I am getting some great outdoor walking as part of commute which makes me totally thrilled, and Seattle was at its weather best behavior the first week I started working, completely dry and sunny and looked gorgeous. Last week was wet and windy but I survived so I do believe I am a pro as far as the weather goes. It can only improve now that we 'Spring forwarded' an hour last night (boo hoo, lost a whole 60 minutes, who ever thought of these time changes in the first place????) and Spring will be here in reality very soon :-). My family has been amazing as they always are and we have struck some balance with the chaos that defines the morning and I am feeling less and less guilty leaving them early in the morning.

Something old and classic :-) - here is a totally addictive, sinfully delicious, crispy, snack which according to me is one of the greatest recipes of all time. Ambode/chattambode as they are called in our home or masala vade as they are referred to in restaurants are one of the snacks that you cannot stop eating anytime soon once you pop one in the mouth. Having said that, let me also tell you that not all ambodes are same or equally delicious, so if you happen to eat an ambode that tastes like cardboard (it happens and I have tasted them), the blame is not on the dish but on the cook who made it. Don't form an opinion against ambode based on an unfortunate tasting, try finding someone that makes good ambodes and then decide :-)
Nammamma made some of the best ambodes I have ever tasted. Her ambodes are perfect in size, shape, texture and taste -  crunchy on the outside (and stay like that even when they are cold) and soft and meaty on the inside, a few tricks to follow to achieve that deliciousness and I have shared all of them below so you can make them yourselves. Other than nammamma's ambode, I really, really loved those she got from 'Bhattara angadi' (Bhatta's store). Now that I have possibly piqued your interest, it won't be fair to not tell you the who, where, what and how of the Bhattara angadi, right? here we go to walk down a memory lane a few years (or many years) back..

Repeating myself (for the nth time), eating out was not a frequent happening in our childhood, restaurants were alien and eating from the road side vendors was forbidden for health reasons. There was once in a blue moon kind of Iyengar bakery treats that would give us a taste of outside food. I really don't miss not eating out so much because we had such great food at home. In addition to the Iyengar bakery, there was another tiny shop that was 'parent certified' and that was called 'Bhattara angadi'. The owner's last name was Bhat, he was from Mangalore region and was a Yakshagana artist. I do not know what circumstances made him stop pursuing the art form and set up a small store selling hot idlis in the morning and super yummy deep fried delicacies in the evening. Whatever they were, I am grateful he did it because that is where I have had some of the best tasting ambodes, benne muruku, khara mixture and Mysore paks and Jahangirs (Jangris) and I can still salivate just thinking about them.

Bhatru was a big man physically and would sit there in the store very imposingly making all the goodies while the crowd gathered up and waited patiently just outside in the warmth of the big stove. He would have trays of sweets ready by the time he opened the store in the evening along with the raw materials needed for the savory items. A mega size circular pan (called bandle in kannada) would be set on the big stove and filled 3/4 with oil. Once the oil heated up, he would start the savories - one batch of ambode in that huge pan would serve up 50-70 ambodes and would satisfy 4-5 customers in the front of the line. As you moved up the line, you would be hoping that you will get your turn with the next batch :-). On the days we accompanied nammamma to the temple and then the store, me and kid brother used to kill time standing in the line either by guessing what part he was playing in each of the Yakshagana pictures framed on the darkened, oil smitten walls of that store or take guesses at what he would make in the next batch because that got determined largely by the demand of the customers in the line. If a bunch of people said, "Bhatre, khara mixture idya? (do you have khara mixture)', he will make a batch of khara mixture while the ambode customers had to wait their turn. For us, mythology bug bitten kids he was King Nala in flesh & blood as we tried to map his royal costumes in the pictures to his extraordinary culinary expertise, he never talked about his past (I don't even know if he was still doing Yakshagana at the time), the only clue to it being those slightly faded pictures on the walls.
As soon as he takes out a batch from the hot oil and sets it out on the side, he will start packing up the orders in individual paper cones (yep, no plastic covers and old news papers would be put to work). He knew exactly when to stop and turn the stuff in the pan without missing a beat in all that noisy crowd. If you went looking for more than one item, he would either ask you to step aside and wait until your order was ready or would pack them from a previous batch, but there never would be any excess for too long. He threw in some finely chopped green chilies into the ambode mixture and you would occasionally and unexpectedly bite into a fried chili piece that brought tears to the eyes but never stopped eating them.

There was a temple right next door to the store and nammamma went there regularly as she went for her vegetable shopping in the evening. We had the uncanny ability to guess when she would come back with a couple of packets of ambode or chow chow mix or benne muruku or something else. Cold, rainy evenings were ideal as were days on which amma had been too busy and not made any snack in the evening which meant we would wait with bated breath until she came inside, set the wire basket filled with vegetables to the side and sat down. Olfactory organs would have already done their job and figured out the existence of a snack somewhere in that basket but we still had to behave and wait for her to open up the basket, ah those torturous few minutes :-) seemed to never end. Once the packet was out of the basket, we would all get our shares of the warm ambodes (or whatever else she had brought that day) and sit and savor them slowly. Power cuts and rooms lighted only with small candles set the perfect ambiance giving a legitimate excuse for not sitting infront of the books and made the experience so much more cozier :-). Some years later, when I was in college or later, nammamma mentioned that bhattaru had passed on :-(. I haven't been to that store in ages now and wonder how it is doing with the next generation or even if it is in existence at all.. Like all things I remember from my Mysore days, this is part of my life, a very fond memory, never to be forgotten..
The ambodes from this store were not round and slightly flattened like my amma's but were small random bits. He would take a handful (his big handful) of the mixture and drop small bits into the hot oil going all around the pan. Perfect little marble sized ambodes with each one having just the right amount of cilantro, onion and the spices, nothing beats experience..

When I make ambode at home, I make them in the shape nammamma made but just because I was going to tell you all about my favorite store from childhood, I made some in the shape bhattaru made for the pictures :-). A fair warning that my pictures are not great today as I made these for a group of people and had been cooking lot of other things along side and was distracted. Next time, I will take some better pictures and post them :-)
What do you need to make Ambode? 
1 cup chana dal/kadle bele
1/4 cup grated coconut
4-6 green chilies (adjust to taste)
1 inch piece of fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1.5 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
oil to deep fry (use any of the following oils with high temperature tolerance - peanut oil, saffola/sunflower, vegetable oil. Do not heat olive oil to high temperatures)

How do you make Ambode? 
  • Pick, wash and soak the chana dal in plenty of water for about 2.5-3 hours or until they soften. 
  • Prepare the rest of the ingredients in the mean time and keep them ready. 
  • Rinse and drain water from the soaked chana dal. 
  • Make a paste of green chilies and ginger. 
  • Grind the soaked dal (without using any water - see notes below) into a coarse texture. 
  • Mix all ingredients together. 
  • If you hold a fistful of the mixture together and press it lightly, it should retain its shape without breaking apart. If you have ground the dal too coarsely, this will not be possible. 
  • Heat oil in a wide pan, once you feel it is hot enough (I don't own a thermometer, so can't tell you the temperature), test by dropping a small amount of the mixture into the oil. If it sizzles and comes up right away, you are ready to deep fry the ambode. If the mixture sinks and stays at the bottom of the pan, you need to heat the oil further. 
  • Take a lime sized mixture in hand, press gently into a ball and flatten it slightly. Lower the flattened disc into the hot oil. 
  • Add as many ambode into the frying pan as it can hold in a single layer without touching each other or piling on top of each other. 
  • Keep the heat on medium and let them cook for a minute and half. 
  • With a slotted spoon, gently turn them over to the other side and let them cook until both sides are golden brown. 
  • Take them out onto a paper tissue lined plate with a slotted spoon, draining all the oil out. 
  • Serve them (see suggestions below) hot/warm/cold. Enjoy one of the most delicious snacks in the entire world, a plate of ambode is equivalent to ultimate happiness for snack crazy people like me :-)

How do we eat Ambode at home :-) - Just like anything else, it is put into the mouth and go chomp, chomp, chomp. Well, that is not what I met. Ambodes are served in a few different ways depending on the time of eating, here are some of my favorites. 
  • If you make it for a snack, enjoy it with a cuppa and some coconut chutney on the side - super yummy combination. 
  • Bisi bele Bhath (I know I haven't posted it yet, will do soon) and ambode is considered a classic combo in many Kannadiga homes. 
  • My father loved to soak ambode in either saaru or majjige huli, after a couple of hours, it would have soaked up the juices and tastes heavenly. 
  • If you have a sweet tooth, ambode and gasagase payasa (favorite combo on Ganesha habba) is great too, dip a piece of ambode in hot/warm gasagase payasa and put it in your mouth, it is like an explosion of sweet and spicy tastes in the mouth. Avoid adding onion if you are planning on this combo. 
  • Trick to get the best tasting ambode ever is to make sure the dal is ground correctly, NO WATER is the mantra while grinding which makes it hard for most electrical mixers. Let the dal soak in water until you are ready to grind, only then drain the water, this allows the dal to be wet without dripping and helps to grind easily. 
  • Do not over soak the dal, this makes the ambode absorb a lot of water. 2.5-3 hours is sufficient to get them to soak up and soften. 
  • When you grind, do not make it into a paste. The ground dal should be coarse and stay together when you take a fistful and form a ball without breaking out. 
  • Ambodes are crispy and crunchy when you bite in and the inside should be soft, make sure you do not flatten them out thin, this makes them hard. 
  • While frying the ambode, keep the heat on medium so it cooks all through and turn and flip minimally, let them cook on their without much mixing. 
  • If you had to use a few spoons of water to make your blender work and the dough becomes soft/watery, add a Tbsp of gram flour to get the consistency. 
  • A time saving tip is to make the balls and keep them ready, that way you just press them a little to flatten and drop them in oil.
  • When nammamma makes these on festival days, onion is not used. 
  • Use red chilies instead of green ones for a slightly different flavor, remember to soak dry red chilies along with the dal to soften them. 
  • I have seen fennel seeds used (while grinding or directly mixed in) in some recipes which adds a different flavor though this is not my personal favorite for ambode.
  • You can add chopped curry leaves instead (or in addition to) chopped cilantro. 
  • Finely chopped dill leaves or mint leaves is a favorite addition to ambode in Karnataka.  Don't mix the two together in the same batch though.