Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rava Paddu - Tangy, spicy, soft paddus for Kids Lunch box menu event

Eat breakfast like a king
Lunch like a prince
and Dinner like a pauper
So goes the saying and there are other equally wise versions of the saying too :-). But how many of us actually follow this healthy tip? I recently heard a discussion on NPR which claimed that all research declaring a heavy & healthy breakfast being a good start of the day was not really proven. Personally, I am not a morning bee and don't feel like eating a lot until I have been active. Breakfast on the bed is a concept I cannot fathom. So for me, day starts after I have been awake for a while and active and only then can I eat something. But I do prefer something solid during lunch time, else it becomes difficult to carry on for the rest of the day with a growling stomach. Though I may rush out of the door in the morning, I always plan and prepare a lunch box for all of us the previous night.
Since it is a lunch box, it most certainly cannot be a coursed meal like you would have it at home. In my opinion (and it amounts to something since I have been carrying lunch boxes regularly for more than 2 decades), lunch box menus need to be self contained with tastes, not contain any juicy or liquidy items prone to spills, able to be eaten cold or hot, and avoid distracting smells or flavors since you typically open it in a public space :-).

Lately there has been a lot of attention around lunch box menus especially kids lunches. I don't remember nammamma working her brain cells to plan a nutritious & balanced entry to the lunch box every day for all of us kids. But we grew up in a different era when physical activity was very common place and we would digest food eaten at any time of the day, so we came back home and had a tiffin in the evening and ate a dinner at night. Over the course of the day all nutritional needs were met. Being a working mom myself, I understand it is not easy all the time to feed your kids a balanced diet and given the rushed week days, it takes some planning to put food into the child's lunch box so it comes back home empty in the evening. Over the years, we moms tend to develop an uncanny sneakiness to get the veggies, fruits and proteins in the food in many unrecognizable forms, but over the years your kid also develops the smartness to identify the disguised things and bring them back untouched :-).
One of my daughter's teachers I liked most was in her 3rd grade, the lady would sit in the class room during lunch time and make sure every kid ate the lunch box contents completely. There was no getting away with left overs from under her watch. My daughter would come home and complain that there was no difference between Mrs.N and her mom :-). I was just happy to see her eat the food. I have just been fortunate that she is not a picky eater.

My blog already has many lunch box friendly recipes (I may need to go back and tag them all appropriately, will get to it sometime) but when I was asked by the Indus ladies for a blog post specifically geared towards kids lunch box ideas, I wanted to do a new post. The first thing that came to my mind was this paddus or punukulu or ponganalu or guntupongalu. This was a rarity at home while growing up because nammamma never took fancy to these cute little things but instead liked turning left over sour dosa batter into uttappams. The first time I ever ate this was when in high school where I accidentally discovered this gem of a dish in a friend's lunch box during the usual afternoon barter. It has remained my favorite and both DD & BH love it too.
I have a multi grain, vegetable laden version of paddus on the blog here. Paddus are typically made with left over dosa or idli batter. But today's recipe is a no-grind version, perfect for lunch boxes and very versatile in that it allows you to make modifications to suit your tastes. You can mix the batter and keep it over night if you are a meticulous planner or you can mix it in the morning and come back to making the paddus after 20 minutes (go brush your teeth and take a bath), it turns out absolutely delicious. Also, this stays soft and spongy (yogurt effect) for a long time making it ideal for lunch boxes.

What do you need to make Rava paddus? 
1 cup upma rava/sooji
1/2 cup slightly sour yogurt
1/2 - 3/4 cup water
1 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
2 Tbsp thinly chopped fresh coconut (optional but recommended)
2 Tbsp oil to roast paddus
1 Tbsp oil
1 Tsp mustard
1/2 Tsp cumin
1/2 Tsp grated ginger
1 Tsp chana dal
1 Tsp finely chopped green chilies (reduce or skip if you are making it for the kids)
1 Tsp chopped curry leaves
How do you make Rava paddus?
  • Mix 1/2 cup water, yogurt and salt and whisk it briskly to make a homogeneous liquid. 
  • Take the upma rava in a bowl and add the yogurt mixture to it. 
  • Mix well to avoid any lumps. 
  • Set aside for 20-30 minutes to give rava a chance to soak.
  • Add the chopped coconut & onions. 
  • Make a seasoning of all the ingredients listed under seasoning. 
  • When mustard pops and the dal turns pink, switch off the stove.
  • Check the rava mix and adjust it to be of idli batter consistency (it should drop easily from the ladle but not flow) with additional water. 
  • Add the prepared seasoning and give a mix. 
  • Heat the paddu pan on medium heat, add a drop of oil into each of the cavities and drop the batter by spoonfuls. 
  • Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes or until the bottom layer is golden brown. 
  • Flip them over and cook for a couple of minutes without covering. 
  • Take them out and serve it with any chutney or sauce of choice. 
  • This makes a great lunch box recipe since it tastes good when cool. 
  • You can add grated carrots or finely chopped greens to make it nutritious and colorful.
  • Methi (fenugreek) leaves roasted in a spoon of oil until they wilt and added to the batter provide a wonderful flavor. 
  • I sometimes keep the batter overnight for it to develop tanginess, season it in the morning before using. 
  • I like to add the seasoning just before making paddus to retain the crunchiness of the dal and also to maximize flavors. 
  • Instead of chopped green chilies, you can use coarsely ground black pepper.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bisi Puliyogare - full of authentic flavors, made easy and instant version of a traditional recipe

Any hikers, trekkers out there among you readers? Care to read through my weekend hiking expedition? I promise I will treat you to a traditional South Indian recipe today, made the easy way.
I grew up in a town where every measurement was with respect to a moutain (or hill), we lived at the foothills of Chamundi Hills and took that name as part of conversation every time. As tall as, as steep as, as gorgeous as were the list of comparisons & attributes in daily life. When we were building a house, the first thing my father did was add a stone bench to be put in the corner of the terrace from where we had a clear view of the chamundi hills. It looked divine with the lighting come Dasara time. I have stood there taking in the breath taking perfume of blooming jasmines as a newly married, have sat on that bench trying to pacify a little baby as a young mother, sat alone or with my father as we talked through the setting Sun, with the hills always in the background. I don't remember exactly how many times I have climbed those 1000 steps leading to the temple at the top, a favorite pastime with visiting cousins and siblings. Stopping for a tender coconut near the Mahishasura(the demon killed by the Goddess), feeding bananas to the monkeys on the way or sitting down on a random step to eat puffed rice with fresh coconut pieces is all part of that trekking. Akka says she even carried me as a chubby toddler on her waist once :-).
Couple of weeks back, on the whim, we decided to do some mountain trekking. It was in the coming as we live surrounded by mountains - big & small, all around us beckoning us to climb. So while the tired DD slept, the two of us went looking for a mountain hike and ended up parking at the base of Mount Si. While I kept insisting that as beginners we should be climbing the Little Si and not Mount Si, BH bravely took the decision for both of us and we ended up climbing the big brother of the 2 mountains here in the state. Off we went, a little huffing and puffing, totally unprepared (mentally and energy wise), but made good and reached the half way snag in a decent 2 hours. But my knees were crying fowl by that time and though BH was rearing to reach the peak, he had to stick to his marital vows of never abandoning me (especially on a mountain trail) and hike back with me. A little disappointing weekend.
Doing a few stretches and massages helped the creaky knees and I was up and ready to go this Saturday again. Not to forego the peak experience, we stuck to the Little Si this time, the mountain is very cajoling and coaxing for beginners like me, the trails are not all vertical and there are stretches of ups and downs giving ample opportunity for a racing heart to come back to normal beat. The weather was perfect, and though the Sun played a little hide & seek, we were warm without being hot. At 1500ft, this mountain is about half the height of my favorite Chamundi Hills from Mysore. And as I reflected that I was able to climb Chamundi Hills many times without feeling tired at all, the ever practical BH muttered something like, "you were a teenager then", he avoided all further discussions though on the topic. I am totally convinced that I married a real smart man :-).

It is a very humbling experience when you reach the top and look around to see the surroundings. Once you leave the cameras and phones inside the backpack pockets, you enjoy the nature around you much more and feel one with it. I will go back again, may be try the big one next time.
OK, I am done with my weekend expeditions and now onto a much loved recipe from the South of India. There are variations to this from state to state with a common basic theme and plan. Tamil nadu adds a bit more tamarind, while Karnataka brings in a sweeter taste with jaggery and Andhra does a quick take on the gojju/pulikachal and just boils the tamarind water. Any of these or all of these are wonderfully tasty and have a treasured place in a South Indian's heart. This is a very good travel food since it keeps well and infact grows tastier the day after you make it. It provides that very essential salty, cleansing effect on long travels or hospital beds. Yep, I am talking about Puliyogare/Huliyanna/puliyodharai/pulihora/puli sadam.

Now if you are familiar with this dish, you will immediately drool and then become wary thinking of the labor intensive, time consuming process of making the gojju or the paste for the puliyogare. While that is the traditional method of making this yummy rice dish, I am here to the rescue with an equally traditional and time tested method to achieve the same results. Granted, you can go buy an MTR mix and use it but it is not definitely the same as the real deal and if you are ready to spend as many minutes as it takes to cook and cool your rice, come along with me for a simple way to make this dish.
This is a staple prasada (offering) in many South Indian temples and without any additional spices or a lot of seasoning, it still tastes heavenly, may be the ambiance and the mood has a lot to do with the food tastes. For BH, puliyogare is always eaten with slightly sour yogurt, that is how he was introduced to it in Kadambam restaurants as a bike driving road warrior. I love my day old puliyogare with a little bit of sliced onions. Find your own comfort zone of eating this dish.

We had a neighbor in Mysore who was Nammamma's friend and they exchanged a lot of recipes. She made a real killer puliyogare using the gojju method but she also taught amma this short cut way to make the same dish especially on days when you had a lot going on. It is called bisi puliyogare since the hot rice is already half way prepared to the final stage. This comes in handy and gets ready quickly, I will come back with the gojju version another time, until then, use this recipe to satiate your puliyogare hunger.
What do you need to make Bisi Puliyogare? 
2 cups rice - I use sona masoori variety
A small apple size tamarind
1 Tbsp salt - adjust to taste
1 Tsp crushed jaggery/brown sugar
1 Tbsp rasam powder
1/4 Tsp turmeric powder
1 Tbsp grated coconut/kobbari
Spices to roast & powder: 
1 Tsp chana dal
1/4 Tsp fenugreek seeds
1 Tbsp sesame seeds
1 Tsp dhania/coriander seeds
1/2 Tsp cumin
1/2 Tsp black pepper
1-2 dry red chilies
4-6 curry leaves
1 Tbsp grated dry coconut/kobbari
2 Tbsp oil
1/8 Tsp asafoetida
1 Tsp mustard
1 Tbsp chana dal
2-3 Tbsp peanuts (per taste)
12-15 fresh curry leaves

How do you make Bisi Puliyogare?
  • Soak tamarind for 20 minutes in 1 cup warm water and extract the juice, discard any pip/seeds. 
  • Wash rice in 2 changes of water, add salt, tamarind extract, crushed jaggery, rasam powder, turmeric powder and 3 cups of water. See notes for managing the water content. 
  • Add 1/2 Tsp of oil and cook the rice (either rice cooker or pressure cooker) until done. 
  • Meanwhile, heat a heavy pan on medium heat, add all ingredients listed under spices to roast except for coconut and frequently stirring, roast them until fragrant (takes about 2-3 minutes).
  • Add the grated coconut, mix and switch off. 
  • Keep aside to cool and make a fine powder. 
  • Once done, spread the rice in a wide plate or bowl, sprinkle grated dry coconut,  the spice powder and let it cool down. 
  • Heat oil in a pan, add mustard, chana dal & peanuts. Let mustard & peanuts pop. 
  • Add asafoetida, curry leaves and switch off after 30 seconds. 
  • Pour the seasoning over the rice. 
  • Once rice is cool enough to handle, mix everything together gently keeping the fluffiness of cooked rice. 
  • Let it stand for 20 minutes before serving. 
  • 2 cups of rice typically takes 4 cups of liquid to cook, measure the amount of tamarind juice you add and then substitute with water. 
  • Adding a few drops of oil while cooking rice helps the grains to remain separate. 
  • Tamarind can vary quite a bit in sourness, you may need to experiment a little or go by instinct while adding the tamarind extract. 
  • Puliyogare should balance salt, sweet, hot and sour tastes well to taste good. 
  • Use good quality rasam powder to bring in the taste, the roasted spices add to the freshness. 
  • You can use either black sesame seeds or white ones, the black ones give a deeper color. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Zucchini muffin - Piccoli Dolci (Little dessert treats), read the post for relevance :-)

Since I threw in Italian verbiage out there in the post title, let me explain what it means and how it relates to what I have today. No, I haven't visited Italy (very much on my bucket list) and have not been going to any language classes either. We do like Italian food and favor Olive Garden franchises for their fresh baked bread and minestrone soup that comes with a side of a big bowl of salad. But what I love most is the decadent Tiramasu after the food, so always keep some place for it. Last time we went to this restaurant, we were all hungry and ended up gorging on the salad, bread and the entrees so dessert was out of question (well, almost). As we looked at the dessert menu, the thing that caught my attention was this new phrase, 'Piccoli Dolci' and really enticing pictures of cute, small size desserts - layered cake, mousse, pastry creams and berries, sounds delicious? ofcourse. Piccoli Dolci means small cakes or little dessert treats in Italian. I made the big sacrifice of not ordering my usual Tiramasu and asked for a Piccoli Dolci. The dessert was small, served in a cup about the size of tea candle holders, and perfect for a sweet craving. Smaller the size, smaller the guilt. Yum!!
Why do I have that phrase in my post title today? I am not serving you any Italian desserts but I liked the way the phrase sounded and wanted to use it somewhere on the blog :-). When I was making these muffins, I ended up using the tiny muffin liners (or holders in my case) and made them 'one gulp' size. It is little, it is a dessert, so there you go.

On to the recipe itself, though the title says, zucchini muffins, zucchini is just one of the ingredients in it. This moist and deliciously sweet muffin is loaded with so much of tropical flavors and goodness that I was going to call it my 'tropical muffin' :-). But wanted to keep the original name and titled it zucchini muffins.
I harvested 2 more zucchinis over the weekend, now that I have a whole lot of recipes with zucchinis, I am just grateful for the bounty. What is better is that DD is not bored (not yet) of zucchinis, me thinks I can get away with feeding her the same vegetable over and over as long as I cleverly disguise it in different forms, shapes and tastes :-). So, the saga of zucchinis continues.

Last week when I shared a zucchini with a colleague at work, she made these muffins and brought them for me and the rest of the group to taste the next day. They were delicious with a flavor explosion in the mouth. You know what happened next, don't you? I asked (may be pestered) for the recipe and got it. Armed with fresh zucchinis, this recipe was the first thought and since we were planning to visit our little nephew and niece, I went ahead and made a batch. Given the size of individual muffins I made, I ended up getting almost 30 muffins, believe me when I say they are perfect size for kids and adults alike. I halved the original recipe and made it egg free by using my trusted egg replacement. See below for details. Thanks M for the delicious recipe. Never imagined zucchini in such a treat.
I took some to share with my Chinmaya kids today, they all loved it and polished off the mini muffins. I also heard back from the cousins that they enjoyed the muffins too. So I changed my blog post plan a tiny bit and ended up writing about the muffins instead of what I had planned before :-).

This recipe incorporates a lot of fruity flavors but the end result is surprisingly homogeneous with all of them playing together synchronously. You have bites of fresh pineapple and craisins(dried cranberries) in addition to the nutty flavor from coconut. Very easy to put together and yummy to relish.

What do you need to make zucchini muffins? 
1.5 cup All purpose flour
1 cup sugar (reduce it by 1 Tbsp if you want it mildly sweet)
1/2 cup canola oil
3/4 cup grated zucchini
1/3 cup unsweetened apple sauce (this is my egg replacement, 1 egg=1/4 cup AS)
2 Tbsp fresh orange juice
1/2 Tsp vanilla essence
1  Tsp orange zest
1/2 Tsp baking soda
1/8 Tsp salt
1/2 Tsp freshly ground cinnamon
1/3 cup coconut flakes (I used the sweetened variety)
3 Tbsp chopped pineapple
1/2 cup craisins or raisins - chopped roughly
How do you make zucchini muffins? 

  • Grate zucchini and keep aside. 
  • In a mixing bowl, put sugar, apple sauce, orange juice, orange zest, vanilla and oil and mix it for 2 mins with a whisk or fork. Do not expect it to become creamy but aim to get a homogeneous mixture of ingredients. 
  • Sift the flour, salt, cinnamon powder and baking soda together and fold it into the wet mixture in the bowl. 
  • Add the coconut, pineapple, craisins/raisins and grated zucchini
  • Give a good mix to combine all ingredients, spoon them into individual muffin containers.
  • Preheat the oven to 325F and bake the muffins for about 20 minutes (watch them closely during the last couple of minutes as oven temp vary a lot). 
  • Mine took 20 minutes and the tooth pick inserted in the middle came out clean. 
  • Take them out and let cool a little bit before serving. 
  • You can replace orange juice with pineapple juice if you prefer. 
  • I am thinking (not tried yet) that you can replace zucchini with bottle gourd gratings. 
  • Original recipe baked this mixture as a loaf and suggested a bake time of 50 minutes, muffins bake much faster. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Palak paneer - ever green choice in Indian restuarants

A big apology for being MIA (missing in action) for the past 2 weeks. Totally unplanned and the longest I have stayed away from the blog without a valid excuse (such as travel, sickness etc). So what is my invalid excuse this time? Been busy :-), yep truly busy but more than that I find that my brain is scattered all over the place not letting me sit and focus on the blog. I keep adding drafts and pictures to my folders but when I am done with work and cooking in the evening, I am just exhausted to create something fresh :-(. The first week went by ok since I have been doing a weekly post anyway, but the second week was a guilt trip and every day I would tell myself that I would sit down and nurture my blog baby but when I did sit down, I would be looking into an empty brain too tired to generate any thoughts. I would glare at the pictures, write a title and then feel sorry for myself and shut the laptop down :-). Since it wasn't healthy for me, I finally told myself not to worry but enjoy the break period. It wasn't like I lost interest in cooking but it was just finding the energy to blog about it. Now after 2 weeks, I am back again (with no promises to do this daily or multiple times a week, but as frequently as I am able to write). And I do miss visiting my favorite blogs, I will be there soon.
So all this MIA act of mine needs a really inviting dish as a come back vehicle, don't you think so? What I have today is an extremely popular side dish in Indian restaurants. And there are umpteen number of variations and family recipes out there, so why am I (a very South Indian from the south of India) blogging about this very common North Indian subzi? I think I have some pearls of wisdom, having (forced to) eaten it every time from rustic, road side dhabas to fancy restaurants with DD since she LOVES it :-). I have enjoyed some versions, hated some, been indifferent to some others. What makes this simple dish a winner? Just a few things to keep in mind as you make it and I will share all I know here. Food is as good as it looks, right? Retain and lock in that naturally vibrant green color for an appetizing subzi (curry) and keep the spices to a minimum to enjoy the inherent taste of the greens.  Freshness of paneer matters a lot, so get good quality paneer from the store or make some at home and here is how.
I made a lot of paneer at home yesterday. BH has a small coffee grinder and powders the seeds every morning and puts it in to the filter for his morning cuppa. He drank his coffee this way for years since we came here and he claimed it was the best coffee. Since we came back from India last month, he started complaining that it didn't taste as good or anything close to his mom's filter kaapi (Indian coffee). Initially I dismissed it as homesickness and then said his taste buds had taken a flight given all the fever and throat infections we fought for a couple of weeks but things didn't improve. And all of sudden a week back, he declared that he was going to stop drinking coffee (!), while he is not an addict, he definitely enjoyed the brown potion a couple of times if he was home or atleast the mandatory first drink in the morning. He has taken to sipping a cup of hot water now. Strange are the ways of the world :-)
A non coffee drinker myself, I am neutral to his coffee habits but we had a whole gallon of fat free milk that he used in the coffee which threatened to go down the sink if I didn't use it before it got outdated. Now, I didn't want to make fat free yogurt with a gallon of milk (I am sure, it would never have been consumed), so I went ahead and made paneer with it. Healthy bhi and tasty bhi. DD says paneer tastes yummy. I am so proud of myself for not wasting that milk. There is about a pound of good quality roasted coffee seeds in the refrigerator and I have no clue what to do with it. I think I will organize a 'coffee over' day in my neighborhood. I will make some nice snacks to go with it, let me know if you are interested :-)

Given DD's affinity to palak paneer, it was a natural choice for me to make the dish today. The curry and the chapatis were done and ready on the table within 45 minutes of me reaching home from work. As the kitchen was engulfed in the flavor of the curry, BH volunteered to help me with pictures('carrots on a stick' is not at all over rated :-)). All in all, family with happy tummies is a good beginning to the work week. So, here is my palak paneer (cottage cheese in spinach gravy) version - curry made in a hurry.
What do you need to make Palak paneer? 
4 cups tightly packed palak or spinach leaves (I used baby spinach)
2 green chilies chopped fine
1 inch piece ginger
1/2 cup yogurt whisked
1/2 cup onion minced or very thinly sliced
2-3 cloves garlic minced
2 Tbsp cilantro
1 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
1 Tbsp coriander powder
1 Tsp cumin seeds
1 cup paneer cubes
1 Tsp fresh lemon juice
How do you make Palak Paneer? 
  • Bring water to bubbling stage in a sauce pan. 
  • Add the cleaned palak leaves and push them with a spoon to submerge in water. 
  • Boil for 2-3 minutes and as soon the leaves wilt, take it off the heat. 
  • Drain the water out and immediately run cold water on the leaves. 
  • Let them sit for a couple of minutes and puree in the blender along with chopped cilantro. 
  • Heat oil, sizzle cumin.
  • Add crushed garlic and ginger and fry for a minute.
  • Add minced onion and fry for 3-4 minutes until onion sweats and turns limp
  • Add whisked yogurt, coriander powder and salt.
  • Let it come to a boil (2-3 minutes)
  • Add the pureed mixture and stir it in. 
  • Adjust consistency with water and test for salt. 
  • Once bubbles start appearing, add the cubed paneer, give a gentle mix and switch off. 
  • Add lemon juice before serving.  
  • I used fresh, home made paneer and didn't saute them in oil. If you use frozen paneer, saute them in a Tbsp oil until they turn very light brown on both sides, put them in cold water until ready to use. This retains the softness of the paneer. 
  • I do not add garam masala or tomato as I feel it spoils the color :-). If you like, you can puree a tomato and add it (reduce yogurt in this case and skip lemon juice to balance the tangyness).
  • Use butter instead of oil for a richer taste. Add a Tbsp of cream once you switch off and let it stand for 10 minutes before serving to make it richer. 
  • If you love the bright green color of the curry, it is important to follow these steps: 
    • Do not cover and cook while boiling spinach. 
    • Do not cook for more than 3-4 minutes (you should switch off the stove as soon as the leaves wilt)
    • Drain the hot water and run cold water immediately after taking out of stove.
    • Plan the pureeing so that it doesn't sit out for long before getting added to the curry.