Monday, April 17, 2017

Besan laddoo - a special treat picked up on a journey down the memory lane

The excitement would start building from the moment nammamma announced sometime during dinner time in her gentle voice, "this time kelasa is on so&so day".  The message was for my father more than anyone else but we all had our ears tuned to the adult discussion :-). When we were kids, in addition to the festivals and celebrations, there used to be one or more 'special days (called Thithi or shraadha')' reserved to remember an elderly soul in the family who had passed on. Like in many traditions around the world this day is dedicated to remember and celebrate the life of a beloved grandmom or a grand dad. We had 2 special days celebrated every year. These days don't go by the Gregorian calendar but rather by the ancient Indian calendar and anna would mark them at the beginning of every year on the Bangalore press calendar as soon as he got it home and the calendar would hang conspicuously in the living room. We used to wait for these days as eagerly as any festivals since the food on the day would be an ultimate feast for foodies and non foodies alike. Distinct in taste, different menu than the festival days yet balanced in all nutrients, the lunch was something to look forward to. At that age we turned this naturally somber and reflective day into a day of fun and food as we not only got to eat delicious food but also got to meet cousins and aunts and uncles.
The only part of the day I didn't like much was that the kids were literally banished from the main part of the house where the rituals were performed. Our standard breakfast before school that day was uppittu (A big vessel full of hot uppittu would come to the room along with some pickles and a container of yogurt) before we headed off to school. No wonder uppittu is fondly referred to as 'cement' by many people as it solidifies once inside and stays put for a long time :-). My uncles would feed us kids after bath and then go back into the kitchen to help nammamma, a lot of food preparation and they divided up the chores. If we were home, we had to be quiet as mice and show up in the pooja room only when called. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, chikkappa (dad's younger brother) would call in his school master voice, "come in and take blessings", which was the sound we would be hoping for since morning :-).
What followed a quick 'blessings' session was the 'prasada' session and then the full on lunch :-). Prasada session had chikkappa standing with a big plate with different varieties of dishes prepared on that day, he would nicely break them into tiny pieces and drop into the little hands. We wouldn't get more than a sampler of any variety as he told us that we shouldn't be filling up before lunch (oh yeah, we had stern upbringing!!). I actually hoped that these special days came on school days since atleast we would be in school and not salivating the whole time at the fragrance and aroma from the kitchen. Everything would be done by the time school ended and as soon as we reached home, we would attack the food. If it was on a school holiday, the wait was all pure torture :-). A late lunch on that day only meant we got to stuff up for the delay as well and we took complete advantage of it. I can't imagine how nammamma cooked for so many people on an empty stomach and yet everything turned out just delicious.
Nammamma had a cousin brother and family living in Mysuru as well and they would invite us when they had special days at their home.  'special' days came to their home. So in addition to 2 days in our own home, we had access to 2 more at this cousin's place. But my parents never allowed us to bunk school for our own 'special' days and taking a day off for going to the cousin's house was not even imaginable :-). Most years nammamma would go there by herself after the rest of the family left for work, school/college. Though we missed the elaborate lunch, the cousins always sent amma home with prasada/food. They would send exactly one each for each of us of the different varieties of sweets and savory items :-). Which is why we perked up whenever nammamma made that announcement at dinner time :-).

Although I devoured on the vade (Urad dal deep fried dumplings) from the prasada bag, I mostly looked forward to these sweet, melt in the mouth beauties that was a signature dish of nammamma's cousin. These were the tiny marble sized balls, bright in color, sweet on the tongue with a fine sand-like texture. The besan unde or besan laddoo had to be there every time. It was also precious because nammamma never made them at home. Nammamma was a specialist in making the coveted Mysore pak and for her besan unde was a step down, so she never cared to make it. For us kids, it is always the forbidden fruit that is the juiciest and hence we would wait for the besan unde from outside. Not only were those undes the best besan laddoos I ever eaten, they were one of the tiniest as well, just about the size of a marble, fit for one gulp in a little kid's mouth.
For me these besan laddoos have always been associated with that cousin's family and though it has been many years since I visited them or had the laddoos at their home, the taste is etched in memory. I am not the Mysorepak expert that nammamma was so this is an easy go-to dish for me as my family loves it. I have also found a lot of fans of this laddoo as everytime I have made it and taken it on social events, they just vanish like magic. Other than patiently roasting the gramflour, there is no expert skill required to make this dish at all. It stays well and is travel friendly. I made a batch last week and packed them off to DD, they still seem to be on their way as either fedex or her mailroom goofed up and she didn't receive the package before the weekend which makes me a little bummed. Hoping that she gets it when the services open back on Monday. Update today: Yay!! the package reached my little girl and am happy!!

The south Indian besan laddoos are not coarse in texture rather very fine sandy textured. I prefer this over the north indian version made with coarse besan (called laddoo besan), it is just a personal preference. I have seen and been part of besan laddoo making in temples where we have sat roasting the besan in gallons of ghee in huge kadais to make hundreds of laddoos at one go. The aroma of fresh ghee is so overwhelming, I just wouldn't be able to bring myself to even look at ghee for a month after that :-). The texture and consistency of the laddoo is such that it breaks easily but doesn't crumble down entirely, feels like very fine sand in the mouth and melts away. The laddoos glisten with the ghee when freshly shaped but lose the moisture after a little while.
This is a very simple recipe but you definitely want to pay attention to a few things. It is not technique heavy as the mysore pak where you need to watch for the 'done-ness', but you do need to watch the gram flour so it is neither under nor over roasted. I start dry roasting the besan before adding the ghee to make it easier. There are microwave versions of this dish which are quicker, easier to make without needing as much baby sitting as this stove top version but somehow I like the traditional way making it.

I don't add cardamom as I love the flavor and aroma of the roasted besan as DH doesn't really care for cardamom so much and I am hoping that changes someday :-). I love adding finely chopped almonds into this as they not only add to the texture but also makes the unde more nutritious. You can experiment with unsalted cashew nuts and pistachios as well to see which tastes better for you. Sometimes I toast the nuts, powder them and mix into the gramflour for a richer flavor too.

Unde (pronounced as 'vun de') is a reference to a circular ball in kannada and most laddoos go by this name with an qualifier attached such as rave-unde(laddoos made from semolina), Besan-unde (laddoos made from gram flour) etc.

What do you need to make besan unde?
2 cups fine besan/gram flour/chickpea flour
1+3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 cup ghee (melted)
1/4 cup almonds

A heavy gauge wide non stick pan.
A wooden spatula

How do you make besan unde? 
  • Melt the ghee if it has solidified, I like to make fresh ghee from butter for this recipe as fresh tastes better :-).
  • Dry roast (you can toast them in the oven at 350F for 10 minutes) almonds, let cool and chop into tiny bits.
  • Sieve the besan/gram flour to get rid of any lumps and measure 2 cups of sieved flour into the pan. 
  • Keep the pan on the stove on the lowest heat/flame and start to roast, keep stirring frequently. 
  • After about 5-6 mins, add the ghee into the pan and mix everything together. 
  • Continue roasting on low flame for the next 30-35mins until the gramflour turns a golden pink and starts to emanate a wonderful nutty aroma. The 2 cups I used took me a total of 45mins from start to finish. 
  • I add the chopped almonds a couple of minutes before switching off and let them roast along with the flour. 
  • Once done, switch off the stove, take the pan off heat (especially if you are using an electric stove that retains heat long after it is switched off) and continue stirring and mixing for another 5mins so as to not let the mix get burnt. 
  • Keep the roasted flour to cool down for about 20-25mins, add the powdered sugar and mix it up completely.
  • Pinch off desired amount of the mixture and shape into a ball. 
  • Lay the shaped laddoos on a plate and let them cool down before storing in a dry container. Ah, I forgot the part about eating, didn't I? start eating anytime once you add sugar :-), it is equally delicious in crumbles as it is in a firmly held ball.
  • The unde/laddoo firms up as it cools and dries for a while after shaping.
  • This dessert is all about the roasting of the gram flour, I cannot stress that enough. Low heat, constant stirring and oodles of patience are the primary ingredients for this dish to turn out best. 
  • Use a pan just wide enough for the amount of flour you take. If the pan is too big, besan has more chances of getting burnt while roasting.
  • Watch for the nutty aroma of the roasted gram flour and the light golden hue before switching off. 
  • Wait for the roasted gramflour to cool down before adding sugar or it will turn into a sorta syrup. 
  • You can add other nuts like unsalted cashews, pistachios or a mix of all of them as well. 
  • When you measure ghee, make sure you have melted it so the quantity is accurate. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Kuttida avalakki - a home made mix to make a delicious gojjavalakki in minutes

Long, long ago, there were two friends. As kids they grew up together, went to school together. One was called Sudhama and the other was named Krishna. They stayed in a boarding school (Gurukula) with their teacher and his family along with other students. The two of them bonded very well over the course 7 years of schooling. They were inseparable and could be spotted together in all activities in the school. Years pass, schooling comes to an end, they graduate and are both very excited to go out in to the world and start their adult lives. As it happens at every graduation, both Krishna & Sudhama are sad to be going separate ways, hug each other and promise that they will keep in touch always. And as it happens in most cases, they both become busy in their lives and the friendship, staying in touch takes a backseat.
Krishna goes back home and becomes very successful at what he does while Sudhama faces hard times and struggles to even feed his large family. Krishna's fame extends all over the kingdom and one day reaches Sudhama's little town on the other side. Sudhama's wife is worldly wise, a mother bent on making ends meet and taking care of her family. She talks to her husband and asks him if he would visit his rich friend and get something to help them get over their difficulties in life. Sudhama who is very proud tells her that he would never go begging from his friend. The wife doesn't give up easily and keeps telling the husband about how things could change if only he would do as she said and finally Sudhama relents and sets out on his journey to meet Krishna.
It is a long journey, Sudhama's wife comes up with a couple of handfuls of humble avalakki (poha) so the husband doesn't starve on his long journey. She puts it into an old cloth piece, ties up a knot and gives it to her husband. With no mode of transport to carry him quickly to his destination, Sudhama walks all the way, for many days and finally reaches Krishna's home town. It is a much bigger city, one he has never been to and is dazzlingly beautiful. Krishna being who he is, everyone knows exactly where he lives, so after finding out the address, Sudhama makes his way hesitantly towards the palace. The guard stops this dirty looking, travel weary person at the door and questions his intention. Not believing his story of knowing Krishna from childhood, the guard is suspicious though he goes in to report a visitor.
Krishna is relaxing in the afternoon sun with his wife Rukmini after a heavy lunch and orders the guard to bring the stranger in. Sudhama by this time is already scared and is thinking of the shame that awaits him as the guard pushes him into the inner chambers where Krishna is sitting. As soon as Sudhama enters, Krishna jumps out of his seat, runs towards him and embraces him in a bear hug. At that moment, there is no line between the poor & rich, successful and not-so-successful, they are both two good friends who had shared many, many memories together.
Krishna playing the host, washes the feet of his guest, makes him comfortable, gives him food to eat and when they sit down after food to catch up where they had left off years ago, Krishna asks Sudhama what he had brought for his friend as he was visiting him after many years. Sudhama is very ashamed and tries to avoid the question as he has nothing to offer. Krishna is insistent and playful and says that even if Sudhama had forgotten his friend, his wife would never send him empty handed and snatches the old thaili (cloth bag) that Sudhama is carrying. Inside it, he finds another small cloth tied into a knot. Krishna eagerly opens it up and squeals with joy when he sees the remaining couple of morsels of dried up avalakki (which was Sudhama's journey food) and greedily pops some into the mouth. His eyes close contentedly as he remarks, "Well dear friend, are you so selfish that you wanted to hide this delicious avalakki from me and eat it all by yourself"?. As he puts his hand for another morsel, Rukmini gently tells him, "hasn't there been enough already, my Lord?". Krishna, smiles and puts the thaili away and goes back to chatting with his old friend.
Sudhama has a great time with Krishna, as if they had never been away, enjoys the hospitality but never feels up to asking Krishna for help. After a couple days of stay, he bids farewell and heads back home. His heart is full having seen his old friend and he doesn't remember the poverty back home or the reason for his visit. As he approaches his home, he is shocked to see a palatial home in the place where his shack stood and even more surprised when his wife and children run towards him, well dressed and looking well fed and happy. He realizes Krishna's magic and is thankful for the friendship.
I don't know how many times I have listened to this story from nammamma and anna growing up. It was a story that had all the emotions in right proportions, there was friendship, there was surprise, there was happiness and joy. The charm never fades away and depending on your age and stage in life, you can interpret it at different levels. I am sure many of you would recognize this very popular story from the great epic. I have listened in rapture to these stories when little, read many versions of them myself as I grew up, questioned a number of times, and have gone back to re-tell them to my daughter when she was a kid. It is an endearing story of two friends and how nothing can come between a true friendship. For me, it also is a story that establishes the power of humble avalakki, eating a handful of which made Krishna shower all the riches on his poor friend. Ok, I am a little totally biased here :-).
Avalakki (also called poha or beaten rice or flattened rice) is such a versatile ingredient and makes many delicious dishes. It is also considered as something that can be consumed while you are fasting unlike regular rice. Avalakki also happens to be one of the most preferred travel companion in many south indian homes, as it stays good and is non messy to carry while on the road. One of my doddamma (mom's elder sister) always had this mix in her bag when she traveled as she had many self imposed restrictions on what she would/could eat and always fell back on her trusted avalakki mixture. I loved it so much even in its dry mix state that I would beg her to give me a couple spoons. Once the spicy, tangy, sweetish mix popped into the mouth, I would be the happiest girl in town :-).
Last week I was traveling on work and was away from home for the entire week. While I have become good at spotting vegetarian choices during lunches & dinners and have learnt to successfully stay cheerful on an overload of salads, bread and potatoes, I love to start my day off with something that reminds me of home as the delicious taste, the familiar smell helps me live off of it for the rest of the day. Today's recipe is something we as a family always carry while travelling on longer trips.

As usual, I made the mixture last weekend before heading out, packed a small ziplock bag and left some at home for BH. While I was perfectly fine eating the bf at the hotel for the first 2 days, I was craving for something other than cereals and fruits by day#3 :-). I mixed a few spoons of the avalakki mixture in a cup in the room when I got up and by the time I got ready 30mins or so later, fluffy, aromatic avalakki was ready for me to dig into. Just for fun, I took a picture of my bf on a whim and posted it on my personal fb the other day. I was thrilled to see so many friends writing in to say how this is their travel companion too. And there were many recipe requests that made me make another batch today and post it on the blog. We are not traveling this week but the mix will be eaten up more than happily for bf in the coming days :-), I have a big fan following for this recipe at home.

So what is special about this recipe? It is a dry mix that can be carried easily and made into a yummy treat just by soaking it in water for a short while. Kuttavalakki or kuttida avalakki refers to the process of pounding the avalakki and the rest of the ingredients together to make the mix. I don't use the old world gadgets anymore and nor do I hand pound the mix, rather it goes into my blender. So may be I should rename this as 'mixavalakki' or 'blendavalakki', what do you think :-)?. Whatever the name maybe, this is one delicious dish for sure, so go ahead and give it a try and take it with you on the go. Instead of soaked oats, you can enjoy soaked avalakki for a change. I list curry leaves below but I didn't have them today so you will not see them in my pictures.

What do you need to make kuttavalakki? 
Makes about 5 cups of mix
3 cups medium thick avalakki/poha/beaten rice
3/4 cup lightly packed grated dry coconut/kobbari (can be replaced with desiccated unsweetened coconut)
2 Tbsp crushed jaggery (can be replaced with brown sugar)
1 Tbsp salt (adjust to taste)
1/8 Tsp asafoetida/hing
To roast: 
2.5 Tbsp chana dal/kadle bele/split bengal gram
2 Tbsp sesame seeds (use either polished or unpolished white sesame and not black)
1 Tbsp urad dal/uddina bele/split black lentils
1 Tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 Tbsp black pepper
1 Tsp cumin
1/2 Tsp fenugreek seeds
1.5 Tbsp (or a key lime size) tamarind
3-4 dry red chilies (I use a mix of mild Byadagi and spicy guntur varieties for a balance of color and heat)
1/4 cup oil
1 Tsp mustard
1 Tbsp chana dal
1 Tbsp urad dal
2 Tbsp peanuts (more or less as you like)
1/4 Tsp turmeric powder
1-2 dry red chilies (optional and can be omitted)
8-10 curry leaves chopped small

How do you make kuttavalakki? 
  • Pick avalakki for any dirt and keep aside
  • Pick seeds, pith and strings from tamarind and make small flat pieces. 
  • Heat a heavy bottom pan and add chana dal from the 'To roast' list. Give it a minute head start on medium-low heat and add urad dal. 
  • Roast the dals, stirring frequently until they turn light golden in color. 
  • Add all the remaining ingredients listed under 'to roast' and stirring frequently roast them until you get a nice fragrance of the spices. Take care not to burn any of them. 
  • Add hing and grated coconut (reserve a Tsp for later) into the pan, stir it once and switch off. 
  • Let the roasted ingredients cool completely. 
  • In a mixer jar, take all the roasted ingredients and grind into a fine powder. 
  • Add salt, grated jaggery and give it another run of the blender. 
  • Take this into a wide mixing bowl or plate. 
  • Add avalakki/poha to the blender (in batches if you need to) and make a coarse powder. 
  • Add this to the same mixing bowl/plate. 
  • Heat oil in a seasoning pan, add all the ingredients listed under 'seasoning' and roast on low heat (lower the heat and longer the the roasting time, the dals and peanuts retain their crunch better) until mustard starts to pop and the dals turn golden pink. Add reserved coconut gratings. 
  • Switch off and pour it over the ground mixture. 
  • Let it all cool completely before mixing in (use your fingers and hand) to make a homogeneous mixture. 
  • Once cool, you can either make it into gojjavalakki (see below) or store it for later use in a dry ziplock bag or container. 
How do you turn the mix into gojjavalakki?
  • Take 2-3 Tbsp of the dry mixture into a bowl (or a cup or glass depending on where you are). 
  • Add quarter cup of water, thumb rule is to add enough water to form a thin layer on the top surface of the mix and every grain of the mix is soaked. 
  • Do not mix and touch it for about 15mins (thicker the avalakki variety, takes longer to soak but no longer than 30mins). 
  • After the soak time, using a fork, fluff it up all around and enjoy. 
  • If you have access to some home made yogurt, add a dollop on the side or mix it up right in and enjoy. 
  • Tamarind I get here is usually very dehydrated and does not contain moisture, warming it up in the hot pan makes it softer and easier to grind. If you have wet tamarind, ensure you spread it out to make it a little dry. 
  • While grinding the spice mix, take care to not run the blender for long, pulse it if you need to and get a dry powder. Running the blender continuously makes sesame seeds give out their oil and turns the mixture wet. 
  • Amount of jaggery, salt, and tamarind is mainly to taste here. Experiment and find your balance. Remember that the dry mixture taste gets diluted once you add water, so accommodate your quantities for that. 
  • Color of your gojjavalakki depends on the chilies and turmeric used, you can see the difference in colors between my two batches in the pics above. Not a big deal unless you are very particular about the aesthetics :-)
  • The dry mixture stays well for a couple of weeks and longer if you refrigerate it. 
  • Make sure the mixer/blender jar is dry and devoid of any moisture before you make the powders. 
  • Do not use the thin variety of avalakki for this recipe, it just makes it all lumpy and mushy. 
  • Nammamma used to spread avalakki in the sun to freshen it up but since I don't make her 'huge' quantities, I use it directly from the packet.
  • I am very liberal with dry coconut as it enhances the taste :-), reduce the quantity if you wish to.
Kuttavalakki wisdom: 
  • Thicker variety of avalakki absorbs more water and takes a few minutes longer to fluff up.
  • If you make a very fine powder of poha, the final product turns soft and mushy instead of fluffy.
  • After the soak time is up, make sure you fluff it up with a fork completely (from the bottom up) so it is homogeneous. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Black eyed beans vada - a quick and delicious "pick me up" snack

DD and her friends went back to school last sunday and the house feels completely empty and silent. The past week was laced with lot of sounds, songs, dance accompanied by unexpected sudden shrieks as they found something exciting to share. Even when they were silent or sitting still, there was an expectation of something fun happening. Flora has been lying in her bed with a long face having been pampered so much by the doting girls, not to even mention all the treats they sneaked to her when mom wasn't around or looking over her shoulders. I have grown so used to 3 pairs of hands and arms reaching out at different times in to the chakli dabba or walking in looking for 'something to eat' as I worked in the kitchen. They enjoyed taking home food on their daily drives and outings and always came back looking forward to the dinner time. As for me and BH, we are trying to be more mature than Flora and get back to our activities and enjoy them though it honestly takes time to make sense of the quietness so soon coming after the merry week.
I have been offered a new job as a chief, "non resident" chef by the girls. They want me to move to the college town and cook food for them. As with any job offer, there are caveats and do & dont's such as - I can't force myself to stay with them in their apartment next year, stay at a non intrusive distance from them, can't drop in at any random time at the pretense of delivering food, can't put on mommy hat when I see a pile of laundry on the floor, should abstain from reaching out for the camera every time they break into a practice dance or song session ...etc. So while I would love to stay in the same town and cook for them (and many more that will drop in apparently), I am reconsidering given all the constraints and haven't made a decision yet. The other deterrent was that they are yet to come up with a way to pay me for my services :-) and I will need to find another way to be financially independent. What do you all suggest?
Work in its regular form resumed from Monday for both of us, BH was in a week long work related conference and announced on Sunday night that he didn't want bf, lunch and dinner for the next 4 days. I had a little bit of left over to last me a day and then a whole bunch of assorted veggies ranging from sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans, asparagus, peppers and cauliflower. Since I was meaning to try some different kind of meal from my usual, I decided to skip the roti and rice completely for a week and make the most of the fresh vegetables before they started going limp and mushy on me. We drove with the girls to a small Bevarian town at the Cascade foothills and I brought home a bottle of jalepeno flavored olive oil :-), it is soooo good that I am very tempted to make some at home. For now, the bottle will last  me for a while. So ended up roasting a huge batch of vegetables in some of the flavored oil and salt and took it for lunch and ate it for dinner with a bowl of home made yogurt sprinkled with roasted cumin and salt, yummm.. . I have realized that I can not only survive but also eat heartily and enjoy a meal as long as it is sufficiently salted and there is a crunch in there somewhere, doesn't matter if there is no rice or flour as long as the meal has character and some spunk to it :-) I did the roasting on Sunday night and the batch of roasted vegetables lasted me until Friday. I hardly switched on the stove or cooked anything after that this past week. It felt like the cooking fairy had taken her wand and just gone phooooosh out of my kitchen window.
BH came back home on Friday evening and was totally shocked to see the empty fridge devoid of leftovers in tiny, small, medium, large boxes which is usually how my fridge is stocked. Seeing him crave for edible stuff also made me miss my cooking and so I decided to get back in action over the weekend. As the weather has been playing with us and gray skies & a chilly breeze were to welcome the next morning, I couldn't think of anything better than a special meal of BBB with some raita. A side of papads was replaced willingly with a more elaborate plate of deep fried, crispy vadas in the plan. Only I didn't have a decent amount of chana dal in the pantry. Ended up soaking some black eyed beans over night and made some really light, crispy, delicious vadas with them. We skipped bf and proceeded to make an elaborate brunch. By the time the pot of BBB was ready, we were too hungry to wait until the vadas got done and I am not a good photographer on a hungry stomach and waning patience :-). So the plan changed slightly as we ate the first dose of BBB with a bowl of cool raita and put off making the vadas until later in the afternoon. Had them garma-garam (piping hot) with a cup of tea and then with a bowl of BBB on the side, mission accomplished :-). Oh wait, I broke a few vadas into quarters and immersed them in some home made yogurt and stuck them in the refrigerator for some cool vadas to enjoy later.
Since it was an after thought and not a very well planned event, I threw in whatever I thought made sense into the vada batter such as a handful of mint leaves, some chopped fresh coconut pieces. None of these are mandatory but add to the taste. Black eyed beans have a distinct taste and you will be glad you added some flavor enhancing substances like mint, onion, ginger etc. Dill leaves are another good option. These vadas taste best when hot and just out of the oil, but also retain a layer of crispness as they cool down. Most of South Indian dal vadas (ambode, chattambode, masala vada) are all similar in preparation with minor changes so I was debating between elaborating on the recipe (and boring to death a skilled reader) versus making it concise (and disappointing a novice cook that visits the blog) :-) and have made some effort to strike a balance. Notes at the bottom have the tips and tricks to make a great crunchy vada. Feel free to message me if you are trying this and have questions.
Makes a wonderful snack for a rainy afternoon with a cuppa. Our weather here has been as unpredictable as it can be. According to weather bureau, we had one of the driest January in history only to be broken by one of the wettest February! and March is marching in the footsteps of February so far with very few dry & sunny days while the rains have taken the front seat. I am enjoying the rains as always and hoping the plants do too. To get myself back into the groove after a week of break from cooking and to celebrate the joy of rains, I made these crispy, crunchy vadas and they not only lifted our spirits but also seem to have had an influence on the weather as today started with blue skies, golden sun and a bright morning :-). Now after binging on these through out the weekend, may be it is time for some control starting tomorrow??

Black eyed beans are also called alasande (kannada), bobbarlu (Telugu), Chawli or Lobhia (Hindi) and are one of my favorite beans. They don't need a very long soaking time and you can even get away by washing and cooking dry beans directly in pressure cooker if you are pressed for time. They are great in Usli and gravy dishes as well.
What do you need to make black eyed beans vada? 
Makes about 20-22 vadas
1.5 cups dry black eyed beans
2 Tbsp chopped fresh coconut (skip it if you don't want)
1/2 cup (more or less according to taste) chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup finely chppoed onion
salt to taste
4-5 green chilies
1 inch piece ginger
oil to deep fry (I use peanut oil)
How to make black eyed beans vadas?
  • Soak the beans overnight or atleast for 5-6 hours
  • Wash and drain the soaked beans.
  • Grind with green chilies, ginger into a coarse paste leaving out some beans in halves and quarters. 
  • Take the ground paste into a bowl, add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. 
  • Heat oil in a deep kadai. drop a small amount of the batter and check if the oil is hot (if it sizzles right away and comes to the surface immediately it is ready).
  • While the oil is heating, make small key lime sized balls of the batter, flatten them a little to form discs and keep them ready. 
  • Once the oil is hot, add as many prepared vadas as your kadai holds without piling them up and fry until golden brown on both sides. 
  • Take them out onto a paper towel lined plate and enjoy with a hot cup of tea or coffee. 
  • Keep the heat on medium once you drop the vadas and fry slowly so the inside gets cooked completely. 
  • Grind the paste in pulse mode and do not add any water. Grind in batches to make it easy on your blender. 
  • Grind it to a coarse blend and avoid either making a smooth paste or leaving whole beans in the mixture. 
  • If you end up adding water while grinding and the batter doesn't hold its shape, you can try adding a Tbsp or so of besan/gram flour and give it a mix. 
  • All the add-ons such as onion, mint, dill, cilantro, green chilies, ginger etc are to taste, adjust the quantity to suit your palate. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Vegetable fried rice - a continental favorite

Happy Women's day all you wonderful women out there!! More love, more empowerment to all of you. I am grateful for the influence and impact of several women in my life. I also want to acknowledge the role of many men that simply allowed me to be 'me'. If it hadn't been for a father who never once held me back from doing what I wanted to do, if it isn't for a husband who always supports every "crazy to good" ideas I come up with, if it isn't for the 2 brothers that never treat me differently because I am a girl (I know this for a fact because they never spared me in fights and treated me like one of their own:-)), I am sure my life would have been vastly different. I realize that my life is not the norm everywhere, wishing all the girls same opportunities to spread their wings and grow.
Finally spring break is here :-) and DD is home after more than 2 months. While it may not be spring break for all ages and in all parts of the world :-) I am sure you will share my joy this week. Lotsa love, food, laughter and stories..this week at home. For us, spring break seems to be here triple fold as DD came home with two of her friends. Home seems to be fuller, more alive and happier :-). The girls are having fun doing things on their own, driving in and around PNW and braving the unusually chilly weather.

I don't know how many of you notice the change in eating patterns when kids come home from school. With DD the change is very visible, almost 'in my face' kind of thing. There is no longer any fuss about the food, everything amma makes is delicious and she is almost always hungry. Looking at 3 of them this week has me really sad at whatever the school cafeterias serve as food. Even the simplest of the dishes make them happy and contented.
This fried rice is possibly one of the simplest recipes I have blogged but DD's explicit instructions this time is to make sure I blog it so she can use it when she starts to cook :-), so here I am, the dutiful mom catering to her wishes.

Long time ago (think a decade and half ago) when the Indian food diaspora was not bursting like it is today, all we had access to as quirky teenagers and 'acting' grown up young adults was Indian food at home and outside home. This was the time when the nation's obsession had not gone completely international on the food front. The number of restaurants was very small and the food choice just seemed like an extension of what we normally ate at home, forget the fancy American, Italian, Mexican food. One would go to a hotel (that is what we called them when we were kids) to eat a dose/dosa that had taken an oil bath or a plate of mirchi bajjis that you would not make at home on a daily basis.

But even in those days, one international (??) food had made its way surely into the food scene. Everyone from small road side cartwallahs to decent and trendy restaurants served a genre of food called Indo chinese food. This included the manchurians, crispy, spicy noodles and the very distinct fried rice. I have not visited china (unless you count the couple of lay overs in Hongkong :-)) and am not an expert at anything China, but I have a lot of friends, colleagues from the Chinese community, I would think that makes me somewhat of an authority :-). Indo-chinese food was and continues to be a craze in India even though people are getting exposed to other cuisines. What we know of chinese food in India is really a very Indianized version of the food, many dishes being unheard of and unknown in mainland China :-). But that is the beauty of good food, right? it evolves, morphs and adapts to suit the palate of the people that enjoy eating. I am pretty sure there is a cook's license akin to a poet's license and the creative freedom sets you free.
In any case, not being someone that frequented restaurants, my first bite of the Chinese fried rice was at a hotel infront of my office in namma Bengaluru. BH would stop during lunch time if he happened to be in my part of the city and we would try and catch some time together in the midst of schedules, projects and the deadlines. He being more worldly wise and definitely having visited this place many times before took me there for lunch one day and ordered the veggie fried rice. Crunchy vegetables exuding sesame oil flavor was a new taste on my tongue but I enjoyed it thoroughly. I was full by the time the bowl was half empty though. Those days, restaurants didnt encourage customers to take home the left overs and sadly I had to let it go waste :-(.

We didn't stock the necessary ingredients for making the rice at home in those days and so it became one of the frequent orders when we dined out. I make this often at home as we all love it. I wonder why it had stayed a restaurant food for such a long time given the simple ingredients list. We have a south indian joint here in town and he serves veggie fried rice along with his chettinad specials and dosa/idlis :-) and it is pretty good. So here is an easy to whip up and lip smacking vegetable fried rice.

What do you need to make fried rice? 
1.5 cups short grain rice (I used sona masoori)
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1.5 Tbsp chili sauce
1 Tsp white vinegar (optional but recommended)
1/8 Tsp black pepper coarse ground
1.5 inch ginger made into a paste
2-3 cloves of garlic made into a paste
3/4 cup finely chopped green beans
3/4 cup finely chopped carrots
1 cup thinly chopped cabbage
2 Tbsp finely chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion
1/2 cup finely chopped assorted colored pepper (I haven't used any this time)
1 Tsp salt
3 Tbsp oil (preferably sesame oil for that authentic flavor)
How do you make fried rice? (as you will see, it is very easy and simple :-))
  • Get the vegetables chopped and keep them ready
  • Wash & soak rice for 20-30 mins 
  • Heat 6 cups of water in a big pot and bring it to a gentle boil
  • Drain the water from the soaked rice and add rice to the boiling water. Add a couple drops of oil and stir it in. 
  • Lower the heat to medium and let it cook for about 10-12 minutes or until rice is just about done. 
  • Switch off and drain all the water out. I let this water cool completely and use it to water my potted plants (nammamma said that it actually helps bring out the flavor in the curry leaves plant and I follow the advice)
  • Run cold water on cooked rice, fluff it up with a fork and let it cool
  • Heat a big wok and add sesame oil. Let it heat up almost to its smoking point. 
  • Add chopped onion and saute for 30secs. 
  • Add ginger and garlic paste followed by finely chopped carrots & beans
  • Let them cook on high flame for a minute, add cabbage and half of the spring onions. 
  • Stir the vegetables constantly on flame and let them turn slightly tender.
  • Add the sauces and vinegar to the vegetable mixture along with salt. 
  • Add coarsely crushed pepper. 
  • Add cooked rice and stir them together. 
  • Taste test and adjust spices & salt to your liking. 
  • Garnish with reserved spring onions. 
  • Serve hot/warm.
  • BH and I added 1/2 Tsp/per serving of a green chili chutney to make a little hot for us
  • The girls scrambled a couple of eggs with a dash of salt and pepper and added it to the rice. 
  • A favorite way of serving this fried rice in India is along with a side of gobi manchurian, I didn't make them this time :-)
  • Vegetables in this rice are cooked al dente and retain a crunch.
  • Using a wide wok and keeping it on high flame is key to a well blended fried rice.
  • Make sure rice is cooked so as the grains are separate and fluff

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Phodi - A desi version of Italian eggplant parmesan (no parmesan though) :-)

It has been a long time since I shared the books on my night stand and the movies I watched, I thought of doing this as part of today's post especially because I am back to reading this new year and also have been watching movies fairly regularly. And timing can't be better with Oscars 2017 just a few hours away, right?. Well, I was writing the draft of the post (as you can imagine) earlier this afternoon and got to posting the final version only now (after watching the Oscars) :-). Did you watch it? Any favorites? I have only seen 'Arrival' so far this year, the others 'Hidden Figures', 'Moonlight', 'La La Land' and ofcourse 'Fences' are on the list, will get to them slowly, may be on the tube if not in theaters. But I am glad to be back to reading books at my old pace. Two of the things that make me really happy in this life - a pile of good books and a pantry full of raw materials. Books to help me in and out of any situation and pantry grounds me to the current moment, focus on the basics. I currently have a bagful of books on my nightstand and two of them are by the same author recommended by a friend. I also recently watched a wonderful movie on the recommendation of another friend. Both suggestions were spot on and I loved both the books and the movie :-).
A dear friend who is also a published author recommended William Trevor to me recently. I am always partial to short stories, I feel like a well written short story has the potential to make a greater impression in a few short pages than a long, elaborate novel. While novels provide a wide space and a broad brush to slowly and deliberately introduce characters, build the story line and express emotions, short stories do not offer any of this luxury but infact demand that the writer be totally convinced about what (s)he is trying to convey in the tight space. Only a very able writer can do justice to paint a lingering image within a span of a few pages of his/her writing. A well written short story can be very powerful while a badly written one can fall flat on its face. William Trevor makes reading short stories a pleasure and I am hooked into his style of writing and the characters he brings to life with his narration. Having finished both 'A bit on the side' and 'Cheating at Canasta', I am on a waiting list for his 'Collected Short stories' next :-). Thanks J for the recommendation, not sure how I never got to his books earlier.

Another friend S mentioned Helen Mirren's "Woman in Gold" on Netflix to me. With HM in the lead I didn't need additional push in the direction and watched it last weekend when I was home alone while BH was busy at some conference. Based on a true story, the movie deals with the recovery of a piece of art with a very intimate personal connection. As any work with the Nazi Germany, this movie has the power to put a knot in your stomach but I enjoyed watching the movie. It is still on Netflix and definitely a watch worth its time. Again, thank you S for the lovely chat and the movie reco :-)

Do you have books or movie recommendations? Something that you enjoyed spending time with? Share them in the comments.
Moving on to the recipe today, here is a deceptively simple and delicious snack, appetizer, side dish made with eggplants. Depending on your mood, you can serve this as a starter or main course. I first tasted this a decade+ back at one of BH's colleague's home when we went there for dinner. His parents were visiting and as R & wife had two young kids that demanded the parents's time and attention, aunty had taken charge of the kitchen. They are originally from Gokarna, the beautiful northern karnataka temple town and aunty's food was everything I had read and imagined from that region. The ease and skill with which she rolled out soft akki rottis and served them hot off the griddle for the ten of us while making it all look so effortless is something I can never forget. I most definitely remember calling nammamma that night and telling her all about aunty's cooking :-). After all these years, I don't exactly remember the entire spread (it certainly was a spread) but one dish that became an instant hit with us was this 'phodi'. She had made them with eggplants and potatoes and kept them ready even before we reached their home and served it along side the akki rottis for dinner. Yumm!!
Eggplants and I have a long history, it started with me completely hating the vegetable and staying miles away from it to decidedly ignoring it when it made its way to my plate to falling in love with nammamma's vangibhaath to enjoying the delicious gojju to totally changing sides with amma's stuffed vankaya. I am sure many of you can relate with this, it is not a vegetable that has universal appeal of the spuds but everyone in my family with the exception of DD loves this simple, nutritious and healthy vegetable. The only way DD eats this vegetable currently is in the form of this phodi and sometimes the stuffed version. I exploit that shamelessly and make this often so she gets to eat the vegetable and hope that someday she will be a convert just like her own mom :-). BH on the other hand can eat this phodi all by itself and call it a meal, such is his love for the humble eggplant.

Being an ardent Olive garden fan, DD called this Indian eggplant parmesan since it resembles the Italian dish in looks :-) but the name is misleading as the ingredients and taste is very different as is the cooking method. If you love eggplants and like the texture of tenderized/shrivelled eggplants and are trying to skip cheese and Italian seasoning, this is a perfect dish. Go ahead and give it a try.
What do you need for Phodi? 
1 medium sized eggplant
3 Tbsp oil
Spice mix: 
3/4 cup upma rava/sooji
1 Tsp red chili powder
1 Tsp salt
1/2 Tsp coarse crushed black pepper
1/4 Tsp asafoetida
1/4 Tsp Turmeric powder
How do you make Phodi? 
  • Wash and pat dry the eggplant, cut both the stem end and the opposite end.
  • Cut the eggplant in discs of about 1/4 inch thickness and keep them immersed in a bowl of water to avoid discoloration.
  • Heat a heavy (preferably cast iron) griddle on medium heat and let it heat up (a sprinkle of water should immediately sizzle)
  • Take a wide plate, add all the ingredients listed under spice mix and mix them uniformly. 
  • Taste test a pinch and adjust salt, chili powder or black pepper to suit your taste.
  • Make sure the pan is hot, drizzle a couple of drops of oil and smear it all around the pan and reduce heat to low. 
  • Take an eggplant disc from water, shake away all the water and dredge it in the dry spice mixture to form a thick & even coating on both sides. 
  • Lay the eggplant disc on the hot griddle and repeat for as many pieces as your griddle can hold. 
  • Drizzle drops of oil on and around the eggplant discs, cover and cook for 2mins. 
  • I use a glass lid for this so I can see the progress of cooking from outside without having to lift it multiple times :-)
  • Once the top layer is moist and the disc looks a little shrivelled, gently lift each one and turn it over. 
  • Let it cook for another minute and half, add a drizzle of oil on top. Do not cover while cooking the second side. 
  • Take the discs off the griddle when both surfaces have reached your desired color and crispiness. 
  • These taste delicious hot off the griddle and equally yummy when they cool down making it an easy lunch box item or a make ahead item for a party. Just warm it up before serving. 
  • Eggplant tip: Select one that feels heavy for its size. Also look for seedless varieties of eggplants. Get one that is dark purple in color and is not squishy.  
  • You can use potato slices, sweet potatoes instead of eggplant
  • Cooking time varies with the heat and the thickness of the discs
  • Always cook this dish on low heat allowing the vegetable to cook thoroughly and not burn the outer surface. 
  • Covering while cooking ensures moisture is captured and the vegetable cooks in its own juices. 
  • It is important to keep the spice mix as dry as possible until you are done. Avoid water drops falling into it too much, if you are making a large batch, I suggest you take out handfuls of the mixture into a separate plate and replesnish as you need.  A wet mixture doesn't stick well on the vegetable. 
  • Do not skip asafoetida or turmeric as it brings a distinct flavor to the dish.