ALOO TIKKI

N.B.–I’ll be continuing the “absolutely nothing to do with food” portion of the blog by posting a second essay on Friday.  Hope you’ll come back then to take a look!  In the meantime, food.

I love books, viscerally, powerfully.  I love their physical presence on the bookshelves in our house (they are the one material good I never feel guilty buying), I love their smell, their heft, their deckled edges.  I love to sit in a favorite chair and read, for hours, unaware of the time that has passed.  I love the feeling of being inside the world of a book, so suspended and captivated that you mourn the loss of it when you are done, daydream about characters for days afterward.

There are texts that feel, to me, like old friends—some I have to keep myself from re-reading over and over, just to delay the gratification I know will come when I finally give in.  Some are so tangibly connected to a certain point in my life that I feel grateful to have them as witnesses.  Books have taught me as much or more as anything else; they rescued me as a socially awkward middle school girl, and then again as a wistful high schooler with no romantic prospects of her own, and yet again as a young woman grieving the loss of her father.   I guess it’s no surprise that I became an English teacher, where I have the privilege of watching students “click” with a book, its magic and power and relevance becoming real to them.

I go through phases with my personal reading—lots of plays, followed by lots of memoir, followed by lot of young adult novels, then lots of poems, with a detour into historical fiction.  At the moment, Jill and I are relishing audio books.  We started with Faulkner’s A Light in August as a way to pass time on our summer road trip, and because it seemed fitting to have his words bookend our trip to Oxford, Mississippi, his hometown.  But it’s been weeks since we finished that novel and started another, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and I think we’re hooked.  We find ourselves listening all during the day: whenever we are driving somewhere together, when one of us is cooking dinner, when the other one of us is cleaning up kitchen, and even staying up until midnight some nights because neither of us could bear to stop.

I’m still entranced by paper books, too, and my summer reading pile, though cut down quite a bit, remains stacked with (more) Faulkner, Ondaatje’s The English Patient, which I’ve somehow managed to have never read, Alice Munro’s most recent short stories, and The Unwritten, recommended by a friend, which I suspect may start me on a serious comic book phase.

My mother, voracious reader in her own right, once told me, “If you love to read, you’ll never be bored.”  As kids in India, she and her brother used to beg reading material from their neighbors: old books, newspapers, the backs of food cartons, anything.  What we gain when we read is a pleasure and a knowledge no one can ever take away from us.

I suspect many of you out there are book nerds like me.  What are you reading this summer?

ALOO TIKKI (potato cakes)

These little guys are absurdly easy to make, but never fail to impress.  They work well as an appetizer, because you can make the cakes smaller, cook them ahead of time, and keep them warm in a low oven.  You can also make larger tikki and serve them with a green salad for lunch.  If you’re looking to add some protein, you can top the cakes with some keema.

The chutneys seen here are homemade, tamarind and cilantro.  You can buy jarred versions, of course, but both are quite simple to make on your own—it’s just a matter of picking up the right ingredients.  Bonus points for these chutneys?  You can freeze any extra for your future enjoyment.

ingredients:

2 lb. red potatoes, scrubbed
½ cup diced red onion
¼ cup chopped cilantro
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. salt (more to taste)
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
vegetable oil, for the pan

optional— ½ cup cooked channa dal or ½ cup corn kernels

Boil the potatoes until they are very tender.  Pour into a colander, rinse with cold water and leave until they are cool enough to peel.  Peel, then mash with your hands, breaking up any clumps of potato.

Add the remaining ingredients and hand-mix to combine.  Use your hands to form patties by pressing together the mixture with your palms.  The cakes will be a bit delicate, but they will firm up when you cook them.  If you’re having trouble making the tikki, squeeze in a little lemon or lime juice to bring the mixture together.

Heat the vegetable oil over medium in a nonstick (very important!) skillet or cast-iron pan.  Once the oil is quite warm, place two to three tikki in the pan, being careful not to crowd.  Cook for 3-4 minutes until brown on each side, using a flexible spatula to flip.  Serve immediately with chutneys, or keep warm until ready to eat.

FATHER’S DAY 2011: KEEMA HAND PIES

In some alternate world in my mind, I am going to be making these meat-filled pies for my dad.  He’ll sneak into the kitchen after his afternoon nap, grabbing a pie before he’s really supposed to, consuming it while it is still impossibly hot, and grin in that way I hope I will never, ever forget.

This week, I was given the opportunity to write a Father’s Day post for Desi Living, a Houston-based blog dedicated to exploring the Indian-American experience.  It was, as it always is, powerfully difficult but tremendously rewarding to write about my dad.  Between that piece and the first longer essay published here on the blog, it’s been quite a week for sharing writing; it feels so good, in no small part thanks to enthusiastic responses from so many of you.

And while I wish so badly that I could celebrate with my own father today, I have to say there is no shortage of incredible men in my life: some who have eagerly and chivalrously served as my surrogate fathers, many whom I admire tremendously for being thoughtful and dedicated in their parenting, a handful who are about to become dads for the first time!, and a group that we are counting on to serve as father figures for the child we hope to bring into our life soon.

I know not everyone has a rosy relationship with their own dad, but I hope that everyone can think of at least one man they know who is a father or father-figure worthy of acknowledgment.  Call him up, and tell him so.  Happy Father’s Day out there!

THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: KEEMA

If you, like me, are always looking for something new to do with ground beef—voila.  The flavors in keema are fantastic and addictive; if you like, you can add some frozen peas at the end of the cooking process for a traditional take.

What to do with your keema once you’ve made it?  Well, you can fold it into scrambled eggs, serve it with naan or rice, spoon it on top of baked potatoes, combine it with wanton wrappers and fry some samosas, or make meat pies like I did.

I used this Rose Levy Beranbaum recipe for pie crust, subbing in half whole wheat flour for added heft.  I rolled the dough out ¼” thick, cut it into rectangles, filling one with keema, then topping it with a corresponding dough piece.  A crimp along the edge with a fork, a brush with egg wash, and a decorative studding with sunflower seeds, then 15-20 minutes in a 400 degree oven.

Admittedly, Beranbaum’s recipe is pretty fussy, but if it does yield fantastically flaky pastry.  If you’re not up for the trouble, you might try this empanada dough or (shh, I won’t tell!) use pre-made pie or pizza dough.

Last but not least, if you’d like some chutneys to go with your meat pies, I’ve got a couple of recipes for you (one for cilantro chutney, the other for tamarind) over here.

ingredients:

1 lb. ground beef or lamb
1 medium onion (red or yellow), diced
2 T ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup tomato sauce
1 ½ tsp. garam masala
1 tsp. whole cumin
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. cayenne, if you want some heat
pinch turmeric
vegetable oil
salt

fresh cilantro

Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pan.  Once the oil is shimmery, add the cumin seeds and listen for the hiss that means they’re cracking.  Toss in the pinch of turmeric, then the onion, ginger, & garlic.  Turn the heat down a bit to medium-low and sauté until translucent.

Add the ground beef and break up large clumps with the back of a big spoon or spatula.  Up the heat to medium-high and cook until the meat browns, no traces of pink remaining, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the ground spices and turn the heat down to low.  Add the tomato sauce and stir, cooking until the sauce is completely incorporated into the meat mixture and looks “dry.”

Remove from heat and garnish with chopped cilantro.

MY MOM’S DAAL

Does this ever happen to you?  A food you grew up eating, something you would call “ordinary,” something you like but never found exceptional because it was such a regular part of your diet—is introduced to others (who did not grow up this way) and suddenly pronounced “amazing!”  “delicious!”  “so good!”  They are dazzled.  They are wowed.  They want seconds.  And you’re like, “Umm, that?  Really?”

Really.  Like this daal, for example, made by my mama when she was in town a few weeks ago.  (Side note: we actually shared a kitchen together and didn’t drive each other nuts!  A first).  No doubt the daal was delicious, but I grew up on this shit, so no big deal.  NOT SO for my white people friends, who raved and raved and took containers home.  And demanded that I blog the recipe immediately.

So apparently, things that are obvious to me aren’t always obvious to everyone else.  Which means I’ve taken to making regular declarative statements on the chance they might be revelatory/welcome/surprising for someone else.  Like—hey, I think you’re awesome or thank you for buying me dinner and making me laugh or I will miss you a ton when you move to Oregon, —etc.  Occasionally I feel silly doing this, but mostly I’m getting pretty good at being That Girl Who Likes to State the Obvious, aka kind of a weirdo.

So this weirdo would like to do a little Blog Stating of the Obvious:

1)    I haven’t really been on my blogging a-game this winter/spring.  Which I hate.
2)    But you people have kept reading anyway.  That is crazy!
3)    And by crazy, I mean amazing.  Thank you.
4)    Cancer totally sucks.
5)    Jill is the prettiest bald person I’ve ever seen.

Anyone else want to make some declarations?  It’s kinda liberating.  Consider this an open invitation.

MUNG DAAL

I love this daal because it comes together quickly (mung daal does not have to be soaked ahead, unlike many Indian lentils) and makes for a hearty meal, whether you serve it alone as a soup or atop some basmati rice.  It’s traditional to serve a bowl of cool, plain yogurt on the side as well.

The daal-making process may seem intimidating the first time you do it, but once you have the ingredients on hand, I swear it’s straightforward.  Part 1 = cook the lentils, Part Two = make the vagar, Part Three = combine and serve.  That’s it! You can use this method for many kinds of lentils, just be sure to check cooking times and water: lentil ratios.

ingredients:

1 cup whole mung beans
½ cup “washed” mung (the inner part, rid of its dark green hull)
9 cups water
2 tsp. each, ground cumin, coriander, & salt
1 tsp. turmeric

Combine the above ingredients in a large pot, bring to a boil, and top with a lid, leaving it tilted to the side a bit so that steam can escape. Cook at a gentle boil until the whole mung has split open and the washed mung has “disappeared” into the mixture (meaning you can’t pick out their little yellow bodies anymore).  This should take between 35-40 minutes.

While the daal is cooking, make the vagar (traditional sauté of spices & aromatics in butter and/or oil):

3 T each, butter & vegetable oil (you can also substitute ghee for one or both parts)
1 medium yellow onion, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
¼ cup finely chopped ginger
½ tsp. Indian red chili powder (lal mirch)—adjust if you’re heat-shy or heat-crazy
pinch of asafetida

Heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat.  Toss in the cumin seeds; they should hiss and crack open.  Add the asafetida, then the onion and sauté for a few minutes.  Turn the heat down to medium and add the garlic, ginger, & red chili.  Cook until the aromatics are caramelized, 15-20 minutes.

When the daal has been cooked completely, add:

1 small can (8 oz.) of tomato sauce
the vagar (above)

Stir together and cook on low heat to combine, no more than 5 minutes.  Check for salt and serve, topping with chopped cilantro if you like.

Share/Save/Bookmark

INDIAN-STYLE KALE & POTATOES

Things I Have Learned:

It feels good to be the one to shave your spouse’s head when her hair starts falling out in chemotherapy-induced clumps.  You’ll come up with (new) goofy little nicknames for her in her baldness, and—cliché as it is—you will find her as beautiful as ever.

It also feels good to go to the gym, or for a run, or for a bike ride.  These things will, in fact, seem like the very things keeping you sane, and for the power and ability of your body, you will be grateful.  After a particularly excellent workout, you may well feel like you can fly.

When you get up early Saturday morning in San Francisco while attending a work conference and go for a run from the condo you and your colleagues are renting to the waterfront where the seagulls squawk cheekily at you, the only folks you will encounter are pot-smoking bums and old Chinese ladies walking their poodles, plus a couple of fanny-pack-wearing tourists.  You’ll be able to smell the bean paste they’re making in Chinatown, to be stuffed into little balls of sesame-seed dotted and fried dough, like the ones you had the day before.

A friend will visit for the weekend and surprise you with a sonogram photograph so that you’ll squeal to wake the dead, serve her and the tiny one a big ole mess of breakfast and be so, so, so happy.

You will conclude over and over again that there isn’t any good language for anything.  Because you want to tell the people in your life just how much you love them and how much they make your life better, but you can’t really manage with language and you’re afraid you’ll freak them out with trying, so you offer hugs and hand-written notes instead.

All of your plans will be laid out as close to perfectly as possible, because hey!  You’re really good at planning, but then something like a low blood cell count will change all of your plans in an instant, but instead of that freaking you the heck out, like it normally would, you discover that it doesn’t really matter to you anymore.  You decide it must be a result of that thing called “perspective.”

Your mom is coming to town soon and you can’t wait to see her.  Because nothing will be more comforting than her presence and nothing will ever, ever taste as good as food that she makes.

POTATO/KALE SABJI

Fairly straightforward but possibly my favorite way to consume kale.  We Indians know how to make vegetables taste good without a ton of added fat.  Go us!
2 bunches curly green kale
approx. 2 lb. red potatoes
a few sprinkles asafetida
1 tsp. whole cumin
1 tsp. each, ground cumin & coriander
pinch (or more, if you like) red pepper flakes
salt to taste
vegetable oil

Prep the kale by rinsing it and stripping the leafy parts off of the middle rib.  Chop the kale into small pieces.  Peel and chunk the potatoes.

Pour a good tablespoon or two of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat.  When the oil is hot, toss in the whole cumin seeds and let them sizzle a bit before sprinkling in the asafetida.

Swirl oil and spices around in the pot before tossing in the kale and potatoes—be careful, they will splatter!  Cover and let the kale wilt a bit before adding the rest of the spices: ground cumin & coriander, red pepper flakes, and a good teaspoon of salt.

Cook, covered, over medium heat until the potatoes are done.  Then uncover the pot and turn the heat down to medium-low in order to evaporate any water.  You want the sabji to be quite dry; it’s done when the vegetables begin to stick a bit to the bottom and sides of the pot.
Share/Save/Bookmark

DIWALI 2010

So we had ourselves a little party.

Okay, to be fair, it wasn’t exactly “little”—this was actually the largest group of people I’ve ever cooked for in my life!—but it was a party, a plenty-of-food, generously-poured-drink, introductions-and-good-conversation, joy-and-warm-feeling kind of gathering filled with people from all corners of our life.

And these people?  These people are amazing.

They came over after work on Monday to help tape the living room for the somewhat insane project of painting it red by Saturday.  They came over after work on Thursday to string lights, on Friday to help move tables and chairs and lift things, they came early on Saturday to chop and stack and clean and set up and arrange.

My friend Leslie designed our beautiful invitations, Courtney the darling food labels I want to keep forever, and Rebecca and Megan the gorgeous table décor that made me feel like our party belonged in a magazine.  Sonya, as you can see, took a lot of stunning pictures.

I served, among many other things: Vadouvan Spiced Cashews, Grilled Halloumi, Lamb Koftas, & Cardamom Shortbread Cookies.

I felt like a very lucky woman indeed to be surrounded by so many people I love, to watch them interact with each other, enjoy food that I made, light sparklers, laugh, and help me honor my father’s memory .  To eat, drink, and relish a good night in good company, to celebrate for no reason and every reason—that’s why we gathered for Diwali, and that’s why we toasted L’Chaim, to life.

Share/Save/Bookmark

CARDAMOM SHORTBREAD COOKIES

Hey, did you know?  Today’s Diwali.

The Hindu Festival of Lights is also celebrated by Sikhs & Jains, not to mention plenty of other Indian folks of various persuasions, and is my most-est favorite day of the year.  As a kid, Diwali meant new clothes (it also marks the Hindu New Year), all of my favorite Indian foods, bright colors and smells, a house decorated with fresh flowers and fruits, and staying up late at our friends’ big party, lighting sparklers and fireworks in the backyard.

As an adult, Diwali has taken on so many additional layers of meaning that I’m not sure I can pull them all apart.  Most obvious—it’s important to me to maintain the rituals of my childhood, to enact the practices passed down by my parents, to connect to something much bigger and more powerful than I could create on my own.  Thousands of years of religion and culture, the place my family is from, the things we do because that’s what we do; I want to honor that.

At the same time, ritual for ritual’s sake has its limits.  It’s just as important to me to feel or create ownership over the things I do, to know why I do them and to do them with intention.  I’m blessed that my parents encouraged this when I was young, answering my questions about our religion, my heritage, and leaving plenty of room to put our nuclear family’s spin on tradition.

In that vein, the holiday has taken on a life of its own in my adulthood, in the family I share with Jill, and in our circle of wonderful friends.  Today I am cleaning, cooking, thinking of my parents, threading fresh garlands for our home altar, singing the hymns I learned from my mother, lighting incense and willing my being to honor joy and express the profound gratitude I feel for the richness of life.  Tomorrow night we’ll throw the fifth annual Carroll/Mehra Diwali party, our backyard swelling with people and food.

The story of Diwali is centered around a homecoming, that of the god Rama, who was in exile for many years, searching for his abducted wife and fighting against the forces of evil.  According to our mythology, the night he returned, the villagers of Ayodhya lit his pathway with little oil lamps, now symbols of a holiday that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, the victory of light over dark.

On this holiday, I offer you this Indian-inspired (but distinctly Texan!) cookie, and I thank you who are reading this for being a light in my life.  Happy Diwali!

CARDAMOM SHORTBREAD COOKIES

1 1/3 cup flour

¾ cup very-high-quality butter, at room temperature

½ cup sugar

1 T ground cardamom

½ tsp. vanilla

½ tsp. coarse Kosher salt (¼ tsp. if you substitute table salt)

optional: an egg + sanding or regular sugar for decorating

Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, beat the butter & sugar together until blended.  Mix in the vanilla, cardamom, & salt.  Add the flour in a few additions, stirring until a soft dough just comes together.

Gather the dough into a large disk, wrap in plastic, & refrigerate for at least an hour.  When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325˚.

Allow the dough to soften a bit before rolling it out to ¼” thickness.  Cut out any shape your heart desires, placing the cut-out cookies on parchment-lined baking sheets.

(Optional: before baking, brush the cookies with a bit of egg wash (1 egg beaten & thinned with some water), then sprinkle with sugar.)

Bake cookies 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown.  Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes before eating warm (with tea!) or cool completely to store in an airtight container.

Share/Save/Bookmark

MUSTARD-SEED SHRIMP WITH CUCUMBER RAITA

A day or two after news of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill broke, I spotted beautiful, wild-caught Gulf shrimp on sale at my neighborhood grocery store—fat, never frozen, $5.99/lb.  I bought 5 pounds, suspecting that it would be a while before I saw such beautiful Gulf seafood at such an amazing price again.  Little did I know, right?

I really have no idea how to respond to something like this.  Clearly, I take for granted that, in our world of obscenely rapid technological advancement, we should be able to solve this problem.  How is it that we don’t know how to fix it?  And what is it that I should be doing, other than feeling really, really depressed and making donations to help the humans and wildlife affected by the spill?

There’s no neat little conclusion to this post, just that all of this damn oil is, among other things, another notch in my mental belt of wondering what the proper balance is between apathy and obsession.  How much time should I spend in my, let’s face it, really comfortable life, thinking about all of the shitty things happening all over the world at any given moment?  And is there some hierarchy of disaster, things I should care about more than others?  And where does all of my care and concern go, if I do choose to exert it?

Choosing our positions along these blurry lines is a matter of personal ethics and conscience, and I like to think that thinking rigorously through my positions is at least worth something.  Part of my job as a teacher is getting my students to care about something other than themselves, and convincing them that by engaging with the world, they alter it.  But sometimes I wonder if I’m not just setting them up for disappointment.

Last weekend, I thawed half of the shrimp I had purchased in April and cooked them simply, with traditional Indian spices and over high heat until they pinked and firmed.  My house was pleasantly swollen with friends and loved ones, who fought over the last shrimp and left the tails scattered in shallow bowls.  Maybe, at times, that’s the best we can do, and that’s not so bad.

MUSTARD-SEED SHRIMP WITH CUCUMBER RAITA

We ate these straight-up, with raita drizzled on top or alongside as a dipping sauce, counterbalancing the heat of the shrimp perfectly.  The dish didn’t seem to suffer for lack of a “vehicle,” but surely they would be delicious tucked into a pita, wrapped in some naan, or served atop some rice or couscous.

ingredients:

2 ½ lb. Gulf shrimp, peeled & deveined
2 tsp. black mustard seeds
1 tsp. coriander powder
1 tsp. cumin powder
½ tsp. turmeric powder
½ tsp. cayenne pepper (less if you’re heat-shy)
vegetable oil
salt

special equipment: a heavy-bottomed pot with high sides & a lid

Swirl some oil into the pot, letting it heat until the oil shimmers (medium-high on the stove).  Throw in the mustard seeds and turmeric, then immediately bring the lid down to cover the pot.  There will be spluttering!  Shake the pan and let it sit on the heat for a minute or two more, then remove from the heat.

Add the shrimp to the pot—all of them if they fit—then return to the burner.  Using a large spoon, gently turn the shrimp regularly to ensure even cooking.  Toss in the remaining spices, including a teaspoon of salt.  After 3-4 minutes, turn the stove down to medium, letting the residual heat finish the shrimp.

Continue to turn the shrimp until they have all pinked and are just cooked.  Remove immediately from the pot so they do not overcook.  Taste for salt and serve warm.

CUCUMBER RAITA

You can also add a finely chopped Serrano pepper if you’d like a little fire in your raita.

ingredients:

2 cups plain, thick yogurt
2-3 small cucumbers, peeled & grated
¼ cup buttermilk
¼ cup mint, roughly chopped
1 T cumin powder*
juice of 2 lemons
salt, to taste

Squeeze the grated cucumbers in a cheesecloth or paper towel to drain the excess liquid, then combine them in a bowl with the remaining ingredients.  Stir.  Thin with a bit more buttermilk if necessary.

Raita will keep in the fridge with an airtight container for a few days.

*If you like, toast your own cumin seeds until fragrant and then grind them.  They will add great depth of flavor.

Share/Save/Bookmark

SEV PURI

Perhaps it is a generational symptom, or hazard, to experience times in one’s life that are later identified as having felt “like a movie.”  If serendipity, luck, or chance has played a large part, making one’s day unusually perfect or delightfully surprising, then “it was like a movie.”  If terrible things have taken place, things no one could have foreseen, things one feels one might not make it through, then “it was like a movie,” also.

Nearly everything about the summer of 2006 occurs, for me, like a movie.  This may well be the case because all of it is showcased, projected up on the screen of my mind, as if it happened to someone else.  As if it had been written, the frighteningly complete alignment of feeling and form, sure to please even the most exacting director.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for whatever hand laid out the minutiae of our lives that summer.  But living life like a movie will throw you off balance after a while.  “So let it be written, so let it be done.”

From one morning in Mumbai, a particularly cinematic recollection.  My father and I went out for a walk, just the two of us, traveling down the rickety elevator of his sister’s flat and out into the street.  We worked across a few busy streets to the Five Gardens, where paths are reserved for pedestrians.  The gardens are really more like well-shaded parks gated off from traffic.  Of course, everywhere you turn in Mumbai is a veritable garden; given the hothouse climate, all manner of flowers and greenery grow.

Each of the five gardens contains a different buzz of activity—a rousing game of cricket underway on one dusty circle, some quiet games of chess between old men under the shade of palm trees. At that point in my life, I aspired to be one of those people who can eat street food.  I had read Bourdain, I bought into the romance of late nights, authenticity, and machismo.  I believed him when he says that you don’t really know a place until you eat what everyone who lives there is lining up to eat on some random street corner.  And I was willing to sacrifice some nights of peaceful sleep for a stomach of iron and some really good noodle bowls—I just hadn’t had much of a chance.

In between trips to India, I only made one trip outside of the States—a college jaunt to Amsterdam, where the bragging rights for eating street food are not nearly as high as, say, Thailand or Japan.  I did, however, take the liberty of consuming several cones of warm European frites with spicy mayonnaise in the wee hours of the morning, which I still crave when I am up very late and have been drinking.

I also remember, very distinctly, watching my father stand in the middle of an open market in Mexico and risk his life (and my mother’s wrath) to eat fish tacos.  I was dying to take a bite myself, but I was only ten and, at that point in my life, unable to defy her.  More than a decade later, on that morning walk, I jumped at the chance to eat recklessly with my dad, to eat away from my mother’s watchful eye, to join my father in a little subversive act,  just one moment of defiance to make up for all of those years I placed myself unabashedly on my mother’s “side.”

With the paper rupees in my father’s wallet, we feasted on watermelon, mango, coconut milk straight from the fruit, and shared a crunchy helping of sev puri.  The Indian food smorgasborg, sev puri is a classic street food, a weird, delicious concoction of spicy cooked potatoes, raw onions, the option of boiled moong beans (they taste like mild peas but are a little more toothsome), and drizzles of dhania (cilantro) and imli (tamarind, my favorite) chutnies atop a bed of salty, crunchy chips and twigs made from chickpea flour.  Served in a big, Styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon, our snack was well worth the risk of intestinal distress, as well as my mother’s dismay, though we managed to keep the secret together, and I am spilling it now.

Sev Puri falls under the large umbrella of Chat, or snacks, along with its cousins bhel puri and pani puri.  As with most iconic food, there is much variety in the method and lively debate about just what constitutes true sev puri and what does not.  This version has been honed to my tastes, of course, but also to the ease and convenience of a lazy but satisfying pantry meal or an answer to the question “what should I feed all of these people who have suddenly appeared at my house?”  Stored properly, the dry ingredients will keep in your pantry for months, the chutneys freeze well, onions & cilantro are cheap, and if you’re like me, you always have a random handful of potatoes hanging out somewhere, waiting to be cooked.  Am I right?


SEV PURI

You can (and should feel free to) add tomatoes, a drizzle of yogurt, roasted chickpeas, sprouted mung beans, chopped Serrano or other peppers, even diced mango to your sev puri.

For the bottom/crunchy layer of this snack, you’ll need to acquire a bag of packaged sev (fried bits of chickpea flour) and one of flat puris (small flatbreads, also fried).  Your local Indian grocery may have a bagged “sev puri mix” with these two pre-combined—just ask.  If you don’t use these up the first time, they’ll keep in the pantry if well-sealed in plastic bags.

for the potatoes:

2 lb. red new potatoes
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
squeeze of lemon

Boil the potatoes whole until soft and easily pierced with a fork.  Cool, then peel and chop into half-inch chunks.  Toss with the spices and mix well.  Check for salt & taste but keep in mind that you’ll be adding many layers of flavor so you don’t want the potatoes to be overbearing.  Set aside until ready to serve.

for the dhania (cilantro) chutney:

2 bunches cilantro
2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled
1/3 cup of peanuts, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds (if salted, decrease the amount of salt you add to the chutney)
1 jalapeño, seeded if you like
¼ cup fresh lemon or lime juice
1 T ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
water

To prep the cilantro, wash it thoroughly and chop off the bottom portion of the stems.  If you like, you can pick off the leaves and discard all stem pieces, but I honestly don’t find this is necessary—just cut off the tough ends.

Process all ingredients in the blender, adding water until you reach your desired texture; I like mine just shy of smooth.

for the imli (tamarind) chutney:

Many people make imli chutney with dates or jaggery (palm sugar), but I learned from my mom to use apple butter instead and I think it’s way delicious-er.

1 cup apple butter*
½ cup tamarind paste
1 T ground cumin
1 T ground coriander
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. Indian red pepper (lal mirch)
water

Combine all ingredients except water in a small saucepan.  Heat on low, adding water to thin the chutney.  Cook until the ingredients are incorporated, checking to be sure the flavors are balance.  The chutney should be sweet, with a hint of fire and strong “pucker” from the tamarind.  If you want more of any one flavor, add the corresponding ingredient.

Cool before storing in the fridge and freezer.  Be mindful that the chutney will thicken, so you may need to thin it again before serving.

* If you can get your hands on homemade apple butter, do.  Otherwise, it’s easy to find in the “peanut butter & jelly” aisle of your supermarket.

for the assembly:

I like to arrange the components along a counter or table so each person can assemble his/her own.  In the bottom of a bowl, add a heap of sev and a few puris, breaking up the latter with a spoon or fork.  Throw on some potatoes, then onions if you like, then cilantro if you like, and generous drizzles of one or both chutneys.

KHEER (RICE PUDDING)

I have a sweet tooth.  A serious, serious sweet tooth.


As a kid, my mom managed the sugary contents of our house with an iron fist; that is to say there weren’t really any sugary contents in our house.  Well, there was sugar, and I am ashamed to admit that more than once I snuck spoonfuls of the powdered sugar from the baking pantry and grabbed furtive handfuls of the Cinnamon Red Hots my mom kept as a secret ingredient for her holiday-time hot punch.

The first time I spent the night at a friend’s house, I opened her freezer to discover pints and pints of ice cream.  Just SITTING there.  Available for eating…whenever she wanted.  Staggering.

To be fair, my mom had good reasons to be strict about sugar.  My father developed typed-II diabetes when I was a little kid, and she was determined not to let genetics win with me.  But the truth is, much like a teetotaler’s kid, I went a little bit nuts with sugar when I achieved the freedom of adulthood.  My freshman 15 had nothing to do with beer and everything to do with Chef Roger, who took over my residential college’s kitchen and had a real way with pastry.

Those who know me know the affairs I’ve had with various kinds of ridiculous sugar products: Smarties, Bottlecaps, Laffy Taffy (but only the grape & strawberry flavors).  Chocolate isn’t safe around me, either.  I could SO have been one of those Willy Wonka kids.

In the last few years, though, I’ve worked to consciously change my tastes.  No more movie-theater-sized boxes of candy or cartons of Ben & Jerry’s for me.  Smaller spoonfuls of sugar in my tea, sometimes no sugar at all.  It’s amazing how I’ve been able to retrain my palate to the point where I can appreciate desserts and flavors I would have previously overlooked.

As a kid, kheer never appealed to me—not nearly sweet enough, of course.  But now, I love the subtlety of the cardamom and rosewater, tinged with just a bit of sweetness and finished with the salty texture from the nuts.

So I’m proud to say that my tastes have become a bit more sophisticated, though I have been known to buy a small bag Laffy Taffy at Walgreen’s every now and then…just don’t tell my mom!

KHEER (Indian Rice Pudding)

Kheer isn’t particularly difficult to make, but it does require patience.  Cook it slowly on the stove whenever you’re already planning to be in the kitchen for a while.

The best part? Kheer keeps extremely well—in fact, you may even find that it tastes better after a few days in the fridge.

ingredients:

4 cups milk*
½ cup basmati rice–use the good stuff!
½ cup chopped almonds and/or pistachios, toasted
¼ cup sweetened condensed milk
2 T ground cardamom (I love this flavor, but if you don’t, cut the amount in half)

optional: rosewater

Rinse the rice twice while heating the milk over medium-low heat in a heavy-bottomed pot.  Drain & add the rice to the milk, stirring to combine with a wooden spoon.

The main object while cooking kheer is to keep the milk from scorching at the bottom of the pan.  You don’t have to stir constantly, just regularly, and err on the side of caution when it comes to managing the heat on the stove.

As it cooks, the kheer will thicken.  If you prefer a thinner pudding, feel free to add extra milk.

When you’ve reached the twenty minute mark, check the rice for doneness.   Once it has been cooked through, remove the pot from the heat.  Stir in the cardamom, then swirl in the sweetened condensed milk, then check for sweetness—you may want to add a bit more.

Serve the kheer hot, warm, or cool.  Sprinkle each bowl-full with a handful of nuts and a teaspoon or so of rosewater.

*please use 2% or whole milk, it makes for far superior kheer.

Share/Save/Bookmark

THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: LAMB KOFTA

One of the hardest things about losing my dad is that there are just so many things I’d like to cook for him.

After a certain passage of time, the distinguishable presence of a loved one begins to fade—the distinct quality of their voice, the shape of their face in three dimensions, the particular quirks and habits.  It becomes more difficult to guess what they might have said in a particular situation, how they would react to a comment or a joke, what books you might recommend to them now, or what movies you would take them to.  I find it terrifying, in fact, the way passage of time seems to make it increasingly difficult for me to conjure up my father the way he was, the way he might be now.

Difficult, too, because the more time that goes by, the more different I am, perhaps unrecognizable to him.  My dad died before I earned a Masters degree, before I got my first full-time job, before I bought myself a car and did my own taxes and grew my hair out long and then cut it again.

I hate that he has missed all of this, and I have missed him in it.  I have wondered, doubted, that I might be forgetting him, losing him.

But the one place I still feel certain of him is in the kitchen.  I know, instinctively, the dishes he would want, the moment he would sneak a warm treat from the oven, the recipes that would dazzle him and make him proud.  This is one of them.

LAMB KOFTA

These lamb meatballs are rich, satisfying, and incredibly flavorful.  They also freeze well, so feel free to make a big batch!

meatballs:

1 lb. ground lamb
½ basin (chickpea flour)
½ cup crumbled paneer*
¼ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
½ onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T garam masala
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. cumin
½ tsp. red mirchi (pepper)

Sauté the onion & garlic in a bit of vegetable oil until soft.  Once they cool, toss them into a big bowl with the rest of the meatball ingredients.

Using your hands, form meatballs about an inch in diameter.  (I like to keep them on a sheet pan until they’re all ready.)  Once you’re ready, heat a cup of vegetable oil in a deep saucepan over medium-high heat.  Fry the meatballs until light brown, approximately four minutes on each side.

If you want to freeze or keep the meatballs separate from the gravy, you can finish them in a 350˚ oven, which should take only 10-12 minutes.  If you’re planning to serve them, just keep them to the side or in a low oven while you make the gravy.

gravy:
2 large (28 oz.) cans diced tomatoes
1 pint sour cream
½ cup whole almonds
½ large red onion, sliced
3 T ginger, chopped
3 T garlic, chopped
2 tsp. whole cumin
2 tsp. whole coriander

In a large, heavy bottomed pot, heat a quarter cup of vegetable oil over medium-low heat until it shimmers.  Add the cumin and wait for it to crack before tossing in the garlic, ginger, & onion.  Cook for a few minutes, then add the almonds and whole coriander.

Cook it all down until soft, and the onions are translucent, adding more oil during the cooking if necessary.  This whole process will take about fifteen minutes.

Toss in the tomatoes and stir everything together.  If you have an immersion blender, go ahead and put it to work.  If you’re using a conventional blender, allow the mixture to cool before blending it in batches.  Process until the mixture has reached your desired texture (I like mine a little bit chunky).

Add the sour sour cream to the gravy, mixing thoroughly until it turns light pink.  Reheat the gravy over medium heat until bubbling—be sure to stir regularly so it doesn’t stick to the bottom.  Add the partially cooked meatballs to the gravy and let them finish cooking there.

Serve over basmati rice, garnish with cilantro.

*Many of you may be able to buy paneer, which is a mild Indian cheese, at a specialty grocery store.  If not, you can make your own (it’s actually very easy!) or substitute a similar soft, mild cheese: farmer’s cheese, queso fresco, or a ricotta.  If you’re using ricotta, which can sometimes be watery, squeeze it out in a cheesecloth first.

Share/Save/Bookmark

| Next Page »