Monday, October 31, 2011

Pumpkin cravings


Don't you just love the fact that once the calender gets to September/ October, a flurry of festivals begin cropping up all over the world? In India, its Navratri, followed by Diwali, Kartigai, a South Indian festival that makes its appearance anywhere from 15 days to a month & a half after Diwali coinciding with the full moon in the Indian month of Karthik, I guess it commemorates the harvest moon.
Others that come to mind, The Moon Festival celebrated in the Far East,  Halloween , Guy Fawkes day, .. Oh boy, the list could potentially go on and on. 
 I'm not entirely sure, but it may be due to the colder months & shorter days that mankind found ways of socially celebrating events to keep from the depressive nature of this part of the year.

    Back to my own little sphere of a comfort zone, the vegetable I've most commonly come to associate with Fall is the big fat Pumpkin. There's a whole Bubba's list of what one could create with this thick skinned fruit, but one that really caught my attention & got me going was this post by D K from the site Chefinyou.  rather a tutorial on how to make pumpkin puree. I was freshly back reeling from an awesome book signing session with Iron Chef Bobby Flay

and one of the samples served was a divine pumpkin soup.
That was it, I just HAD to try roasting an entire pumpkin at home. Never mind what I would make out of it.. I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
So off I went, to my neighboring farm, 

& picked out a suitable candidate

Came home, cut & quartered ol' Jack,

removed the innards, 

& popped the pieces into the oven at 400 F for about 45 minutes.

& Voila!, An indescribably delicious flesh, I could have finished off with a teaspoon, (I almost did). Roasted pumpkin has the aroma of fresh grilled corn with a texture thats out of this salt or pepper needed, at most, a spritz of lime.
Rest assured I would not be up writing this if it were simply a post on roasted pumpkin, This weeks recipe is a Roasted pumpkin, coconut & sesame bisque, inspired by a traditional South Indian pumpkin stew known as 'Thalagam'. Thalagam is served as an offering for Lord Shiva during the festival of thiruvadirai, celebrated in Late December/ January. Its usually paired with jaggery sweetened rice grits known as kali. The combination of redolent nutty spiciness & the earthy sweetness of the unrefined jaggery, the combination is magical. Its worth the prayers! 
After brainstorming & clarifying the family recipe with my cousin Uma in Ohio, comes this warming & comforting soup.

Roasted pumpkin, coconut & sesame bisque (serves 2-3)

Coconut Sesame Paste:

1/2 cup fresh frozen grated coconut
1 tablespoon Split dehusked Urad Dal
1 tablespoon split garbanzo beans (chana dal)
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 teaspoon plain uncooked rice grains

2 cups unsweetened pumpkin puree from a roasted pumpkin
1/2-1 teaspoon tamarind extract
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
1-2 cup water
Salt to taste
Dollops of creme Fraiche or sour cream
1 tablespoon ghee
1 sprig curry leaves

To obtain the pumpkin puree, cut wedges of pumpkin removing the seeds & the central 'webbing' , brush with olive oil & bake in a 400 F oven for about 45 minutes to 1 hr. Allow to cool & scoop out the required amount (2 cups) of pumpkin. 

  • In a skillet on low heat, toast the coconut till it turns a reddish brown. Set aside.

  • Using the same pan, dry roast all the lentils, rice & the fenugreek till they turn a light brown color, add these to the coconut & repeat the process for the sesame & arbol chiles (cut the chiles into pieces to facilitate browning). Toast the sesame till the seeds begin popping.

  • Combine all the ingredients together and grind to a smooth paste using as little water as possible. Set aside 
  • In a crock pot, combine the pumpkin puree, tamarind extract, turmeric, salt and water and cook on medium heat till the flavors combine (~ 15 min)

  • Add the sesame & coconut spice blend to the pumpkin mix and simmer on a low heat for about 15 minutes, adding extra water if the mix is too thick. The predominating aroma will be that of the toasted sesame.

  • Remove from heat, allow to cool. Process in a blender till smooth & strain (the toasted dals & coconut will otherwise add a gritty component to the texture.). Simmer on low heat to maintain the level of warmth you prefer.
  • Heat the ghee on low heat, add the curry leaves and allow to fry till they're crisp (but still retain their green color) 
  • Serve warm with a dollop of Creme Fraiche or sour cream and garnished with the crisp curry leaves. 
& remember ol' Jack's Innards???? well thats an 'elephant head' (I'll explain then) recipe for another day!!

'Anai thalai' (elephants head) chutney!
 Bon Appetit!

Entering this dish for Edible Entertainments 'Healthy cooking challenge' .

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Diwali Munchies: Hazelnut & Almond 'Cake'

Its that time of the year again, Diwali, a.k.a the festival of lights.. The brain rewinds to memories from long ago of childhood, the aroma of Diwali savories deep frying in a variety of oils, Peanut oil for the 'mixtures' (as chivda is known down south) & 'omappodi' , coconut oil for the 'murukku' & 'thenkozhal' and lots and lots of ghee for the sweet stuff. Every family had  (& still does) its traditional set of munchies. My favorite memories are that of waking up from my afternoon nap to the aroma of curry leaves being sauteed with asafetida to be added to the 'Miccher' (mixture). There would be a one foot high hill of various ingredients piled high on layers of newspaper to be mixed by hand before being ladled into the large stainless steel containers.(to be unopened, preferably, until Diwali Eve. Yeah, like that curfew was ever obeyed!!).

Fast forward to this century...Start the Car, drive to Edison, NJ , pick up boxes of stuff from Sukhadia...:-( Go ahead, replace the italicized words with your town & store of choice!

And yet, the heart yearns to recreate the marathon munchie making sessions of the previous generation and I usually like to at least make one sweet & one savory dish to celebrate the event. (in addition to the mandatory Lehiyam). Old traditions carried on, as in the Diwali Eve dinner of Onion & Coconut Sambhar with crispy roast potatoes and deep fried papad, (a tradition adopted from my husbands side of the family).
and some new creative liberties that I began taking last year with classics such as Okkarai (morphed into a health bar)

Thattai (Biscottified)

and a Lavender Badaam 'Cake'.

Well, This year, its my mom's recipe for 'mullu thenkozhal' for the salty part,
My li'l notebook of recipes dictated by 'amma' a week before she passed away.

and the introduction of a new member of the nut family into the South Indian 'sweets', Hazelnut.
Aside from flavored  coffee, the first place one associates hazelnuts is Nutella and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Since it was the first time I had worked with these in South Indian food, I combined it with some almonds but, in retrospect, I realize, the hazelnuts would have been great by themselves.

Hazelnut-Almond 'Cake' (Makes ~ 45-50 1  inch squares)

You need:
1 cup hazelnuts, with the outer skin removed
1/2 cup blanched and peeled almonds
1 1/2cup heavy cream
1 1/2  cups confectioners sugar (since this dissolves almost instantly) 
1 1/2 cup milk (2 % will do since there's plenty of fatty goodness from the heavy cream)
10-12 strands saffron (Disclaimer: I was rather generous with this, resulting in the darker color)
2 -3 tablespoons ghee.

 On a low heat, lightly toast the peeled hazelnuts til they just barely start turning brown & emit a light aroma.

Dissolve saffron in 2 tablespoons of the milk.
In a food processor, combine the toasted hazelnuts and almond &  process to a coarse  grit. Keeping the machine running add the heavy cream and allow to grind to a coarse paste. Dilute with the milk and transfer contents of the food processor jar into a non stick pan.
Add the confectioners sugar, mix well and cook the mixture on a low medium heat (take care to avoid burning the mixture at the bottom of the pan).
Once the mixture begins to simmer, add the saffron infused milk along with the strands.
Stirring frequently, continue to heat the mixture till it begins leaving the sides of the pan. Add the ghee, & continue to heat the mix till it has the consistency of pizza dough and comes together as a ball.  (for want of a better comparison!)
Line a small 6 x 8 inch sheet pan (or a small thali) with Parchment paper or Aluminum foil (brushed thoroughly with ghee).
Drop the mixture into the sheet pan and smooth over with an offset spatula.
Place in refrigerator and allow to set.
When completely cooled, cut into squares. Press halved toasted hazelnuts into the center and serve.

That is my 5 yr old piling on the nuts!

Wishing everyone of you a wonderful & happy Diwali.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A tribute to Jayasree Satish..

Jayasree Satish (Image credit: Lata Raja)

Posts such as these are really hard to compose, and yet the sadness lingers even for those of us who can be categorized as the typical 'third person'.  We lost one of our fellow bloggers, Jayasree Satish  on the 12th of October, to a  rather sudden (and fatal) bout of Pneumonia. I personally did not have the opportunity to know her or even interact with her other than casually glance through comments she made on Facebook. It was only after her passing that I realized what a wonderful collection of memorable, wonderful recipes she's compiled through her blog Kailas Kitchen.

Something that I had never given importance to was the potential of the microwave to churn out a lot more than cooked rice & warming milk. I just got a wonderful tutorial on the same. The recipe accompanying this post is entirely Jayasrees without any alteration to the ingredients, (other than recommendations from her own tasting notes). Thank you Jayasree for the wonderful recipe. My thoughts & prayers are with your family. To second Lata Raja's sentiment and quoting Billy Joel; 'Only the good die young'.

Jayasree's Microwave Mango Murabba (see recipe link above)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Spiced Vegetable rice

Its always thrilling to win something in a giveaway, even more so if its a reward for a winning entry in a contest (that way you know you've earned it & the satisfaction is that much more sweeter).

It may or may not be a surprise that lot of native Tamil speaking individuals from madras (present day Chennai) have probably never heard of or ever used this spice blend  in their cooking,  never mind what the marketing gurus claim! and it most definitely is never called as Madras curry powder. You'll be hard pressed to find this blend used daily  in many Chennai households!

This blend probably results from an amalgamation of spice ideas that kind of got 'optimized' (for lack of a better word) for an Anglo/British palate keeping in mind typical English food that discovered a new twist when it was saucily spiced up by native spices. The other blend that comes to mind is the Vadouvan blend that was developed in neighboring Pondicherry by les Francaise (Pondicherry was a French territory in the midst of a British ruled South India).

The combination of fenugreek & mustard give it an unmistakable aroma that is so reminiscent of South Indian dishes (Fenugreek & mustard are mandatory ingredients in most south Indian Pickles, as well as classic gravies such as Sambhar & kuzhambu).

 The spice blend is primarily used to flavor meat dishes such as chicken & lamb, but also find application in vegetarian gravy dishes. These entrees are usually paired with plain rice which is the carb staple of choice in the Southern Indian states.

I owe a vote of thanks to Ms. Monica  Bhide for organizing the 'build-us-a-spicy-cocktail' contest and Williams-Sonoma for sponsoring some of the prizes, including this jar of Madras curry powder I incorporated into this dish.

Spiced Vegetable Rice

You need:

3 cups cooked Basmati rice
1/2 cup Diced or julienned carrots
1/2 cup Frozen green peas (I used sugar snap peas)
1/3 cup finely julienned sun-dried tomatoes
1 cup sliced red onions
2 tablespoons Ghee
1/2 tsp Cayenne pepper powder (optional)
Salt to taste
1 - 1.5 tablespoon Williams Sonoma Madras Curry powder
1/3 cup Finely chopped cilantro
Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Heat the ghee in a skillet and add the onions to saute. When they begin turning translucent and a light shade of pink, add the salt, the (optional ) cayenne pepper powder, carrots, peas & the sun-dried tomatoes. Saute on medium heat till the vegetables are soft. Add the madras Curry powder, mix to blend the spice blend with the vegetables, switch off the heat & cover (you do not want the spices to get cooked. The heat from the vegetables is sufficient to warm it & release the flavors).

Ladle the warm rice onto a large mixing bowl. Add the vegetables & fold into the rice, rotating the mixing bowl around for uniformity. To finish, drizzle with the lemon juice.
 Transfer to a serving dish, ad garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve warm accompanied with a raita of your choice on the side.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fudging the basics... basic ricotta fudge and applications thereof!

My initial idea was to call this post 'Eating your mistakes' but it turned out to be such a delicious deviation of intended results, I just did not have the heart to tag it as such.

It started out with the intention of making a beloved bengali dessert the 'Sandesh'. My memory cells are pretty much swamped by gustatory inputs about classics like 'Rosgolla' & Cham Cham, that I do not have many memories about the third in the triumverate of Bengali sweets. So I turned to a classic bengali food blog, The Bong Moms cookbook and sure enough, came across this elegant recipe for bhappa sandesh. Scrolling down the list of ingredients, mentally 'checking' off the ones I had on hand...Ricotta, condensed milk (check & check... YAAY I was on a roll here) & I flew off to try this out, entirely forgetting the remaining list of ingredients which I did not have on hand, or a serious look at the simple technique described. That was the end of the Sandesh attempt.. and after that I took off on my 'fudge', winging it as I went along.
The end result was a delicious concoction with 3 different applications (possibly more to come) along the way.

Basic Milk Fudge:

1 lb. Whole milk Ricotta Cheese
1 can condensed milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioners (icing) sugar
3-4 pods cardamom, crushed
10-12 strands saffron + 1 tablespoon milk to dissolve it in
1 tablespoon corn flour mixed in 1/4 cup of milk
1/4 tsp Pure orange extract (optional)

In a food processor jar, combine the ricotta cheese, condensed milk and the icing sugar.

Process to a thick & smooth consistency. Add the heavy cream to the mix while keeping the appliance running.

Pour the mixture into a large non stick pan. Keeping the heat on low, (this is crucial, at no point should the bottom of the pan heat up enough to caramelize the sugar in the mixture) keep stirring the mixture frequently with a wooden or bamboo spoon.
Dissolve the saffron strands in the milk and add to the mixture along with the powdered cardamom.
When the liquid has reduced to half the original volume, dissolve the cornflour in 1/4 cup of milk and add to the mixture.
In about 60-90 minutes the mixture should have thickened enough that a spoon run across the bottom reveals the bottom of the pan for a goo couple of seconds before the liquid covers it up again.

At this point, you may terminate the procedure and freeze the mix in small bowls or kulfi molds to make an awesome creamy & rich Kulfi (application # 1).

Disclaimer: these are miniature versions made with small amounts of the mix!

Should you want to go further, continue heating the mix further on the same (maddeningly!) low heat (add the orange extract at this point) till the mixture gives up all its moisture (you can see the butterfat sizzling from the edges at this point). At this point pour (more like dropping) the mix onto a greased plate, and cut into squares to serve as is when cold,  or  simply scoop a tablespoon of the mix when cold, shape it into little spheres and roll in some toasted pistachio. Place into tiny paper baking cups. (application # 2)

 The final application that I used this fudge for were these gorgeous tiny 'money bags' (yea, I know, the French call them 'beggars purses' but I beg to differ!).

 Ricotta 'Money bags'

You need:
Milk fudge,
Phyllo pastry sheets
plenty of melted butter and a pastry brush for brushing it.

 Preheat the oven to 300 F. Line a baking/cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Scoop about 1/2 - 1  tablespoon of the milk fudge and shape into little spheres as shown.

The specks result when the mixture is cooked on a higher heat.. It does not affect the taste as much as the eye candy value!

Thaw a packet of phyllo pastry dough as per instructions. Remove as many as you require (You'll get about 6 purses from one single sheet of dough). Keeping them moist under a wet kitchen towel, Cut them into  squares (~ 5-6 inches sides).

Lay a sheet of phyllo on a stone surface and liberally brush with the melted butter. Place a sphere of fudge at the edge of the phyllo sheet as shown.

Roll the sheet over the fudge.

Gather the ends of the roll towards the center. pinch together and lightly twist the fringe over. Press the phyllo over the fudge  to seal the dough.

Arrange the purses on the baking sheet,

and place in the preheated oven for ~ 10 minutes till the tips of the dough turn a golden brown color.

Remove from oven, allow to cool and serve at room temperature as a dessert confection as is, or with coffee.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thursday tutorials: Call me melon...

Taiwanese white bitter melon

Run this thought experiment in your head.. Ready? think of the first taste that you associate with the following word.. MELON
Bitter Melon (Indian Variety) flower and fruit.

If you said sweet you're probably in the majority. If you said bitter,  your brain process runs along the lines described by the C.J Peters of the the book 'The Virus Hunter' and, upon hearing hoofbeats, you think zebra instead of horses, & you would be absolutely on the dot..I'm referring to the fruit known scientifically as Mormodica charantia, the Bitter melon (a.k.a bitter gourd, karela, carilla, kugua).
Growing up, I absolutely hated the days when this was made at home. After all, bitter is a taste confined to the back of ones tongue & indicative of toxic poisons. Acceptance became rapid after my first rotation at NYU school of medicine with Dr. Slyvia Lee-Huang. She was then working on discovering anti-HIV properties of compounds extracted from the seeds of the bitter melon, in particular a protein called MAP-30.

Well, when you discover that something that has been touted as being 'good for you'  is accredited with such stellar properties you either a. Get COMPLETELY turned off, or b. meekly give it the grudging admiration its due.
  Given its bitterness, the vegetable has long been associated, in traditional medicine, with warding of Diabetes, Anyone afflicted or related to someone who is will, in high probability, regale you of an experience of having to drink a karela extract first thing in the morning. These grandmothers remedies have been scientifically verified widely and in addition, there is even a correlation between karela and its  role in lowering adiposity, better known as F.A.T!!

How much better can this bit of bitter get? Unfortunately, the vegetable is practically unheard of outside Asian cuisine (I use the term loosely to incorporate, Indian, chinese, japanese, phillipino...), In fact one of the episodes from Food Networks show Chopped, featured this as an ingredient & the contestants had little clue what to do with it.. (One even sliced it into paper thin strips & served it RAW over a salad!). The vegetable comes in three varieties, the Indian bitter melon, which has these spines that usually get peeled off (kinda reminds you of an alligator, in fact, I remember  every school exhibit featuring food sculpture with at least one green karela crocodile!), the larger & fleshier Chinese variety which is much milder, and the equally fleshy taiwanese white variety, which looks so gorgeous but can be really bitter.

The Chinese variety of bitter melon

I could go on & on about all the listed information regarding the super healing properties of bitter melon, but I'd risk sounding like a written disclaimer of all those snake oil supplements they peddle on TV through those infomercials..
One of the best tasting memories I have about bitter melon was this dish that I had in New Delhi at my aunt's place. Her cook Mahesh, hailed from the mountainous terrain of Himachal Pradesh and would whip up this amazing semi dry vegetable subzee with karela & panfried potatoes, sweet and tangy from the pomegranate powder with the slightest hint of bitter from the karela whose bitterness had been almost leached out completely by rubbing it with salt. As I was about to attempt combining spices to try and replicate this, my peripheral vision zoomed in on a ziploc bag of an amazing spice blend that I recently fell in love with..Za'atar. Using this yielded a completely new and fabulous perspective to a vegetable that really has to fight to get its due.

Za'atar is a middle eastern spice blend primarily consisting of oregano, thyme, sesame seeds & sumac.  Variations to the blend and the proportions thereof are characteristic of the various region in the middle east that make & use Za' atar. It tastes great whether you simply sprinkle it on toast, yogurt or liberally incorporate it into Pizza dough to make Focaccia.. Try to pick up a bag if you can, you'll thank me for the suggestion!

Panfried potato & bittermelon with Za'atar and dried pomegranate. 

Ingredients: (serves 2)

1 large Idaho potato
1/2 a Chinese bitter melon/karela (~ 5 inches)
1 small onion. sliced thinly or diced fine
1/3 cup canola oil
1-2 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon Za' atar
1 teaspoon dried pomegranate powder
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder or red chilli powder (as per taste)
A pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon lime or lemon juice
sprig of mint for finishing & garnish.

Scrub, peel and cut the potato in half. Cut further into wedges.

Cut and discard the pointed end of the bitter melon. Cut in half length wise and scoop out the seeds. Cut the outer part into sticks about 1 1/2 inches in length. Add salt to the karela adn allow to rest for about 1/2 hr. When sufficient water has leached out from the vegetable. Rinse the salt thoroughly and pat dry.

Heat oil in a skillet and pan fry the potatoes in batches till golden brown. remove and set on paper towels to drain excess oil. In the same oil, add the karela and fry till it just begins to brown. remove onto paper towels.

Drain off the oil except for about a tablespoon, add the onion & fry till translucent. Add the potatoes and karela and allow to cook on med high heat for about 1-2 minutes. Add the Za'atar, pomegranate, and cayenne and stir till the spices are dispersed evenly over the vegetables. Taste for salt at this point. The karela will be quite salty, so exercise caution while adding any extra salt. Cook, uncovered for about 3-4 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish, drizzle with lemon juice &  garnish with chopped mint. Serve with Roti, or rice & Plain daal.

I found some other interesting posts dealing with karela. Here are some links to some delicious recipes..

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Happy October! Coconut Cream Cheese Cookies

My mother used to frequently admonish me with this saying... a man who looks at many trees seldom climbs even one.. This week, it has been something like that.. 4 different ideas all half complete.. Well make that 3 half complete, & the fourth (from yesterdays mega-inspiration), went through not one, but two fabulous versions. The first with a lemons worth of zest and the next, with cardamom, saffron & coconut.

This weeks recipe is an Indian inspired version of Merrill Stubbs' mothers iconic cream-cheese cookies. follow this link for the original version.

Photo credit: Jennifer Causey &

While OOHing & aahing at this genius of a rich cookie gem, a lot of the food52 contributors came up with a list of variations for this simple recipe & my input was initially saffron & cardamom. Combined with another suggestion (indirectly from Merrill herself) of coconut, comes this unbelievably simple keeper.

Coconut cream cheese cookies (adapted from Merrill Stubbs recipe on

Ingredients: (makes ~ 24 cookies)

3 oz. Plain cream cheese at room temperature
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup grated coconut
1/4 tsp saffron threads, crushed
1 tsp powdered cardamom seeds
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, butter, sugar, salt, saffron & cardamom powder.

Cream using a beater or manually with a wooden spoon till light & & fluffy (~ 5-7 minutes).

Combine the coconut and the flour & mix just until the flour is completely incorporated into the batter.

Using a measuring tablespoon (or a small ice cream scoop), scoop out dollops of the cookie batter and gently place on the baking sheets.

Make sure you leave about 2-3 inches in between, Believe me this is important! or else the cookies tend to expand into one another as seen below!

 Bake for about 10-12 minutes till you notice the edges browning. Keep an eye on the oven to ensure that the underside of the cookie does not brown too much.

Remove from the oven, cool on a cookie rack. Goes great with a cup of hot coffee..

Bon appetit!


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