Saturday, December 31, 2011

James Herriot revisited - A review of Suvir Saran's new cookbook 'Masala Farm'

I can't ask for a better subject to cap this wonderful year of blogging, Chef Suvir Saran's new book. Masala Farm. Taking a break from life in the Garden state, sipping a piping hot cup of coffee, looking out on Crescent lake in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, with family. The entire setting takes the memory cells on a nostalgic trip, of country life, meandering pathways, cows, horses grazing in pastures, tales & anecdotes straight out of Alf Wight's beloved classics.

For those of you unfamiliar with  Alf Wight, he was a country vet from Yorkshire, England who wrote a series of delightfully quirky classic books about country life, animals and his career as a country vet, under the pen name of James Herriot. A bevy of four legged characters and their humans with their strengths & failings, their individual personalities, ranging from elegant to right down eccentric. Its a beautiful ode to country life in the 1940's onward.

Fast forward to the 21st century, it seems that such an idyllic scenario is all but impossible in this fast paced life, but believe me, it does.. Most definitely in a bucolic setting in the far reaches in Washington county, New York State,bordering Vermont. A beautiful oasis called the American Masala Farm.
My first thoughts at seeing images of Chef Suvir Saran's Farm, was that it reminded me of Enid Blyton & James Herriot. Turns out, I wasn't totally wrong. The farm stories in the book take you back to a comfort zone of good food & conversation.

 Chef Suvir Saran is  the owner & executive chef of the Michelin rated restaurant  Devi, as well as the author of several well known books such as Indian Home cooking and American Masala. In his latest book, Chef Saran invites readers into the heart of his home/farm, to a sumptuous table filled with about seventy classic, comforting, 'stick-to-your-ribs good for you' recipes. The proverbial sprinkling of  masala (spice) is provided by heartwarming farm yarns about the myriad goats, a coop of heirloom variety chickens, each with their individual personalities, predatory ravens, coyotes, and the occasional oddball visitor offering a joint in return for egg samples!

The book also offers a glimpse into the responsible practices of modern farming and community involvement. Chef Saran takes the effort to include relevant information about food related enterprises in the area, not just about the wonderful services offered, such as Gardenworks, a pick-your-own berry farm.

The recipes in the book stand out in sharp contrast to the slick, upmarket offerings that Chef Saran creates for Devi. This is a collection of down to earth hearty fare, a delightful set of classic family oriented dishes from Suvir Saran's childhood in India (with endearing & warm credits extended to the family cook, Panditji) and traditional American dishes from co-author Charlie Burd's family (Notably Grandma Burd's recipe for Pasta Primavera, redolent with fresh picked herbs) and other lip smacking contributions from friends & colleagues.

The book has ample goodies for vegetarians in terms of recipes. (I've already cooked my way through three dishes with many more on the list.). The recipes are simple and easy enough to follow for the average home cook, and are meant to be made & shared with family. For the more health conscious types out there, many of the recipes do call for generous amounts of butter and oil, but can easily be made just as delicious with much less.

Masala Farm is available through, Barnes & Noble, and other book stores.

I had previously made a  rice & lentil offering from the book, 'Birbal ki Khichdee'. I'm following this up with a fabulous dish.. Farmhouse crispy creamy potatoes from the book. The technique of parboiling the potatoes prior to roasting ensures a dual texture, a crisp shell enveloping a dollop of creamy & fluffy perfectly cooked potatoes. Disclaimer: I cut down heavily on the recommended amount of oil, and added cracked black pepper for a hint of heat (for the family's Indian palate!) which did not take away from the divine taste. Chef Saran recommends serving these alongside fresh baked bread, I say scarf it down with a spritz of lemon or lime juice.

Farmhouse Crispy - Creamy potatoes: 

You need:
1 lb. medium sized red potatoes (quartered)
1 tablespoon Kosher Salt (& a good pinch of sea salt)
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup Canola oil
2 tablespoon EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive oil)
12 Sage leaves
2 sprigs Thyme
2 sprigs Rosemary
A generous sprinkle of fresh cracked peppercorn
1 Head Garlic with the top 1/3rd sliced off

 Preheat oven to 350 F.

Salt  a large pot of water with 2 teaspoons of salt & bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and herbes de provence, Lower to a medium heat once the water begins boiling again, and cook until the potatoes are soft enough for a paring knife to easily sink in (~ 15 min),  Drain & set potatoes aside in a large mixing bowl.

 Melt the butter in a cast iron frying pan and add the Canola & EVOO. Add a sprig each of rosemary & thyme and about 8 sage leaves. When the sage just begins to wilt, Pour this mix over the par boiled potatoes and toss to combine. Return the potatoes to the frying pan and place the pan in the oven for 30 min.
 Pull out the frying pan after 30 mins and place the sliced off garlic head in the center along with the remaining rosemary, thyme & sage. sprinkle with the remaining salt and cracked peppercorn. Return to the oven & roast for another 45 minutes until the potatoes are crisp & browned well and the garlic is soft enough to be squeezed out of the scaly pods. Allow to rest for about 10 minutes & serve with a wedge of lemon alongside.

Thanks so much for all the support from all you readers out there and the motivation you've given me through the year. Looking forward to your continued support going into the New Year!

Wishing all of you a HAPPY, PROSPEROUS & DELICIOUS 2012!!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Latkes - My way!

(This was a recipe made last year for Hanukkah, It just never saw the light of day on the blog, just on the Facebook 'Panfusine' page)

I'll be the first to admit that Hanukkah was one of the most recent religious festivals that I came to know about, In that respect, I'm as gentile as it gets. but the connotation of a festival related to lights & the celebration of faith & devotion in the Almighty & the mere fact that it falls around Diwali was enough to raise a curiosity in wanting to learn more about the traditions surrounding Hanukkah. For those of you with a similar interest, I refer you to the wikipedia article on the festival ( )
Even for a gentile like me, hearing the word 'Hanukkah' first brings to mind a plate of warm potato latkes served with sour cream. There are variations a plenty & my version is probably just one in hundreds. Since I do not usually incorporate eggs in my recipes, the binding agent used is chickpea flour.
One of the mandatory inclusions for a latke accompaniment is a dairy based dip. I paired mine with a raita made with greek yogurt spiced with a mustard coconut mix.

For these root latkes you need: (makes ~ 6 pieces)

Grated root vegetables. Clockwise from top: Sweet potato (orange), regular potato (white), parsnip (Cream)

1/2 cup grated parsnips
1/2 cup grated sweet potatoes
1/2 cup grated potatoes.
1-2 tsp chickpea flour. 
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 tsp Red Chilli powder
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
a pinch of Asafetida. (optional for a gluten free dish)
Olive oil for shallow frying

Combine the grated root veggies, spices, lemon juice, seasonings & the chickpea flour in a mixing bowl.
Heat one teaspoon of oil in a skillet and add a tablespoon of the root vegetable mixture into the skillet.

I used a biscuit cutter to get a uniform size, but its really not necessary.

press down lightly with a spatula to form a thin patty.

Disclaimer: I minimized on the oil by using a non stick skillet, but go ahead... Crisp it up with an extra spoon of oil!

Cook for about 5-7 mins on each side till golden & crisp.
Remove from skillet. Serve with Raita (recipe given below)

Cucumber raita with a mustard & coconut seasoning:

You need:
1/4 cup grated cucumber
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp Grated coconut
1 green chilli,
1/4 cup chopped cilantro loosely packed.
1/2 cup greek yogurt
salt to taste

Combine the mustard seeds, coconut, chilli, cilantro & salt with a spoonful of yogurt & grind to make a smooth paste. Add this paste to the remaining yogurt & cucumber. Combine well to finish the Raita.

Garnish with a wedge or two of lime & serve warm. The sweetness from the yams pairs well with the bite from the mustard, while the yogurt complements the heat from the spicy seasonings in the latke.

My baby girls curious li'l hands bringing an end to my pic session!!
here's wishing everyone a very happy & blessed Hanukkah!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dinner and a story. - Birbal ki Khichdee at the Masala Farm

For those of you unfamiliar with the name Birbal, here's a quick primer.

Stories of the third Moghul Emperor Akbar & his grand vizier Birbal are the stuff of legends, and almost every kid growing up in India will have heard at least one or  two of these delightful folktales. Birbal's sense of fairness & justice brought him the undying faith & trust of his Emperor along with jealousy & intrigue from the other courtiers who envied his proximity to Akbar. The Khichdee story illustrates Birbals quiet quick witted way of getting his point across to Akbar.

During the Winter season in Delhi, Akbar was strolling along the banks of the Yamuna river, when he noticed how bone chilling cold the water was, and wondered if anyone would dare spend the night standing in the river. When Birbal responded that if the reward was good enough, someone who needed the money would step up. Sure enough, the announcement (and a reward of a 1000 gold coins) was made, and an impoverished priest accepted the challenge. He stood chest high in the chilly waters, watched over by a couple of Akbar's sentries. The next morning, the priest went to the court to claim his reward. But, just as Akbar was about to hand the bag of coins to him, a jealous courtier interjected and asked the priest how he achieved this feat. The naive priest responded that he kept his gaze focused on the palace lights in the horizon and this kept him motivated. The courtier then claimed that the priest had derived warmth from the palace lights & hence was not eligible to claim the reward. Akbar reluctantly demurred to this, while Birbal resolved to find a way to give the poor man his rightful due.

A few days later Birbal invited the Emperor & the other courtiers for a feast at his home. Since Birbal's table was reputed for its excellent gastronomical fare, especially his khichdee, everyone eagerly accepted & arrived at the appointed hour.. They waited,.. and waited, ... and waited. Finally, Akbar, losing his patience,  demanded to know where the food was. Birbal politely led him to the backyard where there was a huge roaring fire and a pot of khichdee ... suspended about 6 feet above the flames. When the enraged courtiers demanded to know how the dish would heat up enough to cook, Birbal quietly replied, " The same way that poor man got his warmth while standing in the river all night". Needless to say, the man got his reward the very next day.

The take home message about the dish.. It needs a lot of love & time to cook to perfection.

A Khichdee is typically a dish that is quickly cobbled with rice, lentils (typically mung) & whatever vegetables are on hand.  Down in the southern states, its called a Pongal (boil over), & is typically seasoned with a tempering of cumin, crushed peppercorn & curry leaves. The difference in taste is primarily in the temperings that are used to season the rice/lentil mix and this varies from area to area.

I'm still in the process of recovering from the sheer delight of reading Chef Suvir Saran's latest book 'Masala Farm'. As is my style, I'll finish the book and promptly go back to the beginning..a couple of times. It'll take some time for me to get objective enough to post a review, but in the meantime, I've already zeroed in a number of vegetarian recipes that I crave to make & relish. The first one in the list was the 'Birbal kee Kichdee' (which I can now officially 'check' off ).

The first glance at the recipe can be intimidating, since there are 4 different sections in the list of ingredients. but reading through the recipe as one does an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure, that's the 'lab rat' in me talking), it all beautifully falls into place. The basic rice,lentil & vegetable mixture is seasoned with an onion/tomato reduction, finished with a traditional 'tadka' & garnished with caramelized onions, cilantro, ginger & lime. In the interest of full disclosure, I did deviate from the prescribed technique by a. ) Using a pressure cooker & b.) Shuffling the order of following the steps, which did not deviate from the end results. (and cut down on the amount of carrots since its not really a favorite vegetable in the cooked form in the family! )

The key spice blend that gives the dish its unique character is the 'Panch Phoran', a blend of five spices,
Cumin, Nigella, Fenugreek, Mustard and Fennel mixed in equal proportion.

To make Panch Phoran: Combine 1 teaspoon each of Cumin, Nigella, Fenugreek, Mustard and Fennel seeds.

Birbal Ki Khichdee (From Masala Farm, by Suvir Saran):

You need:

A. For the Khichdee;

1 cup split dehusked yellow mung dal
2 tablespoon ghee
10 whole cardamom pods
8 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
2 inch cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon 'Panch Phoran'
3/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/8 tsp asafetida
1 cup Basmati rice, cleaned & rinsed well
1/2 a medium head cauliflower, cut into small florets
1 medium potato diced into 1/2 inch cubes
2 medium carrots peeled & diced
7 + 3 cups water (YES, 10 cups!)
1 cup frozen peas

Toast the mung dal over medium heat until its fragrant and turns a golden brown. Set aside.
In a heavy bottomed pan (or the pan of a traditional Indian pressure cooker), heat the ghee and add the cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon, panch phoran. Fry until the spices are fragrant and then add the turmeric and asafetida.

Add the rice, toasted dal, cauliflower, potato and carrots and stir until the rice turns translucent and the cauliflower just begins to soften.
Add 7 cups of water and bring to a boil. Add the frozen peas, reduce heat, cover and cook for about 20 min (If using a pressure cooker, shut the pan with the lid, fit the weight and allow for 2 - 3 whistles.).
Once the rice & dal have cooked,  mash the mixture to a semi smooth consistency (as per your preference), using a potato masher.

B. Tomato/Onion seasoning;

2 tablespoon ghee
1/2 teaspoon panch phoran
1/2 large onion  sliced thin
1.5 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoon ground coriander
2 large tomatoes diced fine
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (up this slightly if you prefer a spicier dish)

In a large skillet, heat the ghee and add the panch phoran. when the cumin begins to brown, add the salt & onion and cook till the onion just begins to brown.
Add the coriander, stir in, and then add the tomatoes along with the cayenne powder.
Cook down on a medium low flame until the tomatoes are cooked to a 'jammy' consistency.
Remove from heat and add this mixture to the rice/dal blend.
Add the remaining 3 cups of water and bring to a boil, simmering for about 2 more minutes. Remove from heat. Your basic khichdee is ready.

 C. Tempering;

2 tablespoon ghee
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
A pinch of asafetida

In a skillet, heat the ghee for the tempering, add the cumin seeds until they sputter and then add the cayenne powder & asafetida. Stir in this sizzling mix into the khichdee.

D. Garnish

1 large red onion thinly sliced
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
2 in piece fresh ginger, cut into matchsticks or diced very fine
1 green chilli, minced finely
1 tablespoon fresh lime.
1/2 teaspoon garam masala

Heat the oil, add the sliced onion, and cook down until the onion caramelizes almost to a crisp.

Transfer the  onion onto paper towels to absorb excess oil. Combine the cilantro, ginger, chili & lime juice into a relish.

Serving suggestions:

Dish out generous dollops of the Khichdee into serving bowls. Garnish with the cilantro, ginger & lime relish & top with caramelized onions. Add a pinch of garam masala to the dish just prior to serving. Serve with a toasted lentil papad.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Terra Madre Day.. Celebrating Mother Earth

I'd been racking my brains as to what to create for Terra Madre day (India) hosted by Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, but sometimes the answer is staring at you in the face! The best dishes in life are those created with the simplest of ingredients, locally sourced and seasoned with an abundance of love and care.

The first dish that comes to mind was a Maa ladoo a delicious confection made with roasted chick pea flour sugar, ghee and cardamom. This is still my all time favorite sweet snack that instantly reminds me of my mother.

The second  was a recipe taught to me by my aunt Lakshmi Ramanathan while on holiday in Bangalore, India. The perfect dish for supper, simple eggplant bharta with fresh roti. 'Chithi' as I call her has been the mother figure in my life from the moment I lost my own mother in 2007.

The dominant flavor is brought about, not by any spice or spice blend, but simply the robust smokiness of the char grilled eggplant and heat from ginger & green chilli. What makes the dish all the more delightful was the light hearted 'chick' conversations we had  about Bollywood and the like that went on while she simultaneously grilled the veggies, sauteed them, rolled the roti, & before you know it, Dinner was ready!

Lakshmi Ramanathan's Baingan Bharta

You need:

2 'smallish' medium sized Italian eggplants
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 cup finely diced red onion
1-2 green chiles, diced fine
1-2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger root
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp Turmeric
1/2 cup freshly chopped cilantro + more for garnishing
Juice of 1/2 a lime
2 tablespoon ghee or cooking oil

Slit the eggplants through the center as shown. Place on a gas stove burner set on high and grill until the skin chars and the entire vegetable is soft & cooked through.

Allow to cool and peel off the charred skin.

Using your fingers, smash the flesh into a pulp.

Heat the ghee in a skillet and add the onions along with the green chiles and the ginger. Saute till the onions are soft & have turned translucent

Add the tomatoesto the onion & saute till the tomatoes have turned a bit soft.

Add the eggplant pulp along with salt, turmeric and chopped cilantro and simmer over a low flame until all the flavors have combined.

Transfer to a serving dish, drizzle with lime and garnish with cilantro.

Serve hot with fresh warm rotis.

Bon Appetit! and  wishing everyone a very happy Terra Madre Day

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nutty but nice..

Forget the picture above, Look down..Remember this fruit? Yep, the stinky durian's lesser cousin the 'Jack fruit' .

People can be divided into 2 categories when it comes to this fruit, those who love it & those who loathe it. When the edible part of this monster  fruit has been picked completely, the last of the sticky gummy latex like sap wiped off using ladlefuls of cooking oil and the whole pile of lemony yellow arils has been demolished, despite the dire predictions of horrible stomach aches,

all that one is left with is  seeds the size of quails eggs. The outer covering which is smooth and oily textured when freshly ripped off the fruit, turns into a papery/leathery  casing when dry. The seed is seldom thrown away, Its tossed into stews as a vegetable or roasted over a flame & eaten as a snack. Just like the classic chestnut.

I admit, the prospect of tackling a chestnut has always been daunting, kinda like storming a fortress. It was always easier buying freshly roasted nuts from the vending carts that dot almost every street corner in New York once nippy Fall weather rolls around. The aroma of roasting chestnuts is one of those iconic New York memories that is ingrained into ones brain for a lifetime.

This year however, curiosity got the better of me & I succumbed to picking a handful of them from the local grocery. A quick Google tutorial on roasting chestnuts &  I was well on my way to falling in love with this delicious starchy nut.

To roast a chestnut..Score the rounded concave side of the nut with an 'X' using the sharp tip of a paring knife.

Place about 5-6 of the scored nuts on one of those grilling contraptions used to 'puff' up Rotis over the gas flame. (you can get one of these grilling thingies at any Indian grocery store). The scoring is necessary to keep the nuts from transforming into mini exploding missiles.

Once the outer brown shell has charred and starts peeling away from the nut, remove onto a plate and allow to cool. Break off the charred pieces of shell and peel off the brown papery skin that sticks to the meat. This is what you'll be left with.

One bite into the aromatic flesh & I was instantly reminded of the roasted jack fruit seeds of days gone by. Which in turn led to thinking about all the wonderful dishes that these were incorporated into. The easiest is the classic South Indian 'Kootu', a stew made with pumpkin & coconut.  The jack fruit seeds would be peeled, smashed and tossed in, to be cooked along with seasonings to reveal a characteristic smooth starchy texture. Almost exactly like a boiled chestnut. While I could have made this stew exclusively with chestnuts, it can be a time consuming process, roasting, peeling & chopping them, not to mention that they aren't exactly cheap (retailing for anywhere between 3.99 - 6.99 a pound).

Butternut/ Chestnut Kootu

You need:

For the paste:

1/2 cup grated coconut
1 tablespoon Cumin seeds (Jeera)
1-2 red arbol chiles

Combine the grated coconut, cumin seeds & red chiles and grind to a fine paste using as little water as possible.

For the stew:

1 1/2 cups roasted & peeled chestnuts, diced into small cubes (~ 1.5 lb of raw nuts)
2 cups Butternut squash (or calabaza pumpkin) diced into 1/2 inch cubes
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste
1/2 cup Coconut milk (optional)
1 sprig curry leaves,
1/4 cup cilantro finely chopped
1 tablespoon canola or olive oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds

Boil the butternut squash, and chestnuts in 2 cups of water with the turmeric added. When the veggies turn soft, add the Coconut/cumin paste along with the salt and torn curry leaves. Cook down until the stew has thickened to your personal taste. Add the coconut milk as per your requirement (Disclaimer: I added it only because the red chiles I used packed a real punch) and stir to combine.

In a small cast iron skiller, heat the canola/olive oil till smoking and add the Mustard seeds. Once they've popped, add this mix to the stew to finish the dish.  Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve hot with plain rice.

Bon Appetit!


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