Sunday, May 29, 2016

Big Batch Vegetable Hash & Masala Omelets

For a few weeks, I couldn't seem to choose any books or TV shows or movies that I could really sink my teeth into. I flipped through magazines and half-heartedly watched some reruns of Frasier and Murder, She Wrote.

Then this week, a really good book and two great documentaries came my way.

The book was a graphic memoir, Blankets by Craig Thompson. As always, I am in awe of a talented artist who can bring emotions to life with detailed brushstrokes and not too many words. This is a honest and often painful story of growing up and of first love. This particular panel on the left resonated strongly with me!

I watched two memorable documentaries on Netflix streaming.

Waking up in the morning and going to school is a rather routine part of a dozen years of a kid's life- several of our neighbor kids here take the iconic yellow school bus, while Lila like many other kids gets dropped off to school in a parent's car. Going down memory lane, V's school was next door to the building that they lived in and he tells of hearing the 15-minute warning bell, and using that as his alarm to hop out of bed, brush his teeth and race to school. Apparently he slept in his school uniform to save time in the morning! I remember taking an autorickshaw to primary school- believe it or not, 12 little kids and their heavy school satchels would be crammed into one autorickshaw for the ride to school and back, fitting into that impossibly tiny space like clowns in a car. In secondary school, I rode my bike (red BSA-SLR) to school clear on the opposite end of town. It seemed grueling at times, riding a bike over hilly and potholed roads while dodging chaotic traffic and trying not to gag next to trucks belching exhaust. The school uniform was a thick navy blue pinafore seemingly designed to absorb every burning ray from the tropical sun.

All of this paled to nothingness when I watched the 4 kids in the documentary On The Way to School. The documentary follows 4 kids (11 and 12 year olds- middle schoolers) as they make their way from home to school. A Kenyan boy and his sister walk 10 miles over the Savannah dotted by wildlife, carrying jerrycans of precious water dug up from the ground. An Argentinian boy and his sister ride a horse through desolate plains. A Moroccan girl hikes with her friends over winding mountain roads for hours, then has to hitch a ride to school when she gets into town. An Indian boy in a ramshackle wheelchair is pushed to school by his two little brothers. We just watch these 4 journeys (there's no commentary or lecturing whatsoever) that are everyday life for these small, beautiful children but are in reality heroic journeys that they undertake to get what every child deserves by right- a chance to go to school and learn. The NYTimes review is here.

Attacking the Devil is a very different style of documentary but just as heart-piercing. Thalidomide is a drug that I remember first learning about in an undergraduate developmental biology class as a classic teratogen- it causes severe birth defects in fetuses. The full story of thalidomide, covered in this documentary, is shocking and tragic- from how it was developed in Nazi labs, how war and other factors came together to make it a very poorly tested drug that was given willy-nilly to pregnant women as a harmless remedy for morning sickness for a few years, until it was realized with deep horror that it caused malformed limbs in the babies and worse. The company marketing the drug (a distillery, of all things) refused to accept responsibility, while the British government of the day sided with corporate interests. Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times in London, ran a brave, prolonged and unstinting campaign to gain recognition and compensation for the families affected by thalidomide. This is an amazing story of history, medicine, journalism and the best and worst of the human spirit. The Guardian's review is here.

What are you reading and watching these days?

Today, I'm sharing a rather simple recipe, one I've made for about three weekends in a row when we had friends over for brunch. A favorite morning dish in our home is vegetable hash with masala omelets. For just our family, this vegetable hash is easy enough to make in a cast iron skillet on the stove. For a bigger batch, it is nice to pull out a baking sheet or two and make a whole lot at once.

Big Batch Vegetable Hash

1. Preheat oven to 400F (use convection bake/roast setting if your oven has it)

2. Cut into bite size, any mixture of these veggies:
Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes
Bell peppers (green or any colors)
Onion
Zucchini
Broccoli
Brussels sprouts

3. Drizzle with oil (olive, canola or any other) and sprinkle with any combination of spices
Onion powder
Garlic powder
Cumin powder
Dried oregano
Paprika
Mexican chili powder
Salt and pepper
all to taste

4. Mix the veggies thoroughly with oil and spices, then spread in a single layer on baking sheet(s). Roast until veggies are tender with crispy browned bits.

For the masala omelet, whisk together large eggs (I use two eggs per adult diner) with minced onion, cilantro, salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. I use a small ladle to scoop beaten eggs into a hot oiled nonstick pan, making small fluffy folded omelets that cook quickly and are easy to serve to a crowd.

If you're in the US, hope you enjoy the Memorial Day holiday tomorrow and get the summer off to a great start! I have a big freezer cooking date with a friend- we want to make a variety of recipes to stock both of our freezers, and will report back on how that goes. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Chocolate Pudding Pops

Summer weather had arrived here in the South. A girl from the tropics, I love this change of seasons and don't mind the heat and humidity one bit. This evening was typical- the three of us gathered in the kitchen after school/work, and of course Duncan is always underfoot. Lila was in the mood to make popsicles so the two of us made chocolate pudding pops.

Meanwhile, V whisked up one of our favorite salad dressings and diced up avocado. We dined on big salads out on the porch, with fresh watermelon for dessert. Then, in an act of great optimism, V and Lila planted two avocado seeds in the yard, showering the seeds with dark rich compost from our bin. Fingers crossed that the seeds sprout!

Since the weather got warmer, I've been making popsicles on a regular basis. These chocolate pudding pops are a recent favorite- they are creamy and decadent and the perfect portion-controlled treat. As a plus, they use pantry ingredients that you (or your mini-helper) can whisk in seconds and cook in minutes.



Chocolate Pudding Pops
(Adapted from this recipe)

Makes 6-8 popsicles depending on the size of your molds (I get 7 pops in mine)

1. In a microwave-safe bowl, mix dry ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
  • A pinch of salt

2. Whisk in and stir well:

  • 2 cups whole milk (can also use a bit of cream in place of the milk)
3. Microwave the mixture 2 minutes at a time, whisking well in between until the mixture is cooked and thick (takes me 5-6 minutes).

4. Stir in 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Let the pudding cool a little. You could easily stop at this point and just gobble up the warm pudding. However, if you can restrain yourself...

5. Scoop into popsicle molds (it is too thick to pour) and freeze for several hours.

Other than the pudding pops, simple orange juice poured into the popsicle molds makes for a most refreshing treat. What are your favorite homemade popsicles? It would be fun to make kesar pista kulfi sometime...

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Golden Adai

I am the biggest fan of Southern Indian cuisine, and following right after the Kerala stew post is this recipe for adai, a member of the dosa family. Adai is made with a mixture of various lentils and rice and not fermented.

This recipe was my starting point.

Soak: In the morning around 8 AM, right before I left for work, I rinsed thoroughly and soaked

  • 1/2 cup rice (I used sona masoori)
  • 3/4 cup whole skinned (white) urad dal
  • 3/4 cup chana dal
  • 3/4 cup toor dal

Grind: Around 5 PM, I blended the soaked ingredients in the Vitamix in two batches. Any powerful blender or mixie or wet grinder will work to make this batter. The Vitamix did the job effortlessly in seconds, resulting in a thick and smooth batter. While grinding, I added a few curry leaves to add flavor, and in the spirit of using up every bit of food, I added some pickled mangoes (the ones left behind in the jar when all the pickle juice was used up). They added an interesting tangy flavor too. Finally, I stirred some salt into the batter.

Make adai: Heat a griddle and use some oil to make adai; the batter can be spread as thin or thick as you like.


These proportions of rice and lentils made a substantial amount of batter, it lasted us a couple of meals and then I had it a few more times for breakfast.

The adai is good plain, made just with the batter alone. The next day I added a chopped bunch of beet greens to the batter, which worked beautifully. Ginger, onions, shredded veggies and greens, spices like cumin seeds would all be wonderful additions to the basic batter.

I'm completely pleased at how easy is to make adai, particularly on a day when I'm short on dinner ideas or low on groceries. As long as I can pull out a few dals and soak them in the morning, a good dinner is guaranteed.

A couple more additions to the Vitamix page: nut butter and nut butter chocolate chia pudding.

What are you cooking this week? 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kerala-Style Stew

A major highlight of this month was a week-long visit by my sister and nephew. The little guy is only a few months younger than Lila and they had a great time playing, squabbling, snacking and napping together and making the rounds of every playground in town.

One afternoon my sister cooked ishtu (stew), a recipe she learned from her Malayali friend. You simply cook vegetables, add coconut milk and finish off with a fragrant tempering.

  • Start with about 8 cups of mixed vegetables. We raided the kitchen and fridge and used diced potato, cauliflower, summer squash, carrots, and also used two veggies from the freezer- peas and cut Italian beans (these are larger and flatter than regular green beans).
  • Add enough water to cover the vegetables, add minced ginger, cut green chillies and salt to taste, and boil until the veggies are just tender. We used a pressure cooker without the weight- simply using it as a tightly closed pot to get the vegetables to cook evenly and faster. 
  • Drain out excess water from the tender veggies- and store it for use in another soup or dal or curry.
  • To the cooked vegetables, add a can of coconut milk. Bring to a gentle simmer for a few minutes. 
  • Meanwhile, in a separate pan, heat 1 tbsp. coconut oil. Make a tempering with mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves and add it to the curry. You're done! 
This stew is a great example of the cuisine of the Southern Indian state of Kerala- simple, fresh and flavorful. We served it with some freshly steamed rice and pickle on the side. I ate it in a big bowl as a stew with just a bit of rice, and a handful of potato chips to add crunch. An excellent meal! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Vitamix Diaries

With a milestone anniversary and my birthday both coming up in April, V sweetly asked me if I had anything in particular on my wish list. Before I realized it, I heard myself blurting out "Vitamix". And so for the last couple of weeks, I have on the kitchen counter the blender of my dreams. One doesn't think of a blender as a particularly romantic gift, but in this case, money did in fact buy happiness (and many great meals.)

A Vitamix is one of those heavy-duty, high-performance, expensive blenders- a biggie as far as kitchen upgrades go. My tools and gadgets are well-loved and cared for, and they certainly get a workout in my busy kitchen. As years go by, they pay for themselves many times over. I'm still using the Braun immersion blender that I bought with my first grad student paycheck 15 years ago, ditto the food processor I bought with wedding gift money from my aunt and uncle a decade ago. I wear thrift store clothes and drive a cranky old car but save my pennies for top of the line cookware and get emotionally attached to my kitchen appliances. Priorities :)

There are many brands of high-powered blenders out there, but I didn't do much research and headed straight for the Vitamix simply because I've used it a few times when I taught cooking classes and was familiar with it. I did buy a certified refurbished blender to bring down the cost a little- and am glad I did. It looks and feels brand new.

Of course I've been busy playing with my new toy. The very first evening it was delivered, I gave it a rinse and made an apple pie smoothie for dessert- just a blend of almond milk, a handful of oats, apple (skin on and all), a dash of maple syrup and cinnamon, and ice.

Since then, I've used the blender almost every single day. With the days getting warmer, we love making iced coffee frappe in the afternoons. For two servings, I use about 1/2 cup whole milk, 1/2 cup almond milk, 3 tsp. sugar (or other sweetener; adjust to taste), 1 tbsp. instant coffee (adjust to taste) and a cup or so of crushed ice.

It blends into an amazingly refreshing drink in a few seconds. V is a big coffee snob with his shade grown Honduran coffee beans that he grinds fresh every morning and all that jazz, but he also admits to loving this frappe made with apna good old freeze-dried Nescafe.


Soups are probably the biggest reason I bought this blender- it makes them smooth as silk, as luxurious as what you find in fancy restaurants.

My standard no-recipe formula for vegetable soups-

  • saute onions and garlic in olive oil or butter
  • add a bit of flour to make a roux
  • add some milk/cream for richness
  • then lots of vegetables and water/stock, salt and pepper
  • simmer until tender
  • blend until silky smooth
This works for (a) corn and mixed veggies, (b) tomato-carrot, (c) broccoli, (d) spinach, (e) mushroom, (f) zucchini, among others. Inexpensive frozen broccoli and spinach work just as well as fresh vegetables. For broccoli, spinach, mushroom and zucchini, I use nutritional yeast to add a wonderful umami taste to the soup. This blender can actually cook soup as it blends- but I haven't tried doing that yet.

I've also used the Vitamix in some Indian cooking- it made a very smooth cilantro-coconut chutney and tomato-coconut-onion curry paste.

The blender came with a manual- called, with gravitas, "Introduction to High-Performance Blending". There are a great many things in there to try, and I've come to love the wet-chopping method, in which you add great big chunks of vegetables (say, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots) to the blender along with water and pulse it, then drain the water away to be left with finely chopped veggies in seconds. Pretty nifty. I used it to grate cauliflower and carrots to make these savory samosa-like tarts.

As I keep testing recipes with the Vitamix, I'll keep updating this post- that way, folks who have access to high powered blenders can refer to it if interested. And if you own one of these powerful beasts, I'd love to know what you like using it for.

May 4, 2015
Nut butter: I blended (pressing down with the tamper) 1 cup roasted cashews, 1 cup roasted almonds with a bit of salt and a couple of tablespoons of canola oil- it made a wonderful nut butter. V enjoyed it on good bread with a drizzle of nice honey. Can't wait to try more customized nut butters.

It is hard to scrape every bit of nut butter from the blender so it is a good idea to use it immediately for another recipe that needs nuts or nut butter (like a smoothie, or curry paste).



Instead of cleaning out the blender, I left a bit of the nut butter in and tried this recipe for chocolate nut chia pudding- it was very easy to blend, I poured it into small stemless wine glasses and chilled it for dessert, then served it with some sliced strawberries. I thought it tasted OK- very filling, not too sweet, a tad gummy. Not sure I'll be making this again.






May 5, 2016: Golden Adai, a cousin of the dosa







May 15, 2016: Creamy cilantro dressing- made from this recipe. I put in a whole bunch of cilantro, stems and all, and cut down on the olive oil (a couple of glugs as opposed to 1/2 cup)- it was thick, creamy and flavorful. We used it on a taco salad- bed of lettuce/shredded carrots/yellow peppers, topped with sauteed onions, peppers, zucchini, fresh corn, black beans, then the dressing, a sprinkle of cheese and crushed tortilla chips. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Cauliflower "Rice" Pulao

When you eat a vegetarian diet with a carb-conscious slant, vegetables become your very best friends. I can continue to eat my beloved rice, noodle and pasta based dishes by bulking them out with vegetables.

Pulaos are a regular part of the meal rotation around here- both for quick weeknight meals and as a crowd-pleasing side dish when friends come over for supper. The difference is that these days rice has to share the spotlight in pulao and fried rice. In every case, I've found that tweaking the rice-based recipe with extra vegetables does in no way spoil the experience of eating that quintessential comfort food. The spices and seasonings make it taste just the way I've always loved it.

Cauliflower florets have always been a delicious addition to many rice dishes like masale bhaat and vegetable biryani, but lately I've also been using cauliflower in its trendy avatar of cauliflower "rice" which is nothing but cauliflower florets that are finely grated to a fluffy, rice-like (or maybe cous-cous like) texture. Trendy or not, it is certainly a simple, practical and tasty way to fill out rice dishes.

This weekend, I found large, beautiful heads of cauliflower on sale and bought three to convert to "rice" and freeze away- yes, raw cauliflower "rice" freezes beautifully and it is very convenient to process it all at once and have a stack of boxes in the freezer ready to be cooked.

The food processor does a quick and tidy job of turning cauliflower florets to "rice".
  • Cut cauliflower into chunky florets.
  • Rinse them well and drain/spin/pat them dry.
  • Place a few florets in food processor bowl fitted with a metal chopping blade.
  • Process until most of the florets turn to rice- be careful not to over-process to mush.
  • Remove the unprocessed chunks- they can be chopped again with the next batch. 
  • Repeat until all florets are riced.
  • The "rice" can be cooked right away or stored in airtight boxes or bags in the freezer.

Some people serve cauliflower rice raw in tabbouleh-like salads but I have yet to try that. And rather than make a dish of sautéed cauliflower "rice" by itself, I prefer mixing it with steamed Jasmine-or-other rice- it fits in with my general scheme of not cutting out grains altogether but just eating less of them at every meal. Because the cauliflower "rice" blends in so well with cooked rice, it will work in just about any rice dish from any cuisine.

This time, I made a simple pulao to serve with whole masoor amti and raita.
  • Heat oil in a pan.
  • Temper with cumin seeds.
  • Saute 1 medium thinly sliced onion until nicely browned.
  • Season with salt, turmeric powder and pulao masala (or other favorite spice mix).
  • Add cooked rice (about 1.5 cups) and cauliflower "rice" (about 3 cups) and stir fry for a minute. 
  • Cover and steam cook for 8-10 minutes.
  • Drizzle with ghee and lemon juice (optional) and serve!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Spring is Here

It has been a whirlwind month (and some) since my last post. We had a big meeting at work that just ended yesterday, and it took a lot of time and mental space. At the end of a long day, much as I want to update the blog, I just can't face flipping open the laptop- I need a break from the computer screen and the keyboard. Ironically, I tend to veg out in front of another screen- the TV- this month, my favorite show of all time, M*A*S*H, is leaving Netflix streaming so that's what I just finished (re-re)watching.

But Spring has sprung and the entire town is awash in delicate blossoms and tender leaves, which gladdens my heart even as it gives me itchy allergy eyes. The switch to Daylight Savings Time means that there's still light outside as I sit here after the dinner and dishes routine, and today it motivated me to flip open the laptop after all.

We took a long weekend off in early March and went to a beautiful state park. I won't call it "camping" though. Glamping is what it was. We shared a very well-equipped cottage in the park with friends. Each family toted some food and we took turns rustling up simple meals. We lit bonfires and fired up the charcoal grill. My favorite camping dish was the foil-wrapped potatoes that we cooked directly in the bonfire, then split open and dressed with salt, pepper and butter. Between the open air meals, hiking, and gorgeous waterfalls, this was a nice escape from the routine. Like the public libraries, the state parks in this country are precious gifts that I enjoy gratefully.


Spring cleaning and decluttering has been on my mind. For several weeks, I've been taking on mini-projects in the kitchen, going through every drawer and every shelf, 20 minutes at a time. I empty out the space, wipe it down and examine every object to see if it is useful and functional before putting things back. My goal is to know exactly what I have in my kitchen, and to use it well.

Two boxes of kitchen items ended up at the thrift store. The tongs that I found unwieldy, that aspirational baguette pan, the twee serving pieces that never got used- they will all have to find new homes.

It is not just a question of getting rid of things but in some cases, getting better versions of things that I use all the time. Like the two cheap plastic colanders that I bought 15 years ago- I replaced them with sturdy stainless steel ones that are much nicer to use.

My "big" kitchen project was a pantry remodel. We have a small closet in the family room (next to the kitchen) that I use as a pantry- but it was dingy and dark, with deep shelves where pantry items were never easy to organize and find. One of my neighbors retired from the construction business and takes on woodworking and other handy jobs to keep himself busy. I hired him to remodel the closet, changing the deep shelves to wrap around shelving like this blogger did. He was able to take the old shelves out, split them and paint them and reuse them as the new shelves. We had paint cans left behind by the previous homeowners, and found white paint for the shelves and pale grey paint for the closet walls. The whole project was finished over 2 days, using materials we already had on hand, with the only costs being labor costs that went straight to my nice neighbor. That worked out well.

I still don't have electrical wiring for a closet light, but we put in a motion-sensor battery-operated light, and now the pantry is a whole lot more functional. Having a well-stocked and organized pantry makes it easier to put together quick meals, and minimizes waste because food doesn't languish at the back of a shelf.

I'll leave you with a quick pic of our dinner tonight: tacos with asparagus (sautéed quickly in olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice) and a cucumber avocado salad- this was a recipe I saw here on Smitten Kitchen, and for something so simple, it is a surprisingly tasty and refreshing salad that we'll make often.


Happy Spring! How have you been?!