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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Masala Dhokla

I use this when I have leftover curry to use up and I don't want to serve it again with plain rice - the Masala Dhokla is a quick and easy way to vary the meal.

You can use any fairly dry leftover curry, such as chole, channa masala, any potato curry that doesn't have a lot of gravy, etc.

Make the dhokla as per below - it's a "quick" dhokla recipe that doesn't require any fermentation and only takes a few minutes to mix up.

Pour the dhokla into the greased cake pan per the directions below. Let it set up for about 3 mins in the steamer, then spoon small amounts of your curry over the surface of the dhokla (for safety's sake remove the steamer from the pan so you don't get a steam burn while doing this). Then simply replace in the steamer and continue to cook. Voila, easy, quick Masala Dhokla!

1 cup besan (chickpea) flour
2 T cream of wheat (farina, semolina, rava)
1/2 tsp Fruit Fresh or citric acid or Eno salt
Salt to taste

Stir dry ingredients together

2 tsp ginger paste
1 green chili, finely minced
1 T light sesame oil
1.5 c water

Mix well with a wire whip or a fork

Add 1.5 tsp baking powder and another 1/2 tsp of the Fruit Fresh or citric acid crystals, or 2 tsp of Eno salt. Mix well but quickly.

Let the batter sit while you bring water to boil in a steamer or dutch oven with a cake rack in the bottom. When it reaches the simmering point, turn the heat down to keep it at the simmer (covered) and pour one-half the batter into a greased 8" cake pan.

Set the pan in the top half of a steamer or on the rack in your dutch oven. Cover the pan.

The water should not touch the cake pan, you will have to watch and add water if it gets too low during the steaming process. This shouldn't be to much trouble if you keep it at the simmer and keep it covered.

The batter should be done in 13 minutes or so (less without the masala). Use a knife to test for doneness (just like a cake).

Remove from the steamer and loosen the edges of the dhokla with a knife. Put a plate over the top of the cakepan and flip the whole thing out to flip it out of the cake pan. You may have to shake it a few times to get it to drop out. Then put another plate over the plate with the dhokla on it (which is now upside down) and flip again, to get it right side up. Serve with ghee.

Simple as that!

Honey Apple Mango bread

Honey Apple Mango Loaf

I made this up to enter a contest on Manjula's Kitchen site for a desert that incorporates apples. I could have used just apples but I was in a mood for something a bit more complicated. So Honey Apple Mango it is!

Hey, at least I controlled myself enough not to drop in the raisins I was contemplating adding as well.

I would normally have made this with egg but the contest rules specified eggless, so I used apple-banana baby food to replace the eggs. You could use real mashed bananas or applesauce or any combination thereof, but I keep the baby food on hand for small tasks like this because (a) it's handy and (b) I have a bazillion uses for baby food jars and never have any on hand. I would have preferred to use just plain banana baby food in this case because you get better binding from bananas, and frankly probably real bananas would have been best, but just about anything in the apple-banana line as an egg replacement would do.

I seriously contemplated using the silken tofu, but when push came to shove, I just wasn't ready to try it. Besides, I really need some baby food jars - I'm out of empty small jars and I have stuff to put in 'em!

It made a nice, moist loaf. Next time I would leave the chunks a little larger - I diced them about the size of, well, actual dice. You can see chunks in the bread but they cooked quite thoroughly, so larger chunks would have been fine.

It came out great:

Honey Apple Mango Loaf

* 8 T (one stick, 1/2 c) SOFTENED butter
* 2/3 c brown sugar
* 1 T vanilla
* 1 t cinnamon
* 1/2 heaping tsp ground cardamom
* 1/2 tsp nutmeg
* 1 tsp baking soda
* 1 tsp baking powder
* 1 tsp salt
* 2 T honey
* 2 T mango puree (OPTIONAL)
* 2 eggs OR add 1 tsp baking powder to dry ingredients plus one of the following
  • 1/2 c silken tofu (blended with the rest of the liquids)
  • 1/2 c mashed bananas
  • 1/2 c applesauce
  • 1/2 c (about 1 4oz size jar) banana/apple baby food
* 1 medium size apple, peeled, cored, and cubed
* large ripe mango, pitted, peeled, and cubed
* 10 oz by weight All Purpose flour

In case you don't know how to peel a mango, watch this video

I used the baby food option for this. I think the mashed bananas as a substitute for the eggs would have been a little better maybe, but I didn't have any bananas, so baby food it was!

  1. Take out one stick (4 oz, 1/2 c) butter to let it soften. GIVE IT SOME TIME - a couple hours in advance at least.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350F.
  3. Cream together butter, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Yes, all at once, it works out just fine! Beat til it has a smooth consistency.
  4. Add the remaining ingredients EXCEPT the apples, mango, and flour, and beat till smooth again. I do this in my Kitchenaid stand mixer with the wire whip.
  5. Replace the wire whip with the beater blade, scrape the bowl down, and stir in the diced fruit, just to incorporate.
  6. Stir in the flour on a low speed, stirring just to mix. You want a smooth mixture but don't over beat it or it will be heavy and dense.
  7. Grease a 9x5 loaf pan (I use vegetable shortening and a Pyrex pan, but butter or veg. oil would work) and pour the batter in. Smooth the top so it's more or less even-ish.
  8. Bake in a 350 F oven for 55 mins to an hour, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cover the top with foil towards the end if it is browning too fast.
  9. Let cool, slice and serve.

Now all I have to do is figure out what to do with the remaining 2 3/4c of mango pulp.... oh, the burdens of the baker!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Allagada Podi

This is a variation of potato curry that includes some spices I don't typically cook with when making Indian food. It's a tasty change of pace.

  • 3 T oil - peanut or mustard oil, or 1/2 veg oil and 1/2 ghee
  • 3 to 4 med red potatoes, about 1 1/3 lbs
  • 1 large onion, diced or thinly sliced
  • OPTIONAL 2 roma style tomatoes, cubed, or 1 sm can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tsp poppy seed
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds
  • OPTIONAL 1 T UNSWEETENED coconut flakes
  • 2 to 3 green chili, to taste
  • 1.5 tsp ginger
  • 1.5 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp chana dal
  • 1 tsp black mustard seed
  • 8-12 curry leaves
  • 1/8 tsp clove powder
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch of turmeric (scant 1/8 tsp)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 T plain, unflavored yoghurt
  • Coriander leaves, chopped, as garnish

Cut the potatoes into cubes, slices, or shoestring style strips. Cut the onions and set both aside.

In a coffee or spice grinder (used only for spices), grind the poppy seeds, coriander powder, and sesame seeds. Also the coconut, if you are using it. Set aside in a small bowl.

Measure out the ginger paste and minced garlic and set aside, mixed together, in another small bowl. Add the minced green chili to this bowl as well.

Put the cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon in another small bowl.

Measure the turmeric out into a small bowl and set aside with the other pre-measured spices.

Heat the oil in a pan. Which oil you choose will have an effect on the flavor of the dish. Note that mustard seed oil is more sensitive to heat than peanut oil or ghee; I prefer peanut oil for this dish myself.

Add the chana dal to the oil as it heats. When the chana starts to fry, add the mustard seeds. As soon as the mustard seeds start to crackle, quickly stir in the cardamom, clove, and cinnamon mixture.

When the mustard seeds start to actually pop, add the curry leaves and then quickly add the onion and turmeric and fry for a few minutes until they start to brown, stirring frequently.

Add the ground poppy seed, sesame seed, and coriander powder (and coconut if you are using it) mixture and stir well, IMMEDIATELY add the tomatoes and the potatoes. Stir quickly, sprinkle on the salt, then stir to coat the potato pieces evenly. Turn heat down to med, cover, and let the potatoes cook, stirring occasionally, until they just barely begin to soften.

Turn the heat up to med high, uncover, and fry the potatoes. As they brown, turn them gently, sort of like a hash brown. Do not stir as this will break up the potato pieces. When they have browned sufficient unto your taste, add the plain yoghurt if you have it, then sprinkle with the torn or minced coriander and serve with rice, naan, chappati or puri.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

You GHEE, girl!

Ghee is the king of oils in India. It has historically been a sign of wealth, health, and even beauty. It's certainly tasty! And so easy to make.

Take 1 lb of UNSALTED butter.
Melt it over a low heat.
Gently cook until the milk solids precipitate out and turn crispy, lightly browned.
Strain the solids out - I use flour sack cloth lining a small metal strainer.

Store in a metal or glass container. Ghee may be kept on the countertop for at least 3 to 4 months (assuming you properly cooked and strained out all the milk solids).

You can use it in place of oil in Indian recipes. It's kind of expensive to do on a regular basis but a nice change of pace once in awhile. The flash point of ghee is quite high - if the milk solids have all been removed it is actually higher than most vegetable oils. So it won't burn the way butter does at higher temps when frying.

Or serve warmed so that diners can drizzle a bit of ghee over their food as they eat. This is particularly good with dal dishes.

That's really all there is to ghee.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Word About Garlic

Over the years I've gradually switched from using fresh garlic to nearly always using the pre-minced stuff that comes in jars. Foodie purists may sneer, but it tastes just as good to me.

However, over the years, so gradually that I didn't even notice it, some producers seem to have switched over to a weaker, less garlicky variety of garlic. Christopher Ranch in particular is now using a weaker garlic. Hence, 20 years ago when I first started using the pre-minced garlic, I was using 1/2 tsp of the pre-minced per clove of garlic called for in the recipe, whereas now the CR pre-minced states to use 2 tsps per clove, four times as much.

This was brought home to me when I purchased a jar of crushed garlic at Costco instead of from the grocery store, and suddenly it was MUCH STRONGER. Upon checking the label, I discovered that this garlic states that 1/2 tsp of the crushed garlic is equivalent to 1 clove of garlic.

As it was in the beginning ...

I don't buy my minced garlic at the grocery store anymore, needless to say. I much prefer the stronger variety. If you don't have a Costco membership, many ethnic grocery stores still carry the stronger varieties. An Indian grocery store would be a good source.

Just one more example of the ways we need to watch what we are buying! I didn't even notice the shift to the weaker variety, though I did keep wondering how I could ever have thought 1/2 tsp per clove was enough, LOL!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Vegetable Pizza Casserole

What do you do, when your son says at the last minute he wants pizza for dinner, and the dough is in the freezer?

Well I don't know what YOU do, but this is what *I* did!

Go directly to the ingredient list

I had half a can of diced tomatoes in the fridge, as well as half of a not very good recipe for pizza sauce (it was too thick and overspiced).

I had 8 lbs of potatoes languishing in the cupboard, just begging to be used. You can tell when potatoes are begging to be used. They start putting out little sprouts. Those are desperate cries for attention.

I had pepperoni and cheese in the fridge, as well as a green pepper that wasn't getting any younger.

If only I had some pierogi, I could make that Pizza-style pierogi casserole my son likes.

Hey, wait - what's in those pierogies? All they are is a flap of dough folded over some very bland mashed potatoes. I suppose I could cook up the potatoes and make pierogi. Or wait - quicker yet - why bother with the dough?

So having had this epiphany, I washed and sliced the better part of the lonely, languishing potatoes. I love my mandoline! In nothing flat I had about 4 lbs of potatoes sliced up and ready to go. These were a very thin skinned variety so I didn't even need to peel them.

Again with the mandoline, making short work of dicing some onion. Too bad I haven't figured a way to cut up bell peppers on the mandoline - by the time I've got them cut up enough to seed them there's not enough left to stick on the mandoline. (SAFETY NOTE: Regardless of what superchef you've seen on TV slicing things on a mandoline with his/her bare hands, remember, YOU are NOT a superchef! Never ever use a mandoline without the pusher! Not if you love your fingers, and the flesh attached thereon)

So anyway. Cover a cookie sheet with foil, oil it with olive oil, spread the sliced potatoes out, and bake in a preheated 425F to 450F oven for about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and layer into a large Pyrex baking dish. Dump your diced onions on top. Add "enough" pasta sauce (I used about 3.5 c). Or cut up about 6 or 8 Romas and pile them on. I was cooking with what was on hand (read: improvising) and that wasn't one of the things in the fridge begging to be used up before they grew fur coats. I had what amounted to about 3.5 c of tomatoes and sauce when all was said and done, in a 13x9 pyrex baking dish. I wouldn't use plain canned tomatoes unless you drain the juices off first - that will turn this into a stew rather than a casserole. I had some RIDICULOUSLY thick pizza sauce that in combination with the half can of tomatoes worked out to be about the right consistency overall. When I say ridiculous, I mean you could cut it with a knife. I've seen jams that were less thick. Anyway.

I added about 2 tsp fennel seeds, and roughly 1 tsp of dried basil, and oregano, sprinkled evenly over the top. Now is the time to add crushed red pepper if you would like to - I meant to but forgot. Or "Italian seasoning", if that floats your boat.

Then I spread the green peppers on top, kind of mooshed it all flat, then added pepperoni in a single layer. On top went about 2c of mozzarella cheese.

Turned the oven down to 350F and put the whole thing in the oven. Checked after about 20 minutes - the cheese was just starting to brown. After another 10 minutes (total 30 minutes) I had a nicely browned crust of cheese on top with all that vegetable-y goodness bubbling away below.


You could make this with just about any dry-ish vegetable. Something like summer squash (zucchini, etc) would likely be to wet, although you might get around that to an extent by adding pasta or rice. Personally I think that would detract from the overall character of the dish (funny to talk that way about what was literally thrown together at the last minute, but nevertheless true). That's why I roasted the potato slices instead of boiling potatoes and dicing them or something like that. By slicing and then roasting them, I dried them out quite a bit while retaining their flavor and texture.

Some veggies that would probably do well in this dish include any of the firmer squashes (such as acorn, pumpkin, butternut, etc), Florence fennel, sweet potato, and leek. Some other less familiar possibilities I haven't tried yet include REAL yams (not to be confused with sweet potatoes which are often called yams), Jerusalem artichoke, Taro, and cassava/manioc/yucca, although I would be careful with that last - if improperly prepared it can be poisonous! If you decide to experiment with some of the more exotic examples of vegetables and tubers, be sure to research carefully how to properly prepare them. I was not aware that cassava contained cyanide 'til I looked it up.

Assuming you're sticking with some of the more familiar veggies, cut them up, toss with olive oil, and roast them as usual for about 20 minutes in a 425F oven. You may also roast the tomatoes if you are using fresh rather than canned. Stick with a paste variety such as Roma or San Marzano - other varieties will be too wet, in my opinion. You may roast them "plain", by themselves, or you may sprinkle with herbs such as thyme and rosemary.

Layer the roasted veggies in the bottom of the baking dish, as above.

Seasonings you might add to the casserole with the tomatoes include fennel seed, oregano, basil, and prepared Italian seasonings. I used oregano, fennel seed, and basil when I made this the first time.

Although summer squashes such as zucchini are often roasted, remember that once you layer on the cheese, you are essentially sealing this dish, just as effectively as if you'd put a lid on it. Any softer vegetable under that "lid" will start to stew in its own juices pretty quickly. I'm not saying you can't do it - roasting will help to dry these out too, and if combined with fresh rather than canned tomatoes you might manage just fine. Just be aware that it might not work as well as some other, dryer vegetables.

SO - an ingredient list would go something like this:

4 to 5 lbs assorted roasted vegetables, cut into roughly bite size chunks.
3 c (to taste) pizza or pasta sauce, if you didn't include fresh tomatoes above
1 med to large onion, diced (to taste)
1 large or 2 small bell peppers, diced LARGE (about 1" to 2")
(you may roast the onions and bell peppers with the other veggies if you wish, in which case I would cut the onions into larger chunks and add them about halfway into the roasting process because we don't want them to turn into mush)
Pepperoni, Italian sausage, or other sausage - leave out for a fully vegetarian dish
fennel seed
dried basil
dried oregano
crushed red pepper
For the roasted veggies - possibly some thyme and/or rosemary, cracked pepper
2 c mozzarella cheese, to taste

all baked as above in a 13x9 Pyrex baking dish, oiled with olive oil.

Spanish (not Mexican!) chorizo
Cajun (not French, too wimpy!) andouille
linguica, a spicy Portuguese sausage that must be cooked first (it's not dry cured). If sliced thinly it will probably cook fine along with everything else.

If you leave out the pepperoni or other sausage, definitely add some crushed red pepper (to taste) - this dish will just be too bland without something spicy.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bhindi (Okra) Curry

I hate okra. You know that song - "Great green gobs of ..."?

Well, it always made me think of okra. It is slimy, gummy, gooey, green grossness.

I HATE okra.

But I like this curry. And it is made with okra.

Okra. There's a reason the soup that incorporates it as a mainstay is called "gumbo". "Mucilaginous" is the best, most polite way to describe okra. Mucilaginous. The very word has the ring of authenticity. That's got to be an onomatopoeia if ever there was one. Mucilaginous mucilaginous mucilaginous - I really HATE okra.

Poor okra has really gotten a bum rap all these years. Poor okra does not, after all, entirely deserve it's reputation as the slug of the vegetable world. It turns out that okra does not, in fact, HAVE to turn into something that exudes long strings of slime that something deep inside you knows will never never never EVER wash off.

It can do so, and easily does. But it doesn't HAVE to be that way. With a little tender loving care, you too can make unslimy, tasty okra dishes.

There are two ways to get around the sliminess of okra. One is to deep fry the little buggers so you sort of cauterize the wounds, causing them to cease their relentless gooey oozings. It works, there's no doubt, but it's really sort of an unnecessary step if you're going on to make a main dish with it anyway. Plus, I don't like deep-frying much. Plus plus, I can't shake the idea that deep frying okra somehow contaminates the oil permanently (as I typically use deep-frying oil at least 3 times before discarding). I'd have to be sure I was using the deep frying oil on it's last trip before the Long Goodbye if I were ever to risk deep-frying okra.

But that's just me.

The other is to pan fry the okra, sliced into little wheel-shapes, in a single layer, until they are brown and crispy. This does take some time, but it is time well-spent. So first I'm going to describe the technique, and then I'll put the actual recipe under that.

JUMP to the ACTUAL RECIPE if you don't want to read all about the technique.

The first way to fend off the oozies it to use the freshest, least mature okra pods you can find. If they're longer than 3", they're edging towards doddering okra senility. If they're longer than 4", AVOID AVOID AVOID! *SHUDDER*

So get the smallest, firmest pods. It's unfortunate but an awful lot of grocery-store okra is going to be, shall we say, "overdeveloped" for our purposes, but you can still make it work as long as you stay away from the biggest pods.

Wash your okra, then dry it THOROUGHLY. I toss it in a dishtowel and then lay it out on another, dry dishtowel to air dry. Yes, this takes some time, but it's time you spend doing other more useful and fun things. Like reading the 9 million free books I downloaded onto the e-reader my son gave me. YES!

When the okra is completely dry (I mean COMPLETELY dry, because any hint of wetness will bring on the oozies big time), cut it into wheel-shaped rounds, about 1/4" thick. Discard the stem end. Whether or not you discard the pointy end is purely a matter of - dare I say it, in connection with okra - aesthetics.

Yes, it will start to ooze while you're doing this. Your knife blade will collect a layer of goo with embedded okra seeds, and you will occasionally have to remove the odd piece of okra that has glued itself to the side of your knife. However, be of stout heart! Persevere in the face of adversity! Fear not! All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Heat a T or 2 of oil in the largest frying pan you have - because you want to fry these up in a single layer, as much as possible. Shallow is fine, as long as the surface area is as large as possible. (Alternatively, you can stir fry these in a wok at high temperature, which would probably go faster, but I don't have a wok at present so this is how to do it sans wok)

As the oil heats, I add cumin seeds first, then as they start to brown, drop in the mustard seeds (quantities are coming later, patience, gentle reader!), and as soon as the mustard seeds pop I drop in the curry leaves, which fry just long enough for me to pick up my already-cut-up okra slices and dump them right in the pan there. Stir around quickly to sear/seal the cut faces of the okra. Reduce heat to medium and settle in for the long haul.

I have never timed this but it's a strictly go-by-looks sort of operation anyway so I'm not sure timing would be of any real use. How fast the okra browns up and "crispens" is going to be a function of how hot "medium" actually is on your stove, what sort of pan you're using, the age of the okra (older okra will take longer to properly "cauterize" and may actually get tough if you go too fast), how willing you are to stand and stir, etc.

Since I am unwilling to stand and stir, I'm happy with the medium heat and checking the okra every once in awhile to give it a stir, flip it over, and generally patiently wait for it to get brown and crispy. DO NOT cover with a lid while this is going on, or you will be trapping steam = water = GOO.

Once the okra is all brown and nice and crispy (and it does take awhile), you can add in the onions, garlic, and other spices, and finish cooking.

OK. Now for


1/2 lb of okra
1/2 to 3/4 lb of diced potatoes (I actually julienned mine on my mandoline, which turned out roughly 2" long pieces of potato that looked sort of like short shoestring fries)
2 T oil
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp black mustard seed
about a half dozen curry leaves
1 med onion (to taste), diced
2 - 3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground red chili (NOT "chili powder")
1/4 tsp ground fenugreek
OPTIONAL - 1/2 tsp good quality curry powder (not any American grocery store stuff)
2 T cilantro, coarsely chopped

You can make this with just 1 lb of okra (no potatoes) if you wish.
  1. Wash and dry the okra, as above.
  2. While okra is drying, dice or julienne potatoes and fry with as little oil as possible until they are nearly done. This will only take a few minutes because the potatoes are cut small. Set aside.
  3. Heat oil in a large skillet
  4. Fry the cumin seed, then the mustard seed, then the curry leaves (as above).
  5. IMMEDIATELY add the okra, stir well
  6. Reduce to medium - NO LID! Stir well, and stir occasionally till okra turns brown and crispy
  7. Add onions, salt and garlic - stir 'til onions start to brown.
  8. Add turmeric, chili powder, fenugreek, and curry powder (if you are using it). If I'm using curry powder I will typically leave the turmeric out or cut it to 1/4 tsp.
  9. Add the (precooked) potatoes.
  10. Stir well to coat with spices as evenly as possible.
  11. Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice or chapatti, puri, or naan.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe

Restaurant reviews are not really part of what I intended for this website, but the Curryblossom is so good that I just had to make an exception.

I love Indian food. I even like Indian-ish food. But the truth of the matter is that most Indian restaurants in the US are not real Indian food, they're an odd sort of Punjabi-Bengali-American-ish fusion that you would never find in any Indian home.

If you're fortunate enough to live in an area where there are a LOT of Indians, you may have stumbled across some of the exceptions to the above rule of thumb, but I have never had the good fortune to live somewhere like that. Mostly I've gotten used to the dishes inflicted on us by the more typical places serving sort of Indian-ish cuisine. Actually sometimes I like that style of cooking - but it's really not real Indian food. It is, however, what a lot of people now expect when they go to an Indian Restaurant.

After having tried several of the Indian restaurants in the area, I was pretty well resigned to the typical sort of Indian-ish fare I've come to expect over the years. Don't get me wrong - some of the other places in town are fairly good presentations of that sort of cuisine. But there was nothing new or special about any of them, including the one place in Durham where I found "Masala Dosa" on the buffet (the buffet - something else that seems ubiquitous now for Indian restaurants in the US). In fact the dosa were tough and rubbery. Not sure how that happened, but it was a disappointment. The only upside to that was that my dosa aren't THAT bad, so I got to feel superior. (They're not good, mind you. They're just not as bad as THAT.)

So one day I'm wandering around in downtown Chapel Hill, as I am wont to do (since it seems I'm perpetually a little bit lost these days), and I come upon the end of the run of restaurants on that section of Franklin Street. I want Indian food. Or Thai. Or good Chinese. Unfortunately there are no really good examples of any of those in Chapel Hill (at least not that I've found so far), and I'm just not up for the OK Indian-ish fare that's available. Plus the last time I set foot in the "upscale" Indian restaurant that everybody thinks is so good, they were SO incredibly rude that I ended up walking out. (I did go back another time - basically I got caught on foot in a downpour, and it was a choice between getting soaking wet or going in there. I chose wrongly - I went in.)

So I wander over to where there's a restaurant named "Penang", and discover that that is where there USED to be a restaurant named "Penang".

Darn! I was at least willing to TRY a new Thai place. Well at least I'd been told they served Thai food, although it sounds Malaysian. Anyway. Then I notice a little sign stuck in the grass strip there that says "Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe" - in "the courtyard", which I am guessing is to be reached by walking back between the (now missing) Penang and the OTHER empty storefront next to it.

I walk back, and there, tucked into a corner, is Vimala's. Drat it all, it's only 11 AM and they don't open 'til 11:30.

Oh well, I have a book, and there are places to sit. And I don't get around as well as I once did, so I'm happy enough to sit down, take a load off, and wait for them to open.

Eventually I wend my way into the restaurant proper. This is definitely not a "trendy", upscale place, like that restaurant which shall remain nameless of the rude rude staff, but that's not something I much care about (in fact I find that kind of ostentation a bit off-putting). I am a little worried, however, when I look around and see many many young people of the decidedly non-Asian-Indian variety behind the counter and in the kitchen. And that's ALL. Pretty sure I didn't spot anybody over the age of say 25-ish.

"Sigh" I sighed to myself. Well, I guess crunchy-granola-Indian-fusion is at least something different. (Yes, I was being a little judgmental. I'm sorry. I'm getting crotchety in my old age I think, LOL!)

Oh well. Like I said I don't get around that well anymore, and frankly I'd already walked through the vast majority of Restaurant Row without feeling like stopping anywhere else. So I lit.

I did feel a bit better when Vimala herself made an appearance (ah, there is the person who knows real Indian food! Little did I know how WELL she knows real Indian food.)

All I can say is, they blew my socks off. This is real Indian food like your mother would feed you, if she was South Indian. And if your mother is South Indian, then I hope she fed you food this good.

That day I had the Baingan Bharta, which was really good. I didn't notice the Masala Dosa on the menu until after I'd already ordered, so of course I had to go back for that another day. Except, when I did, the Uttapam seduced me away (oh, fickle fickle! To wear one's stomach on one's sleeve!) So of course, I STILL had to go back for the Masala Dosa.

The Masala Dosa comes with a thick, flavorfuly spiced sambar; coconut chutney; a dollop of potato curry; and something called "gunpowder", which I discovered, much to my embarrasment, I had been calling "chat masala" for something like 20 years. In my own defense, I think I finally figured out how I came to mislabel that. Long long ago I came across some of this stuff in an Indian grocery which was only labeled in Hindi. At least I assume it was Hindi; let's just say it WASN'T labeled in English.

"What's this?" I asked the proprietor. "Oh, that's spice powder." she says. I asked what was in it, and was told ground urud, ground chana, and some miscellaneous spices. You're supposed to mix it with ghee and serve with idli. Only I can't make idli, remember? I was afraid to try again after reducing my blender's motor to a smoking mass. So I didn't buy it.

This had to be over 20 years ago because I (barely) remember it being in Ohio.

Then a few years ago - maybe 5 - I came across something labeled "chat masala" in an Indian grocery in Missouri.

"What's this?" I asked the proprietor. "Oh, that's spice powder."

OK. So now "spice powder" becomes linked with "chat masala" as well as that stuff in the not-marked-in-English bag from 15 years before. Now put these 2 items next to each other and they look NOTHING alike; but it had been 15 years between sightings, after all, so I didn't realize at the time.

Now fast forward to the present day.

"My dad gave me this," sez my son, showing me some stuff in a bag that IS labeled in English, "What's it for?"

This stuff says "Chutney Powder". It looks vaguely familiar. I read the ingredients. 81% black gram, it says. (That's urud dal). "For idli, dosa" it says further on the packet. Oh yeah! I know what this is! Spice powder! CHAT MASALA!

So for years I've been calling this stuff "chat masala" when it was nothing like. Vimala set me straight, LOL! (It's GUNPOWDER. GUNPOWDER.)

But I digress. Since I have a strong aversion to anything coconut flavored - say, coconut chutney - I asked that they hold the chutney. Shortly Vimala herself came out and offered me several alternative chutneys. I picked the ginger chutney, and oh what a good choice that was!

Let me tell you, if I thought I'd had my socks blown off to start with, the Masala Dosa had to have blown me totally out of all my clothes and left me naked with all my food-related nerve endings tingling like they'd been struck by lightning. Which they had. (No, don't try to picture that. It would be a hideous sight. Just take it for a bit of hyperbole in service of TRYING to describe just how good that Masala Dosa was.)

I'm serious. It was so good I was bouncing in my chair making nomnom noises. There was a guy standing at the counter laughing at me. I was having paroxysms of joy!

Go ahead. Laugh at me. I've been cooking and eating Indian food for almost 35 years and except for my friend Usha's cooking, I haven't had anything that good outside of India. I make kind of crummy dosa myself, using cheaty kind of recipes that use pre-ground flours instead of fresh-grinding the whole dal and rice as you should. After burning the motor of my blender out lo these 30 years ago I never tried an authentic recipe again. So these were GOOD.

If you are ever anywhere in the area, give Vimala's a try. You only THINK you've ever had authentic Indian food up to now.

Unless of course your mother is Indian . . .

Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Honey Mango Banana Bread

I make a lot of Indian food (in case no one had noticed that) and one of the products I have in my pantry at all times, for no particular reason, is mango pulp. It comes in large cans and it is, well, mango pulp.

I love mangos but you don't get good mangos here in the US (unless you're fortunate enough to live in Hawaii). Even so, I can only eat one raw mango because my lips blister if the juices touch my skin. So there I go, whenever I can manage to get a ripe-ish mango, carefully peeling it and cutting it into small chunks and ever so carefully edging it past my lips without brushing the skin . . . YUM!

If I eat 2, the inside of my mouth gets a bit raw, but one is safe. I don't know what causes it, but cooked mango products don't cause the problem.

So there's the mango pulp. I buy it all the time but I almost never actually use it because I don't know HOW. It wasn't something my ex's family used, so I've never really figured out what to do with it, other than make Mango Lassi (a drink with yogurt) which I don't really care for. My son used to eat it right out of the can with a spoon. Pretty sure that's not the intended use for it either. I keep hoping to figure out something useful to do with it because I absolutely LOVE mangos. So far I haven't really come up with very many uses for it.

In an attempt to incorporate some of this yummy ingredient into my repertoire, I came up with the following modification of a standard banana bread recipe (from the King Arthur website). It makes a very moist, flavorful quick bread. There's just a hint of the mango - in future I'd like to try incorporating some ripe mango chunks into the bread for a stronger mango flavor, but lacking ripe (or at least ripe-ish) mangos, this isn't a bad effort.

  • 8 T (one stick) butter
  • 2/3 c brown sugar
  • 1/4 c honey
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 T cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 12 oz mashed overripe bananas
  • 1/4 c mango puree
  • 2 large eggs
  • 10 oz by weight flour

I used King Arthur All Purpose flour, which is about the same as anybody else's bread flour at 11.6% protein.

  1. Cream together butter, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Beat til it has a smooth consistency.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients EXCEPT the flour and beat till smooth again. I do this in my Kitchenaid stand mixer with the wire whip.
  3. Replace the wire whip with the beater blade and beat in the flour, stirring just to mix. You want a smooth mixture but don't over beat it or it will be heavy and dense.
  4. Grease a 9x5 loaf pan and pour the batter in. Smooth the top so it's more or less even-ish.
  5. Bake in a 350 F oven for 45 mins, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cover the top with foil towards the end if the top is browning too fast.
  6. Let cool, slice and serve.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Matar Paneer

Whenever milk goes on sale, I buy a gallon or two of whole milk and make paneer. My son prefers Paneer Makhni or some other form of paneer in a gravy, but my first love is and always has been Matar Paneer (peas and paneer curry). Although I must admit that Saag paneer is now possibly in a tie position for my favorite paneer dish. However today I'm making Matar Paneer, so here goes.

  • 1 c paneer
  • 1 c peas, fresh or frozen (never canned!)
  • 1/2 c onion
  • 1/2 c tomato, finely chopped
  • 1/4 tsp garam masala
  • 1/4 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1/4 tsp cayenee
  • 3 T ghee
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 c paneer whey or water

  1. Pan fry the paneer cubes (about 1" cubes) using as little oil or ghee as possible. In my Scanpans I can do this without any oil at all, and usually do. Just brown the cubes on at least 2 sides, or all 4 if you have the patience. Set aside.
  2. Heat the ghee over a low-medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and fry gently til the onions soften and begin to turn golden.
  3. Add the turmeric, salt, garam masala, and coriander powder and fry about a minute longer.
  4. Add the diced tomatoes and cook until they begin to soften.
  5. Add 1/2 c of the whey and simmer for about 5 mins until the tomatoes become a pulpy sauce.
  6. Add another 1/2c of whey and the peas, cover, and simmer until the peas are cooked. If you are using fresh peas from the garden, you may need to add another 1/2 c of whey to fully cook them (frozen peas will cook faster).
  7. Remove the lid, add the paneer, and cook, stirring gently, until the remaining liquid has been absorbed by the paneer or has cooked down.
  8. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve with rice, puri, or chapati.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pie Crust - VICTORY!

For many years I have avoided making pies. I haven't even tried to make a pie since I left home at the age of 17. Why? Because I was completely and utterly convinced that I could not make a decent pie crust to save my life, having been told this for years by my mother. So, much as I love pies, and despite the hundreds of pies I'd made while living at home (pies which, upon further investigation, it turns out NO ONE in the family ever complained about except my mother), I haven't tried to make a pie in 35 years.

Until now.

The first pie wasn't all that good, but you know what?


What more could anyone want for the first pie in 35 years?

So I tried again.

This time the crust was pretty darn good.

In reality, I think any pie crust recipe would be fine, but here's the one I was using. Here's the original source.

I have found the suggested measurements for a single 9" pie crust is not enough. I use 1 ½ cups of the pie crust mix and 2 T of water.

Pie Crust Mix:
  • 6 c All Purpose Flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 ⅓ c shortening (I used all regular Crisco, though the recipe calls for half regular and half butter flavored)
  1. Use a fork or whisk to stir the salt and flour together in a mixing bowl.
  2. Using a pastry blender, cut the shortening into the flour until you have a mealy mixture with particles varying up to about pea size. It won't be perfectly uniform, and that's fine. You just don't want big lumps or too many tiny crumbs.
  3. The original directions say to cut the shortening in half at a time. I didn't do that and it came out fine, but it might be advantageous to go ahead and do it that way.
Store this mixture in the refrigerator. I'm told this can be held in the fridge for up to 3 months. I've had some in there for about a month now and it's still fine. I'm using a gallon size Ziploc freezer bag; typical plastic baggies are not heavy duty enough for this type of long term storage and the extra handling. In addition, the lighter weight plastic baggies may also tend to allow the pie dough mixture to pick up odors and flavors from other things stored in the fridge if its going to be in there for more than a week or so. A plastic tub or other container would be the safest storage option, but the Freezer style Ziploc has been adequate for me so far.

To make pie dough, use 2 T of ice cold water to 1 C of the pie dough mix. Add the water a little bit at a time - if the dough is too dry, it won't hold together. If it's too wet, it will stick to EVERYTHING. In either case you will end up over-handling the dough, which will make the pie crust tough instead of tender and flaky.

Stir with a fork until the dough just begins to hold together. Be careful about adding water a little bit at a time until you've achieved this.

Suggested measurements:
9" double crust - 2 c dough mix plus 4 T ice cold water
10" double crust - 4 C dough mix plus 8 T ice cold water
9" single crust - 1 ½ cups dough crust mix and 2 T of water.

The only one of these I've tried is the 9" single crust so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the double crust measurements. The original directions called for 1 ¼ c of dough mix and 2 T of water for a 9" single crust. I found this to be insufficient to fit into a 9" pie pan. It also made a very wet dough - I had to add a fair amount of flour the first time when I followed these directions. The extra handling contributed to the crust being only OK instead of pretty good. Increasing the dough mix to 1 ½ cups brought the dry to wet ratio closer to being correct.


This is the other area (besides getting the wet to dry ratio right) where things can get a little tricky. Over-handling is always the danger.

Pat the dough into a ball and wrap well with plastic wrap. Let rest and chill in the refrigerator for 30 mins to an hour.

Tape a piece of plastic wrap to the countertop or table (use masking tape). It needs to be at least as wide as the dough you want to roll out. I usually tape 2 pieces together from the underside. I used to use wax paper but a friend suggested using the plastic wrap, which actually works out better, I think. Wrinkles in the plastic will leave wrinkles in the underside of your dough, but in the end it won't matter. You should be able to stretch the plastic enough to eliminate most of that when you tape it down.

Dust this lightly with flour. Keep a small bowl of flour nearby so you can dust with more flour as needed.

Wrap a piece of plastic wrap around your rolling pin. I manage without any additional tape, but if this slips for you, you can wrap rubber bands or rolling pin rings around the ends of the rolling pin to help hold it on. I use the plastic the dough was wrapped in when it went into the fridge to chill.

A pastry cloth would probably be easier to set up, but harder to clean. Also I happen not to own one. This works OK for me. I've also seen it suggested that you use a gallon size ziplock bag, placing the ball of dough in the center of the bag, closing it up (squeeze all the air out), and rolling it out inside the bag. Then you cut the bag off.

Take the dough out of the fridge and place it on your lightly floured work surface. Flatten the dough into a disc, lift and flour the surface again. Roll out to about ¼" thick - there should be an inch or so of dough hanging over the edge of the pie pan. Roll out to about 13" in diameter to fit into a 9" pie pan, that'll give you enough overhang to form the edge.

There are a lot of ways to form the edges. I'll take some pictures next time I make a pie - this is easier to demonstrate than to describe.

About rolling pin rings: these can help you achieve a uniform thickness, but they're generally made for specific sizes of rolling pins. There are also guides (Perfection Strips) in the form of long strips that you lay on either side of your dough that will help to ensure a uniform thickness. These run about $10, but you should be able to easily make your own with craft materials or square doweling from a hardware store. Finally, there are adjustable rolling pins that come with ring inserts that you install on the ends of the rolling pins to create a gap between the rolling pin and your work surface. These vary in cost from about $20 up to over $100.

Personally I've found that it doesn't really matter that much - once I get enough diameter to fit it into the pie pan I'm good to go.

Baking times depend on what you fill the pie with, but here are a few tips:
  1. Verify the actual operating temperature of your oven with an oven thermometer and adjust your settings accordingly.
  2. Preheat the oven according to the recipe instructions.
  3. If you are using a Pyrex pie plate, you might want to reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees. Personally, I have found that this matters when you're talking about cakes, but I have seen no difference with pies. YMMV.
  4. Some recipes suggest chilling the pie dough after you've rolled it out and put it in the pie pan. If you're using a pyrex or ceramic pie pan, I would not suggest doing this. You increase the risk of shattering the pan when you put the cold pie pan in the hot preheated oven. A metal pan would be ok.
  5. Place a cookie sheet or piece of foil under the pie pan to catch any overflow.
  6. Often the top of the pie bakes much faster than the bottom. One way to deal with this is to shield the top with a pie crust shield or a piece of foil. Or if you have a baking stone, put the pie plate on the stone with a piece of foil underneath to catch any filling overflow. For a pyrex or ceramic plate, let it heat up in the oven for 10 minutes or so on the rack before placing it on the hot stone so it won't fracture. The hot stone will help the bottom crust brown up faster.
  7. If you are baking a fruit filled pie with a top crust, sometimes the bubbling filling can make a real mess of your top crust, even if you've cut steam vents into the top crust. Making a lattice top is one way to avoid this, or get a pie bird - this is a little ceramic vent in the shape of a bird or other critter which allows the steam to vent out of the pie without making the filling boil over.
  8. If you are making a fruit filled pie, pre-cook the filling partially so you can drain off the liquid, cook that down, and add back to the pie when you fill it. This helps to avoid a soggy bottom on your pie while retaining the full flavor of the filling.

Why I Prefer a Pyrex (glass) Pie Plate
  1. I can see the bottom crust and know when it's done.
  2. You can cut the pie in a glass plate without scarring up the surface
  3. Ease of cleaning - glass is as close to durable non-stick as we are likely to get for the foreseeable future.
  4. Glass is a poor conductor of heat. Oddly enough, this has the opposite effect one might expect; because it conducts heat poorly, heat is more evenly distributed, resulting in a more evenly baked filling and better browning of the crust. Metal pans often develop hot spots, leaving fillings underdone in the center and causing uneven baking.
  5. I have NEVER experienced pie crust sticking in a glass pie plate.
  6. They're cheap and durable. Unlike metal pans, they don't stain, dent, or ding. You can break one, but I never have.

Gadget Review - Pastry Blender

A pastry blender is a fairly simple gadget, but one that has more uses than just for making pie crust. I use mine for
  • pie dough
  • biscuits
  • streusel or other "crumble" toppings
  • mashing potatoes, yams, squash, or bananas
  • breaking up cooked ground meat (say hamburger you want to use for taco filling)
  • chopping up eggs for tuna or chicken salad
  • flaking tuna or other canned meat
It's an easy tool to use. For pie dough, biscuits, and streusel/crumble toppings, thoroughly mix the dry ingredients together with a fork. If using butter, cut it into pats of about tablespoon size. Shortening is typically much softer but would still benefit from being cut into smaller pieces instead of one big glob.

Use the pastry blender to blend the shortening/butter into the flour mixture by "cutting" it in - press the pastry blender down through the mixture to cut up the pieces of fat and mix them with the flour.

For either pie dough or biscuits, you don't want to overmix. Most directions say to cut the shortening in until it's a "course meal" with "pea sized" lumps of shortening, but in reality, you will get better results if you don't expect uniform size particles. Some will be larger than pea size, some smaller. It is the variation in the size of the shortening pieces which, when rolled out, will create the flakiness of the dough. When those pieces melt, it creates steam that helps to separate the dough into the multitude of layers that make biscuits or pie dough so tender and delicious.

There are basically two types of pastry blenders.

Wire Type
First let's look at the wire type. I don't care for this one, as the wires tend to bend, tangle, or spread out too much in use.

The wire type is also not very useful for much other than making dough - it does a poor job of breaking up meat for tacos or mashing vegetable or bananas.

Wire Type
This type is more stable and has more versatility than the wire types. A good one makes short work of cutting through cold butter and easily handles other tasks such as mashing vegetables or mincing cooked ground meat. However, as for any tool, quality varies widely, and there are styles other than the "traditional" bladed configuration shown to the left.

Wire Type
This style has blades that go further up toward the handle. The advantage is that they don't clog up as quickly as the "traditional" style tends to. The taller profile provides more leverage and more clearance between your knuckles and the dough. I don't currently own one of these, but I would like to have one to see if it works out as well in fact as it looks like it should in theory.

UPDATED 12-23-2011: I have since acquired one of these, and it does seem to do a better job, mixing pastry dough with less clogging of the blade. It also seems to mash potatoes and meat (for tacos and the like) with a bit less muss, fuss, and bother. However, I'm not sure that it's enough of an improvement over a well-designed blade with the shorter handle that I would run out and replace the older design, knowing what I know now. It probably would be a better choice if you don't already have a decent pastry blender. It costs a bit more than the shorter handled version; probably worth it if you don't have one already; if you do, meh, not so much.

Wire TypeOne of the issues to consider when looking for a bladed pastry blender is how far apart the blades are. If they're too close together, it will clog and will make the meal for dough too small. If they're too far apart, as these are, you will end up chasing big clumps of shortening and flour all around the bowl.

Wire Type
Finally, there is this style. This pastry blender is inconvenient to use and not very effective. The blades are flat instead of curved, which makes it difficult to use when you need to deal with the curved sides of a mixing bowl. It's also pretty expensive - $20 and up. I don't have one of these, but in this case I'm unlikely to buy one to try it out.