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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 . . .

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