Saturday, July 26, 2014

Be Careful What You Put In Your Spice Grinder....

I had originally intended this to be my first post. WHOOPS. Better late than never, right?

As I have eluded to in the past, I love to cook things from different cultures. Give me a recipe from anywhere in the world, and I will try to make it! I'm serious. 

I love Indian food, but didn't really appreciate it until I got to college. The only Indian food place I had been exposed to growing up was a very small spot in Bangor, Maine. It was far enough away that I probably went only 3 times in my life. 

Once I got to college, Boston opened my eyes to many things, including Indian food. But as I delved deeper I realized the limitations of what I knew. One of my boyfriend's best friends' (who I am now close to as well) family is from Tamil Nadu, a state in South India. It is ultimately because of him that my palate was educated further into the wonders of Indian Cuisine. I was exposed to things other than chicken tikka masala and naan. Naan is not generally served in South India (there is a plethora of other breads), and chicken tikka masala is actually not an Indian dish! It was born in England! Wow. 

Anyways, it is from our friend that I learned that regular chai (not masala chai) is not to be spiced, and is really just strong black tea with milk and lots of sugar. Chai literally just means "tea." I learned the importance of yogurt and pickles. It is because of him I now know that idli and vadai and dosai exist. These are all amazing things. 

When I lived in Berkeley California, I had access to some of the best and most affordable Indian food ever. Naan N' Curry and House of Curries have been some of the best North Indian style restaurants I have ever been too. This style of restaurant doesn't exist in LA...affordable and of quality. You order at a counter, are given a number to bring to your table, grab your own silverware and plates and cups, and a pitcher of water if you want. And chai is always FREE with a meal. I have not seen that in LA!

Upon the recommendation of our friend, Berkeley was also the first place I tried South Indian food, at Vik's Chaat Corner. Cafeteria style (almost) and amazing! It was there that I experienced Chana Bhatura for the first time (big, puffy, wholewheat bread that you break into pieces to scoop up the chana masala). I also lived around the corner from a great little dosa spot called Udupi Palace on University Avenue. Berkeley was a really great town for Indian food.

And here in LA, we have Paru's on Sunset. Absolute heaven. 

Another thing about the South Indian cuisine I've tried: It's mostly vegetarian. Of course, there's ghee, paneer, and yogurt. Gotta love those dairy fats.

One of my favorite Indian dishes, either in the northern or southern style, is chana masala, or chole. It's really just amazing. The North Indian style gets it's character from onions, tomatoes, spices and dry mango powder. Garam masala may also be added. The North Indian style is a bit "sour and tangy". The South Indian version gets it's character mainly from coconut and whole spices and is a bit sweeter, it does not have the "sour and tangy" quality that it's sibling does.

So I decided to make it. And I wanted to make it RIGHT. South Indian style is the one I prefer.

So, one trip to India Sweets and Spices later, I came home with all of this:
Left to right, top to bottom: Asofetida, tomatoes, chickpeas, onion, ghee, indian bay leaf, black mustard seeds, curry leaves, green chili, turmeric (powdered and fresh), garlic, ginger, cilantro, dried unsweetened coconut, spice mixture (chili, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, cumin, coriander, cloves.)
And then I got started. The recipe I was trying to follow was based off of this one.

First thing was first, I laid out all of my ingredients (see above.)
I love the way these spices look!!
The first step here, is to prepare your chickpeas. I would have liked to have started with dry ones, but I didn't plan enough ahead, and just used canned ones instead (I used 2 cans). I highly recommend you use dry. Soak 1 cup of them overnight or for about 8 hours. Since I used canned ones, I just drained and rinsed them and set aside. If you are using dry, the recipe wants you to pressure cook them after soaking. I don't have a pressure cooker, I probably would have just cooked them until al dente, and set aside. 

Next, you get together your batch of "roasting spices" (also referred to as "roasting masala"). Dry roasting brings out the flavors of the spices in a big way that really makes a difference in the final dish. If you have a chutney grinder, which is a dry/wet grinder that this recipe called for, dry roast the spices and coconut together, add some water, and grind it into a fine paste in said grinder. I had heard of this before because it's also used to grind lentils and rice to make idli and dosas, etc. I don't have one of these, unfortunately!

In a dry pan (I used our trusty Lodge dutch oven), add 1 inch of cinnamon, 1/2 tsp of fennel seeds, 1/2 teaspoon of cumin seeds, 1 tbsp of coriander seeds (I only had ground), 1-2 red chilis (or more), 2-3 cloves, 2-3 green cardamom pods. It also called for black cardamom, but I did not have any luck finding that at the market. Dry roast all of these together until fragrant. 
Dry roasting the spices. 

Then, add 3/4 to 1 cup of grated coconut. The recipe called for fresh, but I just used unsweetened dry. I added a little more coconut to account for not using it fresh. I did not measure the amount that I added, though, sorry!
Add the coconut to your masala mix. 
Roast the coconut with the spices until the coconut is browned. Make sure to keep stirring the mixture so that it doesn't burn. Once the coconut is browned, take the mixture off the heat to cool. Once cooled, put it through a spice grinder.  

In my case, I used a coffee grinder that we got specifically to grind spices. And...I broke it. The piece of cinnamon I used was WAY too hard, and it got caught somehow and broke it. I finished grinding the spices in another grinder, and added some ground cinnamon.

After grinding the spices, add enough water to make a paste and set aside.
Grating the turmeric! Smells amazing, but stains everything...careful!

crushing the ginger and garlic. It helped to to slice them up a bit first.
Use a mortar and pestle to crush a 1/2 inch of ginger and 2-3 cloves of garlic. Set aside.

Black mustard seeds, ghee, and bay leaf. 
Chop up a medium onion and 3-4 smallish tomatoes. Keep them separate. 

Then, put 3 tbsp of ghee into a pot. I reused my dutch oven from earlier (I washed it, of course!). Once hot, fry 1/2 tsp of black mustard seeds in it. Once they are sputtering, add the bay leaf to fry as well. 

Add the chopped onion to the pot. Sauté until soft. Then, add 10-12 curry leaves (I used dry), a pinch of asafoetida (let me tell you, asafoetida is REALLY stinky, and does not smell appetizing at has foetid in it's name for a reason. It kind of smells like B.O. or burnt rubber. I had to quarantine the little jar inside of a closed mason jar with some baking soda so it doesn't make my kitchen smell awful, but the result is a tasty flavor reminiscent of leeks), and the crushed ginger/garlic mixture. Then add the turmeric, I used powdered and grated. Cook until the smell of raw garlic/ginger disappears.
Adding the onions, curry leaves, garlic ginger paste. 
Then, add the chopped tomatoes. The recipe called for 1 medium, but I used about 4 smallish ones. Sauté for about 2-3 minutes while stirring so they do not stick.  
Add the tomatoes!
Then, add the masala spice paste; stir and mix well.
Adding your masala!
Then, add your ckickpeas and one (or more) split green chiles. Sauté for 2-3 minutes. Then add water, or chickpea "stock" (leftover from pressure cooking or what have you). I added enough water to cover a bit.
It's all starting to come together!

Then, bring to a boil and simmer, until sauce becomes thick. I crushed a bunch of chickpeas with a bean masher to help create a nice gravy.

Cook until the flavors come together and you've a nice gravy going on. 
Then, add chopped fresh cilantro. Check for seasoning! Serve over rice and with any Indian breads you might require. May I perhaps suggest a sweet lassi with it as well? 


Recipe: Serves 4-6 easily. 
For more details that are not included in this post, here is the recipe I referenced.

Spices to be dry roasted for the masala:
¾ to 1 cup fresh grated coconut
1 inch cinnamon
½ tbsp fennel
½ tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1-2 dry red chilies (3 or 4 chilies would make the dish very spicy)
2-3 cloves
2-3 green cardamom

Everything else:
2 15.5. ounce cans of chickpeas, or 1 cup dried.
3 tbsp ghee
1 small bay leaf
½ tsp mustard seeds
10-12 curry leaves
1 green chili, slit
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
¼ or ½ tsp turmeric powder
a pinch of asafoetida
½ inch ginger + 2-3 garlic - crushed or made into a paste in mortar-pestle
1.5 to 2 cups of the chickpea stock or water
salt as required
some coriander leaves for garnishing

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Zucchini Lasagna: Don't Be Soggy.

Almost all of the ingredients! Not Pictured: Eggs, S&P.
So, I had a bunch of veggies left from a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box to get rid of, while also having leftover homemade pasta sauce (my Dad's recipe) that needed to be eaten. I evaluated my options.

Pasta with sauce is one of my all time favorite things (made with MY (and my Dad's) sauce only...) I remember being a little kid waking up sunday mornings to the smell of sauce simmering away in the kitchen. I would pitter patter into the kitchen in my nightie just as my Dad was browning sweet italian fennel sausage and his amazing homemade meatballs. Upon my entrance, he would be sure to leave a few pieces of sausage and a meatball in the pan to cook all the way through while he added the rest to the giant pot of sauce that would be simmering for most of the day. After the bits of sausage and meatball finished cooking, we would devour them, "testing" them to make sure they were okay. We would also "test"the sauce all day by dipping bits of bread in (any kind) when we thought my mom wouldn't catch us. She always knew though, of course! At the end of the day we would be rewarded with a big bowl of capellini with sauce and meatballs piled high with lots of asiago or parmigiano reggiano.

....and I digress. This is not a post about pasta and sauce. I will leave that for another time. As I said earlier, I evaluated my options. I COULD have made pasta with sauce, but that would have only utilized one of the items that needed to be cooked and eaten. Finally I settled on swiss chard and zucchini, with the addition of my leftover sauce.

And so, I decided to make Zucchini Lasagna.

This required a trip to the store, of course, but at least I had most of the core ingredients and was using up fresh produce. I did not follow a recipe, most of the time I do not. I instead chose to base it off of my Nanie's recipe. There is no pasta in this dish. I remember when I thought that was weird when I was little ("How is it lasagna without noodles!!? wahh!!") but apparently noodle-less lasagna is a traditional and common thing where my family is from in Sicily.  Gotta love having some Italian-American in you!


1 bunch of swiss chard
2 cups of whole milk ricotta (about 1 15 oz container, or I highly recommend you make your own.)
1/4 cup finely chopped basil
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh italian parsley
1/2 cup freshly grated hard Italian cheese of your choice ( I used parmigiano reggiano), do not pack
2 small shallots, finely chopped
3 small(ish) cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 eggs (there is only one in the picture you will see later)
salt and pepper to taste
nutmeg, freshly grated to taste
EVOO, splash

2 medium sized zucchini, sliced thinly
2 cups of tomato based sauce, your choice.
1/2 8 oz package of fresh buffalo mozzarella

Preheat oven to 375º

Total prep time: 1/2 hour
Total time in oven: 45 minutes


Bring a pot of generously salted water to a boil.

While you are waiting, coarsely chop the swiss chard, set aside.
Thinly slice zucchini, however you want to. I don't have a proper peeler at the moment, or I would have used that. I tried to slice lengthwise (see pictures) but I found it ended up being easier to just slice it in rounds. Put in a bowl and sprinkle with salt, and toss. This will release some liquid, this is good. get rid of it. Squeeze that ish out if you need to.  With the zucchini and chard, if you don't try to remove as much water as you can before cooking, it will be released in cooking and the dish will come out watery and not keep it's shape and just kind of be a mushy mush.

Pretty Shallots!
Finely chop your shallots and garlic. Heat up a medium pan and add a splash of EVOO. Add shallots and sauté until almost translucent (about a minute and a half) and then add garlic. Sauté for another minute and a half or until onions are fully translucent and lightly browned. Remove from pan and set aside to cool a bit.

At this point, your water should be boiling. Add your swiss chard and blanch until bright green and al dente. About a minute. Drain into a colander, and add some ice cubes and rinse with cold water until cool enough to handle. Once it is cool, take handfuls of it and squeeze out ALL excess water ( I just used my hands). Don't be soggy. Nobody wants soggy, watery lasagna. After you have squeezed out as much as you can, chop it as finely as you can, stems and all. I suppose you could use a food processor but I don't have one of those.
Blanching the chard.

Cooling the chard.
Swiss chard: Post Squeezing!!

The Filling ingredients! Looks like bibimbap?!
In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, basil, parsley, grated cheese, shallot and garlic mixture, eggs (There is only one in the bad), chard, and salt, pepper, and nutmeg (nutmeg is really awesome in ricotta mixtures, or anything creamy based for that matter. And nutmeg with squash!!? Great! Especially in savory situations). Mix to combine. I also used my hand for this. I like to be involved and get dirty. Why use a spoon...if I can use my hands?
Filling after mixing. 

Anyway...assembling the lasagna is the next step.

Line the bottom of a 9x9 baking dish with a layer of zucchini. Follow with a layer of filling, about a half inch thick. Follow with a layer of sauce, and repeat. You should end with zucchini (or's really up to you) and then slice up your mozzarella and put it on top of that.
Oh, the delicious layers!
...when I decided to just slice the zucchini.

Last but not least, the fresh mozz. 

Cover in foil, and bake at 375º for a half hour or until bubbling. Remove foil, and brown mozzarella for about 15 minutes.

Remove from oven, and let sit for about 5-10 minutes (it's still going to be hot...don't worry!)

Then eat it. Makes about 6 servings.