Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pongal o Pongal

India is country of great diversity. Over a billion people speaking hundreds of recognized languages, not to mention several dialects and various versions of “Inglish”; worshipping in temples, churches, mosques, gurdwaras, and synagogues, amongst other places; attired in several dozen unique outfits; and eating their ways through an equally diverse cuisine. In fact, India is the only country that I can think of that boasts a different staple food in different parts of the country. In Northern India, wheat is the predominant grain in the diet, consumed mostly in the form of unleavened flat breads like naan and rotis. In Southern India, rice is the preferred staple, and we South Indians simply love rice. When I was living in Japan, I used to think that the Japanese are unrivalled in their pursuit of this monocot, since even South Indians don’t eat rice for breakfast! But upon closer inspection, I find that I am wrong, yet again. We South Indians do eat rice for breakfast in the form of idlis, dosas, and the subject of today’s post, pongal.

Pongal, a dish made with cooked lentils and rice as the base, gets its name from the harvest festival of the same name, when it is generally prepared. Literally translated, Pongal means boiling over, and the harvest festival is given this name in order to denote an abundance of wealth; it is analogous to the Biblical saying of “(my) cup runneth over”. In a literal demonstration of this, on Pongal day, households gather together in the morning and boil milk with sugar and spices. Traditionally, some of this milk is allowed to boil over and spill out of the pan, symbolizing the profusion and plentifulness of the harvest season. As the milk boils over, children are encouraged to gather around, clanging spoons or other metal objects onto metal plates whilst shouting “Pongal o Pongal”. I’m not sure what the origin of this latter custom is. It was probably invented to get bleary-eyed children out of bed and excited about watching a pot of milk come to boil in the wee hours of the morning. If so, it definitely worked like a charm -- we certainly looked forward to and cherished those moments of unbridled ruckus-making. Needless to say, the noise-making objects would promptly be put away by the adults once the milk-boiling was done with, so that they would not have to suffer through an entire day of excited plate-banging children, shouting “pongal o pongal” – all- day- long.

While Pongal is made in both sweet and savory versions with rice and daal (lentils), I generally use cracked wheat in place of rice to make Pongal at home. Not only is this healthier due to the higher fiber content and lower glycemic index of the cracked wheat, I also prefer its slightly coarser texture over the creaminess of pongal made with rice. However, to make a traditional version, you can simply use a medium grain rice such as Jasmine in place of cracked wheat in the following recipes. If you want to try it with cracked wheat, this is generally available at Indian grocery stores. While you're there, also pick up some jaggery and cardamom pods, as well as a handful of curry leaves. If you should be unlucky enough not to have access to an Indian grocery store, you could substitute with bulgur, which is more commonly available. (Or you could move somewhere that does have an Indian store nearby.)
As for whether or not you shout “pongal o pongal” as you’re making this recipe --- well, I’ll just leave that up to you.


Salty Pongal

Heat a pan and add 2 T ghee (clarified butter) to it
As ghee heats up, add 10 coarsely chopped curry leaves and let splutter.
Grind 3 T black peppercorns with 3 T cumin seeds
Add curry leaf mixture and peppercorn/cumin mixture to 3C cooked wheat/daal
Add salt to taste; serve hot with a teaspoon of ghee drizzled on top.

Sweet Pongal

Go shopping for some jaggery , a concentrated cane juice, which doesn’t have the molasses separated from the sugar crystals. It’s easily found in Indian grocery stores and its deep, flavorful sweetness is absolutely required for the following recipe.
Melt ¾ C grated jaggery in ½ C milk in a pan.
Add 3 C cooked wheat/daal
In a separate small pan, heat 2 tsp. Ghee and add 1T golden raisins, 1 T chopped cashews, and ground cardamom from 2 cardamom pods
As raisins start to swell up and cashews start to brown, add ghee mixture to the sweetened wheat/daal mix.
Check the sweetness, adding more jaggery, if required. The consistency of this dish should be on the order of a thick oatmeal. You can thin it out if required with some milk.
Serve hot, drizzled with 1 tsp. of ghee.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ingredient focus: Swiss Chard

This post, the first of many to come, is intended to highlight a particular culinary ingredient, rather than offer a recipe. I will try to summarize the key nutritional benefits of the ingredient, followed by notes on cooking and recipe suggestions.
Portland is known for its roses, which love the mild summers and acidic clay soil here. But as a home gardener, I find that greens of all kinds—lettuces, spinach, kale etc. -- also love the Portland summers. My most prolific crop this year has been from a half a bag of ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss Chard, left over from a few years ago. This handful of seeds has provided us with a seemingly endless supply of both tender and mammoth-sized, multicolored chard leaves for our culinary adventures.
Swiss chard is a member of the same family as beets, although it is cultivated for its leaves, rather than edible roots. It is thought to have originated in the Mediterranean, where it is still a heavy favorite among cooks. Chard is chock-full of carotenoids, the compounds that color your carrots, including b-carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A, as well as lutein, which makes egg yolks yellow, and zeaxanthin, which both colors and flavors your saffron. A cup of Swiss chard supplies 44% of your daily value for Vitamin A, 18% of your DV for Vitamin C, 4% of your daily iron requirements, and a whopping 374% of your daily Vitamin K requirements. Compare that to spinach, the foremost among veggies we loved to hate as children. A cup of spinach provides 56%, and 14% of Vitamins A and C, respectively, and only 5% and 181% of iron and Vitamin K requirements. So cup for cup, chard is actually a far better source of dietary iron than spinach. Since my doctor tells me that my iron counts could use some improvement, I’m harvesting a whole new batch of this colorful vegetable for dinner today!
As far as taste goes, I actually like chard a lot more than spinach, since it has a more complex flavor to it. Young leaves can be eaten raw in salads, where they impart an enjoyably bitter taste. Older, larger leaves, are best briefly cooked to reduce the bitterness. After trimming the stem and any particularly tough veins, they can be sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and salt or soy sauce until just wilted, for a quick and easy side dish. I also like to add sautéed chard as an alternative to spinach to scrambled eggs, ‘daal’ (cooked lentils), and stir fries with tofu. Grocery stores tend to stock either red stemmed varieties, or white-stemmed varieties, most often. If you grow your own, you can grow a mix of yellow, white, red, and orange stemmed leaves, to create a truly rainbow-colored meal.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

P(r)esto Pasta

Here we are, rounding September, and summer has finally arrived in Portland. The past week has been uncomfortably hot, which of course makes me very happy. Summers that don’t get hot enough to complain about have no place in my heart. Hey, if you expect me to last through the next 6-8 months of rainy, grey days, is it too much to ask for a few 95 degree days in our fleeting summer?

Anyhow, this hot, sunny weather has been great for my tomatoes, which are ripening nicely on the vine. My basil, on the other hand, is not a fan of the blistering heat and was starting to droop. So, before I lost the entire crop, I decided to simply harvest the whole thing yesterday and put it to good use. Of course with this much basil, I had to make pesto. I hate store-bought pesto, since I find it bitter, oily, and overly salty. I prefer to make fresh pesto and use it up the same day, so that I don’t have to add a ton of oil to help preserve it for any length of time. I also like to add plenty of garlic to my pesto, but this does kick up the heat considerably, so it may not be for everyone.
You could put this pesto on pizza, use it as a dip for sweet potato fries or crispy arancini (recipes to follow), or toss it with some pasta, as I did, for a quick, flavorful, and healthy meal. You can use any kind of pasta for this recipe, but spaghetti-types work best in my experience. I use multigrain angel-hair pasta.

So, if you’re wondering what to do with your summer harvest of basil, do give this a try – buon appetito!

Pesto Pasta

Step 1 -- Prepare the pasta
1.5 C dry pasta, boiled in salted water till almost al dente, then washed and set aside in cold water
½ C pasta water, reserved after boiling pasta

Step 2 -- Make the pesto
6 cloves of garlic, for a spicy pesto
2 full cups of fresh basil -- I used a mix of Italian sweet basil and Mammoth basil, grown lovingly (and quite easily) from seed
3 T extra-virgin olive oil
2 T pine nuts (or walnuts, if you can’t find pine nuts)
2T freshly grated parmesan
½ T lemon juice
Salt to taste
Grind all these ingredients in a food processer or blender. You can add a little bit of water, if you need to, to get these ingredients ground finely. I actually use a coffee grinder, and strange as it sounds, it helps me make really smooth chutneys and sauces.

Step 3 -- Make the finished dish
1T olive oil
3 C mushrooms, quartered
1 green pepper, diced
2 summer ripe tomatoes
3 C almost-cooked pasta
Freshly ground black pepper, optional

Heat up 1T olive oil in a pan, and sauté the mushrooms
Add the green peppers and sauté
Add tomatoes, and let wilt
Toss in 3 C of cooked pasta and all the pesto. This was the right pasta to sauce ratio for my tastes.
Add the reserved pasta water and cook until pasta is fully done

Step 4 -- Dig in
Serve with freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice on top.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lots and lots of Lassi

Anyone who has been to an Indian restaurant is familiar with this delicious Indian drink made with yogurt and sugar. Some restaurants will serve this drink made with milk, and while this can be delicious, a true lassi is always made with yogurt or buttermilk. In India, it’s found in many different incarnations, including saffron-flavored, mango-flavored, or just plain. It also comes in varying levels of viscosity, from a really thin liquid you can slurp by the gallonful to a thick, creamy dessert version. The latter is generally found in dairy stores, is sold in earthen pots called matkas, and is so thick that it requires a spoon to “drink”. Although the sweet lassi that is popular outside India belongs to Northern India, flavored yogurt/buttermilk drinks are prevalent in Southern India as well. In the hotter South, these drinks are generally served in a savory version with curry leaves, salt, and a unique spice called asafoetida, to alleviate the sweltering summer (and winter) heat. This drink is called “mōr” (pronounced ‘more’) and is definitely more-ish.

So, whether you fancy a salty or a sweet lassi, here are the basic recipes for both, along with some variations for something fancier.

Sweet Kesar Badaam Lassi

¾ C yogurt, I use non-fat

1 small pinch kesar (saffron)

2 T milk to dissolve saffron

¼ tsp. Ground cardamom

1 T chopped or slivered badaam (almonds)

Enough water to achieve desired consistency for the drink. I usually use ½ C to ¾ C depending on how thick the yogurt is.

1 sachet of splenda, or sugar/sweetener to taste.

Dissolve saffron in milk and let steep for 5 minutes

Whisk together all ingredients except nuts.

Serve, topped with chopped nuts.

Plain lassi: Omit saffron, but preferably not the cardamom.

Mango lassi: Instead of water, use canned or fresh mango puree to thin yogurt. Use equal amounts of mango puree as yogurt. Adjust sweetener if mango puree is pre-sweetened.

Mōr (A salty lassi from Southern India)

1 C low-fat buttermilk

1 C water

A pinch of salt

A tiny sprinkle of asafetida (can be purchased at Indian grocery stores. I cannot stress enough that you must use very little of this pungent spice).

5 large curry leaves, coarsely crushed

3 spicy green chilies, such as Serrano, sliced lengthwise in half (optional)

To make: Mix all ingredients in a bottle and shake vigorously. Optional step -- strain out curry leaves and chillies. Pour into an ice-filled glass and drink-up – it’s as simple as that.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Back to Blog

Ok, I admit, it’s been far too long since I posted a new recipe. Yesterday, as I was mincing garlic for dinner, I realized just how long my garlic bin has gone untouched this summer. And for those of you know of my love for all things garlickly, you know that’s really saying something. The truth is that summers are just not meant for cooking. Yes, of course, there’s the hellish couple of weeks of June jam-making when you bring home all the berries that you fervently picked at the pick-your-own berry farm. And there may even be a day or two spent cooking up a batch of ice-cream mix to freeze in your ice-cream maker. But apart from that, summers, at least here in the Pacific NW, are so fleeting in their gorgeousness, that there’s really not much time to waste in the kitchen. There’s saplings to be planted, seeds to be sown, flowers to be cut, bee stings to be attended to, beaches to comb, and general merriment to be had. However, today, as I reluctantly headed to work after a beautiful long weekend, I caught sight of all the kids going back to school with their squeaky white sneakers, brand new backpacks, and mixed expressions of anticipation and trepidation on their faces. This, weirdly enough, got me thinking that perhaps today ought to mark my own “Back to Blog” day after a summer’s hiatus.

Since I’ve been grilling a whole lot this summer, I thought I’d start things off with a noodle recipe that you can cook up almost entirely, save for boiling the noodles, on the grill. If you don’t have a grill, you could certainly sautée or oven-roast, instead of grilling. I hope this recipe inspires your end-of-summer meals.

Grilled vegetable noodles

(Serves 4)

You will need:

4 baby bok choys trimmed and cut in half lengthwise, washed, dried, and rubbed with 2 T sesame oil

2 C mushrooms, quartered

1 C carrots cut into bite size pieces

1 C snow peas

1 C mixed summer squash cut into bite size pieces

1 box of extra-firm tofu, drained, cut into bite size pieces

One BIG bunch thai basil (Italian basil will not do)

2 C Thai wide rice noodles, cooked as per package directions and drained

To make the marinade/sauce, you will need:

6 cloves of garlic

1 inch ginger root, peeled

Juice of one lemon

One BIG bunch thai basil (yes, more)

Sambal Oelek or other chili paste to taste (I used 4 T)

4-6 T Black bean garlic sauce (available at most supermarkets and Asian stores; if you don’t have this, simply use soy sauce)

2 tsp brown sugar

2 T sesame oil

Optional: Roasted peanuts or chopped cilantro as a topping

Make the sauce: Grind together the garlic, ginger, and basil. Add lemon juice, chili paste, sugar, and sesame oil.

Prep the grill by preheating it and spreading a layer of aluminum foil on the grill, so that smaller veggies don’t fall through the grates.

Lower heat to somewhere between 200-250, which is a medium-low setting on my grill

Spray aluminum sheet with cooking spray, and place bok choys on grill, flat side down.

Cook 4 minutes before turning and cooking another 4 minutes; set aside.

While the bok choy is cooking, add the sauce to your veggies, remaining basil, and tofu, and spread on grill.

Cook 4-6 minutes before turning and cooking until veggies are soft, but not charred. You may have to adjust the times considerably, based on your own grill.

Once veggies are tender, add the noodles and bok choy to the grill and toss with veggies/tofu. You can certainly add more chili paste, lemon juice, or black bean sauce at this point, if you feel the need.

Allow noodles to remain on hot grill for a few minutes, until they absorb some of the sauce, and acquire a slightly crusty texture.

Serve hot in a big bowl with chopped cilantro or peanuts sprinkled on top.

The heat of this recipe demands a mango spritzer on the side, followed by a strawberry sorbet for dessert.

Mango Spritzers

Summer is a time for spritzers! These refreshing drinks are not only versatile, in that you can make them in any flavor, but they also cut your drink calories in half. So go ahead, grab a straw, and pour yourself one of these delightful and delightfully easy concoctions.

To make spritzer, fill a tall drink glass with ice. Fill to halfway point with carbonated water. Top off with your favorite juice. I like mango, guava, or pineapple. Crush a couple of mint leaves and toss into drink. Top with a straw and a parasol, and a lemon or mint garnish. Enjoy!


Stawberry Sorbet

Instructions for the most delicious strawberry sorbet

Move to Oregon, where you can partake of the unrivaled flavor of Hood berries

Move in next door to a wonderful neighbor who likes to cook

Grow your own lettuce and herbs and cut a big bundle to give to said neighbor

Accept homemade strawberry sorbet in return, with profuse thanks

Scoop into pretty white bowls, garnish if desired, and serve with a tiny spoon

Sorry, everyone, this is the only way I know how to “make” strawberry sorbet. If any of you has a good recipe……I would be happy to offer you some lettuce or other garden-fresh products in exchange for your sorbet :)