Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Home-made Stuffed-Crust Pizza 3 Ways: Margherita, Frutto di Mare, Piccante alla Melanzane

Pizza Margherita - tomato sauce and arugula
Pizza Frutto di Mare - tomato sauce and seafood
Pizza Piccante alla Melanzane - spicy tomato sauce and eggplant

I really do love pizza, but being lactose-intolerant kind of makes it suck. Sure, there are pizzas that don't involve cheese, but you don't find a whole lot of good ones in Montreal. If I do find one, I probably won't like something else about it, like the sauce, or what's used to make the crust (too much salt, too much sugar, preservatives, or other things I can't pronounce). Besides, there's something so sad about having a pizza craving for luscious, gooey cheese and having to settle for a mediocre tomato sauce made with low-quality ingredients on a dough of enriched, bleached flour.

So I did what I generally do in this situation - I made my own.
It took a fair bit of time, but I had a bunch of leftovers that would serve well as toppings. I had some spicy tomato and eggplant that failed as an Indian dish but worked well as a bruschetta, some leftover pasta sauce from Roberto's (a very good Italian fresh pasta shop and gelateria way up in Little Italy), some fresh arugula, some red peppers, and a bunch of leftover grilled butterfish.

What I didn't have was a pizza pan, but a big cookie sheet worked just fine. A few weeks of foccacia in Italy taught me that pizza does not necessarily get better when it's round.

I used Josée di Stasio's pizza dough recipe, with a few very tiny changes (cornmeal instead of durum semolina - there is a difference, but I didn't have any of the latter - and whole wheat flour to replace one of four cups of white when I ran out). I love her cookbook. I knew this would be a good recipe because she does not put bad recipes in her book. As long as my variations worked out, so would the pizza dough.

This is not a recipe to make when you don't have a lot of time. This is Italian slow-cooking at its best. It makes two huge pizzas or four small ones, but if you like thin crusts, it'll make at least 3 standard size pizzas.

2 tbsp dry yeast

1 tbsp sugar (I used cane sugar)

2 1/2 cups of warm water (38 degrees Celcius, 100 Fahrenheit. I actually got the temperature perfect. I used two candy thermometres to make sure I didn't mess it up...overkill? Maybe, but probably not)

4 cups all-purpose flour (I used première moisson, a Quebec bakery that sells its amazing white bread flour which is ground at a Quebec mill. They use this stuff for all their breads and their own pizzas, and there's just nothing quite like it. Di Stasio recommends '00', a high gluten flour, and I'm sure Red Fife flour would be great too. Like I said, I ended up using 3 cups of première moisson unbleached white flour and 1 cup of their whole wheat flour (which is significantly not as nice as the white flour for cookies and cakes since it's not very fine, but decent for savoury and textured baked goods, like breads and pizza dough).

2 cups wheat semolina (yeah, I used cornmeal...not sure how okay this substitution really is, but the cornmeal was instant, so I figured at least it wouldn't expand in my stomach. It would absorb the warm water instead. I wasn't about to mess around with the water to flour ratio, though)

1 tbsp salt (this was too much salt, in my opinion. I like salt, and it turned out well, but my tongue knows when I'm enjoying it too much. It also knows that I'll be very thirsty afterward. So 2 tsp is what I'll use next time)

In a small bowl I combined the yeast, sugar and perfectly heated warm water. I stirred to dissolve and then let it stand for 10 minutes. Exactly 10. There was at least one timer involved.

During this waiting period I combined the flours, cornmeal and salt, and sifted it together. I used a real sieve, not just a spoon like I sometimes cheat with in baking (never for Alice Medrich's cakes, and never for a recipe I don't know, like this one). The cornmeal didn't sift particularly well, but it was the flour that really needed the sifting. Sifting actually adds air to the flour, which is important when you want it to rise and be light.

By now the 10 minutes were up, so I poured the yeast mixture on top of the sifted flours and mixed them together. Di Stasio gave no instruction on how to mix, so I started with a wooden spoon (stirring in just one direction, which I thought I'd heard somewhere for dough), and then with my hands, since the next step was kneading. I'd also heard you don't want to overmix, so I just stirred until there were no flour clumps left.

I'm so bad at kneading, but since the Première Moisson flour is specifically made for bread, it has a pretty decent amount of gluten. This makes it easier to knead since it stretches without breaking. I threw a bunch of flour down on a clean counter, had a bunch of extra on the side, and lathered up my hands in the stuff (waterless lathering, of course). I think the dough was stickier than it should have been, since it just wouldn't leave me alone. I ended up adding about a quarter cup of flour extra as I kneaded. At least I know it wasn't because my water had been too warm. It may have also been because of using cornmeal instead of semolina.

Knead: Push away from me with the palm of my left hand, holding the right side of the dough gently with my other hand. Fold the pushed-away section back on top. Rotate 90 degrees clockwise. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It says knead for 5-8 minutes, but I'm a slow kneader since I wasn't 100% sure what I was doing, and was being extra careful not to tear the dough, so I kneaded for about 10. The test (as I'd also seen somewhere) is to push down on the dough with two fingers and if the imprints rise back up and disappear, then the dough is elastic-y enough. This happened, so I figured I was done. I also took it as a good sign for the rest of the bread process to come.

Then I divided the dough in half, formed them into balls, and put each half in its own oiled bowl. I covered the bowls with plastic wrap (I don't have big enough kitchen towels, and I just heard yesterday that plastic wrap is maybe even better, but that might only be for certain kinds of dough rising in certain areas of a kitchen of a certain temperature and humidity...again, I am a newbie) and put it in the oven with the light on. It was a warm, humid day, so I figured it would actually be warmer out on the counter, but I wanted it to be in a draft-free space. 45 minutes later the dough hadn't quite risen enough, so I left it an extra 20. It was supposed to double in volume, and I don't think it ever quite got there. The yeast was good, though, so I don't know why it wasn't cooperating. Maybe the whole wheat flour? Or over-kneading? Or not kneading enough?

After the first 45 minutes I also decided to turn off the oven light and turn the oven on to its lowest heat while keeping the door open to try to help the bread rise. I'd heard this was good too, but maybe not on such a humid day, since the dough decided to stick to the sides of the bowl. I quickly got it out of there, punched it down (as per the recipe) and kneaded again for about 5 minutes per ball of dough (the recipe said 3, but slow kneader that I am...).

Then the dough balls went back into their respective bowls, got covered again, and put back in the turned off oven with the door open. This was a happy medium (a bit of extra heat from the oven having been on, but not as bad as actually having the heat on while the dough was in there).

I let it rise for another hour (the recipe said 45, but mine needed some more time. Again, it didn't seem to really being doubling in volume...).

Finally I rolled the dough out on a clean counter (there was a whole lot of counter cleaning this day - scrubbing, scraping, wiping) using a bottle of dessert wine/rolling pin coated in flour and placed it in my baking sheet that I'd brushed with oil. I rolled it out into a big rectangle to match the shape of my cookie sheet, but if I'd had a pizza pan, it would have been just as easy to roll it out into a circle. I've never worked with such nice dough! It stretched without breaking, and just kept on giving. Pie dough is always a struggle, a battle of wills between it and me, but this was much more an act of cooperation. The second ball I wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in the freezer for pizza another day without all this kneading and rising fuss. No need to go through this whole process again for awhile.

Once on the baking sheet, I let it rise one more time (just for 10 minutes). I preheated the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit, and once the dough had done its very best to rise one more time, I spread my tomato eggplant sauce over half the dough, my gourmet pasta shop-bought tomato sauce on the other half and added some fresh arugula. Then I added some pieces of grilled butterfish to both sides of the rectangular pie to get a few more combinations. Oh, and some diced red peppers to the tomato section. I basically tried to make as many different kinds of pieces as possible.

The cool part was that there was actually too much dough!! I don't love a really thick crust, but I certainly couldn't make it thin without having to cut off a lot of excess. Even then, I ended up with a lot of overflow. So after added the toppings, I rolled the excess back into the baking sheet to make a rounded crust. I didn't realize it until after it had cooked that in effect it became a stuffed crust, since the dough overlapped the fillings and locked them inside!!! Accidental miracles...the mother of culinary invention.

Then all I had to do was stick it in the oven for 15-30 minutes, until the crust was golden brown. I didn't want to destroy the fresh arugula with the long cooking time, but the crust just never seemed to get golden. When I took it out after 25 minutes, though, it was clearly cooked. I was worried I might have over-cooked it, but the inside was still chewy and delicious. The whole wheat and cornmeal gave a really nice grainy texture that pure white couldn't provide. Another time I will try this with the proper flours, but this was still an amazing crust. The whole wheat also turned the dough into something of sustenance. It was filling and made you chew and savour, and not inhale white fluff, like the doughs of store-bought, or even bad to mediocre restaurant-bought pizzas. There really was too much dough, though, so the extra pieces got torn off and turned into quasi-bread sticks with different dips (as bizarre as it sounds, it actually worked well with my mint chutney. It was also perfect soup-dipping bread, too, since it didn't just dissolve in the liquid).

Verdict on the pizzas? The tomato sauce with arugula was my favourite. I really liked the tomato and eggplant because it was chunkier, and the fish worked best with the plain tomato. It also added some necessary protein and gave me the necessary feeling of being full. I ate a whole lot of pizza anyway, which is fine since I do it so rarely. The arugula got over-cooked but I actually liked the dry, crispy chip-like quality of it. Not as good for me, but oh-so-delicious. Oh! I had a bit of raw cheese that I grated (somewhere close to a parmiggiano, so not the best for this pizza, but beggars can't always be choosers, try as I might) and added to individual mouthfuls. I couldn't melt it on top since that would kill the digestive bacteria, the whole reason I can eat the stuff in the first place, but I got the flavour of it on any given bite I wanted.

The pizza was also great once it had cooled down a little and stopped burning my mouth. Reheated in the toaster oven over the course of the next few days, it was still delicious, and I even managed to get the edges a little crispy. The nice part about the leftovers is that the oil from the sauces can seep down into the dough and make it soft and gooey. This contrasts with the crunch and chew of the thick sides.

I can't believe how versatile and successful this was. Bread is such an amazing thing, and this is such an amazing recipe. Mmm pizza...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Grilled Butterfish

I found butterfish! I spent a long time not even really knowing what butterfish was. I'd run into it from time to time at sushi restaurants, where it would either be amazing (silky and actually tasted like sublime butter) or not (usually still partially frozen, poorly sliced, etc.). Apparently the real name of butterfish is stromateidae, or at least that's the type of fish it is. actually has a grand total of zero info on it! It does have two 'butterfish' listings but after some other research, it turns out it's not the same fish. The butterfish we sometimes find in sushi restaurants is related to, but not the same as, black cod, or sablefish. Apparently it's also connected to Chilean seabass.

It's very high in fatty oils, making it taste very buttery, hence the appeal. I was at a local grocery store where I would normally never ever buy seafood when I saw these little guys. They were small and silver and those are two of the big sustainability fish factors. Bigger than sardines or smelt, mind you, but small enough that I figured I should give it a try. They were cheap! Rarely can you find these guys on sushi restaurant menus, but maybe it's just that they're not widely available, not that they cost a fortune.

So I took them home and prepared them very simply. I brushed 3 with melted butter, salt and pepper and another three with a tomato-based chili paste from the organic farmer at McGill's Organic Campus. Then I let them marinate for about 30 minutes and then just grilled them for about 3 minutes per side (6 minutes total in the Foreman Grill).
They tasted like...firm-flesh white fish. They weren't particularly buttery. The melted butter I'd added didn't really soak into the fish, even though I'd scored them with a sharp knife so that the marinade would make it past the skin.

I think a longer marinating stage would have helped. I also think a miso marinade overnight in the fridge would be amazing, but I generally think that for any fish. The chile paste was fine, but nothing really special. The best part of the fish was how the skin crisped up from the grilling. I managed to cook the fish nicely, so it fell away from all the little bones without a whole lot of trouble or effort.

Some of the fish got added to the pizza I made (to come) and lent a nice, delicate flavour to the spicy tomato sauce I used. All in all, not a bad fish, and a much better choice than sole or tilapia. I hate tilapia. It's almost as if I can see the parasites from the farming.

The biggest achievement of this story was figuring out what the heck butterfish was, since it actually gave the name, stromateidae, on the packaging. Score one for the sub-par grocery store.

Squid In A Spicy Sauce (Blamuek Phad Prik) from Wandee Young's "Simply Thai Cooking"

This is what I did with my curry paste.


1 1/2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp red curry paste
2 lime leaves, fresh, torn into thirds (I only had dried, which didn't really bother me, but it probably made a difference. I, however, am none the wiser)

5 tbsp water
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce (or tamari)
1 tsp sugar
8 oz squid, cut into 1" rounds (wash the squid and remove the inside cartilege, if applicable)
1 bunch of bok choy (separate the dark green sections from the bottom white sections since you'll add these at different times. Tear apart each segment of the vegetable, like tearing celery from the stem, and wash the inside and outside of each piece well)
1 can bamboo shoots (drained and rinsed with cold water to remove salt. You can even soak the shoots and the palms below in cold water until you're ready to use them, and then drain them again. This gets rid of even more canning sodium)
1 can hearts of palm (yeah, I kind of changed this recipe to include these things. The bamboo was called for, but I just love hearts of palm, and bok choy goes well in just about any kind of stir fry. Drain and rinse the hearts of palm as well)
1 red pepper (half cut into squares, half cut into strips)
A large handful of fresh basil leaves

First, make rice. You need to start it now to have it done in time.

Chop everything in advance!!! Then combine the sauce ingredients (water, fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar):
Heat the oil on HIGH heat!!! So don't use olive oil or another oil that will burn. Canola is good, vegetable oil is good. Sunflower oil and safflower oil are both fine.

When the oil is almost smoking add the red curry paste and the lime leaves. Stir for 20 seconds (carefully, and isolate the stirring to one small, donut-sized area of the frying pan. This will help keep the paste from spreading out too much and burning because you skimped on oil) and then add the water and white parts of the bok choy. Reduce the heat to medium and stir and cook for 2 minutes.

Now add the combined fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar and stir for 30 seconds. Add the squid, bamboo shoots, hearts of palm and red pepper squares. Turn the heat up to high, and stir and cook for 1 minute. Add the green parts of the bok choy and cook for one more minute.

Now add half of the basil leaves and remove the pan from the heat. Stir it to integrate the basil, and then serve on top of plain white rice (preferably Thai jasmine). Garnish with the remaining basil and the the red pepper strips.

This was delicious, mostly because I am obsessed with bamboo shoots and hearts of palm. They don't taste like anything in particular, since they're really not that great canned, but that's oddly what I love about them. They're a great, soft texture and not sour or bitter. The hearts of palm were a bit acidic, but they shredded nicely, like fake crab does, and seemed thicker, like noodles. The squid was not over-cooked, miraculously. As it got left in the hot pot after I served the first bowl, it got over-cooked, but my first mouthfuls were perfect. The red curry paste was really the downfall. I don't think it was very pungent. I had used lots of fresh chilies, but it still tasted bland. There was a little heat but not a lot of flavour. I think the shrimp paste would have helped, but I can't blame those sea insects for everything. Next time I'll follow the recipe exactly and see how I fare. The paste only keeps a week in the fridge, apparently, since there's no oil or vinegar, so I don't have long to find out. Thank goodness for ice cube trays and freezers.

Red Curry Paste

I wanted to try a new squid recipe. This is apparently my new favourite thing, trying new squid recipes.

So my mom sent me one from the Thai cookbook I got her for Christmas, Wandee Young's "Simply Thai Cooking". I didn't feel like emailing back to get Wandee's red curry paste recipe, but since I had all these leftover red chilies I figured I'd just make my own. In comes the internet. I found a bunch of different recipes but most used dried chiles. I had those, but I really wanted to use my fresh chilies. Stubborn, I know.

This is the recipe I settled on:
5 red fresh chilies
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
Half an onion (or one small onion), peeled and roughly chopped
2 stalks of lemongrass, finely chopped (I used 3 stalks bottled in water)
1 tsp lime peel (it's supposed to be kaffir lime peel, but I don't have that. I do have kaffir lime leaf, however, so I added that to the curry itself later)
1 tbsp ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 tbsp fresh cilantro
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 Tbsp gapi (shrimp paste. I skipped this completely. I know, that's not a good idea, but I didn't really care too much. It did make a big difference in the end, though. I still didn't care)
1/2 tsp cumin seeds

There's a reason I don't like the idea of "settling". So I'll never be a diplomat, or a negotiator, or married...there are worse things in life to never be. I settled on this recipe, and it wasn't great, but it was the best I could do at the time with what I had on hand. In essence, it was a red curry paste of convenience.

Just throw all of this in the blender and turn the blender 'ON'. If it doesn't want to blend add a tbsp of water at a time (replacing the lid after each addition...) until it blends nicely. Use a spatula to help push the ingredients down into the bottom, but only when the blender is off. I've wrecked too many good spatulas not following my own advice in this area.

For a less blended, chunkier paste, use a large mortar and pestle, but really, life's too short for this.

You certainly don't eat red curry paste on its own, so the question is how'd it work out in the squid curry?

To come...

Gluten-Free Bread, Take 2

Compared to my last loaf of gluten-free bread, this one looks a little nicer, but it didn't have that banana bread crust on top, you know, the cracked roof, that's a sign that it's perfect. This one was a bit denser since it didn't rise quite as much, I was still pretty happy with the result.

I used the same recipe except for two major differences:

1. I used a different Gluten-Free Flour blend, and
2. I soaked the All Bran Buds in the water, vinegar, oil and yogurt mixture instead of soaking it separately and only adding it at the last minute.

My gluten-free flour blend recipe was this:
2 cups brown rice flour
1 cup sorghum flour
1 cup tapioca starch
1/2 cup potato starch
1/4 cup sweet rice flour
2 tsp guar gum

I don't know if that is what made the biggest difference or if it was change #2. Definitely change #2 made a large difference all by itself, though. I know this because I mixed the liquid ingredients all together in a blender to save myself from wasting a bowl to whisk. Right after I'd blended them the mixture was very liquidy. Then I went about combining the dry ingredients - the salt, flour, yeast, and sugar. When I was ready to add the wet ingredients they had become a lot less liquid. The buds had absorbed a lot of the water and other ingredients so it had become a lot thicker. I should have known this because it does the same to my yogurt in the morning.
So when I mixed the dry and liquid ingredients the dough was a lot more solid than it had been the time before. I did everything else in the recipe the same. I covered it with plastic wrap and let it rise in a warm place. Except it didn't want to rise very much, even though I left it for an extra long period of time.

After the first rising period I transferred the dough directly to the pan to let it rise again. This was instead of letting it rise on another surface and then risk losing height when I transferred the dough to the pan. I even covered it loosely so the dough wouldn't be bound by the plastic, but no, it didn't want to rise very much at all.

All in all, it certainly was still fine. I love that I have fresh home-made gluten-free bread that doesn't taste too much like rice. I just wish it got big and fluffy and a bit lighter.

Well, next time. I'll try to remember to add the All Bran Buds at the last minute. Or one of these times I could just buy psyllium powder. Would the same thing happen?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Eulogy for Potted Plants

Do you know those games where there's a picture and then next to it there are a bunch of other pictures that look exactly the same except they have something missing, and the point is to figure out what's missing? That's what I felt like this morning when I walked outside of my house, pitcher of water in hand, in search of my potted tomato and pepper plants. I'd left them the night before at the corner of my house, just on the edge of the driveway/alleyway so they'd get both the morning and afternoon sun. In fact, I'd just potted them the day before. When I moved into the apartment last October two nicely potted shrubs had been placed in big containers on either side of the door of my ground floor apartment. They'd languished all winter (languished being a nice word for 'died') and I'd lallygagged about planting something in the pots all Spring. Well, maybe not lallygagged. I'd actually decided not to plant anything.

...but then I kept going to markets and seeing little tomato seedlings, and I started dreaming of my own little tomato plant. This is as close to maternal as I will ever get. If only I could figure out how to get enough sun on it, since I didn't have a patio. No point investing in a plant if it was just going to die. Even little herbs that could hang on a railing didn't seem like the best idea, since they'd be right on the side of the alley, in danger of being knocked off. A lot of dogs get walked through that alley, and there's a lot of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. There is also no lawn or space for a garden bed on the ground. What's the point? It would just get constantly rained on by dogs.

Still, I went to the NDG Co-op and saw the most wonderful pepper and tomato seedlings that I just had to buy them. I even bought a huge bag of compost and a small bag of crab meal fertilizer, which was ridiculous because all these things together weighed about as much as I did. I carefully placed the seedlings in an open shoulder bag, put the fertilizer in my backpack, and lugged the huge bag of compost in front of me all the way back to the metro, then back to my apartment. My shoulders killed, but I made it home. The farmer at the Co-op told me that all I needed now was potting soil, which I found easily enough at the Atwater Market next to my house. I dragged my granny cart down there one morning and came home to start planting.

First I had to get the old, dead plants out of the pots in front of my house. I took my rubber gloves (why invest in gardening gloves for just two plants?) and dug in. I used a slotted spoon to lift chunks of dirt into plastic bags. We don't even have normal black garbage bags, my roommate and I. Again, what's the point since we make only one small bag of garbage per week? It would be even less if we could compost. Once all the soil was out of the pots, I mixed half a bag of compost and half a bag of potting soil, along with one cup of crab meal fertilizer in each pot. I put my cookie-making skills to work and combined all the ingredients. These were deep, hefty pots, so it took a bit of time. Then in went the seedlings - one in each pot - and then I watered them. They were so beautiful. Standing up so straight. Hopefully I would manage to not kill them. Already I was dreaming of the day they would bear fruit and I could proudly call myself a gardener. My first home-grown fruits and vegetables. I had always felt like it was stupid to grow my own when I lived right next to a great market, but I was so happy to have my own little plants that I had potted myself. There was no blood, sweat, or tears involved, but there was a fair bit of labour and cost.

So when I got outside to water them this morning and I felt like I had fallen into a nightmare child's picture game, I didn't know quite what to do. Emotionally I felt empty, like it hadn't registered. My pots had disappeared but I wasn't angry or upset or...anything. I should be yelling or crying or swearing. I didn't want to jump to conclusions that someone had stolen my plants, but what were the alternatives?

Maybe garbage men had thought they were garbage? Well, no, because yes it was garbage day, but all the garbage was still there. Also, these were clearly healthy plants. The soil was fresh, there were green leaves and there was even a small green tomato on one branch. They were not right next to the garbage, but close to the side of my apartment.

So maybe someone had thought I had just left them on the side of the road to take, like old furniture. It is almost moving day in Quebec so people troll the streets looking for toss-offs. These plants were clearly not toss-offs, though. Someone had clearly put work into them. Besides, they were in heavy pots, the kind that are hard to move. So someone would have had to be very determined to take these plants.

They weren't knocked over anywhere, and they hadn't been moved to the alleyway because they were in the way of some vehicle trying to get through. There were no friendly notes saying, "Please keep your tomato and pepper plants out of the way," especially since they were not in the way of anything.

So, all that's left in my big box of hypotheses is that they were stolen. Someone would have had to make two trips or had a big vehicle to quickly load up the plants. I was home the whole time, probably sitting in the room just inside the big window in the front of my apartment. Was it premeditated, this stealing? Had someone seen me gardening the day before, or did they happen to just come by, see some ground level plants prime for the taking? If they didn't have a vehicle they couldn't have gone far, so I started walking around the area. For goodness sake, they would ahve even had to make two trips to get the second plant! Three streets over, two back, through the alleys I walked, looking into backyards, up fire escapes, onto balconies. My plants were nowhere to be found. It's hard to not notice these two big, grey, decorative, urn-like pots with ridging on the top. Part of me thinks I might even have recognized my seedlings; motherly instinct and all.

The only upside of this whole event is that I've introduced myself to some neighbours because it it. I asked if they saw anyone carting away my plants. My neighbours were as shocked as I had been. One even said he grows a bunch of tomatoes himself (far from ground level), heirloom varieties that stretch back for a ridiculous amount of generations. He said he'd bring some by when they were ripe. Another neighbour welcomed me to the neighbourhood and commented on how it wasn't a nice way to get to know the area. I didn't mention that I'd been here for almost a year. Montreal winters are cold and you certainly aren't sitting out on your front porch in -30 temperatures, so I wasn't surprised she thought I was new. I'd certainly never met her before either.

So who steals a tomato plant and a pepper plant, anyway? Who lugs it off someone's front lawn and thinks, "Ha! She never saw THIS coming"? Whoever it was definitely didn't think about the time, planning, care, and effort that went into planting those two little guys in my big pots. I was going to be a gardener. Now I feel barren and wasted. No, I won't go buy more. First, because I have no more pots, and second because who's to say those plants wouldn't be taken too? I invested about $30 total in my top quality organic seedlings, fertilizer, potting soil and compost, but I invested so much more than that. When I see other people's healthy tomato plants now, all I do is covet what I can't have, what I've been denied. It's a good thing I don't want children. I can't imagine what losing them would feel like. To all the gardeners out there, love your plants and count your blessings.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thai Calamari Curry

I hate this name. It's not mine. Curry is a horrible name. It seems so degrading to me. Anything remotely spicy and Southeast Asian is considered curry. You show me the curry leaves in the recipe before I'll let you away with calling something a curry, and even then I have a problem with it. Unless it's called 'cari', or at least pronounced that way, in the original language, I get upset.

This recipe actually does have curry leaves in it, so I should probably hate it less. It's Thai, not Indian, like my latest recipe posts. Generally it's easier to find a Thai recipe for calamari than an Indian one, though you could definitely substitute squid in other Indian fish recipes. Sri Lankan squid recipes would be a nice bridge between the two culinary superstars.

Anyway, this was yet another attempt to save money while eating fish. Squid is so cheap and so easy to cook. You either cook it for no more than 2 minutes or you cook it for an hour. Anything in between will make it rubbery and gross. Seriously, 2 1/2 minutes and you're screwed.


2 tsp oil
1 onion, diced
4 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped into small pieces (to remove the seeds, quarter the tomatoes and gently push out the seed mushy sections with your fingers. There are other ways to do this but this one is simple. Save the mushy stuff for a snack. There's nothing wrong with it. It just changes the texture of the dish and adds a bit more bitterness. Often you're supposed to remove the skin, too, but nothing is said about that here, so don't bother)
1 red chili pepper (or jalapeno. The flavour is different, but neither is bad)
1 tbsp ginger, grated (remove the skin from the ginger with a spoon and then grate the flesh into a bowl)
1 tbsp garlic, minced
3 curry leaves (or 1 tbsp curry powder). This is where my problem lies...curry powder is not a good replacement for the leaves. I doubt that the powder is actually powdered leaves since there are so many kinds of curry powders. Try a powder and see if you like it. It may or may not work.
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp lime zest, grated (just the green part. About 1 lime)
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 cups fish or chicken stock (or 1 1/2 cups stock and a small 14 oz. can of coconut milk for creaminess)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped, plus a little more for garnish
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp lime juice (about 1/2 a lime)
1/2 tsp salt
2 lbs calamari (tubes and tentacles are both fine. That's generally what you get at a fish place. If you buy it frozen in a supermarket you may just get tubes. That's also fine. Just chop the pieces into 1" rings (width-wise) and try to make the tentacles into pieces approximately the same size (I know this is impossible, but I also know it's not too important since really there's nothing you can do about it)
The key is to have all your ingredients ready to go. So chop all the onion, ginger, garlic, and cilantro (the ginger and garlic can be put in the same bowl to wait) zest and juice the lime, and measure out the stock, brown sugar, black pepper, ground coriander, and salt. Then cut the calamari. If you cut the calamari first you'll need to wash your cutting board with hot, soapy water before cutting the vegetables. There's a bigger chance of contamination that way, so generally work with the seafood last, or even better, use two cutting boards. I have a plastic board and wood board in the kitchen and I always use the plastic board for fish, since the wood absorbs more of what's cut on it. It generally makes it more difficult to disinfect and leads more easily to kitchen contamination. Okay, lecture done.

Heat the oil in a big pot over medium heat. When it's hot add the onion, and sauté for 5 minutes. Please make sure the onion is actually softened. Bite a piece of onion. If it crunches it's not done. If the onion starts to stick to the pot add a tbsp of water and keep stirring. Do not walk away and get distracted. This is way too easy to do. Focus.

Add the tomato and the next 7 ingredients (up to the black pepper), and cook over medium heat for 4 minutes. Then add the stock (and optional coconut milk) and then the cilantro, brown sugar, lime juice and salt. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 5 minutes.

So you've already cut the calamari into 1-inch pieces. Now add them to the pot, turn the heat up to medium, and cook for 2 minutes, or until the calamari is opaque. When you bite into one it should be tender, not tough. Now scoop some of the delicious squid and sauce onto some rice. It's too liquidy to serve with bread, like I tried to do. Garnish with some cilantro if you want. Keep in mind that the squid left in the pot will continue cooking in the sauce, so second helpings will probably be tough. Leftover calamari is sometimes okay, though, since sitting in the juices re-tenderizes the over-cooked flesh. If it is refrigerated NOT in a sauce, you're SOL.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Favourite Vegetarian Indian Dish: Baigan Bhartha (Eggplant)

I realize the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, which is kind of how I feel about my repeated efforts to make baigan bhartha. I feel somewhat justified in the fact that I keep trying different recipes, but does that make me only sort of crazy, or just stubbornly determined?

When I go to an Indian restaurant I want meat. Vegetarian seems like a waste. For all the oil they add, it's just not as mind-blowing as it should be. Meat is where the real special-occasion flavour-fat splurge comes into play. Long-cooked cubes of meat dissolve in rich, oily, intoxicating stews. All the spices just make the rich flavours of the meat jump out in a way that lentils can only dream of. Don't get me wrong, I love saag and I like daal, but I will always go with the lamb dish.

The only exception to my rule is baigan bhartha. When I see this smoky eggplant dish on the menu I get the same pang of desire that I get when I see lamb roganjosh (in a smell test I will forever go with the lamb...). In a restaurant the eggplant is cooked until mushy in a tandoor (sometimes) and then added to a lusciously oily mix of spices and often tomatoes. I have tried (mostly in vain) to recreate the restaurant experience at home. My failure has a whole lot to do with the fact that I refuse to use about 10 tablespoons of oil and a little to do with not owning a tandoor or even a real grill or charcoal BBQ. My latest attempt was pretty good, but it just didn't get the smokiness of a tandoor. Next time maybe I will add some liquid smoke.

What I did use to guarantee that at least the dish wouldn't be too acidic were San Marzano tomatoes. These are the gods of tomatoes. Italian Grandmothers weap over these tomatoes. Not regularly, mind you, but in the strange case where they didn't can enough to make it through the winter and spring. I mean, they could buy the canned ones, which are amazing, but that might be embarrassing for them. I am not an Italian Grandmother. I am not easily embarrassed.

The thing about these tomatoes is that they come from one region in Italy where the tomatoes are naturally very sweet. So the acidity is very low and when you cook with them you don't need to add any sugar. If you taste a tomato sauce and it tastes sweet the cook probably added sugar, and if you call them on it they will be embarrassed. He or she is probably not an Italian Grandmother either, but still fairly easily embarrassed.

This isn't even an Italian recipe and here I am off on a tangent about a country's grandmothers. Back to India.


(It's a long trip)

Anyway, this bhartha recipe was not bad. I think I needed a higher eggplant to tomato ratio, since it turned out more like a bruschetta with eggplant or the world's best ratatouille, or a really good pasta sauce or pizza sauce, rather than a very good bhartha. None of these alternatives are bad, however, and the leftovers were turned into all of the above - successfully. The only funny thing is that every time I had this dish I got thirsty, which makes me think I used too much salt. Since I checked the tomatoes and there was just about no sodium in the can (another plus of San Marzanos) it had to be from the bhartha recipe.

2 long, thin eggplants (I didn't use the purple ones or the really huge standard ones, but a few smaller standard ones instead. I hoped this would minimize the natural bitterness of the vegetable. I also peeled them since a lot of the bitterness is in the skin)
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 large onion, diced
1 tbsp ginger, grated
1 can San Marzano tomatoes
3 long red chilies (the recipe called for long green chilies, but the red ones turn green after they're red, so I figured it'd be okay...and I couldn't wait that long. I had a bunch sitting in my kitchen and I was not about to go out and buy another bunch, as much as I am obsessed with heat)
1/2 tsp garam masala (home-made!!! Hurray!)
Red chili flakes (to taste. Probably 0 teaspoons for the weak of heart. About 1/2 a teaspoon for me...I know, ridiculous. It's not even a matter of pride, as in "See how much heat I can take!" It really is that I am addicted and on my tongue it helps bring out the other flavours. I still taste everything else. My tolerance has gone up and I need more of the drug to get my fix. Really, it's a relatively healthy addiction, mom)
Salt, to taste (I swear I only put in a pinch because salt is essential, but somehow it ended up too salty. Who knows?)
1 whole cup of cilantro leaves (really, less is fine since it's just for garnish. I don't even like adding it directly to the pan unless you're going to eat all of it in one go. It shouldn't be reheated. Much better when it's fresh)

You're supposed to grill the eggplant but I don't really have a grill. I always roast it. The point is you want it cooked, and roasting is so easy. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and then score them (mark 'X's in the flesh with a knife). Place them flesh-side up on a baking sheet and pop them in the oven for about 30 minutes, or until they're soft (mushy is fine. They just shouldn't be tough or rubbery. Pressing down on them with the back of a fork should cause the eggplant meat to break apart pretty easily. Just taste it and if it has to be really chewed, it's not done). I kind of just stick them in as soon as I can in the getting-dinner-ready process and cross my fingers they're soft by the time I need them. My success rate is okay. I'm working on it...

While the eggplant is roasting (or grilling. The grilling will make it more charred and give a quasi-tandoori smoky flavour) cut the onion and measure out all the spices. The ginger and garlic can go in the same bowl and the tomatoes, red chilies, and garam masala can go together in another. Everything else needs its own plate or dish.

This dish is best served with bread, not rice (the recipe actually suggests roti, naan, phulka, chapathi or paratha. So take your pick of Indian flat bread. I say Italian piadina works fine. Regular bread - like a country loaf, not Dempsters - will turn this into bruschetta), so get that all ready to go (if you're toasting or heating, put it on a plate or set it in the toaster oven and don't turn it on, etc). Basically do everything you can to waste time while the eggplant is cooking. Eat a salad, if the mood strikes.

When the eggplant is done take it out of the oven. Don't scoop out the flesh now. It's too hot. I have enough burned fingers for us both.

Now heat the oil in a large pan or skillet. Keep it to one area of the pan while it heats on medium-high. Then add the cumin seeds to the oil. This minimizes the amount of oil you need. Wait 5 seconds and then add the onions. The worst thing you can do is not cook the onions long enough, and sadly this is easy since you're not using a lot of oil. Use 3 tbsp of oil if you absolutely love fried onions, but I'm telling you it's a waste because in the end the onions won't taste fried. They'll just be swimming in tomato sauce and it'll be a waste of the oil. So it's your choice.

You have to stir the onions religiously or they'll burn. If they start to stick add a tablespoon of water. Add more water a tablespoon at a time each time the onions start to stick.

When the onions are soft, not crunchy (up to 10 minutes), add the ginger and garlic and stir and cook for 3 minutes. Again, no burning allowed.
Now add the tomatoes, fresh chilies and garam masala. Add the red chili flakes if you want and taste first, and then add a little salt only if it needs it. Turn the heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. If the sauce is thick it might start to spit a little, so you can cover it if you want.

Finally, a chance to rip apart eggplants.

Scoop the flesh out of the eggplants and chop it roughly. Okay, it's true, the eggplants could have been sitting in the oven cooking all this time you've been dealing with onions and the like, but then when you took them out just a moment ago they'd have been too hot to handle. So if you're in a time bind, be prepared to use gloves or burn your fingers to get your eggplants properly cooked. Slimy chunks of eggplant are what you're after. Unappealing now, maybe, but I swear, completely delicious.

Now add your delicious eggplant slime to the tomato mixture. Cook and stir for 5 minutes. Garnish with cilantro. Dream of an even better eggplant recipe next time, and how much you love bruschetta.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Chaat Masala

Just like garam masala, chaat masala is just a simple blend of spices ("masala" = spice blend, but "chaat" masala is intended specifically for use in "chaat" dishes). These snack bowls are sold at roadside stalls in India, and usually consist of deep-fried bread, dried yellow salty noodle-like things, tangy yogurt, sour/sweet tamarind chutney and coriander chutney - all much more delicious than it sounds. Sometimes there's potato involved, or chickpeas, but there's always chaat masala. Again, like garam masala, there are a few ingredients that always appear, like mango powder(!), but the recipe varies from person to person in amount and other ingredients. So if you don't have one of the ingredients (as long as it's not the mango powder, cumin or salt) you can probably leave it out. Also, like the garam masala, if you don't have a whole version of a spice, use the ground version, but don't roast it in the frying pan or it'll burn. Only whole spices go in the frying pan.

The version I made:
Whole Spices
3 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp whole fennel seed
a little, little bit of asafetida, grated (this you can still roast even though it's grated. Bigger grater pieces are optimal)
Ground Spices
4 tsp amchoor powder (dried mango powder. I'm thinking about adding it to my mango sorbet next time, to make it a little more intense...
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tbsp salt (the originally recipe called for black salt, which is apparently actually pink. I use Himalayan Crystal salt, which is also pink, but who knows if it's the same thing. Use whatever kind of salt you wish - black, pink, purple - the recipe is nondiscriminatory)
1/4 tsp ground dried mint
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp paprika

Same directions as the garam masala: put all the whole spices (plus the grated asafetida) in a small frying pan over medium heat (no oil) and stir them from time to time until they brown and give off an aroma. The original recipe says until they give off a "delicious aroma", but that's awfully subjective. Then grind using your method of choice. Store in an airtight container...

...and dream of chaat.

Garam Masala Recipe

Apparently Garam Masala just means "hot and spicy". Like "curry", it's just a blend of different spices, roasted and then ground. The base of it is usually cinnamon, coriander and cloves but other spices drift in and out of recipes. So every Indian cook has their own blend, or more likely, their mom's blend (If you don't know how to pronounce the name, just remember that it rhymes: "Mom's GarAM". So many recipes call for garam masala that I don't think I could ever stick with just one recipe. Funny how I have no problem using the same spice over and over when it's called for but if you give me an opportunity I'll tinker and always try something just a little different. If you give an inch I'll take a mile?

1 tbsp cardamom seeds (I used the whole pod because I couldn't be troubled to open the pods. Actually, I think I just misread)
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 piece star anise
2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp dried coriander seeds
1 bay leaf
1 2" long cinnamon stick (I couldn't remember where my cinnamon sticks were so I sadly used about a tbsp of ground cinnamon)
1/4 ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground allspice

Put all the whole spices (if you can find whole nutmeg and allspice, go for it) in a small frying pan over medium heat. Don't use any oil! Put all the ground spices into the blender or coffee grinder. You can also use a mortar and pestle, but in that case you don't need to add the pre-ground spices to it.

Use the handle of the frying pan to gently move the spices around from time to time until they start to brown slightly and give off an aroma. When you can smell the spices (approximately 2 minutes) they're done and ready to be ground. Throw them into the coffee grinder or blender with the pre-ground spices and blend or grind. Or grind them by hand in the mortar and pestle, then mix in the pre-ground spices. Store the spices in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
They'll keep up to 3 months, but after that it's not like it goes bad, it's just not as pungent. About the same as a grocery store variety, but it's still home-made, so psychologically you'll still feel better about it.

About the blender versus spice grinder versus mortar and pestle:
Some Indians think that a coffee grinder grinds too fine, and the same could be said for a blender. They don't want to end up with a powder. A textured spice blend would have bigger pieces of spice and retain a fresher flavour. So a mortar and pestle is by default the best solution, but then are different types of mortar and pestles and some are easier than others to use. There is also mortar and pestle technique, and different sizes of the t0ol. Basically granite is probably the best, not marble, and it's not so much jabbing or stirring, more of a crushing motion with some turning of the wrist outward. Anyway, however it gets crushed is fine, including a plastic bag, well-0sealed, beaten with a mallet or something heavy.

One more thing, normally you cook with bay leaves and don't eat them, but here the bay leaves get ground into the powder. I don't know how I feel about this since they're not very digestible. I've also seen a lot of garam masala recipes that don't use bay leaves at all, so feel free to leave them out.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Masala Puri

Spice is what you need when it's hot. The heat makes your body work to cool itself down. It's like turning your interior freezer to 'ON'. Indian food is the perfect balance of heat and less heat. Cool yogurt, fresh cucumbers, cooked beans and spices. Every spice for a different purpose, and sometimes every spice at once. Like here, with this masala puri recipe.

So with my very refreshing mint chutney I made this...
There's no actual puri bread here, since I had just made gluten-free bread (which is completely different. Puri is a slightly sweet flatbread and mine was a yeast bread, but I just put the masala on a bed of lettuce. There is potato in the dish anyway, so it's not lacking for carbohydrates. I mixed some of the chutney in and I served some on top as well, along with some thick yogurt (actually, kefir, but it's very similar). The sweetness of the dairy was perfect with the surprising sweetness of the masala.
3 small (or 2 medium) potatoes (peeled, boiled and mashed coarsely, or roasted, peeled and mashed. I happened to have the oven turned on so I just threw the potatoes in whole, unseasoned, pricked them all over with a fork so they wouldn't explode, and stuck them directly on the oven bars for about 50 minutes. Just leave them until they're tender. Then peel off the skin once they cool. You can also boil them and then peel and mash the same way)

1/2 cup dried chickpeas (soaked in water for about 6-8 hrs, or overnight. Or you can cover them with 1 1/2 cups water, bring a pot of the chickpeas and water to a boil on the stove, boil 3 minutes, and then cover and let stand for an hour. OR just used canned, but the taste is not the same)

1 - big onion, chopped finely, but it doesn't have to be too precise unless you care about such things
1 tsp oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
3/4 tsp garam masala (home-made is best)
3/4 tsp chaat masala (again, home-made is best and recipe to come. powder)
1 tsp tamarind paste or a lime-sized piece of tamarind pulp soaked in warm water for 30 minutes (I just left it in the water for about an hour. Then what you do is take the ball of tamarind and press it through a fine sieve. Then pulp that come out is what you want to use. Throw away the fibres that don't get pushed through)
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp red chili powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 cup mint chutney
cilantro, for garnish
1 tomato, chopped into small pieces
salt to taste

So you need to cook the chickpeas. If you just did the quick soak method with the whole 'letting it sit for an hour after boiling for 3 minutes' thing, you now need to drain the chickpeas, rinse them in cold water to wash off some of the starch that gets stuck on them, and then put them back in the pot with about 3 cups of water. Bring THAT to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and let the chickpeas simmer for 80 minutes. I got away with 65 minutes, but my bean bible says 80. It's your digestive tract, though, so do what you will.

When the beans are done, just drain them away and rinse again. Yes, you are allowed to just use canned chickpeas, but trust me, it's just not the same. There'll be a starchy, slightly acidic taste and they won't be as nutty and sweet as fresh beans will be. They really should taste a bit like tahini (sesame paste) for hummous, but without adding any. Anyway, enough about chickpeas. The can is easy and convenient (thus, North American), but the fresh method is more delicious (thus, Indian. Though I know lots of Indian-Canadians who cheat).

Heat the oil in a big pot over medium-high heat, and when it's hot add the cumin seeds. Don't spread the oil around. Keep it in one area of the pot and then add the seeds directly to the oil. It infuses the oil better this way without adding heaps of it.

Now add the onion, and stir and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the onion is soft. I under-cooked my onion (again! I always do this by accident, since there's not as much oil as there could be) so test it and make sure it's not still crunchy before going on to the next step. It'll ruin the final texture of the dish.

Now add the chickpeas and the boiled and mashed potato. You want to do the whole boiling or roasting and mashing thing in advance since you don't want to be waiting for it to cook and then burn yourself peeling it while it's still hot. Preferably do this while the chickpeas are cooking. Even smarter would be to use leftover potatoes (unseasoned!!! Sour cream and butter have no place in this recipe).

Now, I don't know what a "bhaaji consistency" is, but you're now supposed to add enough water to the pot to create one of these elusive things. Apparently I need to make more bhaaji. This is obviously what I'm doing wrong with my life. I just added enough so that everything got smooth and easy to mix, and then added a bit extra because the recipe recommended erring on the side of slightly soupy. So add about a cup of water. Up to 1 1/2 cups.

Now add the garam masala, the chaat masala, the sieved tamarind, brown sugar, mint chutney (more or less a 1/4 cup, to taste), the red chili powder, and turmeric, bring to a boil, and cook for a few minutes. If the mixture gets too dry, add more water. "Too dry" means "annoying to stir". It's easy to boil off excess water at the end, but not easy to fix the recipe if you burn it now. Also, since I undercooked my chickpeas in the first place I thought it would be fine to add more water now to help them along.

Now add a pinch or so of salt and adjust the other seasonings according to taste. Whatever that means. I've never made this before, or eaten it, so have no idea what it's "supposed" to taste like. If you like the taste, leave it as is. If not, add some more of something that has a flavour you think you might want more of, like more brown sugar if it's not sweet enough, more mint chutney if it needs more herbal freshness, or more tamarind for intense sour. The brown sugar makes this spicy and sweet, which is just wonderful, and all the spices in the garam masala and chaat masala make this a sensory overload for your tongue. I don't remember the last time my taste buds didn't know what hit them, like they did with this dish. "Red wine sauce" this, "olive oil and lemon and dijon" that - these are all well and good, but these fresh Indian

To serve this, either take crackers (or real puri bread. Crackers are no comparison, but serve for a good crunch replacement in a fix), or serve as I did with a bed of lettuce. Spoon some of the chickpea mixture on top and then sprinkle with some of the chopped tomato and cilantro. You can add some of the extra mint chutney and yogurt directly on top, or serve it on the side, or not at all. Really, the chickpea and potato mixture is great on its own, or just with bread, and doesn't need anything else to make it a delicious meal. The lettuce, tomatoes, yogurt and extra mint are all overkill, but they'll send you into Indian heaven. Well, I mean, it's a bit more complicated than that, what with all the "Hare Krishnas" if you're Hindu and other complicated issues if you're Seekh or Muslim, but the gist is you'll be pretty happy with your dinner. In the end, isn't that what we all want out of life?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mint Chutney

Can you see the red chili pieces? My blender got a good work-out on all these masalas and chutneys. The green would have been a better colour if my cilantro and mint had been fresh and not frozen, but how often do I really use a whole bunch of mint? There are only so many juleps that I can drink, thanks Beppi.

Ingredients (everything is approximate. It is Indian food, after all):
2 tbsp mint
1/2 cup cilantro
1 tsp garlic, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tbsp ginger, roughly chopped
1 green chili, seeds removed, roughly chopped
2 tbsp chopped tomatoes
1 1/2 tbsp pomegranate seeds (you can find these are Indian grocery stores. Buy the whole seeds, not the ground powder, since it'll last longer and it's not like you'll be using these every day)
3/8 cup (3 oz) water (hurray for my Newfoundland shot glass!)
1 1/2 tbsp cumin powder
1 tsp chaat masala (you can buy this pre-made, but it's MUCH better to make your own, like I did)
pinch of salt

Stick everything in the blender. That's all. Oh, turn ON the blender...

You only need to roughly chop everything roughly in advance if your blender or food processor isn't very strong. It just helps it along a little, and makes sure you don't end up with any clumps. Do the basic things, like make sure you wash the cilantro and mint, and remove the skin from the garlic. Remove the end bits (the bottom and the stem) from the green chili. Also preferably use a long thin green chili instead of a jalapeno. It's a little bit of a different flavour. A trick for peeling ginger is to scrape it with a spoon. A kitchen peeler will take away too much of the actual ginger and can't navigate the gnobby root. Oh, and if you don't like your chutney as fine and smooth, use a lower setting or a DICE setting on your food processor. Or if you REALLY want you can chop everything by hand, but that seems ridiculous in an age of blenders.
I had to mix some of this directly into a chickpea masala, so I didn't add yogurt, but you could if you serve it as a kind of raita on the side of a plate, or on top of a papri, like above.

Serve with anything - bread, crackers, spicy food, lentils, yogurt, beans, meats (especially lamb), vegetables. It ranges from mild to hot, and as long as you don't add too much salt, it doesn't over-power anything. Mmm...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

So Many Spices...

I wanted to use my pomegranate seeds. I've had an air-tight box of pomegranate seeds sitting in my cupboard for a few months now, waiting to be made into a delicious Indian meal, along with my mango powder. Unfortunately, Madhur Jaffrey doesn't have a single recipe in her "Indian Cooking" using pomegranate. Maybe one with mango (amchoor powder). Maybe.

So I googled, and then I went and bought green chilies and tomatoes. That and eggplant were all I needed to make chaat masala for masala puri, garam masala (because I used the last of my first garam masala to make the chaat masala) for baigan bhartha (my favourite eggplant dish ever, that kind of came out as a delicious mix between the best tomato sauce ever, bruschetta, and Indian ratatouille), mint chutney (because I had mint and what DOESN'T mint chutney go with? What it does go with is my first Sancerre bottle of white wine that I finally opened), and calamari curry (because it's the only affordable fish at that God-forsaken Poissonerie Atwater. I got the same woman again, the one I fought with about bellyfish, and she started off calling me "ma belle" again, and then remembered me. It went downhill from there...but she DID give me just the 1 1/2 lbs of squid I asked for. No tricks to get me to buy 2 lbs. Apparently even mean people can learn their lessons.

I would have bought these things at the Verdun Fermer's Market that I biked to today, but it wasn't open yet. Poor reporting in the Montreal Mirror, it seems. No, not really. They said it would be open in "June" so I can't really blame them. The article was really lovely.

Anyway, needless to say, I'm exhausted, and importing photos is time-consuming. So until then, use your imagination. Layers of chickpeas with home-made bread, tomatoes, cumin, nutmeg, turmeric, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, mango, pomegranate, asafoetida, fennel, star anise, ginger, garlic, chili powder, cayenne, salt, paprika, sugar, black pepper, and "curry" (oh, internet...curry is a spice blend, not a spice...though I suppose it could have meant curry leaves which are a real, single thing). This is the list of spices. Ridiculous, I know, and I didn't have to buy a single one of them. I left out lovage because it was optional, and used regular cumin when it called for black cumin seed once. All in all, a very efficient use of my spice cupboard, and oh, the flavour...pomegranate and mango are wonderful. My tongue is still spinning from the overload. The heat of the chilies! Mmm...just enough for me. 5 in total. A little bit of mango sorbet when I got over-heated from the hot liquid of the squid. Absolutely divine. 5 hours of cooking distraction from life. Can someone please pay me to do this?

"Will adjust chili heat for money"...or under duress.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Indian Spicy Green Beans (Masaledar Sem): Madhur Jaffrey's "Indian Cooking"

It's funny, I took all these pictures are at different points in the cooking process and they all look exactly the same...I don't know if that's good because the beans never got to the point where they looked over-cooked, or if that's bad because there's some freakish genetic modification made to the green bean plant to make it stay green even when North Americans over-cook it (or stew it, like what's called for in Indian dishes).

This is a good recipe for fresh green beans. When green beans are not so fresh and they taste chewy and waxy it's not so spectacular. Still, it's not bad, and it's very healthy, so if you're looking for a side dish of green with a non-creamy sauce, this is a good choice.
Normally I'd never make a side dish with this many ingredients. Vegetables should be relatively simple, but this one is mostly spices, so it's the blend of these spices that's important. So I took the extra time and did it perfectly. When I ate it I couldn't figure out how it was so hot. It tasted like there were five or so chili peppers in it, but there was only one. There was no cayenne powder, no flakes, and no fresh ones, so it took me a long time to come to the conclusion that a hunk of ginger is very spicy indeed.

The most time consuming part of this is actually chopping the ends off the beans. You then need to cut them into half-centimetre pieces. Do this and toss them in a bowl for when you need them. Then move along with your life/recipe.

1 1/2lbs green beans, cut as above
a "thumb-and-a-half"-sized piece of ginger (my words, not Jaffrey's), cut into a few pieces
10 cloves of garlic (so maybe this is kind of labour intensive too, but oh so very good for you. You won't even end up with garlic breath, don't worry)
1 cup water (Jaffrey says 1 1/2 cups but you just boil it away at the end and over-cook the beans in the process. So start with 1 cup and see if you need more)
2 tsp oil
2 tsp cumin seeds (plus 1 tsp roasted, crushed cumin seeds, like the corn and potato recipe)
1 dried red chili (a small one, not a big one like a poblano, a New Mexican, or any of those South American chilies)
2 tsp ground coriander (grind your own fresh if you can)
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced (if you don't peel them it hurts the texture but it may also make the flavour more bitter. I'm not 100% sure on that. I didn't care about the texture so I skipped the peeling step. If you want to peel them the simplest way is to stick them in boiling water on the stove for just a few minutes until their skin begins to break, like lacerations. Then remove them with a slotted spoon and plunge them into cold water, or place them in a colander and rinse with cold water until they're cool enough to handle. Do not drain the boiling water! The skins should peel easily through the lacerations. If they don't, stick them back into the boiling water another minute or so. If you drained the water, you're screwed, and have to wait for more water to boil. Waiting for water to boil is a horrible way to spend a life).
1 tsp salt (max)
3 tbsp lemon juice (I think this is too much, but it depends on your lemons, so taste and it and see for your yourself before you add all three tbsps)
freshly ground black pepper (optional)

A lot of Thai recipes call for you to do this to start: put the ginger and garlic in a blender and process to create a paste. Getting the paste out of the blender can be a trial if there's not enough water, so make sure you add 1/2 cup of the water and do it just before you heat the oil in the next step so all the solid parts of the paste don't have a chance to sink to the bottom of the blender and get stuck. Have all your spices and ingredients ready to go.

Here we go!

Put the 2 tsp oil in a big pot over medium heat. When it's hot, tilt the pot to the side so all the oil collects in one spot. Then add the un-roasted cumin seeds only to the collection of oil. Count to 5 and put in the chilies. You need the pot to be directly on the heat, so you can tilt the pot back down, or even place it back directly on the burner, but use your spatula to keep all the oil and spices together. The spices need the oil to cook but this way you can save yourself about 2 tbsp worth of oil in the dish since you don't need to coat the whole pan to cook the spices.

Now add the crush chili pepper, count to 6, and put in the ginger-garlic paste. Stir and cook about a minute. Keep stirring so the paste doesn't burn since you skimped on oil.

Add the coriander, count to 7, and add the chopped tomatoes. Stir and cook for 2 minutes and mash the tomato against the side of the dish. Some thai dishes add the tomato to the garlic-ginger paste, and since you're mashing the tomato now I might try this next time. I don't see an advantage to not cooking the tomato a few minutes extra from putting it in earlier. They don't get quite as mashed this way compared with purée-ing, so there's a different texture, but purée-ing might be interesting and less soupy, both of which are good things).
Now add the beans, salt and remaining 1/2 cup of water. Bring to a simmer, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low for about 8 minutes. The beans should be almost tender.

Remove the lid and boil away any excess liquid. Rejoice.

Corn and Potatoes With Mustard Seeds and Mint (Bhutta aur Aloo ke Mazedar Tarkari)

Not the best Indian recipe ever, but it was probably my corn's fault. That or my tomatoes. This could be a very acidic dish or a very sweet one, so it's worth another shot in corn season. I'd also really appreciate someone else trying it and letting me know how it goes. I love a recipe that tells you to make it as hot as you can stand. That's what Madhur Jaffrey says to do here. Hurray.

black mustard seeds
cumin seeds
garlic clove, diced
Some potato(es), boiled and cut into small cubes
1 or 2 diced tomatoes
fresh cilantro, diced
fresh mint, diced
1 hot green chili (I used a red one. Maybe that's why it wasn't as great as it should have been?)
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels (make this recipe with frozen for convenience and fresh if you've got some spare time on your hands...)
3 oz coconut milk (I used almond milk so it wasn't as thick and creamy. Maybe also why it wasn't so great. Use a shot glass to get the 3 oz. I'm a Newfoundlander and so I had a 3 oz shot glass hanging around...if you're not lucky enough to be from Newfoundland you will have to add a few shots together. Don't worry, it's just coconut milk...not coconut rum)
1/2 tsp salt
large pinch of cayenne
1 tbsp lemon juice (this felt like too much)
fresh ground pepper
2 tsp roasted and then ground cumin seeds (stick them in a frying pan over medium heat until they start to have an aroma, then remove from heat to an electric coffee grinder or mortar and pestle, and grind. Optionally put them in a paper or plastic bag, close the opening of the bag, and smash with something large...)

So first you want to boil the potato. You need to peel them afterward but you don't need to do it in advance. If you boil them until they're soft (this depends on how big they are) and then rinse them in cold water their skins tend to peel more easily, I've found. If you peel in advance I think you lose some nutrients. You can also chop them in quarters to boil them faster, but then it's harder to peel and you lose nutrients. Not much harder, though. So it's your choice.

While they're boiling chop everything else and have it and all the spices measured and ready to go. This recipe goes fast.

All that are left to chop are the boiled, drained and skinned and potatoes, so do that and then heat a good few tbsp of oil in a large skillet on medium-high (Normally I would never use this much but you need it all to give the potatoes a nice crispy exterior. If you don't mind mushy potatoes don't use so much oil, but it really makes a difference). When hot, put in the mustard seeds and a big pinch of un-roasted cumin seeds. When the mustard seeds start to pop put in the garlic and potatoes. Stir for a few minutes and then add the tomato (or tomatoes, if they're small), cilantro, mint and green chili (You can use a fair bit of each fresh spice. A good handful of fresh leaves of each). Two minutes later add the corn.

Stir until the herbs are mixed through the corn and then add the coconut milk (or almond milk. To make the almond milk thicker like coconut milk you could also put 6 oz of it in a saucepan over medium-high heat and let some of the water evaporate out of it until you have only 3 oz left. This just concentrates the flavour. Voila, evaporated milk. You can also just use water instead of coconut milk or almond milk, but again, not the same. Like the difference between sorbet and ice cream, it's a big one. Not necessarily bad, and sometimes you want sorbet and sometimes you want ice cream, but it's your choice and there'll probably be more flavour overall with the coconut milk). Also add the salt, cayenne and lemon juice now. I didn't know it was okay to add lemon juice this early in a recipe since it's so pungent and I think it's loses its pungency if you cook it for so long, but maybe that's the intention here??
Bring the skillet to a simmer. This should just take a few seconds, but turn up the heat if it doesn't happen soon. Then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the skillet, and let it simmer for 3 minutes. Don't overcook the corn. You just want to heat it through. If the corn is really fresh it probably only needs about 2 minutes max.

While this is cooking put the 2 remaining teaspoons of cumin seeds in a small frying pan over medium-high heat (don't use any oil) and cook them until they're fragrant and slightly browned, just a few minutes. Then grind them. If you don't have a convenient grinding device like a coffee grinder, make sure you don't save this step until this late in the dinner game. Your corn will over-cook while you're fussing with a plastic bag and mallet of some kind.

Now uncover the skillet, grind some black pepper over top along with the roasted and ground cumin seeds. Stir. Serve. Voila side dish.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

60% Chance of Success Pouding Chomeur - The Bowl Was More Than Half Full

Unfortunately it still wasn't great. I took a pouding chomeur recipe and made it refined sugar free. Basically I knew I'd be eating it late at night and a cup and a half of brown sugar, or two cups of maple syrup were not my idea of a night cap. So, I took a bunch of fresh dates and puréed them with water and a few dried dates for the cake part, and then took a whole lot more dried dates and puréed them with water for the syrup. I had a strong feeling it was going to taste watered down, but I did it anyway. I tried to keep the water-sugar ratio decent, but I kind of figured I'd add too much water because my blender is not the greatest, so to get anything resembling a purée you need to add more water than you would hope.
This was a mini disaster, the likes of which I've not had since my mousse days. Basically I puréed fine a few times, and then the third time I'd forgotten to tighten the blender bottom all the way and didn't realize somehow that all the liquid I was adding was just flowing out of the blender all over the counter - under the toaster oven, under the drain board, into my teas. Fortunately my counter top is not perfectly even so it got kind of stuck in small date water reservoirs. A lot of towel-ringing later, and a little bit of swearing, I'd cleaned up the mess and puréed my dates. I'd made a double batch of my version of this delicious dessert because I wanted to make it in the slow cooker. Generally, small batches of things burn in the slow cooker, so better to super size and freeze portions for later. Not a problem as long as it's delicious. Oh, I also made this dairy-free and gluten-free. I made another gluten-free flour blend, this time with mostly sweet white sorghum flour and brown rice flour (plus some tapioca flour, potato starch flour, sweet white rice flour and guar gum to cover all my bases) and used almond breeze for the milk. These didn't make the recipe bad. The flour blend you would barely taste. It wouldn't really mess up the consistency of a pudding cake since it's supposed to be so liquidy anyway. The almond milk would only make it better by giving more flavour, but I was worried about not having enough salt and enough addictive sugary taste that you'd normally get from brown sugar. What happened was my pudding kind of ended up tasting like my hollow granola - lots of cinnamon, but no sugary bite. This time I had no one to resent but myself. There was certainly no physical activity involved that I could give up.

So I made this for my parents and warned them in advance that there was a 60% chance that the pudding would be good and a 40% chance that it wouldn't. I wouldn't be offended if they didn't like or if they wanted to skip dessert. My mom liked it, but I didn't, so before my dad could try it I poured over some syrup. It's supposed to be a maple syrup dessert anyway (according to some recipes) but I don't do maple syrup for anxiety attack reasons. Basically my body freaks out, and it's not exactly the most sane body (or mind) when uncontaminated with the liquid.

Anyway, long story short, the pudding actually came out pudding-like. There was some liquid and some cake, and the colour was darker than normal, but that was because of the dates, so it was fine. The taste, though, left a lot to be desired. There's a reason we use sugar. Real sugar. Honey would ahve been fine. Maple syrup would have been fine, but there's nothing like brown sugar. I should have at least added some molasses and white sugar substitute, but I feel like sends my body conflicting messages, like a mom and dad fighting in front of a child. Who do I listen to? Who do I believe? Who do I ask for candy?

Anyway, moral of the story is use less water. I think I could get away with using dates if I used more of them, and for that I need a better blender or a few days' worth of patience while the water dissolved from the purée. Pictures to come.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Affordable Taste: An Indian Dinner of "Dry" Moong Dal

A food friend once told me that in his opinion the only vegetarian food in the world worth eating is Indian. I don't fully agree. I do hate tofu and soy of all kinds, but there are a whole lot of other good vegetarian food options out there, even if North American vegetarian restaurants tend to disagree (I'm looking at you "Fresh" in Toronto and "Aux Vivres" in Montreal). There's Ethiopian, Mexican, South American, French, and Italian, to name a few prime examples, but I understand my friend's point. Meat (fat) gives flavour. It's easy to make a meal with meat delicious without doing too much. Vegetable oil and other kinds of oils just aren't as naturally delicious as meat fat, so vegetarian food has to work a little harder. Indian food (very similar to Ethiopian) brilliantly uses complicated blends of spices to flavour otherwise dull things (lentils and beans). Even so, using the same spices to flavour meat is astronomically better.

Like eating out every day, though, eating meat at every meal because it tastes better is just not sustainable, both financially and physically. Your body needs a respite from time to time. Look at cultures that involve traditional fasting. All sorts of religions incorporate a set period when the body can clean itself out, either by restricting times of the day you can eat, or what you can eat. The same goes for the spices in food. It's all traditional. People who make the food that way may not know why certain spices go together, but they sure know it tastes good and it's healthy for them. Who cares if ginger is good for the immune system so a hunk of it goes in Vietnamese soup? Meat is a treat, and maybe people would eat more of it if they could afford to do so, but not every body is designed to function at its peak that way. Everything in moderation? Unless you're a monk, or a vegan...

Anyway, my point is that if you just think Indian is the only good vegetarian food out there, you're limiting yourself. Ethiopian, for example, is very similar, using slightly different spices in the same way. Coincidentally (or not) there was a large migration from India to East Africa (mainly Kenya) to build railroads and I'm not sure who brought what spices where, or where traditions originated, but the end result is delicious. Chile peppers, turmeric, fenugreek, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon (have you ever seen a cinnamon tree? You want to lick the bark), and most importantly, salt. Nothing against a perfect batch of baked beans, corn and squash tamales, or a traditional vegetable minestrone or fresh pasta, but Indians and Ethiopians got this whole spice thing figured out.

With that in mind, I made a healthy dinner. I generally don't make a bunch of Indian dishes in one night because it's labour intensive. Instead I'll make make one the first night, the next night I'll make another and eat it with leftovers from the first night, and maybe the third night I'll make another and put all the items together for a true Indian meal. Here's what I made: "Dry" Moong Dal ("Sookhi" Moong Dal), Corn and Potatoes with Mustard Seeds and Mint (Bhutta aur aloo ki mazedar tarkari), Gluten-Free Bread (to replace naan, since the dry dal was supposed to be served with bread, not rice) and raita (plain, thick yogurt to help digest the lentils with the bread. Complete protein and all).

I find lentils boring on their own, but the little bit of sugar in the bread made them absolutely savoury and delicious. Naan would also work perfectly, and on the third day I had the lentils with some leftover kulcha (like a naan, but yeast-free. Not lactose-free) from an Indian restaurant I'd gone to in Parc Extension, Indian Maison Curry House.

The dal is a really easy recipe.1 cup moong dal (this is not moong dal above...I used these green lentils instead. It's a different taste, but definitely not a bad one)
About 5 cups of water, divided
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cayenne (never skimp on this...)
2 tsp oil (...or this...)
1/2 tsp salt (...or this, in the case of lentils, since they're bland enough already)
1 tbsp oil or ghee
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 dried red chili

Wash the dal like you would rice, in several changes of water. For real moong dal you're supposed to soak it for 3 hours, but these lentils don't need to be pre-soaked for so long, so just stick them in 4 cups of water until you need them later in the recipe. Drain them before adding them below. If you skip this step and the lentils don't absorb enough water, you'll just need to add more later to make sure they cook fully.

Combine the 1st four spices (up to the cayenne) along with a tbsp of water in a small cup.

Heat the first amount of oil over medium in a large pot and when it's hot put in the spice mixture. See, you don't need a lot of oil because the spices have water mixed in. It will be harder for you to burn them. Stir the spices for a second (for once the recipe doesn't say something like "For 5 seconds". It just says "Stir once", which I think is still hilarious. What if I accidentally stir twice? and what constitutes a stir?) then add drained dal. Stir and then add a cup of water. Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce the heat to very low, cover the pot and let it simmer for 15 minutes. Depending on your type of dal and whether or not you soaked it long enough you may need to cook it longer or add more water. Just make sure it always stays at a simmer but doesn't start to stick to the bottom of the pot. "Very" low can also be misleading and end up causing you to wait more than patiently for your lentils to cook.

Now the fun part.

Just before you're ready to eat (aka the dal is tender, "dry" or not too liquidy, and not sticking to the pot) heat the remaining oil or ghee in a small frying pan over high heat. You want this to be VERY hot oil so don't use olive oil. The heat is necessary to extract as much flavour as possible from the spices. You're basically going to create spiced oil and use it as a seasoning.

So add the cumin seeds to the hot oil. Count to 3.

Add the hot chili. Count to 3 again. It should puff up and darken. If not, just count to 3 and get on with your life/recipe.

Now pour the oil, cumin seeds and chili right over the pot of dal and stir it in. You can also place the dal on individual serving plates and pour a small amount of the spiced oil over each portion as a garnish, or just place the whole pot of dal with the oil on top on the table and serve family-style. I recommend mixing it in, though, because it lets the spices blend, so you don't end up with some people having bland bowls of dal and some having spiced ones. You can also fry some very thinly sliced onions in a few tablespoons of oil on medium-high until they're crispy and browned, drain them on paper towels, and serve them on top.

Serve with some kind of flatbread (or my gluten-free bread, or anything that isn't a piece of whole wheat, comes in a bag, or is sandwich bread. This is not a French meal) and some yogurt to help the digestion. Mango for dessert? I got 14 at Jean-Talon and biked them home. Soon I will start a series called "What did Amie bike home from Jean-Talon this week?". Half a watermelon, 14 mangos, 5 oranges, 4 peaches, 2 bunches of asparagus, a bag of lettuce, and a canteloupe. Thank you Leonardo's. If only you were at Atwater.