Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dum Aloo: Whole Potatoes in Spicy Yogurt Gravy

I'm leaving my comfort zone and hoping to release my inner Gandhi, with a little help from Julie SahniToday I'll make some Indian home. This is a giant culinary leap.
I've been cooking for a few years now and for some reason nothing makes me more nervous (in the kitchen) than cooking Indian food. Okay, that's a bit hyperbolic. There are more serious things that make me nervous in the kitchen. Say, for example, having another burn incident (courtesy of a butternut squash and apple soup) or a knife slippage accident (courtesy of panzanella). Ouch!
But making my own Indian food is definitely something that has caused me to pause and required me to harness a good deal of self confidence. The food consumed by over 1 billion people has intimidated me, until now.
I know many seasoned cooks who have also shied away from making even the most basic sub-continent dishes. But why? Is it the cumin, mustard or coriander seeds? The ghee? The quintessential Indian spice--garam masala--that scares them away? Or is it the fear that the stews, sauces, and soups take way too much time and effort?
Maybe it's all of the above. Maybe it's the combination of unfamiliar ingredients and the fact that Indian food seems very complex to make at home.
But I feel like I've been missing out. Indian food has some of the most varied vegetarian options in the world and it's also one of my most favorite cuisines. Yet for years I have stubbornly refused to make it in my own kitchen, opting for Delhi Palace or Rasoi buffets instead. 
Thank goodness for Julie Sahni. She is one of the premiere cooking instructors for Indian food and some of her books are in their 42nd edition. She's pretty serious. I decided to start with her recipe for Whole Potatoes in a Spicy Yogurt Gravy (Dum Aloo).  Malai kofta, stuffed dosas and saag paneer will have to wait for another day...and a bit more self-confidence.  But until then  आप का खाना स्वादिष्ट हो (Bon Appetit)

Whole Potatoes in Spicy Yogurt Gravy, Dum Aloo (Courtesy of Julie Sahni: Classic Indian Cooking)
Serves 6-8 
12 even-sized small boiling potatoes, such as red wax (about 2 pounds)
7 tablespoons Indian vegetable shortening, or light vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions (about 1 1/2 onions)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger root
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2-1 teaspoon red pepper (I went with 1/2)
1 teaspoon Mughal garam masala
2 cups chopped or pureed fresh tomatoes, or 1 cup canned tomato sauce (I pureed 1 cup of plain diced tomatoes)
2/3 cup plain yogurt
4 teaspoons Kosher salt
2/3 cup heavy cream

  1. Peel potatoes and prick them with a skewer or knife in 4 or 5 places.  Put them in a bowl of cold water until you are ready to cook them.
  2. Heat 5 tablespoons of shortening or oil in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat.  When the oil is very hot, drain the potatoes, pat them dry on paper towels (I used a clean dish cloth), and add.  Fry them until they acquire several tiny browned spots and a crust (about 8-10 minutes), turning and tossing them to ensure even browning.  *This is an essential step, as the browning prevents the potatoes' falling apart during prolonged cooking.*  With a slotted spoon, transfer them to a bowl.
  3. Add the rest of the shortening or oil to the pan along with the onions.  Fry until the onions turn caramel brown (about 15 minutes), stirring constantly so that they do not burn.  Add ginger, and fry for an additional 1/2 minute.  Add cumin, coriander, turmeric, red pepper, and garam masala all at once, and stir rapidly for 15 seconds.  Add tomatoes, yogurt, salt and the fried potatoes (in one layer), and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer very gently, covered, for 35 minutes or until the potatoes are fully cooked.   (Do not let the gravy stick and burn.  If the gravy looks thin and runny, increase heat and then reduce once desired consistency is achieved.  If the gravy is too thick, add a few tablespoons of water.
  4. Add cream, stir, and simmer until heated through.  Check for salt and serve. 
Note:  This dish improves with keeping.  For best results, make a few hours before you are going to serve it.  It can be refrigerated for up to 4 days without loss of flavor.

You can make another dish to serve alongside the potatoes such as lentils with garlic butter, mung beans with mustard seed, stir-fried Okra or salad.  I served it with some left-over sesame patties and yogurt with a side salad.  Delish!!
Looking for Spices? Many speciality stores have online ordering in case you are looking for spices that are hard to find in your neighborhood. Here in New York, Kalustyans is a great resource for spices, grains and nut purchases. You can also try Sahadi's on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, though they specialize primarliy in Middle Eastern/Mediterranean spices. I like the Patel Brothers location on 74th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. Jackson Heights has the distinction of being the most diverse zip code on the planet (it's believed that 167 languages are spoken here) and you can find everything you need to prepare a fabulous Indian meal. 
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Revolutionary Food: Koshary (Kushary) El Tahrir

The most recent issue of Saveur features the "Chef 100," whereby 100 hundred well-known chefs gave readers their suggestions on food, restaurants, cooking utensils, cookbooks and unique ingredients. Though Anita Lo probably doesn't have a direct line to the newsroom, she recommended koshary - a vegetarian dish from Egypt that features pasta, lentils, chickpeas and onions. (It tastes wonderful when topped with tomato sauce and vinegar.) The koshary recipe she recommended originates from a little cafe in Cairo's Tahrir Square.  This is what Anita said about the ultimate Egyptian street food:
"Served in a plastic or metal bowl, the food is many shades of brown: a mixture of toasted pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, and fried onions — perhaps a staff meal creation of some hippie distance runner just enrolled at the Natural Gourmet cooking school. But pour on a little of the garlic-vinegar and tomato-pepper sauces that sit on every table, and you've got some seriously delicious comfort food. Complex, earthy flavors from the legumes mingle with toasty, nutty pasta and the rich, caramelized sweetness from the onions, all offset by the zingy sauces."
I was curious. I was also feeling somewhat humbled because I had never heard of koshary. How did I miss this popular Middle Eastern staple? I eat tons of Palestinian food and I'm very familiar with Lebanese, Syrian, Israeli (this recipe), Iraqi and Moroccan dishes. I guess Egypt's cuisine flew under my radar. My only exposure to Egyptian food was at Ali's Kebab Cafe in New York's Little Egypt on Steinway Street in Queens. (The Kebab Cafe features Alexandrian cuisine, so in addition to kebabs and meze platters, there are also dishes that infuse Greek and French influences - which is appropriate for a city with a history like Alexandria.)  I remember what we ate and koshary wasn't even on the menu (which is delivered orally).  
Well now I'm in-the-know. Here is one of Egypt's most famous street foods and my attempt to try something new...
Let's hope the revolution in the streets of Cairo (and throughout the country) help bring a vibrant and transparent democracy to the people of Egypt.
KOSHARY EL TAHRIR (Published in Saveur Magazine
4 oz. ditalini or macaroni, cooked
2 oz. spaghetti, cooked
4 oz. brown lentils, rinsed
Kosher salt, to taste
1 cup cooked basmati rice (optional)
1 cup canned chickpeas, drained
2 cups canola oil
1/4 cup flour
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes (I used an organic pureed tomato sauce because I prefer that texture) 
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar

Combine ditalini and spaghetti in a bowl; set aside. Put lentils and 4 cups water into a 2-qt. saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender, 20 minutes. Season lentils with salt, drain, and transfer to a bowl along with rice and chickpeas; set aside.
Heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Put flour into a bowl, add onions, and toss to coat. Working in 2 batches, add onions to hot oil and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and crisp, about 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer onions to paper towels to drain; reserve oil.
Spoon 4 tbsp. oil from skillet into a 2-qt. saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic, cumin, cayenne, and ginger; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add tomatoes and vinegar and bring to a simmer; cook for 5 minutes. Season with salt and remove from heat. To serve, divide pasta mixture between 4 bowls; top with lentil mixture and fried onions. Spoon tomato sauce over each bowl. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Departure: Puerto Rico (And a UNESCO World Heritage Site)

We just got back from an adults-only, 5 day trip to Puerto Rico. It was a fantastic vacation. I grew up in New York City and the islands aren't very far away, but for some reason I never made it down until now. I guess I didn't think it exotic enough (or maybe because it wasn't really far away, I never thought about it as a destination...) But our 16 month old was going to stay with his grandparents in Larchmont, so we couldn't venture too far and we needed some place relatively close (read: New Zealand was out!). 
Maybe it was all the billboards advertising Puerto Rico or the fact that my husband found really cheap tickets, but our destination was set: Old San Juan and the island of Vieques. 
The weather could not have been more perfect: 82 degrees and sunny every day we were there. We walked around Old San Juan, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, saw the forts, the various architectural styles at we ate...boy, did we eat. We had mallorcas (this recipe looks fantastic) at La Bombonera and Cafeteria Mallorca, as well as beans and rice, plantains and yucca. The mofongo and flan at El Jibarito were fantastic- classic island dishes that were big on flavor. My husband had ceviche and mahi-mahi that he said were terrific. We had salads dressed with passion fruit dressing, paellas, snow-cones and bean dips that were so delicious.   
The biggest treat, and hand-down the highlight of our trip, was kayaking in Vieques. We signed up for a night tour that took us to Mosquito Bay, which has the highest concentration of bioluminescence in the world. Every time our paddle hit the water, it would make a glowing ripple. Then we got to jump into the bay. Our bodies were aglow. Aglow! It looked like someone was shining a flashlight underneath us. It was a truly memorable and wonderful experience. 
The next day we took a publico (taxi) over to Red Beach. It was the most spectacular beach I'd ever been to (well, okay, there was some winners in Hawaii as well). Let's just say that Coney Island can't compete with this one. The waters were so pristine, so clear, so was amazing. No pollution, no trash - just gorgeous white sand and stunning water that we swam in for hours! Yes, hours. There was no undertow and that water was really calm. I did think about my friends and family stuck in another ice storm a few thousand miles away, but then the warm waters lapped at my feet...and I applied another coat of non-toxic sunscreen and closed my eyes:) 
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