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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Celebrating My 100th Post! A Drink and a Few Tips

I can't believe that I am at my 100th post! And what is a better than to celebrating it with a celebration drink recipe and also, providing a lot of tips and tricks that  I have come to rely on a daily basis.

I generally spend about 30-45 minutes on daily meals and try very hard to not spend more time. Family, work, and chores have higher priorities and my goal is to make healthy, tasty and wholesome meals in the minimum time possible. So I am sharing a few tips that come in handy and make the cooking process much easier. So, if you a beginner, don't despair, things just get easier.

If you are a beginner or just want to reduce time in the kitchen here are a few tips that will come handy.

Tip 1: Do preparation work over the weekend or when you have some free time. This includes things like chopping different vegetables and storing them in ziploc bags or boxes. Vegetables that last well in the fridge for 3-4 days are onions, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, cucumber.

Tip 2: You can knead dough and portion it out into appropriate quantities and then freeze it in an airtight container. It freezes beautifully. Then, thaw it during the day or overnight in the fridge, on the day you want to use it. Then prepare fresh rotis as needed.

Tip 3: If you don't want to roll out a lot of rotis on a daily basis, roll out the amount you need for 3-4 days and refrigerate. When you want to reheat, wrap it in a damp towel and then microwave for about 30 seconds. Serve the rotis hot, when they are soft. Try to minimize the number of times you re-heat for the freshest taste.

Tip 4: Plan ahead. Decide on a few menu options that you can prepare during the week. Then, make sure you buy the necessary items when you do your weekly grocery run. When you know what you are going to prepare that week, it's easier. You can decide on what kind of preparations you can do to facilitate the daily task.

Tip 5: A complete meal needs to have components like carbohydrates, protiens and vitamins. So, pick and combine different dishes,  so that you are including all these components in just a couple of dishes. Then you do not need to make elaborate or  multiple dishes to accomplish that. I will be putting together a list of various menus that you can use as a quick reference. Coming soon - watch out for it.

Tip 6: This is probably the most useful tip - use a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers are absolutely wonderful devices. They reduce cooking time is drastically. So if it's a recipe where there is a possibility, then do it. You will note how much time it helps you save. This is very noticable when you are cooking any kinds of beans, lentils or rice.

Finally here is the recipe I promised. This drink is the perfect accompaniment to any celebratory dinner.

Creamy Citrus Mocktail
1 cup orange juice
juice of 1 lemon
2-3 tbsp simple syrup
club soda
vanilla icecream
lemon slices

Mix together the orange juice, lemon and the simple syrup. Taste it to adjust the sweetness. Add more syrup if needed. When you are ready to serve it, pour the syrup and juice mixture into the glasses. Top it with some club soda (about 1/4 cup per glass) to create the fizz and then add a scoop of vanilla icecream to the drink. Garnish the glass with a slice of lemon.

Enjoy with your celebratory dinner. Also seen in these photos - Boondi Raita, Shahi Palak Biryani and Apple Cobbler.

To make simple syrup, heat 1 cup of water and dissolve one cup of sugar in it. Turn off the heat once the sugar is dissolved and let it cool. Simple syrup is ready.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Healthy Oatmeal Cookies - An Oxymoron? - Maybe not!

The last thing I think of while devouring... umm eating cookies, is "healthy eating". Cookies translate to something sweet and decadent. At this point, you are probably wondering - what's up with this title then! Please read on. I enjoy cookies as much as the next person, but I also feel guilty after eating them (what's the saying? once on the lips, forever.... ).  It so happens that I run down to the cafe a couple of times a week, to get an afternoon snack, but faced with limited options, I end up getting chips or cookies. This just adds to my guilt. So, finally I decided it would be a better idea if I made cookies with healthy ingredients, cut back on the sugar and fat. Homemade is the best right? So, I used oatmeal, whole wheat flour, wheat bran and apple sauce. The end result was healthy and akin to granola bars. The texture is more on the "cracker" side because I baked them till they were well browned and no longer soft. (Of course you can stop when they are cooked through if you like soft cookies.) Now, there is no guilt, I can indulge and  it is a great to go breakfast. Tasty, filling and sweet minus the decadence. The best part is that my family loved it too.

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 tbsp wheat bran
2 cups rolled oats (not the quick 1 min cook ones)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup raisins

Grease a cookie sheet/ baking sheet and heat the oven to 350F. Sieve together the whole wheat pastry flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the wheat bran and mix with a whisk. In another bowl, whisk together the egg and vanilla extract. To it add the melted butter, apple sauce, both sugars and mix well. To this add the wheat flour mixture and stir till ingredients are mixed. Then fold in the rolled oats. Using an icecream scoop or two spoons, scoop a little mixture into small dollops onto the sheet. Make sure you leave a couple inches between the dollops, as the cookies will expand while baking. Bake the cookies for about 20-30 minutes or more till they are brown. I baked them till they were well browned and dry. If you prefer soft cookies, stop baking when they are light brown and cooked through.

You can substitute the white sugar with brown sugar as well. The cookies will be a little less sweet. Brown sugar is white sugar mixed with molasses. I am not sure how much healthier it is compared to white sugar, but the resultant dishes are definitely  less sweet.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Idli - Steamed Rice and Urad Dal Cakes

This is probably the easiest recipe to start off with to make your foray into the world of batter, idli and dosa. Another advantage -  possessing a high wattage blender is not a requirement to make this recipe. Urad dal, one of the components, can be easily ground in regular blenders. The other main component is idli rava. This can be easily found in your local Indian grocery store or online. This is my mother-in-law's recipe and results in delicious idlis. You can also use the dosa batter to make idli (see tips below). The main difference between idli and dosa batters is the consistency of the batter, before it is used to make the end product. For dosa, the batter needs to be thinned out, like crepe batter. For idlis the batter needs to be thicker, the consistency should be similar to cake batter. This idli batter can also be used to make uttapas, which are rice pancakes with vegetables, but that's another post.

1 cup urad dal
2 cups idli rava

Idli stand

Soak the urad dal with enough water to cover the dal and with about 1 inch of water above the urad dal. This needs to be soaked for about 6-8 hours or overnight. Then grind the urad dal to a very fine paste. As you grind it fine, it will become fluffy and will have a soft texture. You need to grind it fine enough, so that it resembles whipped up eggs or whipped cream. Then take the idli rava and add enough water to it so that it is wet. I generally add water to the bowl with the idli rava, mix the two together and drain excess water using a strainer. Then add this idli rava to the urad dal. Mix them well together. If the mixture is very thick, add some water so that it is easy to mix the two ingredients together. Take care when you add water to make sure that you don't make the batter too watery. Then place this batter in a warm place for 6-8 hours/overnight to ferment.

When the batter has fermented, mix it well. Add some water if it's thickened. The consistency should be thick but the batter should easily fall when you use a spoon to scoop it up and let it fall back into the bowl. Add salt to the batter before you begin cooking your idlis. A very important piece of equipment to make idlis is an "Idli Stand". This is used to shape the batter into individual idlis. Grease the idli stand moulds with a little oil. Then add a scoop of batter to each mould. Steam this for about 15 minutes. I time it for 15 minutes once I see the water boiling and steam coming out of the steamer. I generally use a pressure cooker and steam the idlis in it (see tips).

The idlis will rise as they cook and will become light and fluffy.  To check if the idli is cooked, prick the center of one idli with a knife and it will come out fairly clean. Generally, a little idli may get stuck, but it should not be raw batter. Once cooked, unmould using a spoon or knife. Serve with chutney and sambar.

If you decide to use the dosa batter, make idlis when the batter is fresh. As the batter ages, the idlis will not rise that well and will start becoming denser. To steam idlis in the pressure cooker, follow the instructions on your cooker. If you have a cooker with a whistle, remove the whistle. Make sure that you add enough water, so that it doesn't evaporate completely during the cooking process. If you don't have an idli stand, an alternate is to use small steel bowls which are safe to use for steaming.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Coconut Chutney

Coconut chutney is an absolute must when eating dosa or idli. One can get always get away with dry chutneys called "podis" or even  ketchup. But if you want to have an authentic experience, fresh coconut chutney is the only way to go. It is a very easy recipe. The only time consuming portion of the recipe would be processing the coconut. However, I have a couple of short cuts listed in the tips below that will make this task easy and fast.  

Half a coconut, fresh, grated or sliced into pieces (you can use frozen, grated coconut as well)
1-2 green chillies
1/4 cup of roasted gram (dall)
salt to taste
water to grind the above ingredients into chutney
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp urad dal
1 green chilli, cut into small pieces
1/8 tsp mustard seeds/rai
3-4 curry leaves
a pinch of asafoetida/hing
Grind together the coconut, green chillies, roasted gram and salt.  Add enough water so that the ingredients are easily ground together to form the chutney. It takes about 1/4th cup of water in my blender. In a small pan, heat the oil. Add the mustard seeds. Once they begin to crackle and pop, add the urad dal, curry leaves, asafoetida and chilli. Once the urad dal turns light brown, pour this seasoning over the chutney. Mix well. Serve with dosa and idli.

I have used frozen, grated coconut to make chutneys before. However I have noted that the frozen coconut tends to spoil very fast if not used in a couple of weeks after buying it. Also, the chutney texture is not very nice. It does not blend well and the oil tends to separate and rise to the surface as the ingredients are ground together. So, these days I make chutney with fresh coconut. Often times, I will buy a couple of coconuts when I have time to process it. I remove the coconut from the shell, and slice it into small pieces. I then heat these pieces in the microwave or on the stove for a minute. Once they cool, I pack these into ziploc bags and freeze them. This method ensures that the frozen coconut lasts for at least 4-6 weeks in the freezer. Whenever I need to make chutney, I remove these slices and either thaw them before processing or use the "ice crush" setting on my blender to make the chutney. I use the cusinart 600 W blender, which does a great job of processing the coconut. To thaw the coconut, use the thaw option on your microwave or thaw it for a few hours in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Masala Dosa - Crepes with Potato Filling

As a kid I used to love plain dosa also known as "sadha" dosa. In fact the only thing I ate when we dined out . It was later, during middle school years that I started liking masala dosa. What makes a dosa "masala" dosa, is the addition of potato curry to the dosa. The combination is absolutely delicious and a complete meal. So, if you want to introduce someone to masala dosa, try this great recipe.  Enjoy!

The method to make the dosa and the perfect dosa batter is here.

For the dosa batter
See perfect dosa batter recipe

For the potato curry
3-4 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and chopped into cubes
salt to taste
2 tbsp oil
1/8 tsp mustard/rai seeds
1/8 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp urad dal
pinch of asafoetida
5-6 curry leaves (optional)
1/8 tsp turmeric powder
salt to taste
cilantro to garnish, chopped

To make the potato curry filling
Heat the oil in a pan. Add the mustard and cumin seeds. Once they start to crackle, add the asafoetida, curry leaves, and urad dal. Let it cook till the urad dal is lightly brown. Add the add the potatoes, then the turmeric. Stir so that the turmeric is well mixed in and the potatoes are coated. Cook this for a a few minutes. Garnish with chopped cilantro.
To make the dosa
See perfect dosa batter recipe
Once the dosa has been cooked on both sides, flip it back so the side that was cooked first and is browned is down on the pan and the side cooked later is on top. Then add 1/4th cup of potato curry on the center of the dosa. Then fold one side of the dosa and then the other like closing a flap. The masala dosa is ready. Serve hot with chutney and sambar.

Don't over cook the potato when boiling it, else the potato curry will become mushy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Perfect Dosa - Rice and Urad Dal Crepes

Dosa or dosai is a thin crepe which is a staple in all south Indian homes. In many homes, it is eaten as a breakfast dish and often times serves as a perfect snack, very healthy and filling. Over the last couple of decades, it has become one of the most popular menu items in restaurants all over India. In fact I must say it is probably one of the most popular exports from India, as popular if not more than the ubiquitous palak paneer and chicken tikka masala.

I must confess that until a couple of months ago, I could not make dosa batter. My main challenge - grinding the batter to the right consistency. The rice and urad dal must be very ground very fine. It needs to be very smooth so when you feel it between your fingers, it should feel like paste. You shouldn't be able to feel the grain at all. This entails grinding the rice and dal very fine, which in turn means that you must have a good blender. My previous blender did a pretty good job with the dal but could not grind the rice to a smooth consistency. I often thought that I may have to get a wet grinder to make the batter or a processor from India. However, I recently discovered that my cuisinart blender does a fantastic job. So, if you are having similar challenges and don't want to get a very expensive specialized gadget just for this job, go for a high wattage blender.  Another very important step is to make sure that the batter is fermented. This makes the batter light and the crispy. See the tips below for tricks to make sure that the batter ferments during the cold winter season.

Now, I make dosa batter a couple of times a month.  It lasts for about one week and is very handy. It is the perfect life saver when I come home and don't have the energy to cook a complete meal.

Special thanks to my friend AG for sharing tips and showing me how she makes dosa.

1 cup urad dal (split and washed, so it doesn't have the black peel/skin)
3 cups idly rice (this is parboiled rice. I have tried parboiled rice from a local store before, but the end result was a very sticky batter. So I went back to using rice marked as "Idli/Idly" rice from the Indian store. If you cannot find idli rice, use regular rice)
1 tsp fenugreek seeds/ methi seeds
water, enough to soak the grains
salt to taste (to use when making the dosa)

Soak the rice with enough water to cover the rice and then add some more water so that there is about an inch of water above the level of the rice. Add the methi seeds to this.  In another vessel, soak the urad dal with enough water to soak the dal, again about an inch of water above the dal. Let the rice and dal soak for about 6-7 hours. Grind the rice to a fine paste, as fine as you can. Grind the urad dal till it's soft, smooth and fluffy. The dal becomes very fluffy as it gets finer. After this, mix the two batters together. The consistency of the ground batter should be slightly thick and not watery. It should be similar to cake batter consistency, a little thinner is also ok. Add water to the batter to make sure the consistency is correct. Then cover this and allow it to rest overnight or for about 7-8 hours. At the end of the 8 hours, the batter will have risen a little and will become light and fluffy. Store this in the fridge. You can use a little at a time to make the dosa.

When you make the dosa, take about 2 cups of batter, to this add the water to thin out the batter. This batter should be crepe consistency, so that when you pour it, it flows easily. Add a little salt at this stage, before you make the dosa.

To make the dosa
Add a couple of drops of oil to a non stick pan and grease it. The pan should be hot when you pour the batter. Then, take a ladle full of batter and pour it out onto the center of then pan. Then using the base of the ladle, move the your hand in a circular movement (one direction only- clockwise/anti-clockwise) and move the batter out from the center towards the edge of the pan. Cover the dosa, for a few minutes. Then, uncover and cook till you can the dosa being released from the edges of the pan. The dosa will be light brown at this stage. You can let it brown a little  bit more if you want. Then flip it over and cook it on the other side for a minute. Serve hot with sambar or chutney.

There are many tips interspersed in the instructions above, so read the method above to prepare the batter . To ferment the batter, especially during winter, keep the batter in the oven (without turning it on), with just the oven light on. Another method, is to cover your batter with a couple of kitchen towels so that as the batter ferments, the temperature is maintained and the container doesn't become cold. If it's really cold, use both, the oven light in conjunction with covering the batter container with the towels. This ensures that the batter is well fermented even if the temperature in the house is at about 60-65 Farenheit.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Methi Paratha - Thepla - Fenugreek Tortilla

While growing up, we used to grow fenugreek/methi at home very often. Fenugreek seeds are often used as a spice and so the pantry was always well stocked with these. It is an easy crop to grow. It takes about a couple of weeks for the plants to grow to about 6-8 inches at which point one would harvest it. I haven't grown this for the last few years, however I do come across it once in a while in the local Asian store. I usually make a stir fry or parathas/tortillas using the fenugreek leaves. These make a great travel food as they last for a couple of days without needing refrigeration. Also, if you freeze these tortillas, they will last you upto a few weeks.

1 bunch of fenugreek/methi leaves, about 1 cup of leaves, chopped
red chilli powder to taste
salt to taste
1 cup besan/gram/chickpea flour
whole wheat flour - enough to knead the dough
1/8 tsp turmeric
water to knead the dough
2 tbsp oil
few tbsps oil to cook

Mix together the chickpea/besan flour, methi leaves, wheat flour, salt, chilli powder and turmeric. To this add 2 tbsp of oil and then add a little water at a time till the dough is formed. The resultant dough should be soft and easy to roll out. Take about a fist full of dough at a time and form a round ball (approximately 2 inches in diameter). Then roll it out into a flat disc till its about 6 inches in size and about 1/8 inch in thickness. It shouldn't be rolled out too thin else the tortilla will tear when you lift it up. Then roast the tortilla on one side till slightly cooked. Flip it over, add a little oil to the pan and let this side cook completely. Then flip it back and cook the partially cooked side completely. Serve with some yogurt or raita and pickle.

Keep the dough covered with a damp (not wet) cloth so that the dough doesn't dry out. Parathas are generally served with yogurt dips, pickle, butter and even ketchup. If you freeze the parathas, just put in the microwave and thaw or reheat in a pan on stovetop.