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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Arugula with Pear, Cranberry and Celery - A Delicious Salad

The first time I had arugula salad was in a restaurant. Till then I hadn't really eaten this green on it's own. I had always encountered it in a mix of different leaves. I found that the leaves had a very interesting and spicy flavor. I had always heard various chefs on the television shows describe it as peppery and that description always flummoxed me. How could a leaf taste like pepper? Well, I finally ate an arugula leaf unadulterated by dressings or other veggies and found that it did have a spiciness to it and  "peppery" was a pretty good description.

I made this salad with a very simple vinaigrette, a drizzle of olive olive and vinegar. As a result, the spiciness of the arugula and red onion, the sweetness of the pear and tartness of the dried cranberries is highlighted.  These ingredients play very well with each. You can also dress the salad with some Parmesan cheese shavings.

1 pack arugula leaves (about 3-4 handfuls are enough to serve 2-3 people)
1 pear, sliced
1/4 cup dry and sweetened cranberries
1 stalk of celery, diced
1/4 red onion, sliced into thin and long slices, with the layers separated
1 tsp vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste

Whisk the oil and vinegar together and add a little salt and pepper to this dressing. Toss arugula, pears, celery, onion slices and cranberries together. Pour a little dressing and toss together to coat the salad. Add just enough dressing so that the salad is well coated. Serve as a first course or you can even have it as a light meal with a side of bread.

Though the arugula comes pre-washed, I always rinse out my greens before using in a salad. Then I put them through a spinner to drain the water out. If you don't have salad spinner, then take a thin cotton cloth, place the greens in the cloth, and gather all the edges so that you get a nice package and then holding these ends together, move your arm in a circular manner and shake the water out of the greens. This will get absorbed in the cotton cloth. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Rasam/Rassam - A Spicy, Warm Soup

Rasam is an absolutely delicious Indian soup, which is often lentil based. It is a staple in the southern states of India and just like dal preparation, you will find a different recipe in every home. It is one of my favorite foods. It is the perfect appetizer soup to start your dinner with. Generally, it has a consistency similar to clear soups, however I do end up making it thicker, as I enjoy this with a bowl of white rice topped with some ghee. It is often prepared when someone at home is feeling a bit under the weather and is down with a cold or cough. This recipe has a lot of black pepper and garlic and provides a comforting feeling when you sip it. The spiciness helps clear up the sinuses too. I still remember the time when I was really sick and a neighbor had dropped in to say hello. She was back soon with a bowl of piping hot and spicy rasam and it really cheered me up.

Of course, I don't have to be sick to enjoy a bowl. I make this really often. I used to use the ready made spice mix to prepare rasam until a good friend gave me her recipe. Ever since then, I have been making this wonderful recipe. It is really easy and delicious and perfect for this cold weather.

1 tsp jeera/cumin seeds
1/2 - 1 tsp black peppercorns, adjust to taste
2-4 garlic cloves, adjust to taste
2 tsp ghee(clarified butter)/oil
1-2 green/red chillies, to taste
7-8 curry leaves
1/8 tsp mustard seeds
1 pinch hing/asafoetida powder
1 tbsp cooked tur dal (pigeon peas) (optional) - see tips section for cooking instructions
1 tomato, diced
salt to taste
1/2 tsp tamarind paste
2 cups water (500 ml)

Dry roast the cumin seeds and peppercorns, till they are fragrant. Grind these into a coarse powder and then add the garlic pods to it and grind them together to make a paste.
In a deep pot, heat the ghee and add mustard seeds to it. Once they start cracking, add the hing, curry leaves, chillies and paste and roast it till the garlic gets cooked, about a minute. Do not let it brown.
Add the diced tomatoes and  cook till softened. Then add the cooked lentil, stir and add the water. Once it starts to boil, add the tamarind paste and salt.  Let it boil for a couple of minutes. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve hot.

If you want, you can completely skip the lentils and add another tomato instead. You can also make it thicker by adding more cooked lentils. I generally like it thicker like sambar or dal, so that I can eat it with white rice as part of the main course rather than a soup. In that case, I add about 1 cup of lentil instead of 1 tbsp. Also, I increase the amount of the salt, tamarind paste and if I want it spicy, I also add more peppercorns to the paste and increase the number of garlic pods to 4 instead of 2.
You can also add a tsp of ready made rasam masala powder to the rasam after adding the cooked lentils for a slightly different taste. I usually use the MTR brand rasam masala powder that can be found in the Indian grocery store.
To cook the lentils, I use a pressure cooker. I use double the amount of water to cook the lentils. So for example if I have 1 cup of pigeon peas (tur dal), I will use 2 cups of water.  Wash the lentils three times. Then, add the water to the lentils. Next I add 1/8th tsp of turmeric and a pinch of asafoetida powder and then pressure cook the lentils till they are completely cooked through and soft. It takes about 3-5 whistles (10-15 mins) based on the type of cooker I use.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mexican Pizza

I have so many photos now, that I am having a hard time trying to decide which recipe to post next. And, as I backup and archive these photos, some recipes are slipping away from memory. So, I am going to try and jot down notes when I cook, so that when I finally post the recipe, I am able to remember all the details.

I am sure that you are wondering what a Mexican pizza is. Is the base made from tortillas or do I top it with salsa? Well, this is an inspiration from a pizza that I have eaten at a restaurant called "California Pizza Kitchen". It is a delicious and flavorful pizza. The pizza has a traditional base and has a thinner crust than the usual one inch crust pizzas. It it topped with blackbeans, tomatoes and onions and green lettuce. And finally the topping of tortilla chips lends the crunchy texture. So every time you bite down into a slice, you hear a nice satisfying crunch. Well, one day I decided to reverse engineer this dish and see if I could create a similar taste. The challenge was to find the right spices to create that similar and oh so tasty flavor. The end result was very close to the original. My family enjoyed it and I got great feedback from the fact that we polished off the entire pizza in one sitting. So, make this the next time your family can't decide on whether to eat Italian or Mexican. This is one tasty alternative which will satisfy everyone.

1 prebaked pizza base OR
pizza dough for 1 pizza
2 cups soaked and cooked black beans, alternately you can use one can of black beans
4 tomatoes, diced (or use canned tomatoes)
green chillies or jalapeno, to taste
1/8th tsp, cumin powder/jeera powder
salt to taste
1/2 onion, diced
1/4 green bell pepper, diced
1/4 yellow bell pepper, diced
1/4 red bell pepper, diced
3-4 green leaf lettuce leaves, sliced into thick ribbons
2-3 green onion stalks and leaves, diced
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (can use any other cheese blend)
1/4 tsp sugar, optional
10 tortilla chips, crushed into bite size pieces or you can use tortilla strips
2 tbsp sour cream, adjust to taste

If you are using pizza dough, then roll out the dough to the desired thickness and blank bake (see tips) the pizza till the base is cooked through for about 10-15 minutes at 450 F. This prevents the pizza from getting soggy. While your pizza dough is getting baked, mix together the tomatoes, chillies and add salt. If the tomatoes are sour, add a little sugar. Cook this mixture down, till a thick sauce is created. You will not need a lot of sauce, just enough to cover the pizza base.
Then, heat the cooked black beans, add the cumin powder to this and some salt.
Now, you are ready to assemble the pizza.

Take your prebaked pizza base. Then spread a layer of the tomato sauce. Next spread a generous layer of the black beans. Then, sprinkle the diced onions and bell peppers as the next layer. Finally, add the layer of cheese.  Then, bake the pizza at 350F for 10 minutes or till the cheese has melted completely.

Take it out of the oven. Then, cover it with lettuce, green onion leaves and tortilla chips. Finally, drizzle a layer of sour cream on the pizza.

Serve hot with some salsa on the side.

You can find an easy to make pizza dough recipe here. You can also find pizza dough at grocery stores these days or even request a pizza restaurant to sell you some. Blank baking, means baking the pizza base without any toppings. This is to cook the pizza base, so that the pizza doesn't get soggy in the center. You can also blank bake the pizza base a couple of days earlier and then use this base when you are ready to add the toppings. Prick the dough before you bake it, else it will puff up. Else, you can place a foil on top of the rolled dough and cover it with some baking weights or beans and then blank bake the base.
If you are using canned beans, make sure to rinse them out before using it. Also, add a little water (a tablespoon or so) to the beans as you cook them with the cumin powder and salt.
If you are starting with dry black beans, then soak them overnight. Next day, pressure cook these till completely cooked and slightly softened. You can add some salt to the beans when you cook them. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Oats and Whole Wheat Bread

The last month was filled with cooking a lot of Diwali sweets and snacks. I also made cakes for a couple of birthday parties. It was a great month. We ate a lot of great food and had fun with all the different celebrations. However, in the midst of all this activity, I just didn't get time to do any leisurely baking. I had been wanting to bake bread, but I just didn't get to it. I have been wanting to make some whole wheat breads, and I finally got to bake a loaf  last weekend. This is a recipe from the book "Whole Grain Baking" and the first one that I tried from it. Considering the success of this recipe, I am looking forward to trying the other bread recipes from this book. Since, all the recipes in this book include whole grains, they should be healthy as well.

This bread recipe contains whole wheat flour as well as rolled oats. It turns out very delicious and moist. A perfect sandwich bread.

1 and 1/4 cups boiling water
1 cup old fashioned rolled oat (not the quick cooking ones)
2 tbps unsalted butter, cut into 3 pieces
1.5 tsps salt
1/4 cup honey
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 and 2/3 cups unbleached all purpose flour/maida
1/4 cup milk powder
2 tsps instant yeast
some oil to grease the bowl and pan
1-1/2 tsp melted butter (optional)

Mix together the oats, salt, honey and butter and pour the boiling water and stir. Let the mixture cool to a lukewarm temperature. This will semi cook and soften the oats. Also, make sure that the temperature is lukewarm and you can easily dip your finger (clean) in the mixture and hold it for a minute without burning it. If it is not cool enough and you add the yeast, the yeast die.
Then add the flours, milk powder, yeast into this mixture and knead the dough. Knead well till the dough is soft and smooth. If you are doing this by hand then you will need about 10-15 minutes kneading time. Shape the dough into a ball.

To see step by step photographs of the process see the Whole Wheat Bread recipe.

Then, place this in a well oiled bowl and roll the dough in the bowl, so that the dough is lightly covered with oil. Then, cover the bowl with a plastic wrap and let the dough rise till it has doubled in size. This will take about an hour to an hour and half, depending on the ambient temperature.

Then, deflate the dough and shape it into a log which can fit in your rectangular bread pan. Now cover this lightly with a plastic wrap and let the dough rise again till it has doubled in size, which will take another hour to hour and half.

Preheat the oven to 350 and bake the bread on the center rack in the oven for about 45 minutes.  After 20 minutes have passed, check and if you see that the top has lightly browned, then take a piece of aluminium foil (large enough to cover the pan), fold it in the center to create a crease, then  open it up and create a tent on top of the baking tin. Let the bread bake for the next 25 minutes, covered with foil.

Take the bread out of the oven and set to cool for 5 minutes before removing it from the tin. If you want, you can lightly brush the entire bread with some butter. This will help retain the moisture and keep it soft and moist.  Slice it as you go.

Yeast should never be added to hot water or hot mixtures, as that will kill the yeast. If you are not sure, add the yeast to room temperature ingredients. If the temperature in the room is very cold, it will take longer for the dough to rise. You can keep the dough in the oven, with its light on to provide the warmth for the yeast, so that the bread will rise. Else, add additional time to the rising process. The key to look for is, if the dough has doubled in size. Similarly, if the room temperature is really warm (think hot summer weather), then you may need just 45 mins or an hour for the dough to complete doubling in size. For photos on how to shape the dough into a loaf after the first rise, see the Whole Wheat bread recipe.