Tip #1 – Spongy Soft Idlis

Making soft idlis used to be a pet peeve of mine for many years. Whenever my idlis would not turn out super soft enough for me to press my finger into one of them and watch it bounce back to shape, I had an excuse ready. The shopkeeper sold me an old batch of urad dal. The idli rava wasn’t fine enough. The water was hard and had excess salts. The batter didn’t ferment well because the weather-man predicted warm weather, but he was wrong!! Until many years ago, I was frustrated enough to give up making them for good, but my mother came to my rescue. “Just add a couple of spoons of cooked rice to your dal and grind it into the batter”, is what she told me.  “It aids in the fermentation process, creating more air, thus making your idlis super soft”, she added. And she was right! I also found out that adding salt after the batter ferments is better for fermentation, as salt can retard the process if the environmental conditions are not perfect. And yes, don’t forget to add a teaspoon of fenugreek (methi) seeds before soaking the urad dal.

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Baked Colocasia (Arbi)

While growing up, I remember my father used to grow an ornamental plant called “elephant ears” or  “keladis” in our garden. I hated the sight of it, just because aesthetically, the huge dark green or purple leaves looked overgrown and huge, hideously ugly (in my opinion) and totally out of place in a garden bright with gorgeous balsam blooms in every color one can imagine. In fact, I have memories of wild keladis growing along railway lines in many parts of northern India. How I wished I could just rip them out of the soil and dispose of them permanently. Then, around the time of monsoons, a delightful root vegetable called arbi (colocasia) would suddenly appear in the local subzi mandi (farmer’s market). My father took me once with him and I nearly had a fit when he asked the hawker to weigh and pack half a kilo of elephant ears and a kilo of a funny looking root vegetable. Little did I know then that the edible colocasia and the ornamental keladis belonged to the same genus. Needless to say that my mind was made up not to touch colocasia when my mother cooked it. It looked disgusting!!

The same evening, my  mother made steamed and fried fritters out of the leaves (pathorhe) using gram flour and spices. It looked crunchy and delicious. Hesitantly, I tried a small piece. It was delicious!! I suspected it was made out of the elephant ears my father had bought, but I was too afraid to ask and confirm, should my distaste overwhelm my liking for this new found snack my mother had made. A couple of days later she made a deep fried side dish out of the roots by boiling and slicing them first. I still remember how we kids pounced on it, hardly leaving any for her. That day she converted me, and gave a new meaning to the proverb – don’t judge a book by it’s cover. While I still don’t care to plant elephant ears in my garden to date, I do make it a point to buy colocasia whenever I find it in our local global food mart. The variety of colocasia that we get here is quite different than what we get in India. The roots are a lot firmer, and despite boiling them well, they don’t get overdone and mushy, which I realized was a good thing, and bad! The upside was that peeling the skin off after boiling is a breeze, but the downside is that the root is not very soft and needs to be cooked for a little bit longer to made it soft enough to eat.

Earlier I used to cook it the way my mother made it – by boiling colocasia in a pressure cooker, peeling the skin off, slicing them into 1/2 inch discs, deep frying them in hot oil, and seasoning with just salt, black or red pepper, and a pinch of asafoetida. Over the years, I’ve gotten more health conscious and try to modify the cooking process as much as possible without compromising the taste too much. This recipe is very low fat, and while it doesn’t taste deep fried, it still has some crispness to it. My children who are picky when it comes to something new even went for second helpings. I have tried two versions – sliced and whole colocasia and prefer the latter due to the least consumption of oil. For entertaining though, I would definitely slice them. After all, a little bit more oil is a better option than a loadful!

Ingredients

(serves 4-6)

  • 8 colocasia roots
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1-2 tsps oil for coating (I use cooking spray)
  • ½ tsp red chili powder
  • ½ tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 sprig of curry leaves
  • 1 tsp oil for tempering
  • pinch of asafoetida

Method

Boil the colocasia roots in a pressure cooker till well cooked but not mushy. You can test whether the root has been cooked by piercing it with a knife. I usually find it a pain to pressure boil vegetables. So I popped all the roots in a microwaveable plastic bag, made a knot and ran it on high for about 10 minutes, checking first at 5 minutes, then every 2 minutes thereafter. Let the colocasia cool down before peeling. The skin comes off in a breeze.  At this point it is up to you to leave the roots intact, or cut them in half or ½ cm slices. Remember that the smaller you cut them, more the oil consumption. In a large bowl, take 1-2 tsp of oil, salt, red chili, and colocasia and mix to thoroughly coat each piece. Leave aside for the flavors to penetrate for about 30 mins. Preheat oven to 375 ºF. Place in a single layer on an aluminum foil lined tray or oven safe dish. Bake for about 30 minutes, turning over every 10 minutes. If the colocasia seems to dry out, spray with a little cooking spray. Baking ensures complete cooking before charring under a broiler. Turn the broiler on and broil for an additional 10 minutes or till all sides are brown and crisp.

Now in a small pan, add 1 tsp of oil and heat. Add mustard seeds to splutter, followed by curry leaves and asafetida. Once the curly leaves are crisp, toss in the colocasia and stir to coat. Dress up with more salt and red chili powder if required. Serve as a side dish to rice and dal.

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Baked Eggplant (Begun Bhaja)

Who doesn’t like eggplant? It’s one of those vegetables (like the mighty spud) that is so versatile, that even simply salted and cooked with a couple spices really brings out it’s flavor. This is a very popular dish from West Bengal. ‘Begun’ is Bangla for eggplant or ‘Baingan’, and ‘Bhaja’ means ‘fried’. Traditionally deep fried in mustard oil, it’s not something most people take to the first time. And while it is delicious to eat, it is super-packed with unwanted calories, especially since eggplant is notorious for soaking up oil like a sponge. Blotting the oil out using kitchen towels really doesn’t solve the excess grease issue, since a lot of oil resides in the soft flesh after deep frying. I have been using a much less calorie laden recipe for years, and decided it tastes almost as good as the traditional recipe. No, let me rephrase that. It tastes a lot better! The sweet taste of success (at cutting down unwanted calories), and much lighter on the stomach!!

Ingredients

(serves 4-6)

  • 1 large purple eggplant
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder (haldi)
  • ½ tsp red chilli powder
  • ½ tsp mango powder (amchoor)
  • 2 tsp mustard or vegetable or olive oil (I use cooking spray)

Method

Wash the eggplant and cut the top off. Slice the eggplant into discs about ½ inch thick. Keep them in water to prevent oxidation while cutting. Drain the eggplants and place in a large bowl. Add salt, turmeric,  red chilli powder and mango powder. Sprinkle a few drops of water and coat the spices well over each disc. Cover and let marinate for about 30 minutes. Now place the discs on a greased flat ovenproof tray without overlapping. I find that a non-stick track or shallow pyrex dish  works well. Cover the tray/dish with aluminum foil and bake at 350 ºF on both sides till soft.This usually takes about 30-40 minutes. Prick with a fork to make sure the eggplant is cooked. Then take the eggplant out of the oven. In a nonstick griddle or frying pan, add 1-2 tsp of oil and place the discs gently to crisp on both sides. I have tried broiling the eggplants in the oven as well, but they just don’t come out right somehow and end up too dry. If you have access to cooking spray, it evenly spreads across food and a little goes a long way. Once done, season with more salt and red chilli powder if desired. As a variation, I often sprinkle some chaat masala on top before serving. Enjoy as a side dish with rotis, gourmet Indian breads or rice.

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Oatmeal Dosa

If anyone ever took a peek in my fridge, they would more often than not find a large bowl of some sort of dosa batter ready. I love dosa. In any form. It is one of those foods that I like to eat in peace…just sitting alone in the breakfast room with a plate of crispy dosas accompanied with chutney or pickle, my regular cup of black earl grey or english breakfast tea and savoring every morsel as I read the morning news.

Over the years, my cooking has taken a somewhat healthier approach towards choosing ingredients that won’t alter the taste of a dish too much. And given that dosa is a very frequent affair for me at breakfast or lunch, the idea of using oatmeal instead of just rice and urad dal sounded really appealing! Who would have known that the bland oatmeal would stand proud and tall in keeping both the nutritional value and taste of the humble carb-laden original. And the best part is, fermenting the batter is a lot easier than the traditional dosa batter, and there was no compromising on the crispiness of the final outcome!

Ingredients

For the batter

  • 2 cups oatmeal flakes
  • 1 cup rice (any variety like parboiled, jasmine or sona masoori)
  • 1/2 cup  urad dal
  • 1.5 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds (optional)
  • ½ tsp freshly cracked black pepper (optional)
  • ½ tsp red chilli pepper flakes (optional)
  • refined oil or spray for shallow frying

Method

Soak oatmeal in enough water to cover it. Separately soak rice and urad dal together. After 4-5 hours, grind the rice and urad dal together using the same water it was soaked in. Save the excess water for adjusting the consistency of the batter later. Grind the oatmeal. There is no need to add more water. Being already soaked, it grinds easily without additional water. Now mix the two batters together, add salt and give it a good stir to mix everything well together. Adjust the consistency of the batter using the saved water from before. The batter should be rather thick but easy to pour. Cover and set aside in a warm place to ferment. If the weather is cool and you have an oven, preheat the oven to 350º F , switch off and then set the batter, covered and undisturbed, in the oven to ferment overnight or for at least 8 hours. Keep an eye on the batter after 8 hours. Oatmeal ferments so fast that it can actually bubble up, spill over and make a real mess inside your oven. Not good!! A good indicator of the batter being ready is the slightly sour smell that you will get when you lift the cover. Once fermented, you can set this batter in the fridge and prepare fresh dosas as and when needed. The batter keeps well for up to 6 days in winter and about 4 in summer.

Before preparing dosas, add jeera, red chilli flakes and coarsely crushed black pepper. You can make plain dosas too, but I just find that adding these spices always gives the dosa that extra oomph of flavor. If the batter seems too thick, add a little water to make it of a pancake consistency. Heat a pre-greased tawa, move the tawa off the flame and pour the batter in the center of the tawa using a soup ladle.  Quickly but steadily, spread the batter outwards in a circular motion. Put the tawa back on a medium flame, and roast the dosa. Almost immediately you will see bubbles appearing all over the dosa. Pour 1/2 a tsp of oil
along the edges of the dosa and over the dosa. I usually use cooking spray as it covers the dosa in a fine mist and the amount used per dosa is much less. When you see the edges of the dosa come off the tawa easy, gently ease the dosa off and turn it over. Cook on the other side for a few minutes. Fold into half and serve hot with pickle, chutney, sambhar or vegetable stew. Yummylicious!

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Tofu Parantha

For most of us vegetarians, finding protein rich meat substitutes is always a dilemma. While lentils and dals do serve their purpose, a cup or two everyday just is not enough to supplement the 56 gm and 46 gm requirement for most men and women, respectively. For instance, 1 cup of toor dal (serving 4 cups of dal after cooking, and a regular cup size being 250 ml) has a protein content of about 45 gm. You do the math! Other protein sources such as milk (1/2 cup of 2% dairy milk contains 5.1 gms of protein) and eggs (one 3 oz egg contains 6 grams) fall really short on the protein scale. By comparison, 1/2 a cup of raw tofu (soybean curd) contains 10.1 gms of protein. Apart from that, it is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol as well. And lot much healthier than paneer, which most indians relish! Rather bland in taste, it does need a bit of creativity and perking up with spices and seasonings to make it edible for most people. Plus it’s a great milk substitute for people suffering from lactose intolerance.

Sadly, my family has an aversion towards tofu. The mere mention of it in the past has made me mourn the premature demise of a healthy dish. Not much of a fan of it myself, but wanting to incorporate it’s use in my cooking, I was determined to find a way to make something delicious out of it. Recently, a friend of mine told me that she made paranthas with tofu. I had heard about tofu paranthas before, but never actually tried making it due to my fear of wasting my hard labor. That weekend, I went to the global food market nearby and bought a slab of silken tofu. The result was an unbelievably easy delectable and delicious parantha. The kids were tricked into thinking it was their favorite paneer parantha (even though the texture was not the same), and they cleared up their plates without a fuss!

Ingredients

(makes 18-20)

  • 1 lb slab – silken tofu
  • 3 cups whole wheat flour (plus some extra to help with rolling)
  • 3 Tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1 Tbsp finely chopped green chillies
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder
  • 1 tsp ground cumin powder
  • 1/2 tsp carom seeds (ajwain)
  • 1 tsp chaat masala (I used MDH chunky chaat masala)
  • 3 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • ghee, refined oil or cooking spray for shallow frying

Method

Unwrap the tofu and crumble it in a mixing bowl. Add all the ingredients except oil, and knead into a soft dough. The moisture in the tofu is sufficient to incorporate all the flour together. Adding water will only make the dough impossible to work with! The dough should be soft. Rub a little oil on the dough, cover and leave aside for about 30 minutes.

Now take golf ball size portions and roll them out over a flat surface, using a little flour to help with the rolling. Each parantha should be about 7 inches in diameter. Heat a tawa and roast the parantha on both sides before applying ghee, oil or spray. Serve hot with pickles, salad and raita.

PS: I was unable to use the entire amount of dough in one day, so I merely stored the left over dough in the fridge and made more paranthas the following evening.

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Mango Dal (An Andhra Pradesh Speciality)

Some memories of childhood, however insignifcant, stick with us forever due to the exhilarating and fun experiences they are associated with. I remember how my poor old rickshaw walla, Dharmu (God rest his soul in peace!), was so patient with us kids as we would beg him to stop on our way back home from school near some mango trees lining one of the roads we passed through everyday and got down to collect raw mangoes that fell off the trees prematurely. We would scream in glee, collecting raw mangoes of every size and would get terribly disappointed should we find brown rot spots on them. At the end of 10 minutes, Dharmu would honk his horn and we would reluctantly climb back on the rickshaw, comparing our ‘loot’. After returning home, convincing Ma to make chutney with the ‘kachha aam’ would be another Herculian task. Often she would throw away the little tarty mangoes in frustration, but whenever she had a surplus of mint in the garden, she would oblige.

This past summer, I found myself craving for the taste of raw mango with salt and chilli powder, a rather weird snack that I was so fond of munching on while slogging over boring math practice sheets in high school, and my mother would advise me against eating for fear of developing heat rashes on my face. So I took myself to an Indian grocery store to buy one, and met a telugu lady who was buying 10 raw mangoes! Curious, I asked her if she was going to make mango pickle with it. She said, when in season, she peels and cuts them into pieces, and freezes them for up to 7-8 months! Then she uses them in chutneys, vegetables and dal. I asked her how she made dal with it and she gave me a quick recipe using ‘toor’ dal. Intrigued, I brought another raw mango back home to try the dal next day. Much to my dismay, I did not have enough toor dal, so I made it with a combination of toor and masoor dal. By Jove, that evening at dinner I realized I had hit upon a recipe that was a definite keeper! It tasted absolutely delicious with both roti and rice. From then on, I have started buying more mangoes than I really need, and cut and freeze in advance. Needless to say, mango dal is a fortnightly staple at the dining table now.

This can be made with just toor dal as it is traditionally made, but after making it with a little masoor dal, I found that the combination tasted much better. Enjoy!

Ingredients

(serves 4-6)

  • 1 raw mango (peeled and cubed into 1/2″ squares)
  • 3/4 cup toor dal
  • 1/2 cup dhuli masoor dal (without skin)
  • 2 slit green chillies
  • 1 spring curry leaves
  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 2 dry red chillies
  • 1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1/8 tsp asafoetida
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/4 tsp red chilli powder (or to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp oil or ghee
  • salt (to taste)

Method

Wash and soak both the dals for about 2-3 hours. Add a little salt and pressure cook for about 5 whistles. The dal should not be too runny. If there is too much liquid after cooking, do not drain the water. You can always dry it some after the tarhka.

Boil the mango pieces in a little water with a little salt separately. Neither should the mango be overcooked to a mushy soft consistency, nor should the pieces have a bite to them. There should be some water left after boiling.

Heat oil in a karahi. Add methi seeds. When they turn a little brown, add mustard seeds. When the seeds have spattered, add the dry red chillies. Add curry leaves and green chillies and fry, then add asafoetida. Now add turmeric and stir, followed by adding the boiled mango along with the water it was cooked in. Add a pinch of sugar to cut the tartness. Stir well and add the dal and red chilli powder. Now bring to a boil. If there is excess water, let the dal boil to get it to a thicker consistency. Adjust sugar and chilli power to taste. The dal should taste a little sour with no tartness. The final consistency should be a little thick, like khichrhi. Serve hot with rice or roti, and a dry vegetable dish.

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Stuffed Bitter Gourd (Bharwa Karela)

“What? Karela??? Ewwww….Not Again!!! I am NOT eating it”. My mother found herself being bombarded with utter resentment every time she announced she made karela, followed by prolonged looks of disgusts if she tried to force us as kids to even taste it. Despite all the cajoling, bribing and numerous sermons about the good health benefits of this crocodile skin looking vegetable, this was one thing that was just not welcome on our plates. She tried fried karela. She tried stuffed karela. She tried extracting the bitterness out of karela, to no success. Karela was forbidden territory for us. Eventually she threw in the towel, and started making another vegetable dish for us on days she made karela.

After I got married, I found out, much to my dismay and annoyance, that my husband loved karela and that too in any form. I agree that the bitter taste is acquired, and it took me many years to get accustomed to it. So it was a shock for me to find out the other day that my 6 year old actually asked for a taste of karela, and claimed to relish it! Excited, I called up my mother and told her triumphantly that her grandson liked karela. Already!

Recently, my dear friend from university met up with me after 22 years, and we were talking about recipes and differences between north and south indian food. Of all the blessed vegetables in the world, she surprised me by asking me for some karela recipes, with special instructions that she did not want the bitterness to be extracted!! Salting karela to get the bitterness out is optional. I find that kids are more likely to eat karela with the bitterness gone. The juice can always be had separately, but beware! Your mouth will be smarting from the taste for quite some time thereafter. So Sudha…this one’s for you!

Ingredients

  • 1.5 lbs raw green bitter gourd (karela) pods
  • 1-1.5 tsp salt (for sprinkling)
  • 1.5 Tbsp oil for cooking (I prefer mustard oil, but refined oil works well too)

For stuffing

  • 2 Tbsp corriander seeds (dhaniya whole)
  • 1 Tbsp fennel seeds (saunf whole)
  • 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds (methi whole)
  • 1/2 tsp onion seeds (kalonji whole)
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1/2 tsp red chilli powder
  • 3/4 tsp amchur (dry mango powder)
  • 1 large onion (grated)

Method

Cut off the ends of the karela and scrape the skin gently using a vegetable peeler to get the rugged skin off. This is the most bitter part and can be blended to get the juice out for ingestion.

Wash the pods and make a slit on each pod, taking care the slit does not extend to the ends. Remove any overripe red seeds and pulp. Slightly open the slits and sprinkle with a little salt all over. Salting is optional to remove excess bitterness. Leave aside for about 30-45 mins. You will notice the karela releasing some of its juice. You can collect this and drink it (but it does have too much salt) or discard it.

Meanwhile, dry roast all the seed ingredients separately, one by one. Make sure all the the raw smell goes away, and the corriander, fennel and methi seeds are slightly golden. The kalonji seeds will turn a little grey. keep this aside. Dry grind the corriander, fennel and fenugreek seeds to a fine powder and keep in a bowl. Mix onion seeds, salt, chilli powder, amchur, turmeric and grated onion, and mix well to bind. Now stuff this mixture in the karela pods.

I prefer to microwave these for about 3-4 mins on high, covered. This cooks them partially, reducing the need for excess oil. Now pour the mustard oil in a frying pan and place the pods gently in the oil once hot. Cover and cook on medium, turning them every 5-6 minutes. Prick with a knife to check if done.

Serve hot with rotis or rice, and dal. Tastes exceptionally good with simple paranthas too. You see, there is flavor, even in bitterness!



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