Category: Vegetables

Vegetables as star ingredient

Anthony Bourdain’s French Onion Soup

I hadn’t enjoyed a proper vacation in almost two years! The tumultuous times we live in had me keeping my nose steadily to the grindstone. Slowly but surely, the strains of life had been building up and I didn’t even know it. Then there came this opportunity for a whole week of vacation in the form of an invitation from friends in Salt Lake City. It would be great to see them, it had been a long time. There was real snow to jump into that was calling my name. But before that, there was packing. I hate packing. That coupled with life in general had me in low spirits that Tuesday morning. On the plane, my fingers wouldn’t stop beating a crazy tattoo on the airline seat. I’d left the daily grind behind but the subconscious mind wouldn’t rest or relax. It is hard to turn all your thoughts off like the flip of a switch. The brain just wouldn’t cooperate.

Then we got to Salt Lake City. It had snowed a couple of nights earlier and there it lay, a soft, white blanket covering the ground. It was a proper winter’s day; wonderfully crisp and bright, the ice crystals twinkling in the sun. There is a strange peace that reigns in the softness of it, and a hush, almost like every sound is muffled somehow. Next to the ocean, this was something else that soothed the senses.

Amey and Sanjeev have been friends even before Amey and I really knew each other. They survived college together, learned to play the guitar together, were in a band together. They have similar personalities yet each is very distinctly their own person. They argue, rib each other and criticize one another with ridiculous ease, one borne out of a long friendship that I’ll bet they never really talk about. Guys don’t do that kind of stuff. They hadn’t seen each other in almost four years. They talked, they laughed, they played guitar; two voices in harmony, sounds I haven’t heard in a long while. They did this often at one time. But life has evolved to new adventures now. A wonder of this evolution is Sanjeev and his lovely wife Vandana’s precious little baby boy. A bundle of the most beautiful smiles you ever saw. A couple of hours spent in their beautiful home, playing with this engaging little person, and the buzzing of things in my head faded away. It was like taking a deep, deep breath and letting go. The relaxation was inevitable. We drove up into the mountains in the next couple of days. The imposing snow-covered scenery was breath-taking and also an effective balm, taking away all remaining vestiges of care.
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Twice-cooked Potato Bhajji with chillies and tomato

When I started this blog earlier this year, Amey took up a hobby he’s always had a latent interest in.

We’re short on the square footage so all he could have for his first foray into gardening was the little window ledge above our kitchen sink. I like to think my blog naming choice factored into what his first project was. But truth be told, that was decided by some really hot (we’re talking bright lights flashing all over the Scoville scale) chillies we happened to find at the Indian store one day. He carefully saved the seeds from capsaicin riddled beauties and tossed them into a seedling pot with a fervent prayer.

A slow two weeks went by with no results…

After a frantic consultation with the omnipresent gods of instruction on the WWW, we came to the conclusion that (thanks to some quite flawed direction from yours truly) he had put the seeds too deep into the soil. Careful digging unearthed a couple of sprouted seedlings struggling to find daylight. Words of reproach and apology were bandied at large and the seedlings were replanted just barely beneath the surface of the soil.

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Vegetable Clear Soup

Labor day weekend is almost done as I write this. Can’t say it was one of the best ones. Friday night saw us spend a lovely evening with friends, but after that it all went downhill. I haven’t been in this much trouble with the gods of sniffles in years. The weather in the city has been yoyo-ing between searing hot days and cold nights and while the week was tough, I succumbed to it, good and proper this weekend. Between the sniffing and the sneezing, it was hard to find the inclination to cook or eat these past three days. Mostly I just spent the days on the couch, swathed in tissue and reading my collection of Jane Austen. There is something curiously bracing about reading of long rambling walks among the countryside, of solitary thought and of a simpler time (though not so much to the people that lived in it, I imagine). But it might have not been the best thing to read at this time. My impatience for the protagonists of the novel to get their act together and move along only aggravated my already low spirits. This is not how a long weekend should be for anyone. Thankfully though, the one bright spot, there was soup.

It may seem incongruous to speak of hot weather and soup in the same sentence, but in my life there is never a wrong time for soup. Especially when it this simple, soul-cheering fair, packed chock-full of immunity boosting vegetables. There are various claims it makes of being a clear soup, though I’m not quite sure this falls in that category. In my head the words clair zoop are always pronounced in the nasal tones of a French maitre d’ out of a 60’s movie…but I digress. I don’t think it is a clear soup because I can’t see through it. But then whoever said that I definitively know what a clear soup is? Certainly not me.

This is a vegetable broth-based soup, with celery and carrots and cabbage among other things. On account of the soy sauce and the vinegar in it, it has been christened a Chinese clear soup by Amey’s family. It would certainly not be out of place served as a precursor to a Chinese meal, the flavours here are pretty consistent with that cuisine. However, the umami of the soy and clear tang of vinegar combine with the mingled flavour of various vegetables to make this a soup that can hold body and soul together very well indeed. In my case it was the beginning and end of several of my weekend meals. I kept asking Amey to make fresh batches of it. For some reason, in an allergy fogged world, these flavours were the only ones that didn’t taste like cardboard. And as far as its health benefits, my mom would approve. Especially since she wasn’t here to fuss over her sick child. I miss her terribly when I’m sick. But Amey and his soup were wonderful at taking care of me too.


Vegetable clear soup

Makes 4 to 6 servings

(All the vegetables below to be chopped into similar bite-sized pieces)

Capsicum or green pepper – 1 , cored and diced
Celery – 2 stalks, diced
Carrots – 2, diced
Cauliflower – 1/2, broken into florets and chopped
Green Beans – 1 cup, chopped
Cabbage – 1/2, diced
Scallions – 1 bunch, chopped
Broccoli – 1 cup florets, chopped
Vegetable Stock – 3 to 4 cups
Vinegar – 1/4 cup
Canola Oil – 2 tbsps
Sesame Oil – 1/2 tsp
Soy Sauce – 2 tbsp
Corn Flour – 1/2 tbsp
Ajinomoto – a pinch (optional)
Salt to taste

– Parboil the vegetables.
– Heat the canola oil in a large pot. Saute parboiled vegetables for a few minutes.
– Add sesame oil, salt, soy sauce and ajinomoto if using. Saute for a few more minutes.
– Add vinegar and the vegetable stock and heat.
– Combine the corn flour and a little of the warm stock from the pot to make a light paste in a small bowl. Add this to the soup pot and mix well. Cover and bring the soup to a boil.
– Lower heat and simmer the soup until vegetables are cooked.

Serve with chilli vinegar and maybe cilantro for garnish.

 

Cook’s notes:
Quite frankly, regardless of the ingredients list,  this is a clear-out-your-fridge kind of soup, which means that practically any kind of vegetable would work fine in here. I’m a strong supporter of carrots in this soup. They add a lovely counter-balance to the vinegar and soy sauce. The sauce I speak of here is the Indian soy sauce variety. Remember to watch the salt if you use the American supermarket kind. They are certainly saltier. The ajinomoto here is optional. (I know this is a touchy subject with tons of discourse on it. I read this article on it recently. By all means, do not use it if you don’t want to.)
Very often, we will also boil some noodles and add them to this, making it a sort of all-in-one meal, a noodle-in-vegetable soup delight. If you do this make sure you start the noodles in separate boiling water but drain them and stir them in with this soup to let them finish cooking. They will absorb the flavoured broth and take on a light brown sheen that will complement the flavour and colour of the soup (which by the way, will be the colour of dark root beer). If it is all just too much vegetable for you, add any bits of cooked meat you may have on hand. Chicken would work particularly well. Keep the pieces small and consistent with the rest of it and they will work just fine.This is a lovely soup for fall, when the weather turns cooler. In my case, I’m always happy to have it on my plate, rain, shine or sniffles.

Mom-in Law’s Potatoes with Fenugreek seeds & Coconut (Methi batata)

(I’m excited to announce that aside from my own blog, I just began writing for KQED’s Bay Area Bites, a San Francisco chef and foodie blog here in the Bay area! It is a wonderful blog collective showcasing the talents of many local chefs and writers. The following is my first post there.)

The kitchen was always interesting to me as a child because it had a number of things I wasnʼt allowed to touch. My sisters didnʼt have these rules. That is because my mother didnʼt worry that they would kill themselves by trying to eat salt or spices straight out of their tins. My curiosity almost always overshadowed my caution. All that stopped the day I knocked loose a couple of my milk teeth; the day I tried to munch on methi (fenugreek) seeds.

When you look at the squat, rectangular and extremely hard seeds of fenugreek, you may wonder why anyone would take any trouble to work with it. But this unyielding spice is accompanied by a nutty, bitter and mellow flavor that could not be replicated by anything else. It loses some of its toughness when you gently fry or boil it, which also brings out its subtle flavor. The fragrance of the whole spice is a bit woody. But the wheaty, caramel colored seeds release a nutty aroma when cooked. In a spice blend, its flavors meld with the other spice to give the blend a deep bass note.

Due to the tough physical nature of the spice, it finds wide application in its ground form. But its seeds are also popular. A little goes a long way with this spice, as too much can make your meal overwhelmingly bitter. This is especially true if you are using whole seeds.

Fenugreek seeds also have medicinal qualities. As traditional remedies, concoctions of fenugreek are used as an appetite stimulator, in the curing of cough and congestion and prescribed to nursing mothers.

In India, the leaves of the fenugreek plant are used as a fragrant herb when dried and used as greens in their fresh state. The bitterness of the seed is reflected in the fresh leaves. They are very fragrant when they are dried. In the dry form, fenugreek leaves are used in curries and paired with vegetables like peas. They pair especially well with cream-based recipes. The seeds are like a more humble cousin. They too are used in different kinds of curries and in combination with various vegetables like okra and eggplant. The difference is that the seed will form the base of the recipe while the herblike leaves will be sprinkled on top of a dish towards the end of cooking.

While several dishes use fenugreek seeds, either as part of a spice mix or on its own, the seeds are the star of this recipe along with the very versatile potato. It would be hard to define the roots of this dish. It falls under some semblance of western Indian cooking, but I think the credit lies with my mother-in-law, from whom I got the recipe. Were you to try to look for a similar vegetable recipe, you would most likely end up with several using fenugreek leaves. Like most Indian dishes, this one involves a combination of a few spices but they all come together in celebration of this unassuming seed, which is often relegated to a supporting role.

Potatoes with coconut and fenugreek seeds

Click here to read the recipe

Spiced Tomato – Coconut Soup

Tomatoes. Fresh, luscious, straight-off-the-vine. glistening and full of flavour!

The actual association of tomatoes with physical summer has come about more for me after moving out of India. Back there, not only are good tomatoes available all year round, the sunshine is more or less always there too. But here, one waits till summer to have the truly tantalizing tomatoes. The rest of the year we make do with what we can get. They are certainly better than no tomatoes, but not a patch on the summer freshness of the pomme d’amour in season.

There’s nothing more alluring about summer than the tomato. They are everywhere in the markets, ripe and ready, simply there for the taking. You slice one up and inhale the heady bouquet. There is sunshine all around you even on a cold day in July. Yes, you heard that right. Cold day in July. I’m not talking about the southern hemisphere either. While the rest of the country is sweating it out and bitching about heatwaves (as a friend of mine up in Seattle so delicately puts it), we are having shivery days under thick blankets of grey-white fog. While I do love the cold and am not too crazy about heat, I do miss the sun. I’ll take it where I can find it, and nothing delivers like new seasons’ tomatoes.

It is strange how much I love the nightshade family of vegetables (though some are technically fruits). Maybe I dabbled in poisons in a past life? At any rate, the potato, the chilli peppers (self-evident how I feel about those) and the tomato; poisonous they are not. What they are, is tops on my list of favourites. There is no better sandwich than a good tomato, cut into thick steaks, on good white bread with some cheese, salt and pepper. For me, there wasn’t a better sandwich for years. Tomato, bread and cheddar, that what I demanded for lunch every time I had to take a packed lunch; to school, for the school picnic…or simply because it was Tuesday.  There is something inherently comforting sitting with that tomato sandwich, the piquant juices oozing into the bread and running down your fingers. You experience an unexpected lifting of your spirits. It is like metaphorical sunshine for your soul.

It was also here that I discovered the heirloom tomato. Ever since, I’m torn between the scarlet red tomatoes and the rich greens, yellows, and purples of the heirloom variety. Also the ridiculous shapes crack me up. They are the funniest looking veggies around, unless of course, there’s some ginger around. (What can I say! I’m an architect! We respond to form.:)) Sometimes I end up with quantities of both. This is a major no-no in my tiny apartment, which can look like it is drowning in tomatoes even if I only have a couple of dozen or so on the counter. Tomatoes are best stored out of the refrigerator. This is exactly where I found myself after a recent trip to the market. Fortunately, I also have this recipe for a sublime tomato soup.

Given the recent weather in San Francisco, a soup is completely apropos. This recipe is essentially one for a saar, a thin type of curry eaten over rice. But many dals and curries make a comfortable transition to soup, just like that of a sauce. This is another of my mother-in-law’s gems, a genius recipe for a cold summer.

Tomato soup with a twist

Tomatoes – 6, medium to large
Chilli powder – 1 tsp
Peppercorns – 4-5
Coconut milk – 3 tbsp
Honey – 1 tsp
Chickpea flour – 1 1/2 tsp
Canola oil- 2 tbsp
Curry Leaves – 4
Asafoetida – 1/2 tsp
Cumin seeds – 1 tsp
Cilantro for garnish

– Put the tomatoes in a large pot. Pour enough water to cover the tomatoes. Bring the water to a boil along with the tomatoes. (about 15 to 20 minutes).
– Pick the tomatoes out of the water and plunge into a bowl of cold water. This should loosen the skins which you should remove.
– In a blender, add the skinned tomatoes, peppercorns, coconut milk and chickpea flour and puree until smooth.
– Pour back into the pot and add salt, chilli powder and honey. Bring the soup to a boil over medium heat.
– In a small pan, heat the oil. Temper the oil with cumin, curry leaves and asafoetida.
– Pour the tempered oil into the heated tomato soup.

Ladle into bowls to serve and garnish with cilantro.. and a few croutons, if you like.

Cook’s notes:
The tomatoes shine through brilliantly in this soup. It looks a bit like a light cream of tomato, but is infinitely healthier. The little bit of chilli powder you add, coupled with the peppercorns give the soup a deep heat that rise up on your tongue just behind the piquant sweet and sour taste of the tomato and honey, rounding off the flavour nicely. Wonderful as this is served over rice, as a soup it acquires an unadulterated dimension, the tomatoes singing in your mouth with each spoonful. The coconut milk gives the entire thing a silky smooth finish, barely there as it is. I worked my way through two and a half bowls without pause. It was impossible to put down the spoon. Amey was over the moon as he worked his way through the rest of it, mopping up remaining splashes with the piece of bread we didn’t bake into croutons. I’m sure this would taste just as great served cold.

It may be a real summer where you are. Even so, if you find yourself in possession of a few tomatoes and at a loss of something new to do with them, give this recipe a try. Summer tomatoes are so rarely turned into a soup, even though they do very well as one. This recipe celebrates it as well as your favourite tomato standby. It will not disappoint.