Category: Grains, Beans & Lentils

Grains as star ingredient

Mom’s Sabudana Khichadi

As a transplant from another place, you reach a point in your life when you think you’ve gotten a handle on things, culinarily speaking. The cooking and consumption of foods from your original home strikes a somewhat fragile balance with foods you’ve grown to love in your adopted home. You’ve tried most of what is on offer here and have gathered together all the food you miss from there. Or you think you did.

Then out of the blue, the balance shifts. A word, an image, a smell…and something stirs in your memories.

It is not like I had forgotten all about this dish. I came across the straightforward recipe often in my precious file of mom’s recipes. Yet I passed it over because of its simplicity, engrossed in the pursuit of the more flamboyant and vibrant ones. While my mind was engaged in chicken curries and palak paneers, this one sort of got lost in plain sight. Now, I realize that it has been ten years since I last ate this dish. How did I go that long without craving it?

The last time I enjoyed it, I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen. It was a day before I was about to leave for the other side of the world. It was also the day my mom finally told me how much she was going to miss me. All this time, for over a year, she had been brave about the decision her erstwhile stay-at-home middle daughter had made to leave. Videoconferencing wasn’t yet the norm and she wouldn’t see me for a long time. For a whole month leading up to the day, she had been cooking all my favourite things. There were so many last meals I requested because I love practically everything my mom makes and knew I would miss it all. I’d already made my way over the culinary map, home food and restaurants, as I knew it then. My bags were packed to bursting with mom’s pickles and snacks, my uncle’s veggie patties and chicken cutlets (he’d dropped them off just earlier that morning as he stopped by to wish me luck). These would extend the old-home experience a bit more in the new place I was to call home. I was excited and scared and sorry to leave all at the same time.
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Annie Somerville’s Polenta in a Gorgonzola cream sauce with Walnuts

Today, I woke up to a cat. Not my cat. I don’t have a cat. I wish I had a cat. Or a dog. I’m not particular on that point. I just wish I had a pet.  You may be wondering “Why is she making a big deal out of this? Cats, they’ve been around humans for millenia, haven’t they? It’s not like she came face-to-face with a dinosaur!” (That would have been some conversation starter, wouldn’t it? “Today, I met Barney. The real thing my dear! And you know, he’s more vivid mauve than purple, positively fuchsia!”)

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, on with the tale. As I was saying, on waking today, I came face-to-face with a cat. The sighting at close quarters was strange for a couple of reasons. First, I’d just woken from a strange dream involving Superman, the Incredible Hulk, the Cheshire cat and the Mad Hatter cooking together (I suspect this had something to do with watching too much TV and consuming some questionable leftover pie much too late last night, but I’m always glad when Johnny Depp shows up in my dream life, especially since he will never be there in the waking one…sigh). The last elusive image I had in my head was a cat grinning over a steaming pot, just before I woke from my weird shallows of slumber. I stumbled drowsily into the kitchen for a warm cuppa and rolled up the window shades to see a calm, grey tabby just sitting there, staring at me with perfect equanimity. As you can imagine, the feeling was surreal. Second, this would be an absolute first cat sighting for me in the environs of my apartment building. I’ve seen them sitting at windows as I pass by other places in the city. But, to my chagrin, these places are never around me. Not one person in the vicinity has ever had a cat as far as I can see. (I live around some pet-hating landlords.) Yet here was this one, an honest-to-goodness, fluffy grey cat with white socks, pale green-grey eyes and a lovely grey-white-black tail curled comfortably around her.

We stared at each other for a bit, motionless and silent. The cat kindly let me get a hold of my scattered senses; she seemed to have decided that any sudden moves might send me over the edge. Then slowly, deliberately, she lifted her paw in a half-greeting and then proceeded to give it a thorough washing. When she was done, she looked up and seemed a bit miffed that I still hadn’t moved. Her feline gestures seemed to suggest a slight impatience with the human. She got up gracefully, stretched in that mind-bogglingly flexible way that only cats can, and padded her way on silent paws to the edge of the lobby roof where she sat, giving me a reproachful look and a plaintive miaow. “Here I am,” she seemed to say, “out in the cold at your window and you won’t even offer me some milk! What would your mother say?” (My mother, while assiduously denying animals room and board, is nevertheless a famous feeder of stray cats. Famous. Ask any of our neighbours.) That look jolted me right out of my stupor. It was reminiscent of my nephew when he was younger and was told he couldn’t have any chocolate. Just so woeful. I looked about for some milk for her, but realised that if she had it, then me and Amey would have to do without. Telling my husband this early in the morning that he can’t have any milk (“because the cat asked for some”) might cause him to look about on how to get me committed. He’s a bear when he hasn’t had his morning coffee. So in the interest of my well-being, I tentatively offered her the last bit of the questionable pie.

She sniffed at it with suspicion, then proceeded to consume it with a rather browbeaten air, as will a guest when his hostess insists he try something he can’t stand, but is too polite to refuse. The deed done, she licked her whiskers clean and then proceeded to chew her tail in a gentle, abstracted fashion for a few minutes. Then, quite suddenly, with the air of the end of a performance, she stretched with an athlete’s commitment and took off, gracefully jumping onto a tree from the roof as she proceeded to make her way to the ground. Then, with a slow blink of those green eyes, she was gone, quite as suddenly as she had appeared into my life. No forwarding address, no P.O Box Number. Disconsolate, I could only hope she made her way home safely before the traffic picked up for the morning. This early morning event left me craving something warm, comforting and nourishing for a meal. With daydreams of having my own cat (or dog) someday, I thumbed through the books for inspiration. That’s when I spied this little recipe for polenta.

Polenta came into my culinary horizon fairly recently. There was a grilled version of polenta I ate as an appetizer at Greens restaurant that I fell head-over-heels in love with. The way you feel when you meet the one and wonder where they’ve been your entire life. Polenta is made rather easily from cornmeal and has a way of firming up as it cools down. This porridge is then sliced and browned on a skillet or toasted in the oven until its outsides crisp up a bit. It tastes of mushed up corn and is a blank palette for any number of flavours that you can throw at it. At Greens, I ate it with some mushrooms and it was one of the most delectable things I’ve ever eaten. This recipe was different. It called for the gentle poaching of ingredients in cream while you cooked, cooled and grilled the polenta. Some gorgonzola cheese and walnuts rounded out the flavours. A warming gem of a dish. It leaves you with the same contentment you get from having a warm and purring cat sitting on your lap.

Polenta and Walnuts with a Gorgonzola and herbed cream sauce
Adapted from Annie Sommerville’s Everyday Greens
Serves 3 to 4 as an entrée, maybe twice as many as an appetizer

For the polenta:
Water – 4 cups
Cornmeal – 1 cup
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Parmesan cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
A quick two gratings of nutmeg and cardamom
Salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce:
Half-and half OR skimmed milk – 1 cup
Cream – 1 cup
Red onion – 1/2, sliced fine
Garlic cloves – 3 to 4, smashed with the flat of a knife, paper skins left on,
Bay leaf – 1
Fresh Thyme sprigs – 2
Fresh oregano sprig – 1
Sage – 3 leaves
Gorgonzola cheese – 3/4 cup, crumbled
Kasseri or Fontina cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
Walnut pieces – 1/2 cup, toasted
Basil leaves – a half-handful, chopped into a chiffonade

To make the polenta:
– In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Salt the water, then add the cornmeal. Lower the heat a bit to gently cook the polenta until it smoothly thickens, about 20 minutes or so.
– When the polenta is cooked, take it off the heat. Stir in the pepper, nutmeg, cardamom and olive oil.
– Pour into a 9″x15″ dish and allow it to cool. Upon cooling, slice the polenta into  six or eight squares (which can be cut into triangles if the dish is to be an appetizer).

To make the sauce:
– Combine the cream, milk, onion, garlic and herbs in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer the sauce. Allow the sauce to reduce slightly, cooking for about 15 minutes.
– Strain the cream sauce, then return to the saucepan. Add half the Gorgonzola cheese to it, whisking it in to melt, over low heat. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

To assemble the dish:
– While the sauce is cooking, pour a little olive oil onto a skillet. Lightly crisp the polenta slices on the skillet until golden brown. Alternatively you could place the slices with some olive oil into a pre-heated oven at 325°F for 15-20 minutes.
– Place a couple of square (or a couple of triangles) on a plate . Sprinkle some Fontina (or Kasseri) and some of the reserved Gorgonzola on the slices, then ladle over some of the sauce. Sprinkle with some of the walnut pieces and a generous amount of basil. Enjoy right away!

Cook’s notes:
I like lots of basil. So I didn’t didn’t bother with a chiffonade. Annie Sommerville suggests plating the polenta on a plate of arugula. I might have used it if I had it, or I would have used some watercress. Turned out I didn’t have any, so I just made up for the lack of it with lots of basil. (After the pictures, the dish went all green). The cooking of the sauce threw me a bit. I’ve never poached onions in cream before…to be frank, I’ve never poached onions in anything before. I’ve always browned them in oil or had them raw. The poaching here gently brings out the essence of the onion, herbs and the garlic. Sure, it all gets discarded but it has passed some of its soul onto the cream. It leaves behind a very luxurious, fragrant sauce that’s a real treat with the crisped polenta.

This is certainly a rich dish, but satisfying and very good with just the salad. As an appetizer, I would serve small individual portions to ensure that my guests save some room for the main course. A couple of pieces stacked together should do. The polenta can be made a day ahead, sliced and placed into the fridge. When required they can then be crisped on the skillet before assembly. One bite of this takes you to a warm, happy time. Mine I imagine, would be curled up on a sofa, with a book and my cat, if I had a cat.

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Vegetable-and-sausage Paella

We went to LA for a three day holiday recently. Most people would be incredulous that LA is my idea of a holiday. But it is. I’m a city girl. I grew up in the midst of a thriving metropolis and feel most at home and at peace with myself when I’m around the cacophony of traffic and the hustle-n-bustle of a city. Not necessarily in the middle of it, but around it. In its absence, I feel like something is strongly missing from my life. It’s the same feeling I get when I can’t see the ocean too much, or smell the salty spray, only this is more intense. The two years I lived outside of an urban environment had me climbing walls. If I ever have to move out of the city, I would need to return to it often, every other day, like a swimmer surfacing for air.

LA delivers the big city like no other on the West Coast. Of course, San Francisco is prettier in its setting, but it is smaller, very definite. Step out of it and you know you’re out. LA feels like it has no boundaries, one big gritty and interesting melting pot of city and ‘burbs. This time I got to visit places that I haven’t been to before, like the Getty Center and the Griffith Observatory, both of which offer wonderful vantage points to the sprawling behemoth that is Los Angeles. If you haven’t been to LA, put both these destinations on your itinerary when you visit. The Getty Center has beautiful views and even better architecture, with beautiful courts and iridescent buildings dressed in travertine. The combined wallop of the art and architecture raised my spirits. This place radiates a contagious vitality. We had a mixture of lunch and dinner in a lovely little Mexican taqueria that served the best salsa I’ve eaten anywhere, that topped these delicious chicken tacos cooked in a fantastic peppery sauce. LA really has great Mexican food.

The observatory is a study in contrasts. This almost octogenarian building is gorgeous in it proportions and set on what must be one of LA’s most spectacular sites. It has a wonderful planetarium that was both educational and entertaining. The views here are gorgeous in the day time. But it was at night that I had the defining experience of my visit here, probably not an intended one. The sun goes down and the lights come on, studding the cityscape with sparkling dots and dashes that twinkle through the haze that LA is wont to be covered in. The stars in the skies are outshined by the ones on Earth. Nothing else I’ve seen puts the extent of light pollution on our planet into stark reality so definitively, except maybe Las Vegas. Strange, isn’t it? This place exists to search the skies and shed light on the mysteries of space.

Our interest in food never wanes, even on short vacations. So when a local friend told me about the Grove, the Farmers’ market in downtown LA, it was put on the top of my places to visit. I’ve already waxed lyrical about my love for the Farmers’ markets here in San Francisco. The Grove is a good Farmers’ Market with some delicious food. However I thought it paled in comparison to the abundant and gorgeous produce of the Ferry Building Farmers’ market or the Berkeley Bowl. Also, it didn’t help that the experience kept getting interrupted by an over-zealous security guard who came up to us, several times, in the half hour we spent there. He didn’t seem to want to tell us to stop taking photos but he didn’t seem too happy that we were, in a vague fashion. Then apparently someone complained to him that we were taking photos. In a public place. In LA. You would think this was one place on the planet that people with be familiar with a camera. Someone had a problem with me shooting monkey bread and pies. I can tell you it soured the Grove for us and we left it thoroughly confused and a bit miffed, leaving us with a bitter taste that overpowered the wonderful falafel we had for lunch. Made me long for home. No one cares about people with cameras in San Francisco. (I’d say the same for the rest of the world, everywhere except LA, but that would be spite. Gah!)

Anyway, the episode didn’t completely ruin our trip there. The spell of the sun and gorgeous day washed away the annoyance. We also quite accidently discovered this beautiful Indian temple on our way to Malibu which was just icing on the trip. So pretty and white, all by itself, tucked away in the mountains. It quite made up for the morning. There was a serenity reigning over the compound in stark contrast to how noisy and crowded temples can be in the Bay Area.

Before we left SoCal, we had some wonderful tapas in a small California-inspired Spanish restaurant. The tapas were delicious and small, but so filling that we weren’t able to satisfy our interest in the enticing paella photographed in the menu. So today, on this fairly hot San Francisco day, Amey and I decided that we’d try making our own paella, toasting to the memory of our wonderful little trip.

Neither of us is too familiar with cooking Spanish food so we turned to the Internet for explanation. What we found was that onion, garlic and tomatoes form the sofrito or base of this dish, as they often do in Spanish cooking, which put me back a bit in my comfort zone. These three form the base of many an Indian recipe as well. But then there were recipes that included parsley in the sofrito. Problem. Parsley is not one of my favourite herbs. In fact the only parsley dish I ever actually liked was some chimmichurri I had once. Mostly parsley tastes like soap to me. I’ve found the world around me is often divided into parsley lovers and cilantro lovers. Many a parsley lover has told me that to them, cilantro tastes like soap. Those exact words. Weird, no? But I digress..

We also found that recipes often call for all kinds of meat and seafood in the one recipe. This was another problem. Like that little kid who doesn’t like his food touching other food on his plate, I don’t like all kinds of meat playing along in one single dish. But Amey wanted there to be some in this dish, for a contrasting bite to the veggies, so we compromised on including two kinds of sausage instead of several meats. After agonizing over recipes, we decided we needed to make up our own, based on several variations. The result is what you see here.

Paella with sausage and veggies
Serves 3-4

Spicy Italian sausage – 1 link, cut into 1/4” rounds
Sweet basil and roasted garlic chicken sausage -1 link, cut into 1/4” rounds
Yellow onion – 1, diced
Garlic – 6 cloves, minced fine
Cilantro – handful, chopped fine
Green bell pepper- 1, cut into strips
Red bell pepper-1, cut into strips
Carrots – 2, diced
Canned whole tomatoes – 8 oz
Valencian rice – 2 cups OR Bomba rice – 1 1/2 cups
Green peas – 1 cup
Smoked paprika – 1/2 tsp
Saffron – a pinch
Olive oil – 3 tbsp
Water – 2 cups
Chicken stock – 2 cups
Salt to taste
Lemon – 1, cut into wedges

– In a large pan (the more flat surface area, the better), add the oil and the sausage cuts. Brown the sausage and then remove to a paper towel covered plate.
– Add the onion and saute for a while until it starts to caramelize. Then add the garlic and cilantro and fry some more.
– Add the pepper strips and carrots. Saute until for 5 minutes.
– Hand crush the tomatoes and add to the cooking pan. Saute the mixture until it starts to brown or caramelize.
– Fold in the rice into the tomato mixture. After completely folded in, add the water and stock. Keep stirring slowly to cook the rice gradually, about 10 minutes.
– Add the peas. Move the cooked sausage back to the pan.
– Take a few tablespoons of hot liquid out into a bowl. Soak the saffron in this for a bit and return the liquid to the pan. Mix to incorporate. Cover the pan and let cook on medium low heat until the rice is cooked through.
– When almost all the liquid has gone, turn the heat up to caramelize and toast up the bottom layer of rice.

To serve, plate some rice including some from the bottom of the pan. Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing over.

Cook’s notes:
Traditionally, the Spanish use a paellera; a flat, shallow pan took make paella. I don’t own one so I went with the largest shallow pan I had. You can substitute arborio rice for the traditionally used Bomba or Valencian rice (we got ours from The Spanish Table in Berkeley) but paella does is supposed to have separate, distinct grains, different from the texture of risotto. At any rate, do not use a long-grain rice like Basmati. It will probably turn to mush. The two kinds of sausage were amazing in this recipe, infusing their flavours into the oil. Even so, I think a vegetarian version would be pretty good too. Just leave out the sausage and use veggie stock.

Several recipes said that food colour is substituted because saffron is expensive, but that saffron is the heart of the dish. Every bite had an almost-floral afternote because of the saffron. I would not substitute it with anything else. Saffron is pricey, but so strong that hardly any recipe calls for more than a pinch at a time. If you store it well, tightly capped in a cool, dry and dark place, it has a long shelf life.

We decided to substitute the parsley we read about in some recipes with cilantro. I’m guessing this isn’t quite authentic, nevertheless, it worked brilliantly. This rice dish was piquant and satisfying at the same time, the twist of lemon at the end giving it a fabulous tang. I think the only thing I might try the next time I make it would be to use fresh tomatoes instead of canned ones. It did seem to have an excess of tomato, never a bad thing in my book, but it did tend to overpower the other flavours a bit, so you had to hunt for them. And remember to dish out a bit of the toasted rice in each helping. It really adds to the flavour of the meal. Anyone who has had caramelised onions on a biryani would understand. It is a similar layer of flavour.

The sunshine in San Francisco today echoed the intense heat in LA from our trip there and paella was a culmination of sunshine on our plates. I raise my glass to the West Coast. Right now, warm plate in hand, gazing at an azure sky, I’m exactly where I want to be.

*To learn more about the travel photos and see others, check out the Flickr set.

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Jamie Oliver’s Apparagus, Mint & Lemon Risotto

There was a time right in the beginning when I wasn’t as enamoured of San Francisco. While you stifle shocked gasps, allow me to explain. I arrived here from the bright sunshine and scorching heat of Texas in the month of June. Right away it felt like the world as I knew it had turned topsy-turvy. It was bleak and gray and cold….brrr..warm jacket cold, in summer! My first glimpse of the city was Tenderloin, which as anyone can tell you is an acquired taste, and certainly shouldn’t be the first thing you see in San Francisco. As I shivered in a friend’s tiny studio apartment and wondered where the sun had gone, the weather seemed to mirror the greyness in the soul of my then just graduated jobless self. It was the last recession. Another friend Viral was very surprised to learn that I didn’t like San Francisco right away. Having lived here a couple of years, he already loved it. And as I found a job, stayed here and learned to love it very quickly, his quiet confidence that I’d been mistaken in my first assessment stuck with me.

Viral is at once a charming and easy person to like. He’s an architect who is a study in contrasts. While he loves to meet people, he also enjoys being on his own. While we have a lot in common, like where we grew up, our profession and college, that is one thing I have in common with him that I don’t often have with many people. He’s a good friend and a good guy, kind and helpful. And its been a long year for him too, like it has been for so many of us. So I was thrilled for him when he got a chance to take a vacation in Europe last month. It is fun living vicariously sometimes and couldn’t wait for his stories when he got back. But he did me one better by sending me this charming postcard on my birthday. With his birthday wishes was a brief glimpse at his Italian experience. Gazing at the beautiful Piazza Navone and the fascination of Rome got me thinking about the beautiful country of Italy and invariably, its food. I went through my cookbooks book-marking all kinds of Italian-base recipes. But last night Amey beat me to the punch, by very neatly adapting a risotto recipe from Jamie Oliver’s book.

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