Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday Frames | Golden Hour

Dear Foodies,

                                                                                                                                Location: Sunset Cliffs, San Diego, CA
  Enjoy your weekend!
I'll be back with recipes & more photographs next week.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Frames | Animal Kingdom

Dear Foodies,

Cheetah - enjoying the Sun's warm rays

let me go play with my friends!
Mr.King Kong deep in thoughts

Up, Down, Left, Right!!
Meerkats - a photographer's dream, they just love the attention. These guys were standing guard, completely in sync with each other, while the others in the group were busy digging.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Muhammara - Roasted Red Pepper & Walnut dip

Dear foodies,

Last week on Thursday all of us here in Southern California were forced to break our bond with electronic gadgets and spend some quality time, well that's putting it lightly. Around 3:30 in the afternoon we lost power, I had left work just before the power was off and wasn't aware of it until I got off the interstate and found all the traffic lights out of service. Getting past busy intersections was tricky, I have to give credit to the majority of drivers on the road for being fair and calm but its those few weird, impatient ones that created a whole lot of mess on the road. Not willing to wait their turn they would zip through the intersection leaving others confused and irate. I was just glad that I left early before all the major trouble started. As the evening rush hour approached the traffic situation just got worse.

The reason I left work early was to keep my appointment with the dentist. Boy, am I glad the power went off before he started work on my teeth, I don't want to imagine what would have happened otherwise! I get to the dentist, open the door to the waiting room and to my utter surprise I see the doctor and the nurses sitting around enjoying the dentists! ha! That's when I realized it was a major power shutdown and I happily accepted to have my appointment rescheduled and walked away with a chocolate-vanilla ice cream in hand. I wish every trip to the dentist is just as good, hehe :)

Once I got home I picked up a book, sat outside and happily spent the evening reading without any distractions. When it got dark outside I finally got to bring out all the little tea-light candles that I had collected over the last few years and it felt like Diwali for a while. I could hear everyone around us having fun and taking advantage of the shutdown. People got out and barbecued, our weekly farmers market stalls were serving food way past closing time until they had nothing left to sell. I could hear a few guitars strumming and friends sitting together having fun. If not for the emergency/service sectors also losing power and the traffic situation, everyone else had a good time. Taking a break from electronics and spending quality time is something we should be doing everyday, not because we are forced by a major power failure. On the flip side of all the fun you realize how crippled we become without electricity here. When in India, power cuts were a norm and life moved on smoothly for the most part without it. We could still cook, get other chores done, schools continued as usual, grocery stores did not face as much of a problem and people did not panic. In fact as a kid we welcomed the daily power cuts so we could escape from our books and go out to play.

Since I could not cook dinner that night and did not dare open the refrigerator door too long, I reached in and grabbed all the ingredients I needed for a sandwich in one quick raid. V bought bread and orange juice on his way home and we were well on our way to a good meal. This dip that I'm sharing with you today saved our dinner for us. I've been experimenting with sandwich options lately and had crisp cucumbers, roasted red pepper, delicious heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil on hand. I slathered bread slices with Muhammara, topped it with tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, roasted red peppers and basil. With a crackle of salt and pepper our gourmet no-cook dinner was ready in minutes.

Muhammara (Moo-HAHM-mer-ah) is a middle eastern dip made from roasted red peppers, walnuts, bread and pomegranate molasses. Its earthy, tart, spicy, nutty and slightly sweet all at once and anything that's topped with it turns instantly delicious. This dip is said to have originated from Aleppo, Syria and spread out to Lebanon and rest of Middle-east soon. Traditionally it includes Aleppo peppers that are moderately spicy and have a slight smoky, fruity flavor to them. Its a little tough to find them but a Middle-eastern store or a well stocked spice store should have some. I love sprinkling it on hummus, grilled vegetables and cous cous salads. Just like hummus, Muhammara can be used as a dip for pita chips or regular chips, vegetables, topped on grilled vegetables, kebabs and in this case as a delightful spread for sandwiches too.

A key ingredient in Muhammara is Pomegranate Molasses. The name sounds intriguing and exotic but simply put its nothing but pomegranate juice reduced to a thick, finger licking consistency along with some sugar. Food Network fans will remember Aarti Sequira making a batch of pom molasses for a challenge and getting rave reviews for it by the judges. I'm guessing they din't know how simple it is to make it. Pure Pomegranate juice is not a pleasant drink to have and needs help tempering its flavor. This molasses on the other hand is addictively tart and sweet, almost candy-like with a deep reddish purple color. Once you take a lick taste there's no going back. You'll come back for seconds and thirds and try hard to reserve some for the original dish. You can use it as a sweetner in sauces, barbeque sauce, ketchup, dips and I think it would be great on Indian chaats as well taking the place of the ever popular imli-khajur chutney. I don't really think you'll need me to give you ideas... once you have a taste of it you'll come up with your own ideas because its that good. If you are lucky enough to have a middle eastern store close to you, get there as soon as you can to acquire your own.
Muhammara - Roasted Red Pepper & Walnut Dip
Yield - 2 cups
Prep time-20mins
Cook time - N/A
  • 3 - Roasted Red bell peppers
  • 1/3 cup - Walnuts, gently toasted
  • 1 - garlic clove, crushed
  • 4-5 chunks of fresh bread
  • 1.5 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 1 tsp - Tomato paste (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp - lemon juice/lemon vinegar
  • 1 tsp - Aleppo pepper or Crushed Red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp - Cumin powder (toasted and ground cumin seeds)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
    Bring together all the ingredients except the oil in a food processor or blender jar and process until combined. Gradually stream in olive oil until you get a creamy, smooth consistency. Taste test for balance of flavors adjusting proportions to suit your tastes.
Notes: You can use store bought or home made roasted red peppers here. Roasting red peppers is quick and easy on a gas burning stove, if not coat them lightly with oil and broil in the oven for 8-10mins.
- Take great care while roasting the walnuts always using medium low heat and tossing them frequently until you can smell them and they are lightly browned.
- You can also add a few chunks of onions to this dip and increase the amount of garlic. I'm not a fan of either in their raw form and so avoid using much.
- A few more recipes for dips - Cannellini Bean Hummus & Tomatillo Salsa Verde

With football season in full swing this is the perfect dip to get into circulation at your next game day spread. We enjoyed this with chips, spread it on sandwiches and the next day I topped it with some heirloom tomato & basil salad on bread and it tasted great every single time. With so many complex flavors brought together harmoniously in one dip every bite remains just as interesting as the last. I added extra pom molasses in mine because I was in love with the tart sweet flavor. The molasses is a perfect counter balance to the earthiness of walnuts and bread and elevates the flavor of all the other ingredients. When you try it at home make it your own by adjusting the different elements in the dip.
I added a brand new page for a Glossary of Indian ingredients mentioning English/Telugu/Tamil/Hindi names where possible. Do take a look and share your suggestions! A link to the page is now included in the Tabs right below the header

Friday, September 09, 2011

Friday Frames | Weekend Getaway

Dear Foodies,

last weekend began with me being stuck in a plane, as usual! This time it was due to a sudden afternoon thunderstorm in Denver, CO. But atleast I got to see a few rainbows, there was also a double rainbow after this...
and then the whole family transformed into Mizzou Tigers supporters to kick off the college football season.
My brother went to school here and the gorgeous campus always leaves me wanting to stay back.
by evening the temperatures had cooled down and it was time for barbeque
We decided to keep it all vegetarian - burgers with grilled veggie patties, grilled marinated veggies, corn (bestseller!) and zucchini. Dessert was grilled pineapple slices. And we also had a scrumptious bean & corn dip with chips. All I did was photograph and eat everything :)

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Lentil & Veggie Burger

 Dear foodies,

I hope all of you enjoyed the long weekend, its always too short when spent with family and friends. I know that this past weekend was an unofficial-official end of summer but I am not willing  to let go of the season yet! Burgers are considered a quintessential summer food here. It’s perfect for picnics, camping, grilling outdoors and can be made as casual or gourmet as desired. A meal that fits right into your palms and encourages you to be messy! But when it comes to veggie burgers you hit a wall more often than not. Most store-bought frozen patties are just a chewy, brown mass made up of mysterious ingredients that usually have no taste or flavor whatsoever. Douse it with enough ketchup, mayo and layers of lettuce and tomato and you can almost forget you have the patty in between. In the last few years there have been many new products taking up shelf place but very few have made me go look for them a second time. My favorites have been a spicy black bean burger and a garden veggie with the masala burger patties from TJ’s being the most sought after. I’ve been creating veggie burger patties at home over the last few years so I can avoid the overdose of soy & mushrooms in them. Potatoes, lentils and beans are my got-to choices to form the bulk of the patty and seasonings vary based on my mood and what is available in my kitchen that day.

The main reason for exploring burgers for me is because they are a wonderful lunch option. It gets tiring looking for something to pack for lunch every day for us. Most days its chapati’s with sabji/dal, when I get lazy it’s a rice variety, tiffin’s and salads find a place now and then. I cook in the evenings after I get back from work and trying to plan dinner and lunch is a challenge. If I make something light for dinner then I have to cook separately for lunch the next day and I want to avoid having to cook many things. This is where the idea of a burger/sandwich begins to sound really attractive, as long as I have a stock of good burger patties and condiments in the my refrigerator, all I will need on a day-to-day basis is get some good bread and we are all set for lunch.

I love the concept of a burger because it allows you to get creative with not only the burger patty but also the toppings that go with it and the kind of bread used. Switching between them will give you a different end result and this lets one customize them to their own tastes. In my quest to find flavorful toppings for our sandwiches, I made sauces and spreads and experimented with different combinations over the last few weeks. And I’ll be posting our favorites in the weeks coming up.

Today’s burger is all about the feisty spread from North Africa called Harissa. It’s a blend of hot dried chillies, tart sun-dried tomatoes and aromatic spices like cumin, coriander, caraway spiked with a few cloves of garlic. Getting a store-bought blend is just as easy as making it at home and 100 times more flavor. Make it once and you’ll be hooked for life. I read about it for the first time on Luisa’s blog, The Wednesday Chef and again on Deb’s blog Smitten Kitchen as part of her Carrot salad post. Their high praise for this spicy condiment was all I needed to get started on my own home-made harissa paste and the result was outstanding. The first time I made it I sneaked it into everything I ate for the next 10 days – stirred it into soups, added it to stir fry’s, spread it on sandwiches, stirred into yogurt to spread on my tortilla wrap and many such excuses.

Lentil & Bean Burger
Yield - 8-10
Prep time - 45mins
Cook time - 30 mins
  • 2 cups – Brown/Green lentils, picked and rinsed in multiple changes of water
  • ½ cup – Chickpeas, pre-soaked and cooked with a bay leaf and a few cloves
  • ¼ cup – Walnuts, roasted and coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup - each of onions, carrots, green/red peppers, finely diced
  • 1-2Tbsp - Cornstarch or ½ cup – Potato, mashed and boiled
  • 2 Tbsp – Harissa paste
  • Salt & Pepper to season
  • ½ cup – Bread crumbs
  • 1 Tbsp – Sesame seeds
  • 2-3 Tbsp – Vegetable Oil
  1. In a saucepan combine lentils (reserving ½ cup) and 2.5 cups water along with a couple of cloves and a bay leaf. Bring it a boil, lower the heat and simmer covered for about 25-30 mins until done. About 10mins in, add the reserved ½ cup of lentils and continue to cook. At the end of cooking time when the initial batch of lentils are tender & yield when pressed between your fingers, the ½ cup added later will retain some bite and add texture to the burger. Drain the lentils into a colander and set aside to draw out any leftover cooking liquid.
  2. In the mean time, heat 1 Tbsp of oil and sauté finely diced onions, peppers and carrots until slightly softened. Add salt and red pepper flakes to taste.
  3. To a mixing bowl add the cooked chickpeas and mash them completely using your hand or a potato masher. Add salt, pepper, harissa paste, cooked lentils, sautéed veggies and mash them together to form a dense mixture. If you feel that it’s a little loose add corn starch, a Tbsp at a time or mashed potato as needed to get the desired consistency. You should be able to form a patty that holds together.
  4. Mix bread crumbs, sesame seeds,a little salt and pepper and spread evenly on a plate. Coat the formed patties lightly on both sides with this mixture and arrange them on a plate to rest.
  5. Once all the lentil patties are formed cover the plate with a plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15-20mins. This will help the lentil mixture to bind and hold together when cooked in the next step.
  6. Heat a cast iron/non stick sauté pan with some oil and working in batches of 2-3 patties at a time crisp them slightly on both sides until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and toasted. Since all the ingredients in the mixture were pre-cooked a few minutes on each side will do.
  7. Use the patties to assemble a burger or cool completely and transfer to freezer bags and freeze for later.
To assemble the burger - Toast your choice of bread/buns with olive oil/butter. Stack a burger patty and a few spoonfuls of the carrot salad and you are done. You can add mayo, lettuce or pickled onions, but I liked it without them.
Notes: You could add sautéed spinach, chopped sundried tomatoes, and substitute other toaste nuts for the walnuts here. I usually tend to use Kaiser rolls or ciabatta for the burgers. Instead of the carrot salad you can stack grilled/sautéed veggies like zucchini, yellow squash, pepper and onions to create the burger and make a light spread using yogurt and harissa paste.

I was so eager to eat the final burger that I forgot to take photos of it! This burger patty is a power house of flavors and textures. The harissa paste does wonders with the earthy lentils making them spicy and delicious. The walnuts add a wonderful texture contrast with their crunch and nuttiness while the sautéed veggies amp up the flavor. These burger patties don’t really need much else to shine through. I had a few patties all by themselves as a snack with a squeeze of lime and chopped onions topped with some chaat masala. You can also make smaller patties and serve them as lentil tikkis for a great do-ahead party appetizer. As you can see from the recipe, the choices are endless and you can customize them to suit your tastes. These lentil patties make a great alternative to a regular veggie burger with loads of flavor paried the satisfaction of making them at home.

Whats your favorite lunch option and your favorite veggie burger ?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Tapioca/Sabudana Pudding with Mango

Dear Foodies,

Everyone who loves Thai food has heard or better yet, tasted one their most popular desserts - sticky rice with mangoes. The mangoes on their own are tempting enough to order a plate of the dessert. Its a simple combination of flavors yet uniquely different owed to the perfect balance between sweet and salty. Thai food, in general, is known for its play on various textures and flavors in each bite. There is sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy flavor components in almost all their dishes and they don't stop there. Yet another layer of textures is added by the use of sprouts, bamboo shoots, fresh herbs, fried onions and other such ingredients that make the meal a delight to the senses.

I've had this dessert on my to-do list for a very long time but it never got done. When I was hosting IAVW-Thai I was determined to make a dessert but got caught in the heady aromas of curries and curry pastes! It actually took me a long time to even try out a dessert while eating out because I'm always filled up with pad thai or a thai curry by the time I get to dessert. 

The rice component is made using a glutinous rice variety that cooks up to become a sticky, gooey mass. I've never been able to justify buying a bag just for this recipe because I don't prefer sticky, lumped rice in general. Sabudana/tapioca pearls, on the other hand are something I always have in the pantry. I usually buy the bigger pearls to make sabudana kichadi, a tiffin item that I love. When I ran out of them a few months back V could only find the smaller pearls and he got them home instead. It was a disaster trying to make the kichdi with the smaller ones, they take only a minute to get cooked and end up into a sticky, inedible mass within seconds...gah!

I found that the smaller pearls are best suited for payasam. Saggu bhiyam/Sabudana payasam is the only dessert that V has requested more than once I think. The last time that I started out making this payasam for him was right after we had enjoyed a great Thai dinner that ended with dessert. We liked it so much that I made a mental note to replicate the recipe for us at home. When I began preparing the payasam I decided to give it the Thai make-over and see how it tasted. I had all the ingredients on hand and it turned out absolutely perfect! That final sprinkle of salt takes the dessert to a whole other level. I loved this variation and have actually been adding a few grains of salt to all my desserts since. For those of you who love the original dessert and don't stock up on glutinous rice this is a quick and easy variation to address the cravings.

Once you've made the substitution for rice, the rest of the ingredients are easy to find. These demure ingredients create a final dish that is clearly more than the sum of their parts. The mangoes don't have to be perfectly ripe, infact a mildly tart & sweet mango would be my first pick. Frozen grated coconut, cardamom pods and sabudana are ingredients that I always have on hand and so its always easy to recreate this. You can make this starting from plain milk but if you can find evaporated milk then you are that much closer to the final prize. It cuts down on the cooking time by half and also takes away the stress of babysitting milk, phew!

Tapioca Pudding with Mangoes
Servings: 2-3
Prep time: n/a
Cooking time: 30-40mins
  • 1/2 cup - Tapioca pearls
  • 1/2 cup - ripe Mango, peeled & diced
  • 1/4 cup - Coconut, freshly grated
  • 1 can - Evaporated milk
  • 2-2.5 cups - Milk (Whole milk for a richer version, I used 2%)
  • 1/3 - 1/2 cup - Sugar
  • 2 - Cardamom pods, de-seeded
  • Pinch of salt
  1. In a saucepan, bring together evaporated milk and 1.5 cups of milk. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reduces by a third, about 15 mins.
  2. In the mean time, soak grated coconut in a few tablespoons of water/milk and grind to a coarse paste. Using a mortar & pestle coarsely powder the cardamom seeds, adding a little granulated sugar to help grind them.
  3. Once the milk is reduced and thickened, add the tapioca pearls and cook for a few minutes. Add sugar, coconut paste and cardamom powder next and stir gently to incorporate the ingredients.
  4. As the pearls cook they will thicken the payasam so add more milk as needed to get the desired consistency. They take only a few minutes to cook and will turn translucent when ready.
  5. Finally finish off with a pinch of salt and taste to check for balance of flavors. You want just a subtle hint of salt when tasting the pudding, nothing too obvious.
  6. Turn off the heat and serve warm/cold garnished with diced ripe mango. As the payasam cools, it will thicken and set-up, so if you want a looser payasam/pudding add more milk right before serving.
Notes: Evaporated milk is milk with 60% of its water content removed and is unsweetened. If unavailable, begin with 3 cups of regular whole milk and reduce it by half by cooking on medium-low heat and stirring frequently to avoid burning the milk solids.
If you have coconut milk on hand you can add it right after the tapioca pearls to enhance the coconut flavor.
And there you have it, all the flavors that you like in the Thai dessert but with a twist. The pearls almost disappear into your mouth as you eat the pudding and the evaporated milk gives it a rich milk flavor that I love in payasams. The mild hint of cardamom that to me makes an Indian dessert and the tropical coconut flavor bring in comforting flavors. The final hint of salt is what differentiates this from being a regular Indian dessert and takes it to the realm of exotic. It's weird how the salt actually enhances the sweet flavors in the pudding and slight tartness in the mangoes. Hope you get to try it out and enjoy these flavors.

Happy Ganesh Chathurthi  to those who celebrate it and
I wish you all a safe and fun long weekend!
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