Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Simple meals | Soba Noodle Salad

Dear Foodies,

The last few weeks our grocery shopping has been an exercise in self control, well, when is it not actually. On each trip, my dad and I come back with a couple of bags of fruit.  To get all our groceries we invariably end up going to a couple of stores in the area. And its extremely tough not getting tempted by the variety of fruits found in each. We seem to be at a perfect point in the season where summer berries are sharing the space with wonderful fall stone fruit. Mangoes and lychee's from the Asian market, plump raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and melon at the neighborhood Sprouts and ripe peaches, nectarines, plums, plouts, plumcots(!) from Tarder Joe's. It's come to point where my mother has had to intervene and place a ban on fruit buying (huh!).  But we still sneak some in cos there's just too much fruit to pass up and not enough time to enjoy all of it. psst...mango is still the winner :)

We are also eating our way through the amazing produce from our trip to Suzie's farm a few weekends back. The ripe tomatoes went into a traditional South Indian pachadi/pickle (recipe soon), enchilada sauce (this too!), green tomato chutney, rasam, sandwiches, salads and many more. In fact, no matter what we cooked in the last few weeks, tomatoes and peppers found a way in. A few beets, eggplants and peppers are still hanging around and I want to give this gorgeous looking pickled slaw a try soon. But in the mean time, here is a super simple summer noodle salad. It does not need much cooking and is great at room temperature or cold. I start with soba noodles that are made from buckwheat and have a nutty flavor and a slight chewiness when cooked. Did I mention it barely takes 4 mins to cook them ? In the time it takes for the water to come to boil and cook the noodles, the veggies and dressing can be prepared. Quick, simple and flavorful.

Soba Noodle Bowl
Prep time: 20 mins
Cook time: 10 mins
  • 2 bundles (3.1oz each) - Soba noodles
  • 1/2 cup - Onions, sliced
  • 1/2 - Red pepper, sliced lengthwise
  • 10-15 - Snow peas, vein removed and sliced in half
  • 1 Tbsp - Toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tsp - Toasted Sesame oil
  • 11/2 Tbsp - Tamari sauce or Soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp - Tahini or Peanut butter or Almond butter
  • 1 Tbsp - Lime juice or Rice Vinegar
  • 1-inch knob of fresh Ginger, finely grated
  • 1 tsp - Sriracha hot sauce or 1/2 tsp - Red chilli flakes (adjust to taste)
  • 1 tsp - Honey
  • 1/3 -1/2 cup - Noodle cooking liquid 
  • 2 stalks - Scallions, green and white parts sliced
  • 1/2 cup - Cilantro, coarsely chopped 
  • 2 tsp - Sesame seeds
  1. Bring water to boil in a pot deep enough to hold the noodles.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, add all dressing ingredients and whisk to combine. If the tahini or nut butters are clumpy and the choice of pots allows it - carefully place the bowl on the pot of water to gently heat and loosen the dressing. Otherwise, microwave for 15-20 seconds. Taste test and adjust quantities to suit your taste. I tend to add more lime juice and ginger.
  3. Blanch snow peas in the near boiling water for just a minute or two. Fish them out and add to the dressing bowl. Next add the noodles and cook to package instructions.
  4. Heat sesame oil in a shallow, wide pan on medium-high heat. Add onions and peppers to it and stir fry until slightly tender yet crunchy. Transfer to the dressing bowl. Toast sesame seeds in the same pan until lightly browned. They'll start jumping out of the pan at this point anyway :) Reserve for the final garnish.
  5. Once the noodles are ready, reserve 1/2 cup of water and drain the rest. Rinse noodles under cold running water and add to the dressing + veggies bowl. Toss gently to coat the noodles with the dressing, adding noodle cooking water as needed.
  6. Garnish with chopped scallions, cilantro and toasted sesame seeds.
Note: Swap in other veggies but make sure pick a few that are crunchy. You can also add crushed, roasted peanuts for garnish. I've made this recipe with all three choices - tahini, peanut and almond butter and they all tasted good.

This has become one the recipes I go to when a quick, flavor packed meal is needed. Its fresh, colorful and has lots of textures and flavors that will keep you going back for more. I've become a huge fan of the ginger-soy combo after I made this for the first time and have used it in this salad recipe too. The ingredients in the dressing are things that I have begun to stock in my pantry and I always have a few packets of soba & udon noodles from the Asian market. With the addition of a few veggies its a quick lunch or dinner in the making. Since its good at room temperature or cold, and sans garlic, its a great lunch box dish as well.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Tostadas with Guacamole, Red Cabbage slaw & fresh Corn

Dear Foodies,

Have you been to a horse race ? We were there a few weekends back and surprisingly had a good time. I don't think I would go back there every weekend, but it was a good one time thing to do. I don't gamble much, I could just as well through some cash out the window and it'd be the same. But that said, we wagered a couple of dollars on a few races that day. My dad found a few websites that offered free tips for each race. Some could not have been more off the mark, the one they picked to come 1st came 6th in a 8 horse race...ughh. We ended up with happy coincidences on some picks though - I whopping $3.60 on a $2 wager...hehe. They have 8 races each evening, one every 30 mins, that gives a rookie just enough time to figure out which horse to pick and place your wager. We had a nice time and enjoyed the first 4-5 races of the day. It took us awhile to figure out what was going on but we soon caught on and knew what win, show, place stood for and even the special quinella, trifecta and exacta meant. We tried a few combinations on each race until we were tired of losing and got out. By the 7th race we were done and left before the final race for the day.  Every summer my evening drive home is disrupted by this event - the amount of traffic is crazy, taking me twice as long to get home. Now I know whats its all about but still don't get where the money comes from! Even in the midst of a recession, $458 million was wagered at the race track last year, that is nearly $13 million a day!

Instead of corn tortillas I picked up these tostadas at the store. I had never tasted them before and was intrigued by the idea of having a crunchy chip as the vessel for toppings. Part of the reason I like corn tortillas is probably the smaller size. The fillings tend to be what I like the most about taco's. I'd rather have less tortilla and more filling and these tostadas are even better because of the crunch they bring. They are light and still surprisingly sturdy enough, allowing you to pile on the toppings.

A tostada is a fried tortilla that can be loaded with goodies. Its like an open faced taco with a crunchy shell giving you more room for filings which are essentially the best part. When you need a light lunch or snack to get you through a busy summer day a tostada is your answer. With the bounty of avocado in the markets here I make guacamole very often and with a few other ingredients I can have a fun meal ready in 15 - 20 mins. If you don't find pre-made tostada's in your local stores you can lightly fry store bought corn tortilla's as shown here. But finding ready made ones would be ideal in making this a quick meal to put together.

This dish has a few of my current favorites - guacamole and red cabbage slaw. Its perfect for picnics or do ahead scenarios as you can make and store all the components ahead of time. And more importantly, it looks stunning on the plate ;-) It could also be a great addition to a 'taco party' menu. I keep the guacamole simple with lots of cilantro and lime juice. A hint of cumin and diced jalapeno round up the spices for me.

Summer Veggie Tostadas
Prep time: 20 mins
  • Tostadas
  • 1 cup - Guacamole (recipe below)
  • 1 cup - Mexican cabbage and Jicama slaw
  • 2 - Corn on the cob, roasted (oven/grill) or microwaved whole in the husk
  • 3 - Spring onions - greens only
  • Feta cheese
  • Hot sauce (optional)
  • 2 - Avocados
  • 1-2 - Limes
  • 1/4 cup - Cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 tsp - Jalapeno/Serrano, minced (adjust to taste)
  • 2 Tbsp - Onions, finely diced (optional)
  • 1/4 tsp - roasted, Cumin powder
  • Salt to taste
  1. Roast or char grill corn or microwave in the husk for 3-4 mins as I did for this recipe. Once cool to handle, slice off the kernels with a sharp knife. 
  2. For the guacamole, combine onions (if using), minced chilies, cumin powder, salt and half the lime juice in a bowl. Using the back of your spoon apply gentle pressure to crush them together. This helps to draw out the juices. Add peeled and roughly diced or scooped out avocado to the mix and toss together. I sometimes go for a smooth texture and use a fork to mash everything together or when I want a more chunky guac, I add diced avocado and fold it into the other ingredients. Add more lime juice to taste, I prefer more of it.
  3. To assemble, apply a generous smear of guacamole on the tostada, top it with a few spoons of the cabbage slaw. Add as much of the corn and cheese and complete it with a sprinkle of spring onion greens and a few drops of hot sauce(optional)

This was a super nice spin on ingredients used in these tacos. The tostada's are surprisingly sturdy and did not fall apart in my hand and neither did they turn into a soggy mess. The sharp hint of lime in the guacamole and the slaw brighten up the dish and the fresh summer corn is a burst of sweetness. I had some mild feta on hand and it turned out to be a nice addition to the tostada. This is more of a technique or idea and could be used as a perfect vehicle for all the fresh produce in summer and fall.

What's your current summer favorite go-to meal ?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Homemade | Rhinestone / Kundan Rangoli

Dear Foodies,

Padmam - Lotus muggu
I'm going to take a detour from cooking on today as I can no longer keep this new craft that my mom and I (...mainly her :) ) have been churning out from all you guys. Last month for a puja at my brother's place we were trying to come up with ideas for setting up the altar and other decorations. Since it was their new home we did not want to risk using traditional muggu (rangoli) colors and staining the floors. When looking for designs online I came across some that were made using kundan stones and that's when this got started.
Peeta muggu (to be placed under a 3" high stool - peeta)
Michael's is our go-to store for craft items and it was no different this time. We found a huge pack of assorted color acrylic rhinestones and with the 40% coupon it was a good buy for a impromptu project. Only drawback was having to sort the beads by color before we got started. But with some glue and plastic printer sheets we got started on our very first one soon.

Since then we've made many more...it's hard to stop and we knew we were spent our afternoons ordering stones on Amazon and our evenings scouring bead stores in the area for the right shape, right shade or the perfectly sized stone :)
another Padmam with a different petal tip design
For the first few muggu's we used Graffix Ink Jet film, but later realized it's a little too thin and flimsy for such a project. We currently have these sheets from Graffix that we ordered online. They are much more sturdier but the only downside is the color. I noticed that the sheet itself had a blue tinge only after opening the package. So if you can find clear sheets of the same thickness, that would be ideal.
Flower pattern - Not the best photo but my favorite so far
Since the sheets are transparent its easy to trace the pattern on a sheet of paper and attach it to the plastic sheet using staples or paper clips. Its best to move a few inches at a time, trace the pattern with glue (we used this) and immediately place the rhinestones. Do use a good amount of glue or the stones will fall out over time when handled...found that the hard way.

We also used pearl and silver bead strings for some of the outlines. My mother figured that the best way to make them fit the pattern is to leave them stringed until they are glued in place. While the glue is still fresh, gently tug at the string and pull it out. You can then make slight adjustments but its a lot easier than gluing beads individually. Once the glue has had time to dry, trim off excess plastic sheet around the pattern. We skipped this step for now and left a lot more space so they are easy to handle and move around.

This our most recent project and the one we are most proud of, I think. We spent many evenings visiting stores and looking online for the right stones for this one but it was definitely worth it. Its still not complete. My mom's done making all the petals (below pic) and we'll have to create the final shape by using some gold string to form an outline.
Materials & Sources
  • Acrylic Rhinestones - Various colors, sizes and shapes
  • Pearl and Silver beads
  • Sources: Michaels Craft store - don't forget to look for coupons; local bead stores/outlet; The Crafts Outlet - Amazon store, eligible for prime shipping;
  • Craft Plastic Sheets - we used these Graffix sheets, but in a clear color if you can find them (and let me know where!)
  • Glue - Aleene's Clear Tacky Glue
  • a pair of tweezers really come handy when you have to move little beads around
petals to go around the above circular center pattern - 8 total
Google stone rangoli and get prepared to be awed. There is soo much great work to be inspired by. I thought I had a brilliant idea when we were trying to find an alternative to traditional color powder rangoli, but looks like its been around forever. This was the first collection that inspired me, here's another that lead to our current project; and another one. The very first muggu is the one that will be at the base of our Varalakshmi vratham kalasam this year.

Did you worked on any craft projects recently ? Please share them here!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bajji - Vegetable Fritters

Dear Foodies,

The festive season has begun for some Hindu's with the onset of Sravana masam last Wednesday. My parents are here visiting and I get to experience firsthand again the various puja's and neivedyam that I very vividly remember from when I was home. The unmistakable aroma of ghee and cardamom from the kitchen, incense from the puja room, the melodious voice of M.S. Subbalakshmi or Sudha Ragunathan playing in the background and the whole house buzzing with energy. The entrance would have been decked with a fresh muggu (rangoli) and thoranam. Fresh flowers adorn the altar and all puja samagri cleaned and ready to go. I've tried my best to recreate these from memory in the last few years but its never the same. Having mom here has brought that all back. I've slipped naturally into my post as assistant along with my Dad.

Today is Garuda panchami, a puja performed by sisters for the well-being of their brothers. It is a special pooja in our home for both my mom and me - she has four brothers and I have one. This also signifies the start of a string of auspicious days for the season - Varalaksmi vratam is on Friday, followed soon by Avani avittam (Jandhayala pandaga/Rakhi), Janmashtami, Vinayaka Chavithi, Dasara and then Diwali.

Clockwise - peppers, green tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes
For a foodie though, all these festive occasions have one other important thing at their core - neivedyam. Each puja has its own set of customary dishes that make it special. Kozhakattai for one, kesari for another or bobatlu. But no special Andhra (/Telangana ugh) meal is complete with out bajji - fritters. Usually its thinly sliced potatoes dipped in a mildly spiced besan/chickpea batter and deep fried to puffy, golden deliciousness. Using just pantry essentials, these take no more than 15 mins, with prep time taking just as long as it takes for the oil to come to temperature. So no surprise then that these were perfect snack to offer to unexpected guests.

On Saturday, we spent all morning at Suzie's farm picking fabulous summer produce. We now have close to 10 varieties of peppers, lots of sun ripened tomatoes, beets, kale, chard, eggplant and squash. With all this fresh produce in hand we had no reason to stick to traditional potato alone. Instead we made a bajji sampler plate using sliced eggplant, padron peppers, unripe green tomatoes and potatoes. Onions are also great for bajji but since this was going to be offered as neivedyam we skipped it.

Bajji - Fritters with Potatoes, Brinjal, Green Tomatoes and Peppers 
Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 15 mins
  • 1 cup - Besan/Chickpea flour
  • 1/4 cup - Rice flour
  • 1/2 tsp - Ghee or 1 tsp - Curd or 1 tsp - Rava/Semolina
  • 1/8 tsp - Turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp - Red chilli powder (adjust to taste)
  • 1/8 tsp - Ajwain (whole or roasted & powdered)
  • a pinch of Hing/Asafoetida
  • Salt to taste (~1/2 tsp)
  • Water, for batter
  • Oil for deep frying
  1. Prep veggies first - Scrub potatoes clean, wash all other veggies and pat dry. Peel potatoes if needed. Slice potatoes and eggplant thinly (1/8inch) by knife or using a mandoline. Cut stem end of peppers, de-seed and slice into discs. Green tomatoes sliced a little thicker than the rest.
  2. Heat about 1 inch of oil in a wide pan over medium heat.
  3. For the batter, combine all dry ingredients first. To make the fritters crispy add either ghee, rava or curd in the amount suggested. Add water to get the batter to a thick yet pouring consistency as shown above.
  4. Once the oil is hot (starts to shimmer and a small drop of batter falls to the bottom and rises up in a few seconds) dunk a few slices in batter and move them around to coat all sides. Pick up one slice at a time, allow excess batter drop, and gently slide it into the pan of oil from the side closest to you. Add a few more slices based on size of the pan making sure not to over crowd it.
  5. Using a slotted spoon, gently move the slices around 1-2 times, gradually spooning a little oil over them. Once the bottom part looks cooked (~ 1 min) flip over and cook until both sides are golden. 
  6. Transfer to a tissue lined plate for a few minutes to absorb excess oil. Move them to a serving plate or dish. They are great warm or at room temperature. Though they hardly need any accompaniments, a little Maggi sauce or mango avakaya on the side is wonderful.
Once you have the batter ready, you can experiment with almost all veggies. The tart green tomatoes were really good and so was the eggplant with a slight bitterness. Peppers (mirapakakya bajji) and potatoes (aloo bajji) hardly need any help in selling out. Cauliflower, cucumber, squash, spinach are all very good candidates. Last week we even saw someone on a cookery show dip rava kesari balls in this batter to make a hybrid snack! I may never go that far and plan to stick to just veggies.

We are busy making arrangements for Varalakshmi Vratam now and I hope to write another post this week about ourpreparations. My mom's Kozhakattai recipe now has new photos from today.
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