Monday, September 30, 2013

Garam Masala- from the North.

If you were to meet any random Indian, discussing curries and kebabs, you will keep hearing references to the ubiquitous "Garam Masala'-  that one single blend of spices which sounds oh so mysterious, but is infact so ordinary and everyday ! Then the recipe itself is so varied and yet essentially same, with only a few ingredients here or there. So a billion homes will have a billion variations I think! Or maybe not. Having said that, nearly all homes use it frequently in their everyday cooking without even giving much thought to it, and  yet every Indian cook is rather fussy about their choice of Garam Masala. How ironical!  

Garam Masala for all it's ordinariness, is not meant to be used liberally in any recipe, be it a Korma or a Kebab or a Biryani or anything else you might be making. If you have used some choice spices, of the finest quality, all you really need is to use just a little. There are again,several ways of using it, sometimes to marinate (rarely) sometimes whole spices without powdering it, sometimes in the beginning of a recipe and sometimes only towards the end, just as your dish is nearly done and is ready to be served. I have over the years, tried many different blends and the one now I tend to favour , is my favourite. I mix and grind my own small batches, and while it doesn't last long, I dont mind because I love the idea of using home ground Garam Masala. I have used store bought ones also, but soon got frustrated when I realized how substandard most of the brands are. Especially when it comes to aroma and I figured this out quite by chance while making Biryanis- whenever I used store bought Garam Masala, the fragrance which is so important in a Biryani would be missing! Soon, I simply stopped buying it altogether.  

Before you go to the recipe/method of making your own, remember to keep some tips in mind. A lot of people mix corriander and cumin seeds to their blend, I suggest you either avoid it altogether or just use very little. The bulk of the body ought to be made of fine, expensive spices- like green cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and mace. The commercial ones have a lot of corriander and cumin powders instead of the real stuff, which is probably why the quality is mediocre at it's best. I do use a bit of those two, but mainly for a dark, rich colour. Again, some people dry roast all the spices on a cast iron girdle/pan, believing that the heat makes the oils of the spices more potent. I don't do it. It is really up to you. I like the raw, strong flavor and smell of unroasted spices, I feel it lasts longer too that way. Don't skip on the spices which might be expensive in general, they do add a certain 'grandness' to this grand dame of all spice blends! LOLLLL. For example, use Shahjeera, instead of the usual white cumin... and finally, make a small batch. Don't make a large one because you want to retain the freshness and potency till the end. My recipe here has approximate measures. I eye ball everything and with years of practise, don't need an exact even if you dont strictly follow my measurements  don't sweat please.

Here is what you will need:

1 tbsp heaped, green cardamoms- I generally remove the skin, but you can leave it on too.
4 big black cardamoms, with skin
20 -25 cloves
20-30 black pepper corns
4' inch cinnamon stick
About 1/4 tsp of crushed nutmeg
About 10-15 blades of mace

*1tsp heaped- Shajeera (black cumin) and corriander seeds.(optional)

* I use Nutmeg and Mace for the convenience they provide- esp when I am making rice Pulaos and Biryanis- these dishes need nutmeg and mace, so  instead of using them separately as most people do, I just prefer mixing  them together with the rest of the spices. 

Grind to a fine powder in a coffee grinder/mixer. You will get about 3 tbsps of fine blend. Store in a clean, airtight container. I had to share this with you all urgently because my next few posts will call for garam masala quite frequently, best to get the basics out of the way! 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Chappli Kebabs for all times!

Things have been unusually hectic this month. Lots of birthdays including hubster's. One weekend, we had to attend three birthday parties back to back and once we were done, it struck us perhaps we really are getting old, me and hubster that is. It was tiring. The only thing going for me was the fact that I hardly cooked most weekends, that is a welcome break. So many invites! But I cannot stay away too long, cooking in my kitchen relaxes me. September also saw a spate of invitations to attend cooking demos, exhibits and festivals and blogger meet ups. I had to say no to each sadly. I just don't have the time or the energy to network, even if it is food related! A friend of mine who is very active on the food network scene in Dubai lamented at the lost opportunities, but really, after living eight years in Dubai, the one thing that has not become 'my thing' is networking. I am such a home-body. I like being home. The only time I like stepping out is when I know I am going to be shopping. Typical. It seems I have missed many chances, of meeting celebrity chefs, celebrity food bloggers (what in the world are those?), food blogging meet ups and cooking lessons/demos et all. I have a feeling my friend will now stop sending me invites and passes. Sorry V!  Oh well. It is simply too much of an effort honestly. Inspite of having a hubster who wishes I go out more and a chauffeur to drive me around. Naah. I will pass. 

In between attending parties and pacifying miffed blogger friends, I made some Chappli Kebabs for breakfast the other day. Lightly spiced, easy to assemble and non fussy, it is different in that, we use lots of tomatoes in it. These are traditionally from Pakistani homes but you will find  them in North Indian muslim homes too. I myself  learnt it from our family lawyer's wife , back in Varanasi. I thought it was super easy and pretty versatile given that she was serving it for breakfast with hot, butter laden paranthas and a big cup of Chai. Serve it whenever you like actually. As an appetiser, as a side, for breakfast or even tea time. We are a meat loving family, so for us anytime is a good time to eat kebabs, we don't wait for any special times around here. 

Here is what you will need:

Finely minced meat of Mutton or Beef :               500 gms
Meat Tenderizer 1 tsp or grated  raw Papaya : 2 tbsp 

1 Medium onion, very finely chopped
2 Medium tomatoes, very finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh corriander, finely chopped
3-4 fresh green chillies, very finely chopped
1tbsp garlic paste
1.5 tsp ginger paste

1tbsp roasted and crushed cumin seeds
2 tbsp roasted and crushed corriander seeds
1/2 tsp crushed black pepper corns or 1/2 tsp of crushed dry red chillies
1 tsp roasted and crushed anaardana (optional)
1 tsp garam masala (optional, I did not use any)
Salt to taste
Oil for shallow frying. I used unsalted butter. 
As always, adjust the chillies according to taste, this is actually supposed to be a mild Kebab with not many spices being used. 

Mix the mince with the meat tenderizer or grated Papaya if you are using that. Add all the dry spices along with ginger-garlic paste, green chillies and fresh corriander. Do not add  salt, onions and tomatoes just yet so that there is no moisture released from these, making your mixture too wet. Keep aside for 1-4 hours. Just before you have to fry the patties, about fifteen minutes before, add the chopped oinions, tomatoes and salt. Mix gently. Take a largish amount in your palms, make a ball and flatten in to broad patties. These kebabs are almost as large as a standard burger patty.

 Heat oil in a wide, shallow frying pan or your 'tawa'. Once hot, fry the kebabs on medium to low flame, a good five minutes at least on each side. Because we add onions and tomatoes both, the mixture tends to be a little wet. So take care when shaping the patties, be gentle when placing them in oil or when you flip them over. Once they are cooking though, they will begin to firm up.  Fry them untill browned and done, keep checking for it's 'doneness'.

 Serve warm with paranthas or naans along with a chutney of choice. Isn't it the easiest? 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Quiet Mornings With Masala Chai

I have a morning ritual. Everyday. I am up at 4.30 a.m. and untill my daily chores begin at 5.30, I dedicate this one hour to myself. I was never a morning person for the longest time, but last year I adopted a lifestyle which is healthier and sustainable. I started a Paleo Diet, found an excellent nutritionist who guided me and helped me to lose a tremendous amount of weight. Apart from that, I also began excercising. I figured, if I want to lead a long and a fit life, to enjoy some grandbabies (primarily and God willing) I better do something about it. :) 

Even though we are only two and a half in my family, I still have plenty to do during the day. There is a quiet lull in the hot afternoons and evenings are again busy, untill bed time. So this one hour in the morning is my favourite part of the day, when it is still dark outside and the boys are fast asleep. No TV, no music and no sound. I am still in my PJ's and the first thing I do is brew a cup of Chai for myself. While I sip my tea, I sometimes just sit and soak up the silence. Sometimes I read or surf the net. Usually I journal. No structure to my ritual, just being at peace thinking of the day ahead. I have been meaning to share my way of making 'Masala Chai' since some time now. My husband is a coffee drinker and is not fussy at all about his coffee. Me on the other hand, am fussy about how I make my Chai. We have managed to live with this difference quite easily, like an old pair of gloves, fitting comfortably, without abrasions. After all these years, he has infact learnt how to make me a perfect cuppa. And I think that is lovely. 

Here is how you do it my way:

1 medium sized  cup of water 
1 small sized cup of full fat milk

1 tbsp tea leaves which has been mixed with:

1/2 tsp or 2  cardamoms crushed coarsely
1/2 tsp dry ginger powder
A small pinch of cinnamon powder (optional) 
Sugar to taste

I usually make my own blend at home. I grind cardamoms, cinnamon and dry ginger coarsely and mix it with my 500gms of tea leaves. Store in an air tight container, saves me the hassle of opening individual spice jars. You can see tiny specks of cardamom skin in the pic above, blended with the tea leaves! :)

Set the water to boil in a sauce pan. Add milk to it. As it just starts to boil, add the tea leaves with the spices. It is important to remember, not to tip in the leaves if the milk-water is not really hot or almost boiling. Else the flavours of the tea leaves gets locked in without being released properly. 
Bring to boil once, reduce flame to low and brew gently for a minimum of five minutes and maximum eight minutes. By this time your chai will be done. I dont drink it very strong, so five minutes are good for me. Strain and serve in a pretty mug. Take time, be slow, savour and sip your way to the zen land. 

Here's to my Chai Mornings! 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Quietening the Self and some musings on Varanasi

It is only when I am away from home, from Dubai, do I realise just how much I love this place. Going home, Varanasi, is never easy for me. I was born and brought up there, I have my family there and yet as far back as I can remember, I was an uneasy 'Benarsi". They say you are born Benarsi, you either are or you aren't. I am certain of being the latter type. I have no shame in admitting that, honestly! Contrary to what most people believe, I find Varanasi extremely disturbing, emotionaly, physically and most importantly, spiritually.  As a little girl, I remember, feeling restless, a strange sense of detachment towards my birth place. I just never connected it seems. When grown ups would ask me, 'what do you want to be when you become a big girl?', my answer without fail would be, I want to leave this place.... I do have memories of a happy childhood, my entire family and friends surrounding me, I had everything to nourish me and yet they  knew I was straining to simply 'get away'. 

I now lead a quiet, sedate life in Dubai, with my husband and child. It is extremely calm and peaceful, my life that is. My parents are still there. Every year, twice a year, I go back to see them. That is all. I go to see my parents and  if they were not there, I would simply stop my visits. And for some favourite aunts and cousins. For now, when I do go back, the reality is even more stark. I am convinced it is also because of my own spiritual evolution. Since I found Christ, Varanasi disturbs me to my very core. It shakes me up. There is no light. There is no love. Only a deep,unfathomable darkness, mindless yet palpable. The moment I land there, is one of deep anxiety. Which stays with me throughout my stay. I live like a recluse. Refusing to step out, relatives and friends graciously come to see me instead. And for that I am grateful. But the city has nothing to offer, it only drains me. I come back, tired, shaken up and almost physically sick each time. I don't try and analyse it too much for I know, my home here, is waiting for me. Nourishing my house after the weeks of my absence and neglect is what restores me, slowly. I walk around the house, touching everything, remembering my life here, the peace I find here...and let the healing begin, untill next time I have to go back. 

Here are a few pictures which are like a balm to my weary heart. These are little corners in my house, simple and yet restorative for my frazzled soul. This air helps me to grab back whatever I seem to lose in Varanasi. These help me shake off the very dust and air which clings to me in for my guys, gardening, re-connecting as a mommy and wife, reforming the gentle rhythms of my daily life. I strive to absorb some peace from my surroundings, especially my house. 

This is my tiny world, gentle and reassuring. May my soul always be quiet and still as the Bible says. Amen! 
Linking up to Patty's Weekly Story I have been away too long, let me join the party! :)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Gosht Yakhni Pulao

It has been a long time, isn't it? No points for guessing, like any other expat living in the Middle East, I had gone back to India for my summer holidays. It was quite a trip. Six weeks never felt so long! 

Just glad to be back, really, really glad. 

I don't consider myself a foodie. I am a picky eater by any standards and am not very open to new culinary ideas. I also don't live to eat, I eat because I have to live. That's about it. Honestly. But then there are some kinds of food which will break all your pre-set notions and ideas, real or imaginary. It will have a strong grip on you and one must then do nothing but succumb. For me it my Nani's Yakhni Pualo. Chunks of goat meat, cooked with rice in it's own stock, mildly spiced and absolutely perfect. It is my all time favourite one pot meal, anytime, anywhere!  It was made as far back as my fourth generation prior, by my great grandmother, perfected by my grandmother and passed down to our family cook because well, my mother cannot cook! So, I have stepped in and am taking the legacy of Yakhni pulao forward. I am happy to report, my five year old loves it too. Score! The recipe is simple enough, albeit time taking. But throw in some patience and you shall be richly rewarded. You dont need to assemble a lot of ingredients  there can be short cuts employed with no major difference to the final outcome, but trust me on this one-slow and easy, so worth it. 

From a  typical North Indian/Pakistani kitchen,  Gosht Yakhni Pulao. It is in the strictest of terms, truly 'riwaayati' (traditional). Most families also tend to use this same recipe, with the exception of choosing between yoghurt or tomatoes. Please note this is not a Biryani. It is a Pualo and so you don't make layers of rice and meat . Cook this with the usual manner in which you would make any pulao. This pulao is known for it's mild flavours, with the taste of corriander and fennel seeds dominating. Those two are important. Some people add either tomatoes or yoghurt. I add a little of both. As always, the amount of chillies you use is up to you. Try getting the same cuts of meat as you would for a biryani. Be sure to include a few Nallis- for it's marrow. It lends a fantastic flavour to the final prep. Yakhni, means stock and as the name suggests, the difference between this pulao and the other regular ones is the use of meat stock to actually cook the rice in.

Here is what you will need:

1 kg of mutton/beef
2 large onions, sliced thinly and divided in to halves.
1 ' of ginger whole or chopped in to chunks.
6-8 garlic cloves

1 large tomato, cut in to rounds.
1 cup of yoghurt, whisked.

Spices to be coarsely ground: ensure you dont make a powder. 

1 heaped tbsp of fennel seeds
3 tbsp of heaped whole corriander seeds
1 tsp of Shah Jeera + 1/2 tsp more
1.5' stick of cinammon
6 cloves
10-12 black pepper corns
2 black big cardamom
4-6 green cardamom
10 whole dry red chillies ( dont worry too much about the qty being used here, adding yoghurt to the pot will make the pulao mild later)
a pinch of nutmeg and mace each 
1 large bay leaf
*Once you make a powder, take this spice blend and tie it up in a 6' sqaure muslin cloth. This is known as a 'Garni'. You make a little pouch/potli of these masalas, to season your stock. Do use a really thin cloth for this, like I said, use Muslin. 

Good quality Basmati rice- 2.5 cups. Soaked for about 15 minutes, just before you are about to add the rice to cook and not before. 
6 -7 cups of water.
Salt to taste
4 tbsp oil to cook. 

Start by making a stock by boiling the water, salt, mutton pieces, half of the sliced onions, ginger, garlic. Also, add the little 'masala garni' you have made, cook untill meat is tender but not too overcooked. You may use a pressure cooker if you wish to. This is the only time taking process of the recipe. I usually slow cook my meat. In the mean time, while the meat is cooking, take half of the onions you kept aside and fry them caramel golden to garnish later.

Once the meat is done, you can throw away the masala pouch and retain the rest. Strain the stock, and keep the meat pieces aside. retain the onions/ginger/garlic along with it. Make sure the meat is well drained of the stock.

Measure the stock, you should have roughly about 5 -6 cups of stock left. If it is more, boil it down. If it isnt enough, don't worry, we will be using some yoghurt too. 

Next take a deep pot, with a thick bottom, one which has a lid and can be used to make rice. Heat the oil, tip in the 1/2 tsp Shah Jeera. As it sizzles, add the meat pieces and stir it around, let it acquire a slightly brown colour, this should take just a few minutes. The onion/ginger/garlic which was cooked along with the meat and retained later will also go in to this. As this starts drying, add the yoghurt, followed by the drained rice. Mix well, taking care not to let the rice stick to the bottom of the pot. Once it is all mixed in nicely, add the stock. This is where, you decide how much of it goes in. I usually measure by inserting my finger and checking to see if the water level just about reaches the first mark of my middle finger. Check for salt again. Set to boil. First on medium high flame, then low flame. As the water starts to dry, spread the tomato rounds over the top. Cover and cook on very low flame, untill the rice is cooked. I just lower the flame to the lowest mark, let it sit for another maybe fifteen minutes and open it only when I have to serve.

When ready to serve, garnish with caramelised onions. Served with a raita, papads and desi style tomato salsa. This pulao tastes fabulous the next day too. Enjoy.

I made this pulao as soon as I landed back here , to remember home. It was perfect.