I can be Jell-O

Identifying my life through food that I cook

cookbook review (and some lighter fare)

My recipes, or ideas for recipes, tend to be sourced from a steady revolving door of reliable standbys. My mom’s cooking and whatever I can piece together from childhood memories is one; Epicurious and other standby blogs are another. Then, of course there’s the steady block of cookbooks on my kitchen windowsill: silent, sturdy, dogeared friends that feel enormously welcoming in an age where recipe-writing needs to be catered to mobile apps.

I’m not vegetarian, but I have a tendency to lean towards it, mostly because I was raised on a lot of South Indian food (a diet that’s inherently meat free but remains, in my opinion, one of the most complex and delicious cuisines in the world.) Plenty is a great book for people like myself- for those who tend to splurge more on the items in their spice cabinet than on an expensive cut of meat. And I can’t help but like that a vegetarian tome such as this one was written by a guy who not only presents his food without agenda, but suggests that one of his dishes would go great alongside some lamb. In the hyper-political, morally grandstanding environment we all live, eat and cook in, I find his approach enormously refreshing.

The New York Times, The Guardian and Epicurious have all rushed to put this on their best-of 2011 cookbook list, so what I’m saying here is not anything new. The book is beautiful both in construction and layout, and is organized, quite intelligently, by vegetable. I’m behind any book that has a chapter called “The Mighty Eggplant”.

But let’s face it – it’s the holiday season. Along with everyone else, I too am eyeing the ginger-glazed ribs and macaroons recipes, but how refreshing and festive would the eggplant dish be, the one photographed above? Ottolenghi has you roast halved eggplants with their skins on, make a simple garlic, buttermilk dressing and then dress the dish with an inspired garnish of pomegranate seeds and lemon thyme. Serve family style with some thin toasts, and you have, I think, a perfectly elegant starter to your holiday meal.

This book does have its detractors, and their criticisms are not without merit. The recipes aren’t perfect and not a few of them should be adjusted to personal taste. There are some technical mistakes (most notably perhaps, when it says to roast eggplant at 200 degrees, instead of 400 degrees – be sure to ignore that and stick to 400). My William-Sonoma Baking book, in comparison, is a technically perfect recipe book. These are recipes I know I don’t have to adjust at all – they have been tried and perfected countless times in their excellent test kitchens. Plenty is not this kind of book. But I’m endorsing it because it opens my mind to new ways of approaching vegetables. It’s a book, much like David Tanis’s Platter of Figs (which has a disastrous spinach cake recipe), that inspires rather than instructs. These are books that make me want to cook more thoughtfully, shop more carefully, and celebrate more often. Tanis and Ottole write cookbooks that keep the argument for writing cookbooks alive – there’s a narrative and a life viewpoint that aligns the pages. For cooks who are comfortable enough to adjust and recognize personal preference among the listed ingredients, this book is an excellent addition to the library.

Take the Saffron Tagliatelle with spiced butter. Sounds fussy, especially since it includes instruction on how to make your own homemade pasta. But all you need to do is the following: add a pinch of saffron to your pasta water, and cook al dente some good quality dried pasta. Raid your spice cabinet (you’ll need all your warming spices, like paprika, cinnamon, turmeric and coriander) and brown them with butter. Season with salt and pepper. That’s it – this is your sauce. Pour your butter sauce, with a handful of fresh herbs for good measure, with your cooked pasta and you have a perfect, simple first course for a dinner party.

There are some standard pairings: a watermelon and feta salad that I’ve seen countless times, a mushroom and polenta dish that I’ve relied on, with my own spin, for years – but sometimes a gentle reminder of what already works can be productive, too.

I wasn’t sure which of his many recipes to share, and I ended up choosing one that’s as un-Christmassy as possible. For as much as I’d like to pretend that I can spend my December in a permanent holiday haze of peppermint candies and egg nog, I still have a lunch to pack each day, preferably something that’s healthy and light enough to counteract all the cookies, pies and general happiness-inducing indulgence. There’s nothing virtuous about it – I’m listening to Christmas music as I type this and wishing someone could magically furnish me with some toffee pudding. But when you want to pull the reigns on a little, this cold noodle salad with a zingy sesame dressing and sweet chunks of mango is a comprise that doesn’t feel too comprising.

Soba Noodles with Eggplant and Mango

from the cookbook PLENTY, recipes by Yotam Ottolenghi

Feel free to play around this. Cubed fried tofu, as Ottolenghi suggests, would give it a protein boost.

1/2 cup rice vinegar
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 to 1 red chile, finely chopped, depending on your heat preference
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
grated zest and juice of 1 lime
sunflower or canola oil
2 eggplants, cut into 3/4-inch dice
8 to 9 oz soba noodles
1 large ripe mango, cut into 3/8-inch dice or into 1/4 inch thick strips
1 1/2 cups basil leaves (use Thai basil if you can find it, but less)
cilantro leaves
1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced

In a small saucepan gently warm the vinegar, sugar and salt for up to a minute, just until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and add the garlic, chile and sesame oil. Allow to cool, then add the lime zest and juice.

Heat up your canola or sunflower oil (about 1/2 a cup will do) and shallow-fry the eggplant in 3-4 batches. (Note: I like to add a bit of sugar when frying eggplant – it helps to caramelize it.) Once golden brown remove to a colander, sprinkle liberally with salt and leave there to drain.

Cook the noodles in plenty of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, about 5-8 minutes until al dente. Drain and shake off as much as excss water as possible, and then leave to dry on a dish towel.

In a mixing bowl toss the noddles with the dressing, mango, eggplant, half of the herbs and the onion. Leave aside for 1 to 2 hours. Serve with the remaining herbs.

What I’d make if I were making Thanksgiving dinner

I am, as always, in good hands this Thursday. My mother is the sort of woman who makes multiple stuffings and four kinds of pie even when there are only 5 to 6 of us at the table. It’s a brilliant layout of food and she has her prep-and-assemble timeline down to a science. So even though I approach the holiday every year thinking that I might contribute a dish or two, the effort is entirely redundant, and I’m more useful washing dishes, peeling the occasional apple and more or less staying out of the way. I should add here that this is all something I can entirely relate to as I am the absolute worst delegator in my own kitchen, as my sister among others can attest to.

But that doesn’t stop me from looking through the mass blog posts and magazine articles and cookbooks that are out there, all solely dedicated to this one glorious meal. Over the past few years and recent weeks I’ve compiled a long list of bookmarked recipes that I would make to supplement the usual Thanksgiving fare, if I were running the show. But for now I’ll happily take my place at the table, and function solely as a grateful eater.

one of the best parts of coming home for the holidays- my Dad’s coffee-making process

Drinks

Mexican Egg Nog – holiday favorite boosted up with cinnamon, vanilla and some golden rum.

Fallen Leaf Cocktail have a small gathering? Take advantage and make this beautiful cocktail for each guest.

Dinner

Carrot and Pomegranate Soup – our Thanksgiving always starts off with a beautiful soup that sets the tone for the meal without weighing you down before you get into the heartier stuff. My mom always makes something different, but the soups have been consistent through the years: always light and very smooth, a pureed root vegetable base laced with fruit and a little cream, topped with a simple but elegant garnish. (This years soup:  “Pumpkin, apple, celery, onion – thinned with stock and cider: sage and cinnamon”, she reports over email.) This carrot and pomegranate version found in  Luisa’s archives definitely fits the Rajan Thanksgiving bill.

M. Wells Shaved Brussel Sprouts Salad – don’t underestimate the respite a good salad brings to a heavy meal. The bitterness of the arugula and bracing squeeze of lemon would be the perfect relief to the mashed potatoes and gravy.

Indian Roasted Potatoes – I make this so often: for guests, for weeknight dinners, for a simple side during a special occasions meal. The cumin seeds and turmeric will make this dish stand out in the sea of parsley and oregano. A  crowd pleaser that’s easy to double or triple in quantity. (Note: I never make this with curry leaves and sometimes swap the dried chilies with fresh jalapeno. I also usually forget to add the mint and cilantro at the end, to absolutely no detriment.) 

Challah Bread Stuffing – the eggy, rich challah flavor raises this into something that feels a little more elevated than regular stuffing . I made this for the first time recently, and it was unfussy to prep and vegetarian to boot.

Adobo Turkey with Red-Chile Gravy – rave reviews and a flavorful kick make this the roast turkey recipe I’d most like to try.

Dessert

Nothing can beat a great pie, but here are some of my favorite alternatives (and by alternatives, I mean additions) to the dessert table:

Either of these two cakes: festively seasonal, great for making ahead, easy to carry if you’re contributing as a guest, and good for a large group. Also, they’re just really good.

Pecan, Bourbon, and Butterscotch Bread Pudding Serve with coffee, or maybe some Ciderhouse Whiskey, to keep your night going.

Vanilla Roasted Pears – easy as it gets and a nice reprieve from all the pastries. Leftovers would be great with roast pork or spooned over hot oatmeal for a delicious next-morning breakfast.

And lastly, a recent baking tip from my mother: “Before putting on the top crust of your apple pie, dot the filling with cut up bits of store-bought plain caramels” (instead of dotting it with butter which is what recipes usually instruct you to do.) You’ll have an Apple Caramel Pie and a lot of happy guests. Have a great Thanksgiving!

Baked Apple Pancake & Sausage Potato Hash

Weekend breakfasts can be a tricky thing. I want something a little more luxurious than, say, oatmeal, but getting past my bed’s heavy blankets and my desire to watch Law & Order re-runs all day can make cooking something special a little tricky. Laziness is a powerful detractor.

Adding to my dilemma is my issue with cooking pancakes. First, there’s the mess. Flour bags need to be opened and with it that inevitable flurry of white dust that always makes me prefer cooking to baking. Then there are the number of dishes used: a bowl for dry ingredients, a bowl for wet ingredients, measuring spoons, measuring cups, a well-greased skillet. I have no problem doing this if, say, I were baking a cake. But when it’s the weekend, and I’m feeling so self-righteously lazy, seeing the pile of battered-up bowls in my tiny NYC sink becomes something of a buzz-kill. (Somewhere Terence is rolling his eyes since he’s entirely responsible for dish-washing responsibilities, but what can I say. I’m very empathetic.) But more than the mess is the fact that I’m beholden to that hot stove. I need to stand by it and pour/flip/stack until the batter is done, which often yields some severely cooled down ‘cakes. I could cook them in batches, but once I sit down to eat, I want to be down. I want to be on my couch, West Wing episodes playing at full blast, getting up only to freshen my coffee.  Or, I want to be spending actual time talking to the people I’m eating with; when I’m on pancake duty, I eat hastily, constantly eyeing other people’s plates, waiting to see when others are ready to take on a new stack so I can run back to the stove. Not much fun at all.

Now, I know there are ways to getting around this – I could make all the pancakes and then keep them warm in the oven, for instance. But I wanted a recipe that would cut down on steps, not add to them.

Pancake, pre-oven

Turns out my slothfulness can be rewarded with something delicious. This recipe yields a sweet, eggy base with an apple topping that can be likened to pie filling. Yes, pie. (You should already be heading to your kitchen.) Clean-up is painless, and it takes a grand total of ten minutes for it to rise in the oven, all puffy and golden.

But when it comes down it, the salty sides are what get me out of bed. I first thought about trying chorizo hash, which is always a hit, but I find it a little heavy first thing in the morning.  So I decided to use up the rest of the lean, hot turkey sausage I had and see what would happen.

I was happy with the results but would recommend two things: a) potatoes love salt so season with a generous hand, and b) make sure to take the time to squeeze out as much water as you possibly can from the grated potatoes. It makes all the difference when you’re aiming for that great, crispy texture.

Lastly, this hash exhibits one of my favorite qualities in home-cooking: it makes for excellent leftovers. Top it with a fried egg and you’ve got yourself a more than respectable lunch the next day. Which means more time re-watching your favorite TV scenes, like this one.

Pancake, post-flip

Baked Apple Pancake

(adapted from Bon Apetit)

  • 1 Granny Smith apple, seeded, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/8 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 450°F. Toss apple slices with lemon juice and a sprinkling of sugar in medium bowl.

Whisk eggs and milk in large bowl to blend. Add flour, 1 tablespoon sugar and salt; whisk until batter is almost smooth (small lumps of flour will remain).

Mix brown sugar, cinnamon and remaining sugar in small bowl.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a nonstick, oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Pour batter into the skillet. Arrange the apple slices evenly over batter.

Transfer  to oven and bake until pancakes are set around edges but still wet in center, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from oven; sprinkle brown sugar mixture over the pancake. Dot with 1 tablespoon of butter. Using spatula, carefully turn pancake over. (I had someone hold the skillet while I used two spatulas to flip.) Return to oven. Bake until the pancake rise, sugar mixture melts to sauce consistency and top of pancakes is golden, about 3 to 6 minutes. Cut into quarters and invert onto plates. Serve warm.

Turkey Sausage Potato Hash

3 large russet potatoes, peeled
1 large onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 bell pepper, any color
2-3 links of hot, lean turkey sausage (or any sausage of choice)
1/2 teaspoon of paprika (if you have smoked paprika on hand, that would work well too)
1/2 teaspoon of all-purpose seasoning OR a handful of fresh parsley
1 tablespoon of butter
salt and freshly ground pepper

Start by scrubbing and peeling your potatoes. Using the largest hole on your box grater, grate the potatoes, and then squeeze as much excess water from the potatoes as possible. Put grated potatoes in a medium to large bowl and set aside.

Dice up your large onion, and in a pan (cast iron or something else non-stick works great here) sautee your onion in 2 tablespoons of cooking oil (olive or canola) until translucent. Add your cloves of minced garlic, followed by your diced bell pepper. It’s preferable if the onions start to brown, but make sure to not burn the garlic. Once the bell peppers start to soften, sprinkle the mixture with some salt (about 1/2 a teaspoon) and a few cracks of fresh black pepper. Turn stove off and add mixture to your bowl of grated potatoes.

Using the same pan, begin to cook your sausage. Break the meat into bits with a wooden spoon and let the meat brown on all sides. Turn off stove, and add browned bits to your potato mixture.

Add another 1/2 teaspoon of salt, more pepper, paprika and your all-purpose seasoning or fresh herbs to the bowl. Mix well.

Using the same pan, melt a tablespoon of butter on medium high heat. Add your potato mixture to the pan, pressing down well so the mixture is evenly pressed down in the pan. Let cook for several minutes until it’s very well browned on one side. Begin to break up and flip on its other side. You want your hash very well browned.

Taste and add more salt if needed. Serve with your favorite hot sauce, if you’re anything like me.

Seasonal whim

So many bloggers have been posting pictures of their homemade popsicles lately, that it’s making me want to buy popsicle molds for myself. I think it could be a such a great dessert to pull out for guests or to bring for someone who lives nearby. With my limited kitchen storage space though I usually hate buying appliances that are so specific in purpose, so I’m curious: do you own one and is it worth it? What are your favorite recipes? And most importantly, does anyone know how to make a proper creamsicle in one of these things?

 

Image via marthstewart.com; recipe for the above photo can be found here.

Formulas

World’s best no-cook summer dinner:

Fresh corn, tomato, basil salad + arugla drizzled with honey and balsamic vinegar + slices of avocado with lemon juice and salt + great bread, cheese, and cured meat + a glass of your favorite sparkling rose + a bowl of perfect watermelon.

 

World’s Best Leftover Sandwich:

Cranberry nut bread (raisin would also work) + some slices of sopressata + spicy havarti cheese + a few slices of a ripe tomato + 2-3 whole basil leaves. A great cup of coffee with it wouldn’t hurt.

 

Nay, pilgrim

This is probably the time where I tap the microphone and clear my throat and make an awkward joke about why I haven’t written a real post on this site since Thanksgiving. I imagine, though, that you’re probably more distracted at the moment by #snowpacalypse, #thunderstorm, or any other clever hashtag nickname I’ve seen on my twitter feed in the past few weeks. East-coast friends, how are you faring? I hear things are starting to thaw out a little bit. I’m taking for granted the weather here, and know that the weather adjustment will be a rude one when I return home in a couple of weeks.

It’s an understatement to say that it’s hard to believe the end of this time in India is now rearing its head. It doesn’t seem very long ago I was  baking cakes to relieve the stress of getting everything in order for me to leave. I am dizzy with excitement about reuniting with my family, friends and beloved NYC, but will greatly miss parts of my life here as well. Its been an extraordinary trip, and a much needed one too, I’m realizing.

2011 was rung in a sweaty disco, Bollywood beats mixed with house and hip-hop with our group of Mumbaiites and displaced New Yorkers. There have been trips to Surat in Gujurat, to Amravati in the north-east region of Maharastra, and several trips to the lovely city of Pune. I’ve reunited with Terence, my mother, and friends who have come to visit. I’ve eaten an astoundingly good dinner in the slums of Dharavi, and have felt appropriately fancy drinking tea at the Taj. I’ve discovered the best street food of my life, and have drunk countless cups of chai on overnight trains and street corners. I’ve realized that no cuisine, for me, can get much better than South Indian food, and that no meal will ever be more satisfying than the one your grandmother cooks. I’ve been restored back from sickness after a man hacked open a coconut and gave me its water to drink, and have discovered the joys of fig kulfi and paan-flavored ice cream

Despite the memorable experiences here, though, I’m more than ready to go home to New York. In these final few weeks I’ve been hit with some small pangs of homesickness, and I really can’t wait to see my family and friends again. I also have a long list of restaurants I’m excited to revisit and also try for the first time. New York readers, have you discovered any great new haunts this past winter? I’d love to hear.

Chutney Sandwich

This is a simple, basic sandwich that people here eat as a snack.  As much as I’m a fan of the stacked American sandwich, there’s something  satisfying about the varieties made with thin, white bread, with nary a protein source in sight.

2 slices of thin white bread

a few slices of tomato

a few slices of cucumber

a few slices of boiled potoato

a few slices of boiled beets (optional)

mint – cilantro chutney

salt, pepper, and a sprinkle of chaat masala

Spread the chutney onto both slices of bread. Sprinkle a little salt, black pepper and a little chaat masala over the veggies, and assemble however you wish on the bread. (It shouldn’t be very thick.) Slice off the crusts if you really want to be demure. Cut into four pieces.

Mint-Cilantro Chutney

  • 2 cups packed fresh cilantro sprigs
  • 1 cup packed fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 inch of ginger root, grated
  • 1/2 cup chopped white onion
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 -2 tablespoon fresh lime juice (or tamarind juice)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh small green chiles, such as serrano or Thai, including seeds, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder or cumin seeds
  • some black pepper
Puree all ingredients in a blender until you have your desired consistency. Refrigerate when not using.

And onwards we go

Apologies for the lull over here – it has been a whirlwind month between work, travel, and unplanned circumstances to adapt to. 2010 gave me my first holiday season abroad, an experience I’ll remember and appreciate always. A more substantial post to come soon, but I do want to say happy new year, friends. Wishing you all a 2011 filled with “leafy greens, hot sauce and champagne”, as one of my favorite bloggers wrote recently. Stay healthy, think big, and don’t skimp on what makes you happy.

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