Better with time

Being away from this space for four months has been tough.  It’s not that I didn’t want to be here, that I just wandered off without a care.  I thought about it a lot, I did! But this here little world of mine was crowded out by a new challenge, a study related one which according to the experts in my life makes me a glutton for punishment.

channa masala (1 of 4)

You see, if I post here, I want to be all here, giving it all I have.  This space needs nurturing.  It needs balance, the right amount of everything.  It is a cocktail, to be balanced with the right dash of spirit, a touch of sweetness and a zip of acidity.  It is a curry, spices tempered before the star of the show enters.  Cold tomato puree meets sizzling oil and popping cumin seeds.  The temperature plunges, then climbs again, liquid spluttering as the fire under the pot catches up.  In goes the protein and enough moisture to engulf it, stewing it in heat and flavour.  This is when you step back a little, letting the good things happen.  Chick peas that are firm to begin with, left to simmer in a sea of flavour, to soften slowly until they are barely holding together.  And when they meet a spoon or a tooth? All bets are off.

Those slowly softening chickpeas don’t ask for much.  A bath that is voluptuous with flavour.  For the sharpness of the chilli to tingle the tip of the tongue, then let others shine before it leaves an impression that accumulates with every bite.  That the slightly sour acidity of the tomato sings its song to brighten the palate.  That the sweetness of the onion and tomato develops with time, but never becomes more than an undertone.  And the salt? It’s the last to join the cacophony, in careful increments, giving all the other elements the power to do what they do best.

The chick peas soften, greedily absorbing spicy, sour, sweet and fragrant.  And we wait.  We cover, we simmer, we stir.  We stir first lovingly, then impatiently.  Most importantly, we taste and we tweak and we wait.

channa masala (3 of 4)

Like so many things, the flavour gets better with time.  A nice long simmer, yes but if you manage to make a big enough batch to save some for the next day, a type of magic happens overnight in that pot.  The kind of magic that makes yesterday’s curry strike an even deeper chord than it did when you first made it.  You see, a night together allows all the ingredients to get to know each other, to understand each other’s strengths and limitations, to work out how to interact harmoniously.  To wind up so flavourful that you can’t help but “Oh!” when you come back to it a day later.

There are probably a hundred or more minute variations to this classic dish. This is how I like it.  Plump, yielding chick peas.  A full-bodied sauce.  Sliced onions, a little firm and prominent enough to partner the chick peas.  And time.

Love, patience and time.

channa masala (2 of 4)

Channa Masala (Chick Pea Curry)

Get:
1 1/2 cups dried chick peas, soaked overnight or 2 tins of chickpeas
2 tbsp vegetable, canola or sunflower oil
1 onion, halved then sliced in half-rings
1/2 onion finely diced (you will use the other half in the sauce)
2 tsp Channa Masala
2-3 Bay Leaves
4 Cloves
3 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp amchur powder
1/4 tsp chilli powder (optional)
Salt
Small handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped
Plain yoghurt (optional)

For the Sauce:
1 medium sized garlic clove, peeled
4cm fresh ginger, peeled
1/2 onion roughly chopped
1 tin tomato, or 4-5 ripe fresh tomatoes, quartered
2 hot green chillies
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds

Make:

If using soaked dry chick peas, they will need to be soaked overnight.  Once soaked, cook them in a pressure cooker or over a stove until they are cooked but still quite firm.  If done over the stove, they will take at least 30 minutes.  Drain once cooked and set aside.  If using tinned chick peas, drain and rinse in cold water.

Lightly toast 1/2 tsp coriander seeds with 1/2 tsp cumin seeds in a pan, until fragrant.  Grind these together to a rough powder with a mortar and pestle or electric grinder.

Add to all the other sauce ingredients and 1 cup water in the bowl of your food processer. Pulse a few times until a reasonably smooth consistency is reached.

For the tempering, gently heat the oil in a large saucepan.  Do not allow the oil to reach smoking stage, use a moderate heat.  Add the 3 tsp of cumin seeds and when they have sizzled for a few seconds, add the cloves and bay leaves.   Add the diced onion half.  Fry for a few minutes on low-medium heat, taking care not to burn the cumin seeds, until the onion is a little softened.  Add the channa masala and chilli powder (for a spicier curry). Fry on low heat for another minute or so.

Add the sauce to the pan.  Add about 1/2-1 cup water to the food processor, blitz a few times, then add this water, with the remains of the sauce, to the pan.  Bring to a gentle boil, cover and simmer on low heat for 3-4 minutes.

Taste and add a little more salt or chilli powder if required. Drain and rinse the chick peas.  Add these to the pan, stir and cover.  Bring to the boil again and simmer on low-medium heat for about 30 min, stirring intermittently. Cook until the chick peas are softened and just holding together (they should not be allowed to disintegrate).  Add the sliced onions, separating the layers with your fingers, a few minutes before the chick peas are at that stage. If the sauce becomes too reduced, add a little water along the way to maintain a gravy consistency.

Taste and ensure the flavour is balanced how you like it.  Add a little more salt, chilli powder or amchur if needed.  if adding more chilli powder, cook for a few more minutes, stirring intermittently.  If you find the curry is too spicy, stir through 1-2 tbsp of plain yoghurt just before turning off the stove.  For a vegan option, leave out the yoghurt or use a little coconut cream.

Garnish with fresh coriander and serve with your favourite Indian bread, with raita or plain yoghurt on the side.  Like all other curries, this one tastes better the next day.

Notes:

Dried chick peas, Channa masala and amchur (dried green mango) powder, along with the other spices are available in Indian grocery stores.  Channa masala is a spice mix made specifically for this dish.

To speed things up use 1/2 tsp each of cumin powder and coriander powder instead of grinding these from whole seeds.  However I steer clear of bottled minced ginger and garlic.

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Spinach, Baby Corn and Mung Dhal Curry + Nourishing Spinach Broth

The young man always set his stall up just outside the main gate.  He would line the steel canisters up on the cheap plastic table, leaving the lids on until the first few walkers would trickle past.  The gate behind him led into a paved path, which encircled a large man-made lake called Sankey Tank.  Every morning, the sweetly smiling, crisp shirted young man would peddle his wares to the local residents who walked or jogged the popular Bangalore path.

Two large signs rested against the front row of vessels.

Nutritious and Healthy Hot Soups are Available Here explained the first one

Next to it, the other sign went on to list the options: Hot Ragi (millet).  Palak and Methi (Spinach and Fenugreek). Vegetable. Baby Corn.  Aloe Vera and Wheat Grass. 

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In the earlier part of the morning, it was mainly the office-goers he served, confidently ladling hot liquids until he achieved the mixture that each customer looked forward to.  They would drink quickly, blowing into their cups between sips, then rush off with a wave to begin a new day.  Later in the morning came the housewives and retirees, often in pairs or threes.  There was no air of urgency about this bunch and they would linger a little longer around his stall, sipping the spiced, healthful broth and exchanging news.

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He wore no watch, but guessed the time according to the regulars.  The old man who fed the pigeons arrived at precisely eight am, and left at nine fifteen.  There was the trickle of school children that would begin at around 8.30 and trail off around nine. And the aunty who always wore a woollen beanie, regardless of the weather, usually arrived around ten.

Then, at around ten thirty, when all the walkers had walked, joggers had jogged and soup drinkers had drunk, the young man would meticulously pack away his things and head home.  Every day he would take pleasure in the lightness of the canisters at the end of the morning.  It made him happy that people liked his soup, so full of nourishment.  And it made him even happier that the cycle home from Sankey Tank at the end of his shift was always easier than the one he had done in the wee hours of the morning.

Spinach Baby Corn Mung 4

Spinach, Baby Corn and Mung Dhal curry

Get:

2 large bunches English spinach, leaves and tender stems only, finely chopped
8-10 fresh baby corns, sliced to 2-3mm pieces
1/3 cup dried split mung dhal
Salt
Lemon juice
Boiling water
Small handful coriander, roughly chopped

For the Tempering:
2 tsp vegetable oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp chilly powder
2-3 dried red chillies, broken into large pieces

Make:

Boil the spinach in 2-3 cups salted water (enough to submerge it) for 5-7 minutes.  Drain and reserve the water.

In a large non-stick saucepan, dry roast the mung dhal, stirring continuously until they have gained a little colour and are fragrant.  Remove from the saucepan and set aside.

Boil the sliced baby corn in plenty of salted water until they are starting to become tender.  Then add the roasted mung dhal and cook until the dhal is mostly but not completely cooked.  Drain and reserve the water.

In the non-stick saucepan, heat the oil and add the mustard seeds.  When the seeds have popped (adjust the heat to prevent burning them), add the other tempering ingredients.  Add the spinach and cook for a few minutes, then add the baby corn and mung dhal.  If the mixture is a bit dry, add a little of the spinach water.  Add salt to taste- start with 1/2 tsp.   Stir through, taste and add more salt if needed.  Cook, covered,  until the baby corn is fairly tender and until any excess water has evaporated (you may have to cook uncovered for a few minutes at the end).

Squeeze in a generous about of lemon juice (start with a tbsp, add more according to taste) and stir through just before serving.  Enjoy with your favourite Indian flatbread.

Nourishing Spinach Broth:

Get:

The spinach and baby corn water from the previous recipe
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 green chilli, split down the middle
1-2 tsp turmeric powder
Salt and lemon juice to taste

For the Tempering:
2 tsp vegetable oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
Make:

Boil all the ingredients (apart from the oil, cumin and lemon juice) in a pot for about 15-20 mins.  Add salt only if needed after tasting.  Strain the broth to remove the garlic and chilly.  In a separate small non-stick pan, heat the oil and add the cumin seeds.  When they have popped, add the mixture to the broth and stir.  Add lemon juice to taste.

Notes:

Mung Dhal, dry red chillies and all the spices are readily available in Indian grocery stores.

Spinach Baby Corn Mung 3

Palak Paneer on a Precious Day Off

What I love most about my job, apart from the obvious- saving animals lives, alleviating pain in cute furry creatures and all that other WFF (warm fuzzy feeling) inducing stuff- are my weekdays off. In my line of work, at least on the clinical side of things, there is no Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 schedule.

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Instead, we are required to work some weekends, meaning we get weekdays off in lieu. And while it is truly painful to drag yourself out of bed at 6.30 am on a Sunday morning, leaving behind warm sheets to tend to sick animals (who annoyingly don’t always plan their medical needs to occur during the week), having a weekday to myself really does soften the blow.

My day off feels like an indulgence, even though I’ve well and truly worked my backside off for it. It is something that is all mine……a whole day before me which I can fill with whatever my heart desires. Of course, much of it is spent on mundane tasks such as a workout session, housework and paying bills, but strangely just the idea of having the choice makes a day off seem like a guilty pleasure. And even those chores are less painful during the week- lines at post offices and banks are shorter, Sydney’s normally congested roads are a little easier to navigate and appointments with dentists and such are more available.

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And on the occasion that the day off coalesces with the weekend- well, what more can you ask for than a long weekend?

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This dish is definitely one for a day off. There are a few processes which take a little time when you first give it a go. But it’s so very worth it at the end.

Palak Paneer is an Indian classic. I have been disappointed with some of the versions I’ve had at restaurants; many are bland with a layer of oil floating over the top of barely recognisable spinach puree and lumps of paneer (cottage cheese) that you need to fish for.

My Palak Paneer is a little more robust, well-spiced and the result of several attempts to get the masalas just right.DSC_0417

You can make the paneer yourself using this technique from this lovely blog, or use store-bought paneer. If using store-bought paneer, I prefer the frozen cubes to the blocks you find in the fridge. Also, despite being more fiddly, I highly recommend you use fresh spinach rather than frozen.

PALAK PANEER

Palak Paneer (Spinach and Cottage Cheese Curry)
Get:

Spice Mix
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
1/8 tsp fenugreek
8-10 black peppercorns
Insides of 2 cardamom pods

Tempering
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp red chilli powder
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp garam masala
3-4 cloves
2 bay leaves
3 hot green chillies split down the middle
1 small clove garlic, grated or minced (you will need 2 in total)
1/2 tbsp ginger, grated (you will need 1 1/2 tbsp in total)
1/2 large onion chopped finely (you will need the other half too, also chopped)

Gravy
1 quantity spice mix
1 small clove garlic
1/2 tbsp ginger, grated
1/2 large onion chopped finely
1/4 cup passata or 1 soft tomato chopped roughly
2 bunches English spinach
3/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp amchur (dry mango powder)
2 tsp salt
3 tsp oil

280-300g paneer in cubes (packaged or fresh)
Handful coriander, chopped roughly

Make:

If using frozen paneer, defrost.

Chop bottom part of the spinach stalks off and discard. The more tender part of the stalks can be left on. Chop each bunch of spinach into thirds. Place in a colander and wash thoroughly to get rid of the grittiness (and trust me, I’ve never met a bunch of spinach that wasn’t gritty!). Wash in batches if easier. Place aside.

To make the spice mix, dry roast all the spices in a small pan over low heat until fragrant. Use an electric grinder or mortar and pestle to grind to a powder.

Heat 1 tsp oil in a large saucepan or wok. When oil is hot, add spice mix, 1/2 tbsp ginger, 1 clove garlic and half a chopped onion. Fry on low-medium heat until onion is tender. Add spinach and simmer, covered until spinach is mostly cooked. Add tomato or passata, stir through and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add 1 tsp salt and stir through. Transfer to the bowl of your food processer and leave to cool. Once cooled, blitz to a puree.

In the saucepan or wok, heat 2 tsp oil. When oil is hot, reduce heat to low and add 1 tsp whole cumin seeds. Allow seeds to pop, stirring gently. Add garam masala, turmeric and chilli powder and stir for a minute. Add bay leaves, cloves, chillies, ginger and garlic and stir for 1-2 minutes. Add the other half of the chopped onion and stir until coated in oil and tender.

Add spinach puree to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Add sugar, amchur and 1/2 tsp salt. Stir through and taste- add more salt in 1/4 tsp increments according to taste. Simmer on a medum heat for 5 minutes.

Add paneer and stir through, covering the cubes with the gravy. If using home-made paneer, be extra gentle! Cover and simmer on low heat for 3-5 minutes. If using frozen paneer, you may need to simmer a little longer.

Sprinkle coriander over the top and serve with rice, naan or chapatis.

Notes:
You can so totally simplify this by:
Using more garam masala instead of the spice mix- about a tsp should do it. However freshly ground spices are something else!
If you can’t find amchur, a good squeeze of lemon or a dollop of sour cream right at the end may provide the sourness required.
For a touch of luxury, feel free to stir through about a 1/4 cup of cream or sour cream.

PALAK PANEER 2

Black Pepper Chicken Fry

I am a shameless cookbook hoarder.  This in itself would not be a problem except that I seldom use cookbooks.  I tend to be more of an intuitive cook and will occasionally do a Google search or look to my favourite blogs for recipes.  But those lovely, expensive, glossy cookbooks?  Sadly neglected.

My cookbooks are even strategically positioned close to the kitchen for convenience.  From your basic $5 pasta bible bought at the discount table in a shopping centre to spectacular hardbacks written by celebrity chefs with photography that is almost as delicious as the recipes themselves.  From Madhur Jaffery to Masterchef, it’s all there on that shelf, in pristine condition and waiting to be used.

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Oh yes, there are the days when the mood takes me that I flip through a few of them looking for inspiration.  Eventually I may even find a recipe that I want to (sort of) follow, and if I’m feeling really diligent, the dish might even make its’ way onto the stove or the oven and then onto a plate. But mostly I just like to have these books.

Recently, I broke my self-imposed cookbook buying ban by purchasing one that I had been stalking coveting for quite some time.  Tasting India by Aussie Chef Christine Manfield is truly a work of art and full of totally cook-able recipes.  Manfield manages to take the reader with her on a journey around India, celebrating its mind-boggling diversity, its hospitable people and most importantly, its incredible cuisine.  The smears of masala that have already appeared on some of the pages attest to the fact that this is one cookbook that I will be using again and again, and for more than just its decorative value.

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The Black Pepper Chicken Fry is a dish that I have already made several times.  The long simmer allows the chicken to be oh so tender and nicely coated with the pepper-based masala.  You first get a little hit of pepper, followed by the lovely chicken that falls apart obligingly in your mouth.

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Black Pepper Chicken Fry

Feeds about 4, takes about 60-80 mins to make

Adapted from Tasting India, Christine Manfield, p.250.

Get:

Spice mix:

1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tbsp black peppercorns
3-4 dried red chilies
The insides of 2 cardamom pods
1/2 tsp cinnamon powder

Other ingredients:
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
8-10 curry leaves
4 medium cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated
1 1/2 inch piece fresh ginger, finely grated
1 large white onion, finely diced
2 ripe tomatoes, finely diced
1 kg chicken thigh fillets cut into 1 inch pieces
Salt
Water

 Make:

Place the spice mix ingredients in a small pan over a low heat. Roast until they are browning slightly and fragrant.  Powder using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

Heat the oil in a large non-stick saucepan over medium heat.  Add cumin and mustard seeds and stir until popping.  Add the spice mix and stir for a minute or so.  Throw in the curry leaves and cover to protect yourself from the hot oil flying everywhere.  Add the ginger and garlic and stir for about 2 mins.  Add the onion and cook until softened, then add the tomato and cook for a further 5-7 mins.  Season with the salt and stir.

Add the chicken pieces and stir until they are coated with the other ingredients. Cook for about 5 mins until the chicken starts to colour.  Add 1 1/2 cups water, cover and simmer on low-medium heat for 30-40 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Stir every 5 mins or so.  About halfway through the process, taste and add more salt if necessary.

Serve with your favourite Indian bread or steamed rice.

Notes:

Yes, it does seem like a lot of water…..but it works….trust me on this one.

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Home-laid eggs and their fate (Egg Curry)

The other day one of my bosses came to work with cartons and cartons of eggs.  It turned out that the 12 hens that he keeps in his inner-city backyard had been on a laying frenzy and he had been faced with an eggy surplus.  I of course, was helpful enough to take a dozen of them off his hands and find good use for them.

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Now being an Indian kid brought up by city slicker parents, freshly laid eggs were never really part of my upbringing.  While I was growing up, most of my parents’ friends were like us- Indian immigrant urban professionals who didn’t even have a cat, let alone chickens running around in their backyards.  So imagine my delight as these gorgeously imperfect thin-shelled things landed in my hands.  Eggs of different shapes, deeply yellow yolks and smudged with dirt for authenticity.  Eggs without dates stamped on them!

What to do with this unexpected produce? I certainly didn’t have the heart to bake them into anonymity in a cake nor did I want to beat them into submission to make an omelette.  No, these eggs called for a starring role in their own dish, a trailer with gold star on the door and their own stunt men (stunt eggs?).  Surely, these eggs needed to be in an egg curry. An egg curry that is inspired by one my friend Sailaja made us when I visited her in Chicago last year.  Creamy, hard boiled eggs floating happily in a lightly spiced sauce with the bite of onions and the tang of tamarind.

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Of course, if you don’t have a boss who provides you with charmingly wonky home-laid eggs, I suppose the ones from the supermarket (preferably free range) will work just fine.

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Egg Curry

Feeds 4

Get:
1 quantity spice mix
8 small eggs or 4 large eggs
1 tomato
Small red onion
Small chunk (about 3cm cubed) of dried tamarind
1 hot green chilli
1 tsp minced fresh ginger
1 chubby garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup passata
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 tsp chilli powder
Salt to taste
1 cup baby spinach leaves, firmly packed
Small handful chopped coriander

For the Spice Mix:
1/4 tsp Cumin
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
1/8 tsp mustard seeds
1/8 tsp fenugreek seeds
1/4 tsp black pepper
The insides of 3 cardamom pods

Make:
Place eggs in a large saucepan and cover well with water.  Bring to the boil and simmer until eggs are hard-boiled.  Drain water, allow to cool and cut eggs lengthways into halves for small eggs and into quarters for large eggs.

Soak the tamarind in 1 1/2 cups boiling water. Once the water cools, squeeze the tamarind with your hands or with a fork. Strain and retain water.

For the spice mix, place all the spices in a non-stick pan and toast over low heat until slightly browned and fragrant.  Grind using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to a coarse powder.

Place 1/2 onion and whole tomato chopped roughly, half of the ginger and garlic, green chilli chopped roughly and 1 tbsp of the tamarind water in a food processer.  Whizz until pureed.

Chop the other half of the onion finely.  In a non-stick saucepan, heat the oil over a medium heat.  Add 1/2 tsp cumin seeds and 1/4 tsp mustard seeds.  Once these are popping, reduce heat and add turmeric, chilli powder and spice mix.  Fry, stirring for about 2 minutes and add curry leaves (stand back as these will sizzle!).  Once curry leaves are browned, add ginger, garlic and the chopped onion.  Sauté the mixture until the onion is translucent, then add the pureed mixture, passata and the remaining tamarind water.  Add salt to taste, about 3/4 tsp.  Bring to the boil and simmer for 5-10 mins, adding water if necessary to maintain a gravy consistency.

Reduce heat and add spinach and stir mixture until spinach wilted.  Add eggs by gently placing into gravy.  Stir gently, spooning gravy over eggs.  Allow to simmer gently for 4-5 mins.

Serve on steamed or boiled rice with coriander sprinkled over the top.

Notes:

I realise not everyone wants to be grinding spices after being at work all day.  To simplify this, you can use about 1 to 1 1/2 tsp of garam masala instead of making a spice mix, but of course IMHO, freshly ground spices always taste better.

Dried tamarind is available at Indian grocery stores.  If you can’t find it, you can use about 1 tsp of tamarind paste, but this may give you a darker curry.

This makes a reasonably spicy curry, so feel free to leave out the fresh chilli if your spice threshold is on the lower side of if you are feeding little ones.

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