Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bhindi ki bhujya (Oakra) - Basics III

Even as a child, one of my most favorite vegetables was Bhindi (okra, lady fingers). My mom would make this really quick version with lots of sliced onion and tomato, sautéed with the bhindi and just a few spices. It was delicious and when I was old enough to cook, it was one of the things I often made.

So before I give you the recipe, let me back track and explain the title of this post. Bhindi ki Bhujya, bhindi is okra and bhujya is an Urdu term used to describe any sautéed vegetables. So be it allu (potato), baingan (eggplant), gobi (cauliflower), etc. they can all be made in to bhujya's. If you remember in one of my first posts on cooking basics I explained how sabzi's (vegetables) are made in to "bhujya" or added to meat and form "saalan" (curry's/gravy). I also explained what bhagaar is and how it works as either a base or garnish. You will need these tips make this recipe...

You will need:
1 medium onion sliced
1 tbsp zeera (cumin seeds)
2 to 3 sabuth laal mirch (dried whole red chili)
1 tsp garlic paste
1/4 to 1/2 of a lemon or lime
1 to 2 Roma tomatoes diced
salt (to taste)
1 bag frozen (cut) bhindi or about 4 cups chopped fresh bhindi

In a large skillet, prepare your bhagaar... heat some oil then add the zeera and laal mirch. Wait till the zeera starts to get some color and add in the onion. Over high heat sauté until the onion starts to get translucent. Add in the garlic paste, bhindi, salt and lemon/lime. Sauté for a few minutes until all of the ingredients are mixed well. Add in the tomatoes, stir and cover. Lower the heat to medium or medium low and let cook until the tomato starts dissolving. Turn/stir the bhindi a few times during the process to ensure even cooking. Once the tomatoes have dissolved, uncover and sauté until there is no water/liquid remaining. There should be some juice in the vegetables (onion, bhindi, etc) but the mix should be fairly dry. But be careful! Do not overcook and dry out your vegetables...

That's it! Simple and quick :) Hope you'll enjoy this bhujya as much as I do... it’s very nutritious and tastes good too. Happy cooking!!!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Chicken Bake with a Stroganoff like sauce

Not too long ago, I pinched a nerve in my neck. This was just after a very busy few weeks where I hardly had the chance to cook. We must have ate out 10 of the 15 days and here again was another reason for me not to cook! A couple days later I decided enough was enough and the groceries needed to be salvaged quickly, unfortunately not all survived this long hiatus...

I had some chicken breast sitting in the freezer and some mushrooms that were just barely surviving. I decided I needed to whip up something that involved the least amount of stirring and effort, thus was born this Chicken Bake recipe. Here is what I did:

1+ lb chicken breast (boneless)
1 small package mushrooms sliced (any kind will do fine)
1/2 can of sweet corn
crushed garlic (to taste)
salt (to taste)
Worcestershire sauce (to taste)
~ 1 cup chicken stock
~2tbsp butter
1/3 cup chopped onion (I used the frozen one, it works fine)
3 to 4tbsp sour cream
1tsp parsley flakes

In a large saute pan add the butter. Once melted add in the chopped onion. When the onion is cooking (reaching transparency) add the garlic, salt and Worcestershire sauce. Then add the mushrooms, stir and cover. Let this cook for 5 to 7 min until the mushrooms are wilted and there is very little/if any liquid remaining. Add the olive oil, corn, chicken stock, sour cream and parsley; mix well and cover. Once the liquid starts to boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 7 minutes. The contents should be a thick stew type consistency (not too dry, nor too watery), if you need you can add a little flour to thicken up your sauce.

Empty the contents into a glass or porcelain casserole dish. Use the same skillet to cook your chicken breast. Slice in half, thus reducing the thickness of a normal chicken breast piece. Salt and flour each piece, then place in heated skillet with a dash of olive oil. Cook on each side for about 5 or 6 min on medium high heat. Remove the chicken from the skillet and place in the casserole dish with the sauce. Add some more chicken stock if your sauce looks a little dry, cover the chicken with the sauce and then place in the oven (uncovered). Bake at 375 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Let sit for 5 min out of the oven before plating.

I served this with a Mushroom and Garlic couscous but you can serve it with plain rice, mixed vegetables, garlic bread...whatever you have available and meets your fancy! And look, I remembered to take pictures this time!!!

Hope you enjoyed this post and will try making a chicken bake of your own! Please share your recipe or alterations with me if you do. As always...Happy Cooking!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cilantro Lime Chicken Burgers

As many of you around the DC metro area know, we just had an amazingly warm weekend. It was a sneak in to summer, which I hope is just around the corner :) With summer weather comes more outdoor activity and one great outdoor activity is of course BBQ'ing. Last night I made a spur of the moment plan to BBQ and had a couple friends over to enjoy the very pleasant evening with us. With no advance preparation and limited groceries, we did a pretty decent job. On the menu, among many things, was Cilantro Lime Chicken Burgers.

If any of you shop at Trader Joe's, you may have come across their frozen Cilantro lime chicken patty's. That is where I got the inspiration for my version of chicken burgers. Here is the recipe and below I will list out some great toppings you can add!

1lb ground chicken
2 to 3tbsp lime juice
1tsp crushed garlic or 1tbsp garlic powder
1tsp salt (or to taste)
soy sauce (you can add this instead of salt)
~ 1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1tbsp parsley flakes (optional)
1tsp cumin powder (optional)

Mix all of the ingredients and keep covered in a bowl until ready to use. If longer than 30 min till cooking time, meat can be kept in the fridge until ready to use. Form in to patty's and cook on either indoor or outdoor grill about 7 to 10min on each side. Ground chicken cooks faster than beef and will dry out so be careful not to over cook.

You can add cheese to this if you like and it tastes great with a little garlic mayo or regular mayo on the bun. You can also add sliced avocado, lettuce or tomato. The topping possibilities are endless, so be creative and happy eating!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sloppy Joe's!!!

Hello Everyone! I know its been forever and a day since I posted anything new and I am so sorry. BUT this long hiatus was not unfounded. I've been busy with so many creative things (lots of cooking too) and haven't had a chance to write. I will diligently try to update as much as possible in the next few weeks, all while packing and moving!!! In the mean time, you can check out one thing thats been keeping me busy these past few weeks

I'm taking a break from packing up our apartment right now and decided, since I have a quick minute, to type up a quick recipe from the other day. I honestly can not remember the last time I had a sloppy joe, maybe back in grade school? A good friend came over when I made these and she said she had only had them once in her life when she was a little girl in school. When was the last time YOU had a Sloppy Joe?

Because we are moving soon and I've been busy packing and avoiding grocery shopping, I took a short cut on dinner by whipping these up (takes all of 20 min) and using a Manwich sauce can as a base. I substituted ground turkey for the ground beef traditionally used since my husband isn't allowed to eat red meat (cholesterol). For sides, I baked some fries (pre-packaged) and made a simple mushroom and sweet corn casserole. We had a "fast-food" meal at home, with out the extra fat and unhealthy ingredients...

All you need is:
1 can (15 or 16 oz) Manwich Sauce
1 small onion
1 tsp garlic paste
2 tbsp cooking oil
~1lb ground turkey (or beef if you want)
1 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar (optional)

Chop (dice) the onion and saute over medium heat until it becomes translucent. Add the garlic and mix, then add your meat (rinsed and drained). Cook the meat covered, stirring occasionally, until no longer pink. Uncover and continue to cook for a few min. Add the Worcestershire Sauce and vinegar (if you want). Stir well. After a few minutes (when the liquid reduces a bit) add the Manwich sauce, stir well and cook for a few minutes until it reaches a consistency you like. That's it! Simple and quick, it shouldn't take more than 20 to 25 minutes.

Pour your mixture on to hamburger buns (you can also use regular sandwich bread, pita or hot dog rolls) and sprinkle with some shredded cheese (if you like). I used the Mexican four cheese blend and it melts right on to the mix when its hot off the stove. Enjoy... and don't worry about the mess!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quick Note...sorry for being away so long

Hello All, sorry for not posting anything the past couple weeks. Few things have been in play so I thank you for your patience. First, I was out of town and busy planning/hosting a baby shower for my sister. Once I returned, I've been working to re-vamp this blog site. You'll notice a few changes and there are some more to come.

I'd love your feedback/input on the changes. If you have any requests/suggestions, I'm open to that as well. So please be patient as I transition and re-vamp the site. Meanwhile I hope you'll go back to some of the older recipes and give them a try, if you haven't already!

Happy cooking!!!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Shepherds Pie- My Version

For those of you that live in/around the DC area know what the weather has been like the past few days. Given this cold/icy weather, I was craving some comfort food but my groceries were pretty limited. I didn't feel like driving out so decided to get creative.

Shepherds Pie is something pretty comforting in the winter because it is filling, full flavored and appealing because of the mashed potatoes on top. Traditionally, it is made with ground beef but I only had beef stew meat in the freezer. I decided to use that and process later to break down before baking the dish. I don't usually measure ingredients, I tend to eyeball them which is why I'm going to list out "about" (~) how much of each ingredient I used. You may need to adjust this to your personal taste...

~1-2 tbsp oil
~1lb beef stew chunks
1/2 medium yellow onion chopped
1-2 bay-leaves
1 tbsp chopped garlic
few whole black peppercorns
~1 cup chicken stock (or beef stock)
3-4 medium sized potatoes
salt to taste
~3 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1tsp Soy Sauce (optional)
~1.5 cups frozen mixed vegetables (carrots, peas, corn, etc)
~3/4 cup chopped mushrooms

Peel and dice the potatoes, place in a medium pan with water and a dash of salt, boil until tender. Drain and keep to the side. While the potatoes are boiling, in another medium pot add some oil and heat over medium. When the oil is warm, add the onions and saute until they start to turn light brown. Add the garlic, pepper and bay leaf and mix. After 20 sec or so add the meat, chicken stock and Worcestershire Sauce. Cook until the beef is tender and the liquid reduces by 1/2... about 25 to 30min. Remove from heat, place the beef (removing the peppercorns and bay leaf) in a food processor. Reserve the liquid and use the same pot (adding a dash of oil) to saute the vegetables with soy sauce (if you want). Pulse the beef on your processors chop setting to shred the meat, do not over process. Add the beef and reserved liquid to the vegetables when they are cooked. Add the mushrooms and simmer the mix until liquid is almost dry. There should be about 1.5 to 2tbsp liquid remaining. You want to keep some liquid so that the beef doesn't get too dry when baking.

Mash the potatoes with some butter and milk (just like mashed potatoes). Season with some salt and chicken stock (if you want). In a small casserole dish layer the beef mix and then top with the mashed potatoes. Bake for 25min on 350 degrees. Make sure the mashed potatoes have enough liquid that they don't get too dry during baking. Let sit for 5min before serving.

Sorry, I forgot to take a picture until we had finished dinner and there was hardly a spoonful left. Will try to remember next time! As always, I leave you with wishes for happy cooking and good eats :)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Masoor ki Daal (lentil)

One classic meal in Desi cooking is Daal Chawwal (lentils and rice). Basmati rice(or other long grain rice) and lentils are a staple for almost every meal, everything else is a plus. Usually for dinner in a desi household there will be chawwal, daal, subzi (vegetable) and salaan (meat dish). Growing up, I remember my parents always saying that anytime there wasn't daal chawwal for dinner, they didn't feel they had a complete meal.

My favorite daal among the many available is Masoor ki daal. Now there are two kinds of Masoor available, red and black or green. The more common one is laal (red) daal and one of the easiest to make. People from different parts of Pakistan and India make daal in a number of different ways. The method I will share here is the traditional Dehli/UP (Utthar Pradesh) way of making lentils, by boiling it with some simple masaala's and then adding bhagaar at the end.

1 cup laal daal, picked over and rinsed
~2 cups water
1tsp salt
1/2 tsp laal mirch (red chili powder) or to taste
1/3 tsp haaldi (powder)
1/2 tsp garlic paste

In a medium heavy bottom sauce pan, add your rinsed lentils, water and all of the other ingredients. Bring to a boil and then lower stove to medium/low to low. Simmer the lentils until all the water is dry. The lentils should be soft and a pale yellow color (no whitish middles, that means they're still undercooked and will not mash. If this happens, add a little water and simmer again until there is no whitish middle). Take a large spoon and mash the lentils until they become like a thick paste...kind of like watery mashed potatoes. Then turn the stove back on to low and add water while stirring until it reaches a thick soupy consistency.

Simmer the daal until it is near boiling. DO NOT LET IT BOIL. You want to heat it to mix in the water well but do not boil, just simmer. On the side prepare a bhagaar of onions and zeera (cumin seeds). Add the bhagaar to your daal just before turning off the stove. Serve with white rice.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sauteed Shrimp

Today I'm going to share something so simple and relatively healthy with you. This dish can be paired with or added to a number of things. You can have it on its own or add it to rice, pasta, fresh salsas, soup, salads, etc. I usually get frozen shrimp (peeled and de-veined) because I don't want to handle raw shrimp and have to de-vein it myself. I recently made this shrimp and served it with pasta and an asiago cheese sauce.

1lb frozen shrimp (thawed out per instructions on package)
1tbsp olive oil
1tbsp butter (salted or unsalted)
some chopped garlic (to taste)
salt (to taste)
crushed red pepper (to taste)
3 to 4 fresh basil leaves, chopped

In a non-stick skillet add your olive oil and butter. Heat on medium until the oil is hot but not burning (be careful because we don't want the garlic to burn). Add the garlic, red pepper and fresh basil. Keep stirring to release the aroma but do not burn your garlic. One you've heated the ingredients enough to release their flavor and aroma in to the oil, add the shrimp and lower the stove to medium-low. Add salt to taste. Let the shrimp cook on one side for about 3 min and then flip and cook on the other side for 3 to 4 min. Keep the skillet covered to allow steam. Shrimp, if over cooked, becomes very tough so be careful not to over cook. The steam will help to keep the shrimp juicy.

Once ready, you can add it to your sauce, have on its own with rice or couscous, have it on a salad or even bake it in a casserole. The options are endless but the method simple, quick and healthy because with the garlic and basil, we don't need to add too much salt. We also add in olive oil to reduce the amount of butter used for sauteing shrimp.

Good luck, be creative and eat smart!

Basic Masaala's

Think of this as something similar to Emeril's famous Essence or the famous Louisiana BBQ spice rubs. Only difference, the concoctions I'm going to share date back to the Mughal period, when dishes created for royalty became popular and eventually common among the Muslim households. Some of these masaala (spice) mixes are also a melding of the Muslim and Hindu cultures, which coincided in the Sub-continent (what is now South Asia). Certain spices are common in the Hindu way of cooking and some (mostly those for meat dishes) are particular to the Muslim style of cooking and an influence from the Persians and Turks.

I will share with you some common masaala's which you can use to create a number of different Desi dishes. Remember from my last post on basics, I explained the concept of bhagaar...well these spices are usually added to warm oil at the start of cooking, thus creating the base.

"Phorran" is an old term used to describe a certain spice mix, but the literal translation of the word is prescription or recipe (as relating to medicine). "Panch (#5) Phorran" is a spice mix of five spices, often used for certain types of vegetables and chicken, but can be adapted for cooking some meat curry's as well. The more common term for Panch Phorran is Achar ka Masaala (pickling spices); most Desi people today would know the term Achaar (pickle) since they use the condiment regularly with meals, eg. Aamn ka Achaar (mango pickle), Nimbo ka Achaar (lemon/lime pickle), etc. The five spices required for achaar ka masaala are:

Zeera (cumin seed) (do not confuse with caraway)
Sonph (fennel seed)
Kalonji (Nigella seed) (do not confuse with onion seed or black sesame)
Rai (Brown Mustard seed)
Mehthi Dana (Fenugreek)

When cooking with these spices, you would traditionally use equal parts of each spice. I often use more zeera and avoid the use of mehthi because of its bitter taste and side affects (you can smell it in your sweat and urine for a few days after). Also note, many of the spices (depending on the dish) are used either whole or ground. This particular spice mix is never used ground...always whole.

Garam Masaala is a very common spice mix in Desi cooking. Today you will find it available in some larger grocery stores in a ground form, not just in Indian stores. This mix can be used whole or ground and often times is also used as a garnish, not just a base. The word "Garam" means "hot" and this relates directly to the nature of the spices in this mix. All of the spices in this mix are by nature hot.
In traditional Desi cooking, there is a belief that all ingredients (fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, meats, etc.) have a certain "taseer" (genetic makeup or nature) to them. Some things are hot by nature, some are cold, some are soothing while others are acidic or indigestion inducing. There is a whole science and logic behind Desi cooking and a lot of it has to do with the nature of ingredients, thus what should be mixed with what and what should never be mixed with something, etc. The concepts are similar to the western logic of some vegetables being meant for summer consumption while others are meant for is based on their nature or the effect they have on our body once consumed. The spices required for garam masaala are:

Kali/Gol Mirch (whole black pepper)
Long (whole cloves)
Sabuth Dhaniya (corriander seed)
Barri Ilaychi (large black cardamom)
Daal Cheeni (cinnamon stick)

For every day cooking I will use this mix whole but without barri ilaychi and sometimes without the cinnamon (depending on what I'm making and the time of year). Many times I'll use it ground as a garnish, but again without the barri ilaychi since it has a very strong taste. In some dishes you can substitute the barri ilaychi for choti ilaychi which is green cardamom, for example when making pulao. Some people also like to add bay leaf into this mix which is nice for some rice dishes and curry's but not traditional in the garaam masaala you can pre-mix and keep for regular use.

Gosht ka Masaala, "Gosht" refers to red meats like beef, lamb and goat. This masaala is used to make traditional Muslim meat curry's (gosht ka salaan). Murghi (chicken) and Machli (fish) salaan's get different spices, so be careful as not to use this for white meats...the spices will be over powering. Salaan is usually made with onion and garlic, gosht ka salaan also gets ginger and either tomato or yogurt; plus the spices I'm about to list out. Gosht ka Masaala is:

Haldi (ground tumeric)
Laal Mirch (cayenne or red chili powder)
Kali/Gol Mirch
Pissa Dhaniya (ground or powder corriander seed)
Pissa Zeera (ground or powder cumin seed)
(some people like to add cinnamon but its not traditional)

Well I will leave you with these basic masaalas for now and write up some more traditional concoctions for you later. As always, if you have any questions/concerns don't hesitate to reach out.
Good luck and be creative!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sweets for My Sweetie

This past weekend was Valentines Day and I decided to do something cute but low cost for my hubby. Gifts, candy, stuffed toys...all the cheesy Valentines paraphernalia is nice but impractical. Those things are nice when you get them but by the next day you're over it, the candy rarely gets eaten and the stuffed toys become pet hair collectors! So I decided to be practical and do what I do best...

With the kitchen as my playground and pantry full of goodies, I went to work. Before I continue, I should clarify that we went to NYC for the long weekend so we (I) celebrated Valentines the night before. I decided to make a nice dinner to go with a themed dessert I already had semi-planned. My husband and I both looove cream cheese frosting and since it was kind of late in the day, I decided to do fudge brownies (from a box) with cream cheese frosting. I had heart shaped muffin trays (the planned part, since I picked them up a few days before) and I added food coloring to make the frosting pink! I'll share what I made for dinner in another post but give you my cream cheese frosting recipe here.

Now I don't like things very sweet, so I'm not a big fan of frosting and like to keep the cream cheese flavor pretty noticeable in this recipe. You can add coconut flakes, thin sliced almonds and a variety of other items to this frosting and use as a layering cream.

8oz cream cheese softened
1/4 cup unsalted butter room temp
3/4 cup to 1cup powdered/confectioners sugar (depending on taste)
1/2 tspn vanilla (optional)
1 drop food coloring (for festive occasions, otherwise leave plain)

Combine the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl, beat with electric mixer until well blended. Add the vanilla and then sugar (in two parts) and continue to mix with mixer until light and fluffy. Fold in additional ingredients (coconut, almonds, etc) if you choose. Spread and refrigerate until ready to serve. Frosting will spread easy when prepared but should be kept in the refrigerator otherwise it can turn sour. If you prepare it before hand, you can keep it in the fridge but then bring to room temp before spreading.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Basics II - Bhagaar

So the second thing I'd like to discuss as regards basics is "bhagaar". Most desi cooks know "bhagaar" to be the garnish for lentils and some curry's. The truth is bhagaar can be either the BASE or GARNISH for a number of different dishes. Any time you heat oil with various spices, herbs and/or onion it is called bhagaar.

The purpose behind bhagaar is to add flavor and also aroma to your dish. When cooking desi vegetables, one often uses different spices to prepare the bhagaar before adding the main vegetable. Most lentils get fried onion, red chili and/or cumin seeds as the garnish just before serving. Most spices release their flavor and aroma once they are heated, hence the heating in oil of spices to enhance a dishes flavor. One thing to note, often times people tend to over cook desi food because they feel they need to really heat/saute (bhuno) the sauce or spices. This merely burns or overcooks the sauce or food and doesn't enhance or add to the flavor. Here in lies the importance of using bhagaar as a base to your cooking. By doing this you avoid overcooking the rest of your ingredients, keeping them fresh and flavorful.

Finally I get around to taking a picture! Hope this helps...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Roast Beef - the type I had growin' up

A couple days ago I went to the grocery store and they had beef (bottom round) on sale. These were all packed in pretty large roast sizes (2lbs was the smallest) so I picked one up. I had made a delicious pot roast for Christmas and had a lot of the gravy/vegetables left over which I put in the freezer. Because this roast was so large, I decided to make roast beef which could be used with the pot roast gravy as well as for sandwiches and other things. Growing up, my mom would always make most of our lunch meats at home because there was limited access to "halal" meat stores and Hebrew National hadn't really expanded beyond hot dogs. One of my favorites was the roast beef she made, it was juicy and flavorful. Delicious sandwiches!

You wont believe how easy it is and you can make a large amount then keep half in the fridge and freeze the rest. It keeps well in the freezer for up to 3 months in an airtight container. Here is how you make it:

3lbs roasting beef
2 to 3 bay leaves
5 whole black peppercorns
2 pieces garlic, peeled and cut in half
1/3 cup vinegar
2 tbsp salt
3 to 4 cups water

In a deep stock pot, place the roast- fat side down and turn the stove on medium high. Let the fat melt/brown for about 5 to 7 minutes. I do this so that no additional oil needs to be added later when browning. Add all of the ingredients and cover. Once the water starts to boil, turn the stove down to medium low or low. Let the roast cook for 2.5 to 3 hours and turn the meat about every 30 minutes or so. Once the water starts to dry up, watch the meat and turn to lightly brown on all sides evenly. You should leave some water/stock/fat in the pot as you will need this to store the beef later. Let the meat cool completely then slice in to thin slices. To store, you can place slices in a plastic Tupperware container and pour the remaining liquid over it. This will keep the meat moist, otherwise it tends to get too dry very quickly. If you are going to freeze any of the meat, slice and freeze immediately, with or without the liquid.

I made this yesterday and today I cooked some of the slices in the pot roast vegetables/gravy and served it with garlic/basil mashed potatoes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Covering some basics

I was going to post the recipe for one of my favorite vegetables today, but as I sliced onions, I thought about when I first started cooking. You see, my father taught my mother how to cook after they got married. She was after-all only 16 years old and my father, an extremely picky eater. Growing up, he used to spend a lot of time with his Nani (maternal grandmother) and would see how his sisters were being "trained" to be good girls/wives. He of course learned the traditional methods to everything! Cooking, sewing, putting on henna, embroidery... you name it, he could do it (or figure it out pretty quick). So when my dad and his brothers landed up in this country with no sisters, mother, Nani or maids to cook for them; my dad took on that responsibility. If he could do it for so many years, how could his wife not jump right in! Thats how the daily kitchen battle in our house began... little did anyone know, it would never end!

Over time, and in our (the kids) humble opinion, my mother became the better cook. My father started to reserve his cooking to only delicacies and special events or mom did the every day cooking. When we moved to Pakistan, things changed a little. There was no need for either parent to cook, but they did have to train all the khansama's (cook's) that ever worked for us. No one could ever please my father, there was always something missing or overdone. When I started cooking, rather started dabbling in the kitchen now and then, it was always a nightmare.

If ever my father saw me in the kitchen, he would observe and then discipline. In his mind, EVERYTHING I did was wrong because it was not the way his grandmother or mother had done it. It wasn't the way he would've done it. There was always a battle and God forbid if I ever made something the way my mom taught me as opposed to his way. For the longest time, I stopped going in to the kitchen any time my father was around. But many years later, I realized how much I had learned through all that tension. In the following few posts, with a lot less stress and fuss, I will share with you some basics that will guide you through any type of cooking and help in honing your culinary skills.

First lesson: ONION BASICS

I'll spare you how I came to learn this fact but there is a "proper" way to slice onions. Most desi cooking, vegetables or meat curry's, require sliced onion. Rarely do you use chopped or diced onion in cooking. After peeling the onion and cutting it in half, its important to remover the "eye", which is the circle at the bottom of the onion where all the layers come together. Also, you slice the bulb in half through the top and bottom; not through the center (wide part) of the onion. Once you've removed the eye, slice across the onion to form semi-circle slices (see photo). Do NOT cut along the onion, meaning cutting the onion length-wise getting thick slices.

I don't know if its true or not, but my father would say that the onion doesn't dissolve nor brown properly if it isn't sliced right. He also insisted that if it didn't dissolve, the taste was different. This second tid-bit I have to agree with. Many times I've tasted vegetables or curry's prepared the way I would make them but the only difference is the onion... it really does taste different if it doesn't dissolve properly.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Easy Haleem

Not too long ago in one of my blogs, I mentioned making Haleem over inauguration weekend. A friend later asked me for my recipe/method and since I was writing it out for her, I figured I'd share with all of you as well! To make life simpler (and not have to buy 10 different types of grains) I buy the Shan Haleem mix, available at most Indian/Pakistani grocers. Make sure you buy the regular or Shahi Haleem Mix and not the Easy Haleem Mix (unless you prefer to have very slimy consistency). Also, the National Brand isn't so tasty... they don't have the right spices nor the right grains. In addition to the pulses in the box, I add a few grains which we usually have at home. It is up to you if you want to add all or some of these to your Haleem.

1 box Shan Haleem mix (packet of grains etc soaked for 1 hour)
1/2 cup channa daal (soaked for at least 2 hours)
1/2 cup brown basmati or long grain rice (soaked for 30 min to 1 hour)
1/4 cup oats (normal - not quick cook) or barley
1/4 Bulgar or cracked wheat (optional)
1lb beef (shank, without bone)
1lb beef with bone
ginger paste (about 1tbsp)
garlic paste (about 1.5 tbsp)

Make sure you soak everything that needs to be soaked well in advance so when it comes time to make your Haleem, all you do is add everything step by step. Heat some oil in a large stock pot or big dutch oven and add the washed meat, ginger and garlic paste. Saute until the meat is no longer bright red, then add 1/2 to 3/4 packet of the spice mix (depending on how spicy you want it)... I never add the whole packet because it's just too much. If you want, you can also add even less of the spice packet but put some fresh garam masala and cayenne pepper (laal mirch) on your own to add spice/flavor. Mix and saute for a few minutes on medium heat.

Now add all of your grains/pulses, 1tbsp salt and about 8 to 10 cups of water (do not use the water in which your grains were soaking). Stir, cover and turn heat up to high. Check occasionally and when the water/haleem starts to boil, turn the heat down to medium or medium high...depending on electric or gas respectively. Let the mix cook for a few hours, stirring on and off (maybe every 30 to 40 min). As the haleem is cooking, you will see the meat starting to fall off the bone (maybe after 2.5 to 3 hours). At that point turn your heat down to medium low or low. After another hour or so, you can turn off the heat and remove (pull out) all the pieces that have/had bone (making sure to remove all bone from the pot). You want to pull the meat off the bone and keep aside. You can also take out some more of the bone-less meat if you want your haleem more chunky (that's how I like it).

Then take a hand blender or a large masher and grind/mash the haleem. You want it to be a thick soupy consistency but not too watery. If it is too thick, you can add more water or if it is too watery, put it back on the heat to thicken. Add the rest of the meat back to your haleem and mix well. Break down any large pieces of meat with your spoon, turn the heat back on to medium and cook while on the side you brown some onion (one small to medium onion sliced fine) in about 3/4 cup of oil. You will want to add the browned onion with oil to the haleem as bhagaar/thurka. Before adding the onion, taste to make sure you have enough salt.

When browning the onion, you can cut and brown some extra to keep on the side as one of the garnishes. Additional garnishes, which are kept to the side, are chopped cilantro; finely chopped green chillies; fine sliced (julienned) ginger; lemon or lime and chaat masala.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Thought on Desi Food

It occurred to me this past week that more oft than not, I have friends and family asking me for Desi Recipes. The intention of this blog was originally to share all things -food related, as they occur in my life. However, with this growing interest in traditional Indian and Pakistani foods, I've decided to share some of my family secrets. I will continue to post other things, as I normally do, but will create a new label for Desi Recipe. I figure this will be easier than creating a separate blog for just Desi recipes and keep all recipes accessible from one spot.

Feel free to send me your suggestions and/or feedback about this topic. Any requests for specific items/recipes or share with me pictures of foods you prepared using my recipes! I hope to get a little better about providing you with pictures, so any help in that regard would be appreciated.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Easy Guacamole

Sitting around this evening, waiting for the chicken to thaw out, I started to feel really hungry. It snowed here for the first time this winter, hence I felt like having something warm and yummy... Nachos, cream cheese puffs, crab rangoon, hot and sour get the idea! Anyway, long story short there was nothing in the fridge or pantry to fill any of the above cravings. What I did have was a bag of corn chips, avocados and tomatoes. Perfect!

Depending on who you talk to, people have a variety of beliefs what guacamole should and shouldn't have, develop your own recipe. You're going to eat it so enjoy it how you like it... just follow these basics.

Avocado mashed or crushed
Tomato, diced small (optional)
Onion, diced small (optional)
Lime juice (fresh or bottle)
Garlic Salt (you can also use garlic powder + salt separately)
Sour Cream (if your avocado isn't completely ripe)

Simply crush or mash the avocado, add the garlic, lime juice, and sour cream if needed. Mix well then gently fold in the onions and tomato. Serve immediately with chips or bread, otherwise refrigerate until ready to eat. I used sour cream to help with the consistency since the avocado I had wasn't quite ripe. Also, I don't like onion so I don't add it. Some people feel that guacamole should be only the avocado itself, nothing else. In that case just add the lime juice and salt... you can also use garlic but thats up to you.

Hope you enjoy this healthy snack as much as I did!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Almond Pesto

I love pasta, especially those with a lot of sauce. I'm a big fan of Pesto, given that basil is one of my favorite ingredients! Last night I was wanting to use up a lot of basil which had been sitting in the fridge for some time. I didn't have any pine nuts at home and needed to make dinner quickly. I decided to improvise by using almonds instead. It worked well and turned out pretty delicious too. Of course the purpose of substitution is always to use what we have in the pantry, but be careful to use blanched or regular almonds with the skin removed and try to avoid salted almonds so that you can salt your sauce or pasta to taste. (If you have plain almonds at home with skin, you can soak them in hot water for 10 min and then easily remove the skin)

1/2 bunch fresh basil, stems trimmed
~ 5 to 10 sprigs cilantro (optional)
~ 12 to 15 almonds
~ 1 tbsp crushed garlic or paste
salt to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup grated cheese

To make the pesto, just rinse the basil and place in a blender or food processor. Add the almonds, garlic, salt and fresh cilantro or parsley (if you want). I used a little cilantro just to add some flavor but this is up to your taste if you want to add anything in with your basil. Add in a few drops of water and puree. When the almonds seem to be almost dissolved, add in olive oil and continue to puree for a minute. Your mixture should look smooth and creamy, not too dry or lumpy. You can add water or olive oil as necessary to reach a good consistency.

Traditionally, pesto has Parmesan cheese added to it. I made this pesto and added it to a cream sauce which had Asiago cheese, so I didn't add any cheese when making the pesto itself. If you are going to have pesto on its own then please add Parmesan, Romano or any other cheese you want before the olive oil step in this mix.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cooking - Is there a hype?

This past weekend was a little crazy, for DC as well as our home. It was Inauguration 2009 and we had a number of guests in town, some staying with us and some with other friends. We decided to have a dinner on Sunday at our house, to get everyone in the same place with out dealing with the madness of downtown DC. I decided to make a traditional Pakistani winter favorite called Haleem. It is like a heavy soup made from a variety of lentils and grains, plus beef and spices. Traditionally this dish was considered very special, kind of like turkey or ham on Christmas day, due to the fact that it takes a long time to make. Aside from the cleaning and soaking of the pulses, you cook the ingredients for a number of hours until the meat is so tender, it melts just by touch.

When our guests were eating dinner, most commented on how great it was for me to get everyone together and how I really went out of my way to make this meal. They were impressed that I would take on such a task and made additional dishes as well. Yes, it was a lot of people and I made more than just Haleem; but to be honest, it wasn't as complicated as everyone made it seem. Granted most of the people over that day don't usually cook and I'm positive few had ever made Haleem. Had they ever attempted, they would've learned that things are very different today than they were a generation ago. Cooking today is by no means as complicated and time consuming as yesteryear.

More often than not we find that our produce and meat is already clean, cut, trimmed, cubed, diced, de-stemmed, peeled, packaged, etc. before we bring it home. You also find a number of instruments or gadgets in a modern kitchen which make dicing, mashing, pureeing and grating a breeze. I think back to not long ago when I first moved to Pakistan, how the produce had to be cleaned before refrigerating. The stems, leaves, roots with dirt would still be intact for most vegetables. I also remember my aunt using a stone slab to grind spices and grains for a variety of dishes. There was no such thing as ginger paste or garlic paste in a bottle, you made it all yourself from fresh garlic and ginger root...on a stone slab (no blenders or grinders). In short, things that seemed to be a delicacy or special treat are not so much a feat anymore. With Haleem for example, one no longer needs to clean or peel husk off the pulses (lentils and grains), you don't need to cut the fat off the meat since your butcher will do that for you, packages with all the pulses pre-measured for you can be found in most Asian/Indian stores, either a spice mix or your own ingredients can be used to make Haleem without having to grind or crush the seeds or spices. With modern day technology cooking time for this dish go from 8 hours to about 4 or 5 hours. The prep time which would've taken my grandmother half a day, took me only about an hour...and this was the time in which I soaked the grains and lentils so they would cook softer.

With modern conveniences, anyone can cook almost anything. So why then is there such a hype around cooking? Granted there is always the art and science behind cooking. There are those naturally gifted individuals who, as they would say in Urdu, have "flavor in their hands" (haanth mein maaza hai). And those gourmands who have a knack of picking up on ingredients or flavors from a single bite of food. But beyond those people, today it is possible for anyone to follow instructions on a box and make a great meal. There are a million books, blogs, guides, schools and self proclaimed teachers to tell you how to make almost anything. Be it from a box or from scratch, anyone can do least once! Why make it more difficult than it has to be when all the prep work is already being done for you. I challenge you to try something difficult, something that your mother or grandmother may have spent a whole day making. Look for short cuts and alternatives to their recipe and then share with us how it turned out.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Chicken Roast

The other day my "sister-in-law to be" (that's a mouth full!) e-mailed asking me for a simple recipe using chicken breast and Desi (Indian/Pakistani) flavors. Immediately, my chicken roast recipe came to mind. I think this is a great recipe to have on hand for a number of reasons:
1. It is very easy and quick to make
2. It has a lot of flavor and can be used with both bone-in and boneless chicken
3. It can be had as a main dish or great side dish, plus the left overs can be used to make great Desi style sandwiches (Kati-roll ring a bell)
4. This is a great item for anyone trying to lose a few pounds, its healthy and naturally low fat!
5. You can alternate/substitute certain ingredients to create a completely different dish each time you make it

I'll list out the recipe first and then later show you how and what can be substituted. Feel free to e-mail me or comment if you have any suggestions/variations you've tried.

1 lb boneless chicken
2 heaping tbsp yogurt
1 full tsp garlic paste
1 tsp red chili pepper (lal mirch powder)
1 tsp ground cumin
salt to taste
~1 tbsp oil

Making sure the chicken is not frozen, dice into ~2" cubes, rinse and place in a bowl that has a lid. Add all of the ingredients except oil. Mix well, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. I would recommend 4hrs to really make the chicken flavorful and moist. Remove the chicken from the fridge about 30 min before preparing (bringing it to room temp). In a deep skillet, add your oil and warm on medium heat. Add the chicken, stir and cover. Let it cook until the juice/water is almost dry, stirring occasionally to ensure all pieces are getting evenly browned. And thats it, ready to eat. Please make sure not to over-cook the chicken or it will get too dry.


*For bone-in chicken, use about 1.5lbs chicken to the above ingredients
*You can substitute the yogurt with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of lemon juice (this will make it more like chicken tikka)
*You can use ground black pepper instead of red chili, add some ground coriander here when using black pepper
*You can make this on a grill instead of a skillet in the summer, just put pieces on skewers and cook till tender
*You can add semi-cooked potatoes (potatoes can be cut in 1/2 or 1/4, depending on size, deep fried, salted then added to the cooking chicken)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Easy Ragu Sauce

As promised, I’m going to share the first recipe I tried from Restaurant Favorites. The actual recipe (Lamb Ragu) called for bone-in lamb, which we neither had at home nor desired to eat the night I made this meal. Instead, I used ground beef (chuck 85% lean) and substituted a few other spices and ingredients along the way. First I’ll share what I made and how, then at the end I will list out the recipe as it is in the book. Remember to serve this with a larger/thicker pasta like spaghetti, penne or rigatoni since it will be a very thick/heavy sauce.

2-3 carrots, cleaned and diced small
2-3 celery ribs, diced small
1 small onion, diced small
8-10 white or baby bella mushrooms, diced (optional)
~2 tbsp olive oil
~1 tbsp salt
~1 tbsp fresh crushed or bottled garlic
~1 lb ground beef (use 85% to 90% lean since you will not be able to drain)
2 tbsp tomato paste
~ 28 oz crushed or diced tomato (canned with no other ingredients)
½ tsp parsley flakes
Few sprigs fresh basil chopped or ~1 tbsp dried basil
Crushed Red Pepper to taste (optional)
~ ½ cup dry red wine (or whatever you may be drinking… I used a Shiraz blend I had open)
½ tsp sugar (optional)
Grated pecorino or parmesan cheese

In a medium to large, heavy bottom pan, warm the olive oil on medium heat. Add the carrots, celery and onions. Sautee for 5 to 7 minutes or until the ingredients start to brown just slightly. Add the mushrooms, if you like, at this point. Continue to cook for another 2 minutes then add the garlic and salt. Mix for a minute or so then add your ground beef which should have been rinsed and drained.

Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring as necessary to avoid sticking. If the beef is too dry, you can add up to a ½ cup of water. Add the tomato paste and mix in well, then add the crushed tomato, parsley, red pepper and basil (if using dried basil) to the mix and cook to a boil (uncovered). Stir in the wine and simmer, stirring to reduce and scraping the bottom to pick up all the ingredients. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes until the mix looks glossy or like a glaze. Cover and lower the heat, simmer for 30 to 40 minutes adding the fresh basil about half way through. Stir as needed during this time (every 10 min or so) and a few minutes before turning off the heat, you can add ½ tsp of sugar to offset the tartness of the sauce.

Note that alcohol evaporates from the wine when reducing, but if you still feel uncomfortable, you can use diluted grape or fruit vinegar (2/3 vinegar, 1/3 water ratio). Also, if the sauce seems too thick, add some water to deliver the perfect consistency for you (to your liking). Serve over pasta and sprinkle with grated cheese and some fresh basil if available.

What I substituted: beef in place of 1 ½ lbs lamb shoulder chop, red pepper instead of black pepper and spaghetti instead of orecchiette pasta. If you want to know how the bone-in meat was cooked into the dish, e-mail me and I will send you details.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Using Cookbooks

Wow! What an exciting couple of weeks it’s been…cooking/eating-wise, in our house that is. A few days after Christmas my husband and I were out window shopping, commenting on how the “blow out” sales weren’t really all that, when we wandered in to Borders. They had a section of clearance books, of which one whole side was nothing but cookbooks!

My husband and I are quite opposite when it comes to buying books. I find few worth buying whereas he loves books, any book, all books; but is particularly drawn to cookbooks or books about chefs, cooking, food, etc. I skimmed through the shelves just to amuse myself, when I came across a book that stood apart. Titled: Restaurant Favorites at Home: A Best Recipe Classic, it sparked my curiosity. How many times have you gone out to eat and fallen in love with a dish because it’s so well prepared or really well matched with the sides? Here was a book that listed out meals from restaurants around the country.

Now, I have to say I never use cookbooks for recipes. Rather I use them for ideas or guidelines; especially when cooking. Baking is a different story. Always remember that every person has their own tastes and what might be enjoyable for some, may be painful for you. For example, many braised or roasted meat dishes often call for thyme, sage or rosemary. I happen to despise the taste of thyme and sage, preferring to stick with flavors a little less intense like coriander, fennel, parsley or basil. I follow the cooking guidelines like baking time/temp or braising technique; but rarely follow ingredients or measurements.

This particular cookbook served exactly that purpose. Yes, it listed out complete recipes with ingredients and measurements as well; but why did I buy it? It broke down in detail how cooking techniques, ingredients, utensils, etc. in a large restaurant kitchen are adapted to your everyday (personal) kitchen. How ovens and skillets etc. vary and what ingredients can be substituted for less expensive versions. How you can make restaurant meals easily at home, without a souse chef or warming table! If you’re like me and enjoy recreating something you enjoy at your favorite restaurant, I highly recommend this book. The next few recipes I post will most definitely be based on meals from this book, which I made over the last two weeks. Feel free to email me with questions, I make a lot of substitutions and often eyeball my measurements to taste and experience.