Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bagels - I can't believe I made these at home!

We took a quick 2 day break earlier this week, just went away and did absolutely 'nothing' which felt soooo good. I did carry some food and some ingredients and cooked more food but other than that we just stayed put and enjoyed each other's company. Coming back home on Wednesday, it has been back to work for BH, back to school work for DD and for me just getting ready for next week. Since I wont be home during the days from next week, I had great plans to make a lot of book marked recipes and store away the pictures for future posts but even the best laid plans are known to flop, so in reality, I didn't cook much. Well, I did cook but stuff that is already on the blog and not very many new dishes. Not to worry, there is no drought for draft posts lying in my folders :-).

But I did manage to make these bagels and what a stupendous success they turned out to be. Ever since, I upgraded my home PC to a new one with Windows 8.1, I have some feeder applications on my desktop and one of them has Bing recipes, these are recipes that get pinned from various sources and keep flashing all the time. I don't click unless something catches my eye as in a great picture or a recipe I have been interested in. A month or so back, there was a gorgeous picture of a Bagel and the title said "Home made, complete guide to making bagels" (or something close to it since I am not able to find that exact posting again, I know I should have book marked it :-(). I wanted to make them immediately but there were other things going on and somehow my bagel making got pushed to a back seat. This week I went back to search and just could not find that recipe though tens of other recipes for home made bagels came up. I remembered the picture and some details from that post. I searched with all key words I could remember and finally hit the actual recipe here though the intro paragraph and pictures weren't there. One read of the steps and everything came back to me screaming that it was 'the recipe'.
Now, If I do not explain a bagel, it would be an injustice. In the very basic definition, it is a type of bread but differs from regular bread in shape and texture. There are 2 ways of making a bagel, the traditional chewy bagels are poached in water before baking and the more contemporary softer bagels are steamed before baking which gives them their very unique texture. Coming from India, I had neither heard about or seen a bagel until I landed here and very quickly realized that it is a greatly admired breakfast bread and I have seen people standing in line turning a simple bagel into a full meal with stuffing in between the 2 slices. Bagels are also a wonderful tool to motivate your team at work. Just stop by at Panera Bread on the way to work a day after a big release or on completion of a project, pick up a couple of dozens of assorted flavors of bagels and you will realize that your team is (almost) willing to forgive you for all the long hours they hold you responsible for and you might even be the most popular project manager for a while (these titles have expiry dates but enjoy while it lasts :-)). While BH is kind of indifferent to the lure of bagels, DD & I are pretty strong fans albeit with totally different tastes in the flavor. The plain Jane daughter goes for (what else but) a plain bagel, slathered with cream cheese while mom reaches out to the sesame seed topped bagel, no cheese but lightly toasted. If we get the bagels home, one common thing both of us enjoy is to sprinkle a generous helping of home made chutney pudi on top, why not?? Crispy and chewy at the same time, this is one breakfast I enjoy especially if I am travelling.

There are good bagel places here in the US, Panera bread being one of them, then there are specialty bakeries like Einstein bagels or New York Bagels and if you have a large family, you can get double packed, fresh baked bagels from Costco too. So, when you get the bagels easily most of the times, why make it at home? Well, while I cannot explain the urge to create these goodies at home, all I can say is this recipe is not difficult and you will be very pleasantly blown away by the results. Since I started blogging 2+ years back, I have gone out of my comfort zones to try new recipes, while some become instant hits, on some other recipes, my family begs/threatens/stages a walk out when they go wrong :-). Creating these dishes at home is first and foremost to achieve that personal satisfaction and I definitely got there with this bagel recipe.
As I cook more and more at home from scratch, it kind of makes eating out an exception and I do want to be wary of that since eating out is not just about the food, it is about family time, the ambiance and the total package. So, we have a pact at home and if my family doesn't want me to try something at home, they will tell me immediately (like the Papa John's garlic sauce - both DD & BH shook their heads wildly and forbid me from ever making it at home :-)) and I abide by it. So, since bagel is DD's favorite, I did ask her if I could make the bagels at home, she probably saw my eagerness to conquer this recipe and also thought that it would be a disaster and told me to go ahead.

Armed with the promise of a delicious bagel (I somehow had a gut feel about this recipe), I made them on Thursday and then again today as they sold out like hot cakes.

One bite and DD says, "Dude, these are seriously delicious". Mom is called dude in 2 scenarios in our home, one when she is extremely annoyed with me & my nagging (which happens quite often) or when she is extremely happy with me (which happens not so often) and I tend to believe it is the second scenario in this case and that makes my day completely. A week well spent and I am all charged to start anew tomorrow :-)
The recipe looks tedious below with many steps but here is the summary - make the dough, let it rise, shape them, poach them in water and bake. Simple? The steps give the details so you can make the most awesome bagels at home just like I did. Go ahead and give it a try. The original recipe calls for 1 Tbsp of barley malt syrup but I couldn't find it in stores close by and decided to make do with just the honey. BTW, I have Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice book and have just started reading it, it has a lot more formula and science as it is meant to be and he explains bagel making with a sponge, I might try it some day, will let you all know.

I do want to say Thanks to BH for all the wonderful photography on this one, the mundane ones are mine but he arranged, adjusted light and took these great clicks that perfectly complement the gorgeous bagels. So I did go overboard on the number of pictures here :-)
What do you need to make Bagels? 
Makes 6 big bagels
3 cups bread flour
1 Tbsp honey
1 cup warm water
1 Tsp quick rise or instant or bread machine yeast
1.5 Tsp kosher salt/1 Tsp regular salt
1/2 Tsp oil
1/4 Tsp finely ground pepper
1 Tsp baking soda
6-8 cups of water
1 Tsp corn meal or upma rava/sooji/cream of wheat
grated cheese
Sauteed onions
Poppy seeds
a large stock pot to boil water
1 or 2 baking sheets
How do you make Bagels? 
  • Mix water, honey and salt in a bowl. 
  • In a separate large bowl, mix flour and yeast together. 
  • Add the liquids slowly to the flour bowl and bring it together. This is a fairly stiff dough. 
  • Once everything comes together, pour it out on a working surface and knead for about 15 minutes until the dough becomes soft and slightly tacky. This is not a sticky dough at all.  
Before rise
After 1.5 hour rise
  • Smear a couple of drops of oil around the surface of the bowl, place the dough in the bowl, cover with a cling wrap and set aside in a warm place for an hour until it doubles in size.
  • Take the risen dough on to the working surface, punch it down and divide into 6 pieces (or 10 if you like mini bagels)
  • Keeping the pieces covered in a wet towel, take one at a time and smooth it into a ball - here is a trick to do it, take the dough piece in hand and start pulling the edges towards the center and pinch them together. Then put the seam side down and roll the ball to make the surface smooth. Since this is a stiff dough, it tends to be difficult to make a ball easily and this trick works well. 
  • Once it is smooth, take your thumb and poke a hole in the center of the ball and keeping the finger in the hole, keep rotating the ball to make the hole bigger. Make sure you pull and work the dough uniformly around the circle so there are no thin and thick walls. 
  • Keep the shaped bagels covered with a damp cloth and let it rest for 15-20 minutes, they do not need to double in size but will become fluffy. 
  • In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to boil on high heat, once it starts boiling, simmer and add the baking soda and mix. 
  • Prepare a baking sheet by sprinkling a thin layer of corn meal or upma rava. 
  • Take the shaped bagel one by one and drop the top side down into the boiling water. Do 2 or 3 at a time depending on the space in the stock pot, they need space to move around. 
As soon as you drop them in water

After turning over - see change in texture on top surface
  • Once you drop the bagels in, they sink first for a few seconds before they come up, set the timer to 1 minute and let the bagel poach for a minute before turning it over. Let it stay for a minute on the other side. Take it out with a slotted spoon and lay it with an inch of space on the prepared baking sheet. 
  • If you want to top them, this is the time to do it. I topped one of the bagels with sesame seeds & poppy seeds and let the remaining 5 plain as DD loves them so. An egg wash helps to hold the toppings better but my sesame seeds stuck well without it. 
  • Pre heat oven to 425F and bake the bagels for about 20 minutes, turning the baking sheet once at 10 minutes to bake evenly. 
  • Take them out, let them rest for 10-15 minutes on a wire rack before slicing and enjoying the delicious home made bagels. 
  • If you prefer chewy bagels, poach them for up to 2 minutes on each side. 
  • If you like to let your dough slow rise, once it is kneaded, cover and refrigerate over night. Next day, take it out an hour before and let it come back to room temperature before you shape the bagels.
  • Powdered pepper gives a wonderful though faint splash of flavor in the bagel, it is optional but I recommend it highly. 
  • Bagels are generally sliced in the middle into 2 concentric halves and in the simplest (and kid friendly) form are slathered with cream cheese but you can use them as sandwich bread and put layers in between the 2 halves. 
  • If you are a regular baker and have not made bagels yet, be prepared to accept that this is a fairly stiff dough. If you have a stand mixer or a processor in the kitchen, make use of it to knead the dough. 
What can go wrong and how to prevent it? 
  • Consistency of dough - this is as much science as it is an art and depends on the quality of the flour and the way you measure it out in cups. I scoop the flour into the cup and level the top off without stuffing it. If you are baking in large scale using cutting edge equipment and measuring your ounces and grams, then it is a different story. If you are a home baker like me and lean heavily on eye ball measurements and feel of the dough, here is a tip. Add the liquids slowly as you mix the dough together. I cannot emphasize enough that this is a stiff dough and for a reason, if the dough becomes soft, it will not stand a chance against the boiling water. 
  • Flour - Peter Reinhart recommends using a high gluten flour for that quintessential chewy bagel but also warns that it is not easily available unless you are willing to go beg for a few pounds from a friendly local bakery. I have been eating bagels for the last 15 years or so and I believe this recipe yields very close to the good quality store bought ones. Use high protein bread flour and not AP flour
  • Uniformity of bagels - this is more an aesthetic concern than anything else, however if you like a half dozen bagels looking as if they came out of Panera Bread kitchen, make sure you roll the dough into a uniform log and cut equal sized pieces for individual bagels. 
  • A bagel with a hole or not :-) - traditionally, we have all been conditioned to associate a bagel with a wide whole in the center. This dough will spring back as it rests, poaches and bakes and if you haven't made the hole wide enough, it might just decide to sew up and close, so pull the dough out uniformly and make a big whole while shaping them.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Linzer Cookies - celebrate Valentine's day with some reduced butter cookies :-)

Some of you atleast know my perspective of the valentine's day, it is not to be celebrated for a day if you are generally not expressing the emotion throughout the year or conversely, make every day a celebration. Granted there are days where you pull your hair out and yell at your valentine but that is part of the grand scheme of life. So, personally I do not subscribe to do anything special on the Valentine's day :-). Now, before you write me off as the middle aged (which I may be), unromantic person(not a chance) there ever was/is alive, let me tell you I am much in love and look forward to stay that way for years to come. And despite all my personal opinions on the matter, I seem to be making something special for this day as part of my obligations in this virtual world :-).

I was out shopping yesterday (nothing exotic, just the boring groceries) and every store I went to from a departmental store to a pharmacy had people crowded around either the flower bouquets and chocolates or the greeting cards. And also, the majority of people in these aisles were male. For laughing out loud (no LOL for me, I really am showing my age today in more ways than one), I don't know what to make of this gender bias in the stores ..
After that contradictory opening, here I am with some delicious, sweet cookies to appease you all today. I know the post is coming a day after the Valentine's day, but like I say always, every day is special if you want to bake something for your loved one(s), so go ahead and enjoy these precious bites albeit with a little restraint since they have much butter than I normally use in my cooking :-).

Today being the 15th, this post is part of my monthly Baking Partner's challenge that is conceptualized and hosted by Swathi. She gave us a choice of 2 types of cookies for the challenge and let us pick one. Infact, I made both of the cookies but missed taking pictures of the first one. And without pictures, what is a blog post?? I thought of making them again for the sake of pictures but decided to instead try the other choice and here I am with some delicious Linzer cookies. I am not a cookie person myself but these crunchy bites with some apricot jam sandwiched in between made for a delicious bite. Linzer cookies are of European origin and are 2 cookies sandwiched with a layer of jam or marmalade (choose any fruit flavor that you love). These cookies are flavored with both citrus and spices to wake you up. I would recommend experimenting and finding out the combination you like best. I added some tangerine and meyer lemon zest, you can easily replace them with orange or lime or regular lemon zest if that is what you have/like. I also added some cinnamon and cloves. Since you add all these flavors, the cookie dough is kept aside for a few hours (I refrigerated mine overnight for about 30 hours) so they seep into the dough and give you a burst of flavors on biting into a cookie. The original recipe says it can be refrigerated upto 3 months but I don't see the point of it, it is not like you are making a fruit cake :-). So.. I will leave the determination of resting period to you intelligent souls.
Now there was another reason I didn't refrigerate it too long, yes, Valentine's day was around the corner and I had to bake it quickly :-) but I also made mine a reduced fat cookie by slashing the amount of butter to half and wanted to see how my substitute ingredient worked. Sure, I hear the collective gasping of all you cookie connoisseurs hating me for bringing shame to the world of cookie making and also proudly bragging & blogging about it. Hear me out a little bit, will you? I have done this trick before while making some of my other cookies and haven't found my cookies lacking anything at all. I know it sounds hard to believe but it is definitely not a story of denial. Butter in cookies are over rated according to me, if you can make paneer butter masala without the butter or Dal Makhni without the makhan then why not cookies with reduced butter? Beginning to sound reasonable? I know I can convince (most of you atleast) with this argument, so read on..

I shy away from making traditional cookies for the amount of fat they seem to claim as needed. Once during a girl scouts bake sale, we made dozens and dozens of cookies and my hands I am sure got the best moisturizing like never before or after as I was handling the dough. A few years back, when DD was in elementary school, I used to meet another mom in her Taekwondo class. This super sweet lady and I became friends and she invited me to a cookie exchange during the Holiday season. In those days, I was very hesitant to bake anything, let alone experiment with traditional, butter laden cookies. I called her ahead and explained my predicament and she sweetly suggested I could bring in something else if I was not comfortable making cookies. I ended up taking some fruit punch to that gathering but the point of Christmas cookie exchange is to literally exchange your best, favorite and handed down the family cookie recipes with each other and I got a bunch of index cards with cookie recipes on them and every one of them spelt butter in substantial amounts and so I just kept them aside. If cookies have to be baked, I look for options that I like - added nuts, spices, fruits to bring out the flavor.

Back to the reduced fat cookie, I already told you that I slashed the amount of butter by half but that eliminates the moisture content in the recipe, so how did I make up for it? I added 1.5 Tbsp (for the quantity of ingredients I am giving below) of milk and made the dough. If someone doesn't tell you about this or if you haven't grown up rolling in Paula Deen's recipes all your life, you will not notice the reduction and there is nothing in the taste that tells you otherwise. The surrounding flavors make you forget about the lack of full on butter and lets you enjoy the cookies feeling a little better :-). So go ahead and try these delicacies at half the guilt or indulge yourself in the original version itself.
What do you need to make Linzer cookies? 
Makes about 1.5 dozen sandwiches
1  cup + 2 tablespoon All purpose flour
1/2 cup ground almonds and/or hazelnuts
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/8 Tsp salt
1 Tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 Tsp ground cloves
4 Tbsp unsalted butter (room temperature, original recipe says 8 Tbsp butter)
1.5-2 Tbsp milk
1/8 Tsp almond extract
1 Tsp grated lemon zest
1 Tsp grated orange zest
2 Tbsp jam/jelly/fruit preserves (I used apricot jam)
1 Tsp + extra Powdered sugar for dusting

How do you make Linzer cookies?
  • Soak almonds in warm water for about 45 minutes to an hours, remove the outer peel and pat them dry.
  • Make a powder of almonds along with 1 Tsp of powdered sugar in to a fine consistency.
  • Prepare cinnamon and cloves powder and keep ready. 
  • Wash, pat dry and grate the rinds of lemon and oranges to get the required amount of zest. 
  • Bring all ingredients together (except butter and milk) in a wide bowl and working with your fingers mix them well for a couple of minutes.
  • Cut the butter into small pieces, add them to the bowl and mix them well. As you knead, the natural oil from the almonds also helps as a source of moisture.
  • The dough starts to come together within 3-4 minutes, if it is very crumbly and falling apart, slowly add milk (room temperature) and knead it in. I used only 1.5Tbsp of it, so go by what your fingers are feeling in the dough bowl and adjust the milk.
  • Once you have a firm ball of dough in hand, pat it into a slab (dimensions doesn't matter really), wrap completely with a cling wrap and refrigerate it (3 - 24 hours).

  • When you are ready to bake the cookies, prepare 2 cookie sheets by laying out parchment sheets on them.
  • Spread another parchment sheet on the working surface, take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it sit out for 10 minutes.
  • Mean while, preheat the oven to 325F and set the racks to 1/3 distance from the top and bottom. 
  • Remove the plastic wrap and place the slab on the parchment paper, Lay another parchment sheet on top (this avoids the dough and excess butter sticking to your hands and the rolling pin) and start to roll the dough out to about 1/8 inch thick. 
  • Remove the top sheet, use the cookie cutters to cut different shapes. You get Linzer cookie cutters in the store which makes cutting the center piece easy but if you do not have them, just use different shapes to cut an outer shape and a smaller inner shape. 
  • You will make equal number of solid halves (without center cut) and center cut halfs to finally assemble the sandwiches. I hope the pictures tell the story better than I am able to do :-). 
  • Lay out the cut shapes with 1/2 inch distance between the two and bake them for a total of 14-15 minutes, open the oven once midway through, rotate the cookie sheets and also by interchanging the top and bottom cookie sheets - this insures even baking without burning. 
  • Watch the cookies towards the end of baking time and take them out once the edges start to brown slightly.
  • Let them stand for a few minutes to become firm before you assemble the sandwiches.
Assembling Linzer cookies (Do this when you are ready to serve, else the preserve layer tends to soften the cookies):
  • Take a solid half, spread a thin layer of jam or preserve, top it with the other half with the cutout.
  • Take a Tsp of powdered sugar in a thin sieve and sift it over the top.
  • Time saver tip - You can use store bought almond meal instead of soaking, peeling and grinding the almonds.
  • As you cut out the cookies, bring the scraps and the center cuts back into a ball and repeat the process. You can also bake the center cutouts separately but they cook faster because of their size.
  • You can serve these cookies without making them into sandwiches if the cutouts pose a problem. Slather some jam on top and bite in :-)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Achari Chole Pulav - pulav made with freshly roasted pickle spices

I promise I won't talk about weather today, not even the declared emergency in the Southern states and the layers of ice.. I am completely done with (just reading about and hearing of) the weather this year, I can't imagine how people affected directly are managing. I personally am enjoying the temperatures here with a little bit of snow thrown in for variety last weekend which by the way is completely gone and the roads are safe and clear.

Now onto other interesting topics :-). After having worked at my last company for 6 years, 2 of which remotely (yep, I was the working woman in my pajamas :-)) which kind of explains the flexibility I had to do other things, I finally bid adieu to that work and have accepted an offer to work in the Marissa Meyer style :-), I get up, get dressed, go to an office and work. I am on that 'in between' 2 weeks right now before starting off in another 10 days. Working from home while has its perks also comes with its list of woes, first & foremost from people asking me incredulously, "How do you do that?". It is simple really, just draw the lines on what can and cannot be done during your work hours and you will keep the productivity high come rain or shine :-). That was a phase of life, I accepted and enjoyed but it is now time to change some gears, I am looking forward to my new stint, will keep you all posted.
Obviously this is a change and like all changes it will take some time to become used to. Does that mean I am going to stop blogging? Heck, no, not a chance. This activity has brought so much of personal satisfaction I can't even begin to describe it to anyone, it has been an anchor on bad days and made me feel like a soaring bird on better days. As I start my new adventure, I might skip some beats but I am sure things will fall into place like they always do. Until then, my dearest readers, please hang in there with your support, visits and feedback.

I am using these 2 weeks of break to read, read and read a lot of books that were on my list (like I am either starved or will never again get time in my life to read :-)), it feels like old days in school and college when the first thing I would do after every set of exams was to go to the library and get an armload of books and sit in a corner of the big yard and read to my heart's content. One thing, I couldn't do then was to ever sleep without finishing a book, so there were many long nights. I haven't been able to do that in many years but finally did that last few days :-) and it felt so.. good.

I got a few books this past week, while some are worth talking about, a few were bad choices and better left alone. If there is one thing I would say without an instant's delay when I asked what I like most about this second home of mine is the public library system here. Coming from India, I had spent most of my childhood and young adulthood in libraries I thought had a great collection. My parents being voracious readers themselves, got us books to read from every possible place. If there was a library in the neighborhood, I definitely had been there at some point. But nothing had prepared me for the experience of the easy accessibility of public libraries I find here. They are free, they have huge collection and are every where. DD literally grew up in those cozy rooms filled with shelves of books since she was a toddler. The first thing we would do when her summer vacations started every year was to go the local public library and sign up for summer reading though she didn't need any incentive for reading. I am glad she enjoys reading just for the fun of it.

So back to the list of books I enjoyed recently, here are some. Hope you like some or most of these, do let me know and we can strike a conversation.
ElseWhere by Richard Russo
This is a memoir, a beautiful story of the author's relationship with his mother. Having been brought up by his single mother, it traces how the dependency equation changes as they grow older. The mom is someone who is born and grown up in a small industrial town that is in ruins and wants to get away, but as the memoir unfolds you will see that it is not from that town she wants to really get away but doesn't feel settled and happy anywhere else either. There is a heart breaking diagnosis he makes post her death which seems to give him some understanding of things. For me, all that mattered was the bond that is forged between the mom and the son. It is not a light read definitely, tugs you down at places but I enjoyed it very much. So I went ahead and got another book from the same author, 'Nobody's Fool', haven't started it yet.

And the Mountains echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Having read his earlier two books, I was waiting for this one to come out but didn't get a chance to get my hands on it until now. There are some books you cannot read in a hurry, they have to be slow reads, pondered over, felt in the bones and that is the only way to enjoy them. KH's books are like that, you cannot read them at one stretch because the subject invariably is heavy at the same time you cannot read a couple of pages (like I am doing my next one here), leave it lying on the night stand and return after a few days/weeks. Like his previous novels, this is set in Afghanistan too but the characters take you around the world to Greece, Paris and California, the story is told in first person by different characters and you can almost feel their life and see it unfold infront of your eyes, very vivid, almost graphic description - that is the power of his narration.

American Pie by Peter Reinhart

Well, there had to be atleast one food related book, right? I was looking for his other book 'Bread Baker's apprentice' but all the copies were out and I am on a hold list for it. I first saw a PR's pizza recipe in a magazine and made it at home last year, it was an instant hit and I fell in love with this master's recipe and techniques. Also, I gradually found out that he is one of the most revered baker, baking instructor and is most passionate about pizza making. This book has recipes at the end (I haven't gotten there yet) but what interested me is his search for finding the roots of this pie and find the best of it. There is a lot of travelogue and history associated with each place he goes to and it is as delicious as a perfectly baked pizza' :-). I am still savoring it.

Back to the recipe today, what I have is a very aromatic, tangy and spicy pulav that is so simple to make you will be licking your fingers longer than it took to actually make the rice. I saw this recipe in a cookery book by one of my favorite chefs who passed away recently - Tarla Dalal. I really salute the lady for her versatility and the sweet nature that seemed to exude in her TV appearances. However, I have found that I do not personally enjoy her recipes when made exactly to the Tee but take an idea from her, apply some of my own personality, the dish will invariably be a hit. This is what I mostly do with TD's recipes, a little change here, an addition there, some variation and I am good to go. This achari chole pulav can be made on any day with some basmati rice, a can of garbanzo and some spices. There are no vegetables here and hence is perfect for the day when you have just cleaned up your refrigerator and not yet restocked it.
For a South Indian by birth and nurture like me, pickle masala has a different connotation than what it includes in North Indian pickles. Mustard, red chilies and fenugreek are the common spices but North Indian pickles add some more. While I do not necessarily enjoy these spices in pickles, I have realized I love those flavors in curries and this rice. TD's recipe asks you to just roast the whole spices in oil but I feel they make a better impact when coarsely powdered to release their flavors. You can do it either way.
What do you need to make Achari chole pulav? 
1.5 cup basmati rice
1.5 cups cooked garbanzo beans/chole
1 cup long sliced onion
2 Tblsp oil
1 cup yogurt (slightly sour and a day old works best)
1 Tsp salt (adjust to taste, remember pickle has loads of slat already)
1/2 Tsp cumin
1 bay leaf
1/8 Tsp turmeric powder
1/2 cup chopped mint
1 Tsp mango pickle/thokku (use good quality flavorful pickle for best results)
2 green chilies
Achari masala:
1 Tblsp mustard
3/4 Tsp fenugreek seeds/methi
3/4 Tsp nigella seeds/kalonji
1 Tblsp fennel seeds/saunf
4-5 red chilies
How do you make Achari chole pulav? 
  • Soak rice for 25-30 minutes.
  • Wash and rinse in 2 changes of water.
  • Make a coarse powder of the achari masala.
  • Heat oil in a heavy bottom pan or pressure pan, add cumin and bay leaf.
  • Once cumin sizzles, add onion, let brown slightly and turn limp, stir once or twice.
  • Add the ground powder and roast for 30-45 seconds.
  • Add chopped mint, yogurt and pickle and mix well.
  • Add chole and let it cook on low heat for 7-8 minutes to get the flavors to the core of garbanzo beans.
  • Add the washed rice, give a gentle mix and add 1 cup of water(See NOTES below).
  • Cover with a tight fitting lid, simmer the heat and cook for 15 minutes. 
  • Open the lid and check if it needs additional water, adjust accordingly, cover back and continue to cook for another 5-7 minutes. 
  • Switch off & let it sit for 10 minutes before opening the lid again and fluffing the pulav with a fork. 
  • Steaming hot, bursting with flavors pulav is ready to serve. 
  • Basmati rice especially when soaked before cooking takes less water, you will also need to count the amount of liquid that is already in the pot as yogurt. Adjust water accordingly. I would start with that 1 cup and sprinkle a couple of spoons if the rice looks very dry at the end of the first 15 minutes of cooking. 
  • The quality and taste of the pickle you use matter a lot in this rice, mango pickles (just the masala part with no mango pieces) work best especially the Andhra avakkaya or the thokku. Original recipe uses green chili pickles as an alternative.
  • You can add paneer cubes marinated in the pickle flavors to this pulav for added protein and taste. Toss paneer cubes in 2 Tbsp of yogurt mixed with 1/4 Tsp of the pickle masala powder and a pinch of salt, keep aside for 20-30 minutes. Add them towards the end of cooking process. Use directly if you have fresh paneer or toast them lightly in oil if using the frozen variety. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Spicy onion crackers - Baked & Low calorie snack

Low, low temperatures and bone chilling cold. Pretty unusual for the winter where I live but then who says it has been a usual winter this year? If you are following the storm after storm bringing in piles of snow in the North East, you already know this year is anything but usual.. When we moved here a few years back, our first thought was one of gratitude for the milder winters the region promised. After having lived in mid west and eastern states most of our life, we were honestly looking for some respite from snowy and icy winters and have been super happy with the moderate temperatures here. But then as though nature noticed I was missing the white, fluffy stuff, it decided to bring some to my door steps :-). We had about 1/2 inch (I can see my friends back in Indy making faces and dismissing that as anything even worthy of attention) in December, schools announced a 2-hour delay to start with and then after an hour decided to close for the day completely. So they have a make up day now at the tail end of the school year, not sure if any of the kids will attend though!
Here is the problem with snow in our region, though the fall may not be heavy, since the terrain is very mountainous with winding and sloppy streets and Washington being the green state chooses not to use salt/chemicals to melt the snow, once it falls it tends to stay until cleared up. The roads become treacherous and driving almost impossible unless your vehicles are specially equipped for driving in the snow. Thankfully the number of times it snows and the duration & amount of snow is pretty low so all we have to do is just suck it up and take it as part of life.

This past week has been really cold for the region and suddenly last evening it decided to bring some snow flakes down too. It was a cozy Saturday evening and we were home while DD was out with a few friends at a dance performance. When it was time to bring her back, we had one of the nightmarish experiences with the car refusing to move forward in the gradient and rolling back down the slope as if it had a mind of its own and didn't want to listen to the driver. After some really stressful moments and parental anguish, we finally found a way to bring her home safely. All is well. When I got up this morning though the world around was breathtakingly spectacular with white dotting the lush green trees and covering the roads every where :-), beautiful awakenings.. I won't say no to this serene surroundings a few more times as long as everyone is home safe and we don't have to drive anywhere.
As the weather is still cold, I made some savory crackers, these are baked crackers with a wonderfully sweet smell of the onions. I had seen this on the web here and here and have made them at home multiple times with some variations and adjustments. I don't personally agree with the original name of baked nippattu, since the Iyengar bakery baked nippattu I have eaten taste different may be because of the amount of butter/dalda they use. Last time when I was in India, one of my SIL's friends who came to visit brought me a bag of Maiya's baked nippattus since my SIL had told him enough about my affinity and love for all things crispy, salty and spicy. They were delicious and had a definite taste of gram flour or besan. So, I am sure there are multiple versions of the baked nippattu around.

Also, for me nippattu is this, incidentally it happens to be my most popular blog post ever if I can trust the statistics blogger gives me :-), nippattu has rice flour and has a very distinctively different taste than what I have today. So, I have decided to call it just 'Spicy onion crackers' and not quality it as nippattu - baked or otherwise. But anyways, thanks ladies for the original recipe. As everybody before me have said, here is a word of caution, these crackers are super addictive, I make 30 crackers and they are almost always reduced to less than half the quantity in a couple of hours especially if it is a wet, cold day and the family happens to be home like today. If your family is like mine, plan and make a large batch so everyone is happy.
There are 2 ways to make these crackers - if you like them to be very crackly crisp, make them very thin and also use a fork to poke some holes all over the surface so that they bake evenly without holding any air bubbles (presence of which renders them soft on cooling). If you like them crisp but not necessarily crackling, pat the discs slightly thick but ensure even thickness all around. These turn out flaky when you break them open.

My changes from the original recipes is to add and up the wheat flour and I use oil instead of the butter (lower saturated fat content :-)). We had some pretty colored bell pepper chutney left from the lunch this morning and made use of that as a dip for the crackers. The crackers are just awesome by themselves and do not really need any accompaniments.
What do you need to make baked onion crackers? 
Makes about 30- 2 inch diameter crackers
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup AP flour
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 Tbsp white sesame seeds
4-5 green chilies (adjust to taste)
10-12 curry leaves
1/4 cup yogurt
1/4 cup oil
1 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
1/2 Tsp sugar
1/2 Tsp baking powder
1/8 Tsp baking soda
How do you make baked onion crackers? 
  • Sieve the flours with the baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar.
  • Wash, remove stem ends and finely chop the green chilies. Finely chop the curry leaves. 
  • Mix in rest of the ingredients and make a crumbly dough. Use some muscle power as you mix to break the juices of onion and get some juices flowing.
  • Keep aside for 20 minutes.
  • Mixing with hands, add water 1 Tbsp at a time to make a tight dough.
  • Knead for 3-4 minutes, cover and set aside for 30 minutes. You will be scraping dough off your fingers during the kneading as it is little sticky but the kneading process helps to make a smooth dough nonetheless. 
  • Pre heat the oven to 325F.
  • Pinch off gooseberry size dough at a time, keep it between 2 oiled wax paper sheets and press down to make a disc. 
  • Take these out and lay 1/2 inch apart on a lined baking sheet.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, flip the crackers over and continue baking for another 8-10 minutes or until golden.
  • When you take out the crackers, they are still a little soft but will turn crunchier as they cool.
  • Thinner the crackers, crispier they are but they tend to brown faster and you need to watch your oven. 
  • Keeping the crumbly dough aside is important as it allows the onion juices to further wet the dough. If you add water before this 'onion magic', chances are you will end up with a very gooey & sticky dough. 
  • A handful of finely chopped fresh fenugreek (methi) leaves adds a nice flavor. Replace with a Tbsp of crushed dry leaves (kasoori methi) instead if fresh leaves are not available. 
  • Substitute the green chilies with red chili powder. 
  • Add a handful of washed and finely chopped green cilantro instead of curry leaves. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Juicing in - a refreshing juice with apples

I know, this is not juice weather and yet here I am, talking about and making fruit juices. First, I thought I will tell you that it is summer in the southern hemisphere(SH) anyway and I made this juice for my abundant fans from that region. Plausible? I could have gotten away with it but here is the catch, I don't know if I have fans or even people that look at this blog in SH and since I am not much of a liar, I am bound to be caught before I finish attempting this post in entirety. Before you think I am on to some kind of a diet, let me set things straight and say that is not the reason either. I was talking to a cousin in India recently and the discussion somehow steered itself to health, weight and topics of that nature. This cousin of mine told me that she tried the new trend of 'juicing', naturally curious I asked her how it went and she explained that she had nothing but fruit juices for 3 days (which is meant to be both detoxifying and calorie light) and then the 4th day went back to eating masala dosa and idli-vada combination for breakfast. I didn't have the heart to ask her if she lost any weight :-). Since I don't normally do any of the diets, let me tell you the real reason I actually made the apple juice in this cold winter.

My juice memories are from a nondescript store packed with people of all ages at all times of the day in a bright and summary Bangalore. If you live around Jayanagar area or frequent the stores in the popular 4th block complex, you probably know what I am taking about. This store opened up across the street from the actual complex building and juice from every single fruit was available there. I have my thoughts about the quality of the fruits he got but he sure made it up for the taste with his many ingenuous spice powder additions :-). Before these stores, the only option available was to go to the road side cart where you would get sugar cane juice in the season or a concoction made from splashing different colorful liquids from ketchup bottles which the guy called fruit juice. Don't ask me if that even had fruits in it. The cleaner stores with a permanent structure and a roof over its head where the fruits were kept on display in the glass cupboards helped build confidence among people and grow the clientele. The place became an icon very quickly and was the equivalent of a 'hang-out' in those days with college students, working men/women, married couples making different groups and enjoying a cool drink.
I went to this store not as a student but after I had started working, it has been a few years and with the kind of changes sweeping Bangalore, I won't be surprised if I don't find that store in the corner on my next visit. The juice-wala had 3 colorful mixer/blenders running almost consistently except when the power went off. My favorites from his juice collection were the Guava and Pineapple. I prefer juice to milk shakes any day and I usually stuck with these choices unless it was the sugarcane season. If you have gone around the shopping mall in the hot sun and are exhausted, here was your gateway to a refreshing non carbonated drink right when you were ready to collapse. Take that tall, cool and colorful glass in hand, find a somewhat shaded area on the steps in front of the store, park your bags next to you and enjoy the sip slowly, yumm, makes me want to go back to Bangalore right now :-)

Back to the story of my out of season juice today, last weekend, we were driving some internal roads here and as always I was watching signs and boards all around. I noticed a sign that said 'Fresh, farm picked apples' and there was a small make shift counter just off the street. Washington apples are very good and I did my usual holler at poor BH and made him park and went to check out the apples. There they were, looking really plump and juicy and loaded in to boxes to be carried home. The sight of those yummy apples made me lose my mind (or may be it was more of the unexpected sun and bright weather) and I picked up a box and came home. When I tried to put them into my refrigerator, I realized what a really tall order I had picked up, there were over 50 apples in that box and even my refrigerator kind of grunted to indicate I was overdoing it.
BH has been taking an apple for lunch everyday to do his bit, but only accounts to 5 apples in the last one week and then we may have consumed an additional 8-10 at home which still leaves a whopping 30+ apples. I didn't feel like making pies and crisps just because it involved some prep, more butter and sugar. So I opted to make the juice. This is a very simple recipe. The apples I got are called honey crisp, they are literally crisp to bite, sweet as honey so I didn't add any sugar in the juice. As far the recipe, here it is..I told it was a no brainer.

What do you need to make apple juice? 
5 medium sized apples
1/4 inch piece of fresh ginger
pinch of salt
2 cups of water

How do you make apple juice? 
  • Wash, peel and core the apples, cut into cubes. 
  • Wash, peel and chop ginger. 
  • Take all ingredients to your mixer (split them into batches if the jar doesn't hold them all together). Make a smooth puree. 
  • Strain the puree (you can drink it with pulp if you prefer but for apple juice I like to sieve it) and collect the juice. 
  • Work the puree with a spoon to extract all juice and then discard the pulp. 
  • Refrigerate it and serve cold. 
  • Add a pinch of black salt & chat masala per serving to make the juice more peppy. 
  • Add freshly powdered black pepper or roasted cumin powder to the juice before serving. 
  • Fresh ground cinnamon is yet another good addition on this juice if you love the apple-cinnamon combination. 
  • I used juice from one small tangerine for one of the batches, orange will work too. My daughter noted that this combination tasted very similar to her cold medicine so I have discarded that option :-)
  • The apples I used are not bland and have a hint of tartness, if you are using very sweet or bland apples, add a Tsp of lemon/lime juice to taste. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Super bowl grub - healthy & hearty vegetarian chili

Seahawks win the Super Bowl and are the World Champions for 2014. 

The game itself was by no means a nail biter as it seemed like the Broncos were not even playing and were crushed 8-43 in a match that lasted 3.5 hours including the celebrations, half times and the breaks. DD is in dampened spirits because of how it reflected on her favorite sportsman but is happy for the local team for picking their first ever Super bowl win. Well, some things in life are just like that, you are not happy even when you win..
Just like I promised last week, here I am with one of the favorite Super bowl dishes. At my previous work place, come January, the group organized a Super bowl chili cook off and all of us made pots of chili in all shapes and form and the accessories. Lunch is served for the entire corporate office on purchase and the money collected goes to charity. Lunch is so huge that day, you really can't work post lunch and become a hefty, sluggish something unable to think straight. But it also gives a much needed distraction once a year from the unending, busy work life. That is where I learnt to make my vegetarian chili. D was a dear colleague and a sworn meat eater who shared his secret to good chili with me. He would bring in his slow cooker, plug it in next to his laptop at 7am, throw in various ingredients from different boxes, close it and get back to work. By 10am, his pot would be emitting such great aroma that none of us could resist a taste of his great chili. The first year when I didn't know any better, I had signed up to bring in only the peripheral stuff such as a bag of chips and store bought salsa or dip and after eating D's chili, I was hooked.

"Next to music there is nothing that lifts the spirits and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili." - Harry James
I totally agree with it in that a good bowl of Chili is a perfect comfort food, especially in the cold winters Midwest goes through during January. The ingredients themselves looked pretty easy, D used canned beans and tomatoes which eliminated all chopping and cleaning. Then he made me privy to the secret ingredient of a good chili which is the cocoa powder. Novice to the new scents and tastes of non Indian ingredients, I wouldn't have guessed it by a mile. The flavor of the cocoa powder in this dish is second only to the smoky, roasted cumin flavor. Outside of beans, everything else is pretty much by choice - you like bell peppers, throw in some, you like leeks, put them in, you prefer carrots, just add them, you get the idea. D's chili was very minimalistic in that it hardly had any vegetables. It qualified as 'vegetarian' by the mere absence of meat in it. While there were many other pots of chili with meat ranging from beef to chicken to venison, this was the only one available to vegetarians and would get over quickly. So after the dish was received well at home, I bravely signed up for a pot of chili next year and the the pot was cleaned out within 30 minutes once the lunch was served. Then, it was a regular at every January Chili cook off and I made some with an Indian ginger flavor once and roasted cumin flavor another time, every time a crowd pleaser.

When you see the beans (red and black), and peppers/chili in the dish, stereotypical thinking is to classify it as a Mexican recipe. Searching for some history on Chili, I found that no one has been able to establish any connection of Chili to Mexico and infact there is no dish resembling chili in Mexico except for places that cater to tourists. Within North America, there is a very popular Texan chili recipe and a variation of chili from Cincinnati, Ohio both heavily meat centric dishes. The popular impression is that chili is a Tex-Mex recipe, no matter what the origin is, this stoup (soup+stew - Rachel Ray vocabulary) has become a favorite of many in the nation. It is versatile in nature since you can add/subtract vegetables per taste/availability and up/down the spice level to suit your palette. No matter how you prepare it, served warm in a bowl with some chips on the side, this is a healthy and filling dish.
Here is a trivia for you, chile refers to the pepper pod, and chili to the concoction. The e and the i of it all. This is from the International Chili society, a non profit organization that sponsors yearly chili cook offs.

I made this chili in the morning today for the super bowl watching event at home. There were other things happening since morning and I didn't have anything else ready for lunch, so we ended up eating bowls of chili for lunch and the pot was polished off before even the opening ceremonies of super bowl began. I left the family to tend to themselves in the afternoon as I had to be some place else and they ended up ordering pizza to tide them through the game :-). I wanted us to eat healthy and low calorie but ended up also eating calorie dense store bought pizza, well like I said before you can't win them all..The moral of the story is, a bowl of chili is not just for watching superbowl but is a great mid day meal too.
What do you need to make Vegetarian Chili?
Makes 5 servings
3 cups cooked rajma/red kidney beans
1 cup cooked black beans
1/2 cup cubed onions
2 cups diced tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped carrot
1 Tblsp roasted cumin powder
2 cloves garlic
2 green chilies/pepper
1 Tsp salt (adjust to taste)
1/2-3/4 Tsp red chili powder (adjust to taste)
1 Tblsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tblsp tomato paste
1/4 Tsp sugar
1/4 Tsp black pepper
2 Tblsp oil
How do you make Vegetarian Chili? 
  • Roast 1.5 Tblsp cumin in a dry pan until it starts to pop, switch off, let cool and grind into a powder, keep it covered until ready to use. 
  • Heat oil in a heavy bottom sauce pan. 
  • Once the oil is hot, add chopped onion and fry for a minute and then add minced garlic. 
  • Let it roast until onion turns light pink, add the remaining vegetables and salt. 
  • Mix well, cover and cook for 2 minutes until the veggies turn a little soft. 
  • Add the dry powders, tomato paste, 2 cups of water, cover and cook for 8-10 minutes until the tomato break down completely (such a sad state :-(). 
  • Add the cooked beans, adjust salt/spices & water as needed, reduce the heat to low, cover and let the flavors mingle together for another 30-40 minutes. 
  • Add chopped cilantro to garnish before serving. 
Serving Suggestions: 
  • Top it with fresh cream, guacamole or cheese. 
  • Serve it with corn bread or chips. 
  • I prefer to soak overnight and cook the beans in pressure cooker as I do not care for the added sodium in canned beans. If you are pressed for time or have forgotten to soak the beans, go ahead and use the canned ones, make sure you rinse and drain them thoroughly in a couple changes of water. 
  • This recipe is a great slow cooker recipe if you own one. I love to let it simmer in the crock pot for a couple of hours so the flavors marry well. I made smaller than usual quantity today and used my sturdy, cast iron pan on stove top. 
  • If you are using the slow cooker and want to cook beans directly in them, plan 6-8 hours ahead and start with soaked and washed beans in the pot. Prepare vegetables outside on stove top and once the beans are soft add the veggies in and let them continue to cook in the slow cooker. 
  • If you want to make a full meal with this bowl, go ahead and add 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa or millet to the chili while it is simmering.