April 17, 2014

Jaljeera (A Spiced Cumin Flavoured Mint & Lemon Cooler) & The Winner Of My Previous Giveaway


n Indian summer is a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather, occurring after the end of summer proper (late autumn), usually followed by a period of colder weather. The “Indian in this context refers to the North American native Indians who would complete their harvesting and hunting at this time of the year to stock up on food before the winter set in. Today, it generally refers to a happy period/ success occurring late in one’s life or career.
In the context of where I live, an Indian summer is just that – very, very hot! Come the month of March and the temperature starts climbing gradually to peak in May/ June till the monsoon arrives to settle the dust, parch the thirsty earth and make life ever so bearable again.
I shouldn’t be complaining much because the temperatures do not normally go beyond 37C where I live, which isn’t so bad when you consider that 45C is the norm in summer in many parts of India! Of course, the one nice thing about the summer is that it’s time for India’s much awaited favourite – mangoes, and more mangoes.

In India, we know our summers well, so people get up early and finish off whatever work needs to be done outside before the sun climbs high. We do our best to stay indoors during the hottest hours of the day, eat food that sits comfortably on a sluggish digestive system and keep ourselves rehydrated with water or beverages designed to beat the summer heat.
Every part of India has its variety and versions of summer coolers, and I hope to post as many of them as I can this summer. This post is dedicated to Jaljeera which is a spiced tangy cooler that is predominantly flavoured with cumin and mint, and served with boondi (puffed and crisp deep-fried chickpea flour balls).
Jaljeera is native to the Northern part of India and a very popular summertime drink there. “Jal” is the Hindi word for water and "Jeera" means cumin so Jaljeera does translate as “cumin water”.  Traditionally, it is made and stored in clay pots which keep it cool in the heat of the Indian summertime.
The taste of Jaljeera is a balance of strongly tangy, a little salty, and a hint of sweet with a lot of spice.  Jaljeera is often made and served without any sugar though some people prefer their Jaljeera a bit on the sweeter side, but to my mind a little sugar balances out the other flavours but only to the extent where it doesn’t overpower the spices in the drink.

The tang in this drink comes from the use of a little amchur (dehydrated and powdered raw mango) and either lime juice or tamarind paste. What souring agent you use in Jaljeera is a personal choice. Lime juice will keep your Jaljeera green in colour, while tamarind will colour it brown.
Jaljeera is a beverage that can be served at just about any time of the day. It is a summer cooler of course, but it is sometimes served as an appetizer (to wake up the taste buds!), or sipped along the course of the main meal.  Then it can be served as a digestive aid after a meal (most of the spices/ herbsin Jajeera are known to have digestive and carminative properties).
Jaljeera can be made up from scratch (roasting and powdering the spices, etc.) or otherwise, one can make up small batches of the spice powder and use that instead. The spices that go into Jaljeera (and the readymade spice powder) generally are cumin, ginger, black pepper, mint, Kala Namak/ black salt, amchur, etc, and everyone who makes it has their own particular blend with varied proportion of spices.  

Most Indian beverages are rarely served with ice, and I also prefer my coolers this way because the ice melts down and dilutes them to a very watered down version that lacks flavour. Feel free to serve your Jajeera with crushed ice if you like it that way.
You can also use chilled soda instead of water for a twist on the original. As for the spices, and all the other ingredients, do tweak the amounts to suit your taste as this recipe is more of a set of instructions than an exact recipe and can be customized to personal preferences. 
The “boondi” which are puffed and crisp deep-fried chickpea flour balls, which is added to Jaljeera just before serving is an important part of the experience of drinking this cooler. The crispness of the boondi (they will become soggy rather quickly once they absorb liquid) adds a dimension that can I have no words to describe. You can find boondi  and Kala Namak/ blck salt in any store that sells Indian groceries/ food supplies. If you cannot find the salt, leave it out.

Jaljeera (A Spiced Cumin Flavoured Mint & Lemon Cooler)


1 small bunch mint leaves (about 1 cup loosely packed mint)
A few sprigs of fresh coriander (about 1/4 cup loosely packed leaves)
1” piece of ginger
 Juice of 2 to 3 largish limes (or 2 tsp thick tamarind pulp)
 2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds (saunf)
1 tsp black peppercorn
1tsp amchur (dried mango powder)
2 tsp sugar 
1 tsp black salt/ Indian rock salt (kala namak)
3/4 tsp salt (or to taste)
5 cups of chilled water
1/3 cup boondi (small chickpea fritter balls) for garnishing 


Dry roast the cumin seeds in a pan till they start gving off an aroma. Do not let them darken. Cool and pound/ grind into a somewhat coarse powder. Pound and grind the fennel seeds and the black peppercorn as well.
Put the mint, coriander, ginger and the lemon juice in a blender or the chutney jar of your mixer/ grinder and grind into as fine a paste as possible. Add a few tsp of water if necessary while grinding.
Put this paste in a large jug or pan, add the chilled water, the powdered cumin, fennel and peppercorn, the black/ rock salt, mango powder, sugar and salt to taste. Stir the mixture well and strain to remove the solid particles.
Pour into serving glasses. Garnish with the boondi and slices of lime and mint leaves (optional). Serve chilled immediately. Jaljeera is best made and served fresh. Do not keep this in refrigerated for more than a couple of hours as the colour of the Jaljeera tends to become darker and the freshness of the spices disappears.
Server chilled garnished with boondi. This recipe makes 4 tall glasses of Jaljeera.

I’m sorry for the slight delay in announcing the winner of my previous giveaway of Vicky Ratnani’s book - Vicky Goes Veg.
The randomly picked lucky winner of the book is Thangalakshmi. Congratulations!
Do watch your inbox for an e-mail from me.
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April 7, 2014

Make It At Home : Oven Dried/ Sun Dried Tomatoes


hat do you do when you have an overabundance of seasonal vegetables or fruit? I’d guess the answer would be to preserve them in some way so that you can continue to savour them the rest of the year when the craving for them hits.
There are however some fruit or vegetables which are available the year around in some parts of the world. I’m lucky enough to live in one such part of the world where tomatoes are available fresh all the year round. There are times when they’re a whole lot more affordable than at other times, but its one vegetable (fruit actually) that we tend to take pretty much for granted in India.
It’s also one thing that I rarely think of preserving unlike other fruit like strawberries or figs for example. If I ever feel like making some tomato jam, or pickle or even batches of Marinara sauce, I just drive down to the market and buy a slightly larger than usual quantity of tomatoes, and I’m good to go.
So anything that has to do with preserving tomatoes, I tend to do on a whim, and it usually takes me a little more time than I need to go and buy the required quantity of tomatoes. The exception is with the Marinara sauce which I mostly make in a large batch and there’s always some in stock in my freezer.
 This is probably why I never got around to sun drying tomatoes. Well, I did try it once but the day I decided to sun dry them (and it was the height of summer), the sun decided to play hooky and two days of cloudy skies meant that I ended up with tomatoes that became fertile landscape for very odd coloured mould and 2 kilos of tomatoes had to be binned!
That was it for me and sun dried tomatoes for a while, but you know that if you like Italian food then you can’t really escape them for long. On a trip to my local supermarket (we have only a couple of stores that qualify for that description where I live) recently, I discovered small packets of sun dried tomatoes being sold at ridiculously high prices, and that got me thinking about making my own again.
This time, the sun’s not the problem as the sun has been shining with a vengeance since March and the mercury now averages 37C (that’s 100F) at a time of the year when it should be at least 5C (40F) cooler! My problem now is that thanks to the real estate business which is hell bent to developing this place like there’s no tomorrow, there’s so much dust in the air, I feel it’s no longer safe to sun dry my food.
So I chose to use my oven instead. This method is much faster but then I lose out on the flavour which only the sun can bring to sun dried tomatoes, but I have little choice. Oven drying tomatoes is pretty easy to do, and all you need are the tomatoes and salt. You can always add other flavours by adding garlic, herbs or pepper/ chilli flakes to the tomatoes before you put them into the oven.
I see some people like to remove the seeds from their tomatoes, and others salting the tomatoes and then draining the liquid so that the tomatoes dry faster. I prefer to leave the seeds in because it means less work for me, and of course, they look rustic and nice once they’ve dried out.

You can dry any kind of tomato including cherry tomatoes. Out here, cherry tomatoes are not available everywhere and when they are they are too expensive to buy them in the quantities required for dehydrating them. Ripe but firm tomatoes of any variety can be dried.
You will need a large quantity as the tomatoes dry out to more than 3/4 their volume, so I would suggest you work with about 5 kilos of tomatoes at least to make this worthwhile. The recipe below uses just 1 1/2 kg and that’s ok if you’re doing this for the first time and just want o see how the process works out.
Use rimmed baking sheets and line them with aluminium foil so that so that if there’s any liquid from the tomatoes, it won’t leave a mess to clean up.
If you would like to sun dry your tomatoes, follow the same method for preparing the tomatoes. Then place them in the sun and let them dry out the whole day. Bring them in as soon as the sun starts going down for the day. Don’t forget to cover your trays with some sort of thin netting to make sure nothing falls into the tomatoes. Place them in the sun the next day again until the tomatoes are no longer wet and quite dry to touch. They should have lost about 85% of their moisture. Then store them in oil or as they are and refrigerate.
You can use oven dried tomatoes in many different ways. Eat them plain (I love them this way), put them in sandwiches, or cook them in sauces, soups, and stews.  Use them as topping for pizza or focaccia, chopped up in dips, or bake them in breads.
If they are not packed in oil, dried tomatoes will need to be reconstituted before use. Let them soak in warm water for thirty minutes until they’re soft and pliable. Pat dry and then use. Do not discard the soaking liquid as you can use it to add flavour to stocks and sauces.
To reconstitute dehydrated tomatoes in oil, cover the dried tomatoes with oil and refrigerate for 24 hours. Make sure that the tomatoes left in the jar are completely covered with oil, adding a little more if necessary. The oil in which the tomatoes are soaked makes excellent flavoured oil to use in salad dressings or for sautéing.

Oven Dried Tomatoes
1 1/2 kg firm red tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp sugar
2 teaspoons dried oregano (or herbs of your choice/ optional)
Line two rimmed baking trays with aluminium foil. Trim and discard the stem ends of all the tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes into two lengthwise or four if your tomatoes are big. Arrange them in a single layer, cut sides up on the trays.
Season the tomato pieces with salt, pepper, sugar and the herbs.
Bake them at 150C (300F) for about 2 hours and then at 120C (250F) for about 45 minutes or so until the tomatoes are dry and feel slightly soft in the centre.
Let them cool in the oven.  Once they’re completely cool, transfer to an airtight glass jar and add enough extra virgin olive oil so the tomatoes are submerged. Refrigerate. You can also refrigerate them without the oil, of you prefer that. These oven-dried tomatoes keep well for up to 3 months in the freezer in zip lock/ freezer bags.
This recipe will give a small jar of oven dried tomatoes, so please use larger quantities of tomatoes for a larger yield.
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April 2, 2014

Rajma (Red Kidney Beans In A Spicy Gravy)


ajma in Hindi refers to kidney beans. It is also the name for a very popular North Indian dish of kidney beans in a spicy. As a child, kidney beans were not something I saw too often as it is not traditionally used in my native cuisine. I do not remember ever seeing this deep red coloured bean in any of the kitchens in the family, near or extended.
The only occasions where I would come across these beans would be in the homes of our Punjabi friends where these were almost a staple at every lunch or dinner we ate! I never really liked this “red bean” curry and always preferred the potatoes which were another staple at those affairs.
Much later, when I was in my late teens or so, I would occasionally overhear some distant aunt (or someone at the neighbour’s) who was visiting from Delhi or Bombay (as I still think of Mumbai) saying she would cook “Rajamma” to serve with chappathis for dinner. This was initially a puzzle to me because, in my community, “Rajamma” is a name given to girls and I couldn’t connect it up with cooking at all! That was until a later I figured out that the “Rajamma” was a corrupted Tamil name given to the famous Punjabi kidney bean curry.

So like I just said, Rajma has never been a favourite of mine whether the bean or the dish. My husband on the other hand just loves the curry, and it seemed unfair not to occasionally cook something he loves just because I don’t like it. Sometime after we got married, and my kitchen skills had become decent enough, I attempted trying to cook Rajma for myself. How difficult could cooking kidney beans in onion-tomato gravy get, after all?
As it turned out, it wasn’t that easy either. The Rajma I cooked was alright taste-wise, but wasn’t quite there because the beans just wouldn’t cook soft enough. And there was no one I knew back home who could help me out with this one. So I just came to some sort of a decision in my mind and decided that Rajma was one of those dishes I just couldn’t get right. Everyone has one of those, right? And if my husband wanted to eat Rajma, we’d just order it when we ate out which he was happy enough to do.
Still, there is something about home cooked food, and I did so badly want to get that Rajma right and conquer this one. Much talking to friends and some research later I found the solution to my problems. The first reason why the kidney beans weren’t cooking soft was because they were probably old. The older the beans are, the longer they take to cook and sometimes never quite soften up enough, so always buy beans after checking the “packed on” dates on the labels. The other is a simple trick that involves adding a pinch, just that and not more, of baking soda to the soaked kidney beans before you cook them. This trick works pretty much with all kinds of beans. Apparently, adding baking soda also possibly neutralizes lectins present in dried beans (see below).

I’m happy to say that I have been making a mean dish of Rajma for a few years now and its about time I shared it here. There are many recipes for a good Rajma curry and each one has its own combination of ingredients and spices which make it special. I have over the past couple of years developed a liking for Rajma and I really like it only with Basmati rice. In my opinion, this is the best way to eat it.
If you cook the kidney beans ahead and freeze it, this Rajma is very easy to put together especially on days when you don't have much time to cook.  Serve it with rice (or chappathis if you prefer) with a salad and yogurt on the side you have a comforting, filling and balanced meal.
My version of Rajma is a little low on spices and has a good dose of ginger which I feel works great with the kidney beans in this preparation.  I learnt to use this combination of spices and ginger from a former neighbour (the same one whose Baingan Bharta I loved). Do also take a look at this creamier Rajma and lentil recipe which another Indian way to cook kideny beans.
In India you will generally find two or three different kinds of kidney beans. Typically, the dark red largish variety of kidney beans is used to make this dish. However you can also use the slightly smaller Kashmiri Rajma beans or even the light coloured variegated Rajma beans instead.
My aunt tells me the lighter variegated variety of kidney beans cook softer and creamier than the red ones.
Indians, by and large, put their pressure cookers to good use and it’s the easiest way to cook these and other dried beans and legumes. If you’re not comfortable with them, cook the Rajma using your preferred method. You can also pre-cooked kidney beans if you find that easier and can find it in your store. But if you will please, try cooking it from dry. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, and it’s really the best way in my opinion.

I know a lot of people do not discard the water (me included, till now) in which the kidney beans have been cooked, but it turns out that there is evidence to suggest that this is not a good practise as my cousin pinted out in the comments below.
Kideny beans (more than other type of beans) have the highest concentration of a toxin known as Phytohaemagglutinin (PHA). PHA is a lectin (sugar binding protein in beans) which causes food poisoning when red beans are consumed in it's raw, soaked or under cooked form.
The way to make sure your cooked kidney beans are safe is to first soak them in water for at least 5 hours and discard the water. Put them again in water and then cook them using a method that will make sure they boil for at least 10 minutes (pressure cooking a good method), and then drain out the water the beans were cooked in. Also make sure the beans are cooked until they're really soft.
In case you are wondering, 1 cup dried kidney beans should cook up to about 2 1/2 cups.

Rajma (Red Kidney Beans In A Spicy Gravy)


2 cups cooked rajma (red kidney beans)*
1 tbsp oil
1 big onion, minced
3 medium tomatoes, puréed
1 1/2” piece of ginger, minced
1/2 tsp garlic paste
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp red chilli powder
About 2 or 3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
1 tbsp ghee (optional)


*To cook the kidney beans, soak them in water overnight or for about 8 to 10 hours. Drain and discard this water. Cover the soaked beans with enough water to cook it, and add a pinch (not more) of baking soda and mix well. Pressure cook the beans (or whichever way you cook beans) until the beans are soft but not mushy. Keep aside.
In a large pan, heat the oil. Add the onions and sauté the onions till they turn soft. Add the ginger and garlic, and stir for about half a minute. Turn down the heat to medium and then add the puréed tomatoes and cook for 5 to 10 minutes.
Add the turmeric coriander and chilli powders and cook until the oil shows on the edges, stirring occasionally.
Drain the liquid from the cooked kidney beans and add it to the pan along with a cup of water. Bring to a boil and lightly mash the beans with spatula/ spoon so that a small number of the beans break. This will help thicken the curry. Add salt to taste. Let it cook on low heat for another 5 minutes or so till the flavours are well blended. Add a little more water f the Rajma is too thick. It should have the consistency of a stew.
Take it off the heat. Just before serving stir in the ghee and garnish with the chopped coriander. Serve hot with basmati rice. This recipe will serve 4.
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March 29, 2014

Baingan Bharta (Roasted, Mashed & Spiced Eggplant Curry) & Announcing The Winner Of The Previous Giveaway!


hen I look back to my childhood, it seems to me that we had so much more fun growing up with the simple pleasures in life. Those were the days before the television, computers and electronic took over our lives and the radio was what reigned supreme. We spent a lot of time outdoors playing all sorts of games, many of which we made up as we went along. Even though I spent a large part of my childhood outside India, we used to spend the two months of our summer vacation in India visiting our immediate family, once every two years.
I have a lot of good memories from then and one particular one was of the post dinner story telling sessions with Thatha, my maternal grandfather. Dinner used be done by about 7:30 in the evening, and a bunch of the neighbourhood kids who were my friends, my cousins and I would climb the wooden stairs to the veranda upstairs where my grandfather would spend a couple of hours sitting in his easy chair (a sort of planter’s chair with retractable arms) before turning in for the night.
In those days, we kids got our first introduction to stories from the epics like the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana, Indian folk tales from the Panchatantra, Jataka tales, etc. My grandfather was a good story teller and we kids used to listen to him in pin drop silence as he wove his magic, only to clamour for more when he would stop the story at that point where we could not quite contain our eagerness to know what happened next. He would extract promises of good behaviour from us and promise us rewards for that in the form of the next instalment on the following night.
It is another matter that when I used to read out these stories to my then toddler, she would ask the most logical questions, most of which I had no plausible answers for. How many folk tales do you know that are based on logic?

Some of my Thatha’s stories were about Tenali Raman who was known to be a scholar and a very clever man. Tenali Raman was a court jester (and later minister) and poet in the court of the Vijaynagara king Krishnadeva Rai (early 1500s) and the stories about his cleverness and wit are legendary. Of the many stories told about him, there was one involving an eggplant or brinjal as we know this vegetable in India.
As this story goes, King Krishnadeva Rai had some eggplant plants of excellent quality growing in his private garden and no one was allowed to even look at them, let alone eat the fruit. One day, he invited his courtiers to a feast where a dish cooked with this special eggplant was served. Tenali Raman liked it so much that he couldn’t stop describing it to his wife when he got home.  
That tempted his wife and she wanted a taste of this special vegetable at any cost. Tenali Raman knew that being caught stealing even one eggplant from the King’s garden could mean a death sentence, but he couldn’t refuse his wife. So one night, without anyone’s knowledge, he managed to steal a couple of eggplant which his wife cooked and fell in love with.
Now she wanted their six year old son to also share the experience! Tenali Raman was now in a fix. He couldn’t steal again without being discovered, and even if he did, a six year old couldn’t be trusted to keep a secret.
So after much thought, Tenali Raman went out and managed to steal a couple of eggplants/ brinjal, once again, from the King’s garden without anyone discovering him. His wife cooked it and their son also got to enjoy the vegetable for dinner.
Later at night, Tenali Raman took a bucketful of water and went up to the roof where his son was sleeping. He poured the water on the sleeping child and then picked him up and took him inside telling him it was raining outside. He then changed the boy into dry clothes and put him to bed.

The next day, the theft was discovered because the royal gardener had started counting the number of eggplants (fruit and flower) and found some of the eggplants missing. The King declared a huge prize for whoever caught the thief. One of the King’s ministers suspected that only someone as clever as Tenali Raman could manage a theft of this sort.
Both the King and his minister knew that they would not be able to trick Tenali Raman into confessing without proof so they decided to question his son. The boy was brought to court and asked what he had eaten the previous night. The boy replied, “I had eggplant and it was the tastiest I have eaten!”
The minister turned to Tenali Raman and asked him to confess to the theft since his son had disclosed the truth. Tenali Raman however refused, asking how they could go by a six year old boy’s statement. He explained that his son was prone to fanciful dreams at night, had a tendency to make up stories and probably dreamt that he ate eggplant for dinner. He then asked the King to ask the boy if he thought it had rained the previous night.
So the boy was asked the question and he promptly replied saying that it had rained the previous night and that he had got drenched and had to change into dry clothes. Since everyone knew it rarely rained in summer and it had definitely not rained in Vijayanagar the previous night, the King and his minister had no choice but to let the boy go and apologise to Tenali Raman for suspecting him of the eggplant theft!
I never heard this Tenali Raman tale in my childhood, and if I had, I might have been persuaded to develop a liking for the vegetable. The truth is that I never really liked eggplant as a child and am willing to eat it as an adult only if I cook it because then I can do so to my taste. Otherwise it has to be cooked by someone else whom I know does it well.

I like eggplant if it is cooked in the South Indian manner of a “Mezhukkupuratti “ which is a stir-fry with a little oil and just a couple of spices, so long as it doesn’t get mushy. I also like the spice stuffed and pan-fried eggplant dish of “Bhaghara Baingan” and the Italian Caponata. I am also partial to any dish that features char-grilled or roasted and mashed eggplant.
One of the last mentioned ways of cooking eggplant is the North Indian Baingan Bharta. “Baingan” is the Hindi word for eggplant and “Bharta” (pronounced BHURR-taah) refers to dishes where the main ingredient in it, a vegetable, is roughly mashed. There are several versions, with spice variations, depending on which part of North India cooks this dish and this one below is my approximation of what a former neighbour of ours used to cook.
For Baingan Bharta, the eggplant is smeared or brushed with a little oil and roasted (or char-grilled) over an open flame until all the skin becomes dark and wrinkled. Once cool, the skin is peeled off and the eggplant is mashed. Any dish cooked with this mashed eggplant has a characteristically smoky flavour which changes slightly depending on how it is cooked and with what spices.

I am not very familiar with the types and names of the various varieties of eggplant and we get many kinds here in India, depending on the time of the year. They come in all shapes sizes and a few colours too – long, thin, green or purple; small, oval and deep purple; small, round and light green or striated and purple; medium, egg shaped, striated and white and purple; round, green and white Thai eggplant; huge, round, a little squat and purple; very large, longish and deep purple, almost black. These are just some of them.

The kind of eggplant to use for Baingan Bharta is the large, deep purple smooth skinned variety (slightly elongated or round) that has little or no seeds. The eggplant with seeds leaves a very unpleasant feel in the mouth and spoils the otherwise creamy texture of this Bharta.
I had never seen green peas in Baingan Bharta, until I first tasted the version cooked by my former neighbour. I happen to like green peas very much, and in India you can find the eggplant we use for this preparation in season at the same time green peas are, and I feel they’re both very compatible in terms of flavour in this dish. If you don’t like them, feel free to leave them out, and you will still have a great eggplant dish.

Baingan Bharta (Roasted, Mashed & Spiced Eggplant Curry)


1 large eggplant/ aubergine (baingan)
1 1/2 tbsp oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced (or paste)
2 medium –large tomatoes, finely chopped
2 to 3 green chillies, finely chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp coriander powder
 1 1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp garam masala powder
1/2 cup green peas
Salt to taste
1 tbsp ghee
1 to 2 tbps chopped fresh coriander


Smear/ brush a little oil all over the eggplant. Make 4 equally distant longitudinal slits (not very deep) on the eggplant. Place it directly on the flame, and turn it every now and then holding it by its stalk, so that it is evenly charred. Let the skin of the eggplant get completely dark/ charred and wrinkly.
Take the eggplant off the flame and let it sit until it has cooled down. Peel off the skin, trim off the stalk and mash the flesh of the eggplant using the tines of a fork.

Heat the oil in a pan and add the onion, garlic and green chillies. Sauté till the onions turn a golden brown, and then add the tomatoes, keeping a side about a tbsp. of it to use later as garnish. Cook them till they turn soft. Turn down the heat to low-medium and then add the turmeric, coriander, cumin and garam masala powders, and cook until the oil surfaces. Add the green peas and sprinkle a little water (just as much as is required to cook the peas) and cook till the peas are done.
Add the mashed eggplant, stir well and cook for about 5 minutes. Then stir in the chopped coriander. Serve warm with chapathis.
Just before serving, add the ghee and mix well. Garnish with a little more fresh coriander the chopped tomato that was set aside earlier. This recipe serves 3 to 4 people. 

As an aside from eggplants, roasting and cooking them, I’m happy to announce the lucky winner of my previous giveaway. As I mentioned in my giveaway post, Sellers Publishing were generous and sent me a copy of 500 Pasta Dishes : The Only Compendium You’ll Ever Need by Valentina Sforza.
The winner of the book is Dhanya Samuel. Congratulations! Do look out for my e-mail in your mail box.

I’m also currently giving away a copy of “Vicky Goes Veg” by Vicky Ratnani. This giveaway is open till the 31st March, 2014 (inclusive). Please see this post for the details.
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March 24, 2014

We Knead To Bake #15 : Japanese Melon Pan (Crunchy Cookie Covered Bread Rolls)


here’s something about the way the Japanese do a lot of things that just different. They pay attention to the smallest details and there’s a lot of effort and care that goes into what they do. Think about simplicity and beauty of their Bonsai, Ikebana, Origami or Japanese gardens, for example and you know what I’m talking about.
It’s pretty much the same with their baking. Though Japan does not have a tradition of baking, they have adopted, adapted and improved upon so many of the baking recipes, whether cakes or breads,  from the West and made them their own. Japanese Western style patisserie tends to be less sweeter than their Western counterparts but are often quite rich with lots of eggs, milk and butter.

“Pan” is the Japanese word for bread which is borrowed from Portuguese and they make quite a variety of “Pan” in Japan, some of them rather unusual. I have quite of a few of them on my to-bake list and I thought I’d start off by picking the “Melon Pan” (sometimes also called Meronpan or Melon Ban) to bake for this month’s We Knead To Bake bread.

Melon Pan are buns and basically a soft , rich and not so sweet  bread covered by a layer of crunchy cookie. The contrast of the soft spongy inner bread and the crunchy outer cookie layer is what makes this bread special. It also helps that these buns look very attractive too.
There is some debate as to the origin of the “Melon” part of the name of this bread, because there’s definitely no melon or melon flavour of any sort in this bread. Though I now understand that there are some bakeries in Japan that do flavour this bread with melon extract, it is more unusual than the norm.

There are a couple of suggestions as to where the “Melon” in Melon Pan comes from. One suggestion is that the sugar cookie topping is usually scored in a crosshatch pattern similar to the way the Japanese cut melon wedges into a crosshatch pattern, and then bend them backwards before serving. 
The other more popular suggestion is that appearance of the cracked surface of the cookie dough layer resembles a rock melon/ cantaloupe, and hence the name. 
It seems that the pattern on these Melon Pan can differ in certain regions of Japan where they prefer to create a radiating pattern that represents the sunrise.While the crosshatch pattern is more common, an equally popular practise is to decorate the surface of the cookie dough by pressing into it with small teddy bear or star shaped cookie cutters.

Versions of the Melon Pan are also made in neighbouring Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and also as far as Latin America (the Mexican Conchas) which is possibly the origin of this Japanese bread. The Conchas are also bread rolls but covered with a coloured cinnamon flavoured cookie crust.
The bread dough for Melon Pan is mostly left plain, though some people add chocolate chips, while others fill the buns with cream cheese, custard/ pastry cream or even chopped chocolate. You can go whichever way you choose, plain or with some filling or flavour. You can also use your choice of flavouring for the cookie dough like chocolate, green tea, pineapple, etc if you like.

Both the bread and cookie doughs are made with egg as this gives the bread a better texture. If you don’t eat egg, you can leave them out, but substitute for it in the bread dough with a tablespoon of yogurt or milk for good texture. Melon Pan is not very difficult to make and you can even make the cookie part of the dough ahead, as it needs refrigeration. 
Do take a look at this video which is an excellent tutorial on making Melon Pan. If you live in warmer climates like I do, you don’t need to proof the dough in the microwave as suggested in the video, and room temperature works just fine.
Melon Pan are best eaten the day they’re made. This recipe makes 8 burger bun sized (the ones we get in India) Melon Pan. You can bake a half batch or even make smaller Pan by dividing both the doughs into 10 or 12 instead of 8.

Melon Pan (Japanese Melon Bread)
(Adapted from A Bread A Day and other sources)

For bread dough:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (plus extra as required)
2 tbsp milk powder
1 tsp instant yeast
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup cold water
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp sugar
25gm butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup chocolate chips 

For cookie dough:

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
A large pinch of salt
60gm butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup castor sugar (increase to 1/3 cup for sweeter dough)
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Castor sugar for dusting (granulated sugar will do too)


Whisk together the flour, powdered milk, yeast, and salt in the bowl (or the bowl of your machine if using one). In a smaller bowl, beat the egg and cold water together with a fork till well blended. Add this to the flour mixture in the bowl.
Knead (on low speed in the machine) till it all come together as a dough and then (on medium speed) until you have a somewhat stiff dough. Add the sugar and knead well.
Now add the butter and knead (first at slow speed and then on medium) until the butter is completely incorporated into the dough and the dough becomes smooth and elastic. The dough should well-kneaded to develop the gluten.
Shape the dough into a round, and place it in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover and let it rise till double in volume (about an hour or so).
During this time make the cookie dough. In a bowl, cream the soft butter and sugar till fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat till combined. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and add this to the bowl. Also add the lemon zest. Beat together until just combined.
Shape the dough into a cylinder (this will make the dough easy to divide and flatten out later), and wrap in cling film. Refrigerate the dough until required.
Now go back to the bread dough. Once it has doubled in volume, place it on a lightly floured work surface. Lightly grease your baking sheet or line it with parchment. Deflate the dough gently and divide it into 8 equal portions.
Shape each portion into a smooth ball like for bread rolls. Work with one portion and keep the others covered so they don’t dry out.
Unwrap the cookie dough. It should be reasonably firm now and easy to work with. Slice the cylinder of cookie dough into 8 equal portions. Use two pieces of plastic sheets or cling film to flatten the cookie dough. Place one slice/ round of cookie dough on a piece of plastic sheet/ cling film. Cover with another piece, and using a flat bottomed pan, press down on the dough to flatten it, until it is reasonably thin but not very much so.

Carefully take on ball of bread dough (it will have puffed up a little so don’t deflate it), and place the circle of cookie dough on top of it. Gently press the cookie dough edge to the bread dough ball so that it covers the top and sides of the ball, but leaves the bottom open. Gently, holding the covered bread dough by the underside, press it into some castor sugar. T
hen using a scraper, or the blunt side of a knife, mark the top of the cookie dough side of the bread roll with a cross hatch/ diamond pattern. The pattern should be deep enough (otherwise it will disappear when the bread rises and bakes) without cutting through the cookie dough layer into the bread.
Place this on the greased or parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat this with the remaining cookie dough and bread dough balls. Let them rise for an hour.
Bake them at 180C (350F) for about 25 minutes, until the tops of the Melon Pan just start turning brown. If you let them brown too much, the underside of the bread will burn. Transfer to a wire rack to cool thoroughly.
This recipe makes 8 medium to largish Melon Pan. Melon Pan are best eaten the day they are made. However warming them slightly before serving the next day is also fine.

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March 20, 2014

Vicky Goes Veg : A Review, A Giveaway & Some Koshari (Egyptian Rice-Pasta-Lentil Pilaf)


’m always excited to see cookbooks that cater to a vegetarian diet, and that was pretty much my initial reaction when I received a review copy of “Vicky Goes Veg” by Vicky Ratnani from Harper Collins. If you watch Indian food shows on television you might have caught him on his show that goes by the same name as the book, or perhaps one of his other shows. Vicky Goes Veg is pretty much a collection of the vegetarian recipes, many of which he has cooked on his television show.
Whenever anyone asks me, “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?”, I tend to opt for the bad news first. This gets the bad stuff out of the way quickly, and with the good news following, it means things can only get better. And that’s how I’m going to tell you about my impressions about Vicky Goes Veg, first the bad and then the good.
I have a tendency to avoid products, food or otherwise, which are endorsed by celebrities of any kind. I’m the first to agree that I’m probably prejudiced here, but bear with me please. My feeling is that there’s something not quite genuine about such endorsements.
And in India, there’s this belief that if you have Bollywood fraternity on board, your product will sell and whether that particular Bollywood-er knows anything at all about the product is a moot point. So I was prepared to reserve my judgement about a book with fulsome praise from people like Farhan Akhtar, Kiran Rao, Arju Ramphal and Zoya Akhtar. I know that this doesn’t make a cookbook good or bad.

My first impressions about the book were that there was no wasting of time with introductions and other stuff and Vicky Ratnani dives straight into the business of food after a dedication, a one page foreword and a table of contents. Vicky Goes Veg is a beautifully produced and attractive cookbook that is full of some good photography both colour and black and white by Sakina Zojwala.

Then I found a couple things that I personally feel would have improved the book. The first is that nowhere in the book did I see a mention of how many people the recipes would serve. From the couple of recipes I tried out I would guess that most of the recipes would probably serve 2 people. Another is that some of the ingredients in a given recipe are measured in cups while others are in gram measures. This is quite confusing, and it would have been better to stick to one or the other.
The other thing is something I hope is only an exception and not the rule in this book. One of the recipes I tried out (the one for Koshari that is given below), had instructions were a little vague. While I don’t expect recipes in cookbooks to spell out everything down to the basics, I appreciate clarity in the instructions.
The ingredient list calls for “1 cup rice, cooked”, 50gm chickpeas, cooked”, “50gm macaroni, cooked” etc. To my mind, these kinds of instructions would mean measuring out the ingredient and then cooking it (1 cup of uncooked rice measured and then cooked!). But looking at the quantities of other ingredients given which was smaller in amount, I believe Mr Ratnani meant “1 cup of cooked rice”, 50gm of cooked chickpeas”, etc. At least, that is how I finally proceeded with this recipe.

If you look beyond these facts (and you should because there’s a lot in this book that’s good), and that Vicky Ratnani keeps popping out at you in over 1/3rd the photographs in his book, his cookbook has a collection of interesting and unusual recipes which are mix of Western and Indian. You’ll find recipes for salads under “Tossed”, soups under “Blend ‘n’ Blitz”, desserts under “Sweet Tooth”, Party Starters and One-Pot Meals. The recipes are well laid out with a colour coded format for the ingredient list. They’re concise and quite doable without much effort.

The recipes in this book include and Minty Chickpeas and Crispy Okra, Cucumber and Tendli Carpaccio, Everything Green Soup, Soy and Potato Polpettis, Lentil and Charred Broccoli Chaat, Sleek Leek and Raw Mango Pancakes, Barley and Squash Risotto, Braised Plantain with Thai Spices, Granita and Frappetino.

About the author:

Vicky Ratnani is a chef, TV host and food connoisseur. Intensively trained and extensively travelled, Vicky is the Corporate Chef for fine dining at Aurus in Mumbai. His food is an amalgamation of the experiences and tastes he has acquired from his work abroad. His shows on television include the popular “Do It Sweet”, “Vicky Goes Veg” and “Vicky Goes Foreign”.

he first recipe I tried from Vicky Ratnani’s book was Koshari.  Koshari (also spelt as koshary, kosheri or kushari) is a popular street food in Egypt and considered by many to be the national dish of Egypt. It is made of rice, macaroni, chickpeas and lentils, topped with crunchy caramelised onions and served with a spice tomato sauce.  Inexpensive and filling, it’s apparently served in almost every Egyptian restaurant, at home, and on every Egyptian street corner by Koshari vendors.

Koshari is thought to be be an adaptation of the Indian “Khichdi” – a rice-lentils creation which was brought to Egypt in the late 19th century by the British. The British adapted it  into a curried rice with smoked fish, boiled eggs, parsley and lemon juice and called it “Khichree” or “Kedgeree” , while the Egyptians added pasta and chickpeas and kept it vegetarian/ vegan.
The recipe below is as it is in the book. I have added my notes in the recipe within brackets, for better understanding. Do use elbow macaroni, other tubular or any kind of macaroni of the same size. Being Indian, I would suggest serving this with plain thick yogurt, a green salad and crunchy pappads or crisps on the side.



1 medium-sized onion cut into chunks
2 cloves garlic (I cut this down to 1 clove)
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder
2 tomatoes cut into chunks
2 1/2 tsp tomato purée
1 1/2 tsp malt vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar)
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
1 cup rice, cooked (1 cup cooked rice – I used Sona Masuri, but Basmati is good too)
50gm chickpeas, cooked (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup cooked chickpeas)
50gm macaroni, cooked (about 1/2 to 3/4 cup cooked macaroni)
2 tbsp red lentil (masoor), cooked (2tbsp cooked whole masoor)
A handful of fried onion, to garnish


Blend the onion, garlic, cumin, coriander powder, tomatoes, tomato purée, malt vinegar and brown sugar together.
Heat the olive oil in a pan; add the above purée with a little water and simmer for 6 to 7 minutes until it reduces to a salsa-like consistency. Season with salt and black pepper. Throw in some coriander leaves, saving some to garnish the dish later. (Remove and keep aside some of this sauce to use as garnish.)
In the same pan, add the cooked rice, chickpeas, macaroni and lentils. Mix well. Season to taste. Garnish with some fried onions, coriander leaves and the leftover tomato sauce.
(Serve warm or at room temperature. This recipe serves 2.) 

Harper Collins was also kind enough to also send me a copy of Vicky Goes Veg to giveaway to one lucky reader of this post who will leave a comment here.
To try your luck at this giveaway, all you have to do is tell me if you have watched any of Vicky Ratnani’s food shows on television and what you like about them. Otherwise tell me about any other favourite television food show of yours and why you like it.
Please ensure you leave a link or e-mail id through which I can contact you if you win the giveaway.
Once this giveaway is closed, I shall randomly pick one commenter from this post as the winner of this book. Please note that this giveaway is open only to those (non-bloggers are also welcome) residing in India, and includes anyone with an Indian shipping address.
This giveaway is open till the 31st of March, 2014. Good luck!
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