May 28, 2011

My Vegetarian Version of The Gyro Sandwich (Tzatziki & Tandoori Paneer Tikka With Pita Bread)


Yesterday was reveal day in the world of The Daring Bakers and you’re most probably here so see my take on this month’s challenge. I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you because I decided to sit this one out for various reasons.

Instead, I’ll treat you to my version of this month’s Velveteers challenge. It was Asha’s turn to pick a challenge this month and she decided on a popular American-Greek street food called Gyro thought to have its origins in the Turkish Doner Kebab. Until she suggested it, I hadn’t even heard of this thing. The only thing remotely gyro-ish that I knew of was a gyroscope, and you cannot eat one of those!

Turned out a Gyro is a rather substantial sandwich made of pita bread filled with crisp and moist slivers of spicy meat, salad vegetables usually onions, tomatoes and lettuce with a cucumber-yogurt sauce/ dip called tzatziki. I understand the correct way to pronounce “Gyro” is “yeer-oh” though people refer to it as “zeer-oh”, jeer-oh” and “jai-roh”.
Apparently the name Gyro comes from the spiced meat for the sandwich, which is cooked on a revolving vertical spit from which thin strips are sliced off.

All I can say is that this sandwich is more of a “heer-oh” than a “zeer-oh”!! As far as I am concerned, street food comes a close second to home cooked food. Street food is usually uses local and very fresh produce, is put together just before you actually eat it, is very affordable and incredibly tasty and filling.




This kind of sandwich seems to be very popular right across the Greece, Turkey and the Middle East. While the basic pita bread, meat, salad and sauce remains the mainstay, the variations are in the type of meat, salad vegetables, the sauces and other accompaniments that come with the sandwich, or even in the way the sandwich is served.

So the core of the Gyro is meat in some form, so I had to come up with a vegetarian version of this sandwich. The Tzatziki, a variation on the North Indian cucumber raita, was easy and needed no change. Making Pita bread from scratch was also a breeze if you thought of it as a yeasted chappathi which was baked in the oven.

For the core filling, I decided to make some Tandoori Paneer Tikka for which I used this recipe. If you use slightly larger squares of paneer, you can grill them or pan sear them on skewers and serve them as an appetizer. I used smaller pieces of paneer since it was easier to put into a sandwich.

When putting the Gyro together, I realised there was a “spicy” element (Tandoori Paneer Tikka), a somewhat “bland and cooler” element in the cucumber-yogurt Tzatziki, and it really needed a “sweet and sour” element to truly balance it out. So I also added a Mango, Red Pepper & Raisin Chutney/ Relish to the mix and that made it out of this world!!!

As for the recipes for the Tzatziki and the Pita bread, I just went quantities which I found appropriate. All recipes will make enough for 4 servings.



Pita Bread


Pita bread is a leavened pocket flatbread which is popular throughout the Mediterranean the Balkan countries and the Middle East. It is round or oval in shape and can be cut in half so the “pocket” can be stuffed with various fillings. Pita can be soft or crisp and eaten with hearty meat or vegetable dishes, salads, sauces and dips like hummus, or used as wraps for fillings.




As I mentioned earlier, think of a leavened chappathi and you have some idea of what a pita is. There are people who make pita with all-purpose flour, with whole wheat flour or a mixture of both. I like to make my breads with a 2 : 1 ratio of all-purpose to whole wheat flour and this one is no exception.
Pita Bread



Ingredients:


2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 tbsp oil

2 tsp honey

2 tsp active dry yeast

about 1 1/2 cups water (warm water is not necessary)



Method:


You can do this by hand, but I always look for the method that means least effort for me, which in this case means my food processor.

Put the flours, salt, oil, honey and yeast in the processor bowl and pulse a couple of times to mix well. Whisk them together if you are kneading by hand. Then add a cup of the water and pulse until everything comes together as a ball, adding as much more water as necessary. You do not need warm water here, so use water that is at room temperature.

Knead further until the dough is very soft and elastic, but is not sticky. Shape the dough into a ball and place in an oiled bowl, rolling the dough in the bowl so it is well coated with the oil. Cover and keep aside to rise till double, for about 1 1/2 hours.

Once doubled, punch the dough to release some of the air and divide it into 8 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a smooth ball. Lightly dust your work surface with flour and roll out the ball to about 1/4" to 1/8” thick (not as thin as a chappathi). If your dough does not roll out well let it rest for about 20 minutes and the roll it out again.




Let the rolled out pitas rest for about 10 minutes and then bake them on a cookie sheet dusted with cornmeal or semolina at 220C (430F) for about 5 to 6 minutes till well puffed up and cooked. If you want crisp pitas you can bake them a little longer, but for making Gyros you need the pitas to be soft.

Place them on a tack or a clean cotton towel to cool so they do not become soggy. This recipe makes 8 pita breads.


Tandoori Panner Tikka


While paneer is not really the stuff that one would find in a Gyro, I thought it was a good replacement for the traditional meat. It is also a protein and a good way to add a Indian spicy twist to my vegetarian Gyro. Cooking it in the tandoori style also seemed a nice way of trying to keep with the origins of the Gyro (Turkey/ Greece) as the tandoori style of cooking came into India from thereabouts.




While the ingredient list for the marinade may seem extensive and a bit daunting, making Tandoori Paneer Tikka is really quite easy. For those of you who are new to this, Paneer Tandoori Tikka means spicy (tikka) paneer cooked in Tandoori style. Of course, the average home cook like me doesn’t usually have a tandoor in their kitchen so an oven, a grill or the stove top is just fine to cook this.
Tandoori Paneer Tikka

(Adapted from Tarla Dalal)



Ingredients:


500gm paneer cubes (I used Amul paneer)

2 to 3 tbsp oil


For the marinade:


 1/2 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp chilli powder

1 tsp cumin powder

3/4 cup fresh thick yogurt

1/2 tsp ginger paste

1/2 tsp green chilli paste

1/2 tsp ajwain (carom seeds, Bishop’s weed)

1 tsp coarsely crushed fennel seeds

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1/4 cup chickpea flour (besan)

1 tsp oil

salt to taste

2 tbsp chopped coriander (optional)



Method:


Put all the ingredients for the marinade in a bowl and gently whisk together to blend. Add the paneer cubes and toss gently so they’re well coated with the marinade. Cover and keep aside for about an hour, or at least half an hour.

Heat about 1 1/2 tbsp of oil in a non-stick frying pan. Place as many pieces of paneer coated with the marinade on wooden skewers and place them in the frying pan. Cook the paneer on all sides until brown and done. Take them off the skewers once they have cooled and toss them with the chopped coriander. Keep them aside to use in the Gyro sandwich.

You can place just 3 or 4 paneer pieces interspersed with diced pieces of onion and bell pepper and cook them in the frying pan or on the grill and serve them as appetizers.

This recipe serves 4.


Tzatziki (Greek Cucmber Salad in Yogurt)


Somehow the word “Tzatziki” brings to my mind, images of men dressed in long white embroidered, pleated and skirted shirts, stockinged legs kicking out their legs while performing intricate dance steps! I’m probably confusing it with some other word, and I don’t know which.
Tzatziki is Greek, and is a cooling cucumber and yogurt sauce-like preparation that’s a lot like the North Indian raita. It is also an essential part of the Gyro.




It is important that the texture of Tzatziki is thick. So both the cucumber and the yogurt should not release liquid to make it watery. So the cucumber is sprinkled with salt to draw out the liquid from it before making Tzatziki.

If you do not have thick yogurt on hand, just put regular plain yogurt in a cotton or muslin cloth and hang it up for a couple of hours in the fridge or a cool place to drain out the liquid. The hung yogurt will be thick and creamy.

The true Greek Tzatziki is a somewhat bland preparation but perfect to balance out the other elements of the Gyro. Honey is not an ingredient used to make Tzatziki but I found adding a little gave mine a hint of sweetness which tasted good. Another great addition to Tzatziki is a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
Tzatziki (Greek Cucumber Salad In Yogurt)



Ingredients:


2 small cucumbers, peeled, seeded and finely chopped

1 cup drained or thick yogurt

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 tsp lemon juice

1 tsp honey

1 tsp lemon zest

1 tbsp chopped mint

salt and pepper to taste



Method:


Mix together all the ingredients except the cucumber till blended well.

Sprinkle some salt on the finely chopped cucumber and keep aside for about 20 minutes. Squeeze out the water from the cucumber to dry it out as much as possible.

Fold in the drained cucumber, garnish with more mint and refrigerate for about an hour before serving.

This recipe serves 4.


The Gyro Sandwich:



Assembling The Gyro:



Ingredients:


8 pita rounds

1 recipe Paneer Tandoori Tikka (from above)

1 recipe Tzatziki (from above)

1 1/2 cup Mango Red Pepper Chutney/ Relish (optional)*

3 large onions, thinly sliced and caramelised in 1 tsp oil

3 large tomatoes, sliced and pan seared in 1 tsp oil

2 green bell peppers, julienned

1 1/2 cups julienned green cabbage



Method:


Start with a round of Pita bread. On one half of the round, spread some caramelized onions, pan-seared tomato slices, some julienned peppers and cabbag and then some of the Tandoori Paneer Tikka.

Top this with a table spoon or more of the Tzatziki and some of the Mango Red Pepper Chutney/ Relish. Garnish with some mint. Fold the pita round over the filling in half and enjoy your Gyro sandwich!


*Recipe will follow soon.


Verdict:


Whichever way you look at it, I think the Gyro is a winner!

The Gyro makes for a very well balanced and filling meal. From a nutritional point of view, there’s a nice balance of carbohydrates, protein and some fat and this is a sandwich full of the goodness of vegetables. It’s also a sandwich you can get kids (and adults) to eat very easily without actively stressing on “healthy”. I now because my daughter was actually willing to eat the salad part of it, including the cucumbers which was a first.

There’s also the contrast of soft to crunchy and the spicy-sour-sweet taste combinations that are always crowd pleasers.

Each part of what goes into a Gyro (the pita bread, Tzatziki, Tandoori Paneer Tikka and the other fillings) can all be made ahead so putting together this sandwich doesn’t take much time. In fact, if you would like to deviate from the traditional fillings of the Gyro, then this is a great dish to serve at an informal party or take on a picnic.

Just add some more vegetables like julienned carrot, sweet corn, maybe some potato crisps and maybe some other sweet and sour sauces. Place the sauces and fillings in individual bowls with the pita rounds on the side so that everyone can make their own Gyro with whatever they want in it!

The four of us (Alessio, Asha, Pamela and I) go Velveteering, as we like to call our kitchen adventures, with a new dish/ style of cooking/ cuisine every month. Each of us will share our recipes, experiences and verdicts on our blogs.

If you would like to join us, please leave a comment at this post or send me a mail and we’ll get back to you.


This month’s Velveteers recipes:


Alessio : Crispy Pork Belly Gyros

Rajani : Veggie Jai-ros..eh Yee-rows..eh Gyros

Sarah : Lamb Kebabs And Pitta Bread
Read full post.....

May 23, 2011

Food Photography Basics #5 : Aperture And Depth Of Field (DoF)


In my previous post in this series, I had talked about Exposure and the three factors that affect / play an important part in determining optimum exposure. These three factors (or elements of the Exposure triangle) are aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
While each one of these is as important as the others in its own way, aperture seems to play a larger part in setting the exposure than the other two in food photography. This is because most food photographers use aperture settings to exercise creative control through depth of field (DoF) in their photographs. This is what we shall explore in this post.




Pears and apples will feature largely in the photographs here, as that’s all I had in the fridge. Time to go shopping to stock up on fruit and vegetables!



What is Aperture?


Aperture refers to the opening in the lens, and the size of it, through which the light comes in when you are taking a photograph. Aperture is controlled not by your camera but by the lens you use and so the minimum aperture available to you would depend on the lens you are using. So with the 50mm f/ 1.8 on your camera, your aperture range will start with f/ 1.8.





Aperture is measured in f-stops (or f-numbers) namely f/ 1.4, f/2.0, f/ 2.8, f/ 4, f/ 5.6, f/ 8.0, f/ 11, f/ 16 and f/ 22 and these values are full stops. You might notice that there are other aperture stops, like f/ 3.2 and f/ 3.5 between f/ 2.8 and f/ 4.0. These are 1/3rd f-stop values between full f-stops and allow for finer adjustment of exposure.

There are some basics to understand and remember with aperture. If you’re new to this it could be a bit confusing but will become easier with time and practise. I couldn’t make head or tail of this when I started out with my camera.

The first thing to remember is that the smaller the f-stop or number the larger the size of the opening in your lens and so more light is going to come into your camera and your photograph. So if you take two pictures at the same shutterspeed and ISO, the first at f/ 2.8 and the second at f/ 4, the first picture would be more exposed (have more light in it) than the second one.

You can see how the amount of light coming through the opening in the lens changes with change in aperture in the following set of photographs. Please move clockwise from the upper left hand photograph taken at f/ 2.8.
All were taken at ISO : 100 and shutterspeed : 1/40 with only changes in aperture settings.





I have no idea why whoever it was that came up with this system, decided that if the aperture (or opening) was larger, then the f-stop/ number had to be smaller! Actually there is a scientific explanation for this based on focal length ratios which I don’t really understand myself so I’m not going to try and explain it to you!! (You wouldn’t believe I did study Physics at school and was supposed to be reasonably good at it?)

It can be quite confusing initially and I still remember getting my DSLR and trying to remember whether f/ 5.6 meant a bigger lens opening than f/ 11. Again, this is another thing that becomes second nature with practise. If you look at the diagram that follows you will understand this relationship of larger apertures to smaller f-stops/ numbers and vice versa better.

There are various analogies used to make this easier to understand and remember this relation ship between f-stops/ numbers and size of the opening in the lens.
One is to think of the lens like your eye. If there is too much light then your pupil closes to for a smaller opening to allow less light in (more light = small opening = larger aperture number and vice versa).

Another is to imagine the lens like a window with curtains. When there is too much light coming through your window, you close the curtains to reduce the light (more light = smaller opening through curtains= larger aperture number and vice versa).

Yet another one is water coming out through a hosepipe. When you open the tap all the way through (think big opening, lower aperture number) more water comes out (think more light). Start closing the tap (think closing down aperture to smaller opening) and less water will come through the hose (think less light).

You can use whichever analogy works for you but in the end what it boils down to is “Large f-stop/ number = Small opening = less light” and “Small f-stop/ number = Large opening = more light”.


The other thing to remember with aperture is that with every increase in an f-stop/ number, the amount of light that comes in will decrease by half from the previous stop, and every decrease in an f-stop or number the amount of light coming through the lens opening will be double. This is important to understand as this will help when you want to adjust apertures and corresponding shutterspeed to maintain the same Exposure levels when shooting in manual mode.





If you think about it, it will become easier to understand as you can see in the above set of photographs. Follow the photographs starting from upper left clockwise. I started with the following specifics for exposure - ISO : 100, aperture : f/ 5.6 and shutterspeed : 1/ 50 using the 50mm/ f 1.8 lens.

Keeping my exposure compensation at “0”, I varied the aperture settings from f/ 2.8 through every full stop till f/ 16, and allowed my camera to set the appropriate shutterspeed.
When I changed aperture from f/ 5.6 to f/ 4.0 while maintaining the same exposure, the camera set the shutterspeed 1/25 from 1/50.
Following this logic you will see that with every photograph, everytime the aperture increases by one f-stop/ number the shutterspeed comes down by half from the previous one. You can also see how the a shallow depth of field (blurred background) with the large aperture (small f-stop/ number) slowly gives way to a deeper depth of field (sharper background) with smaller apertures (larger f-stop/ numbers).

Moving down by 1 full-stop by changing my aperture from f/ 5.6 (smaller opening) to f/ 4.0 (bigger opening) I doubled the amount of light coming through my camera. To maintain the same exposure, my camera halved the shutter speed from 1/50 to 1/25.

Similarly, when I halved the amount of light by going from f/ 5.6 to f/ 8.0 (at same ISO), my camera compensated by doubling the shutterspeed from 1/ 50 to 1/100 to maintain the same level of exposure. This holds provided the source of light is constant.

One other important aspect of aperture is that it controls depth of field (DoF) another name for that interesting blurriness in the background we tend to see in a lot of photographs, especially of food.



Depth Of Field (DoF):


Depth of field refers to the distance between the nearest and farthest points of the sharpest area in your photograph or how much of your photograph will be in focus and sharp. Aperture controls depth of field to a large extant and this gives you creative control over your photography.

Typically you can adjust aperture settings to give you a shallow or narrow/ smaller depth of field where a large part of your photograph will be out of focus or “blurry”, or a deep or wide/ larger depth of field where most of your photograph will be in focus and sharper.
Smaller aperture settings (big opening, smaller f-stop/ numbers) will give you a shallower depth of field (more blurriness) whereas larger aperture settings (small opening, bigger f-stop/ numbers) will give you deeper depth of field (sharper images).

A shallow depth of field is of more interest in areas of close-up photography like food photography. Using smaller apertures (larger openings, smaller f-stop/ numbers) creates a shallow depth of field, creating a sharp focus on that particular part that you want to bring out while the rest of the photograph is out of focus/ blurry.
You can see this in the photographs below. Again, please proceed clockwise from the upper left.




At an aperture setting of f/ 2.8 you can see the paper and the phone in the background are quite blurred (shallow DoF), less blured at f/ 5.6 and so sharp at f/ 16 that you can see the text on the newspaper very clearly.
Of course, a very shallow depth of field does not work for every food photograph and should depend on the subject and composition of the photograph.

Depth of field is controlled not only by aperture setting, but also by the distance of your camera from the subject. So if you have a particular aperture setting, say f/ 1.8, if you take your photograph from close to your subject you will have a more shallow depth of field (blurry effect) than if you shoot from a further distance from your subject.




The photographs above illustrate this. I took the one on the left very close to the subject and the one on the right over double the distance away (I forgot to measure the distances!). You can see that the pear in the background is sharper in the second photograph (check the stalk) when compared to the first. Both photographs were shot with a 50mm f/ 1.8 lens at ISO : 100, apertur e: f/ 1.8, shutterspeed : 1/250. Of course, since I shot the one on the right at a distance I had to crop it for comparison.



Some other stuff to remember about aperture/ depth of field.


When one talks of depth of field, it is commonly stated that approximately 1/3 of the DoF is in front of the subject and approximately 2/3 is beyond it. This depends on focussing distance of the camera from the subject. Generally, the closer the subject to the camera, the DoF is more evenly distributed in front of and behind the subject. As distance of focus increases, the DOF will usually be more behind than in front of the subject/ focused area.

When shooting at lower apertures (larger opening, smaller f-stop/ numbers), especially with lenses like the f/ 1.2 or f/ 1.4 lenses it can be difficult to get your desired area of subject into focus as a large part of your composition would be out of focus or blurry because of the shallow DoF. This can be overcome with practise.

When shooting with higher apertures (smaller opening, bigger f-stop/ number), a correct exposure could require slower shutterspeed resulting in the camera registering movement (camera shake). At this point you would need to “stop down” to the next f-stop to increase your shutterspeed, but if you want to shoot at the same aperture then you would need to use a tripod (assuming you were shooting with your camera hand held.



Shooting on Aperture Priority (Av) mode:


A lot of photographers who shoot food tend to use the Aperture Priority or Av mode. In this semi-automatic mode, you set the required aperture and ISO and the camera sets the shutterspeed for optimum exposure. In food photography, aperture plays a more decisive role than shutterspeed as DoF plays an important role.

So why not shoot in Aperture Priority instead of using a full Manual mode where one would spend time on the whole exposure conundrum?

A lot of photographers will tell you “real” photographers shoot only in Manual mode! Not true. The choice is entirely up to the photographer. No one way is right or wrong as long as you get the “perfectly” exposed photograph. In fact, using this mode is great way to understand the DoF you can achieve with each aperture setting, without having to worry about the shutterspeed settings.

However, if you really want to understand and master exposure using the Manual mode is the way to go. So I would recommend shooting on Manual if only to learn photography. Shooting in Manual mode does have consistency and saves time in post processing.

Let me explain. Last month, I was able to catch the weekend photography workshop by Zach Arias at CreativeLIVE. As a professional, he was saying how photography eats into time he could be spending with his family and friends.
He mentioned shooting in Aperture Priority only when his light source was not constant and he didn’t want to waste time metering for light and so let the camera set the shutterspeed. Given that he usually shoots in situations where his light source is constant, shooting Aperture Priority is rare. Even when light could vary, he prefers to meter the light and shoot in Manual mode.

Sometimes the camera meter may not read the available light correctly (if there is too much contrast), and you can ignore the camera meter while in Manual mode and set your exposure as you want it. In such a situation, the Aperture Priority mode will use the camera meter to set what it feels is the best shutterspeed for best exposure and it might not be what you are looking for.

In situations where one typically takes multiple images during a shoot (as one would even for a food blog) and then edits them to pick out one or more “hero” shots shooting in Manual mode gives you consistency. Since you set the aperture and shutterspeed after metering, you get consistent exposure in every photograph you take by just making proportional adjustments of aperture and shutterspeed. This means once your photographs are on the computer, you can make necessary adjustments to one image in post processing and then batch process the entire lot.

In comparison, visualise the scenario where using Aperture Priority mode means that even small changes in light will cause the camera to keep metering and adjusting for exposure. This means you might have a batch of photographs which are well exposed but the exposure (variable shutterspeed in this case) is not constant across the images. This means more time would be needed to edit individual images during post processing. This is more of a problem if your camera is on Auto white balance (we’ll do this later).

Since food is usually shot in constant light situations and will not move, the argument would be that there is no need to use Aperture Priority. Light can be metered and then food can be shot in Manual mode making exposure changes if necessary. But at the end of the day, what really matters is what you are comfortable with and prefer to use, so long as you get the exposure you want in your photographs!



And finally, about some confusing words/ phrases used in photography.


Photographers have their own jargon when it comes to words and phrases describing their gear or photography. With a little practice these will lose their mystery and might just become a part of your own vocabulary too.

So you might hear someone who “stopped down” their aperture. This just means they changed their aperture to a smaller opening (larger f-stop/ number) as in from f/ 5.6 to f/ 8.0 or f/ 11. When they “opened up” the aperture, they mean the let in more light by changing to a larger aperture (larger opening, smaller aperture or f-stop/ number).

Some people talk about fast lenses and slow lenses. A “fast” lens is a lens that has a very large minimum aperture (large opening, smaller f-stop/ number) and allows more light into the camera. So a 50mm f/ 1.4 lens is a faster lens than a 50mm f/ 1.8 lens or a 100mm f/ 2.8 lens.
Faster lenses are therefore very good to take photographs in low light situations without using additional light from a flash or other source. They’re also usually more expensive and sometimes heavier than slower lenses. Those lenses which let in comparatively less light are referred to as “slow” lenses.

So that’s it for this post. In the next post in this series, we’ll look at Shutter speed and ISO. If you have any questions please mail me or leave a comment at this post and I’ll do my best to answer it.



Useful Links:


Using Your Aperture

A Tedious Explanation Of The f-Stop

To Blur Or Not To Blur

How To Get A Shallow Depth Of Field In Your Digital Photos

Shooting In Aperture Priority Mode



So Far In This Series:


Food Photography Basics #1 : Do I Need A DSLR To Get Good Photographs?

Food Photography Basics #2 : Which Camera? What Lenses?

Food Photography Basics #3 : Getting Started

Food Photography Basics #4: It’s All About Light – Exposure
Read full post.....

May 19, 2011

Mooli Ka Achaar/ Mullangi Urugai (Indian Style Daikon Radish Pickles)


I don’t watch a lot of television, though I can spend 2 or 3 hours straight in front of it on occasion when there’s something really good showing. One habit I have never managed to develop is watching serials, whatever language they might be in. A lot of serials on television, both English and Indian, are best left alone considering they seem to meander along without a halfway decent plot in a manner that I can only describe as “flogging a dead horse”. Of course, I’m not talking about travel or food shows though there are a few of those I would avoid.

In the past, the really good serials always seemed to air at times when I had to cook, take care of something, or it was dinnertime! So I never watched those regularly because I was always missing out some critical part of the story and the rest didn’t make sense.

Nowadays that I have more time to spare, either there isn’t anything worth watching when I am free or I don’t seem to enough patience to watch a lot of the stuff that is being shown on television despite having a hundred channels to view.

I still haven’t figured out why I don’t seem to particularly enjoy many of the popular series that a lot of people keep talking about like The Simpsons, The Office, Friends, Sex And The City, Desperate Housewives, to mention a few. I'm not being judgemental here, about television series or who watches what but just saying how it is with me.

However, I do remember watching a particular episode of Friends where Phoebe was singing one of her off-key compositions while strumming her guitar. It was something about a “smelly cat” (huh?) and somehow that’s what came to mind when I saw the bunches of garden fresh “mooli” (Daikon radish) sitting in my kitchen. What I meant was that I knew if I didn’t cook them up into something they were likely to “not be a bed of roses and not friend to those with noses” as that song goes!



I have since found that if you can manage to get hold of farm/ garden fresh and tender mooli/ Daikon radish, the “smelly cat” description doesn’t hold at all. You can also use the green leafy part to cook up a nice stir-fry to serve on the side with your lunch.

Somehow, the “mooli” or “mullangi” as we call it at home, never featured much I my childhood. Except for the occasional appearance in mullangi sambhar ( a gravied spicy lentil preparation) where the vegetable even if it smelt a bit funny lent the sambhar a most interesting taste.




This was probably because this vegetable was more of a North Indian winter vegetable which wasn’t grown in the Southern parts of the country. In Goa where we live now, this is a vegetable that you cannot escape wherever you go in the market during the season for it. It even comes to my door, as my vegetable lady will insist on trying to sell it to me even after I have told her that no one likes it in our home.

The only way mooli gets eaten in our home is disguised as parathas (stuffed Indian flatbreads). Since there is only so much of mooli parathas one can eat in a week, I decided it would be a good idea to tuen it into pickle, preferably of the non-vinegar kind. A natural conclusion since I hadn’t yet recovered from my pickle making high. A net search and asking some of my pickle expert blogger friends led me to various recipes where vinegar invariably seemed to find its way in.




So I did the only thing I could in the situation. I came up with my own pickle recipe which a bit South Indian (curry leaves, asafoetida and sesame seed oil), a bit North Indian (well, the mooli and amchoor which is dried, powdered raw mango and a souring agent) and just a bit of this and that which all added up to a rather interesting sweet, sour and spicy pickle. AIf you would like to try it out here’s the recipe.
Mooli Ka Achaar/ Mullangi Urugai (Indian Style Daikon Radish Pickles)



Ingredients:

2 bunches fresh mooli/ mullangi (Daikon radish)

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 tsp salt

1/8 th cup + 1 1/2 tbsp sesame seed oil

1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds

1 1/2 tsp red chilli powder

1/4 tsp turmeric powder

1/4 tsp asafoetida powder


1 tbsp powdered jaggery

1 sprig curry leaves



Method:


Trim the leaves and ends off the Daikon radish and wash them. Dry very well, peel and then cut them into roughly inch long pieces about 1/4" thick.

In a wok, heat the 1 1/2 tbsp sesame oil and stir-fry the Daikon radish pieces on high heat, adding the salt, till they’re half cooked and still crisp. Remove from the wok and keep aside. In the same wok, heat the 1/8th cup oil and let the mustard seeds splutter in it. Turn down the heat and add the asafoetida powder and the curry leaves and stir a couple of times before turning off the heat.

Once the oil has cooled down a bit, add the turmeric powder, amchoor powder and chilli powder and mix well. Now add the stir-fried Daikon radish and the powdered jaggery. Mix well and allow the pickle to cool completely.

Transfer to a sterilised glass jar with airtight lid. Refrigerate until use.

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May 12, 2011

Eggless Asparagus & Paneer (Ricotta) Tart With Rough Puff Pastry


I have come to the conclusion that asparagus is highly over-rated. Sure, it looks interesting and makes a great subject for photography and is probably extremely healthy to the boot. All I know is that out here, asparagus is very expensive and just not worth the expenditure. I’m probably in the minority when it comes to dislike of asparagus, but I think I can live with that.

The first time I ever ate asparagus wasn’t in the best of circumstances. It was about 10 years back when Akshaya and I were on a trip from Goa to Lisbon in Portugal via Milan. After a long and tiring flight to Milan we had to take a short flight into Lisbon. We got into one of those cute toy-like planes when the pilot, who also seemed to be the purser, came to us with a long list in his hands and a very worried look on his face.

It turned out that despite our asking for 2 vegetarian meals, a very efficient computer system had sent in a request only for 1! He was quite upset about the mistake and assured us that they would provide us with enough bread/ rolls/ butter/ cheese/ jam/ spreads/ fruit/tea/ coffee and whatever else he could think of offering us from their stock on board.




We reassured him saying we were fine so long as we got some form of vegetarian food. The plane took off and our food arrived. Those were the days when the word “vegetarian”, in many parts of the world, meant steam cooked vegetables seasoned with salt and pepper!

So naturally, the vegetarian meal which we had ordered turned out to be some boiled/ steamed carrots and asparagus accompanied by salt, pepper and a little bottle of olive oil! Akshaya being a typically smart 4 year old took one look at it, wrinkled her nose in disgust and told me, “Amma, you can have that and I’ll have the other food!”




So there I was, towards the end of a long journey and a few twenty or thirty thousand feet above land, trying very hard to soothe the rumbles of my angry (and hungry) stomach while chewing away on salted and peppered asparagus doused with olive oil. Can you imagine what sort of a meal that was to someone brought up on Indian food? Adding insult to injury, I had to watch my daughter feasting on a comparatively sumptuous selection of fruit and yogurt, a variety of bread rolls with cheese, butter and fruit preserves!

Recently, for the first time, I came across fresh asparagus at my vegetable market. Anything new (well, not quite) and different is always fodder for this blog and my camera. Ignoring the rather persistent memories from the past, I bought a few of those slightly expensive stalks of green and thought they would be more palatable if hidden in a tart.




Living in the hot and humid tropics means that one is almost always sure to fail with butter laden dough. Gordon Ramsay’s rough puff pastry is what I normally resort to when I need to make some of my own. So armed with some home-made pastry and an asparagus tart recipe put together from too many sources to mention, I made a tart.

I believe the saying goes, “Once bitten, twice shy”, but for me and asparagus it was a case of “Twice bitten, shy forever”!

I have finally arrived at the conclusion that asparagus and I (we) were never meant to be. None of us really liked it though the tart was definitely an improvement over my previous experience! So why am I posting this after all the complaining I’ve been doing?

For those of you who do like asparagus, because you should definitely try this tart as it is good. The rough puff pastry is a time saver and the paneer/ ricotta filling is a delight. If you want, leave out the asparagus as I would, and just add another couple of layers of potatoes and you’ll have an even better tart.
Gordon Ramsay's Rough Puff Pastry

(Adapted from BBC GoodFood)



Ingredients:


2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

200 gm salted butter, cold

about 120 ml cold water



Method:

You can do this the easy way with a food processor or with a bit of effort, by hand. Either way, it turns out good. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Cut the butter in small chunks, add them to the sifted flour, and pulse to mix (or lightly rub into the flour) but NOT to breadcrumb-like texture. The bits of butter should be visible.

Make a well in the bowl and pour in about two-thirds of the cold water, mixing until you have a firm rough dough. If in the processor, just add the water and pulse till the dough comes together into a firm ball. Add extra water if needed. Shape the dough into a ball (minimal handling), cover with cling film and allow it to rest for 20 to 30 minutes in the fridge.

Place the dough a lightly floured board and knead gently. Form it into a smooth rectangle. Roll the dough in one direction only, until 3 times the width. This should measure approximately 8” by 20”. Keep edges straight and even. Don't overwork the butter streaks and your dough should have a marbled effect.

Fold the top third down to the centre, then the bottom third up and over that, like a three-fold letter. Give the dough a quarter turn (to the left or right) and roll out to three times the length, as before. Fold the dough in a 3 fold as above, cover with cling film and chill for about 30 minutes before rolling to use. You can leave it in the fridge longer, otherwise freeze it required. I know it stays in the freezer for 2 weeks.



Eggless Asparagus & Paneer (Ricotta) Tart



Ingredients:


1 recipe rough puff pastry from above

2 small bundles of skinny asparagus stalks

1 big or 2 small potato (peeled, parboiled and thinly sliced)

175gm paneer cubes (ricotta)

about 2 tbsps milk

1/4 tsp grated nutmeg

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tsp red chillies flakes (optional)

1/2 tsp garlic paste (optional)

3/4 tsp grated lemon rind/ zest

1 tsp lemon juice



Method:


Trim the asparagus stalks and blanch them in salted water. Pat them dry with a towel and keep aside.

Blend the paneer/ ricotta and milk and really smooth. Season the blended paneer/ ricotta with nutmeg, salt, black pepper, chilli flakes, garlic paste, lemon rind and juice.

Roll out the rough puff pastry into a 1/4" thick rectangle about 11” by 6”. That’s the size that fits the baking tray I used, and I needed to use a little over 3/4ths of the rough puff pastry I had. Place this on a parchment lined baking tray.

I also cut out long strips from this to create a border for my tart and made some pastry twists with the remainder. If you prefer, cut out 4 strips of pastry from the remainder (about 1/2” to 3/4” wide) to match the length and breadth of the dough rectangle.

Wet the edges of the rectangle with milk and place the strips along the edge and press down lightly to seal well, forming a raised edge for your tart. Form a decorative pattern on the edge with the tines of a fork, if you like.

Place the potato slices as a single layer on the base of the tart. Now spread the blended and seasoned paneer/ ricotta over this in a uniform layer. Place the asparagus stalks, with the heads alternately pointing in opposite directions on this. Brush the edges of the tart with milk.

Bake the tart at 190C for about 25 to 30 minutes until the pastry turns golden. Make sure the asparagus is still succulent and hasn’t dried out.

This recipe serves 4 to 6.

 You will notice that there’s no picture here of my baked tart. I had pictures but it seems I have accidentally erased them as I don’t seem to be able to find them. I made this tart over a month back and as I’m not planning to make it again with asparagus, I’m afraid this post will only have pictures of the “before” baking part.




And since we are on the subject of savoury baking, I thought you might like to take a look at these Savoury Herb And Pepper Cookies of mine. I had posted them quite a while back but recently revisited them and took some better looking photographs of them.
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May 6, 2011

An Eggless Strawberry Buttermilk Cake And The Winners Of The GiveawayAre……

It is rather hot these days, but I’m not complaining. This summer has been a lot more comfortable than the last one which was pretty bad. For the past 2 days, even though the sun has been beating down, there’s been this wonderful breeze that keeps blowing in from across the river throughout the day. In fact I’ve had to place weights on all the papers and move lightweight stuff to ensure it doesn’t all get swept away every time the curtains do a tango with the breeze.

There’s something special about sitting indoors in the easy chair on a quiet lazy summer afternoon with the breeze through my hair, watching the coconut palms doing a graceful dance to their own rustling music and the river beyond sparkling on and off as it flows on to join the sea.




One thing I’m really not doing these days is baking. For one thing, it is too hot to bake. Secondly, my main motivation for baking is away on a month’s vacation and last but not least I can personally do with a break from all that flour, sugar and butter!

Yet, this is a post about cake. I last made this cake about a month and a half back, forgot all about posting it till I was looking through a folder of photographs that needed to be edited. Some photographs of this Strawberry Buttermilk Cake were in there as well and so here’s the post!

You might infer that if I had forgotten all about posting this cake, then perhaps that was because this cake wasn’t anything much to remember? Let me assure you that that is not so. While it might not be the best cake out there, it is a good cake and needs to be posted. Put down the lapse in memory to my advancing years (though I’m far from having a foot in the grave!), my hormones (I like to blame them for a lot of things!!) or the summer heat addling my brains.




This a good cake to make for evening tea, or even to serve as a light dessert with some ice-cream or frozen yogurt on the side. The best part is that you can showcase the season’s fruit with this cake. Use other berries or even mangoes or fresh figs for a change.
Eggless Strawberry Buttermilk Cake

(Adapted from Gourmet)



Ingredients:


1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

50 gm butter, softened

1/2 cup Demerara sugar (or brown sugar)

1 1/2 tbsp granulated sugar

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup buttermilk

3/4 cup fresh strawberries, chopped



Method:


Put the butter and the Demerara sugar in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed, for about 2 minutes till pale and fluffy. Add the vanilla and beat well.

Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix into the butter-sugar mixture, alternating with the buttermilk, in 2 batches with the mixer on low speed till combined. Do not over-mix.




Scrape the batter into a greased and floured 8” cake pan, smoothing the top with a spoon. Scatter the strawberry pieces evenly over top. Uniformly sprinkle the 1 1/2 tbsp granulated sugar over this.

Bake at 200C (400F) for about 30 minutes or so, until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into centre comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in pan for about 10 minutes, then unmould and cool on a rack. Serve.

This cake serves 6 to 8 people.

Strawberries also star in this Eggless Strawberry Cake (another version) and these Strawberry Muffins of mine.


And The Winners Of the Giveaway Are……


As promised when I announced giving away two cookbooks last month, I now have two randomly picked winners for them. Congratulations!

Tia Bednar wins the copy of Gluten-free Cookies by Luanne Kohnke and Avanika (Yumsilicious Bakes) wins the copy of 500 Mediterranean Dishes by Valentina Sforza. Please check your inboxes for a mail from me.
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May 2, 2011

Rasgullas (Milk Cheese Dumplings In Flavoured Syrup) And Rasmalai (Milk Cheese Discs In Saffron-Cardamom Flavoured Creamy Milk Sauce)


Indians are known all over the world as much for their love of spices as their love for sweets. And if you’re Indian or know something about India, you know that if you go to the local “halwai” (sweet maker/ seller) there’s usually so much of variety he’s offering you that it’s difficult to decide what you want to buy. Each part of India has its own sweet specialities and varieties so you can imagine how mind boggling the world of Indian sweets can get.

Let me start this post by telling you something about Rasgullas and Rasmalai, in case they’re new to you. Rasgullas are very popular in the East Indian state of West Bengal and many of them claim it as their own. However, Rasgullas have a longer history in the neighbouring state of Orissa where they have for centuries been the ritual offering made to the Goddess Lakshmi, consort of Lord Jagannath of Puri during the famed Rath Yatra.




The name Rasgulla is self-explanatory as “Ras” means juice or essence of, and “Gulla/ Golla” (from “Gol” for round) meaning “which is round or a ball”, describing the soft juicy sugar soaked round dumplings made of milk cheese.
Traditionally, Rasgullas were sold in small clay pots (and probably still sold in smaller towns) which is keeps them cooler and is supposed to be the best way to eat them.

Rasmalai simply is a slight variation on the Rasgulla as the same dumplings are flattened and served in a slightly thick, saffron and cardamom flavoured milk sauce. The initial part of making both the Rasgullas and the Rasmalai is the same, and the difference is in the way they’re served. Rasgullas are served in the sugary syrup that they’re cooked in.

Both sweets are made by curdling milk with lemon juice or vinegar and draining the cheese. This Indian cheese, when packed till it is firm, and can be cut into squares is called paneer. In the eastern part of India, it is called “chenna”, and is crumbled, kneaded till soft and used to make a variety of sweets.

I, personally, am not very fond of sweets made out of chenna but Rasgullas and Rasmalai are the exception. When I was younger, I always thought that making them at home was probably a very involved process. So the only time we got to eat Rasgullas was when some visiting family member would bring us some back from a visit to Kolkota (as Calcutta is now officially known). These occasions were very rare as in those days as we didn’t really have family in Kolkota and a journey by train from there to the southern part of India took the better part of 3 days!

By the time we grew up somebody discovered Rasgullas could be preserved in cans and sold, so though they were very expensive we still bought them as the occasional treat. Then about 8 to 10 years ago I met and became friends with someone who is from Orissa and discovered that making Rasgullas at home wasn’t a big deal. So she came over and I got my hands on lesson in making Rasgullas. They were so good I’ve never forgotten them though I never made any more till now.

This month, it was my turn to set the challenge for our Velveteers group and it suddenly struck me that this was a good time to re-visit Rasgullas and/ or Rasmalai.

I don’t remember the exact recipe I got from my friend and calling her up wasn’t an option a shse’s away for the summer vacation. I had an approximate idea of the proportions so I went ahead with them and my recipe evolved from there.




Rasgullas should be soft and spongy with a faint hint of chewiness about them. With every bite you should have the sugar syrup oozing out into your mouth. If your Rasgullas feel really chewy or rubbery then they’re not good. They're really not very sweet at all and healthier than a lot of sweets and desserts if you consider there's very little fat here, except what comes from the milk you use.

The secret to making spongy Rasgullas is in the kneading of the “chenna” (cheese). It has to be kneaded really well until it is smooth and has a slightly “oily” feel. There are people who add baking powder to make the cheese dumplings swell up when cooking but this is not done traditionally.

My friend tells me that traditionally the flavouring agent for Rasgullas is “Kewra” extract (whichis extarct of the Pandan flower) but you can use cardamom as a substitute. Please do not use both. Some people also place a bit of chopped cashewnuts or almonds in the centre of each Rasgulla while shaping them.
My friend also tells me to use clear crystallised sugar bits (Kalkandu in Tamil/ Malayalam and Mishri in Hindi), if you can find them, instead. These crystals add to the moistness/ juiciness of the Rasgulla by melting inside them when they’re cooked. You can see this crystallised sugar in the photograph where the "cheena/ cheese balls are being shaped.

So here’s how I make my Rasgullas and Rasmalai. You might just want to take a look at this video which explains the process though its a bit different from the way I made mine.
Rasgullas (Milk Cheese Dumplings In Syrup)



Ingredients:


2 litres milk (I used 3% fat)

4 to 5 tbsp lemon juice (or vinegar)

1 tbsp all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups sugar

3 1/2 cups water

1 tsp kewra extract (or 1 tsp powdered cardamom)

1/4 cup crystallised sugar bits (optional)



Method:


First make the “chenna” or cheese.

Pour the milk into a deep and largish heavy walled pan and bring it to a boil and turn the heat down so the milk is simmering. Add the lemon juice (or vinegar) one tbsp. at a time and stir well after each addition. The milk will start curdling and at the point where it separates and leaves a somewhat clear (not milky looking) whey, stop adding the curdling agent. If you add too much of the curdling agent your cheese will be tough and chewy.
Turn off the heat and allow the curdled milk to settle for about 10 minutes. Line your strainer with a clean cheesecloth or a cotton kitchen towel and carefully pour the curdled milk into it to drain the whey. Allow to drain well for about half an hour or so. Then use the cheesecloth or towel to twist/ wring out any extra moisture. Your “chenna’ or cheese should be reasonably dry yet moist enough.

Now we start making the chenna/ cheese dumplings. Put the chenna where you can knead it comfortably. A large stainless steel plate with a raised edge, which most Indian kitchens would have, is good for this purpose. Crumble the chenna and start kneading till it is soft and comes together as a ball. Add the tablespoon of all-purpose flour and knead a couple of times.

Continue kneading by using the heel of your palm and pushing it away from you to the edge of the plate that is away from you. Bring it back towards the edge close to you and then knead with the same “pushing/ rubbing in” motion. Do this until the chenna starts feeling a bit “oily” or doesn’t really stick to the plate when you knead it. You will have to do the kneading for about 20 to 30 minutes.




In the meanwhile, put the sugar and the water into a largish and somewhat deep pan and bring it to boil, while stirring to dissolve the sugar. If you haven’t finished shaping the dumplings, you might want to switch off the flame. This is because you want to have a sugar solution to cook the chenna/ cheese dumplings in but the solution should thicken into a syrup.

Take small bit of the kneaded chenna and flatten it a bit. Put 2 or 3 bits of crystallised sugar in the middle and bring the sides up around it, rolling it into a smooth ball about the size of a large walnut. Make sure there are no cracks on the surface or the ball will break when it is being cooked. Shape the rest of the chenna similarly. Once all the dumplings have been shaped, you need to cook them. While it is not to be done immediately, you need to cook those dumplings in the sugar solution soon enough.



Bring the sugar solution to a boil again, and turn down the heat to medium-high and let it simmer. Add the kewra extract (or powdered cardamom) and then add the dumplings slowly to the simmering liquid. Do not agitate the dumplings till they have cooked for about 5 minutes, and then do so gently. Cover the pan with the lid, and allow the dumplings to cook for a total of 15 minutes or so. You will see the sugar solution frothing up and the dumplings will swell upto double in size. Once they’re done, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them in a bowl or plate.

To check if they’re cooked just lift one out of the syrup using a slotted spoon and press it gently. If it springs back it is done. Another way is to drop it into some cold water. If it sinks it is done.

If you’re going to cook the dumplings in two batches, take out about 1/3rd of the simmering sugar solution and keep it aside. Add half the shaped dumplings and cook them. Take them out. By now, after simmering for 15 minutes or more, the sugar solution would have become a bit concentrated and the dumplings wouldn’t cook well in a thicker sugar solution.

So add the reserved 1/3rd portion of sugar solution to the simmering solution and bring the whole thing to a boil, and then back to a medium-high simmer. Now add the remaining dumplings and cook them till done, like mentioned above.

Let the sugar solution cool down and when you are ready to serve the Rasgullas , put 2 or 3 rasgullas in a serving bowl and about 3 tablespoons of the syrup. Garnish with chopped pistachios. Some people like to serve Rasgullas chilled, so if you want to do that chill the dumplings and the sugar solution. I personally find that Rasgullas are softer in texture when served at room temperature or with the syrup slightly warmed.

This recipe makes approximately 30 Rasgullas.

 Rasmalai (Milk Cheese Discs In Saffron-Cardamom Flavoured Creamy Milk Sauce)


As I mentioned earlier, Rasmalai is sweet dish of flat chenna or cheese dumplings served in a flavoured milk sauce. The “Ras” of course means essence or juicy whereas “Malai” means cream referring to the slightly thickened and creamy milk in which the flattened chenna or cheese dumplings are served. Making these chenna (or cheese) discs involves the same procedure as for making Rasgullas so I chose to use the Rasgullas from above to make my Rasmalai.




While I find that people seem to eat Rasgullas at any part of the day when they desire to eat something sweet, Rasmalai invariably seems to be served as a chilled dessert after a meal these days.

Rasmalai can be a dessert which is very easy to make and serve if you use readymade canned Rasgullas which are available at most stores these days. You might not be making them from scratch or even get the taste of home-made Rasmalai, but in a pinch this is something that works.
Rasmalai (Milk Cheese Discs In Saffron-Cardamom Flavoured Creamy Milk Sauce)



Ingredients:


14 or 15 rasgullas (from above)

500ml milk (I used 3% fat)

1/8 cup sugar

4 to 5 cardamoms, powdered

about 10 to 15 strands saffron



Method:


First make the creamy milk sauce which is the “Malai” part of the Rasmalai.

Put the milk and sugar in a pan, and bring it to boil while stirring it to dissolve the sugar. Then turn down the heat, add the saffron strands and let the sweet milk simmer for about 10 minutes or so, till it reduces a bit and is thicker. Take it off the heat, add the powdered cardamom and stir well to mix. Let the creamy milk (malai) cool and stir occasionally to prevent a skin from forming.

Take the Rasgullas, and gently squeeze each one between your palms to remove as much of the sugar syrup without breaking them or flattening them too much. Put them in the slightly warm sweet milk and then let it chill in the refrigerator until serving time.

To serve put 2 or 3 of the soaked cheese discs with enough of the creamy milk sauce to submerge them 2/3rds of the way. Garnish with chopped pistachios.
This recipe serves 5 to 6.

The four of us (Alessio, Asha, Pamela and I) go Velveteering, as we like to call our kitchen adventures, with a new dish/ style of cooking/ cuisine every month. Each of us will share our recipes, experiences and verdicts on our blogs.
If you would like to join us, please leave a comment at this post or send me a mail and we’ll get back to you.



This month’s Velveteers recipes:


Alessio : Milky Sweetness For Healthy Dessert

Asha : Almond And Saffron Malai Shots

Gayathri : Rasgolla Amarkhand

Veena : Rasgulla
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