Fun With Furans: Making Flat Bread with Fenugreek

The first reports of a strangely seductive aroma wafting over Manhattan, Queens and nearby New Jersey began in 2005. People smelled maple syrup, which got them fantasizing over pancakes and waffles. No doubt, the local Denny’s did brisk business. But there were enough calls to 311 to set the authorities sniffing. It was not until 2009, after the Department of Environmental Protection analyzed dozens of air samples and computed wind routes, that Mayor Bloomberg announced the mysterious source: a spice factory in New Jersey that processed fenugreek.

Sotolon, or more precisely 4,5-dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2[5H]-furanone, is an extremely strong aroma compound. In low concentrations, it smells like maple syrup, caramel or burnt sugar, and at high concentrations it evokes the smell of curry and spices. It is the major aroma and flavor component of fenugreek and lovage, but also flavors rum, white wine, aged sake and tobacco. Why you complain, New Yorkers?

Remarkably, fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is used three ways: as a spice, herb and vegetable. The yellowish cuboid seeds (methi) are roasted and widely used in Indian cooking, the dried leaves (kasuri methi) are used as herb, and the fresh leaves (methi) are cooked as greens (as in my recipe for Alu Methi). This time, I chopped the leaves up finely in my food processor and incorporated them into a verdant and pliant dough, to make methi parathas, a flaky, flat bread full of flavor.

Flat bread with fenugreek leaves (methi paratha), flavored by my favorite furan, sotolan

Flat bread with fenugreek leaves (methi paratha), flavored by my favorite furan, sotolan

  • For the dough, add 0.5 cup of chick pea flour (besan) to 2 cups of wheat flour (atta). You can omit the besan, but it imparts a distinctive texture and aroma that is irresistible. Add a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil when making the dough. Normally, I skip the oil when making ordinary Indian flat breads (chappatis), but it helps to have a softer dough when making the stuffed varieties.
  • Add a pinch of turmeric, chilli powder, cumin seeds and salt to taste. Chop up a green chilli or two if you want it hotter. I made the dough in the food processor, adding water slowly until the dough just began to form clumps. Turn out on the counter top, knead briefly and let it rest covered.
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Fenugreek leaves, washed and de-stemmed

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Make the dough with minced fenugreek, spices, whole wheat and chick pea flour. Let rest, covered, for half an hour.

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Roll out into a circle

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Spread a thin layer of oil on the surface

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Make a cut to the center, then roll dough around the cut end to form a cone

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Flatten the cone into a circle, in the palm of your hand. Note the concentric layers in the dough.

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Roll out the dough again. This time, the circle has concentric layers that make the paratha flaky.

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Cook on a hot griddle with a scant teaspoon of oil on each side until light brown spots appear

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Leftovers are delicious packed for lunch! I served the methi paratha with black eyed peas, roasted wedges of brussels sprouts with cumin seeds, topped off with a cranberry raisin relish. The green chilli is to get my endorphins going.

We were too hungry to wait for any more photos, so I’m sharing the left overs with you. I hope you enjoyed my favorite furan. Until next time, I’ll leave you with a substitute for the cheery yellow flowers of fenugreek and a walk down memory lane.

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Path leading from my conference in the village of Les Diablerets, tucked away in the Swiss Alps (banner picture).

Posted in FOOD, Herbs, Indian food, science, Uncategorized, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Strawberry Scones and Civili-Tea: A Pragmatist’s Valentine

Strawberry Scones and Civili-Tea

Strawberry Scones and Civili-Tea

Ours is a pragmatic partnership. A marriage made by matchmakers. Social, economic and educational equity? Check. Common Genetic Pool? Yes, his grandmother and mine are cousins once removed. Horoscopes matched? Expeditiously ignored, unless the meeting does not go well in which case the alignment of stars will turn out to be sadly (but conveniently) out of synchrony.

It begins with an elaborately casual tea staged at my future in-law’s home: Eligible Bachelor #1 meets Nubile College Grad under four pairs of fondly hopeful parental eyes. Bachelor drops his teaspoon and is struck dumb. Bachelorette studiously ignores the handsome klutz and strikes up an animated discussion with groom-to-be’s father. Not an auspicious beginning. Considering that the chick will soon fly the coop (my tickets to America purchased, scholarship to graduate school in hand), the situation warrants bringing in the heavy weights, no less than a sari-clad replica of the Dowager of Downton Abbey! Post haste, the grandparents arrange a second meeting in neutral territory and after some masterful maneuvering I find myself tête-à-tête amidst the bougainvilleas and overgrown crotons of my grandmother’s garden. Two years later, we are married and have so remained for more than two and a half decades although I tossed off my sacred mangalsutra immediately and my husband has never worn a wedding ring.

Tête-à-tête amidst the overgrown crotons in my grandmother's garden. Circa 1983.

Tête-à-tête amidst the overgrown crotons in my grandmother’s garden. Circa 1983.

It should therefore come as little surprise to you, dear reader, that Valentine’s Day passes by unnoticed in Madamescientist’s household.  I’ll pass on the roses, thanks. But that one and half hour ride from Baltimore to Philly on a snowy Sunday morning, so I can chair a meeting before flying on to another in Houston..that is much appreciated, thank you! So when my virtual friend and fellow blogger Michelle shared a recipe for heart shaped strawberry scones, I thought it would be nice if we emerged from our respective corners to raise a cup of cheer in memory of that fateful tea party so many years ago.  I should note that I considered myself a gardener until I came across Michelle. She is a Master Gardener. Her weekly diary chronicling her potager garden in the south of France (with Dayo the cat) both delights and enchants.

Strawberry Scones

  • Begin by preheating your oven to 425 F.
Strawberries for scones

Strawberries for scones

  • Chop a cup of ripe strawberries or partially thaw some frozen ones.
  • Cut 3/4 stick of unsalted butter (6 tbs) into small cubes. Keep it cold.
  • Mix the dry ingredients: 2.25 cups flour, 1 tbs baking powder, 0.25 cup sugar (more if you like your scones sweet), 0.5 tsp salt.
  • Add the butter and using your hands, distribute it hither and thither. Yes, it is messy but it will soon get stickier. There should be pea sized particles of buttery goodness randomly dispersed through the flour mixture. Mix in the strawberry pieces.
Mix in chopped strawberries

Mix in chopped strawberries

  • Now add 1 cup of cream. By now I have flour on the tip of my nose and in my hair. To compound the problem, I used my hand to stir everything up but you will use a spatula as Michelle recommends, since you will read these instructions more carefully. Notwithstanding the sticky mess, turn out the dough on the counter top and gently pat out. I didn’t bother using a rolling pin. (Never mind that I couldn’t locate my biscuit/cookie cutter at this point and became obsessed with finding one. So I stuck the dough in the fridge, ran out to the local store which carries no heart shaped cutters, only circular ones. Oh well, I will cut out paper hearts instead).
Quickly pat out the dough, trying not to warm it too much.

Quickly pat out the dough, trying not to warm it too much.

  • Working quickly, place cut out scones on a baking sheet.
Place cut-out scones on cookie sheet.

Place cut-out scones on cookie sheet.

  • Bake for 15 min or until golden brown. Let cool.

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  • Make a wonderful mess by putting some confectioners sugar into a tea strainer, placed over a small bowl. Using a knife, tap the strainer so that sugar is dusted over your paper heart placed on top of the scone. Remove the heart and admire the pattern. This goes pretty quickly, much the same as my patience.

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Tea for Two

From the jaggery-sweetened chai sold in tiny earthen pots at Howrah Railway station, or the cardamom-infused Assam tea served mid-afternoon by the Southern housewife in brimming stainless steel tumblers, to the weakly elegant Nilgiri infusion steeped in tradition, bone china and the lace doilies of elegant urban drawing rooms, tea is a treat all over the Indian subcontinent.

  • I bring 2.5 cups cold water to a boil. To that, I add a few cloves, lightly crushed cardamom pods with shells, a slice or two of ginger and some black peppercorns.
Spices for Tea

Spices for Tea

  • Pour into a teapot with 3 tsp of loose leaves (one for each cup and one for the pot!). You will need a strong brew to stand up to the addition of spices and milk.
A strong brew

A strong brew

  • Meanwhile, heat some milk. Adding cold milk to hot tea defeats the purpose of a hot drink!
The rich mahogany color of masala chai!

The rich mahogany color of masala chai!

So there you have it. Tea for two shared over memories of red roses from my spring garden ..better than any hothouse bouquet. Hope you find your rose garden too.

A Rose on the Bush is better than a Dozen in your Hands!

Mini roses in casual disarray

A Rose on the Bush is worth a Dozen in your Hands!

A Rose on the Bush is worth a Dozen in your Hands!

Posted in Baking, Family Life, FOOD, Humor, Spices, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments

The Venial Vegetarian: With Apologies to Asians

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It was back in the eighties and the young Chinese waiter must have stepped off the boat just as I had, with a hope for material or mental advancement in the promised land of America. I chose my favorite noodle dish, Lo Mein, which was offered with a choice of pork, shrimp, chicken or beef.

No beef, I said firmly. The young man nodded and bowed. No pork, I continued. No shrimp. No chicken. Puzzled, he left, only to return within minutes. No pork? More vigorous shaking of the head, mutual bowing and smiling. No shrimp? He turned away, hesitated, and gave his last shot at reason, no chicken? Nope. Defeated, he left my table but gazed at me pensively, from the baize door to the kitchen. I watched, as his face lit with comprehension and he hurried back to me beaming! Hindu, he announced triumphantly! Well, I was more of a lapsed Hindu, but since I had been raised on the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence towards all creatures, I shared in his joy of having discovered the reason behind my meatless madness.

No vegetarian Korean cuisine!

Menu outside Korean restaurant in Seoul- the Bamboo shoot wine could be vegetarian!

I’ve never been able to get past the mental block of eating meat. I like to think that I’m logical enough that should I be stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat but cadavers, the will to live would rule supreme. I once proffered this opinion to an evangelistic vegetarian convert and she never spoke to me again. This pragmatism served me well on a recent trip to South Korea where the concept of vegetarianism is not exactly clear. “It’s just soybean”, my friend assured me, as I spread the homogenized paste on a cabbage leaf and took a bite, “with only a bit of shrimp”. Oops, sorry! He was all apologies as he guided me to fried and battered zucchini rounds. I savored the humble vegetable with relief and reached for a second one. Too bad it was battered fish.

Supper in Seoul

Supper in Seoul

What’s a vegetarian to do, but cook up decidedly unauthentic alternatives guaranteed to have no fish sauce <shakes fist at Thai restaurants> or errant morsels of meat that find their way into the wok? I know I’ve looked down my sharpish nose at those generic “curries” while guiltily making my own transgressions into a foreign cuisine.  So I offer abject apologies to authentic Asian cooks everywhere, while serving up my favorite non-denominational “Asian” dinner…fast, flavorful and free of flesh.

No-Recipe Tofu

The tofu is delicate, not deep fried, in this dish. Perfect for soaking up the complex flavors in the spicy sauce.

No Recipe Tofu: too simple to write down

No Recipe Tofu: too simple to write down

  • Begin by cubing a block of firm tofu. Finely chop an inch of ginger, two cloves of garlic, a couple of fresh green chilies, and a few scallions.
Cube tofu, mince garlic, ginger, green green chilies, and scallions

Cube tofu, mince garlic, ginger, green green chilies, and scallions

  • Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a wok or seasoned pan. Add a pinch of crushed red pepper and let sizzle (not burn!).
  • Add the scallions, chiliesginger and garlic and stir around until they look bright green and smell heavenly.
Stir fry scallion mixture

Stir fry scallion mixture

  • Add the tofu cubes and mix gently.
Add the cubed tofu

Add the cubed tofu

  • Add the trifecta: chilli-garlic hot sauce (Sriracha, store bought or homemade), hoison sauce, and black bean paste. I use about a tablespoon each, but use less hot sauce if you can’t stomach it.
Add sauces

Add sauces

  • Drizzle some soy sauce, a few drops of sesame oil, and stir it all together.
Stir the sauces and tofu gently together

Stir the sauces and tofu gently together

Baby Bok Choy Stir Fry

This is a recipe adapted from my friend David Crowley’s blog Cooking Chat. A feast for the eye, it combines the fresh crunch of stir fried vegetables with the roasted richness of cashew.

Stir fry of bok choy

Stir fry of bok choy

Baby bok choy

Baby bok choy

  • Roughly chop a couple small bok choy, white and green parts. Chop a red pepper into similar size pieces.
Chopped bok choy and red pepper

Chopped bok choy and red pepper

  • For the sauce: Mix 3 tbs soy sauce, 1 tbs honey, 2 tsp rice vinegar and 1 tsp sesame oil. Add a clove of minced garlic.
Mix together soy sauce, honey, vinegar, sesame oil and minced garlic

Mix together soy sauce, honey, vinegar, sesame oil and minced garlic

  • Stir fry: In a tablespoon of vegetable oil on high heat, toss together the bok choy and red pepper until just tender but still brightly colored.
Stir fry the red pepper and bok choy on high heat

Stir fry the red pepper and bok choy on high heat

  • Add the sauce, and blend together. Add roasted, whole cashew nuts.
Stir fry baby bok choy with cashews

Stir fried baby bok choy with red peppers and cashews

Ginger Noodle Salad

This one is lifted, with thanks, from my Korean friend Shinae Robinson’s recipe (check out her food blog, Ridiculously Hungry). I didn’t have any pickled ginger (“gari”) on hand, so I quickly made my own with help from the internetz.

Ginger Noodle Salad

Ginger Noodle Salad

  • Make your own Gari: Thinly slice fresh ginger (I used a vegetable peeler). Sprinkle with coarse salt. Meanwhile, heat some rice vinegar in a small saucepan. Add sugar and wait for it to dissolve. Most recipes call for a third measure of sugar for each of vinegar. Add the ginger and watch in amazement as it turns a little pink. I’m told that a “quality” rice vinegar will enhance the pinkness. I guess mine was of modest “quality”. This keeps in the fridge for months, and can be used right away.
Note to self: Look for tender ginger next time

Note to self: Look for tender ginger next time

  • Cook some noodles– soba would be great, but I only had some spaghetti on hand.
  • Make the dressing: Mix together 1 tbs soy sauce, 1 tbs sesame oil, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1 tsp (more or less) Sriracha or chilli-garlic sauce, 0.5 tsp sugar. Toss in the warm noodles.
  • Add the greens: Mix together with juliened, sushi ginger (a generous fistful), a few handfuls of salad greens (arugula, baby spinach and endive would be delicious), and any thinly sliced fresh veggies you have on hand. You could use scallions, cherry tomatoes, radish or bean sprouts.

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Here are some sights around S. Korea that I managed to catch in between sessions of the International Plant Biology Meeting on Jeju Do.

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Columnar basalt on the southern shore of Jeju island, S. Korea

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Cheonjeyeon Waterfall, the Pond of the Emperor of Heaven. Legend has it that seven nymphs would descend from the heavens at night and bathe in the waterfall’s pond.

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View from the Sangumburi crater where the slopes are covered with Eulalia flowers (Miscanthus sinensis).

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Ilchibung Peak (Sunrise Peak ) is a dead volcano on the eastern-most point of Jeju island.

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View down Sunrise Peak where female divers known as the haenyo, or “sea women”, bring in the sea’s bounty.

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With the dol hareubangs, or stone guardians, of Jeju.

Posted in Asian food, FOOD, Humor, Travel, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

From Protein Folding to Punjabi Pea Paneer

Muttar Paneer

Muttar Paneer served with chappatis

Making fresh Indian cheese, or paneer, used to be a bit of a production in my home. My mother would start with not-so-fresh milk (why “waste” good milk, was her reasoning), bring it to a boil and then add lemon juice. In fascination, I watched the rapid separation of flocculant white curd from transparently greenish whey. That was my first encounter with the biochemistry of protein denaturation, although I would go on to ruin perfectly good batches of enzymes during my graduate career.

Beta lactalbumin is a milk protein designed to carry a lipid in its calyx-shaped pocket.

Beta lactalbumin is a milk protein designed to carry a lipid in its calyx-shaped pocket.

Proteins must be folded properly – into elegant ribbons, twisted helices, graceful loops and tight turns – not only to function properly but also to stay in solution. Too much heat, salt, acid or any number of adverse conditions cause proteins to unfold just enough to get their sticky inside parts to glom together. In a concerted show of protest, they leave the solution as a precipitate. Which brings us back to cheese. The curd is gathered into cheesecloth and suspended over a bowl to drain, before being packed into a brick under some heavy pots and pans. These days, one just reaches into the freezer of the local Patel Brothers for a perfectly rectangular brick of paneer.

So there is absolutely no reason why you should not make this quintessential Punjabi dish of peas and paneer, called Mattar Paneer. Notice that the gravy is vegan, with richness of cashew nuts in place of dairy cream. You can make this dish entirely vegan by replacing the paneer with baby potatoes boiled in their jackets (Alu Mattar..mmm!) or a cheese substitute of your choice.

  • Begin by cubing the paneer.
Cube the paneer

Cube the paneer

  • Fry the paneer pieces in 1-2 tbs oil in a well conditioned or non-stick pan until it is lightly golden.
Shallow fry the paneer until golden brown

Shallow fry the paneer until golden brown

  • Transfer to a bowl of water. The excess oil floats away and the paneer stays moist instead of turning rubbery.
Transfer paneer to a bowl of water

Transfer paneer to a bowl of water

  • Roughly chop an onion, 2 cloves of garlic and an inch of ginger.
  • Add whole spices to a heated tablespoon of oil: a few cloves, peppercorns and short sticks of cinnamon. When the spices darken and release their fragrance, add the chopped aromatics.
Add aromatics to the whole spices

Add aromatics to the whole spices

  • Saute on medium-high heat until lightly browned.
Lightly browned onions and spices

Lightly browned onions and spices

  • Transfer to a food processor and blend with a handful of roasted cashews. This is the basis of the gravy.
Add roasted cashews to the browned aromatics

Add roasted cashews to the browned aromatics

Gravy base

Gravy base

  • Back to the pan: to another tablespoon of oil, add cumin seeds, bay leaves and a couple of dry red chilies.
Roast whole spices: bay leaves, cumin and dry red chilies

Roast whole spices: bay leaves, cumin and dry red chilies

  • Next, add the gravy and heat through. It does not look appetizing at this point.
Simmering cashew-onion gravy base

Simmering cashew-onion gravy base

  • So add some turmeric, red chili powder and coriander powder. Season with salt and a pinch of sugar to bring out the sweetness of the peas. Add a cup of crushed tomatoes. Now it looks good, doesn’t it?
Doctored gravy: add tomatoes, turmeric and spices

Doctored gravy: add tomatoes, turmeric and spices

  • Gently fold in paneer cubes. Add frozen peas at this point, since they have already been blanched during the packing process. I used fresh peas this time, and I boiled them until they were tender but still freshly green. Garnish with chopped cilantro.
Fold in the peas and paneer

Fold in the peas and paneer

I served the Mattar Paneer with chappatis (Indian flat bread) and home made yogurt.

Mattar Paneer served with chappatis and yogurt

Mattar Paneer served with chappatis and yogurt

My most harrowing tale of protein denaturation harkens back to my graduate student days when I was studying the ATP synthase. I had grown 13 liters of E. coli in a fermentor (translation: buckets of bacteria), broken them in a scary high-pressure French Press, spent a couple weeks running between ultracentrifuges and cold room columns until finally, I had my prize- 185 mg of pure ATP synthase in a tube. I handed it, lovingly nestled in an ice bucket, to my collaborator, a senior postdoctoral fellow, who proceeded with the next step of dissociating the complex into its subunit proteins. As I watched in horror, the entire protein precipitated, irreversibly, into a white, insoluble mass! I stared accusingly at the postdoc, who quickly defended himself, “The water must be bad”. Before I could stop myself, I retorted, “The postdoc must be bad”. We’re still friends, 🙂 and I hope some day to dish up some mattar paneer and memories of precipitating proteins with Marwan.

In Memorium: I was deeply saddened to learn that Marc Ponomareff, a dear friend and frequent commentator on these posts, left us on Dec 3 after a long and courageous battle against cancer. Marc’s brilliant writing, humor and wit, and particularly the grace with which he bore his burden of illness will be sorely missed. We shared a love for spices, slapdash cooking and a zest for life. This one is for you, Marc.

Posted in FOOD, Humor, Indian food, Matar Paneer, science, Spices | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

The Guilty Baker: Orange-Cranberry Mini Muffins

Mini Muffins for a Bite Sized Breakfast

Just as procrastination inspires industrious bouts of housecleaning, guilt brings out the baker in me. I had been flying solo all week, while my husband basked in Florida on some pretext of simulating NASA satellite software (why couldn’t the tests be run in good old Maryland?). By Thursday, I had run ragged with the stress of haranguing my 14 year old out the door and into the school bus by 6:22 am. Dinner degenerated into nachos and guacamole.

So it was that by the next morning, sharp pangs of guilt (or was it hunger?) gnawed at my maternal conscience as I dawdled over my morning coffee. When I came across a speedy recipe for orange muffins, I decided to face that burden head on. By 8:30 am, a dozen of these little delights were bagged and bound for the lab, while the house smelled of sugar and spice and all things nice. Welcome back, honey. Yes, I’ve been baking and slaving in the kitchen all week.

  • Preheat the oven to 400 F and bring two eggs and half a cup of milk to room temperature. Line muffin cups with those frilly paper liners. They make a moister product. I didn’t have any, so I used my usual non-stick muffin pan.
  • Zest two oranges using a microplane grater, taking care to avoid the bitter white pith.
Orange Zest

Orange Zest

  • Add the dry ingredients to the orange zest:

2 cups white flour

0.5 cup sugar

1 tbsp baking powder

0.5 tsp salt

  • My variation has a handful of dried cranberries and chopped pecans (the original   recipe called for chocolate chips). Mix well.
Mix the dry ingredients..

Mix the dry ingredients..

  • Whisk together wet ingredients:

2 eggs

0.5 cup orange juice

0.5 cup milk

0.25 cup canola (vegetable) oil

Whisk together the milk, OJ, eggs and oil.

Whisk together the milk, OJ, eggs and oil.

  •  Pour the wet into the dry. Mix together with sparing movements. If you overdo it, you’ll have tough muffins.
Blend together, but don't overmix..

Blend together, but don’t overmix..

  • Fill the batter into the muffin tins. Oops, I ran out of batter before filling them all.

Baking is not an exact science, even if they say it is. Anyway, they also say that good cooks make lousy bakers. I say, the proof is in the muffin. Oh, for fun, I sprinkled some sugar on top of each batter filled cup. 

Baking is not an exact science :)

Baking is not an exact science 🙂

  • Bake for 20 min, checking a few minutes before to see if a knife inserted into a muffin comes out clean.
Not quite FoodTV, but you get the idea...

Not quite FoodTV, but you get the idea…

The tang of orange zest and cranberries was a delicious counter to the sweetness, with bits of pecan surprise in every other bite. The edges were a bit tough, so I think I will try the muffin liners next time.

Mini muffins...just out of the oven.

Mini muffins…just out of the oven.

Do you like the cross-stitched napkin? I embroidered the set when I was a pigtailed school girl. My mother saved them for me all these years.  Now that I’ve established my Martha Stewart creds, I hope we can keep that junk food dinner between us, okay?

Showing off my cross-stitchery skills.

Showing off my cross-stitchery skills.

Posted in Baking, Family Life, FOOD, Humor | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Simply Soup: The Fragrance of Fennel

Simply Soup: For a Chilly Fall Evening

Simply Soup: For a Chilly Fall Evening

The lady at the checkout counter of the local grocer stared at the stout-bulbed feathery fronds with a mixture of perplexity and annoyance.

Guiltily, I explained, It’s fennelWhat do you do with it? she countered.

I looked behind me at the lady next in line, who was tapping her feet somewhat impatiently. No moral support there.

This was not the only produce in my basket to come without a barcode, I’m afraid. No cashier likes to reference that laminated cheat sheet (in small print), more than once. The only way to render oneself more of a persona non grata in a supermarket queue is to have an item which requires the help light to flash. And the words that everyone hates to hear, Price check on Aisle 9!

Fortunately, it did not come to that. Amidst apologetic smiles, I escaped with my fragrant bounty, planning a dinner of crusty bread with hearty soup, gently warmed through to dispel the encroaching chill of a fall evening.  A soup full of the goodness of potatoes, cabbage and carrots taken to a higher plane with the elegance of fennel. The recipe was adapted from an online friend’s blog, Cooking Chat.

  • Chop in chunks:

One onion

One carrot

One fennel bulb

A quarter or half head cabbage, depending on the size (~ 4 cups)

Three smallish potatoes

  • Also, finely mince:

One clove of garlic

  • Heat, in a heavy bottomed pot:

A tablespoon of olive oil

  • Add to hot oil:

One Bay Leaf

  • Follow with the chopped vegetables
  • Season with:

Salt and black pepper, to taste

  • Add and simmer together:

Vegetable (or other mild) broth and/or water to cover the veggies by a couple of inches.

  • Cover for about 20 min or until the vegetables are tender.

Somewhere in this process, allow spouse to add secret ingredient ( a few drops of Angostura Bitters: I’m not sure why, but Bitters make Everything Better).

  • Puree to satisfying smoothness with a handheld blender, or blend in batches using a mixer. I added some light cream at this point, for additional richness. You can leave some chunks, if you prefer. Oops, forgot to fish out the bay leaf. Guess what? It disappeared into the soup and no one died.
  • Warm through gently, and serve with any or all of these topping:
  • Sliced sundried tomatoes
  • Ribboned sage (or other herb)
  • Freshly grated Parmesan
  • Crushed red pepper flakes
  • Black pepper, freshly ground
  • Thinly sliced jalapeno pepper.

Enjoy with sliced and toasted bread, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed over with a slice of garlic!

Creamy Fennel Soup

Creamy Fennel Soup

 

 

Posted in FOOD, Humor, Soup | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

A Double Dose of Dosas: Two Southern Indian Crepes

The gum-chewing, bored looking US customs officer gave me an expert once-over as I dragged my world weary rag tag family towards the airport exit. “Any mangoes, miss?

I have a theory that men in uniform have been trained to call all women Miss, even if it is obvious that we are biologically and socially old enough to qualify as their mother.

“No, haha!”, I responded, thawing on cue and smiling confidentially. He could have charmed my ATM password out of me at this point, had I known it myself (which I don’t).

How about meat products?” My eyebrows drew together in disapproval. “Of course, not”.  Was it not obvious from our ascetically, if not aesthetically, scrawny slender musculature that we had been weaned on protein poor vegetarian food since birth?

Hastily, aware of his slip, he turned his attention to the oddly sized package on our luggage cart, “What’s that?

I straightened my aching, tote bag burdened shoulders with pride. “That is a table top granite wet grain grinder”. Pausing only to note his mild interest, I launched forth saying more or less the following (possibly, more): It has two granite cones that rotate within a motorized, spinning stainless steel chamber with an attached paddle and stone base.  It is used for grinding lentils and rice to a fine, fluffy batter that is fermented to make dosas. An ordinary blender with a steel blade is marginally adequate but a grinder is best for the authentic silky feel to the crepe.

Wet Grain Grinder aka Kitchen Conversation Piece.

Wet Grain Grinder aka Kitchen Conversation Piece.

Inside view of grinder.

Inside view of grinder.

Somewhere in the midst of this monologue, I caught the warning glint in my husband’s eye. You know, the one that is reserved for the rare times my professorial pontifications get the better of me. Right, moving along. It’s not like I was using a PowerPoint presentation, I muttered to myself indignantly. Actually, I did do just that at Airport Security in Tel Aviv. But that’s another tale.

This one goes out to all the Customs Officers, Security Personnel and Police who shamelessly flatter by calling me Miss.

Masala dosas: Recently voted the number one food from around the world to try before you die. Not to hasten you to an early grave, but you must experience the dosa. There are multiple steps and prior planning involved: If you have not made these before, it helps, as we say to the summer students in my lab, to pay attention. (I didn’t take as many photographs as I should have, so I’ll update with more images later).

  1. Make the Batter
  • Separately soak rice and urad dal  (Vigna mungo) under an inch of water for 6-8 hours or overnight. Confusingly, this lentil is black when whole, and white when halved and hulled.

If you like your dosas soft, use a 3:1 ratio. If you like them crisp, increase the proportion of rice to 4:1. I used 3.5 cups of rice and 1 cup of urad dal.

  • Grind the softened lentils for 20 minutes in the granite grinder with enough water to make a smooth batter. If you don’t have this useless conversation piece, go ahead and use an ordinary blender.

The batter is perfect when a fluffy spoonful floats when dropped into water!

Lentil batter so light and fluffy that it floats.

Lentil batter so light and fluffy that it floats.

  • Scoop it out and transfer to a large pot with enough room for rising. Do the same with the softened rice: this is going to have a more gritty texture.
Grinding the rice.

Grinding the rice.

  • Mix in with the lentil batter along with a teaspoon of salt.
Dosa batter, just ground.

Dosa batter, just ground.

  • Cover, and place in a warm spot to ferment. My remodeled kitchen has a warming drawer that can be set to 85F, perfect for culturing yogurt, raising dough or fermenting dosa batter. I’ve also left the lamp on in my oven to provide mild warmth.
Let rise in a warm spot.

Let rise in a warm spot.

After an overnight incubation, the batter should be full of bubbles. Don’t let it go too long, or the batter gets excessively sour (refrigerate, if you are not ready to use it).

Yeast Alive! Fermented batter.

Yeast Alive! Fermented batter.

  1. Make the Chutney

To make a chutney, you will need a bunch of coriander (cilantro), a cup of grated coconut (I buy mine pre-grated from the frozen section of an Indian grocery store), a teaspoon of tamarind pulp (from soaking dry tamarind pods, or as a concentrate), a few green chilies, and spices for tempering.

  • Grind all the ingredients (other than tempering spices) together in a blender, using judicious aliquots of water, titrating it to the right chutney consistency. Season with salt and remove to a bowl.
Coriander bunch, green chilies and coconut.

Coriander bunch, green chilies and coconut.

Tamarind concentrate.

Tamarind concentrate.

  • Temper the chutney with a teaspoon each of urad dal and mustard seeds, plus 1-2 dry red chilies. Heat together in a small pan until the mustard seeds turn gray and pop.

You can flavor with a pinch of asafoetida if you are a purist. (Other chutney versions use garlic. I don’t out of deference to my late grandmother whose disapproval would time-travel through the etheric past to haunt me). Toss atop the chutney for a satisfying sizzle. Your kitchen will smell delightfully of fresh herb and roasted nuts, unless you used too much asafoetida in which case it will not.

Coriander chutney

Coriander chutney

  1. Make the Potato Filling
  • Boil a few potatoes, peel and roughly cube. Chop a small onion. You can chop a few green chilies, or leave them whole.
  • Begin with the same tempering as with the chutney above. This flavors the oil and provides a nutty crunch in contrast to the soft and creamy potato filling.
  • Lightly saute the onions. Add the cubed potatoes and chilies. Season with salt, and turmeric for that golden color.
Potato stuffing for dosa

Potato stuffing for dosa

  • Add a few tablespoons of water and mash the potatoes with the back of your spoon to make the mixture soft and spreadable. Finally, squeeze on some lemon juice and garnish with chopped cilantro. You can add cashew pieces too.

To Make Dosas:

Heat a nonstick or seasoned cast iron griddle. Set aside some vegetable oil. I add some toasted sesame oil for a more aromatic mix.

  • Pour a ladleful of batter in the center. Using the back of the ladle and gentle pressure, quickly make an outwardly spiraling circle. The alternating thin/thick texture of the dosa conveys both soft and crispy textures in every delicious and contradictory mouthful. Sprinkle about a teaspoon of oil, cover with a lid. After a couple minutes, test the edges to see if it releases easily. Fermented dosas cook quickly.
Dosa batter on a griddle.

Dosa batter on a griddle.

  • Spread first chutney and then potato filling over half the dosa surface and then flip the other half over. Other dosa conformations include triangle and roll. Serve hot and golden! Top with unsalted butter or ghee for a rich flavor. (I ran out of gun powder, alias chutney pudi. That intriguing condiment awaits my upcoming trip to India).
Spread with chutney and potato stuffing, then fold over.

Spread with chutney and potato stuffing, then fold over.

Take Two: Adai (non fermented dosa)

Should the microbial reactions in the fermentation prove too off putting or enzymatically challenging for some, I offer you a non-fermented variation with less prep time. This is a protein and lentil rich, crunchy dosa known as Cabbage Adai.

You will need rice, and four types of lentils: Tuvar dal, Channa dal, Urad dal and Moong dal.

From L to R: Toovar, Channa, Urad and Moong dals.

From L to R: Toovar, Channa, Urad and Moong dals.

  • For one measure each of the four dals, use 1.5 measures of rice. I used a quarter cup measure.
Mix lentils and rice in the ratio 1:1:1:1:1.5

Mix lentils and rice in the ratio 1:1:1:1:1.5

  • Soak the rice and dals with a few pepper corns and dry red chillies for a couple of hours.
Presoaked rice and lentils

Presoaked rice and lentils

  • Grind it all together. An ordinary high-speed blender is fine. Leave some bits for texture.
Blend together rice and lentils

Blend together rice and lentils

Batter for Adai

Batter for Adai

  • Chop about a third of a small cabbage finely, and add it to the batter with salt to taste.
Slice cabbage lengthwise

Slice cabbage lengthwise

Then crosswise...

Then crosswise…

  • Make the dosas as before.
Spread out the batter.

Spread out the batter.

  • This time, you need to flip them since these dosas are thicker and need a couple more minutes to cook.
Flip it once to cook the other side

Flip it once to cook the other side

Adai closeup.

Adai closeup.

  • Serve with chutney.
Cabbage Adai with Coriander Chutney.

Cabbage Adai with Coriander Chutney.

There are endless variations on the dosa. You can use different flours (wheat, semolina), different toppings (fresh tomatoes, cilantro and onions) and make them without the tedium of presoaking and grinding. Remember, the clock is ticking so try them any which way!

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