October 7th: Cooking with Mom
(there’s a downloadable word document here)
Mid-October and a few days late on the uptake but what can I say – the days were bright for scything and pressing, and computers will always be there, a digital Penelope forevermore. Or at least as long as the electricity lasts.
When my mom came to class two weeks ago, we put together a Gujarati feast:
mung dal (curried mung beans, split and hulled)
pulow (long grain basmati rice with ghee and spices)
shak (curried French beans)
mutia (steamed cabbage and wheat dumplings, sautéed with spices)
curdy (thickened yogurt soup)
and sweet chai for dessert.
There are lots of legumes. Some legumes are beans. Some are lentils. Some are eaten fresh. Some dry. Dried legumes are usually available whole, split and hulled, or split and not-hulled. You know there’s a sneaky hull involved when the round side and the flat side are different colors (they never clash). For this dish, my mom chose mung beans, sometimes called “green gram” in English but generally known in stores as “mung”. In Ayurveda (India’s traditional science of health and medicine), they are considered to be the easiest to digest.
1 cup split hulled mung beans (yellow)
As you check back with the recipe, the beans have been soaked overnight, perhaps rinsed once or twice, and are cooking. You don’t generally need a pressure cooker with split lentils. If you want a soupy dal, you had 3 cups of water and cook the lentils past liberty, eternity, and fraternity, all the way down that slippery slope to puree. If you want more consistency – ie, you don’t want to wash bowls – use one a half cups of water and take care to lower the heat to simmer when the pot boils. You can always drain (or drink, or use for stock, or water your plants with) extra water when the lentils are sufficiently tender.
Now, to the vagar. Vagar is the concept of adding life to the food. Of transforming carbohydrates into elixir. It’s shading. Texture. Flair. Perspective. In stereo.
2 tablespoons of oil
1 teaspoon whole black mustard seeds
a pinch of hing (asafetida)
2 whole dried red chiles
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon turmeric
Heat the oil in a pot. If you only have one pot or burner available (I’ve been watching the stock market too), evacuate the cooked lentils into a bowl, clean and dry the pot, and put it back onto the waiting fire.
When the oil is hot, add the seeds. If the mustard seeds sink and are covered by the oil, they will pop within the oil. If there are, by some twist of fate, uncovered, they will pop all over your kitchen and you should be armed with a ready lid. When they start to finish their popping (read it twice), add the red chiles and the hing. Brown briefly and add the cooked beans. If you are aiming for the soupy dal, stir a lot, creaming everything together. If not, use more of a angelfoodcake folding mentality. Add the remaining spices to the pot. Let everything cook together for a few minutes.
It’s nice to garnish with cilantro or add some lemon juice at the end. Some Gujaratis add a teaspoon of sugar at the end and bear the brunt of jokes all over India for it. But it does taste good. You know.
This is a simple and impressive rice variation. Like most simple and impressive culinary treats, it needs butter. Actually ghee, which, if you remember from class, is more butter than butter itself.
1 cup of long-grained rice
1 tablespoon of gira (whole cumin seeds)
2 tablespoons (or more) of raw unsalted cashews
The amount of ghee depends on how respected your guests are. You want enough to give a little coat to the pan, and some extra to get all into the rice after the spices have fried. But each has their own path, and I can’t put a number on this one.
Sautee the cumin seeds in the melted ghee until they darken and let off their intoxicating earthy aroma. Add the cashew and stir or shake the pan until they too are brown and buttery. Now we can add the rice, stirring to coat and absorb the remaining ghee. Add salt and water. Generally two cups. You can use different stocks if you have them hanging around back burners as well. Old white wine works great too.
Cook it like rice – don’t check too often or stir too often and it will come out perfect. I like to turn the pot off when it’s still a little moist and let it finish by purely steaming. The rice on the top ends up standing on it’s end, like a forest of snowy trees.
We garnished with finely chopped bell peppers.
Shak just means “vegetables”. There’s always a few different vegetables curries at every meal (generally from one to three). Each vegetable earns access to different spice portfolios depending on it’s qualities, taste, and season. We used tender green beans from Nash’s farm in Dungeness.
A little oil
1 pound of green beans
1 teaspoon ajmo (oregano seed)
a few cloves of garlic
a few green chiles (jalapenos or serranos)
Here we’ll take the same technique we used in the dal (above) and invert it: instead of cooking the lentils, already prepared, to the spice mix, we will mix the spices first and allow the beans to cook through with the spices present.
Once again we heat the pan, heat the oil, and place a spicy seed in the hot oil. For beans we will often use ajmo, a seed of a plant in the oregano family. It is a digestive aid: Indians are very concerned about digestion, especially with beans. They’re looking out for you.
After the ajmo has popped, add the combination of finely chopped garlic and green chile. Brown them well before adding the beans. Cover. The beans will take time and attention to cook without burning on the high heat. When they have begun to release some water, add salt and turmeric. We don’t want to expose the turmeric to the really hot heat of the initial vagar, which would damage some of its medicinal properties. Teach sensitivity.
Once again, after the beans have softened appropriately, you can add a little lemon and sugar as you take the pan off the hat. Cilantro makes a fine garnish, finely chopped and sprinkled above it all.
Mutia is the peasant version of what the restaurants call “kofta”, a ball of combined vegetables, grains, or pulses that is steamed or fried and the served in a rich sauce. The word itself comes from the word for “hand”, as the imprints of the cook’s fingers form the shape of the dumpling.
2 tablespoon of oil
2 cups cream of wheat
2 cups shredded cabbage
an inch of shredded ginger
an equal amount of minced garlic
½ cup of finely chopped cilantro
a little hing (for digestion, naturally)
Mix everything together. Add a little baking soda if you don’t have the time to wait a couple of hours before cooking. Slowly add water until it forms a dough you can handle, gathering everything into a slightly stick ball.
The fun part is tearing off chunks of the dough with one hand and using the force of the palm to form a small log, like we did in class. The action mimics stroking your lower palm with the fingers of the same hand. If that makes any sense.
When you have the mutia formed, place them in a steamer to cook. If you have a flat steamer (i.e. not a basket steamer) it’s better. If not, it’s what is. Cook them for 10-15 minutes, until (cake-style) the proverbial knife comes out clean. At that point, they are steamed, tasty, healthy, and suitable for human consumption in any other culture.
Now of course, is the time of the vagar. This time, use:
dry shredded coconut
finely chopped green onion
After the mustard seeds pop, add everything else and the cooked mutia, cut into slices as thick as a pencil. Toss carefully in the spices, carefully not to end up with a crumbly mess. Take off the heat, serve, and sprinkle with lemon juice.
The yogurt soup is another quick meal. Coming home hungry and late from work, you could have dinner of rice and soup (a common evening combination) ready in twenty minutes. Easily.
2 cups of yogurt
2 cups of water
½ cup of chickpea flour (besun)
½ teaspoon of turmeric
¾ inch of grated ginger
2 cloves of garlic
1 green chile
1 tablespoon raw sugar (gor)
Blend or whisk all of the above until smooth. Heat some ghee in a pan (you know the story from above) and toast whole cumin and whole fenugreek seeds. Watch for the darkening of the color – just slight – and add the mixture before any burning or bitterness takes place.
If you can find fresh curry leaves (from the sweet neem plant), add them. The soup is named after them and they are unmistakably wonderful in flavor. If you can’t find them, give up your desires and move on.
Lower the heat to medium after the initial sizzle and watch the soup thicken. You can add more besun if you want more thick. In some parts of Maharastra they add so much it becomes more of a polenta than a soup.
As always, the future is up to you.