Showing posts with label Tips & Tools. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tips & Tools. Show all posts

Aug 3, 2016

Tips & Tools: How to Blanch Almonds

almond simple way blanching skinned raw

Blanched almonds are simply raw almonds with their skin removed. The smooth texture of blanched or skinless almonds are often called for in many Mughlai recipes as well as some fancy Indian sweets and desserts. I've never seen pre blanched almonds for sale in India or Nepal so I've learned to prepare them myself. In as little as ten minutes you can easily blanch your own almonds!

Traditionally I've seen almonds soaked for hours in water or overnight to remove their skins in India. Often this results in mushy or slimy almonds. With the simple and quick technique of blanching by immersing in hot then cold water the almonds retain their firm texture. Be sure to use only raw almonds and the freshest you can find. 

2 C raw almonds
2-3 C water (or just enough water to cover the amount of almonds you wish to blanch)

Here's what to do:
1) Bring a small pot of water to boil and remove from heat. Place raw almonds in heated water and allow to steep for 2 minutes.

2) Drain the hot water from the almonds using a sieve or colander. Rinse the almonds with cool water.

3) The almonds' skins should be loosened and will easily slide off when squeezed. Be careful if you pinch too hard the almond will go flying across the room. This is the most time consuming part of blanching almonds.
The blanched almonds are on the left and their removed velvety russet jackets are on the right.
4) Depending on what you're using the blanched almonds for you may wish to leave them to dry. I usually place them on a baking sheet for a day to dry if need be. Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks when dried.

May 4, 2016

Tips & Tools: Why I Do Not Dry Roast My Spices

I'm probably going to draw brickbats but I'm going to say it anyway: 

 Dry roasting spices is unnecessary. *
Unnecessary. Tedious. Superfluous. Yet another dirty pan in Bibi's tiny kitchen.
 Yes I know, Bibi's ever the maverick.  I've found another kindred spirit via the internet who also questions dry roasting spices on her blog Azelia's Kitchen here.

When I first started cooking Desi dishes years ago I noticed some recipes would dry roast the spices before cooking and some would just add the raw spices to the pan and fry them with the dish. I wondered what the point of dry roasting spices was if you were just going to fry them in oil and then cook them even further until dish is finished. That's a lot of cooking for rather delicate spices whose flavors primarily come from heat sensitive volatile oils. I have several cookbooks featuring both recipes that dry roast the spices and use raw spices. They'll often say dry roasting enhances the flavor of spices in one recipe but give no reason why the masala is left raw in another recipe.

The only reasoning I could find behind dry roasting spices in Desi dishes was in Anjum Anand's brilliantly written Indian Every Day cookbook.  
In her book Ms. Anjum states, 
"Spices are roasted for two reasons; first to facilitate the grinding of potentially soggy seeds (India can be very damp) and secondly to change the basic flavour… during the monsoons in India, the damp gets into everything and the seeds would need a light roasting to crisp them up enough to grind them but not to change the flavour."
So dry roasting spices makes grinding them to powder easier in the humid weather of the Indian Subcontinent. That makes sense especially if you are grinding spices the old fashioned way with a mortar and pestle or sil-batta. It would seem Ms Anjum is waffling a bit on whether it's to change the flavor or not though.

For a more scientific explanation of what goes on when spices are dry roasted or heated in any way  let's take a look at page in the famed food science writer Harold McGee's famed tome  On Food and Cooking. 
Mr. McGee writes,
"Once the aroma molecules in herbs and spices are released into a preparation and exposed to other ingredients, the air, and heat, they begin to undergo a host of chemical reactions. Some fraction of the original aroma chemicals becomes altered into a variety  of other chemicals, so the initially strong, characteristic notes become more subdued, and the general complexity of the mixture increases… When cumin or coriander are toasted on their own,  for example, their sugars and amino acids undergo browning reactions and generate savory aroma molecules typical of roasted and toasted foods (pyrazines), thus developing a new layer of flavor that complements the original raw aroma." 
"The toasting on a hot pan of whole dry spices, typically mustard, cumin or fenugreek, for a minute or two until the seeds begin to pop, the point at which their inner moisture has vaporized and they are just beginning to brown.  Spices cooked in this way are mellowed, but individually; they retain their own identities."
So heating spices mellows and subdues them but can also lend complexity to a mixture. Desi dishes are definitely known for their complexity of flavor, that's true. This still left me wondering if spices really need to be dry roasted if they're also going to be fried, and pressure cooked or simmered in order to bring out their layers of complexity. Seems like that's overdoing it a bit to to me.

Most of the modern Indian cookbooks I've tried have been rather disappointing due to the lack of flavor in the resulting dishes. Most of the modern recipes utilized dry roasting spices first then frying and further cooking them after. After watching my Kashmiri family cook and noticing how different what they did was from what the modern cookbooks advised I started perusing informal "homely" Desi recipe exchange forums online.

I noticed two trends in the older traditional recipes that had the bold flavors I love:

If the masala was dry roasted it was added towards the end of the cooking of the dish.

If the masala was used raw it was fried early on in the cooking of the dish.

I can only conclude that dry roasting all spices regardless of cooking technique was as Azelia puts it "a modern mantra" with not a lot of thought behind it.

So does dry roasting spices prior to cooking really enhance their flavor?
I'd say it makes them different, and not necessarily in a good way. When you're cooking you just have to make the choice as to whether you prefer a more mellow and subdued flavor in your dish. Also keep in mind all the cooking those spices will endure after the initial dry roasting, and whether there's yogurt or coconut in your dish whose fat will dilute the spices' flavor too.

My reasons for not dry roasting spices:

All those gorgeous aromas filling your kitchen as you dry roast the spices is actually flavor lost. You're filling the air with fragrant volatile molecules that could be flavoring your food.

When you degrade those volatile aroma chemicals by heating them you are shortening the spices' shelf life. Spices are far more prone to going rancid or losing flavor after being heated.

Why bother going through the hassle of dry roasting spices if you're going to fry, simmer, or pressure cook them anyway? All that heat in cooking is enough to mellow, subdue, and bring out all the spices' complexities.

*There are only 2 exceptions I'd make in dry roasting:

Coconut meat, there's only one way to get toasted coconut flavor and that's by dry roasting. If toasted coconut's the flavor you're after then dry roasting's the only way to go.

If you're going to add spices to a dish after cooking or to a dish that won't be cooked. There is a practice in some regions and households of stirring a small amount of garam masala into a dish to season it just before serving. Because the garam masala used in this technique doesn't undergo any cooking you must dry roast it previously. I've also seen a lot of South Indian recipes that dry roast the spices and add them to a dish at a late stage in cooking. I don't really think either of these techniques result in enhanced flavor so I don't use them.  I do dry roast cumin to add to raw chutneys also.

Mar 30, 2016

Tips & Tools: Of Rice & Rotis...

As you may or may not know carbohydrates are the main part of Desi meals. These staple carbohydrates usually take the form of rice or one of the multitudinous Desi flatbreads like rotis, chapattis, parathas, or naan. In general Desis fall into to two categories: rice eaters or roti eaters. Yes, there are regional as well as family preferences for taking meals with rice as their base or some sort of flatbread. Then you'll even see some families that take lunch with rice but dinner with rotis. Or any other combination or rice and flatbreads you can possibly think of. This can make planning a dinner party for Desi guests difficult.

The rice eating Desis like Kashmiris and Bengalis require soupier dishes. The soupy consistency is preferred because they squish the rice up with the sauce or broth to eat. This is not to say they forsake flatbreads entirely. Kashmiris eat a yeast risen tandoori cooked roti begotten at the local tandoori bakery for breakfast and with their afternoon tea. (Yes, they have tandoori bakeries in Kashmir, I will take pictures the next time I am there.) So if you are planning a meal for Bengali or Kashmiri guests you's better plan on serving rice and a few soupy or "rasedaar" (means juicy) dishes. If you are serving Kashmiris there better be some mutton or lamb on the table too or they'll be insulted.

Many roti eating Desis are from northern India. Punjabis and Biharis are largely roti eaters. They make take rice also but they probably eat rotis with at least one or two meals daily. Punjabis and Biharis generally eat one of the flatbreads like chapattis, parathas, or rotis that are quick to make at home.  Naan is made in a tandoori oven and is generally only eaten at a restaurant or take out. Roti eaters require thick gravies. No soupy sauces or broths for them. They wad up the rotis and scoop up the thick gravy with it. So if you are serving guests from Punjab or Bihar you'd better plan on serving rotis and dishes with thick gravies. 

As you can tell by the above photo Bibi's rotis are perfectly round and beautifully blistered with toasted speckles of loveliness. I'll have you know those perfectly round rotis are the mark of a Desi housewife "par exellence." What's Bibi's secret? These:

Yes, fresh from the freezer section at our local superstore Bibi buys her rotis prepared. After cooking 2 appetizers, 3-4 entrees, rice, 3 chutneys, and dessert for a dinner party I'll be darned if I'm going to roll out 30 rotis just as the guests are seated. Just heat up a dry nonstick pan for 5 minutes, pull these babies out of the freezer, lightly toast them on each side for 2 minutes- "et voila!" Bibi's the perfect hostess! Think that's cheating? Well, if you look closely this pack of prepared rotis is labelled for "restaurant use."  That's right, the pros use these too. And you know what, they are delicious!

This post on rice and rotis was brought about by some houseguests we had when we were first married. I noticed the rice was coming back untouched and the soupy Kashmiri dishes were left intact also. I asked my husband if our guests didn't like the food. My husband said, "Yes, they like the food but they eat rotis with dinner." Why did dear husband not tell me our guests were roti eaters?  I will never know. I have since learned the hard way to never ask husband specifically what dishes to serve for a meal. I now only ask where the guests are from, do they like rice, rotis, or both, and are they "veg" or "non veg."

Keep calm & curry on.

Mar 22, 2016

Tips & Tools: Getting Handy with a Handi

Introducing the magnificent pot of Mughal fame: the handi!

Originally made of clay the handi is a round pot with no handles, a narrow neck, curved sides, and is usually thicker on the bottom to distribute heat evenly. The handi is the piece of cookware essential to the "dum" or "dumpukht" style of cooking so beloved by the Mughals. "Dum" means steam or breath and "puhkt" means to choke. In dumpukht cooking food would be partially cooked then placed in the handi with it's lid sealed airtight with a paste of flour and water. The sealed handi would then be placed on the dying embers of the cooking fire to slowly simmer overnight. Steam would form inside the handi which would then condense and drip down the curved sides. Thus the food contained within would basted in it's own juices. Dumpuhkt is the culinary method used in making such famed Mughal style dishes such as biryanis, tahari, and Mutton Lazeez. One of the most popular dishes of Kashmir called "Dum Aloo" consists of baby potatoes slow cooked dumpukht style with a spicy sauce.

This is a decorative clay handi available for sale at a tourist site in Agra. You can see the saucer-like lid on the narrow necked round pot that is typical of early handis.

Here is a modern day replication of dumpukht style cooking.  A biryani is being cooked in a clay handi atop a gas burner. The saucer-like lid has been sealed with a paste of water and flour to keep steam from escaping. As this sealed handi is not upon dying embers but rather a direct gas flame a metal tawa or plate has been placed under it to disperse the heat.

Nowadays you can even buy decorative handis to serve your meal in like this piece of gorgeous tableware. A small handi is called a "handiya."

You can also get pressure cookers in the shape of a handi. I doubt whether a pressure cooker could truly replicate slow cooking in an earthenware pot over coals, but there you go.

Now let's stroll on over to Delhi near the Jama Masjid mosque to see the handi in action. This is Karim's restaurant, it lies on one of the winding, narrow, and dimly lit paths in the souk-like markets around the Jama Masjid mosque. Karim's is quite famous and has been in business for over 100 years. Karim's owners are direct descendants of chefs of the Mughal court. The original Mughal cooking techniques and recipes have been passed down through the family here. At some point handis ceased being made in clay and nickel plated beaten copper became the preferred material of choice for manufacture.

This is how a Mughal chef would cook, sitting cross legged upon a flat platform surrounded by braziers topped with handis. The handis can be tilted to keep steam in and allow easy access to  the seated chef or servers. Typically foods would be first partially cooked like this in the handis, the lid would be then sealed with a flour and water paste, and the handi would be placed over low heat to simmer for hours.

Here you can see the delicious contents of the handis. There's a biryani on the right and some sort of mutton dish in the left. See how tilting the handis keeps allows the steam to condense and roll back down the side rather than just escaping.

Your meal at Karim's will be simply served on 1950's looking stoneware in a charmingly unpretentious manner. A complimentary relish plate of sliced raw onions, limes, and sliced raw daikon radish will always accompany your dining experience. A choice of different naan or rice areon offer too, in this case we've chosen those gorgeous fluffy naans. It's quite inexpensive and geared toward the working class despite the royal cuisine being served. I like that, the food is what the focus is on here. Surprisingly to me, the Mughal food served at the little restaurants owned by descendants of Mughal chefs isn't that highly spiced. The emphasis is on the meat- be it mutton cooked in it's own juices or a biryani cooked with meat stock. One dish we ordered once was quite unusual, I believe it was called "Shahi Tamur" which means "Royal Dates." It consisted of dates stewed in a creamy white savory sauce with a lot of ground coriander, a bit of cumin, and green chilis. Mixing sweet with savory would be typical of the early Mughal era.

Here is a gentleman in typical Islamic attire enjoying the view of the Jama Masjid mosque from a nearby restaurant. The mosque was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan of rosy red sandstone with carved white marble inlays and was completed in 1656. It can accommodate 25,000 worshippers, has two 130 foot high minarets, and three white marble domes. The inside is even more spectacularly ornamented with more inlaid marble and carved semi precious stones throughout.

I think the closest thing to a handi that would be practical for modern cooks would be an electric slow cooker or crock pot. You could certainly seal the lid with a flour and water paste to get the same dumpukht effect. If I lived someplace where I had twenty four hour electricity I'd certainly have one. I've never seen a slow cooker or crock pot in India or Nepal, but then twenty four electricity is a rarity in Nepal and India also.

That concludes my discussion of the handi and dumpukht cooking.
Calmly currying on,

Mar 9, 2016

Tips & Tools: How to Make Ginger Paste

I love fresh ginger's warm, lemony, and bright flavor but it is a chore to peel it every time you wish to use some in a dish. So about once a week I make ginger paste. It's easy to store and convenient to use any time in a dish. Fresh ginger is only available here during the winter months so I stock up and store it whole in the freezer during that time. Freezing the entire ginger root whole in the refrigerator keeps it from going bad and makes peeling so much easier.

4-6oz fresh ginger, frozen
2 TBS cooking oil
1 tsp salt

Here's what to do:

1) Soak frozen ginger in water in a bowl until completely thawed.

2) Remove skin from ginger. The skin will slip right off the ginger cleanly when thawed, no knife necessary.

3) Place peeled ginger, 2 TBS cooking oil, and 1 tsp salt in mixie, food processor, or blender. Why does Bibi put cooking oil and salt in her ginger paste? Because the oil and salt will provide a hyperosmolar environment that will help prevent pathogens from growing and spoiling your ginger paste. The oil will also help the ginger blend into a smooth paste, and unlike water will carry the flavor of the ginger and not spatter at you if placed in hot oil.

4) Grind mixture into a fine paste.

4) Transfer ginger paste to sealable airtight container. Keep in refrigerator for up to one week. Oil may separate form ginger but just stir it back in when you wish to use it.

Helpful Hints:
When using this ginger paste remember that it has salt already in it. Be sure to adjust your salt usage in a recipe accordingly.

This ginger paste can be frozen successfully also. Just place tablespoon sized scoops of the ginger paste on a cling film lined baking sheet, Place in freezer overnight. When the scoops of ginger paste are completely frozen place them in a sealable plastic bag and store them in the freezer. When you need some ginger paste just take out as many of the frozen tablespoonfuls as you need.

Feb 27, 2016

Tips & Tools: How to Make Garlic Paste

Garlic paste is a great convenience product. Easy to store, easy to measure, disappears texturally into food, the grinding enhances garlic's flavor, and it's so much simpler than peeling and chopping cloves of garlic every time you need some in a dish. You can buy commercially prepared garlic paste at markets in South Asia, but it always tastes a bit sour and odd from the acid preservatives used.  So about once a week I make my own garlic paste. Here's my tried, tested, and true method for making garlic paste.

2 heads of garlic/lahsun
2 TBS cooking oil
1 tsp salt

Here's what to do:

1) Peel all garlic cloves removing any rotten or bruised parts also. Remove any green sprout-y bits as they will make your garlic paste taste weird.

2) Place peeled garlic cloves into a mixie, food processor, or blender with 2 TBS cooking oil and 1 tsp salt. Why does Bibi put cooking oil and salt in her garlic paste? Because the oil and salt will provide a hyperosmolar environment that will help prevent pathogens from growing and spoiling your garlic paste. The oil will also help the garlic cloves blend into a smooth paste, and unlike water will carry the flavor of the garlic and not spatter at you if placed in hot oil.

Whiz, bang, boom! The modern miracle of the mixie!
3) Grind mixture into a fine paste.

4) Transfer garlic paste to sealable airtight container. Keep in refrigerator for up to one week. Oil may separate form garlic but just stir it back in when you wish to use it.

Helpful Hints:

When using this garlic paste remember that it has salt already in it. Be sure to adjust your salt usage in a recipe accordingly.

This garlic paste can be frozen successfully also. Just place tablespoon sized scoops of the garlic paste on a cling film lined baking sheet, Place in freezer overnight. When the scoops of garlic paste are completely frozen place them in a sealable plastic bag and store them in the freezer. When you need some garlic paste just take out as many of the frozen tablespoonfuls as you need.

Feb 13, 2016

Tips & Tools: When to Grind, Grate, Dice, or Slice Onions

Yes, Bibi's ranting about onions AGAIN.

How and when you cut, chop, grate, grind, slice, or dice onions is an important choice in the layering of flavors in Desi cooking. 

Do you want the onions to meld into the sauce or gravy but still lend a flavorful boost? 

Do you want the onions to retain a bit of bulky texture in your dish while rendering their savory flavor?

Or how about a little of both, fancy that?

All shall be revealed!

When to grind onions to paste-
If you wish thicken gravies*, dals, or chutneys while adding flavor. The onions will not be visually apparent, but their savory boost of flavor will definitely be there.  As you may have noticed I often grind an onion into the marinades, sauces, and chutneys in many of my recipes. This is a Punjabi technique I learned to boost flavor while effortlessly thickening the sauce or gravy. Using flour/maida, cornstarch/corn flour, or besan/gram flour to thicken a gravy can lead to lumps, or cause your dish to solidify or congeal into an unpleasant texture.  (For Westerners- in South Asia people traditionally eat with their hands so dishes are not served piping hot as they are in western countries. Even slight cooling of dishes thickened with flour/maida, besan/gram flour/ or cornstarch/corn flour can cause them to congeal or get stodgy.)

Onions ground to paste in a mixie.
A statement I hear from Indians unfamiliar with the Punjabi technique of grinding onions- 
But Bibi, grinding the onions before cooking will make them bitter! No, I've ground onions before, after, & during cooking for years and I've never had them turn bitter. I've also seen this technique used by cooks at Punjabi dhabas from Srinagar to Delhi. The Michelin starred chef Vikas Khannas and chef Sanjeev Kapoor use ground onions in their recipes too! Onions do not turn bitter if you grind them before, after or during cooking. You can even fry ground onions alone to make a smooth base for a curry.

When to dice or grate onions-
Make onions disappear into dals and cooked chutney by to dicing them finely or grating them. You will taste the onion flavor but they will disintegrate upon cooking & blend with the consistency of the dish. I do this a lot with dals and rajma.

Grated onions.
Finely diced onions.
When and how to slice the onions-
Cut the onions into wedges or half moons if you wish them to retain some of their shape through the cooling process. For a rustic style dish with chunky pieces of translucent onion, slice the onions into wedges.

Onions cut into wedges.
Onions sliced into half moons will retain a bit of their texture as well as carmelize fast and evenly for a dish with a browned onion base.

Onions evenly sliced into half moons.
You can also mix & match any of the above techniques-
I often use fried onions as a base in many of my recipes along one or two ground onions in my marinades and gravies to enhance flavor and thicken curries.

Calmy cooking curry,

* I am using the term 'gravy' in the Desi sense meaning any thickened sauce. South Asians do not typically make gravies using drippings or by deglazing a pan in the Western tradition

Feb 6, 2016

Tips & Tools: A Fracas On Frying Onions

Fried onions are the base of many a savory Desi dish. How one fries the onions largely determines the flavor of curries, biryanis, pulaos, dals, or whatever onion based dish you are making.  Here are some basic "advices" on frying onions:

1) Always fry onions in salted oil. The salt causes the onions to lyse and lose liquid faster. Your onions will cook quicker and more evenly in salted oil.  The only exception to this would be for frying "birista" which are deep fried crispy onions.

2) Do not preheat the oil before putting the onions in the pan to fry. I know lots of Desi recipes instruct you to do this but it usually leads to onions that are scorched on the outside and raw on the inside. Rather put the onions in the pan while the oil is cold and let them soften and fry as the oil heats. Once again the only exception to this is when deep frying onions to make birista.

3) If your onions taste bitter you've burnt them. That could be from cooking them too long or putting the raw onions into oil that's been preheated thus scorching the outside of the onions. Once onions are burnt you may as well just toss them. 

4) If your onions taste raw you have not cooked them enough. Seems simple enough. Cook them some more why don't you?

5) If your onions taste raw and bitter then you've put your onions into oil that is too hot and scorched the outside of them while the inside is left raw. This is not tasty and you can't fix onions when this happens. Just throw them away and start over.

The different stages of frying onions:

Frying onions until they are translucent-  Here are diced onions and sliced onions being fried until just translucent. As you can see they have lost their opacity but have not yet begun to turn brown. This is the base of many lighter dishes such as omelets, dals, and pastel colored curries. This usually takes about 5-7 minutes of frying.

Frying onions until they are just begin  brown- Here you can see the onions have not only lost their opacity but have begun to brown around the edges. This is the base of most vegetable curries, many dals, and most chicken curries. Desi onions usually take about 7-10 minutes to get to this stage, the western yellow onions take a little longer.

Frying onions until they are a deep brown- Here you can see the onions are deeply caramelized to a rich golden brown. This is the rich base of many mutton curries. This takes about 12 to 15 minutes, you better be diligent and stir them or they may cook unevenly. Usually onions are sliced into half moons to help them to fry evenly when this degree of caramelization is required.

Deep fried "birista" onions- These are onions that have been slowly deep fried over a long time and under a watchful eye. Sliced paper thin and then fried to a delicate crisp birista can be made in batches and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for future use. They can lend their slightly sweet and almost smoky flavors and crunch as a topping crumbled over dishes and rice or ground to make a rich caramelized base for any gravy or sauce.

That concludes our onion frying fracas for today. Keep calm & curry on,
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