Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The taste of nature, Palak Paneer

There should be something that comes close to how Nature would taste. Well, people would suggest to eat raw vegetables or eat a carrot that has just been dug up from earth seconds ago. Agreed. But then, there should also be something that will taste as fresh as nature even after cooking. Words are lost in translation and similarly, flavors are lost during cooking. The final palatable dish is a conjuncture of new flavors and not the initial and most of the times we never complain, because that is what we want! Palak Paneer is one subtle item where you want the initial flavor to remain and not get a different modified taste. When you eat a mouth full of palak paneer, you should realize the taste of "green" and the taste of "milk" and there should be nothing else gaudy. There should be no oil oozing out, there should be no spice dominance, it should be green, lush and smooth.
Too many rules eh?! The fascinating fact about cooking palak paneer is, just keep the procedure simple to attain the best result. There is no strain, no hurry. But there needs to be the willingness to get it right.A little science, frying in oil will result in change in flavor and color. And a little irony, oil has to be used anyways!

Clean the fresh palak leaves (Blatt spinat in German) and remove the thick stems. Boil water in a huge vessel and add the uncut leaves to it (remember, add only when the water is boiling). The leaves will get cooked in just over 3 minutes. Drain the water and transfer the cooked leaves to a blender. Don't start blending yet.
Heat just a tablespoon of oil in a pan and saute finely chopped onions, just one small garlic and a similarly sized ginger. Add chopped green chili to this if a little hotness is required. Once the onions are sublime, transfer the contents to the blender and blend along with the spinach to a very fine smooth consistency. Keep aside.

To a cup of water, add cumin powder, coriander powder, a little red chili powder and a drop of turmeric. Mix well, keep it watery and not make into a paste. Heat a little more than half a teaspoon of oil in a pan. Add into it broken cloves(2), slit cardamom(2) and very little cinnamon. Now add the cumin+coriander+chili water into this and allow to cook on medium heat. Add some hand crushed dried kasoori methi (fenugreek) to this. Now transfer the blended spinach mixture into this, wash the blender with little milk to transfer the still sticking spinach. Never increase the heat beyond medium, the slower the cooking, the better. Add fresh cubes of paneer (cottage cheese) into this and allow simmer for a few minutes before taking it off the heat.

More than the do's, there are many do not's in cooking this! Well, experimentalists can always ignore these, but a perfectionist can appreciate. Do not add fried paneer cubes. Do not fry the spice powders directly in oil. Do not use more than few pieces of whole spices. Do not over load garlic. Do not add cashews and raisins. Do not add mint leaves and tomatoes. Oh, and in case I have failed to mention, palak paneer should be green!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Put pressure on the basics, Pongal!

"machi ,here's a blog request machi. hope you are back in shape now and feeling better. since you are still at home, why don't you ask your mom to make pongal and you take pics of that and write a combined blog with your mom!! . i was looking at some recipes online and most of them seem to mess it up like mad. i was thinking of your simple recipe which is super effective. guess these guys don't know what pongal is !!"
                                 - Vivek , 4th September 2010

When I read this mail, I was thinking, how can someone mess up Pongal?! It is one of the easiest traditional breakfast a person can make. Ven Pongal derives its taste and nutritive value from the simple ingredients that go into it and it is best served as a hot steaming breakfast. Even when I am writing this, my visualization takes me to my college canteen where Pongal is served, just the way it should be, with sambar and coconut chutney.

Pongal is one recipe that also depends on "kai manam" or the hand that cooks it. It will taste differently even when cooked with the same ingredients but with a different pair of hands. There is no quantization of the ratios and each person can adapt what his tongue likes. So my recipe is going to be more specific to how I like my pongal and of course which has won the hearts of several people!

Add just one table spoon of ghee (clarified butter) to the pressure cooker. Fry a few cashews until then are golden brown and then add whole black pepper. Add cumin seeds, finely chopped ginger and fresh curry leaves. A pinch of hing and turmeric powder can be added now. Add in 2 cups of rice and half a cup of moong dhal into this and mix well. Add 2 cups of water more than how much the rice will usually consume. That is to say, 8 cups if you use raw rice, 6 cups if you will use basmathi. Add salt and pressure cook until done. Serve with sambar or gotsu and coconut chutney.

After opening the pressure cooker, top up with another spoon on ghee and mix well. Too much of ghee will make the pongal unpalatable and no one wants to sleep right after breakfast! Adding chopped green chili is not advisable at all, it is not pongal anymore! Vary the levels of pepper and ginger to attain different levels of spiciness. Make sure that the rice and lentils get blended well when you cook it. Pongal is smooth, the rice should not be like how is it in vegetable rice. If you are going to make it in an open vessel, then to boiling water, add chopped ginger, black pepper, curry leaves, cumin, hing, turmeric, salt, rice and lentils. Finally when the rice and lentils are cooked, add cashews roasted in a little excess of ghee and mix well. Only in this sequence you will ensure that the rice and lentils gets cooked well. With the pressure cooker, things are different, quick and you can afford to be lazy!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The kissable garlic : Aglio oilo

I was making spaghetti for dinner and I told Prashanth and Ramki “machis, tomorrow you are going to eat spaghetti in Italy. So don’t complain there that it is not as good as my preparation!” and that is exactly what happened. Probably it was just my luck that that particular restaurant in Venice did not serve us well, but as soon as Prashanth uttered those words, we could not stop laughing.

Many people would not eat garlic just because it would impart mouth odor and make it difficult to socialize. But when deep fried, garlic does not impose this restriction. And I am a huge fan of garlic! Who cares if the mouth is going to smell, I cannot restrain myself from garlic fried in ghee or when put in rasam. Me and my sister used to fight over who will get the extra garlic after amma has partitioned and rationed it out for us!

Aglio oilo is a basic simple spaghetti recipe that I would term as the kissable garlic. This is one of my most favorite non creamy and non gravy based spaghetti that can be enjoyed for its pure flavor of garlic and chili without interference from oregano or any other expressive seasoning. I love the olive oily feeling all around my mouth when I eat this.

Heat just a little excess of good olive oil in a pan. Fry finely chopped garlic until it is fried well. Add coarsely ground deseeded green chili paste into this. Toss in a few pieces of red bell pepper or minced celery or both. The red bell pepper and celery are just very optional for people who like some extra vegetables in their plate. Now add the well cooked and strained spaghetti into this and stir. Add salt and sprinkle just a dash of black pepper powder. Mix well so that every spaghetti strand is bathed in olive oil and the garlic pieces are spread well into them. Serve hot with an optional garnish of grated or powdered cheese.

Note: Add at least 5-6 huge pods of garlic. Chop it as finely as possible, but don’t make a paste out of it. Chili can be added as per your levels. 2-3 should be optimum.