Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Corn two ways: roasted bhutta and with potato

As August draws close to an end, I am getting ready to bid adieu to my favorite of the month, the summer corn. When it comes to produce, many people like to think of tomatoes come summer, but for me, it is corn. Especially the freshest fresh corn that one finds in the farmers market. If I could write poems, I would have composed an ode to it by now, but clearly that hasn't happened yet. By the way, frozen or canned do not even come close, and do not enter my thoughts or my kitchen either.

Bhutta: roasted corn

In India, corn or bhutta is usually eaten as a roadside snack, roasted over coal, and then sprinkled with lime and salt, sometimes with red chili powder or spices that would be the vendor's secret, and it is as blissful as it gets. Naturally that is my most favorite way to eat as well as cook corn. First, it needs to be roasted, grilled, or broiled to get evenly dark spots all around. In the meanwhile, in a small plate I take salt, red chili powder, some ghee, and wedges of lime. I dip a lime wedge into ghee, then into the salt and chili powder, and rub it all over the corn. Simple and elegant. Occasionally, I chhidkao (sprinkle) some chaat masala too.

In contrast in America, corn is usually a side as part of a meal or used as an ingredient. My introduction to it, of all places, was in the workplace cafeteria, where it was served alongside my entree. Boiled, and slathered with salted butter, it tasted like nothing I had eaten before. I was completely hooked. Corn here is indeed quite something - tender, succulent, sweet, delicious.

Usually every summer after I have had one corn on the cob too many, there are a couple of them in the fridge that need to be used up, and that is when I turn to one of my favorite dishes made with corn and potato. It is based on a recipe from the book 'Indian Cooking' written by Madhur Jaffrey and is called 'bhutta aur aloo ki mazedar tarkari', which roughly translates to 'a delicious corn and potato vegetable dish'. As with most of Jaffrey's recipes, I increase the amount of chili powder in it slightly. It can be served with rotis, or rice and dal, or eaten by itself.

Bhutta aur Aloo
Corn and Aloo Sabji

Serves 3-4

3 Tablespoons oil
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 medium potato, boiled and diced
1 medium tomato, chopped
4 Tablespoons chopped cilantro
3 Tablespoons chopped mint
1 green chili, chopped
2 cups of corn (roughly from two cobs)
about 1/2 cup coconut milk
salt to taste
3/4 teaspoon red chili powder
1 Tablespoon lime juice (about 1/2 a lime)
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground roasted cumin

In a kadhai or wok, heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add the cumin seeds, followed by the garlic and potatoes. Stir fry till the potatoes start to turn golden brown. Add the tomato, cilantro, mint, and green chili. Stir around for a couple of minutes, and then add the corn and coconut milk. Stir it to make sure it doesn't stick to the pan. Lower the heat if needed and cook for a few minutes until the corn is cooked. Add the remaining ingredients one by one.


I don't always add the mint.

Sometime I substitute the coconut milk with whole milk or half and half.

Instead of using a regular potato, I sometimes use about four fingerling potatoes if I have them on hand, and it makes the dish even more wonderful.

A note on coconut milk

In the good old days, coconut milk could have meant only one thing, and that is the milky extract got out of freshly scraped or shredded coconut.

Fast forward to this day and age and there are several easier options available, which are not a patch on the real thing, but unfortunately it is not always possible to get down to making your own when one is constrained for time and when the coconut available itself isn't that great.

So in order of preference, my choices are:

1. Fresh coconut milk, extracted out of a freshly shredded coconut
2. Coconut milk extracted out of frozen shredded coconut
3. Canned coconut milk or powdered coconut cream dissolved in water - depending on the usage, I prefer one over the other.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Power of Sugar


It is time to celebrate, as Manisha of Indian Food Rocks, sent me this pretty pink 'Rockin' Girl Blogger' award, which is easily my first award in the world of blogging. Even though it would take a good stretch of the imagination to call me a girl anymore, I love it. I also really don't see myself so much as a blogger as much as someone who has a blog - is there a subtle difference? I still love it. Thanks, Manisha.


In the tradition of passing on the awards, I started making a list of people I would have liked to send it on to, and the list kept growing, so I pared it down a lot.

Even though both my favorite food blogs incidentally also have some guy power associated with them, this is specially for the women, Melissa of The Travelers Lunchbox and Nicky of Delicious Days.

With so much professional acclaim and press to their credit, I am a complete nobody to give them an award, but this is a token of my appreciation for the huge inspiration that they were to me, and for all the things I am continuously learning from their sites. So I am sending it over to them anyway.

This was also a perfect chance to sing their praises. Detailed crisp writing and the dreamy photographs are what drew me to 'The Travelers Lunchbox', and have kept me there, making me come back, again and again.

To add to all of this, her recipes are excellent. Like this flourless chocolate cake that I made for a potluck dinner that a friend had hosted. Luscious.

'mise en place' for Flourless chocolate cake

Flourless chocolate cake

Her Avocado Milkshake (you read that right) and Pesto Rosso are amazingly good too.

With Nicky's blog, first those photographs hooked me, but once I started reading her posts, it was her attempts to recreate German classics, including those from her grandma's kitchen, that struck a chord with me, as it resonated to a great extent to the way I sometimes try to reach out to my roots via food. From her site, I chose these Sponge Cake Rolls, that I made half with strawberry jam and half with an Alfonso mango jam.

Jam Rolls, still unrolled

Jam Rolls, just rolled and cut

Jam Rolls, finished

If you are not already lost in their site, I recommend this Bircher Müesli too.

Last but not least, I want to pass it to desiknitter, who doesn't yack about food like me, but instead knits knits knits and keeps a lively blog full of interesting episodes in her life. Although, sometimes she slips, and talks about food too. Try that raw mango chutney, it's the best.

kairichi chatni

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Celebrating with Poori and Batata bhaaji

baTATyAchi bhAji ANI pUri

Last year, I was in Delhi for several days under some trying circumstances. Since the reason for being there was grim and important, meals were the least of our priorities, and we ate as and when there was time.

The only constant in the day used to be the breakfast in the hotel. The spread was average fare like cereals, toast, fruit, and hah, poori and potato bhaji, or sabji. When I saw that on the first day, I was shocked. Poori bhaji for breakfast? I ate cereal and some toast with orange marmalade. The next day it was alu paratha, and that is only half as bad, but it looked too good to resist, so I ate one. The following day, the poori bhaji appeared again, and we soon found out that these two things alternated there recurrently. I made peace with the alu paratha, but never really got used to the idea of having poori bhaji for breakfast.

For me, poori bhaji has associations of being as part of a meal, usually a festive one, when the dessert is most likely to be shreekhand, or basundi, or aamras in mango season.

BaTaTyachi bhAji

This type of bhaji is made very commonly as part of an everyday meal, and would be outright comfort food with some varan bhaat, but when accompanied by pooris it becomes something special.

Just batata bhaji

I like to use Yukon gold potatoes for this. Just because this is a traditional recipe and precious to me, I wouldn't use red skinned or other fancy potatoes in this one, but I don't see why that wouldn't work either. Sometimes the garlic is omitted, especially if following some religious restrictions, and at other times some chopped onion is added to the bhaji as well.

For 2-3 side servings


4-5 medium sized potatoes
4 cloves of garlic
an inch long piece of garlic
4-5 small green chilies (adjust depending on size of chili or preferred degree of heat)
3-4 Tablespoons oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
good pinch of asafoetida
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
10-15 curry leaves
salt to taste, about 1-1/2 teaspoons
3/4 teaspoon sugar
2-5 Tablespoons of fresh grated coconut (about a handful)
4 Tablespoons of chopped cilantro leaves


Boil the potatoes. This can be done in a pressure cooker too. Peel and chop them into medium sized chunks. Grind the ginger, garlic and green chilies together without to form a rough paste.

Heat the oil, and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add the asafoetida, turmeric, curry leaves, potatoes, the paste, salt, and sugar. Stir everything together, lowering the heat if required. Since the potatoes are already fully cooked, stir it just enough to coat it with the spices and heat through. Sprinkle the coconut and cilantro on top.

Poori thali

Poori bhaji served with varan, bhaat and tuup, along with a cool and crunchy gajarachi koshimbir (carrot and peanut salad), apple and figs chutney, and fried poha papad. Rest assured that in the Indian style of eating this is only the first serving, and depending on what one likes, there are seconds, and thirds even.

With this version from our part of the country, I join the Mad Tea Party's Poori Bhaji fest, which already has a good recipe for the pooris too.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Ma-po Tofu

Ma po tofu

Some things begin with a plan, and others happen at random. This time it started with a packet of tofu that was getting close to its expiration date. Tofu and I share a strange relation. When I see it in the store or in some recipe I feel very inspired but then it languishes in the fridge for a while before I start reminding myself to use it up in the intended recipe. Usually it lands up in a Thai curry with some other vegetables of choice, but this time, I had eaten Thai for lunch just the day before, so I wasn't feeling enthused about it.

While searching through my collection of favorites I decided on this 'Tofu stir-fried with basil' which I hadn't made in a long time and which I know is fantastic. On a whim, I thought I'd check if anything else catches my fancy on that site, which, by the way, has several really good Southeast Asian style recipes. When I saw the 'Ma Po Tofu', that was it. That gorgeous color in the photo of the dish caught my attention, and the recipe sounded so unbelievably simple that I had to try it. Plan changed, for the better. This recipe is just awesome, an absolute winner.

You could use the original recipe just as it is, with the chef's witty add-ons and informative notes. Sichuan pepper is called as tirphaL in Konkani and Marathi, and is not in any way related to the churna of the same name. If you have it, use it. This is what I did, following the recipe as closely as I could, which is why I have kept most of the instructions as they are.


Firm Tofu - 270 gm, about half of a standard block
3 Tablespoons oil
1.5 Tablespoons chili bean paste
2 teaspoons fermented (preserved) black beans
5-10 dried or fresh red chilies
(I used 5 fresh red Thai chilies, and that was decently spicy enough for me)
1/2 cup water or stock
pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with a Tablespoon of water
white pepper to taste
1 or 2 spring onions (scallions), to yield about 2 Tablespoons


Heat the oil in a non-stick skillet or wok.

Cut off about a fifth of the tofu, and crumble with fingers or fork. Add this to the oil and let it fry until golden brown in color.

In the meanwhile cut the remaining tofu into 1/2 to 1 inch pieces. Chop the scallion into rings, using the white and green portion.

Move the fried tofu to one side of the pan, so the oil can drain back into the middle of the wok. Turn the heat down to medium. Add the chili bean paste and stir-fry for 30 seconds. The oil should turn red. Add the fermented black beans and red chillies and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Add the water or stock and stir it in.

As it starts to form a sauce, gently add the cut tofu to the liquid. Don't stir-fry this too much or the tofu could break apart. Try to hold the pan by its long handle and gently shake it back and forth.

Add the sugar and light soy sauce. Turn the heat down and simmer the mixture for about 5 minutes.

Depending on how thick the sauce is at this stage, stir in some of the cornstarch-water mixture and turn up the heat to medium. The sauce should start to thicken. Add more of the mixture and cook till the sauce has the consistency slightly more runny than tomato ketchup. It should cling to the tofu.

Stop the cooking at this stage, add some of the spring onions and white pepper. Serve with the remaining spring onions garnished on top.

The perfect accompaniment to this would be plain white or brown rice, and any type of sauteed greens, to add a vegetable component to the meal.

For that, here is a bonus recipe:

Sauteed Green Beans and Cashews

Stack together some tender green beans and trim off the ends. Heat oil in a wide skillet, add a couple of cloves of minced garlic, a broken dried red chili or two, a handful of cashews, the beans, salt, and cook for a few minutes. Add some soy sauce and toss together for another two minutes.

This dish might sound simple, but it tastes absolutely fabulous.

About Express Cooking

Spicy sauces for ma po tofu

If I have to cook while time is at a premium, I am most likely to turn to something that does not need a precise recipe, like pasta with whatever-is-in-the-fridge, or eggs, or something that I have made so many times that I know exactly what it involves. Trying out a new recipe for which I have to refer to something is best left for when there is plenty of time.

This Mapo tofu scores some more points because this was the first time I made it, I had to refer to the printout, and yet it took less than 20 minutes. As if that wasn't enough, it is made without using anything frozen, leftover, or canned. Just the tofu itself and the couple of sauces are ready-made.

By using multiple burners, all three components of this meal can be cooked together to create a healthy balanced meal for the Express Cooking event.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Among my favorite tools

Serrated Bread Knife

Serrated bread knifeA good bread deserves a good bread knife. This is such a simple little thing, that I was hesitant to create a post just for it. I am however often surprised at how many people do not have a bread knife or even know about it, so I thought it deserves a mention. It is not something I grew up with, because bread did not play a big role in our food in India, unsliced loaves even more so, and I am sure there are innumerable people for whom that is true too.

If you like artisan bread or bake your own bread, you probably have one already. If not, it is something I would highly recommend. It is a superb tool that will serve you for a long time. In my case, it is one of those things that I bought without knowing how much use I would get out of it, but looking back it has been an excellent functional purchase.

There, I told you this post didn't have much else.
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