One percent of India and bowl of dal, please.

The first hint that I would never truly tame Indian food came early on in my cooking education. Having run out of storebought garam masala, I decided to grind my own from a spice collection that had, by then, grown quite large. I confidently turned to my cookbooks and pulled down Indian Cooking by Madhur Jaffey, which listed one recipe. Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni listed two recipes. 1000 Indian Recipes by Neelam Batra listed five recipes. Then I picked up The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi, which listed a staggering eight recipes. None of the recipes I found were alike, and that was just the first four books I pulled. I could have wept cardamom pods.

Spinach moong masoor dalEventually I followed Sahni’s advice and made two garam masalas, one a delicate cardamom-based masala for yogurt and cream dishes, and the other a hearty cumin- and coriander-based masala for onion and tomato dishes. But the garam masala was only my first lesson in humility. The full scope of my ignorance became even more apparent as food blogs exploded and talented Indian cooks posted about their native foods with an authenticity and skill that I will never achieve. At one time I thought I could conquer 10 percent of Indian cuisine. The vastness of India and its countless regional and personal variations killed that hope. Now I’m shooting for an ambitious one percent. Wish me luck.

However much I don’t know about Indian food, I can still write about it with love. Mystery is as good in food as it is in lovers; it keeps you on your toes. Sometimes I take a break from Indian cooking. When I come back to it I always wonder why I ever left. I never tire of cumin seeds oozing streams of tiny bubbles in hot oil, onions darkening into shades of burnished oak and maple, and turmeric invading the weave of my apron no matter how I try to keep it clean. It’s a fabulous time. Here’s one of my favorite recipes; I hope you love it too.

SPINACH MOONG MASOOR DAL
Serves 2 as a meal, 4 as a side
Adapted from a recipe from Spice of India in Kitchener, Ontario

This was posted on an online cooking forum as “the best dal ever.” The poster tells me that it’s from an Indian grocery store owned by a Gujarti woman. I don’t know if it’s the best dal ever, but it’s my personal favorite because of the addition of silky baby spinach. It makes fantastic leftovers, so much so that I almost never eat this the day I make it. You can serve this with yogurt, breads, or any sides you’d like, but I love it just as it is, slurped hot from a spoon. The recipe doubles easily.

Ingredients:
· 1/2 cup red lentils (masoor dal)
· 2 Tablespoons split hulled green mung lentils (moong dal)
· 1 3/4 cups water
· 2 Tablespoons ghee or oil
· 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
· 1 medium tomato, diced
· 1/4 teaspoon whole cumin seed
· 3/4 teaspoon salt
· 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
· 1/2 teaspoon garam masala
· 1/2 teaspoon teaspoon ground chili pepper or to taste
· 1/2 teaspoon amchur (dried green mango) or 1 teaspoon lemon juice
· 6 ounces baby spinach (more or less is fine)

1) Pick over the lentils and remove shriveled bits and pebbles. Rinse thoroughly until the water runs clear. Drain.

2) Place lentils in a medium pot with the water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and keep lentils at a gentle simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Add some hot water if the mixture seems too thick. Keep in mind that lentils thicken a bit after cooling, so keeping the pot just a bit on the watery side is best.

3) While the lentils cook, place a medium pan on medium heat. Heat the ghee until it shimmers, then add the cumin seeds. They should sizzle immediately. After about 15 seconds, add the onion slices and fry, stirring frequently, until they turn sticky and brown.

4) Add the diced tomato to the onions and cook until the tomato disintegrates. Add the remaining spices and cook until the mixture becomes pasty and thick, several more minutes.

5) When the lentils are tender (this takes 20-30 minutes), add the spinach to the lentils and stir, working in batches if necessary so that the spinach wilts and makes room for additional spinach. Pour the onion/tomato mixture into the lentils and spinach, stir well, then cover and let sit for a few minutes to cook the spinach and develop flavors. Taste and adjust for salt before serving.

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bullet Link du jour
Mallika at Quick Indian Cooking recently posted a recipe for a similar Dhal Palak (spinach lentils).

New Spice Girl: Sick Spice.

My friend complained about morning sickness due to her pregnancy recently. That gave me an idea. I taste-tested combinations of nausea and gas-fighting spices (plus just plain delicious spices) to create a tea with complex flavor, tickling warmth, and stomach-soothing effects. It’s probably not accurate to call this a chai tea—I drew on Korean ginger tea and non-Indian spices too—but it tastes like a powerful chai that heats you to your core, unlike those watery concoctions that you often get at coffee shops. The only ingredient left in the air was the tea itself. I called my friend to check if she wanted tea leaves. She declined, saying that she wanted to avoid caffeine during the pregnancy.

TEXTThen she dropped the bomb. “I’m feeling fine now.”

What? But I’m making you tea!”

“I don’t have nausea anymore.”

“None at all?”

“No.”

“Not even a little?”

“No.”

“Oh. Well…maybe we’ll get lucky and you’ll feel sick again later.”

My friendship skills could use some work. But hey, at least the tea’s good. I sent her six packets of tea and other congratulatory gifts, including a jar of precious Asian pear jelly with Tahitian vanilla bean (friendship requires sacrifice), and a Matisse card filled with congratulations in my chicken scratch penmanship. Thank God the Internet doesn’t require me to handwrite this blog or you wouldn’t be reading Bon Appegeek, you’d be reading Dom Happegook, which is a completely different kind of blog and way more interesting.

So here it is, a tea for nausea, upset stomach, post-legume-intake “issues,” or just plain enjoying for the sake of it. Advice on making this into a gift follows the recipe. Yields 1 mug of tea, about 1 1/2 cups.

TEXTSPICE TEA FOR EXPECTANT FRIENDS WHO MAY OR MAY NOT BE NAUSEATED, OR FOR YOU. I’M SORRY ABOUT THE REDUNDANCY IN THIS RECIPE TITLE IF YOU ARE MAKING THIS FOR YOU AND ALSO HAPPEN TO BE AN EXPECTANT FRIEND WHO MAY OR MAY NOT BE NAUSEATED.

Ingredients (all optional & flexible):
· 4 cloves
· 3 green cardamom pods
· 2-6 white peppercorns (hot!)
· 2 allspice berries
· 1-2 “petals” star anise
· 1/4 tsp cassia bits
     OR a piece of cinnamon stick
· 1/4 scant teaspoon cracked anise
· 1/4 scant teaspoon fennel
· 1-2 teaspoons loose black tea leaves
· 1/8-inch slice fresh ginger
     OR chunk of candied ginger
· 1 tablespoon sugar or honey, or to taste
· 2-4 tablespoons milk or cream

1) Grind all spices except ginger in a grinder until somewhat fine, about 10 seconds. (You can leave the spices whole or bruise them, but the tea’s intensity drops sharply.) Don’t worry if large pieces of cardamom pod remain. Pour the spices and the tea leaves into a teabag such as T-Sac unbleached paper filters size 1 or 2. (Or use a very fine sieve to strain the spices from the tea later.) Fold the teabag down twice and staple or tie it shut.

2) Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a very small pot. Use less water if you’d like to add extra milk or cream, more water if you’re using a wide pot because the water will evaporate faster. Ultimately you want to end up with about 1 1/2 cups of liquid, so keep an eye on the water level and add some if necessary. Add the teabag plus the ginger.

3) Boil gently for 10-15 minutes, occasionally pressing the teabag lightly to release flavors.

4) Remove teabag. Add the milk or cream and heat the tea until it’s as hot as you’d like. Pour tea into a mug and add sugar or honey to taste. Ginger can be eaten or discarded.

To give tea as a gift:

1) A tablespoon of dry skim milk can be added to the teabag if your friend doesn’t often keep milk on hand, as mine doesn’t. Staple the teabag twice because the milk tends to foam up. You will need a size 2 bag if you also add tea leaves.

2) For multiple teabags it would be faster to do all the spices in one large batch, but the proportions in each bag may be off. I prefer to make one bag at a time.

3) Wrap the teabags in an airtight bag. Wrap candied ginger in a separate airtight bag to keep its moisture from affecting the spices. Include brewing instructions. Make a note to your friend that ground spices lose their potency quickly, so bottoms up!

With all due pain,
Dom Happegook

Paneer frontier.

Why would I, a non-Indian food blogger, write about Indian food when you could easily read about it on blogs written by Indians? I’ll tell you why: I, unlike most Indians, harness the power of the Germans. As a Korean-American who likes to make Indian cheese with German ingredients for use in Italian dishes, I’m one step shy of hosting a United Nations conference in my own kitchen. Curiosity piqued? Read on.

Paneer is a fresh cheese used in savory dishes like mutter paneer (peas and paneer in a rich red sauce) or in sweet treats like the divine ras malai. Fresh paneer can be pressed to create a texture similar to that of firm (not silken) tofu for savory dishes or kneaded with sugar to a soft smooth texture for use in desserts. You’ll often see advice to substitute firm tofu for pressed paneer if you don’t have paneer on hand. In my opinion, paneer has an unmistakable fresh dairy flavor that tofu’s, er, tofuiness lacks, but in a flavorful dish like saag paneer that may be acceptable.

[Pictured: Sheet of pressed paneer cubed with a pizza cutter.]

paneer

Paneer is easy to make but takes time. Basically you boil milk, add an acid, strain out the curds, and press the curds. Exact methods vary. Some people boil the milk for a while, others bring the milk just to a boil, some take the milk off the heat after adding the acid, some boil the milk with the acid for a while, and so on. Unless you need an especially soft paneer to use in a dessert, I find that the exact method doesn’t matter much. What does matter is the acid you use—either white vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, yogurt, or whey left over from a previous batch of paneer.

Whey supposedly yields the softest paneer, but since I make paneer only a few times a year, I don’t generally have leftover whey on hand. Yogurt is an interesting suggestion that I haven’t tried because one of the greatest draws of homemade paneer is that it’s dirt cheap, and the cost of the yogurt used often exceeds the cost of the milk to make the paneer. When I’ve made homemade yogurt I’d rather just eat it or use it in other dishes. Citrus juices add a pleasant sour flavor but can also add to the price of the paneer unless you have a lemon tree. White vinegar adds that disctintive acetic acid flavor plus a trace paint thinner taste, probably because white vinegar is only about 5% acid, leaving 95% Something Else. Other vinegars such as red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or ::gasp:: balsamic vinegar have flavor profiles that are just, well, wrong.

Which brings us to the Germans. Koreans often use vinegar in many kinds of namul, vegetable side dishes served with rice. At some point many Korean-Americans (not sure about Koreans) started using Surig, a high-acid German vinegar with a clean, pure flavor superior to that of distilled white vinegar. If you don’t have a German grocer, try looking for Surig at the Korean grocer. Because of the high acidity, you need only about a fourth or a fifth the amount of Surig that you’d need of white vinegar, giving you less Something Else to add off-flavors to your paneer. I recommend it for use in savory dishes where the acetic acid flavor won’t be a problem. In sweet dishes I’d stick to lemon or lime juice. Failing that, white vinegar works just fine, but you’ll no longer be welcome in German Club. Nein!

EIN PANEER REZEPT, JA!
Makes about 4 cups of lightly packed half-inch paneer cubes

Special equipment:
· Big pot
· Colander
· Cheesecloth
· Something heavy, preferably not alive

Ingredients:
· 1 gallon lowfat (2%) milk, allowed to come to room temperature (optional, but saves time)
· 1 tablespoon Surig, maybe more,
     OR 4 tablespoons white distilled vinegar, maybe more,
     OR the juice of 2 lemons, maybe more,
     OR the juice of 3 limes, maybe more

1) Line a large colander with 4 layers of cheesecloth cut large enough to dangle generously over the edges. Place in sink.

2) Pour milk into a large pot with at least 3 inches of spare space above the milk. You’ll thank me for this extra space later. Bring milk to a boil on medium heat. High heat may burn the milk and make a funky paneer (bad funky, not good funky), so err on the side of lower heat. A non-stick pan helps if you have one that big. Stir frequently.

3) When the milk boils and starts to foam up but not over your generous 3-inch margin of safety (you’re welcome), blow hard on the milk to keep the foam under control, then add your acid. Stir for about 15 seconds. The solids should separate out and leave behind a greenish translucent whey. If you don’t see that greenish color and a distinct separation of solids and liquids, add a bit more acid and stir again for 15 seconds. Repeat as needed. Results will vary depending on the kind of milk you use and the acid employed.

4) After the curds and whey have separated, turn off the heat and carefully pour the contents of the pot into the lined colander. Let the visible whey drain out for several minutes, then carefully pull up the edges of the cheesecloth and lift up your paneer to drain some more. At this point some people like to tie up the corners of the cloth into something resembling one of those packs that hobos always carry on sticks in old cartoons and hang the paneer up to drain. I’m lazy and prefer to go straight to the pressing step.

5) Place the cheesecloth on a flat surface such as a heat-proof cutting board and carefully cover the paneer with even layers of the cheesecloth edges, lifting and shaping the paneer into a flat rectangle as you do so. Slide one edge of the cutting board over the sink then place a folded towel under the other edge to slightly slant the board so that the whey drains into the sink. Place a large flat item such as a plate or a tray on top of the paneer, then place a heavy weight on top of that, making sure the paneer is being pressed flat and level. I use barbell weights, but some people like Encyclopedia Britannica volumes A through H. Whatever you use, let the paneer flatten and drain for a few hours. The longer its pressed, the firmer the paneer will be.

6) Remove the paneer from the cheesecloth and cut into desired shapes and sizes. Store paneer in refrigerator or freeze for future use, though it’s best fresh. Many recipes call for frying the cubes in ghee, but I consider that an optional step unless the paneer will be eaten plain.

Flavored paneer: You can add salt and other herbs and spices to the paneer. Mix them in with the crumbled paneer before pressing. Yum.

Different milks: Whole milk yields softer, richer paneer; skim milk yields grainy, rubbery paneer. Lowfat milk is a good compromise between flavor and health.

Reduced batches: The recipe can easily be halved, quartered, maybe even reduced some more. If you have milk on the brink of going bad, this is a great way to use it up.

On whey: According to King Arthur Flour, leftover whey is highly nutritious and due to its acidic nature has an effect like buttermilk or vinegar in baking. More information and a recipe. To save some whey, put your colander over a large heatproof container to catch the draining liquid. Lift the colander up and out of the whey, remove the container, then continue as directed. Things will be hot, so use caution.

Nutrition: According to New Indian Home Cooking by Madhu Gadia, each 1/2 cup of paneer cubes (an eighth of this batch) made with lowfat milk has 160 calories, 4 g carbs, 16 g protein, 9 g fat, and 36 mg cholesterol.

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bullet Food link recommendation
· My favorite Germany-based food blog, written in English: the gorgeous delicious days.
· My favorite Indian food blog, written in English by an Indian living in the U.S.: Mahanandi, frequently updated with amazing recipes and Indian food facts.