Cooking without Recipes!

Long Beans and Japanese Eggplant

Following is an “impromptu” dish that I cook up during many of my “Little India Shop and Cook” classes.  Impromptu – because we add to the recipe whatever we find at the market that is good and interesting, or fosters a lot of interest in the students.

I have seen Long Beans in either Chinatown or Indian grocery stores – and so I always pick them up.  The same goes for Japanese eggplants.Long Beans

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A Pinch of Salt

There has been much talk in the press about salt lately.

As a chef instructor (and an avid home cook), I have often found myself saying that salt is very important in cooking.  It brings out the flavor of everything, and I mean everything.  A pinch of salt can bring things to life.  A little salt can make a tomato taste more like a tomato; a piece of meat will lack depth of flavor without salt.

I am talking about the salt we ourselves add to our foods (always kosher salt in my case) – not the salt in processed foods.

This morning I learned that there is a quarter of a day’s recommended salt requirement in a serving of low-fat cottage cheese.  That is absolutely insane!  Who knew?  Did you know?  I didn’t know!

I don’t know how to offer a solution to all this salt intake except to say that this is yet another reason to cook most of our meals from scratch.  I am no scientist, but I can almost guarantee that if you cook your meals from scratch – you can add salt with abandon, and probably not get as much salt as you might – if you opened ONE can of what you might think is a good for you’ soup.

Jamie Oliver said, and I paraphrase very badly here – “Americans eat like we are hiding in a fallout shelter somewhere – opening cans of this and cryovak-ed bags of that.”

Cook your own meals – will you, please!

The New York Times article that will now cause angst even when I eat something as benign as cottage cheese.

Agree with me?  Disagree with me?

Have tips about reducing salt intake?

Let me know.


Cilantro Always Makes an Appearance In All of My Cooking Classes

Having taught Indian cooking to discerning New Yorkers for the past 10 years, I have conducted my own informal poll on those who fall into the cilantro loving team and those who fall into the cilantro disliking team.

A Typical Indian Grocery Store In New York

Having grown up in India where almost every meal must’ve had some version of cilantro, and or cilantro seeds (coriander) in it – I was surprised when I met the first student who turned her nose up to a beautiful bunch of cilantro that I showed everyone in class.  She said that it tasted like soap.  “Really?”  I was dumbfounded.  From then on I started asking every group that I taught about their feelings towards cilantro.  Inevitably, in a group of 10 to 12 students one person said that it tasted like soap to them.  If there wasn’t that someone in that group; there was always one who knew someone who didn’t care for cilantro.

There must be something to it – I told myself.  Today’s article in the New York Times written by Harold McGee tries to explain that aversion to cilantro.

My most scary experience with Cilantro!

I had a catering client for whom I cooked for many years.  She was an excellent client and I joke that she helped pay most of my bills for almost 5 years, and so I did my best to keep her happy and satisfied.  One of the first dinners I did in her home was a Home-style Indian meal.  I was excited and terrified at the same time.  She was a force to reckon with and also so very important to my bottom line.  I was getting everything ready; the 40 to 50 guests had arrived and were enjoying their cocktails and anticipating the delicious meal that was on its way to the buffet table.  As I got the appetizer trays ready, the heady aroma of the Basmati rice was filling the kitchen and wafting into the living room.  I also had the lamb curry heating up and the lentils ready to get the tadka at the last-minute.  I made sure the cilantro was washed, dried and chopped in various degrees of chopped-ness ready to stir into dishes and garnish others.  Needless to say, the kitchen was in full swing and buzzing.

I turned around and Mrs. Most-Important Client’s assistant was standing right there.  She told me everything looked and smelled so good.  I had a bunch of cilantro in my hand and she told me casually – “Mrs. Most Important Client is allergic to cilantro.”  My mouth dropped and the color probably left my face.  “Really, she is allergic to Cilantro!

But I had learned that Indian food is one of her favorite foods, with Mexican being a close second, “and you told me a list of her favorite restaurants.  How does she eat there if she is allergic to cilantro?!”  As I was saying all this to her assistant – my mind was visualizing all the dishes I had on the menu.  Other than the dessert, everything has some version of cilantro in it.  I wanted to sit down with my head in my hands, but a caterer can never do that.  She just has to make it work and do it with a smile.

I repeated the question again, “Is she allergic to cilantro, really?”  Hoping for a different answer this time.  Mrs. Most Important Client’s assistant nodded her head, clearly feeling my pain.  I took a deep breath and said, “I wish I had known this before but no problem, I will come up with something.”  I wrapped the bunch of cilantro I was holding in my hand into a damp towel to keep it fresh and also to hide it from my sight, so I coul think for a moment.

I contemplated sending someone out and buying some onions, tomatoes, and chicken or fish and quickly making up a chicken curry for Mrs. Most Important.   Then I thought of the list of her favorite Indian restaurants again.  Having eaten in most of them I knew that they all had cilantro in most of their dishes.  Mrs. Important is important but not that important that they would make a whole cilantro free meal from her each time she came in.  Moreover, a lot of Indian dishes that are stew like (curries) need to be cooked ahead of time – so their flavors are intense and robust.

Then I got it!  She just doesn’t like cilantro, and wasn’t allergic to it at all.  The assistant confirmed that.  I was pissed at the use of the word allergic but more relieved than anything else.  Mrs. Important didn’t want to see the cilantro in her food, but was okay with eating it when it was hidden in food.

I think that goes for most people who dislike cilantro.  I have no way of proving that – just a hunch.

Please feel free to disagree with me and make comments.  I like that.

The dinner was a success and most things were garnished with fresh mint instead of cilantro.  I continued to cook for Mrs. Important for many more years to come.  So I must’ve done something right.

Cooking for kids – little S in particular

A Simple Lunch with so much to prove!

Until I came to the United States at the age of 16, I had never heard of special meals for kids – except maybe for really small kids who had 2 teeth or less.
We got to eat everything that the adults were eating.
I feel bad for kids who are made to eat “special” food because I don’t think that it is special at all.

More often than not, it is tasteless, unhealthy and the flavors are one-dimensional. Things like chicken fingers, french fries and plain spaghetti – are not an adequate representation of all the food that exists in the world. It is certainly not the way to begin one’s foray into the world of all that is edible.

There is not just the taste and the nutrition (or lack of) that bothers me about kids’ meals – it is also the major disservice that parents are doing to the child’s gastronomic life. Kids might learn to be picky eaters if they are offered choices different from what the adults are eating.  All the tip toeing around, and fear that parents express while the child eats something, or not, gives the child a sense of unhealthy control.

I wish parents would present a variety of food in various forms; and as something to be grateful and excited about. Not a chore, not a struggle, and certainly not a fight.

While I do not have kids – I was a kid once and have been around plenty of kids both in India and in the United States. So, based on those experiences and very strong opinions – I deal with kids – both personally and professionally (as a cooking teacher).

Now to the story that prompted me to write this post:

At the last moment I was asked to entertain/babysit my friend’s 6 year old.  “What am I going to feed her,” was my first thought.  Food always happens to be my first thought.  It was so last minute that I had no time to go out and purchase anything.  I also wanted to conduct my own experiment on her.  I am crazy like that – what can I say!

The statements about scared parents who try to act like short order cooks in their own homes is partially based on my friend M and her daughter S.  “She is the most picky eater,” my friend tells me all the time.  I roll my eyes every time I am on the phone with her and think to myself, “If only I had S to myself for a few days, I would show her that she doesn’t have to be a picky eater.”

M always say that S refuses to eat anything green ever.  I have met other kids like that, who shun green.  I vowed to myself that I am going to make S eat something green; not forcefully or by sneaking it into something like a french fry.  I am going to trick her.  Yes, trickery is the best policy here.  But its for S’s own good, I rationalized.

A Rule: Start small (works for adults too).  If someone won’t eat anything green, don’t set yourself and the other to fail by expecting them to eat a salad!

It was around Easter and bunnies were on everyone’s mind.  I used that to my advantage.  When S was left under my care and the door to the apartment closed with M on the other side of it, I told S that I was so hungry.  I asked her if she would stay with me in the kitchen while I cooked myself some lunch.  She agreed and I opened the cupboard and began staring at it and mumbling that I didn’t know what to eat.

I had strategically placed this box right in front on the shelf.

“Why don’t you eat some macaroni and cheese,” suggested S.

“That’s such a great idea – I love mac and cheese and peas,” I said with exaggerated excitement.

S looked at me as if I had just told her that Miley Cyrus was a boy and not a girl (I am not sure if 6 year olds are into Miley Cyrus – but you get the point).  She appeared shocked but didn’t say a word.

I pulled down the box and also a box of sardines.  S took a step back.

I put some water to boil and chatted with S about her day and how school was going, etc.  Then I looked at the box and said, “Aw, look at the bunny in the picture – but bunnies don’t eat pasta.  That is so silly”.  I kept blabbering and telling her about my friend L’s bunny who I take care of sometimes.  “He eats nothing but some parsley, dill and basil –  with 2 baby carrots as a treat.”

The water came to a boil and I put in the pasta; I opened the freezer and took out the peas and put them next to the sardines.  So far I was just making lunch for myself as far as S was concerned – I hadn’t suggested to S that she eat some with me or asked if she was hungry, and what would she like, etc.  When about 2 minutes were left for the pasta to be cooked, I threw in a handful of peas without hesitation.  I stirred the pasta and peas and set up the colander in the sink to drain them in a couple of minutes.

I pulled out the 2 percent milk from the refrigerator and opened the can of sardines and drained the oil out.  After the pasta and peas were drained, I put them back in the same pot right away and poured 1/2 cup of milk and stirred in the cheese packet.  As it was simmering, I picked up the empty box and said that I feel bad that the bunnies don’t get to have what they really eat, in my lunch bowl.  “O, I do have some parsley!”  I picked a few leaves and held them up like a bunch of flowers.  “Could you hold these for me while I stir the pot again?”

My lunch was ready, I put a little more than half in my bowl and said to S that it was too much for me to eat.  Would she like to try some, I asked her.  “Sure,” I was told.  I scraped the rest of the mac and cheese and peas (green) in her bowl and told her to decorate the bowls with the parsley since we eat with our eyes first.  She looked at her hand with the parsley “bouquet” and stuck a few leaves on her bowl and a few on mine.

“That looks pretty, lets eat.  O, I forgot my sardines.”  I put three of the four on my bowl and ate one standing over the sink as I was soaking the pot for rapid clean up later.  I wasn’t about to push my luck and get into eating sardines – I was going to keep it simple and get her to eat green things.  Peas and parsley in this case.

We sat on the table and ate – S with her mac and cheese and peas and parsley; me with my mac and cheese and peas and parsley and sardines and a dollop of Siracha hot sauce.

Mission accomplished!

Street Foods of India – Gol Gappas, in particular

May 1st, 2009

I am so excited because I taught the Street Foods of India class again. Once again it was a hit amongst the students. I had a great time too.

What made me the happiest was the ease with which all the students accepted Gol Gappas.

A gol gappa or pani puri is a round, hollow “puri”, fried crisp and filled with a watery mixture of tamarind, chili, chaat masala, potato, onion and chickpeas. Its size is small enough to fit in the mouth.

Gol Gappas are a bit of an acquired taste. Not like eating tripe or eyeballs kind of acquired taste, but definitely something that most people haven’t experienced.

And it requires a leap of faith – kinda – to try a gol gappa.
The fact that you have to put a ball full of spicy and tangy water into your mouth, and experience the explosion of flavors – can be scary to some.

I have nothing to back this up but I don’t think that 5 years ago I would have been able to find so many people willing to try something like a gol gappa and actually enjoy it.

Indian food has come a long way in America and that makes me so happy.

One of the students in my class, an Indian living in New York probably as long as me thought that my class was authentic (as in the food we made). That was a huge compliment because I will be honest – when I was planning to teach Street Foods of India, I thought I might not be able to replicate those authentic flavors of India. I didn’t want the food to taste watered down or inauthentic.

Another student had been to India many times but was not able to experience street foods due to the fear of getting sick; I was so happy to be able to share this experience with her.

So Street Foods of India is going to stay on the schedule at Indian Culinary Center for quite some time to come.

What is your favorite Indian Street Food?

John’s Pizzeria on Bleecker

Despite having been to the West Village a countless number of times I had never been to John’s Pizzeria.  The biggest reason is that there was always a line around the block and being a true New Yorker – standing in line for food doesn’t really do it for me.  Judging by the line I also thought that it may just be a tourist trap.  I have plenty of good pizza joints in my neighborhood.

When I’m wrong – I’m wrong.

While John’s pizza is not the best pizza that I have ever had in this great city of mine; what surprised me most and frankly endeared them to me was the attitude of the servers.  They were friendly – not in the cloying sweet manner at places like Olive Garden (yes, I have been to Olive Garden!  God help me),  or the hovering over our table way.  They just seemed to be having a good time, and didn’t wait on us as though they were doing us a favor.

I had really thought that due to the immense popularity of this place, I would be given an attitude and that I would feel rushed.  Not so at all.

We stumbled upon the place on Friday around 5PM – I like stumbling into a place that then turns out to be good.  If we had made a plan and then gotten there, there would be all this anticipation and production.  I don’t like that.  So, we stumbled upon John’s – both my friend and I having lived in NYC forever had never been there precisely due to the long lines.  The line was maybe 8 people deep at the most and just as we joined the line – we were ushered in because we were looking for a table for 2.  “Its really good not to have too many friends,” I mumbled as we tried to maneuver ourselves through the line.

As I followed our server to our table – I thought – “here we go, they are going to give us the smallest table possible somewhere in the corner or right in the lap of the next table.”  Wrong again, we were shown to a booth.  I was so happy.  I had to go to the loo and I put my stuff down and went to find it.  That line was longer than the line of hungry diners outside the restaurant.  As I was waiting my turn to go into the 6ft by 4ft bathroom, I must admit I as getting a tad nervous about the waiter.  I thought, they are going to wonder where I went, and when am I getting back because we have to order, eat up and leave – to let in the next people.

Wrong again!

Got to our booth – and my friend was more anxious to order than the server.  We decided to share a house salad and medium pepperoni pizza.

I looked around at our surroundings – we were sitting on a well worn wooden booth, there was a signed picture of the NYPD guys to my right.  People had scratched things into the walls – it almost seemed like it was encouraged – judging by the way the public/blatant places the scratched out words were in.  To my left was a large table of 8 or 9 and they were definitely tourists (which is not a bad thing- we need tourists in our city).  To the left wall there were 4 preppy teenagers who seemed to be moneyed and right from the neighborhood.  And in front of me – in the booth near the window was a young couple that looked like was on a date.  There were also other tables behind me that looked like young families with babies of all shapes and sizes – some cute enough that I just had to ignore my friend and watch them struggle with their spaghetti.  I love watching toddlers eating spaghetti.

Our salad came – an old fashioned salad with iceberg lettuce, raw sliced mushrooms, raw onions, 4 wedges of tomatoes and lots of dressing.  My french instructor’s voice rang in my ear – too much dressing – this salad is overdressed!  Hell with that guy – I love too much dressing – and moreover I am not sitting in Chez John’s – I am in John’s Pizzeria on Bleeker street.

We dished our overdressed salad on the very tiny plates where some of it had to fall onto the table – but that is great – I love it.  It was quite good – not very high expectations lead to easy fulfillment.

As we were eating the salad and catching up, the pizza came – and was put on a stand on the side of the table.  It looked good – just like a pizza should.  I straight away took this picture – then I looked up – there was a fan on and I contemplated on telling them to turn it off so as to not cool down our pizza.  I decided against it.

The pizza was good – I don’t know what else to say about it since what blew me away was the friendliness of the place as opposed to the quality of the pizza.  This does not mean that the pizza was bad – it was good.  The crust was thin, we didn’t load it up with too many ingredients and I put some red pepper and garlic on it – it hit home just right.

I will definitely go back if there is not such a line and enjoy their hospitality.  They don’t need to be nice but still are.  I give them top most points for that!

Tandoori Style Chicken

T for Tandoori Style Chicken

Chicken Tikka

3 lbs. skinless chicken pieces (breast, thighs and legs)

1 cup plain yogurt
2 Tbs. minced fresh ginger
2 Tbs. minced fresh garlic
1 Tbs. Cumin powder
2 Tbs. Coriander Powder
½ tsp. Turmeric powder
1 tsp. Cayenne Pepper
1 Tbs. Canola Oil
¼ cup lemon or lime juice
Salt to taste
Cilantro or Mint for garnish

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients for the marinade and mix well. Taste for seasoning before adding the chicken.
Marinate the chicken and refrigerate covered overnight or for at least 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the chicken on a baking sheet and bake for about 25 minute or until the chicken is cooked.
If you want the chicken to be browned while cooking, remove some of the marinade and place the pieces about ½ inch apart on the baking tray.
Serve hot, garnished with cilantro.

For Grilling:
For smaller pieces of chicken – use metal skewers, or leave the pieces large enough so they don’t fall into the grill.

To make the Chicken Tikka Masala

1 Onion, finely diced
2 Tomatoes diced or 1 cup of canned tomatoes, crushed
2 tbs Vegetable Oil
1 tsp. Cumin Seeds
1 tsp. Cumin Powder
½ tsp. Cayenne
1 tbs. Coriander Powder
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
Salt to taste
½ cup heavy cream (optional)
1 cup water

In a sauté pan, heat the oil and add the cumin seeds. After about a minute add the onions and salt; and sauté for about 5 minutes until they are brown and caramelized. Add the cumin powder, coriander powder and cayenne pepper. Stir well and add the ginger and garlic. Cook another minute or so and add the tomatoes and 1 cup of water. Stir and simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes. Add the cream if using.

Now add the left over chicken tikka to the sauce and heat over low heat. When the chicken is heated through taste the sauce and adjust seasoning.

Serve hot.

Substitute the chicken for fish or paneer.

Until I eat again