November 5, 2014

The Diwali faraal making escapade-Part I ~ Mitha Gaja / Shankarpale~

The glittering diyas, the bright, vivid hues of a meticulously rendered rangoli and the warm appetizing aroma of fried snacks hanging buoyantly in the air while my spirited family and friends gather around the porch to light up firecrackers– this is all that Diwali means to me. The celebration of virtue and compassion with an inanely fair amount of lip-smackingly delicious snacks – that’s surely something everyone wants to come together for. So to commemorate everything that makes Diwali remarkable, I had resolved that no matter how difficult it might seem to fit anything at all into my schedule right now, I am going to try and make as many snacks as I can and replicate “our gharwali” Diwali and this being our very first one after the wedding made it extra worth the effort. So homemade snacks, decorating up our home with lots of diyas, rangoli and lights, a celebration with friends and lots of food to share for our potluck – that became the highlight for our Diwali festivities this year.

And so it all began with making a list of usual Diwali snacks or faral that I wanted to make – Besan sooji ladoo, Chivda, Karanji, Shankarpale, Masala Mathri and one entrée for the potluck. I had already had experience with making Besan sooji ladoo and Chivda, so while making those were a breeze, everything else was somewhat tasking yet an extremely delightful learning curve. Making of each of these individual snacks taught me a few lessons I learnt along the way and I resolved to make sure that I document it well for my reference for Diwali faral making next year. I am sure a lot of you might have had similar experiences and you know very well how much having to re-do something from scratch teaches you. So this will be a series of posts with all these recipes I learnt this Diwali and my kitchen centric adventures with them.

The center of discussion for my first post is the perfectly sweet and crunchy, melt-in-your mouth shankarpale or as I knew it – “Mitha Gaja”. Mitha gaja/ Shankarpale has always been one of my favorite snacks that my grandma made. It was her specialty and so uniquely hers. One fine day if we found mitha gaja at our place, we would know who sent it. I have even been lucky enough to have observed her make it and considered myself privileged to have been allowed to cut the rolled out dough into its characteristic diamond shapes. At that time, being a part of something so intricate had made me inanely happy and extremely proud of myself. So as I began my adventure of making mitha gaja, I of course knew who to call for help. My grandma seemed so elated to share her knowledge built over the years with great detail and of course with very encouraging words. With a help and a little bit of trial and error, I got it. These turned out exactly as I like them and I was the happiest little bird in town.

So here’s the detailed mitha gaja recipe which resulted in perfectly sweet, melt-in-your-mouth multilayered gaja that I so loved and am very happy to write it down for your and my own reference for Diwali faraal making next year. t.

~Mitha Gaja / Shankarpale~

These crispy, flaky, melt-in-the-mouth sweetened fried festive snacks are a must-eat during Diwali. Made up of simple easily found at-home ingredients, these diamond shaped goodies are usually over before you know it.

Ingredients: (Makes enough to fill a 1 lt jar)
½ C Milk
½ C Sugar
½ Ghee
2 C + 2 Tablespoons Maida/All purpose flour

1. Warm up the milk till it just boils and add the sugar to it. Let them sit.
Note: I microwaved the milk at 100% power for 1 minute and it was warm enough. The whiteness of the milk will look diluted and transparent. Do not panic, that’s ok.
2. In a seperate mixing bowl, pour the ghee and fluff it with kneading action such that it becomes creamy (about 4-5 mins).
Note: I used the flat beater attachment on my Kitchen Aid stand mixer and let the mixture turn light & fluffy (~ 2-3mins).
3. Once the ghee turns fluffy, add in the milk-sugar mixture and stir it a little bit.
4.Then, add in the flour little by little and bring it together. Knead for ~ 1 min and keep aside.
5. Divide in to 5-6 rounds balls and roll it 1/4 inch thick.
6. Cut diagonals on the roti and fry.
7. Fry these at medium- medium low heat (the knob of the gas range stays around 5-6 on a scale of 10). When you add it to the oil keep it at medium so that the exterior seals. Then lower the heat slightly for it to cook through and harden.
Note: At very low temperature the dough dissolves, so make sure that when you add the pieces to the oil its at medium (5 on a scale of 1-10) and then lower it to 4 when the exterior sets.
8. Take them out on paper towels, let them cool and store it in air-tight containers.

And this is how I learnt a new skill this Diwali and while it was not all smooth sailing, it was every bit worth the journey :) A few mishaps, a few soft shankarpales later..I nailed it and there's no better feeling than acquiring something you thought was difficult. And there again it proves that "Never ever give up" is a life lesson that helps every where.

So until the part II..(which will be coming up soon!!)
Happy learning!

September 11, 2014

Of nostalgia & adventure - A memorable Ganesh Chaturthi with "Mango Kalakand/ Aam Kalakand"

This year Ganesh Chaturthi was very special and that’s because of so many reasons. Special because it was the first one we celebrated after our wedding, hereby marking a tradition we intend to carry on for years to come. Special because we made our own idol for the occasion and had an absolute blast making it and most importantly because we also got to celebrate it with our friends & neighbors who made up for the absence of our family here with us. My desire to celebrate this at our place stemmed from the reason that this festival has always been very close to heart for my husband. Back at his place, it’s a tradition to celebrate it with fervor and invite all relatives near and dear for a yearly get together and he still cherishes those memories of laughter and frolic. So this year we ushered in Lord Ganesh to our abode. Truly, what better occasion than Ganesh Chaturthi – dedicated to the Vignaharta (destroyer of obstacles) to herald in this entire season of festivities?

Our little adventure while making the idol was such an exhilarating experience. With very modest expectations, we started off the project by mixing the clay and molding shapes and then there was truly no looking back. The urge to make it better till it looked realistic pushed me to keep at it till I got the result I wanted. You will not believe me if I tell you that it took me an hour to get the janwa right (the string around Lord Ganesha’s torso)..phew! A day to dry and then we sat to paint the idol with the brightest colors and He looked absolutely handsome J We also made him his pet rat, some ladoos on a thali and a seat for him to sit. All to make him happy! Here are some pictures of the project :)

Now with our homemade Ganesh idol all done and ready for his D-day, it was only fitting to welcome him home with equal pomp and show. So apart from the typical Maharastrian puja delicacies (varan, bhaat, puri, kala chana chi usal, batatya chi bhaji, koshimbir, chutney,  ukdiche modak (yes I tried it!) and shrikhand), I wanted to make something special for the occasion and decided to try my hand at making kalakand. I have been especially motivated since the time I recently had it at a friend’s place and it instantly brought back fond memories of me nibbling on one small piece for hours to relish every bite. This was the perfect occasion to prepare and offer it to our Ganpati as our special homemade prasad or offering. 

~Mango Kalakand~
Mango Kalakand / Aam Kalakand

Soft, rich & creamy dessert squares made of fresh cottage cheese & mango pulp sweetened with condensed milk & reduced milk powder. With generous amounts of pistachios & slivered almonds, this dessert attains it exquisite aroma from that elusive hint of saffron. 

3 C Mango Pulp
2 C Cottage Cheese (Paneer)
1 C Condensed milk (Add ¼ C more if you want a little more sweetness)
1 C Mava powder
Pinch of saffron soaked in 2 T of warm milk.
1/4 C Chopped pistachios & almonds

1/4 tsp rose water (Optional)
Pinch of salt (Optional)
1/4 tsp lime juice(Optional)
3 cardamom pods – crushed to a fine powder

1. In a pan over medium heat, reduce the mango pulp till it’s thick enough to coat the back of the spoon (~20 mins). This intensifies the mango flavor.
Note: I made “fresh” mango pulp from frozen mangoes. You can use the readymade mango pulp too.
2. In the mean time, soak the saffron strands in 1 T of lukewarm milk and set aside.
3. After the pulp is thick, mix in the paneer, condensed milk, saffron soaked in milk and mava powder. Stir to mix well.
Note: I used homemade paneer with full fat milk (4C of paneer from 1 Gallon) . Bring the milk to a boil and then add in lime juice (1 lime) +yogurt mixture (2T) for a softer and fresher outcome.
4. Reduce this mixture over medium heat till it starts leaving sides of the pan (~ 15 mins). Stir regularly so that it doesn’t stick.
5. Add in the salt, lime juice, rose water and cardamom powder along with the chopped nuts. Stir well.
Note: I added in the pinch of salt & 1/4 tsp of lime juice to round out the sweetness. You can opt out of it if you prefer so.
6. Pour this mixture in a greased flat container and flatten it. Sprinkle more nuts and let it set in the refrigerator (~ 2hrs). Cut and serve.
Note: This sweet stays fresh in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

Making kalakand at home was another satisfying experience that made this celebration all the more special. It was an eye opener and a recipe that I cherish more so because it melded in traditions and happy memories from both our childhoods. Isn’t that's what great occasions are made of? A little bit of nostalgia mixed in with the right amount of adventure :-)


July 30, 2014

Recreating the Mexican fare ~ Mexican rice w/ Smokey Chicken fajitas & chunky guacamole~

When I think intently about that one cuisine that's closest to Indian flavors, my personal preference has always been Mexican. The spices, the intense flavors & the aroma that meld in together as a combination of several different spices are so reminiscent of our cuisine that it's really hard to pass it up. The remarkable similarities between Indian & Mexican dishes- be it the use of tomatoes, various chillies, or even the roasting of meat to develop flavors is sometimes very surprising, but when we come to think of shouldn't really be. After all, almost all the essentials in an Indian curry like the tomato, potato & even the chillies have been New World exports to our subcontinent through the Portugese invaders. And there comes the connection!

Personally, I absolutely love the vibrancy - be it in the spread of dishes or the colorful serving plates...everything is so full with zest for life. The food is always as dynamic in the range & depth of flavors as is their spirited decor. One place that is responsible for making me a die-hard fan of Mexican cuisine has to be La-Taquiza in LA. Tucked away in a small strip mall-like area, don't be fooled by its humble existence. I have really lost count as to how many times I have pulled my friends to join me there and converted them into La Taquiza fans ;) The decor, the people & of course the taste of each of their dishes feels so authentic that I would imagine that this is exactly how food is cooked back in Mexico. So authentic and flavorful!

But after moving here to the Bay, I am yet to chance upon such an authentic Mexican place but I am sure it does exist somewhere. Now with being so far from La Taquiza, it is only wise for me learn the ropes of my favorite cuisine and try it out myself. Today's post is a product of that eventful Sunday morning when armed with a strong desire to replicate tastes of my favorite Mexican restaurant & with my go-to book "The Cuisines of Mexico - Diane Kennedy" for Mexican recipes, I set on this self satiating journey.

~Arroz a la Mexicana (Mexican Rice) ~

This Mexican rice is so subtly flavored with tomato & garlic sprinkled with a hint of cumin powder and jalapeno (for that much essential heat kick) that it's can shine either as a stand alone dish or a suited accompaniment to another spicy side dish.

Arroz a la Mexicana (Mexican Rice) - Adapted from Diane Kennedy's recipe

3 T Oil
1 C Arborio rice (Any other rice will be fine too)
1 Garlic clove Chopped
1 Jalapeno Chopped
2 C Chicken stock (You can use vegetable stock too)
1/4 tsp Salt

For 3/4 C paste
1 Medium sized tomato
1/2 Medium onion
1/2 tsp freshly roasted cumin powder.
1/2 tsp Red Chili flakes (Optional)

1. Wash the rice thoroughly in a colander till the water runs clear. This ensures that we wash off the starch so that the rice grains do not stick later. Then soak the rice for about 15-20 mins before you start cooking.
2. Make a smooth paste of tomato & onion. Reserve 3/4 C of the paste for the rice and keep aside the rest.
3. In a deep pan over medium heat, add in the oil and wait till it heats up. To check, drop a grain of rice and if it sizzles, then the oil is ready.
4. Saute the rice, garlic and jalapenos in the oil over medium heat for about 5-7 mins till the rice becomes pale golden color.
5. Then pour in the tomato-onion paste along with the cumin powder & red chili flakes and saute the rice till the mixture becomes dry (~ 2-3 mins).
6. Now heat the chicken stock and add in to the rice. Cook uncovered for ~ 10 mins till you can see holes on the surface. Cover & simmer for 5 mins more.
Tip: To avoid the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan, do not stir the rice after adding in the stock.

This rice tastes so good be it right out of the stove or the next morning left overs. Such a hit!

~Smokey Chicken Fajitas~

A quick & easy Mexican chicken dish is a harmonious amalgamation of chicken & fajitas. Chicken pieces marinated in smokey paprika and garlic powder with a generous squeeze of lemon are grilled and cut into strips. They are then tossed with thin strips of onions & bell peppers to make for a flavorfully spicy side dish.

~Smokey Chicken Fajitas~
1 lb Chicken thighs
1 T Smoked paprika
1 T Garlic powder (Unsalted)
2 T lemon juice
1/4 tsp Sugar
1/2 tsp salt

2 Medium onions cut in thin strips
1 Bell pepper (I used mixed colored bell peppers) cut in thin strips

1. Marinate the whole chicken thighs with smoked paprika, garlic rub, lemon juice & salt. Keep aside for 30 mins - 1 hr.
2. In a grill pan (or a regular pan) over medium heat, grill the chicken pieces till browned on both sides (~ 4 mins). Take them out and set aside to cool slightly.
3. Once the chicken pieces are slightly cooled (~ 5 mins), cut the chicken pieces into strips & keep aside.
4. In the same pan in which you sauteed the chicken, add in the thinly cut onions & bell pepper & toss well. This makes sure that all the browned chicken bits on the pan are taken up by the onion-bell pepper mix.
5. After ~ 2 mins or till the onion-bell pepper mix starts softening, add in the grilled & thinly cut chicken pieces and toss well.
6. Adjust for salt & lemon juice. Serve hot off the stove with Mexican rice & guacomole.

~The accompaniment:  Chunky Guacomole~
Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe

4 Haas Avocados
2 T Lime juice
1 Clove garlic (Finely minced)
½ tsp Cumin
¾ tsp Smoked paprika
½ Medium Onion (chopped)
1 Jalapeno (chopped)
2 Small Tomatoes (Chopped)
2 T Chopped Cilantro
½ tsp Salt

Since I prefer my guacamole chunky, I chop it up in its skin and scoop it to a bowl. Add in the lime and all other ingredients. Taste to make sure it is to your liking and change likewise.

As I recreated my favorite dishes at home, it comforts me to know that though La Taquiza might not be close to me anymore..its taste lingers for ever :D So until I find my next favorite Mexican haunt I will keep recreating the magic here in my kitchen comforts.

So here's a question - How often do you get inspired by your favorite eating joints to create the same at home?


July 1, 2014

Who doesn't love a twist & that too a Sriracha one? ~ Garlic & red chilli Vegetable Manchurian (dry) ~

Garlic & red chilli manchurian (dry) served with a side of vegetable fried rice

In one of our numerous chat sessions, as my conversation with my Chinese friend/colleague veered towards Sino-Indian relationship, the cultural differences and similarities, we couldn't help but contemplate on the amalgamation of Indian intricacies into Chinese cooking. It veered towards a very interesting conversation about cooking styles, spices used, favorite dishes etc. etc. and she was extremely amused to know that there prevailed a very popular fusion cuisine known as "Indo-Chinese". She had never heard of it (of course..who has unless they are from India?), and seemed intrigued by the names of dishes I was hurling at her. Manchurian, Mixed chowmein...wait what? Manchurian...what's that?

As I pondered on it a bit more, I assumed that although it's never really surprising to find tastes transcending national/international boundaries to give rise to a melange of flavors, the popularity of Indo-Chinese cuisine in India is something you have to see, to believe. This cuisine which started out as an assimilation of Indian sensibilities and beliefs into everyday cooking of the Chinese immigrants, has now been taken to a whole new level. While it's almost natural for immigrants in any country to adapt to the new place they call home (who better than me to attest to the fact that that's a very effective way to transform a dish to make their own), this fusion cooking style has perpetrated almost every nook and corner of the country. Anyone captivated by the cuisine has their own special version and everybody is right.

While my parents had no such inclination towards this form of cooking, I would happily assume that the rise of the "Chowmein-Manchurian" culture took place sometime when we were growing up. I am so elated (& grateful) to belong to a generation that grew up with the oh-so-delicious Indo-Chinese. Although my Ma never had much exposure to this cuisine, I still swear by her mixed Chowmein, Chicken Manchurian and Vegetable Manchurian that she so enthusiastically made. This is my version of the much loved Manchurian with some of my favorite spice additions. Who said that good just cannot become better? Well, here it is:

~Garlic & Red Chilli Vegetable Manchurian (dry) ~
The plate to devour!

Veggie fritters spiced with Sriracha (red chilli sauce) & crispy garlic bits are tossed with cubes of red bell peppers, assorted sauces and some more crispy garlic. Served hot garnished with a generous sprinkling of finely sliced green onions. Perfect as an appetizer all by itself or a fabulous side dish with Roasted Garlic fried rice or the Chilli garlic chowmein.


¼ C Garlic – Chopped and crisped over medium heat. Used divided between fritters and sauce.

For the Garlic Veggie balls:

1 C Shredded Cabbage
½ C Carrots (shredded)
½ C Beans (Shredded)
1 tsp Chopped green chillies (Optional)
3 T Corn Flour
¼ C All Purpose Flour 
2 T Sriracha or Red Chilli Sauce
2 T Tomato Sauce
Pinch of salt
2 T Crispy garlic (mentioned above)

Oil for frying.

3 T Oil (in which you fried the garlic)
½ C Capsicum/Bell Pepper – In Cubes

Make a paste of the following:
1 T Dark Soy Sauce
1 T White vinegar
1 T Sriracha or Red Chilli Sauce
1 T Tomato Sauce
½ tsp Brown sugar
2 T Water

2 T Crispy garlic

1.     In a pan over medium heat, add 2 T of oil and sauté the garlic till its fragrant and light brown in color. Be vigilant since garlic burns really easily. Scoop out the garlic and set aside. They become crispy as they cool.
2.     In a wide-mouthed bowl, mix in all the ingredients for the garlicky veggie Manchurian balls. The batter should be thick so that you can make balls out of it. Add in a few drops of water if it’s too thick. I use the 1 T ice cream scoop to make similar sized balls. Make the balls and set aside.
3.     Heat up the oil over medium heat in a deep pan and fry the balls till they are golden brown in color. Keep it warm in an oven at 200oF.
4.     In the pan you fried the garlic, add in some more oil and sauté the chopped bell peppers (~30 secs).
5.     Make a paste of all the sauces along with water and add into the oil and peppers.
6.     After it boils, toss in the Manchurian balls till it soaks in all the goodness of the flavorful sauces. Adjust for salt if required.
7.     Serve hot with a generous sprinkle of green onions and some more crispy garlic.

A close look at the manchurian balls

While this dish tastes absolutely lip smackingly delicious just by itself, I served it with a side of vegetable fried rice. You could also try the Roasted Garlic fried rice or the Chilli garlic chowmein to up the garlic fest.

Till next time!