Indian Cooking Class – Part 2

Last week I told you about an Indian cooking class I took at our local community college. That post on legumes and Indian bread is available here:  http://eclecticgirldesigns.com/index.php/2017/07/24/indian-cooking-class-part-1/   Today’s post will cover the last two classes in the series on yogurt, cheese making and eggplant dishes.

We were introduced to a wide variety of fragrant spices and herbs in the class.

Yogurt and Cheese

I remember my mother making yogurt and cheese when I was a child, but I wasn’t directly involved in the making of either so the process remained a mystery to me. I was surprised to see how easy both were to make. The flavor of these homemade dairy products was so much better than commercial versions. You can also be assured that there are no artificial ingredients or additives involved when you make it yourself.

Not only is our instructor, Raka Mehra, a great home cook, she is also extremely knowledgeable about nutrition. Throughout the course she enlightened us regarding the nutritional benefits of the dishes we were preparing, yogurt being no exception. It is a fermented food that is nutrient-dense and rich in high-quality protein, important probiotics and linoleic acid. Raka reminded us that yogurt is alive with beneficial cultures and bacteria that are crucial to the health of our gut.


Making Yogurt

There are only two ingredients in homemade yogurt: milk and a starter culture. We used fresh plain yogurt as the starter culture, which is easily obtainable at any grocery store.

Bring whole milk to almost boiling and allow to cool before adding your yogurt starter. The milk is heated to kill the milk’s bacteria so as not to complete with the bacteria we introduce (Lactobacillus & Streptococcus) with the starter culture.

Slowly heat a quart of milk to almost boiling. Then allow to cool to approximately 110 – 115 degrees. Add 1 teaspoon of plain fresh yogurt and stir until incorporated. Incubate in a warm place for 5 – 7 hours. Raka recommended an Instant Pot ( http://instantpot.com/ ) for this process because it has a yogurt setting which simplifies the entire process. However this device is not necessary. The most important thing is to keep the yogurt consistently warm, so putting it inside a warm oven or even wrapping it in a blanket will work just fine. Once yogurt is ready, a layer of water will form on top.  It can then be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Plain yogurt with a little honey and raspberries makes a delicious and nutritious breakfast.

Paneer (Indian Cheese)

Paneer  is a yogurt cheese with a very clean light texture and taste. It is used extensively in Indian cuisine and also makes a healthy snack.

Paneer Recipe (Indian Yogurt Cheese)

  • 2 quarts whole milk
  • 1 quart buttermilk or 3 cups homemade yogurt

Heat milk to near boiling. Add warmed buttermilk or yogurt to avoid a dramatic temperature change. Reduce heat to low and stir to avoid burning on the bottom. Large clumps called “curds” will begin to form. Turn off heat when whey and curds separate. (The whey is the yellowish liquid that will form.) Let sit for 5 – 10 minutes. Strain liquid from cheese using a cheesecloth, pressing out as much whey as possible. Then shape the cheese into a flat disc. Place a weight on top to press out more liquid. After about 15 minutes, most of the water will have released and your cheese is ready. Cheese should be stored in the refrigerator in cold water.

You can see the curds forming and separating from the whey.
Strain the whey from the cheese curds using a large cheesecloth. The whey is the yellowish liquid in the bowl to the right. It is loaded with protein and is highly nutritious. Don’t throw it away! It can be added to smoothies, soup stock, used to soak grains before cooking, etc. Some people even recommend bathing in it for smooth soft skin!
Once most of the water has been drained, press out the cheese with your hands, shaping it into a flat disc. Keeping the cheese wrapped in the cheese cloth, place a weight on top of the disc which will help the cheese solidify and continue to strain out even more whey.
Raka sandwiched the cheese between two cutting boards and placed the heavy pot of whey on top to squeeze out any remaining moisture. It was allowed to drain into the sink for about 20 minutes.
Once the cheese has drained and firmed up, it can be cut into pieces for serving.

Eggplants

The final class focused on eggplant dishes from northern India. Emphasizing the importance of freshness, Raka said she chose to present eggplant dishes to us because that was what looked best at the market that day. We made three different eggplant dishes, but in this post I will discuss only one, bharva baingan or stuffed eggplants. This is a dish I had never seen before but I found it to be the most delicious of all the eggplant dishes we made.

Bharva Baingan (Stuffed Eggplants)

  • 6 small round eggplants
  • 2 tsp. coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp. red chili powder
  • 3 T. grated coconut
  • 1 tsp. finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tsp. tamarind paste in 2 T. water
  • salt to taste
  • 2 T. oil
  • 1 tsp. black mustard seeds
  • 6 -8 curry leaves (found in Indian market)
  • 2 dry red whole chilies
  • Cilantro and grated coconut to garnish

Make two perpendicular slits in eggplants without cutting all the way through. This opening will hold the filling.

Dry roast coriander and cumin seeds and grind in coffee grinder. Mix together coriander, cumin, turmeric, red chili powder, coconut, garlic, and salt. Fill the slits in the eggplants with the filling.

Heat oil in heavy pan. Add mustard seeds, dry red chilies and curry leaves and cover until popping stops. Add filled eggplants to pan and cover with lid. Cook until browned on all sides, gently turning them so that the filling stays inside the eggplants. Eggplants will soften and release their juices as they cook.

Add tamarind and water mixture and cook for another 2- 3 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and a little grated coconut.

Gently spread the eggplants apart and fill with the spice mixture.
Saute mustard seeds, dry red chilies, and curry leaves and add stuffed eggplants to pan. Cover pot to hold in moisture. Turn eggplants frequently to brown on all sides.
Once eggplants are cooked through, they will soften. Add tamarind paste and cook another 2-3 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and fresh grated coconut.

After my four Indian cooking classes, I know I still have a lot to learn. However, I can say that I no longer find this cuisine quite as mysterious or intimidating as I once did. I now have the confidence to continue experimenting and look forward to challenging myself by making even more complex Indian dishes. Are you ready to give Indian cooking a try?

Cooking together inspired a lot of camaraderie. I enjoyed getting to know the other students in the class.
We celebrated in our final class with a meal which included the dishes we made that day and other dishes brought to class by students.

Note:  Many thanks to Raka and my classmates who were so gracious in allowing me to share their images in my blog.

 

Indian Cooking Class – Part 1

As much as I enjoy Indian cuisine, I’ve hesitated to attempt making it at home. The exotic spices, complex flavor combinations, and mysterious ingredients have always intimidated me! So when our local community college offered an Indian cooking class, I jumped at the opportunity to have this extraordinary cuisine demystified.

This is the first of a two-part series. Today’s post will cover the classes on legumes and bread. Next week’s blog will cover the classes on yogurt making, cheese, and eggplant dishes.

A staple in every Indian kitchen is the spice tin or masala dabba. The most commonly used spices are kept organized and ready for use in a handy sealed container.

Our instructor was Raka Mehra, a home cook from northern India with many years of experience preparing her native dishes. Having garnered much acclaim by those lucky enough to be invited to her home for a meal,  she decided to develop this class to teach others the secrets of her delicious north Indian dishes.

Raka emphasized that everyday dishes in India are generally much lighter and healthier than those served at most Indian restaurants. Importantly, she assured us that with basic cooking skills, one can prepare a truly authentic Indian meal.

This is a small sampling of the numerous legumes used in Indian cuisine.

Legumes

In our first class, Raka gave us a brief overview of the numerous legumes used in Indian cooking. Economical and high in protein, legumes are extremely nutritious and contain a range of essential nutrients including vitamin B (especially folate), iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. They are also abundant in dietary fiber.

Of all the legume options available, we focused on lentils which are among the quickest to prepare. We made two lentil dishes but my favorite was coconut daal made from red (or washed) lentils. The dish contains coconut milk which makes it rich and creamy with a somewhat delicate flavor.


Raka’s Coconut Daal

1 cup washed red lentils (masoor)
1 can coconut milk (full fat)
1 ¼ cup water
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 -2 green chilies, sliced
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. turmeric
2 T. oil
2 tsp. black mustard seeds (or cumin seeds)
1 small red onion, sliced thinly
Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped

Place lentils, coconut milk, water, chopped onion, tomatoes, chilies, salt and turmeric in a pan.  Simmer 20 minutes or until lentils are tender.

While lentils are cooking, heat oil in frying pan. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds and cover until popping stops. Add sliced onions and fry until crisp.

Mix sautéed onions and mustard seeds with cooked lentils and garnish with cilantro. Serve with rice.


The finished product, Raka’s Coconut Daal.

Bread Making: Roti and Paratha

In our second session we learned about the classic Indian bread commonly known as roti or chapati. This is an unleavened whole wheat tortilla-like bread that is hearty and versatile. While most of us think of naan as the quintessential Indian bread, we learned that roti is more typically consumed on a daily basis in India, while naan is usually reserved for special occasions.

The basic dough for roti contains only two ingredients: flour and water. It is kneaded by hand, formed into balls and rolled into flat discs. It is then cooked on a  lightly greased griddle on top of the stove.

Basic Recipe for Roti

1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour
3/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt (optional)

Mix all ingredients until stiff dough forms.  Knead until dough no longer sticks to your hands. Let rest for about 20 minutes.

Divide dough into 8 equal parts and roll into balls. Roll balls into 6 – 8″ discs. Lightly grease pan and heat to medium high. Cook until brown blisters begin to appear and flip. Roti will puff up when done.


When done, the roti puffs up and then quickly deflates.

 

While roti is delicious simply spread with a little butter, we also made paratha which is roti filled with vegetables, or cheese and spices. My favorite was paneer paratha, which is roti filled with cheese (paneer).


Paneer Paratha

2 cups shredded paneer (Indian yogurt cheese)
1 T. finely chopped ginger
2 T. chopped cilantro
1/2 t. cumin powder
1/4 t. red chili flakes
Salt to taste
2 T. yogurt

Mix all ingredients except yogurt together.  Then add yogurt until crumbly paste forms.

Place filling in the middle of the rolled out roti and then gently gather edges together, forming a purse-like packet. Roll flat again and fry in lightly oiled pan until brown on both sides.


Place the cheese filling in the middle of the roti.
Pinch the edges of the roti together. Once the filling is fully encapsulated in the bread, roll it out flat again and cook it in a lightly greased pan on top of the stove.  The bread will begin to blister and may puff up a bit.  Flip and cook the other side.

With a little spiced yogurt, paratha make a delicious accompaniment to a meal or a filling snack. Both roti and paratha are well-suited to freezing, so a batch can be made ahead of time and taken out as needed.

Paneer  paratha with spiced yogurt.

Perhaps the most important tip I gleaned from this class was how important it is to purchase whole spices and dry roast them in a frying pan before grinding. Dry roasting changes the chemistry of proteins, releases the oils in spices, changes their flavor, and enhances the scent and taste of spices.  If you want maximum flavor in your Indian dishes, don’t skip this step!

Raka, our knowledgeable instructor.

I did not find any of these dishes to be difficult to make and was delighted to learn how nutritious they are. I am excited about adding these dishes to my repertoire and hope you will give them a try as well.

Stay tuned next week for part two of my foray into Indian cooking!

 

Flowers and Scotch Tape

What do flowers and Scotch tape have to do with one another? Well, they go together perfectly when you want to make a flower arrangement in a wide-mouthed container and don’t have any floral foam or a flower frog to secure the stems!

Floral foam (or Oasis) is probably the most widely-used material for flower arranging today. It is similar to styrofoam but is more delicate and holds a considerable amount of water. Easy to use, this medium allows the arranger to simply push stems into it. Floral foam must be soaked in water before it can be used. Otherwise it will be buoyant and will not secure your arrangement properly.

Floral foam can be found at any craft store. It is quite malleable and is easy to cut to fit the shape of your container.

Popular in the 1920s and 30s, vintage flower frogs are another great way to anchor stems. Placed in the bottom of your vessel, stems are inserted into the holes, indentations or needles of the frogs. If the frog is much smaller than your container, it may need to be secured to the bottom with a little floral putty to keep it from moving around.

Here are some nice examples of vintage metal flower frogs. Picture courtesy of Ellie Campbell of http://froggoestomarket.blogspot.com
Frogs were also made from glass and ceramics and came in different colors, shapes and sizes.  Picture courtesy of Peter Tholl of Crow Ridge Studios.

My collection of vintage frogs is currently packed away and I had no floral foam on hand. I wanted to use a wide-mouth bowl for my arrangement and lacked a way to keep the flowers upright. I remembered seeing my mother use this easy tape technique and thought I’d give it a try.

Simply place tape in a grid pattern across the top of your vessel, making sure the ends are pressed down and secure. Then fill your bowl with water. Try not to get the tape too wet. However if some water gets on the tape, don’t worry. As long as the ends are firmly secured, the grid should stay in place.

Now insert the stems in the grid openings. You don’t have to fill every opening in your grid. Just distribute the flowers evenly and in a pattern that is pleasing to you. This technique is particularly effective for loose, informal arrangements.

My stems were a little short and I had to move them around a bit to get them to stay where I wanted them.
After adjusting my arrangement, the tape ended up getting rather wet. Still the structure held up nicely and the tape didn’t come off until I removed it.

This technique works for most containers with a wide opening. Next time you find yourself without the usual flower arranging tools, remember Scotch tape and flowers go together beautifully!

 

The Creative Presentation of Food

It has often been said that we first eat with our eyes.  I would argue that eating involves all of our senses and perhaps that is why is so pleasurable.

I recently had the pleasure of taking a workshop on creative food presentation at Pasadena’s Shakespeare Club, the oldest women’s club in Southern California. Our speaker was Dr. Ann David, educator, author, and Vice President of the Shakespeare Club. She began with a slide show of elegantly displayed hors d’oeuvres and noted the importance of having different flavors, textures, and colors in the presentation of food. While it’s fine to place a wedge of cheese on a plate with a basket of crackers, it takes very little additional effort to add flourish with a few pieces of fruit, a bowl of nuts, a drizzle of honey or other garnish.

The vessels on which the appetizers are displayed should be of varying heights, and of different materials. It makes the table much more interesting to use a variety of shapes, levels and textures. A glass pedestal stand combined with a basket or rustic wood tray adds dimension and interest to the overall presentation, whereas several flat plates of similar size and height would not give the same effect.

We also were reminded that it’s important that the appetizers not only look good but they should taste great as well. Because guests will usually be eating just a single bite of whatever you are serving, your goal is to make that one bite an incredible one!

This lovely room was our makeshift “kitchen.” While it was challenging to work with limited resources, we were still able to make a surprisingly attractive display of hors d’oeuvres.

After Anne’s brief presentation, the organizers of the event set up a practice exercise where participants were given the opportunity to put their newly acquired knowledge into practice. We were divided into small groups and given a “mystery bag” of groceries with which to prepare an appetizer.  Some bags had numerous food items such as cheese, crackers, vegetables, fruit, and other goodies. My group got a single bowl of hard boiled eggs! Fortunately we were allowed to trade with other folks for ingredients and there was a table with various condiments available to everyone.

This picture from Pinterest was our inspiration for our dish.

My teammates and I decided to recreate a Pinterest picture we found of deviled eggs that looked like chicks hatching. We traded an egg for some orange peppers  and a few cherry tomatoes, and picked up some mayonnaise, mustard, pickles and capers from the condiment table. We cut a zigzag pattern into the eggs to separate the halves and remove the yolk. We mixed up our filling, filled the eggs, and made eyes from capers and beaks from orange peppers.

Though our deviled eggs were not as aesthetically pleasing as the Pinterest picture, everyone seemed to grasp what we were trying to achieve. We added some dill springs around the edge of our platter to create a nest and a few cherry tomatoes for garnish.

Here is the final table the class presented at the end of the workshop.  It’s a cornucopia of color! (Though it did not live up to our expectations, our nest of deviled egg chicks is shown on the left.)

When everyone was finished, our creations were displayed and everyone was invited to eat and enjoy the appetizers with a libation. In spite of limited resources, the groups created some very attractive platters and delicious combinations of flavors.

In my opinion, this platter was the winner. It was immensely creative and incorporated all the elements of good presentation. Note the caprese kabobs using parsley as skewers. Also check out the “flower” made from thin crackers broken into petals with dried cranberries in the center. The lavender sprigs in the center give height and fragrance to the display.

What will you do to elevate your appetizer presentation at your next event?

Fizzy Honey Lemonade

Many Fourth of July gatherings include a pitcher of ice cold lemonade. While it’s easy to make lemonade from powdered mixes or frozen concentrates, I don’t think there is any substitute for the real thing. It doesn’t require a tremendous amount of additional work to make lemonade from scratch. If you’re planning to serve up this summertime thirst quencher, here’s an easy way to dress up the standard recipe.

For the past month, our lemon tree has been producing beautiful juicy lemons in abundance. It is a joy to pick them right off the tree in my backyard.

For this recipe, I’ve switched out the sugar for honey and replaced regular water with sparkling water.  The honey pairs beautifully with lemon (think hot tea with lemon and honey) and adds a depth of flavor sugar doesn’t have. The fizz of sparkling water is refreshing and gives the lemonade a little extra pizzazz!

The honey will make this lemonade a little darker than sugar-sweetened lemonade.

 

Fizzy Honey Lemonade (serves 4)

  • 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup honey (light or dark)
  • 1 liter bottle of sparkling water
  • ice and lemon slices

Mix lemon juice and honey together. Pour in sparkling water, add ice, lemon slices and serve.

Give the mixture a good stir to fully dissolve the honey.

Happy Fourth of July!

What could be more refreshing than a tall glass of ice cold lemonade on a summer day?