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Archive for November, 2007

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For my family, Thanksgiving is an invitation to indulge in cheese and wine. Ever since my brother and I got older and we stopped going to family friends’ houses to nibble on the sides- mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pies- we’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving at our house with pots of creamy fondue, burners of bubbling raclette, and platters full of vegetables.

My brother herbed up some goat cheese

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And we set out our sides: roasted pumpkin and sliced daikon (and green chilis)

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We offered a variety of cheeses to melt on the raclette grill: sheep’s goat cheese, truffle cheese, mustard seed and ale, raclette, harissa, and caramelized onion

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And an assortment of vegetables (on which we pour bubbling cheese):

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The full spread

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We’ve been having the same meal every year, but each Thanksgiving, our guests vary slightly. This year, my grandmother and her sister were visiting from India, in addition to my cousin’s grandfather’s brother. It was…how shall we say… a slightly older crowd. Last year, I was in India during Thanksgiving but my brother held down the fort by holding a “Kids’ Thanksgiving” with more wine than usual. I was pretty jealous. But this year’s was indulgent enough to suit my taste for excess. We finished our meal with a Ginger Pear Upside-Down Cake, which was good but maybe a little heavy on the molasses and a little lacking on the ginger. Oh well, we ate it anyway.

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And then we watched old family videos and laughed at ourselves from fifteen years ago.

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Bhel is a chaat- a streetside snack made of crispy puffed rice, coriander, mango, onion, sev, potatoes and chutney. When eaten, it is supposed to conjure memories of Bombay’s streets and warm sea air, and specifically, of the vendors on Chowpatty beach, their pink and yellow neon lights flashing into the evening as they make and sell bhel in bowls. When my parents were growing up in Bombay, they would spend Sunday evenings on Chowpatty, indulging cravings for their city’s bhel. The water used to make the chutney might have been unfiltered and speckled with imperfections, but perhaps that was the essential ingredient to create the harmonious picture of a whole family sitting crosslegged on a blanket in the sand, scraping up every last coriander leaf and crunchy, sun-colored mango.

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In my experience, Indians, both in India and abroad, are crazy after bhel; it’s a sort of love affair, a special treat that never loses its charm. And although it’s not difficult to make at home, people will persevere in finding it- my aunt, when she was visiting from Chicago, spent her time seeking out a chaat house in New York that served good bhel; she wanted to find a place that could feed her a taste of her home. The tongue responds to something in the spicy sweet mix of chutneys, and the satisfying crunch of the delicate white mumra (puffed rice), and makes people- my brother, my parents, their friends, all salivate. So imagine the excitement in my house on Friday after my aunt called us over for a bhelpuri dinner.

Bhel was born as a Gujarati dish but evolved into a meal that could be tailored for tastes across India. Jains eat their bhel with tomatoes; Bengalis add red pepper and mustard oil to theirs. Bombay style bhel evolved from UP bhel, and it is known to be loved by everyone, regardless of the region they call home.

For you, a photo guide to assembling bhel:

You start with a base of puffed rice, puri, and sev

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Then mix in your potatoes and red onions

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Heap in handfuls of coriander, unripe mango, and lime for fresh tastes; salt and chilli powder according to preference

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Pour on the date and tamarind chutney and the coriander and mint chutney

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Mix

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Top with crushed puris and sev and serve promptly!

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La Palapa Rockola
359 6th Avenue
New York, NY
(212) 243-6870

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La Palapa Rockola got a Critic’s Pick review by the NYT in 2003, so I decided to check it out. It was a slow Tuesday night when I went, and my waiter led my friend and I to a table snuggling a dark corner. We ordered guacamole to start, because regardless of how many times I am consistently shocked by $9 handful-sized portions of restaurant guacamole, I somehow cannot resist ordering it. La Palapa’s guac did not disappoint: true to my fears, it was served in a tiny bowl. But, it was spiked with sharp-sweet cumin, which accented the buttery avocados. It tasted like the guacamole we make at home, so I scraped up every last morsel of it with the warm corn chips.

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We decided to share two vegetarian dishes for our main meal. I ordered the Tamal de Rajas con Queso Cotija Anejo Y Pipian Verde, a corn cake baked in a green pumpkin seed and tomatillo sauce and topped with onions and cheese. My friend ordered the Crepas de Huitlacoche, baked crepes stuffed with “corn mushrooms,” that were smothered with cheese and poblano sauce. I didn’t take to my corn cake dish and at first I couldn’t figure out why. The pumpkin seed-tomatillo sauce overwhelmed the dish, but it was too nutty and creamy for my taste, and didn’t provide enough contrast to the thick corn cake. I couldn’t identify the onions or the cheese in the dish, and after a few bites, I realized that the corn cakes had an after taste of the freezer. I asked my friend to confirm and he agreed: they tasted like they had been thawed, topped with sauce, and served. Totally disappointing. The mushroom crepes were better, since the mushrooms were very sweet and fat. The smoky poblano sauce ran through the dish like an earthy river, but the amount of cheese topping the crepes was, again, overpowering and unnecessary. In fact, we were full after three bites but dutifully ate on, since we had ordered so much food.

Guacamole: $8.95; Tamal de Rajas: $8.95; Crepas: $11.95

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On Saturday we threw a late lunch party at my apartment that stretched throughout the lazy afternoon, like an early Thanksgiving, full of Scrabble games and lickable foods. We opened bottles of tart strawberry and raspberry lambics and set out plates on the wooden table in our living room. Our feast spread out, we started nibbling on a mustard and cabbage salad, dressed in a yellow mustard vinaigrette; a chocolate-coconut-pecan tart that didn’t quite work out, and the Indonesian fritters, which were crispy and golden, their plump interior layered with shallots, potatoes and bean sprouts. They were the most perfect party snack.

I found the recipe for the fritters a couple weeks ago, when I bought James Oseland’s The Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Oseland is the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine and seems like the tastiest man. He visited Indonesia for the first time when he was 19 and spent long afternoons learning the art of Indonesian cooking from old men and young women. I’ve been carrying Cradle of Flavor everywhere, reading it on the subway and in my bed at night. Oseland writes clearly, breaking down the history and properties of all the frequently used ingredients and spices in a beginning portion of his book. He also devotes a section to thoroughly explain the different techniques used in southeast Asian cooking, and finally provides a great assortment of recipes, each with a little story or mini-history attached. Vegetarians- the book is about 1/2 full of vegetarian recipes; however, many of them call for shrimp paste. I don’t regret buying it, however, because I think it’s a solid introduction to the spices and cuisines of southeast Asia, and there is always room for innovation when cooking.

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These fritters were such a hit that I made them again on Sunday evening, for another impromptu dinner party. They are highly easy and just so tasty.

Fritters
from The Cradle of Flavor, by James Oseland

(makes about 25)
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups + 2 tbsp. water
1 cup mung bean sprouts
3 Chinese chives or scallions, very thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 tbsp. finely chopped Chinese celery greens or regular celery greens
3 green cabbage leaves, very finely shredded into strips 1 inch long
1 small waxy potato such as Yukon Gold, peeled and cut into very fine matchsticks; about 1 cup total
1 clove garlic, minced
2 shallots, grated
peanut oil for frying
sweet-and-sour Chile Dipping Sauce
12 fresh green Thai chiles

1. Sift together the flour and salt in a bowl. Add the water and stir well, making sure to get out all the lumps. You should have a smooth batter resembling slightly thick pancake batter that easily coats the back of a spoon. If too thick add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time; if too thin, add more flour, 1 tsp. at a time.

2. Add the bean sprouts, scallions, celery greens, cabbage, potato, garlic, and shallots in the batter and stir gently to combine.

3. Pour oil to a depth of 1 inch into a 12 inch skillet and place over medium to medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Test the oil to see if it is hot enough by adding a drop of batter. If the batter sizzles immediately, the oil is ready; if it sinks to the bottom, heat the oil for a couple more minutes and test again.

4. For each fritter, ladle about 1 1/2 tbsp. batter into the hot oil with a large metal spoon, using a smaller spoon to scrape off any batter clinging to the larger spoon. Each fritter should be about 2 inches long and 1 inch thick. Cook no more than 3 or 4 fritters at a time to avoid crowding them in the skillet. (Crowding will reduce the temperature of the oil and make the fritters greasy. Fry the fritters turning them occasionally with the spoon, until they’re uniformly golden and crisp, about 2 minutes total on each side. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to a paper towel to drain.

Serve at once with dipping sauce and whole chiles.

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Sweet-and-Sour (and spicy) Dipping Sauce
adapted from The Cradle of Flavor, by James Oseland

4 fresh red holland chiles or other fresh long red chiles such as fresno or cayenne, stemmed and thinly sliced
1 tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. palm, cider, or rice vinegar
4 tbsp warm water
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced

Pulse the first five ingredients in a food processor into a smooth liquid. Since I don’t have a food processor, I just chopped the chiles very, very fine, and added everything on top of that. Finally, add the garlic and let the sauce rest for ten min to give the garlic time to meld with other ingredients.

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Dumpling House
118 Eldridge Street
New York, NY
(212) 625 8008
The line was snaking out the door at Dumpling House, a bustling little store on an otherwise quiet block of Eldridge street. It was getting dark and I groaned, thinking it would crowded, and we’d have to wait thirty minutes to eat. The evening was cold and a little drizzly. But fortunately, the line moved fast, and we eventually got seats.

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We studied the menu while waiting for our turn to order and I decided to go with boiled dumplings, a sesame pancake sandwich, and sesame noodles. My friend ordered the same, as well as a large container steaming with vegetable dumpling soup.

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The Dumpling House is essentially a take-out joint; most people order their dumplings to go and then wait as the four hatted women behind the counter boil them fresh. One woman works specifically on sandwiches, standing closest to the take-out window. Particular eaters watch her as she builds their meals according to their specifications. I sat saving two stools (out of seven) near a back counter top while my friend did the watching and waiting to make sure we got our seven items.

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Of course we ordered way too much food but we didn’t care, because the dumplings, noodles, soups, and sandwiches were cheap, and we were hungry. We held our 16 dumplings by their faintly pink, ridged peaks and dipped them into a mixture of sauces. The dumpling dough was tender and elastic; the filling was an enticing blend of scallions, greens, and carrots. They were distinctively fresh, prepared throughout the day by men in a bright kitchen behind the eating counter. The women out front boiled, fried, and served customers. In my experience, veggie dumplings are usually quite mediocre, so it was astonishing and delightful to eat quality ones, prepared in a little shop on a quiet street.

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To make the sesame pancake sandwiches, women pour a batter into an oil slicked pan. After the bread puffs out into a golden crisp, they slice the pizza-sized pancake into quarters, and use two per sandwich. The veggie sandwich is a popular item. I imagine it’s because the nutty, hot crust layered with sweet pickled cucumbers and carrots is an unusual and filling contrast of flavors. The tableside sriracha, a sexier version of ketch-up, is usually squirted on top for a saucy, sweet spice.

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[sorry I bit this before taking the photo]

After eating the dumplings and the sandwich, I was too full to enjoy the noodles properly, but they were long and thick and topped with a sesame paste and pickled cucumbers. I hear the dumpling soup was excellent; my friend had it the next day for lunch and couldn’t stop raving about it.

[vegetable dumplings (8): $2; sesame pancake sandwich: $1.25; dumpling soup: $3; sesame noodles: $1.25]

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[bhel from Tamarind]

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I went to Indian Bread Co. last night for a second dinner. I was stuffed after my first dinner of dumplings but my appetite grew as I sat through this event. Then I remembered that Indian Bread Co. was in the area; I had recently reread the Nirali article on its owner, Nandini Mukherjee. Last night was my first time at this particular kati roll spot and to be honest, I really wasn’t expecting much. The hype over kati rolls seems to focus on Kati Roll, which I’m not a huge fan of anyway, because I think their rolls are unnecessarily oily.

I ordered a Paneer Tikka Masala roll and sat down to wait. Two of the other tables were occupied, but luckily the narrow shop wasn’t too busy. I asked for extra onions and green chilies on the side and when I picked up my roll, it came with a plate of amazingly stinky red onions (how I love love love red onions) and a cup of green, mint chutney. The chutney was obviously not the green chilies I had asked for, nor was it spicy, but it smelled like a minty forest and tasted great.

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I bit into the roll. I expected rubbery, dry paneer. But it was soft, almost creamy. It was fresh! And the masalaed, yogurt based marinade seeped its rich flavors into the small cubes of paneer. It was so unusual that I pulled out a piece, examined it, and passed it to my friend, who was eating an Achari Gosht Roll. He said, “Wow, I’ve never eaten such soft paneer before.” Well, I have! In Bombay, my masi makes paneer tikka at least twice while I’m there. Everytime, I blissfully stuff myself on marinated chunks of the freshest, milkiest paneer, tomatoes, capsicums, and onions (and then spend the subsequent hours with painful stomach aches but I don’t mind because it’s just so good). This paneer tikka reminded me of my masi’s. Other pros:

The paratha was not too dry nor too oily.
The chutney was evenly and liberally distributed throughout the roll.

A con:
The roll was tiny, about half the size of my usual Roomali rolls. The price is high for the size of these rolls but at least I know where to get my paneer fix now. Oh, and they also have stuffed parathas and “naaninis,” both of which don’t sound too appealing, but the “naanwich,” which I think is a pita-style sandwich made of naan and paneer instead of pita and falafel, sounds sort of intriguing.

And then we got chai, which was watery and totally blah. And it had cinnamon! I know Starbucks chai has cinnamon, but I’ve never been able to taste it our chai at home (which I know has no cinnamon) or other South Asian places in the city. For chai, I’d recommend going to Lahore Deli, on Crosby Street (so close to my job); their chai is fragrantly spicy and strongly comforting. Just the other morning, it was grey and drizzling, but the cup of chai I got from Lahore and sipped while walking to work reminded me why I like living in New York.

Indian Bread Company is at 194 Bleecker Street, between 6th Avenue and Macdougal, New York, NY. (212) 228-1909.
Paneer Tikka Masala Roll: $4.50
Chai: $1.50

Lahore Deli is at 132 Crosby Street, New York, NY. (212) 965-1777. Chai: $ 1.50

Related posts: Roomali is so much better than Kati Roll, 12 tastes of Bombay, Kati Roll, Brimful of Chat

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