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Archive for April, 2009

rosemary, baby

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For Valentine’s Day, I got H. a plant-your-own-rosemary kit that was sold in a miniature box. Inside the box was a tiny pot, a pellet of soil, and a bag of seven or eight miniscule seeds. We finally figured out how to plant the seeds (submerge the “nutrient rich” soil pellet in warm water, place it in the pot, dig a small hole and scatter the seeds inside) and every day now, I water my baby plant, placed on the sun-blessed window ledge in our bedroom. I also peer at it and press down on the soil, waiting to see or feel a stalk.

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Our own fresh rosemary! I know it’s not a big deal to grow rosemary at home, but this is the first plant, (albiet miniature), that’s my responsibility, and boy am I excited. I’ll post picture updates every so often for those who want a document of its progress :) (probably only me).

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out of season rainy day in mahabaleshwar

out of season rainy day in mahabaleshwar

Another Monday. It’s only 9 a.m. but the day already seems oddly long, perhaps because H. woke up four hours ago to catch a flight. He’s out of town for the day and although he’ll be back tonight and always works during the weekdays, today, strangely, it seems like he’s gone so far. I feel like I have all these hours stretching in front of me and I think what I will do is this:

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dream

organize my bookshelves by category
collect the artwork I would like to frame

clean our bedroom

walk in the park, when it becomes cool and dark

stretching her arms in relief

stretching her arms in relief

These piles of books, the red nail polish sitting on the  TV speaker, H.’s papers, the lotions and hair clips and camera wires that clutter my bedside table, the honey jar and aromatherapy oils on the DVD shelf, the forgotten boxes of old gifts lying around, all of it will go today. I hope.

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But first, before I start this sorting and throwing and arranging, let me tell you about Jaisinh mama‘s baked omelette, because, like the sun, it’s cheerful. And I need a bright spot on a day like this, a long, gray, spring-cleaning day. Also, we ate this omelette twice this past week (once for dinner and once for breakfast) and have decided that it’s the best. omelette. ever.

Hrishikesh and Mama hopping stones on a walk

Hrishikesh and Mama hopping stones on a walk

Jaisinh mama, my dad’s uncle, lives in Bombay but spends about half of every month in Mahabaleshwar. He’s mighty cool (keep in mind, he’s old- he’s my grandmother’s brother). He’s a talented gardener, painter, and cook; he reads a ton and takes three hour walks everyday; he listens to Indian classical music in the mornings and evenings and volunteers with the youth and farmers in Mahabaleshwar. His strawberries, cherry tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes are known to be the best in Bombay. He even supplies sun-dried tomatoes to Bombay restaurants like Moshe. A wish: I want to be like him when I grow up.

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Jaisinh mama’s baked omelette is quite famous, for an omelette. All of his friends and family have eaten it, and people discuss it, too, when out: “Jaisinh uncle’s omelette is really good, dude,” said one of H.’s friends. It’s reknowned enough that Upper Crust, India’s most well-known food magazine, wrote a piece on him and his omelette recipe. Whenever H. and I go to Mahabaleshwar we try to meet mama for a walk. If we’re lucky, he’ll invite us to stay for a baked omelette breakfast.

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I don’t like regular omelettes, made in frying pans, because they are heavy. I feel like a lump after eating one. But this baked omelette- or baked egg dish, I should say, since omelettes are usually made with butter or oil in a pan, is fluffy, light on oil, and chock-full of vegetables. Each slice oozes with delicious bits of asparagus and pepper, juicy tomato, and smooth, salty cheese. You only use oil to sautee the veggies and brush the baking dish, and if you didn’t add any cheese, this omelette would be really healthy. But we love cheese and added a solid handful of creamy goat’s milk cheese cubes to ours.

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We’ve made some changes to Mama’s orginal recipe* but this omelette is still so simple. Beat some eggs and mix them with chopped, sauteed veggies, cilantro and a small amount of soft, mushy rice. Mama adds the rice to his omelette to give it body while keeping it light and easy to digest. Pour the mixture in a baking dish, top with cheese and chilis and olives if you like, and bake for about 20 minutes, until the omelette is just set.

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Jaisinh Mama’s Famous Baked Omelette
adapted from Jaisinh Mariwala
serves 2 as a main dish (although H. and I have unsually large appetites so maybe it could serve 3. It could definitely serve 4 as a side dish).

5 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup overcooked, mushy rice (boil rice or use day-old rice and then add 1/2-1 cup more water and let that boil away until the rice resembles porridge)
1 cup chopped vegetables of your preference, in 1/4 inch pieces (we used onions, scallions, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, red and yellow bell peppers, asparagus, and both sun-dried and regular tomatoes)
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced
1-2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
1 handful of cubed cheese of your preference (we used goat’s milk cheese and it was perfect, creamy, and not too mild)
2 Tbsp. of olives
1-2 green chiles, sliced into thin rounds
olive oil

1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F, and lightly brush a round baking dish with olive oil.

2. In a skillet, pour a little oil and wait for it to heat up. Sautee your vegetables of choice- I usually start by sauteeing onions and garlic, then adding the peppers and asparagus, and finally, the mushrooms and tomatoes (but not the sundried tomatoes). You can add and subtract whichever ingredients you like or dislike; for example, you don’t need to use garlic, or mushrooms, although I think the omelette is infinitely more tasty because of them.

2. In a large bowl, combine the beaten eggs, sauteed veggies, chopped cilantro and mushy rice. Add salt and pepper and mix well.

3. Pour omelette mixture into baking dish. Top with cubed cheese, sliced olives, and green chiles.Bake for 15-20 minutes, until just set. Let cool for a couple minutes before serving slices with toast, jam, cheese, and mustard.

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I adore eggplants. People complain about their tough skin, strange, seedy innards, and pallid white-green flesh, but I find that they’re elegant and so confident in their glossy rotund bodies and handsome purple hue. Eggplants make me happy with their classy adaptability: they can be prepared in a million different ways so you never get tired of them. On our honeymoon, I put on a purple t-shirt dress and asked H., “Do I look like an eggplant?” “Yes,” he replied and explained to our friend, “She takes this as a compliment.”

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I like eggplant broiled, mashed and cooked with spices until it becomes hot, soupy, baingan bartha, shoveled in my mouth with naan; I like it roasted and mixed with yogurt for a cool summer raita and I love eating eggplant with tomatoes and milky mozzarella, olive oil and salt. Of course, I like babaganoush, eggplant parmigiana, and eggplant in spicy garlic sauce and I plan on learning to make all of them. But last week, I made an eggplant caponata that was so deliciously intense, winey and dark and romantically simmering with flavor that instead of making one of the aforementioned dishes, I’m going to make this caponata again, today, using the dark plump beauty sitting in my fridge.

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I think this eggplant, slick with slow-cooked flavors, is perfect for wooing a sweetheart with your romantic prowess in the kitchen or for wooing yourself when you’re despondent and in the mood for a soul-satisfying dish. Preparing this caponata takes a little time but pressing your knife into the tight skin of an eggplant, softening carrots for a tomato sauce, and adding a cloud of cinnamon so the saucepan smells like spring flowers is sure to banish your I Miss Living In New York Blues, or I Miss the Spring and the Fall Blues or I Miss My Friends Most Of All Blues or really, whichever blues you might be feeling.

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Cooking this caponata lets you mull, and daydream, and hum when you’re finally feeling up for it, because sweetening the eggplant in the browned onions and prunes takes time, and making the pungent tomato sauce that the cubed eggplants absorb takes time; and in that time, after all those minutes spent chopping and stirring and wallowing in the smoky, certain smells of cooking eggplants and tomatoes, cinnamon and thyme, you will most likely feel better and ready- for what’s next, for the first forkful of caponata, which will be resonant with sweetness and spice and all that you hunger for, and have, right in front of you, on your plate.

You can eat this caponata on toasted bread, or with pasta, or with nothing else at all.

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Eggplant Caponata to Fix the Blues
adapted from Molto Italiano

makes 8 servings

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large red onion or about 3 medium-sized Indian onions
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. pine nuts
3 Tbsp. dried prunes
1 Tbsp. hot red pepper flakes
2 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1/2-1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
3/4 cup basic tomato sauce
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper

1. In a 10-12 inch saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the onion, garlic, pine nuts, prunes and red pepper flakes and cook until the onion is softened, 4-5 minutes. Add the eggplant, sugar, cinnamon and cocoa and cook for 5 minutes.

2. Add the thyme, tomato sauce (recipe below) and vinegar and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. (The caponata can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.

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Basic Tomato Sauce
from Molto Italiano

makes 4 cups

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, cut into a 1/4-inch dice
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme, or 1 Tbsp. dried thyme
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded, or 1 whole red Indian carrot, shredded
3.5 – 4 cups blanched whole tomatoes, skins removed (about 15 Indian oval tomatoes) or two 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes

1. In a 3-quart saucepan, heat, the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, 8-10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot and cook until the carrot is quite soft, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the tomatoes, with their juice, and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer until as thick as hot cereal, about 30-40 minutes. Season with salt. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 6 months.

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The title of this post might make you wonder if I’m writing about some strange Italian dessert, but let me explain. Hrishikesh loves sweet foods like I love pumpkins: with a passion. Both our families are from Kutch, a desert-like region in the very west of Gujarat, India. While Gujaratis are stereotypically known to make all their savory foods extra sweet, Kutchis have no such predilections assigned to their tastebuds. Kutchi food is very similar to Gujarati food minus the added sugar: simple and wholesome preparations of vegetables and lentils that tend to rely on a few key spices and ingredients (cumin, fennel, mustard seeds, asofetida, cilantro, ginger and turmeric); the full-bodied masalas and creams that characterize the popular North Indian food are mostly absent in Kutchi cuisine.

mmm melted butter and sage

mmm melted butter and sage

Much to my frustration, H.’s tastebuds are decidedly much more Guju than Kutchi, whereas my tastebuds- well, I’d diagnose them as craving balance. He’ll add a teaspoon of sugar to kadi (curry) when we’re eating the already semi-sweet soup for dinner, and he’s always figuring out reasons to add honey, jam, or sugar to recipes. Most of the time I just roll my eyes and ignore his sugary suggestions but once in a while my super sweet husband really gets it right, like the day he wanted to add honey to our sweet potato ravioli filling.

sweet potato ravioli with grated ginger cookies and sage

sweet potato ravioli with grated ginger cookies and sage

We chose this recipe, which we adapted from Mario Batali, for its extreme simplicity. Oh, and its sweetness, of course. After spending a couple hours on our feet mixing and kneading and rolling pasta dough for our ravioli, the last thing we wanted was a time consuming filling to make before we could sit down to eat our efforts. H. and I both love sweet potatoes, and we adapted Batali’s recipe for butternut squash tortelli to feed our sweet potato ravioli fantasies. All you have to do is boil sweet potatoes until they’re  agreeably soft, peel and mash them, and then mix in a couple eggs, some salty Parmigiano, and a sprinkle of salt, pepper and nutmeg. After we tried this combination, we thought something was needed to bring together the flavors, so H. offered his ever-ready suggestion of honey, which added a deep, lovely undertone to the mixture. The other great feature of this ravioli is that its topping is so easy. As easy as grating a ginger cookie into a mound of fine, gingery crumbs, which we then sprinkled atop the melted butter and sage-tossed ravioli. The cookie topping- Batali used amaretti cookies for his butternut squash ravioli but we decided to use ginger for the sweet potato- is genius: the ginger crumbs have a wonderful sharp taste and crunchy contrast to the mild, soft sweet potato pouches.

Sweet Potato Ravioli with Grated Ginger Cookies and Sage
adapted from Molto Italiano

makes 4 servings

5-6 sweet potatoes (about 1 lb.)
2 large eggs
1  cup freshly grated Parmigiano
1-2 tsp. of honey
Salt, pepper, and grated nutmeg, all to taste

Fresh Pasta Dough

4 ginger cookies
8 Tbsp. unsalted butter
8 fresh sage leaves or 1 1/2 Tbsp. dried sage

1. Put the sweet potatoes in boiling water until tender (a fork should slide in the cooked potato easily, meeting no resistance). Remove the potatoes from water and set aside until cool enough to handle. Peel the skin from the potatoes and place in a large mixing bowl. Using a fork or the backside of a soup spoon, roughly mash the potato, breaking any big chunks.

2. In that same bowl, add the eggs, 1 cup Parmigiano, the honey, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well.

3. Roll out ping pong sized balls of pasta dough into thin sheets. When you think the dough is at its thinnest, take a knife and lightly cut it into equal sized squares or rectangles. Put a teaspoon sized amount of the sweet potato filling a little above the middle of the piece. Dip a finger in some water and moisten three ajoining sides of the square further from the filling. Gently lift that side of the piece, pull it over the filling and press down on the opposite corners. Seal the the two edges of the pasta square together, pressing out any air pockets.

4. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 Tbsp. of salt.

5. In a 12-inch saute pan, heat the butter until it foams and then subsides. Keep warm over very low heat.

6. Submerge the ravioli in the boiling water for 2-4 minutes, until pasta is tender.

7. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/4 cup of the cooking water, and add the pasta to the pan with the butter. Add a splash of the pasta water and the sage leaves and toss over high heat for 1 minute to coat the pasta and emulsify the sauce.

8. Divide the pasta evenly among four plates, sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmigiano, and serve immediately. Grate a ginger cookie over each plate at the table.


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After H. and I read Heat, the memoir about New Yorker writer Bill Buford’s time as an apprentice in Italian cooking at Mario Batali’s Babbo restaurant, we were determined to try the food there. Last summer, we spent a day eating and walking our way through Manhattan, all the way from Morningside Heights down to Greenwich Village, where we tried our luck at the Babbo bar. Reservations aren’t required, and in the first come first serve policy, we got seated in twenty minutes.

Babbo's pumpkin lune with sage and ammareti

Babbo's pumpkin lune with sage and ammareti

Savoring our three pasta dishes and their wine pairings was a delectable experience that, coupled with Bill Buford’s engaging stories about learning to make pasta from a serene little lady in Italy and bringing his knowledge back to Babbo’s chaotic kitchen, made us want to be Italian food apprentices too. Babbo’s raviolis were gourmet pillows of pumpkin and sage, goat cheese and orange that made our mouths and minds work in questioning anticipation: how could we make these at home, in Bombay, where handmade pasta is almost always confined to a five-star experience?

Before I moved to India in August I ordered Batali’s Molto Italiano off Amazon and flipped through its glossy pages until I reached the pasta section. The recipe itself sounded fairly simple: 3.5 cups of flour + 5 eggs = pasta dough, while it was handiwork that seemed strenuous and skilled: the kneading, stretching, and rolling of the dough until it became as precariously thin as a supermodel. To make the pasta so thin- without a pasta machine- takes strength, and patience, and determination. But if you have that, making it is fairly easy and so worthwhile. Handmade pasta has this haunting, immensely pleasurable toothsomeness that changes the way you appreciate the dish. When made from scratch, it is no longer just a mode of transporting tomato sauce or goat cheese; instead, the whole package is a savory experience.

H. then remembered that in Heat, Buford had written two other recipes for pasta dough, one of which was a Babbo secret revealed for the first time in his book. That recipe called for 3 eggs, 8 egg yolks, salt, olive oil and a splash of water for every pound of flour. The two recipes vary in the egg quantity and from what I read in Heat, the egg’s function is to moisten and flavor the dough, giving it a light and chewy bite. Buford writes that the reason Batali uses so many more yolks than his teacher in Italy who used 1 egg for every 100 grams of flour, is because the eggs he was getting in New York weren’t as fresh and therefore as flavorful as the ones his teacher got in her small Italian town.

We adapted our recipe for the pasta dough to the size of Desi (Indian) eggs available; they’re generally much smaller than their American counterparts and the yolks are a gorgeous, vivid yellow. The general rule here is that you should add as many eggs/yolks as is necessary to moisten the dough; olive oil and salt are just the added intensifiers.

Pasta Dough
adapted from Heat (p. 183) and Molto Italiano

3.5 cups flour
4 (desi) eggs
7 (desi) egg yolks
a splash of olive oil & water
a dash of salt

1.Combine the eggs, egg yolks, salt, and a dribble of olive oil and water in a bowl and lightly beat with a fork until combined.

2. Mound the flour at the center of a cutting board. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the beaten mixture from the bowl.

3. Using a fork, incorporate the flour starting with the inner rim of the well. As you expand the well, try to keep pushing the flour up to retain the well shape (this will probably look messy but don’t worry). When half the flour is incorporated, the dough will begin to come together. Start kneading the dough, using primarily the palms of your hands. Once the dough is a cohesive mass, set it aside and scrape up and discard any dried bits of dough.

4. Lightly flour the board and continue kneading for a full ten minutes (or more if your arms don’t get tired), dusting the board with additional flour if necessary, until the dough becomes elastic and a little sticky. Then, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rise for 30 minutes. In Molto Italiano, Batali writes that this process of kneading and resting the dough “develops the gluten to the maximum and will create a noodle that has an almost al dente and chewy feel to it.”

5. When you unwrap the dough, it will have softened. Do not be tempted to knead it again now.

6. Cut the dough in 4 pieces and wrap 3 of them up again in plastic or cover with a damp kitchen towel.

7. Quickly roll ping pong sized balls of dough and then flatten each piece with the palm of your hand. Dust your cutting board/counter/workspace with flour.

ping pong sized balls of pasta dough

ping pong sized balls of pasta dough

8. Using a rolling pin, start rolling out the dough, dusting flour when necessary to prevent it from sticking to the workspace or pin. Gradually roll the dough in each direction so its width remains equal. If you roll gently and patiently, you can achieve a very thin stretch of dough.

cut the dough into squares or rectangles

cut the dough into squares or rectangles

9. When you think the dough is at its thinnest, take a knife and lightly cut it into equal sized squares or rectangles. Put a teaspoon sized amount of filling a little above the middle of the piece. Dip a finger in some water and moisten three ajoining sides of the square further from the filling. Gently lift that side of the piece, pull it over the filling and press down on the opposite corners. Seal the the two edges of the pasta square together, pressing out any air pockets.

10. In a pot of boiling water, submerge the ravioli for 2-4 minutes, until pasta is tender. Serve with sauce.

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