Friday, October 30, 2009

Chettinad chicken and Persimmon bread

I've gone on a produce binge (again) this week. I have more cauliflower, kale, broccoli, apples, quince, bananas and tomatoes than I know what do with. An aunt visiting from California brought some Fuyu persimmons to add to the list. But here’s the problem. I was minding my own business and walking by the kitchen the other day when I saw IT. Scurrying from the trash can to the oven...a little brown mouse!! That poor little guy didn’t have a clue but his sight was enough to make my skin crawl. I'm not particularly squeamish-- bugs, spiders and other creepy crawlies don't affect me whatsoever (except snakes, lizards, aligators, ok reptiles in general). I dont care how cute Ratatouille was, there are certain things I just have to draw the line at and this was it. The exterminators were called for an emergency check-in that very afternoon. But heres the other problem, they say that theres no sign of infestation and that he must have just been a stray that crawled through the doggie door and went up the pipes between the walls, apparently very common in Baltimore rowhomes!! The only thing they can do is put mouse traps around the pipes. That thought was enough to keep me away from the stove for a few days. So I’d pack hubby and my little guy to grandmas’ for meals and subsisted on frozen (pretty good) vegan burritos for the rest of the week. It wasn’t that bad really and it gave me a chance to catch up on my reading and (loooong overdue) internet scrabble. But the Californian aunty was to come over for dinner today and I had to make some food! Finally, some incentive to drag my lazy behind back to the stove. Nothing fancy, just a simple Indian meal: Fish curry, chettinad stir fried chicken, sauteed kale and for dessert, Lebovitz’s adaptation of persimmon bread (not very Indian, but oh so delicioso!).

Chettinad stir fried chicken

1 medium onion chopped
1 lb (or 3 large) boneless skinless chicken breast cubed into 1 inch pieces
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp chilli powder (or to taste)
1 medium tomato
1 tbsp dessicated coconut (unsweetened)
1 tbsp white peppercorns
1 tbsp cumin seeds (jeera)
2 tsp fennel seeds
2 cardamom pods
½ inch stick of cinnamon
2 cloves
Handful of dried coconut very thinly sliced (optional)
Juice of half a lemon
Coriander leaves chopped (garnish)
Salt to taste

Place a large saute pan on medium heat. Add 2 tbsp of vegetable oil, onions and chicken. Fry for a few seconds and then add salt, turmeric and chilli powder. Stir occasionally to avoid burning. In the meantime grind tomato and coconut to form a watery paste. Add tomato-coconut paste to chicken. Fry till all the liquid evaporates, stir once in a while. Powder peppercorns, cumin, fennel seeds, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves in a dry/spice grinder. Add spice mixture to the chicken when almost dry. Add coconut slices and lemon juice to the chicken, toss to mix well. Garnish with coriander leaves.

Persimmon bread
Adapted from David Lebovitz

3½ cups all purpose flour
1½ tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground nutmeg (increased from 1tsp)
2 to 2½ cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) melted unsalted butter and cooled to room temperature
4 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
2/3 cup whiskey
2 cups persimmon puree (Dave says to use 4 squishy-soft Hachiya persimmons, but I pureed 4 Fuyu persimmons with ¾ cup of water)
2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped
2 cups raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 2X9-inch loaf tins by buttering the insides and lining parchment paper (or dust flour instead of parchment). Mix all the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda, nutmeg and sugar) in a large bowl. Make a depression in the center and mix in the wet ingredients. Then add nuts and raisins. Bake for about 1 hour (but mine took a little longer than that), or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Gulab jamun for my munchkin's 2nd birthday

Its amazing how time flies. Feels like it was only a few months ago that I was waddling my 60lb heavier than usual self from one class to another, watching my stomach morph shapes as the baby inside me moved and then shortly after that the (literally) gut wrenching pain of my little one's fight to get out.

Lying on the metallic operating table was the most helpless I'd felt in my entire adult life. My OB who had suffered a mild heart attack a couple of weeks earlier was still sick, the idiot anesthesiologist was on his cellphone discussing stocks over my head (in the OR!), my husband sitting on a stool next to me was way too fascinated by the blood and gore to look at my side of the screen, so I just lay there staring at the ceiling feeling the bizarre painless tugging and shoving inside my belly. A few minutes into the process and one deep scoop later, the OB declares, "He's OUT! Oh! He's peed on me but its ok its sterile". And with that stream of defiance Vinodh was out into the world. He was rushed to the pediatrician who had to check his vitals, weight and length before he was bundled up and brought to me. He was the most beautiful baby I'd ever seen and I wanted to keep staring at him but the cold OR was not appropriate for the delicate new life. So he was put on top of a little bed and wheeled out to the nursery, his father right behind the nurse. A few more gut pushes and tugs later, numb and drugged, I was heaved (by about 10 people) onto a stretcher into my "birthing suite". I had to be briefed by a "Lactation counselor" before Vinodh was brought back for me to hold him for the first time. I held him for all of 10 minutes before being knocked out by the morphine. Every single detail of that day is so clearly etched in my mind that its hard to believe it was 2 years ago.

Since that day there have been so many lessons learnt, so many tests of patience, so many memories-- a baby totally dependent on you can be a little scary but that helpless little life teaches you how and one smile, a chirpy laugh, one hug and one kiss is enough to make all the fear go away and really all the bad in the world goes away too.

Celebrating Vinodhs birthday is on the scale of a small wedding. We just have so much family here and having to cater to each of their different food habits makes it all the more complicated. I'd ultimately settled on a mostly Indian menu with a couple of pasta options for the little ones and gulab jamun for dessert. Deep fried balls of dough soaked in a cardamom-rose scented syrup-- theres no way to go wrong with it.

1/2 cup milk powder
2 tbsp all purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
Pinch of cinnamon powder (optional)
Pinch of nutmeg powder (optional)
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp yogurt
1 tbsp ghee

For syrup
2 cups sugar
2 cups of water
1/4 tsp rose essence
3 pods of cardamom (slightly crushed or powdered)

Make syrup first by putting all the ingredients in a sauce pan and bringing it to a boil. Once boiled, bring heat down to the lowest setting and leave till gulab jamuns are ready.

Mix dry ingredients in bowl, add ghee and add yogurt a little at a time to make a smooth dough. Let rest for a few minutes. In the meantime put on pan with oil for deep frying. Shape dough into small balls about 1cm in diameter. The balls have to be smooth otherwise they'll burst open when fried, they are still just as delicious but not very pretty. Drop balls into the oil and remove with a slotted spoon when they turn dark brown. Place balls into serving dish and add the syrup. Garnish with nuts of choice, I used sliced almonds but crushed pistachios would also work. Let soak for at least 2 hours (the longer the better).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pizza- rediscovered

Pizza is the best medium to eat just about anything. In fact, theres this little place in Towson called Pasta Mista that even puts different kinds of pasta on their pizza. They have pretty uncommon combinations including a chicken parmesan pizza, chicken ranch pizza and, a favorite that I havent had since leaving Boston, buffalo chicken pizza. Its great! If I could eat there every single day, believe me I would but curbing those cravings is crucial especially because I enjoy having a real waistline.

Somehow though, eating homemade pizza feels less guilty. I know exactly what goes on my pizza and can, on the extremely rare occasion, even cut back on the cheese-- hardly ever happens but options are always nice. I've been, until recently, bit of a pizza snob. I'd never been adventurous enough to try anything other than the usual veggies, chicken, and rarely, shrimp or beef. But this year has been a real eye opener. I'd never understood how people could eat tiny, salty, (in my mind) stinky filets of fish on their pizza till I tried it. There was no smell whatsoever and the saltiness was a beautiful compliment to the sweet caramelized onions, fluffy crust and black olives. And then theres the rosemary potato pizza with gruyere cheese, that vanished before I could take pictures of it. Here's a recipe for an easy-breezy pizza crust and a couple of my new found combination favorites.

For the pizza crust
3/4 cup warm water (105°F to 115°F)
1 envelope active dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
2 cups (or more) all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
Pour 3/4 cup warm water into small bowl. Add yeast, sugar and stir. Let stand until a froth of yeast forms (about 5 mins).
Into the bowl of a stand mixer add flour and salt. Add yeast mixture and 3tbsp of oil. Mix on medium high (with dough hook) for about 7 minutes till a smooth dough forms. If still sticky, add a little flour to the bowl and knead dough by hand (in the bowl itself). Add a little more oil, flip the ball of dough over and add a little more oil. Cover and let rise in a warm place for about an hour or till it doubles. Punch down dough and shape it onto the tray/ stone you plan to bake pizza on. Add toppings of choice and bake in a 350 degree preheated oven. If you want the crust on the crispier side, prebake the crust for about 7 minutes, add the toppings and return back to the oven to finish cooking. Pizza is done when the crust there are tiny golden brown specks and cheese is melted and bubbly.

Topping combinations

Combination 1. Caramelized red onions, anchovies, black olives and fresh mozzarella
For caramelized onions:
1 tbsp olive oil
2 large red onions sliced thin
Add olive oil to a saucepan on medium heat and then drop in the onions. Once the onions just start to soften, reduce heat to low and cover. Stir occasionally to avoid onions sticking to the bottom of the pan. About 30 mins later you should have beautifully caramelized onions. I layer the onions on the crust first and then add the other toppings in the order listed below.
Remaining toppings for this combination in order:
Half of a 2 oz tin of flat anchovies, crumble as spreading around pizza (I like the Cento brand)
Handful of Nicoise black olives sliced (or any black olive if you're not a purist)
A nice fist sized ball of fresh mozzarrella, pinching off chunks as you drop around pizza
Combination 2. Rosemary covered potatoes with gruyere cheese
For potatoes:
5 small potatoes or 10 fingerling potatoes
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1 sprig of rosemary chopped
2 spring onions chopped fine
Salt to taste
Wrap potatoes in wet paper towel and heat on high in microwave for about 4 minutes or till you begin to smell the potatoes. Peel and let cool. Once cool, slice potatoes into thin rings (if using fingerling potatoes just half them). Mix lemon juice, spring onions, rosemary and salt in a bowl. Toss the potatoes into the lemon dressing to coat well. Let sit for about 5 minutes.
Layer potato mixture over pizza dough. Do NOT pour dressing remaining in the bottom of the bowl over the pizza. Break little chunks off the gruyere cheese and sprinkle over the top.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pretty fall peppers

Its been one of those weeks. An RNA extraction that should have taken a normal biologist 45 mins takes moi, the bioinformatician, 5 hours by which point the RNA is probably degraded beyond rescue. Ever hopeful (hoping against hope even maybe) by some random twist of fate there will be salvageable RNA.

Then there was the lab journal club presentation. While working on the powerpoint which in my mind was etched to be for tomorrow, I get an email from a friend wondering why the pizza for the presentation was there but not the presenter, yes, I'd missed my presentation by an hour. Why would we need a journal club for just the lab anyway?? I must admit usually those sessions are fun and free food is always a great incentive...presenting in one of these meetings though is a whole 'nother issue. I mean talking isnt hard, usually stopping my babble is the tough part. But representing somebody else's thoughts, trying to figure out what their thinking, trying to decipher their ever so shakespearean writing and what the heck they were thinking when they came up with 50 billion graphs when just one would be enough to show they didnt have the faintest clue. One of my professors loves to share the story of James Watson's response to the question how they managed to describe the groundbreaking interpretation of the structure of DNA in a one page article, he said "It helps to have something [useful] to say". Its rare to find writing like that anymore-- writing without the fluff. You know, writing just like someone was thinking out loud.

But my week will start looking up. Tomorrow will be nice, I just know it. Theres a little cobblestone pathway in school thats pat in between a dorm, the outpatient center and the gym. Every Thursday since the beginning of summer, that leaf strewn pathway gets transformed into a farmers market. Little green tents propped atop white poles shelter stalls of fresh baked bread, pastry, local dairy cheese, ice-cream, preserves, nuts, fresh roasted coffee, and of course, vegetables and fruit to match the season. Every week as I make my trek (just a short walk really) and am struck by the beautiful colors, I have to kick myself for not getting my camera always thinking that the following week it'll be the first thing I pack in the morning. Sadly that never happens.

Going to that little farmers market is the highlight of my week. Theres the chutney guy who never remembers who I am but needs to make me try his samples always asking if they remind me of home (not really, I've never had cranberries in India). The coffee guy always has some neat information on roasting techniques or stories of his triplets (2 identical boys and one fraternal girl). Theres the produce guy, who insists on shucking corn with his grimey, chubby fingers, breaking them in half and challenging people to try it raw. He's so proud of his truckload of corn that you would have to be stonecold-hearted not to and he's rightfully so-- its the sweetest, most tender corn ever. Then theres my weakness, the French bakery stall, for whatever reason my usual order of 3 almond croissants, 1 baguette and the pear tart cost about a third less when theres the friendly moustached guy instead of the lady. I do feel guilty walking in with bags of groceries when I really should be working on experiments but it seems like everybody in school makes the most of that 4 hours of hustle and bustle--people actually work their meetings around the farmers market! Tomorrow will be the last week they're out this year and they will surely be missed. That poor little pathway will go back to its foliage and occasional hypodermic needle strewn self. Another sign of the changing of seasons in Baltimore, I guess. Definitely something that I'll be looking forward to next year.

Heres a recipe I made with the cutest, most beautiful fall colored peppers from the farmers market. I took before and after pictures because I was worried that the purple one would lose its color when baked, rightly so because it did turn green whereas the reddish yellow ones were fine. Wonder what the deal is with purple peppers.

You will need:

6 small colorful peppers (red, yellow, green)
2 medium potatoes
1 tsp jeera/cumin seeds
1 medium red onion chopped
2 tsp chilli powder
1 lb fresh hot italian chicken sausage (removed from casing)
1 handful of shredded mozzarella cheese (optional but yumm)
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350F. Half the peppers, remove seeds and lay them cut side up in an oven proof dish. Wrap potatoes in a wet paper towel and cook in the microwave on high for 3 minutes or till you begin to smell them. Keep aside to cool for a bit. In a medium sauce pan, heat about 2 tbsp of vegetable oil, add cumin seeds. When they splutter add the onions, chilli powder and salt. Add the sausage and cook till brown. Add the potatoes and mash while mixing so as to incorporate everything into a mad mush. Check salt. Spoon the stuffing into peppers, sprinkle cheese over peppers and place dish in the oven for about 15 minutes or till cheese just melts. I like a bit of a bite in my peppers but if you don't you can cook for few minutes longer till the cheese gets brown flecks on it and peppers are soft when poked with a fork.