Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Khoresh-e bademjan: Iranian eggplant stew

You know, young people can be funny about food. Sometimes you win with them; sometimes you lose. When you're a bit of a magpie about cooking like me, you learn to take your chances and try not to take any resistance to heart. I guess I was expecting a little turbulence from the Young Man on this tangy Iranian stew/casserole on account of it being chock-full of lovely pan-fried eggplants.

But it must have been my lucky day, as he wolfed this right down and put in orders to get his packed lunch the next day in a Thermos so it would be nice and hot! That's always a thumbs-up in our house.

If you make this recipe to specification, you'll need 3 large onions. I made it on the spur of the moment, and could only spare 2 out of my week's supply. That's why there's none on the topping in the photo.

Although you can't tell from the photo, this khoresh is meat based. The recipe calls for the meat to be cut in 1 cm cubes. This is much smaller than I generally make it, but it does have the added benefit of speeding the cooking time considerably. As always, I did it in my pressure cooker, and 10 minutes under pressure was fine for beef. You may want to cook the eggplants until they are lusciously soft, as they won't cook much more in the oven. Actually, I reckon it might not even be necessary to put this in the oven at all. A few more minutes in the pressure cooker and you'd probably be laughing.

If you are new to Iranian cooking, this would be an easy entry. The flavour is mild, with a nice citrus-y tang (which would probably be more pronounced if I had access to sour unripe grapes).

If you can, do seek out Iranian lime juice as it has a totally different flavour to the limes we get in the West (and the Mexican ones we get in Japan).

The recipe calls for a lot of oil for frying, but I didn't use nearly as much as specified and all was well.

Next time, I think I would give the stew a final blast on high heat to reduce the sauce a little before putting it in the oven. But perhaps you are meant to have a great deal of sauce in this khoresh. Certainly, it has a lovely flavour. The YM gave this 5 stars, so you know it's another fine treat from Najmieh khanom's New Food of Life.

Koresh-e bademjan: Iranian eggplant stew

2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 kg lamb shanks or chicken legs with skin removed, cut up
1/2 cup oil
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 4 tbsp hot water
2 cups fresh squeezed tomato juice
1 cup unripe grapes (ghureh)
4 tbsp lime juice [S: Iranian, if possible; the flavour is quite different]
3 medium of 9 slim eggplants [S: I used 5 Japanese eggplants, but more would have been better]
1 tsp advieh (Persian spice mix)

1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large tomato, peeled and left whole
2 tbsp oil

1 In a non-stick Dutch oven, brown the onions and garlic with meat or chicken in 3 tbsp oil over medium heat. Add salt, pepper, turmeric, and saffron water.

2 Add 2 cups water for meat and no water for chicken, tomato juice, unripe grapes, and lime juice. Cover and simmer over low heat for 2 1/2 hours for meat or 30 minutes for chicken [S: or 10 min under pressure if using a pressure cooker].

3 Peel eggplants and cut lengthwise in quarters if they are large. Place in a colander, sprinkle both sides with water and 2 tbsp salt, and set aside for 2o minutes to remove the bitter taste. Rinse and pat dry.

4 Brown the eggplant on all sides in a non-stick skillet in 3 tbsp oil [S: I recommend you fry them until quite tender]; set aside.

5 Add advieh to the meat or chicken; mix well and adjust the seasoning to your taste.

6 For the garnish, brown the onion and tomato in a non-stick skillet in 2 tbsp oil; set aside.

7 Preheat the oven to 200 C. Transfer the chicken or meat and sauce into a deep ovenproof casserole; arrange the eggplant, then onion and tomato, on the top. Cover and bake for 30 min, then remove cover and bake another 15 minutes uncovered or until the eggplant is tender.

8 Serve with chelo (saffron-steamed rice).


Monday, 28 April 2008

A picnic offering: Imam bayaldi

It's that time of year again! A time when one of my dearest friends commemorates the day she met her future husband at a picnic on Greenery Day, a national holiday in Japan, and one of a series of national holiday known here as Golden Week.

Fourteen years down the track, H&H are going as strong as ever, and the core group of friends that get together each year to commemorate the momentous day has got a system going for who brings what to the picnic. In previous years, I have taken salads, while H&H bring the sandwiches and O&T a fab selection of cheese and special homemade breads. Since the Young Man is the biggest of our offspring, I basically don't take kid preferences into consideration any more. I was a bit worried my selection might be a bit "adult", but it seems that the rest of the group counts on me bringing something a little less nursery in nature. Good to know!

This year I was planning on taking some quiches from Cynthia at Tastes Like Home's yummy-looking recipes, but alas, time was not on the side of baking up a storm. Instead, I got in on the bread scene as well, with my Argentinean chimchurri bread, to go with tzatziki and muhammara. A nice little selection of meze. But I couldn't quite let go of the veggie idea, and whipped up a batch of imam bayaldi, or Turkish stuffed eggplants, to go alongside.

A picnic offering (clockwise from L): Imam bayaldi, Argentinean chimchurri bread, tomato kasoundi chutney, muhammara, tzatziki

I have several recipes for this world-famous dish. One is from Haci Abdullah's, a fabulous restaurant that my dear Turkish friend U took me and some Japanese friends to when we stayed with her in Istanbul last summer. Established in 1888, Haci Abdullah's is an Istanbul institution (Orhan Pamuk even mentions it in his memoirs) , and one I would certainly have missed if not for dear U. Apart from the wonderful food (it really was superb; absolutely a must visit if you're in Istanbul), I was impressed that they provide free postcards and little booklets in several languages with some of their favourite recipes!

Another recipe, surprisingly, appears as "imam bayeldi" tucked in amongst all the Christian recipes in The Real Greek at Home, which I recently picked up for a song (despite strict orders to myself to reign in the cookbook purchasing!). Anyway, good to see that political differences are put aside when it comes to good food! I am all about that (g).

However, I went with this particular version, which I first made years back, when, not knowing where Konya was, wasn't even aware that I was making a Turkish dish! It is from Najmieh Batmanglij's delicious stroll along the old caravan routes: Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey, where the dish, whose name translates as "the Imam fainted" (whether from gourmet pleasure or from the cost of all that lovely olive oil that goes into its making), is called Konya eggplants with onion and garlic.

Now this is a little misleading to be sure. Since I have it on good authority from my good friend Se, a Konya native, that imam bayaldi does not contain mint. I quite like it here, but am more than happy to compare this recipe with others to see which is the best (g).

I actually visited Konya last summer, and although I didn't have any imam bayaldi there, I can tell you the food was delectable, and the people lovely. One kebabi even knocked half the price off the lunch I shouted dear Se's mother and nephew, who accompanied me on my second pilgrimage to the tomb of Persian poet Rumi (Mowlana in Persian and Mevlana in Turkish).

Konya eggplants with onion and garlic (Imam bayaldi)

6 eggplants, peeled (leave the stems intact)

1 cup olive oil
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
1/2 cup fresh chopped mint
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp ground cumin
2 large tomatoes, peeled and sliced [S: probably diced is better]

1 Make a slit, lengthwise, in each eggplant without opening the ends. Soak the eggplants in a container of cold water with 2 tbsp course salt for 20 minutes. Drain, rinse, pat dry and set aside

2 In a large skillet, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium heat and slightly brown the eggplants on all sides.

3 Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. [S: My oven may be a bit low; next time I will do this at 200 degrees C]

4 Arrange the eggplants side by side on an oiled baking dish.

5 In the same skillet, heat 2 tbsp oil over medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Stir-fry 5 minutes [S: I reckon you want to go for broke with the onions and get them caramelising at this stage. Maybe fry an extra 5-10 minutes]. Add the remaining ingredients for the filling and stir-fry for 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat.

6 Open up the slits in the eggplants with your hands and stuff each eggplant with the onion mixture. Drizzle the remaining oil and 1/4 cup water over them. Cover with aluminium foil and bake for 1 hour, until soft.


Monday, 21 April 2008

I did it! I tah-dig it!!

Tah-dig: it's the crunchy crust that forms at the bottom of a well-made pot of Persian polo. Or should do. It's not an easy task, and Iranian friends readily admit that it doesn't always go to plan, even for them. I mean it burns easily, you might not be able to leverage it off the base of the pot, and you might not even get a crust to begin with... But a good tah-dig is pretty much the holy grail of Persian cooking. And I had never had success despite a great deal of trying; until now.

So excuse me for tooting my own horn a bit here, but I did it, I finally did it!!!!

Not that I was expecting to. I was just making a pot of split pea and tomato rice to go with some leftover dizi. I hadn't even planned on taking a photo. But when boxing up leftovers for the next day's lunch, I had a big surprise in store when lo, there it was: perfectly formed crunchiness at the bottom of the pot! I did a little jig right on the spot, I can tell you!

Now before you go thinking I really should get a life and not carry on so much about a bit of rice that got stuck to the bottom of the pot, have a read of this, and you'll see that I'm far from being the only one in need of a such a life. Nor am I the worst afflicted by tah-dig-itis (g).

So how does one achieve this pillar of Persian kitchen craft? Well, NOT fiddling about with the recipe to reduce the calories from fat would be a good first step (g). You need at least enough oil to cover the base of the pot you are using. In my case, this was about 100 ml, an extravagant amount to my mind, but hey, who ever said that perfection doesn't come at a price.

Next, you actually have to leave the rice on the flame for at least 20 minutes of final steaming/crust formation. The flame should be down as low as it goes, and you should be able to hear little crackling sounds emanating from the bottom. That's the sound of the bottom part of the rice frying into a nice crunch.

Finally, you need to let your pot rest on a damp tea-towel for 5 minutes or so to loosen the crust a bit so you can lever it out of the pot in order to eat the treat. Not any point in having to chisel out minuscule portions that will hardly be worth the effort.

Right, so here's a recipe for one kind of polo. Now that I have (hopefully) got the knack of the tah-dig, I might have a little meander through some more of the many variations Najmieh khanom offers in New Food of Life. Rice is, after all, the jewel of the Persian kitchen.

Incidentally, although the recipe calls for insulating the lid of the pot with a clean tea towel for the final low-temperature crisping up, my Iranian friends have ingenious "lid cosy" thingies that fit to the lid to perfectly keep the steam in. Saves the problem of what to do with overhanging tea-towel, which could be a bit dodgy from a safety perspective.

You may also notice that there is no meat in my qeymeh polo. That's because I was making it as an accompaniment to a meat dish and left it out. Next time I would reduce the tomato sauce a bit if I went meatless again. The split pea mixture was a little sloppier than I would have liked it, but would certainly have been right on with a kilo of meat cooking in there.

For the orange peel, peel the skin of one or more oranges (I'd say the more the merrier: this is a bit fiddly, but really adds a nice flavor, and keeps well in the freezer if you wrap it well) with a vegetable peeler, making sure to leave any white pith behind. Cut into slivers and place in a small pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and cook for 10 minutes. Drain.

And a special note to Japanese readers who might give this a try. *Don't forget to add salt when you cook this rice.* It's easy to miss that step because no salt is added to Japanese steamed rice. Probably better not to ask me how I know this (g)...

Qeymeh polo (Persian rice with yellow split peas)

3 cups long-grain basmati rice
3 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 kg stew meat--lamb, veal or beef--cut into 1 cm pieces
3/4 cup clarified butter (ghee or oil)
1/2 cup yellow split peas
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 cups fresh tomato juice
1 tbsp dried Persian lime powder (powdered limu-omani)
2 tbsp slivered orange peel with bitterness removed
1/2 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 4 tbsp hot water
2 tbsp plain yogurt
3 tsp advieh (Persian spice mix; [S: Recipes can be found with Google])

1 Clean and wash 3 cups of rice in warm water. It is then desirable but not essential to soak the rice in 8 cups of water with 2 tbsp of salt for at least 2 hours.

2. In a pot, brown the onions and meat in 2 tbsp of oil. Add split peas and saute for a minute. Add the salt, pepper, turmeric, and tomato juice. Bring to a boil. and simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes. Ad lime powder and slivered orange peel. Cover and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes longer over low heat (split peas must be cooked). Set aside.

3 Bring 8 cups water and 2 tbsp salt to a boil in a large non-stick pot. Pour the washed and drained rice into the pot. Boil briskly for 6--10 minutes, stirring gently twice to loosen any grains that may have stuck to the bottom. Bite a few grains. If the rice feels soft, it is ready. Drain rice in a large, fine-mesh colander and rinse in 2 or 3 cups lukewarm water.

4 In a pot, heat 1/2 cup butter or oil.

5 In a bowl, combine a drop of saffron water, yogurt, and 2 spatulas full of rice; mix well and spread the mixture over the bottom of the pot to create a golden crust (tah-dig).

6 Place 2 spatulas full of rice int he pot, then add some meat and split pea mixture. Repeat these steps, arranging the layers in the shape of a pyramid. Sprinkle the advieh between each layer.

7 Mix remaining butter, saffron water and 1/2 cup of water and pour over the rice. Cover and cook rice for 10 minutes over medium heat to form a golden crust.

8 Place a clean dish towel or paper towel over the pot and cover firmly with the lid to prevent steam from escaping. Cook for 50 minutes longer over low heat. Remove the pot from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes on a damp surface without uncovering.

9 Remove lid and take out 2 tbsp of saffron-flavored rice and set aside for use as a garnish.

10 then, gently taking 1 skimmer or spatula full of rice at a time, place rice on an oval serving platter without disturbing the crust. Mound the rice in the shape of a cone and garnish with saffron-flavored rice.

11 Detach the crust from the bottom of the pot using a wooden spatula. Unmold onto a small platter and serve on the side with fresh herbs, yogurt and torshi (Persian pickles).


May 1 update: It seems that the Iranians are not the only ones to make crusty-bottomed rice. In an interesting segment on NPR's food section, I've just read that the Aleppian Jews make a plain rice dish that is to all intents and purposes the same as the Iranian. The only difference is that they use oil instead of butter, in line with dietary restrictions (specifically the proscription against eating meat and dairy together). I suspect there is an interesting story behind this unexpected common link...

Incidentally, have it on good authority that some Iranian cooks also use oil too, and with the current butter shortage in Japan, my guess is that all of those living here will be passing the butter (so to speak) in favor of oil.

Indulging in India 4: Balti chicken in tamarind sauce

Now here's a great recipe that's full of flavour, even if you choose to leave out the chillies, as we must here if we want the Young Man to eat up his dinner like a good young human male (g).

It's another from India's 500 Best Recipes, which has an entire section on "Balti" cuisine. What's Balti cuisine? Glad you asked, because that makes at least two of us who didn't know!

A bit of Googling revealed that Balti is not actually Indian, but a made-in-Britain invention of (probably) Pakistani immigrants. The style is not so much based on any one regional cuisine, but more to do with the method: one-pot cooking. Sounds like just the ticket for a weeknight when you don't want a pile of dishes the height of Everest to scale after a hard day at work and in front of the cooker (g). (Yes, there are parts of the first world where electric appliances don't do your dishes for you. Imagine that!)

So, given it's a weeknight, you probably don't want a recipe with a list of ingredients as long as your arm. Rest assured, most of this list is spices, and you will have most of them anyway, if you cook any Indian at all. Most of us will certainly have the first surprising ingredient: tomato sauce. Hmmm. Guess we don't need much more than this to confirm the non-subcontinental origin of this recipe (g).

I used black sesame seeds in this, as they are what I have in the house at the moment. Here in Japan, we can get not only black and white sesame seeds, but black and white sesame paste (tahini) as well. Black sesame seeds have been roasted to darken them, and have a lovely deep fragrant nuttiness that you don't really get with their paler siblings. I thought they were brilliant in this dish, even though they gave it a fairly dark hue when combined with the poppy seeds. As always, you get to choose what you put in yours.

Tamarind is a flavour I absolutely adore. You will want a really nice tart tamarind paste in this one. If yours isn't so sharp, you can always add some lemon juice to bring the "sauce" to your desired level of piquancy.

Talking of tamarind, my dear Iranian friend, M, who is a bit of a magician when it comes to pulling amazing food rabbits out of her hat, produced some tamarind pods to my great delight the last time I visited. They were sent from back home (Iran), where they are all the rage at the moment, apparently, but the box said product of Thailand. I must get me some of those!! (This is the same M that once, when I mentioned a wish to one day try those Iranian "sweet lemons" I had heard so much about, whizzed off to the fridge, and ta-taaaa, miraculously brought back my bidding and the admonishment to maybe wish for something a bit more financially rewarding next time!!)

Finally, although it's not mentioned in the name, coconut is a primary flavour in this dish. With the sesame and poppy seeds, you've got lots of different textures going on in this one, which should be pleasing to many palates.

Oh, and you could just as easily cook this in the oven, browning the chicken in a flameproof casserole before throwing the whole thing into a 200 degree Celsius oven for 20 minutes or so, depending on the size of chicken pieces you are using.

Balti chicken in tamarind sauce

Serves 4-6

60 ml/ 4 tbsp tomato ketchup
15 ml/ 1 tbsp tamarind paste
60 ml/ 4 tbsp
7.5 ml/ 1.5 tsp chilli powder
7.5 ml/ 1.5 tsp salt
15 ml/ 1 tbsp granulated sugar
7.5 ml/1.5 tsp grated fresh root ginger
7.5 ml/ 1.5 tsp crushed garlic
30 ml/ 2 tbsp desiccated coconut
30 ml/ 2 tbsp sesame seeds
5 ml/ 1 tsp poppy seeds
5 ml/ 1 tsp cumin
7.5 ml/ 1.5 tsp ground coriander
2 x 450 g baby chickens, skinned and cut into 6-8 pieces each [S: no "baby chickens here, so I substituted 800 g wing sticks]
75 ml/ 5 tbsp oil [S: you can get away with much less, if you like]
120 ml/ 8 tbsp curry leaves [S: my small packet of dried curry leaves doesn't even contain that much so I just added a 5-fingered pinch]
2.5 ml/1/2 tsp onion seeds [S: I substituted half a small onion, finely sliced. Not the same thing at all, but a worthy addition]
3 large dried red chillies
2.5 ml/ 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds [S: I substituted powder and it was fine; seeds are on my list for the next visit to my favourite spice shop in Ueno]
10-12 cherry tomatoes
45 ml/ 3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
2 fresh green chillies, chopped

1 Put the tomato ketchup, tamarind paste and water into a large mixing bowl and use a fork to blend everything together. Add the chilli powder, salt, sugar, ginger, garlic. coconut, sesame and poppy seeds, cumin and coriander to the mixture. Stir to mix. Add the chicken pieces and stir until they are well coated. Set aside.

2 Heat the oil in a karahi, wok, or deep pan. Add the curry leaves, onion seeds, dried red chillies, and fenugreek seeds and fry for about 1 minute.

3 Lower the heat to medium and add 2 or 3 chicken pieces at a time, with their sauce, mixing as you go. When all the pieces have been added, stir well using a slotted spoon.

4 Simmer gently for about 12-15 minutes, or until the chicken is thoroughly cooked. Finally, add the tomatoes, fresh coriander and green chillies, and serve from the pan.


Monday, 14 April 2008

Would you care for a Greek meal with that garlic, madam?

I'm interrupting our on-going Indian fest for a quick diversion into Greek gastronomy.

You might remember a while back I mentioned looking forward to learning more about Greek cuisine from Tessa Kiros' Falling Cloudberries. I haven't forgotten, and with the weather warming up, it seemed like the time might be right to pick up that thread again.

These two dishes of Tessa's to me are perfect partners; both luscious and fresh tasting, with a nice lemon tang, but you might want to try each separately first, as they both use a very liberal hand with the garlic (raw and cooked) and might be a little overpowering together for some. They certainly were for the Young Man, which is a shame because I adored both of these and want to make them together again. Perhaps we'll have to wait till he goes away for his summer holidays...

I used trout in the fish dish (and far less than 1 kg) and it was superb. I may have had it in the oven for slightly less time than specified in the recipe; just keep an eye on it toward the end of the cooking time and you should be set. Although both this and the potatoes contain some celery, it is very subtle, and the celery-averse YM had no complaints in that department.

The potatoes are another one of those why-didn't-I-think-of that recipes that you sometimes come across. In essence, you make a veggie stock to cook the potatoes in. Don't throw this away after the potatoes are cooked; it will give you almost enough to make risotto (or whatever) with at a later date. Two dishes from the one stock. Who could complain about that!

My innovation was to dice the carrot and onion finely from the stock and add it to the mash (actually the onion didn't need to be diced, but you know). Mainly it was to add some color for the photo, but I think I like the little change in texture that these brought. To make the garlic paste, I crushed the garlic directly into a handy-dandy little mortar and pestle I use for saffron, and smooshed it around a bit with the pestle. I did pretty much the same with the potatoes. A big wooden pestle (which is easier to get at than my seldom-used potato masher) made short work of pureeing the spuds.

My other suggestion would be to taste each time you add the garlic and lemon, and stop when it tastes about right to you. This is raw garlic, after all.

Greek oven-baked fish with tomato & parsley

1 kg firm white fish fillets
400 g tin tomatoes with juice, chopped, or very ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
15 g/ 1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
juice of 2 lemons
2 celery stalks, chopped with some leaves
1 tsp sugar
3 tbsp olive oil
crusty bread, to serve

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Put the fish in an oven dish where they will fit in a single layer. Mix together the tomatoes, parsley, garlic, lemon juice, celery, sugar and olive oil and taste for seasoning. Pour over the fish to cover all the pieces, shaking the dish from side to side. Cover with foil and bake for about 30 minutes.

Remove aluminium foil, increase the heat to 200 degrees Celsius and bake for another 40-50 minutes, or until the liquid is thickened and the top of the fish is golden in a couple of places. Serve with crusty bread to mop up the juices.

Skordalia: Greek garlicky and lemony mashed potatoes

1 large carrot, cut in half
1 small celery stalk
a few parsley stalks
1 small onion
a few black peppercorns
500 g potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
5 garlic cloves
185 ml/ 3/4 cup olive oil
juice of 1 lemon

Place the carrot, celery, parsley and onion in a fairly large saucepan of water, add some salt and a few peppercorns and bring to the boil. Boil for about 15 minutes before adding the potatoes and then boil for another 25 minutes or so, until the potatoes are very soft.

Meanwhile, crush the garlic completely with about 1 tsp of salt to make a puree. Put the garlic in a small bowl and ad a couple of tbsp of the oil.

Take out one third of the potatoes with a slotted spoon and mash in a large wide bowl with a potato masher, or put through a food mill. Add the garlic, then mash another third of the potatoes with more of the olive oil and a little of the lemon juice. Carry on until you have used all the potatoes, lemon juice and olive oil and have a smooth puree. Taste for salt. The skordalia should have a fairly soft consistency and can be eaten with fried or grilled fish, meatballs or just bread.

Serve at room temperature.


Indulging in India 2: Surprising pilau

Rice is interesting stuff. It's the daily "bread" of far more people around the world than any mere loaf, but we have such a dearth of rice words for the stuff in English.

I mean, here in Japan, you have o-kome (uncooked rice), gohan (plain steamed rice), takikomi-gohan (rice steamed with other tasty tidbits), chahan (fried rice, from the Chinese chaofan), doria (a Japanese rice-gratin) and even raisu (rice), for when you eat it not from a ricebowl but from a plate with a "foreign" meal! The Chinese have a similarly large repertoire of rice words, mostly based on the character fan, for rice/meal (han in Japanese). Then the Iranians have berenj (uncooked rice/rice in general), chelo (steamed rice, either plain or with spices) and polo (rice dishes with meat and vegetable fillings). The Turks have pilav, the Italians risotto, and on and on.

Yet in English, we are only have the one paltry word: Rice.

And so to this pilau, a relative of both polo and pilav, and like which is usually made with basmati or other long-grain rice. But with rice so expensive in Japan--the cheap stuff will set you back around US$18 for a 5 kg bag--we (meaning I) don't go in for keeping different rices for different dishes. Sure, it might produce more authentic results, but the cost-benefit ratio is not right for me. Anyway, I actually think I might prefer the standard short-grain Japonica rice.

Either way, this easy pilau certainly pulls its weight when it comes to the effort-flavour ratio. It is from the interesting title, India's Best 500 Recipes. Interesting because it contains not just obviously Indian recipes, but dishes from Thailand, and even recipes reprinted from a Caribbean cookbook that I own! Not that I'm complaining. I've had lots of luck with the recipes I've tried so far. And this is another winner.

So, what's the surprise, then? Well, when I put the lid on my pot it was definitely a mustard-yellow rice dish I was making, but when I opened it up again, it had morphed into the lovely grass-green you see above. I had to do a double-take as there is nothing remotely green in the ingredients. My best guess is that the black sesame seeds that I substituted for regular ones leached some color that, when mixed with the turmeric, turned the pilau green. Actually I rather like it, and will keep this up my sleeve in case I am ever invited to a St Patrick's party (g).

Indian Pilau Rice

Serves 4

225 g basmati rice
15 ml oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp sesame seeds [black, if you want a pilau to make and Irishman happy]
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
salt [S: you may not need extra salt if using stock cubes or powder]
2 whole cloves
4 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
5 black peppercorns
450 ml chicken stock
fresh coriander (cilantro), to garnish

1 Wash the rice well and leave to soak for 30 minutes. Heat the oil in a heavy pan, add the onion and garlic and fry gently for 5-6 minutes until softened.

2 Stir in the fennel and sesame seeds, the turmeric, cumin, salt, cloves, cardamom pods and peppercorns and fry for about a minute. Drain the rice well, add to the pan and stir-fry for a further 3 minutes.

3 Pour on the chicken stock. Bring to the boil, then cover. Reduce the neat to very low and simmer gently for 20 minutes, without removing the lid, until all the liquid has been absorbed.

4 Remove from the heat and leave to stand for 2-3 minutes. Fluff up the rice with a fork, garnish with coriander and transfer to a warmed dish to serve.


Indulging in India 1: Punjabi chhole (Spicy Punjabi chickpeas)

I suddenly had a taste for Indian last week, but since the weekly menu is decided on Saturdays, it had to wait till the weekend to act on the urge. In the meantime, I replied to an ad from someone offering to teach me Indian cooking, and also received some good pointers on Indian food from someone who has been kind enough to leave comments here a couple of times. P has real insider knowledge of the subject, from cooking Indian for her family all these year; she also tells me she went so far as to teach herself Tamil. Now that is dedication of a higher order. Way to go!

Anyway, I was raring to go with Indian come Saturday, but unfortunately slacked off a bit during the day and hadn't done the weekly grocery shopping. Step in The Indian Kitchen (the link is to the new edition) by Monisha Bharadwaj, an information-packed, fascinating and hunger-inducing tour of the Indian store cupboard, spice tray and harvest basket, with chapters on each individual ingredient that include showcase recipes. It's one of those books you want to read as much as to cook from. As for me, it will save me the ignominy of not knowing my channa dhal from my urad dhal, which is not a good look in a purported foodie, I can tell you (g).

As it happens I had everything I needed for this recipe without going shopping, so this recipe looked like a good place to start.

Now, I couldn't begin to advise on the pronunciation of "chhole", but I can tell you that this recipe is definitely a keeper. In simple terms, it is nothing more than chickpeas in rich and fragrant tomato gravy. But oh the taste! And even if you don't put the chillies in (as I did; I did want the YM to eat some, after all (g)), you will still end up with a delight, and you can always add some chilli powder at the table. Then again, if you want no heat at all (we know some of that type, don't we, Saffron-Mama (g)), you might want to watch the garam masala, which can sometimes have quite a bite.

The two ingredients that normal people without spice fetishes may not have on hand are amchur (dried mango powder) and anardana (dried pomegranate seeds). Actually I didn't have the latter, either, so substituted pom molasses . Both the amchur and anardana serve to sharpen the flavour, so at a pinch you could probably just add some lime or lemon juice to taste. I won't tell, if you don't (g).

(On the subject of pomegranates, I'm fascinated by the similarity of the name in different languages: Nar (Persian), anar (Turkish), and now anardana (mystery Indian language). What's the bet that the fruit is "anar" and "dana" means seeds?? Completely by coincidence, "anar" also appears backwards in our own English word, whose etymology is pome and granate ("many-seeded pome"). )

But enough of that, already! On with the cooking.

Punjabi chhole: Spicy Punjabi chickpeas

300 g white chickpeas [S: India also has black ones, hence the specification], soaked in plenty of water
6 tbsp sunflower oil [S: you can reduce this, as I did]
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp asafoetida [S: this is also known as hing; it's that smelly powder that adds a lovely savory note to cooking]
3 onions, chopped finely
1 tsp ginger paste [S: grated ginger is fine]
1 tsp garlic paste [S: crushed garlic is fine; around 1 to 1 1/2 cloves]
1 tsp green chillies, shredded finely
150 g tomatoes, chopped finely [S: Tinned is fine]
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp mango powder [S: amchoor; I reckoned it could do with more and added another tsp]
1 tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp pomegranate seeds (anardana), crushed [S: I substituted 1 tsp pomegranate molasses]
4 tbsp coriander leaves
4 lemon wedges

1 Cook the chickpeas, in enough water to cover them, until they are soft. (The peas should retain their shape.)

2 In a separate pan, heat the oil and add the cumin seeds and asafoetida. When the seeds pop, add the onion, ginger and garlic pastes and green chillies. Fry until golden.

3 Add the tomatoes and fry. Mash as you stir, making a paste. Then add the chilli, turmeric, mango and garam masala powders and pomegranate seeds {S: or molasses]. Cook this paste until blended and brown.

4 Add the chickpeas with the cooking water and blend, mashing a few to thicken the gravy. Simmer and season with salt.

5 Serve garnished with coriander leaves and a lemon wedge for each portion.


Monday, 7 April 2008

Kofta Mishmisheya: Iraqi meatballs in apricot sauce

I had some dried apricots left from my trip to Turkey last summer, and, having managed to acquire some more from Tehran Shop, decided to use up the last of my little stash of these divine little treats. I thought I remembered a Georgian (was it?) dish in Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, which was one of my very first ME cookbook acquisitions. However, in all the hundreds of recipes, I didn't find the one I was trying to recall (perhaps it is in Najmieh khanom's Silk Road Cooking instead?). Anyway, I found this easy-looking recipe in The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia's other major work of a lifetime (which I hope you will give in and just buy, already (g); it is absolutely the best world cookbook, even for gentiles like me, and one I would love to see emulated by authorities of other cuisines).

Anyway, although this is a Jewish recipe, I used beef/pork mince, Turkish apricots and Iranian ground dried limes, thereby disrespecting all traditions in equal measure, I'm afraid. However, since it is all in the pursuit of good taste, I hope I'll be forgiven.

As it was my first time to make this dish, I made it pretty much to specification. I did feel that the the spicing was a little subtle for me (I like big, bold flavours, after all), and next time I'll probably double the dried lime, and maybe even add some bread soaked in water and squeezed out, as I really like what happens to meatballs when you do this (probably a slice and a half of bread for this much meat). Incidentally, you can check the spicing of your meatballs by frying a little taste up before you commit to rolling your balls. I know on good authority that professional chefs do this all the time. I also upped the lemon juice (but I'm like that (g)).

All in all this was very easy and a nice change from the show-off Middle Eastern stuff I usually cook (g).

As an aside, I realize all my Iraqi recipes are Jewish, so to balance things up a bit, I'm thinking of buying this title. (I know, I know, I'm not supposed to be buying more cookbooks, but the one I've had on order since before Christmas is out of print. Surely I can replace it with this one until that title is reprinted, no? (g). I'm incorrigible, I know...)

Kofta mishmisheya

Serves 4

1 large onion, chopped
3-4 tbsp oil
750 g minced lamb [S: or other meat]
1-2 tbsp ground dried lime [if grinding your own, use the pale dried limes, or limu, that you can get in Middle Eastern/Persian stores]
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp allspice
salt and pepper
3-4 tbsp tomato paste
200 g dried apricots, soaked in water for 1/2 hour [S: Make sure these are not sweetened ones or your sauce will be more of a jam (g)]
3-4 tbsp currants or raisins [S: I used sultanas, same difference]
juice of 1 or 1 1/2 lemons or to taste
1 tsp sugar [S: I didn't think it needed it; you judge for yourself]

In a large frying pan, fry the onion in oil till golden. With your hands, work the meat into a paste with the dried lime, cloves, allspice, 1 tsp of salt and pepper and roll into walnut-sized balls. Add them to the pan and cook, turning them to brown them all over. [S: Depending on the amount of fat in the meat, you may want to drain some off at this point.] Stir in the tomato paste, add the drained apricots [S: I sliced them first] and the currants or raisins and cover with water [S: I used the water the apricots soaked in]. Simmer for about 25 minutes. Add lemon juice and sugar and a little salt and pepper and simmer for another 20 minutes.