Thursday, 14 April 2016

Za'atar Spiced Quinoa with Sauteed Carrots and Pine Nuts

The range of ingredients available to home cooks has expanded dramatically. People are incorporating herbs and spices like lemon grass, smoked Mexican chile, sumac, and za'atar mix.
Yotam Ottolenghi

For a long time, I was not that terribly excited about Quinoa. Having a seed for a meal (and a tail sprouting one at that) didn't sound much appealing. I was sure I would hate it and held on to my unreasonable prejudice with a bull like perseverance for years. Though I was stirred enough by the half price sale tag on the store shelf to buy a box some time ago (after all, it is expensive and one shouldn't let a deal like that pass by!), that impulsive spark of interest died a quick death, almost as soon as I lugged it home. The box with the impersonal seeds was pushed to a far unseen corner of a top shelf and conveniently forgotten.

A few months later, mostly prompted by the silent judgemental stare of the still sealed pack and the fast approaching 'use by' date, I prepared it and found that I liked the weird seeds after all. Now, I almost always have a small stash of Quinoa in the pantry. 


My pantry is always changing, gradually, along with my taste, from season to season and from year to year: This evolution is what makes it distinctively mine.

Za'atar Spiced Quinoa with Sauteed Carrots and Pine Nuts

This is a recipe from the drafts and has been residing there for some time. It is simple and can be put together in a short time. I find the sourness of Sumac in Za'atar enough to balance the dish – you can however, add a touch of lime or lemon juice if needed at the end.

I'm sure most of you know that Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend which is basically a blend of Dried Thyme, Sesame Seed, Sumac and Salt. The ingredients can vary a bit - My store bought version has Sumac, Sesame Seeds, Oregano, Marjoram, Thyme and Sea Salt. (You can easily make the mix on your own.)
Serves 3 to 4


For the Quinoa:

  1. Quinoa - 1 cup
  2. Vegetable Stock/Water - 2 cups (See Notes.)
  3. Za'atar (Blend) - 1 and a 1/2 to 2 tbsp or to taste.
  4. Garlic, finely chopped - A scant tbsp. (Optional.)
  5. Olive Oil
  6. Salt - Only if needed.
For the Carrots:
  1. Carrots, thinly sliced - 2 cups
  2. Salt - A Pinch
  3. Olive Oil
To Finish:
  1. Pine Nuts - 5 to 6 tbsp.
  2. Parsley, chopped - 3 tbsp. or to taste.

For the Quinoa:

First, you need to wash the quinoa very well. I put them in a fine meshed strainer (so the seeds won't escape), place the strainer on top of a bowl (just in case) and wash them in running water. While the water is running, I also rub the seeds with my fingers. It is important that you wash the seeds well or else they will taste bitter.

Once washed, allow them to drain well.

Heat up a pan and add some olive oil. Add the garlic (if using) and saute till it smells good. Now add the drained quinoa and toast it for a few minutes. Now add the vegetable broth or water and bring to a boil. Add a bit of salt as well if you are using water. But keep in mind that the Za'atar mix will have some salt. Cover with a tight fitting, heavy lid and cook till done - about 15 to 20 minutes.

Once the quinoa is cooked to your liking, check if there is any leftover cooking liquid. (I rarely have it.) If so, drain it and then add the za'atar. Fluff everything with a fork. Keep covered and let stand for about 15 to 30 minutes.

For the Carrots:

Meanwhile, add heat up a pan to saute the carrots. Add some oil and the sliced carrots along with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring once in a while till the carrots are done to your liking.

You can alternatively roast the carrots in an oven. But keep an eye on them so that they won't burn, especially if you have sliced them fine.

To Finish:

If the pine nuts are not already toasted, toast them first. Heat up a pan and add the pine nuts. Toast them till they turn golden, stirring frequently.

Mix the quinoa, carrots, pine nuts and and chopped parsley together. Check for seasoning. Add more za'atar if needed.
Serve with Grilled Meats/Meatballs and (optionally) Pickled Onions. 

  1. My instructions on my box of Quinoa tells to add about 1 and 3/4 cup of liquid for every cup of Quinoa to cook it. I personally find that this leaves the seeds a but too undone for my taste. I like mine well cooked. So feel free to experiment, especially if you have never cooked the seeds before.
  2. It is important that you leave the cooked Quinoa to rest for a while before serving.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Mr. Fish's Reveries

Mr. Fish was floating, basking in the glorious sun. It was a nice time of the day; early enough to catch the soothing warmth of the late morning sun, but not too late into the day for it to be too uncomfortable on the surface. One must get some sunshine, Mr. Fish has always said. The waters are pretty shadowed on most parts of the stream and it is cold and gloomy even at noon. That makes it necessary to come to the open spaces to catch the sun.

It was almost still, except for the occasional, gentle swaying caused by the ripples that a fallen leaf or another life in the stream brought about. Normally, the banks would be deserted at this time of the day, though (to Mr' Fish's dismay) today, there was that rather weak headed fluff ball of a dog and a bespectacled girl pottering on the steps that led to the channel.

He didn't mind the girl much. After all, she used to live in the old house that is right across and was generally better behaved, barring a deplorable habit of throwing stones into the water to see the ripples. Such a silly thing to do, but one can't have serenity all the time. It was the dog that worried Mr. Fish more. There was no telling when she would jump into the water and thrash about. Mr. Fish wanted to tell the dog that no one should expect to wear a fur coat and be comfortable in summer. And even if the fluff ball wanted to take a bath, it was beyond Mr. Fish's imagination why it cannot be done in a gentle manner. All this unladylike thrashing and whirling! It turned the waters murky. And it irritated Mr. Fish when the water turned murky.

It was all very calm and quiet still. Mr. Fish sighed and slipped into deeper reveries.

They have stopped cleaning up the channel now. It used to be a huge exercise back in the days. Workers removing water by a rope and drum arrangement, catching fish, clearing the stream bed, digging...People watching, excited...A noisy affair altogether. Moreover, there was always a chance of getting thrown into the land and dying a sad death or worse still, ending up in a glass jar. What a horrifying fate it would be! To be stared at and annoyed all the time... And they might feed you rice too. Blech! Why the humans cannot go and hunt some mosquitoes or some tiny creatures was beyond the fish's imagination. But all that is beside the point. The contingency, as they say, has ceased to exist. The downside was that the leaves that fell into the stream, which has long since become stagnant as the water way was blocked in some side, stayed there and rotted. It was fine as long as no one disturbed the waters. Unfortunately it is exactly what the resident fluff head does as did various dwellers of the kennel in the past.

Thrashes the water about! Mr. Fish was indignant even at the thought of this atrocity.

The sudden thrust of a white paw and the plop of a stone that fell too close for comfort roused Mr. Fish.

In a flash, he took a plunge into the deep.

There is always tomorrow.

  1. This bronze bodied fish called Tiger Panchax (which goes by the name of 'Poonjan' where I come from) is stream/river/well water fish and can survive in fresh water and brackish environments. 

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Butternut Squash, Chickpea and Spinach Curry

I tell a student that the most important class you can take is technique. A great chef is first a great technician. 'If you are a jeweller, or a surgeon or a cook, you have to know the trade in your hand. You have to learn the process. You learn it through endless repetition until it belongs to you. 
Jacques Pepin

Endless repetition!

Everyday cooking can become one – at least in some sense of the term I think. While we all experiment, there are some things that get repeated over and over again. Or rather, we hold on to and fine tune some basic techniques that get more or less ingrained in us.
For instance, there is a fixed combination of ingredients that I use whenever I want to make a curry. Onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic paste, ground red chilli, coriander and turmeric, some meat masala powder and some curry leaves. The proportions might change; I might play around with some additional spices. There might be a splash of coconut milk. Or a tadka. Still, there is an underlying repetition – one of familiar comfort, based on my Kerala roots that I go back to over and over again.
Unless of course, I force myself to take a deviation and do something different like a North Indian gravy (something I cannot, I must confess, live on every day. I like my coconuts and my set combination of South Indian spices. There, I said it!). Or like in the present case, when bottles containing some of my spice mixes roll their eyes at me and remind me of when I used them last.

I have used this Coriander and Cumin Powder as well as Bengali Garam Masala in the curry, both of which are leftovers from my affair with Kosha Mangsho (Slow Cooked Bengali Lamb Roast). While I had used them afterwards in some dishes, they are not obviously my regular choice for gravies. Both of these make the curry take a different turn from my familiar routes, but the coconut milk (as well as the basic technique) still makes it sufficiently homey.

Butternut Squash, Chickpea and Spinach Curry 

I had a few butternut squashes with me that were on the miniature side. (They were about a 100 gm each. My produce people assured me this is usual for a butternut squash – may be because they are pesticide and inorganic fertilizer free.) The squashes were not enough to make a soup or something else on their own, which is why I settled on a mixed curry.

Also, I wanted the curry to be something mild and creamy and so have made this purposely low on spices. That, along with the sweetness from the coconut milk and butternut squash makes it a good alternative to pour over rice or couscous.
Serves 3 to 4

  1. Butternut Squash, seeds removed and cut into small cubes - 2 cups
  2. Chickpeas, boiled (or from a can) and drained - 1 and a 1/2 to 2 cups (If boiled, reserve the boiling water and use in the curry instead of water. Rinse and drain, if you are using canned chickpeas.)
  3. Baby Spinach - 2 cups, somewhat packed
  4. Onion, sliced - 1 cup
  5. Tomatoes, diced - 2/3 cup
  6. Ginger Garlic Paste - 1 generous tsp.
  7. Coriander and Cumin Powder - 2 tsp. (Or use 1 and 1/4 tsp. of ground Coriander and 3/4 tsp of Ground Cumin. You can change the ratio if you want to use less cumin.)
  8. Kashmiri Red Chilli Powder - 1 and a 1/2 tsp.
  9. Turmeric Powder - 1/4 tsp.
  10. Garam Masala - 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. (I used a combination of this Garam Masala and this Homemade Meat Masala Powder. See Notes.)
  11. Thick Coconut Milk - 1/2 cup
  12. Coriander Leaves - A few (chopped) to garnish (Optional.)
  13. Salt
  14. Water - About 2 cups (Start with 1 cup and add more as needed.)
  15. Coconut Oil or a Neutral Tasting Oil

Heat up a pan and add some oil. Tip in the onions and saute till they turn a light brown. Now add the ginger garlic paste and saute till the raw smell goes. Add coriander and cumin powder, Kashmiri red chilli powder and turmeric powder. Stir around for a minute, taking care not to burn the powders.

Now add the tomatoes and cook till they get well blended with everything else. Add the diced butternut squash, salt and a cup of water. Cook covered till the squash is done, but not falling to pieces. Check at intervals, stir and add more water as needed.

Now add the chickpeas and let it cook in the gravy for a couple of minutes at least. Add the spinach and let them wilt. Finally, add the coconut milk and switch off when it begins to simmer. Add the Meat Masala Powder and/or Garam Masala. Check for seasoning and adjust. Add more Garam Masala if needed.
Garnish with coriander leaves if you are using them. You can optionally add a touch of lime juice as well or serve the curry with a wedge of lime on the side, especially if the tomatoes were not at all sour.

Serve as a side with Couscous, Quinoa or Rice.

  1. You can use a Garam Masala of your choice. Adjust the quantity to taste.
  2. If you are not using the Homemade Meat Masala, it would be good if you can add a little bit of powdered fennel.
  3. I retained the skin of the squash as they cook very well. However, you can remove them if you like.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Spice Rack: Coriander Seeds

The house of Israel named the substance manna. It resembled coriander seed, was white, and tasted like wafers [made] with honey.
Exodus 16:31, CSB

Slightly reminiscent of the flavour profile of Sage, Coriander is one of the most commonly used spices in Indian Cuisine. The seeds are normally used crushed or powdered in dishes. They keep well in their ground form when stored in sir tight containers although like other spices, lose their potency and might form small, loosely held together clumps over time (especially if exposed to air). The seeds are usually dry roasted or sun dried before powdering.

  1. The coriander plant is a small bushy herb and the each of its globular fruits is actually composed of two halves, each having a seed. (You can probably notice that in the second shot.)

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Ginger Sekanjabin: An Ancient Persian Drink

'Heat, ma'am!' I said; 'it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.

Well, it might as well have been me who said this. The heat is rising and some days are just plain intolerable. Anything cold is welcome. In fact, anything flowing is welcome.

So I guess a few drinks are in order and this Sekanjabin is a good start.
But before we go on, this quote by Rev. Sydney Smith (who was an English Clergyman and writer, known for his wit and humour) is part of a section in Lady Holland's Book where he was commenting on 'the want of perception of a joke in some minds'. Apparently, Mrs. Jackson called on him to talk about the oppressive heat of the past week and that was when Rev. Smith, in a jocular vein, is quoted as having made the statement to her. The rest of it is quite funny as well.

'Take off your flesh and sit in your bones, Sir! Oh, Mr. Smith! How could you do that?' she exclaimed, with the utmost gravity. 'Nothing more easy, Ma'am; come and see next time.' But she ordered her carriage, and evidently thought it a very unorthodox proceeding.
Sydney Smith, 
Memoir of the Rev. Sydney Smith: By his Daughter, Lady Holland, 
with a Selection from his Letters, Volume I 

I hope that brought a laugh in the midst of this dreadful weather.
The Sekanjabin is an ancient Persian drink and is said to have healing properties. The base recipe consists of just Sugar and Vinegar. The original recipe for the Syrup of Simple Sikanjabîn (Vinegar Syrup) can be found in an ancient Andalusian Cookbook, which is commonly titled as The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook today. (This was a collection of recipes (some of which in turn were copied from earlier collections of the 1200's) compiled in the early 1400's by a Scribe - the name of whom perished along with the first page of the original compilation.
Take a ratl of strong vinegar and mix it with two ratls of sugar, and cook all this until it takes the form of a syrup.
(1 ratl is 468gm, roughly a pound.)
The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook from the 13th Century 
(Main translation by Charles Perry. The above version has Candida Martinelli's edits.)
I have a plan to try out the ancient recipe as such one day. But for a start, I thought a bit of flavouring wouldn't hurt. Ginger Sekanjabin is a slightly modern version of the basic recipe and as the title obviously suggests, is flavoured with ginger. A combination of strawberry, ginger and mint also seems to be a popular version.

I wasn't particularly apprehensive of the outcome of this recipe (though it has Vinegar in it) as we have a similar Ginger-Lime concoction that everyone makes back home. The Sekenjabin (also spelled Sikanjabin Skanjubin or Sekanjamin) is really good, though I am a bit partial to the Ginger-Lime Juice.
I have a confession to make. I took these photos with a wall in the background and there was a pipe running across it which is what you see as a mid gradient in these shots. I thought I will edit it in post. However, I decided to leave it as such as it seemed harmless. I cannot make up my mind if it was a good idea now!

Ginger Sekanjabin: An Ancient Persian Drink

I have kept the recipe almost as it appears in Umm Maryam's A Kitchen in Persia: Classical and Unique Persian Recipes (in terms of ingredients and general method).

I had made two quarter batches (one exactly like this and one with a slightly different flavour.). The recipe works well with quarter as well as half batches.
Serves 20 to 25

  1. Sugar - 4 cups
  2. Ginger, minced - 1/2 cup
  3. Red or White Wine Vinegar - 1 cup (I used Red Wine Vinegar.)
  4. Water - 2 and a 1/2 cups

Take the sugar and water together in a large saucepan and boil them over a high heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the vinegar and minced ginger.

Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. I like to leave it for an extra hour or two. Now, strain out the minced ginger with a fine sieve.

Store at room temperature in sterile bottles.
Serve cold with ice or at room temperature with a syrup to water ratio of 1:4 to 1:5. (You can also use sparkling water.)

  1. You can garnish the drink with Mint Leaves or Rosemary.
  2. A dash of this goes well with green tea and some herbal teas.
  3. The syrup will keep at room temperature for months (provided you use a clean and dry bottle for storing it.)
  4. The Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook from the 13th Century is a free pdf and can be downloaded from Candida Martinelli's Italophile site.

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Spice Rack: Black Mustard Seeds

The final touch...

The flames were slowly tickling the hard exterior of the small black skillet, gently heating it up. It was time to put the finishing touch to the Pazha Manga Curry (Ripe Mangoes in a Coconut Gravy) and with that, lunch would be served. A generous bit of coconut oil was poured and a practised hand let spill the ingredients one by one. Mustard seeds crackled, sliced shallots gracefully browned, bits of dried chillies sizzled and curry leaves protested.

The intense smell of heated coconut oil coupled with that of the tempered ingredients wafted through the house, putting various people in action.

Some took it as a sign to carry plates and cutlery to the corridor in which the long dining table has been residing since long.

Curries were poured into serving bowls, Fish and Roasts were placed into serving platters and a house-help sent the brown speckled rice, which till then was put to drain in a seemingly precarious arrangement, cascading onto a wide rimmed plate.

The ones who were on a game of chess or playing cards slowly got up.

Those who had their heads bent, searching the newspaper for any small bits of news that might have been missed earlier took it as a good time to put a pause to the intense perusal.

The younger generation, who till then thought it was a pity to be inside the house when there was the water channel and row boat outside (and of course fishes, tortoises and various other thriving elements of nature) only needed a gentle prodding now.

One by one they all came and occupied a seat at the grandfather table.

Once again, for a time of togetherness...
  1. Mustard Seeds can be of three different types - White (Yellow), Brown or Black (in the increasing order of their pungency.)
  2. Black Mustard Seeds are used in dishes across India. They are used more commonly for tempering than as a base flavour in dishes from Kerala unlike say, Bengali Cuisine which uses Mustard Seed Paste (Shorshe Bata) quite extensively in curries.
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