Phirni

PhirniA true testament to the richness and popularity of the cuisine of India’s Muslims is the fact that when anyone around the world thinks of the most delicious Indian foods, the first images that spring to mind are  a lavish, fragrant biryani or a puffy, flaky naan.

India is home to the world’s second largest Muslim population and over the centuries this community has contributed deeply to the country’s colorful diversity and its rich cultural traditions. One of the heftiest contributions, no doubt, has been in the area of food.

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PhirniMuslim cuisine is known for its use of rich spices, fragrant herbs and delicate stocks: exactly the stuff of a food lover’s dreams. Growing up in Bombay, I was lucky to have many Muslim friends. Luckier still, they had moms who liked to feed greedy little girls. In fact, some of my most delicious gastronomic memories from India are of the foods I ate at the home of my friend Shahnaz, whose mother was a fabulous cook and made the best biryani I have ever tasted, or the lunch box that my schoolmate Rashida would share with me.

But if Indian Muslim cuisine is in a class of its own, Indian Muslim sweets are out of this world. One such out-of-the-world dessert I want to share with you today is Phirni, or Firni.

Phirni is at once a rustic and sophisticated dish. It’s a creamy milk pudding thickened with a coarse powder of rice. Not unlike a rice pudding, but grinding up the rice gives this dish a completely different flavor. You have to try it to believe it.

PhirniI shall never forget the first time I had Phirni, sold by one of the many food vendors who feed hungry travelers on India’s trains. I had never tasted anything quite so delicious, I remember thinking. We were traveling in north India and the Phirni was served in an unglazed clay dish with a narrow base that tapered outward to a wide mouth– kinda like a big Diwali diya. The clay, I later learned, absorbs some of the fluid from the Phirni and helps it set, contributes a very special flavor of its own, and also helps keep the Phirni cool — important because this is one Indian dessert that should always be served chilled.

Traditionally Phirni is of course made with milk but my vegan, dairyfree version is made with almond milk that I made myself with blanched almonds. That’s because I wanted the flavor of the almond milk and its texture to be really delicate in order to retain the pure flavor of the original dish. You can try this with storebought almond milk if you’d rather, but I would advise putting in the extra work and doing it yourself. You can also just buy blanched almonds which would make things much easier. Or, for a variation, you could try using cashews which are also delicious in Indian sweets as a dairy substitute.

This is also a really healthy recipe, for a dessert. A serving has only 186 calories and it actually scored an A-minus on the Calorie Count recipe analyzer– how’s that for good eats?

Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Phirni

Phirni
 
Prep time
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Author:
Recipe type: Desserts
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 10
Ingredients
  • 1 cup almonds
  • 4 cups water
  • 1¼ cups sugar
  • 2 tbsp rose water
  • ¼ cup basmati rice
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 15 cashew nuts, chopped
  • Strawberries for garnish (optional)
Instructions
  1. The day before you want to make the Phirni, place the almonds in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover the almonds. Set aside overnight.
  2. Next day, peel the almonds and discard the skins.
  3. Place the almonds in a blender with 4 cups of water and blend into a very smooth milk. Pour through a sieve to catch any large bits that might have remained, or any pieces of skin.
  4. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring all but ¼th of a cup of the almond milk to a boil.
  5. Add the sugar and cook, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat until the milk starts to thicken, about 15 minutes.
  6. Drain the rice that’s soaking and grind with with the reserved ¼th cup of almond milk.
  7. Add the rice paste to the almond milk and continue to cook, stirring, for another 15-20 minutes. You want to feel the pudding thickening as time goes by.
  8. Cover the phirni with a tight-fitting lid and let the mixture cook another five minutes.
  9. Remove the lid, add the cardamom, rose water and cashew nuts,and cook for another five minutes. Turn off the heat and pour it into individual serving dishes or bowls.
  10. Garnish with chopped strawberries or nuts. The slight tartness of the strawberries is a perfect flavor pairing with the sweet Phirni. You can also add saffron– soak a generous pinch in 1 tbsp almond milk and add along with the cardamom and cashew nuts.
  11. Refrigerate the Phirni until thoroughly chilled.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 186 Sugar: 25.5 grams Fiber: 1.2 grams Protein: 2.9 grams

 

Brown Rice Salad with Dill

Brown Rice SaladBrown bag lunches can be a charged issue in our home. I want them to be healthy and tasty, he wants them to be … well… a certain way. Desi is one of those guys who will eat at his desk every single day. So, according to him, the food has to be such that he can eat with a fork while he types with the other hand. It can’t be anything spillable because he’s not going to be looking at the food, see? He has eyes only for the computer screen.

So sandwiches are usually out. Too messy, according to Mr. Persnickety. And so is anything that, heaven forbid, might require a knife too. Which leaves me with a narrow range of foods I can cook, like pastas, biryanis, pilafs or risottos.

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Brown Rice SaladYesterday, I had no more than 30 minutes to cook up a brown bag lunch that met both of our needs and that’s when I came up with a delicious idea for a brown rice salad with dill. Dill and rice are a winning flavor combination, and the nutty brown rice is a perfect foil for the assertive dill. To bring these two delicious ingredients together, I made a dressing that would combine some typical salad dressing ingredients with warm Indian spices.

I put some brown rice in the rice cooker while I went out to walk Opie and by the time I got back it was ready and waiting for me.  After that all I had to do was chop up a couple of veggies, bloom some spices and blend them with the other dressing ingredients, and within minutes I had a delicious and extremely nutritious meal on my hands that no fussy eater could turn their nose up at.

It’s the weekend, friends, so I’m going to stop now so you can go on and enjoy yours. But here’s to healthy meals and fun weekends, and may this one last forever!

Brown Rice Salad

Brown Rice Salad with Dill
 
Prep time
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Author:
Recipe type: Main
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • ¾ cup brown rice, cooked
  • 2 cups green beans or haricot vert, cut into one-inch pieces. You can use frozen.
  • 1 cup button or crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups frozen or canned lima beans (use any other bean as a substitute. Chickpeas or red kidney beans would be great in this)
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tsp coconut oil
  • 1 cup fresh dill, thick stems removed, leaves chopped
  • Dressing Ingredients:
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 dry red chillies
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • Juice of one large orange
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 10 cashew nuts
  • 1 tsp coconut oil
  • Salt to taste
Instructions
  1. Make the dressing:
  2. Heat 1 tsp of the coconut oil and add the coriander seeds and cumin seeds. Saute for about two minutes over medium-high heat until they start to turn color. Remove to a blender.
  3. Add to the blender the red chillies, orange juice, balsamic vinegar, cashew nuts and salt and ground black pepper.
  4. Blend until the dressing is smooth and creamy.
  5. Make the rice:
  6. In a saucepan, heat the oil and add the onions with some salt and ground black pepper. Saute over medium-high heat for about five minutes or until the onions are translucent but not turning color. Add the mushrooms, green beans and lima beans and mix well.
  7. Let the vegetables cook about 5 minutes or until the beans are tender but not mushy.
  8. Add the cooked brown rice, dill, and the salad dressing. Mix everything well together. Turn off heat.
  9. Serve warm or cold.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 331 Fat: 6.5 grams Fiber: 11.4 grams Protein: 11.8 grams

 

Sprouted Mung Salad (Moong Usal)

Mung Bean SaladI have for you today a very simple, very nutritious and very delicious sprouted mung bean salad that, in my part of India, goes by the name of Moong Usal.

There’s something about sprouting beans that brings out the poet in me. Watching those tiny little white squiggles shoot out of the legume and grow, like magic, over a period of days and sometimes just hours makes my jaw drop in wonder to this day, no matter how many times I do it. And as a cook and an eater, I love just how delicious and nutritious these little nuggets are. Not to mention versatile. You can pile them into a sandwich, cook them into a curry like this classic Moogache Molay Gathi, turn them into an eggless omelet, or just saute them a little, add a dash of salt and pepper, squeeze on some lemon, and you’ve got a dish to die for.

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Mung Bean UsalOf all the legumes you can sprout, moong or mung beans are probably the  quickest and the easiest. Even in my winter kitchen, with temperatures dipping below freezing outside, the sprouts I used in this salad were ready in about two days with the minimal care and attention. So if you haven’t sprouted beans before — and you really should — mung beans are a great place to start. Here’s a quick tutorial on sprouting beans:

Moong beans– Measure the beans, pick over them for any stones, then wash them thoroughly by placing them in a colander and rinsing in cold water.

–Place the beans in a container and cover with three inches of water. Set aside for eight hours or overnight.

–After the beans have soaked overnight or for 8 hours, strain them in the colander, preferably one large enough to hold the beans. Rinse the beans under cold, running water.

–Cover the colander with a kitchen towel and set aside. Twice a day, rinse the legumes, let the water run out, and then set them aside again, covered with the kitchen towel.

–After a day you should see tiny little white shoots developing. I usually let my beans sit another day, continuing to rinse and drain, until the shoots are a little bigger.

And that’s it, really. You don’t need any fancy equipment to sprout beans. You don’t even need a large colander if you don’t have one– just make sure that you drain out all the water from the container every time you rinse the beans. Easy peasy.

Sprouted Moong Beans

Sprouting beans is an exercise worth the small amount of work because it makes an already healthy superfood even healthier– imagine that! The quantities of proteins, vitamins and minerals in legumes soar when they are sprouted, and even better, the legume becomes more easily digestible. Now why would you argue with that?

Once you have your sprouted beans all set to go, my Moong Usal comes together in minutes with a minimal number of ingredients that you should already have in your pantry. Usal is a classic Maharashtrian dish– food from my mother’s land. Maharashtrians use a special kind of spice blend– goda masala, which includes coconut– to make usal and you can look up my recipe for goda masala in my DIY spice blends list, if you have a mind to make it. But because this is a minimalist, easy version I used garam masala which you likely already have in your spice box.

Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Sprouted Mung Salad

Sprouted Mung Salad (Moong Usal)
 
Prep time
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Author:
Recipe type: Side
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 8
Ingredients
  • 1 cup dry mung beans or moong, sprouted (see tutorial above)
  • 1 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tomato, finely diced
  • 2 green chillies, slit through the middle
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp coriander powder
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • ¼ tsp turmeric powder
  • 2 tsp garam masala (use goda masala if you have this)
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 tsp sugar (optional)
  • ¼ cup finely chopped coriander leaves
  • Salt to taste
Instructions
  1. Heat the oil in a large wok or kadhai or saucepan
  2. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Saute until the onions start to turn golden-brown.
  3. Add the garlic and green chillies and saute for a few seconds.
  4. Add the tomatoes, turmeric, coriander and cumin powders and cook until the tomato starts to break down but isn’t quite mushy.
  5. Add the sprouted mung beans and mix well. Cover and let the beans cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes. Stir every once in a while and, if needed, add a couple of tablespoons of water to prevent sticking. You can let the beans cook longer if you want them to be softer. I like mine a little al dente with some crunch to them.
  6. Add salt to taste, sugar and the lemon juice. Mix in the coriander leaves.
  7. Serve hot.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 40 Fat: 0.8 grams Sugar: 4.5 grams Fiber: 1.9 grams Protein: 2.7 grams

Moong bean Usal

 

Ethiopian Lentil and Vegetable Stew

Ethiopian Lentil StewWashington, D.C., with its heady mix of history and power, is a special kind of city. 

Everywhere you look in D.C. you can find the story of America, and it’s not just in the Capitol or the White House or the many imposing monuments and memorials and museums that are part of this city. It’s  in the centuries-old rowhouses that line the city’s streets, like the one where Lincoln died or the one Duke Ellington lived in his teens. It’s in the half a dozen black SUVs with dark-tinted windows and police outriders, as they zip down a busy artery ferrying some important dignitary every day of every week. It’s even in the “no-parking” signs tacked up on parking meters outside a hotel because the president is giving a speech inside.

D.C. may be the world’s most powerful city, but to some of us it is also home.  Desi and I moved here to study journalism and we stayed not just because there isn’t perhaps a better place in the world to be a journalist in, not just because its quiet dignity seemed a welcome change from the bustling city we moved here from — Bombay — but because D.C. felt like our own from the moment we set foot in it.

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Ethiopian Lentil Stew

Berbere Spice MixThere are many things I love about D.C. But when someone asks me what I love best, I don’t have to think twice– it’s the city’s diversity. It thrills me to know that I live in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan countries. For centuries immigrants have flocked here and refugees fleeing tyranny and strife back home have embraced the capital of the world’s greatest democracy as their home. 

All of this diversity, of course, manifests itself in food, making D.C and its suburbs an adventurous eater’s dream. Because Silver Spring, the D.C. suburb I live in, has in recent years seen a vast influx of Ethiopians, we have been lucky to get at least half a dozen new Ethiopian restaurants in downtown Silver Spring. Which is perfect, because I adore Ethiopian food. In fact, there are days when I would die for it. Almost.

Last week, Desi stopped off at a store and while I waited for him in the car I was nearly driven to madness by these delicious smells wafting out from an Ethiopian restaurant nearby. By the time I got home, I couldn’t bear the idea of another day going by without getting some Ethiopian food inside my belly. So I charged into the kitchen, slammed the saucepan on the stove, and got cooking. And that’s how this delicious Ethiopian Lentil and Vegetable Stew was born.

I had most of the ingredients I needed for this stew in my pantry. I used mushrooms, sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and red peppers in my stew, and you can use some or all of these, or even try different vegetables. Zucchini would be fabulous here, as would be any winter squash.

The Berbere spice mix, a bright red spice mix that takes so many Ethiopian dishes from delicious to sublime, is key to the flavor of this dish, so don’t try making the stew without it.  It is worth the little effort, and you get  enough to last you through three or four uses.

Gotta run now, but here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Ethiopian Lentil and Vegetable Stew

Ethiopian Lentil and Vegetable Stew
 
Prep time
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Includes recipe for Berbere spice blend, an essential spice mix used in Ethiopian cuisine
Author:
Recipe type: Stew
Cuisine: Ethiopian
Serves: 10
Ingredients
  • For Berbere Spice Mix (based on this recipe):
  • 2 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • ½ tsp whole allspice
  • 10 green cardamom pods
  • 8 cloves
  • ½ cup onion flakes or fried onions (like the ones from French’s or sold in packets in Indian store)
  • 6 arbol chiles (can use dry serrano or Kashmiri chillies as a substitute)
  • ¼ cup paprika
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ground dry ginger
  • For the stew:
  • 5-6 cups of vegetable stock
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 heaping tbsp berbere spice mix
  • 1 tsp wholegrain or Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 cup pink lentils
  • 1 large red onion or two medium, thinly sliced
  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 1 large red bell pepper (can use green or yellow), finely diced
  • 2 medium carrots, finely diced
  • 2 cups button or crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 large sweet potato, finely diced
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped rosemary (if using dry, reduce to 1½ tsp)
  • 1 tsp finely chopped thyme
  • Ground black pepper and salt to taste
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • Fresh coriander leaves for garnish
Instructions
  1. Make the Berbere spice blend:
  2. Heat a small skillet and roast the coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, cloves, allspice, peppercorns, and cardamom until the coriander seeds are a couple of shades darker.
  3. Add the chiles and the onion flakes and grind into a coarse powder in a blender or spice grinder.
  4. Remove to a bowl and mix with the paprika, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and ginger.
  5. Store in an airtight jar.
  6. Make the stew:
  7. In a bowl mix 2 tbsp of the vegetable stock, berbere spice, lemon juice, paprika , mustard and salt. Set aside.
  8. Heat olive oil in a saucepan. Add the onions, herbs and garlic along with some salt and pepper. Saute, stirring frequently, over medium heat until the onions are translucent and just beginning to turn color.
  9. Add the lentils and stir well. Add the tomatoes, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers along with the berbere spice mixture dissolved in the vegetable stock. Stir well to mix, add 5 cups of vegetable stock, and bring to a boil.
  10. Cover with a lid and let the sauce simmer on medium-low heat about 30 minutes or until the lentils are cooked and soft. If the mixture gets too dry, add more water or stock.
  11. Add salt and more ground black pepper if needed. Turn off the heat and garnish, if desired, with fresh coriander leaves.
  12. Serve hot with rice or bread.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 74 Fat: 1.7 grams Fiber: 3.9 grams Protein: 2.4 grams

 

 

Methi Matar Malai

Methi Matar Malai

“I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” — John Steinbeck

It was Steinbeck’s birthday yesterday. When Desi and I were living in Bombay, we went through a Steinbeck phase when both of us were constantly reading, discussing, and living, or so it seemed, this great American writer. We breezed, like addicts, through Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. We questioned Dom Moraes’s sanity (anyone remember him?) when he called the ending of the Grapes of Wrath “the cheesiest ever” in English literature. We even named our rescue dogs after Steinbeck characters.

There was Sam, a handsome, slender mutt with the straightest tail you ever saw on a dog. We picked him off the streets in Thane. A stray dog has given birth to a litter behind a new shopping mall and when Desi squatted down to look at them, one walked right into his arms. We brought him home.

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Methi Matar MalaiSam, although named after the gentle Samuel Hamilton in East of Eden, had a rebellious streak and  a tendency to get into all kinds of trouble. He loved to escape from the apartment and roam the streets when he had a mind to, which often put him at odds with territorial stray dogs who dominated the neighborhood.  Not to mention neighbors, some of who would — literally —  stand atop a chair and squeal in fear if a dog happened to be within sight. Luckily for him and us, the only time he ever got into a real mess was when he stumbled into one of the shallow gutters that line the city’s streets and came home covered in grease. Desi must have spent five hours straight scrubbing him that night.

Not long after Sam came home, we became parents to another little puppy who we named Lee after the sage-like cook in East of Eden. We came across Lee one night on our way home from work — he was hiding away in a little nook inside the apartment building where we lived. He looked hungry so Desi took him a saucer of milk which he lapped up rightaway. We gave him a towel to cushion him from the concrete floor, but left him where he was — we lived in a tiny apartment, both of us worked odd hours at the newspaper, and we already had one dog who kept us on our toes, so we were definitely not looking to bring home another. But the next day, as we came home from work and were making our way up the stairs to our fifth floor apartment, we heard a tiny squeal behind us. We turned around and there was Lee, all two or three pounds of him, struggling to follow us. “Oh, look, he wants to come home,” said Desi, the biggest sucker on the planet when it comes to animals. And so Lee came home.

India’s streets are filled with beautiful puppies  like Sam and Lee who would make great pets, and a number of rescue organizations have sprung up in the city in the past decade — like World for All– that are working hard to spay, neuter, and adopt them to good homes. But the supply far outweighs demand. And paralleling this trend is another, insidious one where more and more people are buying purebred dogs from indiscriminate breeders. Many of these breeders steal dogs to get their business going and keep the animals in deplorable conditions where they are crammed into cages, hardly fed, and never walked or exercised. And things get worse. Even puppies that get sold to homes are often dumped on the streets once they grow up because the people who bought them are unwilling to put in the work  it takes to look after a dog.

Each year here, in the United States, millions of dogs — and cats– are put down because they can’t find homes, while breeders and puppy mills do brisk business, thanks to “dog lovers” who would rather buy than adopt. In India, the stray dog population continues to explode even as people who see dogs as symbols of affluence flock to buy designer pets from questionable breeders.

The dogs are right. We are nuts.

***

Methi Matar MalaiMethi Matar Malai is the beautifully alliterating name of a creamy, sumptuous dish often found on Indian restaurant menus. With the contrasting flavors of the two vegetables it features– wonderfully bitter methi or fenugreek leaves, and sweet, delicious green peas — this dish would delight the finickiest tastebuds. But better still, it’s incredibly healthy.

Okay, let me backtrack here. The Methi Matar Malai you’d find in a restaurant would not be healthy because it would contain malai, or cream, which is of course full of cholesterol. But the vegan  Methi Matar Malai I am serving up today is made creamy by a smooth paste of heart-healthy almonds. As you know, I often use nut creams to substitute for dairy creams in Indian recipes, and the result is always both delicious and nutritious.

If you are not familiar with methi, you should hunt it down at your local Indian grocery store. This super-veggie is great for diabetics, and it helps lower cholesterol and normalize blood pressure. And that’s just the beginning. Methi aids digestion, flushes out toxins in the body, is great for skin and hair, and helps stimulate weight loss.  Now how can anyone say no to all that?

Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Methi Matar Malai

Methi Matar Malai
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
A vegan version of a sumptuous Indian restaurant dish
Author:
Recipe type: Curry
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 8
Ingredients
  • 1 big bunch of methi (fenugreek) leaves, tough stems removed, washed, then finely chopped (substitute spinach or watercress if you can’t find methi).
  • 2 cups frozen green peas
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1-inch knob of ginger, julienned
  • 2 green chillies, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 cloves
  • 1-inch piece of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp peppercorns
  • ½ tsp cayenne or paprika, if you prefer less heat
  • ¼ tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • Salt to taste
  • ¼ cup almonds soaked in ½ cup hot water for 30 minutes
Instructions
  1. Soak the chopped methi leaves in a big bowl of warm, salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside.
  2. Blend the almonds with the soaking water into a smooth paste. Set aside.
  3. Heat half the oil and add the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, green chillies, onions, garlic, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and peppercorns. Saute everything until the onions turn translucent and just start to brown.
  4. Add the tomatoes along with the cayenne and turmeric. Saute until the tomatoes are quite broken down and pulpy.
  5. Remove the mixture to a blender and cool if necessary before blending into a smooth paste. Add water or vegetable stock if needed.
  6. Heat the remaining oil in a saucepan and add the drained methi leaves. Add a pinch of salt and saute until the methi starts to express water.
  7. Cover with a lid and let the methi cook on medium heat for another 10-15 minutes until tender. Add a tablespoon or two of water if necessary to prevent the methi from sticking to the pan.
  8. Add the tomato-onion paste, garam masala, and the green peas and continue cooking on an open flame, stirring frequently, for another 5 minutes.
  9. Add the almond cream and mix well. Turn off the heat once the curry begins to simmer. Check salt and add more if needed.
  10. Serve hot with chapatis, rotis, or pooris.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 168 Carbohydrates: 25.5 grams Fiber: 9.9 grams Protein: 9.6 grams