Thursday, December 11, 2008

Palak Paneer and Homemade Cheese

Unfortunately there won't be a Friday dinner tomorrow, nor for the next month or so, as I'm going on vacation! I will, however, be eating lots of good food and I'll be bringing my camera with me. :D Depending on computer/time availability, I may be able to blog a bit and share any delectable photos I've got.

Before I go though, I wanted to finally post those Indian recipes I talked about so long ago (or so it seems), as I'm totally behind on that. I got started with raita, but what about what you eat raita with?

One good choice is palak paneer, which is a spinach and fresh cheese (paneer) dish. If you like spinach as I do, it's a nice, safe choice. It's reminiscent of creamed spinach -- just flavorful in an entirely different way. Paneer can be purchased or easily made at home. That's right, make your own fresh cheese at home! It's super easy and not even that time consuming.

All you need is half a gallon of whole milk, 3-4 tablespoons (about 1/4 cup) of acid, such as lemon/lime juice or vinegar, cheesecloth, and a large pot. Instructions are always more fun with visual representation, so here we go (a few of the pics are fuzzy, as I wasn't using my tripod alas):

Bring half a gallon of whole milk (and yes, it needs to be whole milk -- you're making cheese so you want as much of the solids as possible) to boil. When it's boiling, add the lemon juice. Turn down the heat a bit. Start stirring and do this continuously.

Almost immediately, you'll see the curds start to separate from the whey. Keep stirring!

Stir, stir, stir. You'll know it's done when the whey has a light greenish tinge to it. That sounds wrong, but looks perfectly natural when you see it. You should be able to scoop up obvious curds now.

Place a strainer over a large bowl and some cheesecloth in the strainer.

Pour the contents of the pot into the cheesecloth-lined strainer. The curds should stay in the cheesecloth while all the whey goes into the bowl.

Close up! Looks like cottage cheese, doesn't it?

There are multiple ways you can do this next step; go with what's easiest for you. The goal is to drain as much of the whey out of the curds as you can. Here I've tied some kitchen twine tightly around the cheesecloth, and tied the other end to a knob on one of my cupboards. It's hanging over the bowl of whey so that the excess drips in there. You can also tie it over the faucet, or maybe around a long plastic spoon and drape that over a pitcher, etc. Leave this for about 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, unwrap the cheesecloth from the cheese. It'll look something like this.

Put the cheese on a plate and drape the cheesecloth over it. Then put a heavy weight on top, to further squeeze out any remaining whey. The heaviest thing I could think of was a cast-iron pan, so I used two of them. :D

It's been suggested to save the whey for later use, and being that I don't like waste, I saved about 4 cups of it. I still haven't found a recipe that uses whey, but it's in the freezer for when I do.

After another half hour or so, it'll be flattened and look something like this.

Now it's ready to be cubed into whatever Indian dish you're using it in!

Now that wasn't too difficult, was it? Since the cheese hasn't been aged at all, it doesn't have much flavor to it. It really just, as far as I can tell, adds a texture contrast to the dish. In fact, in that way it reminds me of very firm tofu.

Back to the palak paneer. There are many kinds of paneer dishes; I chose spinach because I like it. Go with your preference. The recipe I used is from Show Me the Curry, as I enjoyed their videos and their recipes are very approachable.

The first thing I did was prepare the paneer, though you can wait until you've started the masala, if you like.

Here I've heated about a tablespoon of oil and have dropped cubes of paneer into it. Paneer is one of the few cheeses that doesn't melt! Your goal is to get them nice and brown.

They're just starting to brown, so I stir fry them a bit to get as much of the cheese's surface area exposed to the pan as possible.

When the paneer has been browned (on all sides if possible), drop the cubes into a bowl of cold water. This will help get out some of the excess oil. It will also soften the cheese. The paneer can stay in the water until you're ready to add it to the rest of the ingredients. At that point you'll want to gently squeeze out any excess water from them.

This paneer has been browned, soaked, and dried, and is ready to be added to the dish! As you can see, not all the paneer has been perfectly browned; just do the best you can and when most of them are browned just pull them from the heat. You don't want them to burn.

First thing that goes into the pan is some oil, along with the pureed onion.

Next should be the pureed tomatoes. Don't skip pureeing them (as I did) unless you're okay with bits of red standing out in your palak paneer. I thought the diced tomato would melt into the mixture eventually; it didn't do so completely.

Add the spinach. It's also instructed for the spinach to be blended using a hand blender; I was lazy and skipped that step, since the chopped spinach is already pretty much falling apart. I imagine blending it would make the final dish even creamier.

The spices go in next. Generally I like to measure out all the amounts of spices ahead of time.

Now the dish should be looking something like this. See how the tomatoes don't completely melt in? Next time I'll be pureeing them for sure.

Add the cream/milk. Mmm, creamy curry goodness.

Finally, when you're about ready to serve, add the paneer. Since the dish is already fully cooked, you don't need to cook this step for very long, as mixing too much will just make the paneer fall apart.

Serve with rice or your choice of Indian bread. Delicious!

Palak Paneer (recipe found here, with some changes by me for clarification)

  • 16oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
  • 7oz paneer
  • 3 tbsp oil, divided
  • 2 medium onions, minced or pureed
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, minced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 large tomatoes or 1 14oz can of diced tomatoes, pureed (not canned tomato puree)
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp cumin powder
  • 2 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • red chili powder, to taste
  • salt, to taste
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • milk, to taste (optional)


  1. Cook frozen spinach with 1/2 cup water in a microwave safe dish for 7-8 minutes, stirring in between. Blend cooked spinach to desired texture (avoid over-blending).
  2. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a medium non-stick pan on high heat. Once oil is hot, add in the minced onions, stir, cover and let it cook for about 5 minutes.
  3. Add in the ginger and garlic and mix. Cook for another 4-5 minutes.
  4. Add in the tomates, cover and cook until the oil separates from the mixture. Stir often to keep the mixture from burning.
  5. While the onion and tomato mixture is cooking, cube the paneer to your desired size. In a non-stick frying pan, heat the remaining 1 tbsp oil. Once oil is hot, add in the paneer cubes and let them cook till they are golden brown on all sides. Remove from the pan into a plate with paper towel to soak the excess oil. In a couple of minutes, pour the paneer into a bowl of cold water. Let it sit for 5 minutes.
  6. When the onion and tomato mixture is ready, add in the blended spinach and mix.
  7. Add the garam masala, cumin powder, coriander powder, salt, chili powder and turmeric powder. Mix well and cook for 3-5 minutes.
  8. Add in the desired amount of cream and/or milk. Mix and cook for another few minutes.
  9. Gently squeeze the water out of the paneer and add the paneer to the spinach mixture.
  10. Stir gently and serve hot.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Nothing "Old" About This Spaghetti

Just over a week until I fly home for Christmas. Woot! Can't wait to see the folks and my friends. It's kind of sad that I haven't lived in California for over a decade (other than a brief stint in '99) and yet I still consider it home.

But this is a food journal, so how does this relate to food? Well, as I'll be gone for 3 weeks, I need to a) not buy any new perishable food; and b) use up the perishable food I already have. This is not a pretty thing, as mostly it's about eggs, eggs, eggs. I could probably make something "real" with the ingredients I have on hand, but it would probably yield too many leftovers. It's also a good excuse to go out to eat (which I love doing), because I can get single servings at restaurants (or double at most, usually).

So today for lunch I went to the Old Spaghetti Factory,because I had a sudden craving for their browned butter and mizithra cheese spaghetti. It's been so long since I've been there that they changed their menu -- no more daily specials! Alas. I always enjoyed looking at those, debating about getting whatever was on special that day rather than my usual. (I think I deviated once.) Luckily, they still had my usual -- the Manager's Favorite, which is a combination of 2 of their classic pasta sauces. I always get the meat sauce and aforementioned browned butter and mizithra cheese. I had the same debate I typically have with myself when I order this; I considered not getting meat sauce and getting mizithra only, but I've never been brave enough to do it. I fear it will be too rich for me, and I do enjoy the flavor combination of the tangy tomato sauce mixed with the deep, rich taste of the browned butter and mizithra cheese.

One of the changes they made is that lunch entrees are now part of their "complete meal," which includes the entree, soup or salad, bread, choice of beverage, and dessert (previously, this was only reserved for dinner, while lunch was served a la carte). Not too bad for $9.99, though honestly, not great either. Pasta's not exactly a costly expense. Still, a delightful and satisfying meal.

First, the bread, a fairly sour sourdough. A whole loaf, even if you're just a party of one. It's been so long that I forgot to do this, but you can request garlic butter instead of plain. I should actually go here more during the winter, just to bring home the bread since I'm not making my own.

Next up, the salad. I got ranch dressing on the side. It's a fairly decent ranch, not the best I've had but certainly not the worst. It has a very nice texture that I enjoy. The greens today were not as good as I've had there before, but not bad.

Ahhh the main course and star of the whole event. The browned butter wasn't as strong today as it normally is, but the pasta was delicious nevertheless. I've never liked meat sauce in restaurants as much as I like the one I make myself, but OSF's is not bad, particularly with the mizithra cheese mixed with it.

A top-down shot of both sauces. Wow, I'm getting hungry all over again!

The end note is the spumoni, which was a little icy (rather than creamy) for my taste, but hit the spot after the heaviness of the pasta. Shown here with the hot tea I managed to neglect mentioning until now!

Overall, a homey, satisfying meal that keeps itself interesting with variety and a yumminess all its own.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday Dinner: Stuffed Zucchini

Tonight's dinner was inspired by a recipe posted by kay on LJ: stuffed zucchini!

When I saw it on food_porn, it appealed to me immediately because I loved stuffed things. It's nearly inevitable. Stuff something, and it will seem 10x more appetizing to me. I guess I'm just a freak that way. I knew it would also appeal to Trix, because she loves squash.

The basic idea is very simple: halve a zucchini, scoop out its middle, then fill it with your choice of ingredients. The great thing about this dish is how improvisational it can (and really should) be, enabling you to use up the last bits and pieces of whatever you've got in your fridge. It's also very open to an interpretation of flavors; kay on LJ uses curry powder in hers, I didn't (after my week+ of eating Indian food, I wanted something different).

I almost don't want to provide a recipe, because making it exactly as I did if you don't already have the ingredients on hand might prove time consuming and thus not worth the effort. I will just so you have a guideline to follow. However, the ultimate ingredients should be based on what you have and like. The beauty of this dish is how elegant -- and yet quick -- it can be.

Originally I was going to make two stuffed zucchini (four stuffed halves), but a late lunch at Red Robin (in which I ate my entire burger AND extra fries -- never, ever eat late, you always overeat) nixed that plan. I ended up making two stuffed halves, with the rest of the filling saved for another time.

Stuffed Zucchini

  • 2 zucchini, halved (you can choose to trim the ends or not)
  • 2 slices of cooked bacon, crispy
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk mashed potatoes
  • 2-3 tbsp finely crumbled feta cheese
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 Roma tomato, diced
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • salt to taste
  • dash of parsley flakes


  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a small sauce pan. When it's hot, add the onions. Cook until they're wilted and starting to brown, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic and saute for a couple minutes more. Transfer the mixture to a medium-sized bowl.
  4. Slice the zucchini in half as evenly as you can. Using a spoon, scoop out the insides, being careful not to go too deep -- you want the remainder to be whole, so they can be used as 'boats.'
  5. Take a bit or all of what you've scooped out and chop it. Toss it into the bowl with the onion mixture.
  6. To the bowl add the diced tomato, feta cheese, mashed potatoes (cold or warmed -- I just used cold), and bacon by crumbling it in. Mix well. Add salt to taste, a pinch or two should do it since the bacon is already salty.
  7. Arrange the zucchini 'boats' in a baking dish. Stuff them with the filling -- be generous, as it'll not only taste and look better, but you should have plenty to go around.
  8. Bake for about 30 minutes so that it's nicely browned and slightly crispy on top. (Alternatively you could bake for 20 minutes then broil them for a few minutes.)
  9. Garnish with some parsley flakes on top and serve immediately.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Caramel Catastrophe?

An optional element for November's Daring Bakers challenge was caramels. I love soft, chewy caramels, and so many people had raved about these ones from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert.

I drove out of my way to Whole Foods in order to buy golden syrup -- which was nearly $5 for an 11oz jar. I stocked up on heavy cream. I had visions in my head of passing these out for Christmas, and everyone marveling at how delicious homemade caramels were. But I attempted two batches, both following the directions precisely, and both times they turned into toffee, not soft, chewy caramel. :(

I don't know what I did wrong. All I know is that I used two different candy thermometers, and it was a struggle just to get it to read 220°F, much less the 265°F the recipe asks for. The first time, I cranked up the heat so high that the caramel ended up burning (the bottom of my Dutch oven is still scorched). The second time, armed with a new thermometer and resolving to be more patient, I kept it on a moderate heat but let it cook for longer. (The instructions give NO estimated times whatsoever, which I find to be extremely unhelpful.) Even so, at the 20-30 minute mark, I started to get anxious because the caramel was deepening in color but the temperature still hadn't gotten much above 220°F. I finally decided that rather than repeat the burnt mistake of the first batch, I'd risk undercooking this one. When it cooled, however, it was far from undercooked. It was solid as a rock once more. And yet, I never even got it up to the appropriate temperature!

So, I don't know what's going on. Other DBs had similar problems, and were just as frustrated with the experience as I was. Others, who are more familiar with making candy (I'm a novice), said they didn't use thermometers at all and just went with their instincts, and they got soft, chewy caramels. Grrr. I do still have two jars of golden syrup left, so maybe one day, when I'm not so irritated with the experience, I'll try it again and ignore the temperatures entirely.

The good news is that it's really delicious toffee. I couldn't cut them up nicely, so I have a bunch of uneven pieces wrapped in wax paper, but if you ignore how they look and just focus on how they taste, it's not disappointing at all.

Baked Fries

Healthy fries?

If there were such a thing, I probably wouldn't like it much. But I think these come close. Potatoes are what they are, good and bad. But this method of making fries uses olive oil and the oven, and is a lot tastier/like its fried counterpart than you might expect. It's also quite easy, but a bit time consuming. Not in terms of preparing them, but waiting for them to bake.

First what you'll want to do is get some potatoes. I usually just use russets, but you can get fancier if you like. I like to leave the skin on, because much of the potato's nutritional value (fiber, specifically) is there. Plus I like the way fries look when the skin's been left on. Either using a mandolin or with a good ol' knife, cut the fries into the shape and size you prefer. I like skinny fries. As you're cutting them, drop them into a bowl of cold water laced with salt. The water will keep the potatoes from oxidizing and turning brown, and the salt in the water will draw water out of the potatoes, enabling them to get crispier in the oven. Leave them in the salt water for about half an hour.

Dry your "fries" as best as you can. Leaving a lot of water on them will cause them to steam in the oven, which will prevent them from getting as crunchy as one might like. Line a baking tray with parchment or wax paper -- learn from my mistakes, don't use aluminum foil as I've got in my photo, as the fries will stick to it!

Arrange your fries in a single layer on the parchment. Brush the fries with a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil. Try and get some oil on the other side of them too, but generally I just do that kind of willy nilly. I haven't tried brushing the baking paper with oil, that might work also. In this case, I also used a tiny bit of white truffle oil, because I wanted to be decadent. :D

Stick them in a 400°F oven for 30-45 minutes, flipping them once or twice so that they brown evenly. They're done when they're golden brown or however you like them. Sprinkle some salt on them and serve with your favorite dipping sauce!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Post-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving

This year for Thanksgiving, I went to have hot pot with my cousin. The rest of our family is in Los Angeles, and without them, it wouldn't have felt like a real Thanksgiving anyway. We considered doing the turkey and fixings and the whole bit, but with just two of us, it just didn't seem worth the bother. Plus having turkey or poultry of any kind just hadn't particularly appeal to me for some time.

Then came post-Thanksgiving, with everyone posting pictures from their Thanksgiving feasts. Everyone's food looked so good. On top of that, I finished a writing project I'd been working on, the reward for which was being able to crack open The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which had arrived a couple weeks before. I was just flipping through it when I came across a recipe for buttermilk mashed potatoes. I thought about the 15-lb bag of russet potatoes I had sitting in my kitchen. I thought about how good a piece of roasted chicken would taste with mashed potatoes. Uh oh. I was hooked.

The next day, I went to the store and bought a cooked rotisserie chicken (that's right -- I wanted instant gratification), canned pumpkin, and some salad fixings. Then I went home and made myself a truly satisfying post-Thanksgiving meal, including chicken, buttermilk mashed potatoes, garlic Brussels sprouts, salad, and even pumpkin pie.

The chicken was a little cold by the time everything else was ready, but that was okay. It wasn't the star. It provided some lovely contrast and texture (nothing replaces meat when it comes to making my mouth and stomach satisfied), but it was all the components working together that made the meal great. I of course did not have room for pumpkin pie after everything else, but it was still cooling anyway.

Speaking of the pie, I was pretty happy with the way it came out. On Thanksgiving day my cousin had given me a generous slice of pumpkin pie that her "dessert slave" had made, and it was probably the best pumpkin pie I've ever had. It had a candied ginger and walnut topping on it, and was made with fresh roasted pumpkin. Maybe one day I'll have the energy/will to roast my own pumpkin then make a pie out of it, but that day was not yesterday. Until my cousin can track down the recipe for that one, I found a similar one online that I adapted to my own preferences (less sugar, and hazelnuts instead of walnuts -- I'm just not a big fan of walnuts).

The mashed potatoes were excellent, even though I used russet potatoes rather than the yellow potatoes Judy Rodgers suggests (as much as I love yellow and red potatoes, well, I had 15-lbs of russets!). She also claims that the buttermilk in them helps them keep really well, so since I love mashed potatoes, I went ahead and doubled her recipe.

The Brussels sprouts were a revelation. I'm fairly new to Brussels sprouts, and I've given several recipes a try, but this very simple method using olive oil, garlic, and salt was by far my favorite. They were so good I could have eaten them as a meal all on their own. Well, on any day but post-Thanksgiving day. Granted I'm not very experienced with buying Brussels sprouts, but I had never actually seen them on the stalk before. When I saw a beautiful stalk of them for only $2.50 each, I nabbed one. The sprouts were much fresher/cleaner than the ones I've purchased before off the stalk.

As for the salad, I used red-leaf lettuce and after making the potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and pie, I was too beat (and eager to start eating) to add anything else, though normally I would have included diced tomato (or halved cherry tomatoes), thinly sliced radishes, etc. I did, however, make the delicious yet simple balsamic vinaigrette that my cousin introduced me to awhile ago.

Perhaps best of all was getting to eat the leftovers of everything. I even busted out some of my stored bacon grease to make a cream gravy for the potatoes. Dipping bites of rotisserie chicken in mashed potatoes and gravy = heaven.

And now, onto the recipes! There are quite a few of them, but hopefully it won't be hard to find the one you're interested in.

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes paraphrased from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook


  • 1 1/2 lbs potatoes (preferably yellow, but russets will work fine), peeled and chopped into 1 1/2" chunks
  • 2-3 tbsp milk, heavy cream, or half and half, heated
  • 2-3 tbsp buttermilk, room temperature
  • 3 tbsp butter, just melted so it's still warm
  • parsley or chives, to garnish (optional)
  • salt
  • water


  1. Place potato chunks in a pot, then cover with cold water by about an inch. Add salt -- about 1 tsp per quart -- and mix, until you can just taste it in the water.
  2. Heat until boiling, then simmer for 8-15 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.
  3. Drain water. Put the potato chunks in a large bowl and mash. Add the heated milk/cream, mash. Add the buttermilk, mash. Finish with the melted butter. Whip/mash well.
  4. Salt the mashed potatoes to taste.
  5. Garnish with parsley or chives, if desired.

Judy Rodgers says it's good to have the cream and butter heated so that their addition doesn't cool down the potatoes too much. Buttermilk can't really be heated or it will separate. (I put it in the microwave for about 10 seconds, to at least take the chill off.) It seems so obvious now, but I can't tell you how many years I've been making mashed potatoes and just adding cold milk and cold butter, then wondering why it was impossible to keep mashed potatoes hot.

Cream Gravy from Homesick Texan


  • 2 tbsp pan drippings, bacon grease or vegetable oil
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 tsp cracked black pepper
  • salt to taste


  1. Combine fat with flour in a hot skillet, continuously stirring, cook on medium for a couple of minutes until a dark roux is formed.
  2. Add milk slowly to skillet, and mix with roux using either a whisk or wooden spoon (be sure and press out any lumps).
  3. Turn heat to low and continue stirring until mixture is thickened, a couple more minutes.
  4. Add pepper and salt to taste.
  5. If gravy is too thick for your taste, you can thin it by adding either more milk or water a tablespoon at a time.

Garlic Brussels Sprouts


  • 8-10oz Brussels sprouts, washed, stemmed, trimmed, and halved
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • salt to taste


  1. Heat oil on medium-low heat in a saucepan large enough to hold the Brussels sprouts in one layer. (I used my wok.)
  2. When oil is hot, carefully add the Brussels sprouts -- the water droplets clinging to them from their wash will probably make the oil sizzle and crackle, possibly violently.
  3. Stir fry a bit, then turn each sprout onto its flat side.
  4. Cover the pan, turn the heat down a little lower, then cook until the sprouts are tender and their flat sides are nicely browned (about 10-12 minutes).
  5. Add the garlic and stir fry for about 30 seconds.
  6. Add salt to taste, stir fry a few seconds more, then serve.

My notes: You don't want to use heat that's too high because they'll brown too quickly without having enough time to get cooked by the steam. Also, I find that salt greatly enhances Brussels sprouts. It won't save them if they're cooked beyond hope, but salting them a bit more generously than you might salt other foods is highly recommended by me!

Pumpkin Pie with Hazelnut and Ginger Streusel


  • 1 pie shell, frozen or homemade

For the Pie Filling

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 can (15 ounces) solid-pack pumpkin
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

For the Streusel

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 4 tbsp cold butter
  • 1/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped candied or crystallized ginger


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, pumpkin, cream, sugar, salt, and all the spices.
  3. Pour the mixture into a prepared pie shell.
  4. Bake at 350° for 40 minutes.
  5. To make the streusel, in a small bowl combine the flour and brown sugar. Using a pastry blender or fork, cut in the butter until crumbly. Mix in the hazelnuts and ginger.
  6. Remove the pie from the oven, and gently sprinkle the streusel over the filling.
  7. Bake for an additional 20-30 minutes longer or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

Here's the pie, pre-streusel topping.

A messy, but delicious slice of pie.

My notes: This pie is plenty sweet, even though I cut the sugar in the filling from 3/4 cup to 1/3 cup, and the streusel topping from 1/2 cup to 1/3 cup (from the original recipe). I can't imagine how cloyingly sweet it would have been if I hadn't made those adjustments. When I make this again, whether for this recipe or the one my cousin finds, I'll probably toast the hazelnuts ahead of time and skin them as well. I already cut down on the liquid some since I cut down the sugar, but if I made this again I would probably cut it down even further.

Balsamic Vinaigrette Salad Dressing


  • 1 small shallot, sliced or diced (about 1 tbsp)
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil


  1. Soak shallot in a small bowl with the vinegars for 10-15 minutes.
  2. Add the olive oil and mix well, then toss with salad.

My notes: I usually use 2 tbsp of olive oil, but that's because I like my dressing a little more acidic. My cousin prefers using 3 tbsp of oil for a milder taste.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Raita and Homemade Yogurt

Lately I've been on an Indian food kick. The most daunting thing about making Indian food at home is having on hand all the various spices the cuisine uses. Once you've got those, however, you're pretty much good to go on just about any dish.

For me, a must with any Indian meal is raita. Every raita is as unique as the person making it. The seasonings, the vegetables, all vary from cook to cook. The one constant is plain yogurt. This can be any store-bought variety of plain yogurt, or you can make it yourself. Read further, and I will describe one way of making yogurt at home, and my method of preparing raita. If this is your first time making raita, you can use this recipe as a base and modify it to your own preferences.

I make only one or two cups at a time, because it's so easy and tastes best when freshly made. Generally I have a lot of leftovers when I make Indian food, and it's not a difficult task to make a fresh batch of raita every meal. I consume a lot of raita in one sitting -- probably more than most people. Though it's considered a condiment, to add a bit of freshness and tang or perhaps cut the heat of an overly spicy curry, I gobble it up as if it were a dish in its own right -- forking up an equal amount of raita and entree with every bite. Since it's mainly just yogurt and vegetables, it makes for a delicious and healthy breakfast or snack as well, but I just can't help but feel that I should be eating something with it.

I had several Indian dishes that I wanted to make in mind: palak paneer, aloo gobi, chicken makhani. And that, of course, meant that I would need to make raita. If I haven't made it apparent already, raita is an indispensable part of the experience of eating Indian food. Thanks to a mother who introduced me to the joys of spicy food early in life, I can take a lot of heat and it doesn't bother me. So my massive raita consumption has nothing to do with needing to cut the spiciness of any Indian dish. It's simply that I love the fresh, tangy contrast of the yogurt and vegetables with the heavily spiced, typically creamy entrees.

Here's my recipe for raita, with some notes below about each ingredient. It's such a simple recipe using simple ingredients that getting them right is key.



For the raita:

  • 1 cup plain yogurt, well stirred to a light, creamy consistency
  • 1 medium tomato, seeds removed, diced
  • 1/4 English cucumber, julienned or diced
  • 1/8 red onion, diced
  • 1/4 tsp chat masala (recipe below or use store bought)
  • salt to taste
  • sugar to taste
  • red chili powder or paprika, to garnish

For the chat masala (combine all below, then use 1/4 tsp of the mixture for the raita)

  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala
  • 1 tablespoon amchur
  • 1 tablespoon black salt
  • 1 teaspoon red chili pepper
  • 1 pinch asafetida
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger


  1. Mix all the raita ingredients together. Salt to taste. Add sugar if the yogurt you're using is particularly tart. Sprinkle red chili powder or paprika on top to garnish.

Notes on the ingredients:

Yogurt: Should be well stirred to a light, creamy consistency. Lowfat, nonfat, full fat, all work, they just have different levels of thickness, so use what you prefer. I really love Greek-style yogurt, which is especially creamy.

Tomatoes: The seeds/wet center should be removed. I've never tried using canned tomatoes, but this might be one dish where a substitution won't work. Definitely if you try it, you need to drain all the juice out or your raita will be too runny.

English cucumber: English cucumbers are better than regular cucumbers because they're normally wrapped in plastic, which prevents water loss, and thus they aren't waxed. That means they can be eaten without being peeled. They still have seeds in them (though sometimes they're called 'seedless') but the seeds are less prominent. Using regular cucumbers is fine, just make sure to remove the seeds and to peel the skin.

I like to julienne my cucumber with my mandolin (or you can grate it using the side of the grater with the larger holes) or dice it. A lot of people prefer their raita with larger pieces of vegetables, so it all depends on preference.

If you opt to julienne or grate your cucumber and you want a thicker raita, you will want to squeeze out as much water as you can from the cucumber. I don't need my raita to be super thick, so I leave the water -- and many nutrients -- in.

Onion: Any kind of onion will do; I like to use red because I love the color contrast.

Making Yogurt at Home

Now, as for making yogurt at home, it's a lot easier than you might think -- and certainly cheaper if making large quantities. The most difficult thing is regulating the temperature so that the good bacteria has the perfect environment to grow.

All you need is 4 cups (1 quart) of milk -- again, any kind will work, but what you choose will affect the final consistency, and 3 tablespoons of 'starter' plain yogurt, which can be a small container you've purchased from the grocery store or leftover from another batch of homemade yogurt. Heat the milk in the microwave or stovetop to boiling. Cool the milk to about 100°F (plus or minus 10°F is okay). Skim off the skin that's formed. Heat your oven to 180°F then turn it off. Whisk the yogurt in a large bowl until smooth and light. Add the warm milk and whisk until well incorporated. Transfer the mixture to a quart jar. Put the jar in the warmed oven for 4-5 hours (if you like a tarter yogurt, you can leave it for longer). It should be about 100°F at all times in there, so turn on the oven as needed, but make sure you don't get it too hot or you'll kill the necessary bacteria. At the end of that time, the consistency of the yogurt will be like that of a slightly watery pudding. It won't completely set until it's been chilled, so don't worry if it doesn't look exactly like yogurt yet. Put the container of yogurt in the refrigerator to complete the process.

Homemade yogurt will keep for about a week in the fridge.

When I need to buy starter yogurt I save the 3 tablespoons I need to make a batch of my own yogurt, then use the remainder to make a quick and yummy serving of raita!

Friday Dinner: Slow Cooker Congee

One of my all-time favorite comfort foods is jook, which is a Cantonese rice porridge. It's also known as "congee." It came about because the Chinese hate waste, and families would use leftover rice (including the kernels that stuck to the rice cooker and couldn't be easily scooped out) by soaking it in water overnight. This rice would then be used to make congee.

I've tried several times to make it at home, with results that were satisfactory, but not exactly right. My goal was always to get it to be the consistency of restaurant congee, which is a perfect in-between mix of thick soup like chowder and thin soup like broth. While the congee I made at home was definitely edible and even good, it wasn't that perfect consistency.

Every recipe I found online for congee involved cooking it on the stovetop, for an hour or so. Using this method never yielded results I wanted -- the rice didn't break down enough, and the congee was always too thick. Plus cooking it on the stovetop requires a watchful eye, with constant stirring to make sure the rice doesn't stick and burn (mine always burned a bit). It was obvious to me that I'd need a way to break down the rice further, but that required more time, and more time meant more liquid, and of course, more time meant more time taken up watching it.

That's when it occurred to me that using a slow cooker would be the perfect method of making congee, if I could get the right ratio of ingredients. A slow cooker would enable me to cook the congee for a long time without fear of it burning. Yet searching online for a slow cooker recipe for congee proved difficult. I read about people asking for such a recipe, I read posts alluding to such recipes, but never actually found a recipe.

Therefore for this week's Friday dinner, I had to compose a recipe, which still needs some perfecting, but was considered a success for both me and Trix. (Trix and I had congee in New York, which was the first time she'd ever had it, and enjoyed it greatly.) The slow cooker did its job well, breaking down the rice without us needing to watch it constantly. It did take some time though, so this isn't one of those recipes you can throw together without any forethought (though it is convenient in the sense that you can toss everything together and not spend a lot of time in the kitchen, making it the perfect winter food). If you make your own broth that will take more time also, of course, but using canned broth will also work.

Congee is very personal -- some like it thick, some like it thin, and some like it somewhere in between. My preference is somewhere in between, where the rice and its starch have broken down enough to thicken the broth or water, but not so much that all the liquid's been soaked in and it turns into something like thick oatmeal. The ingredients you use are also very much to preference, though traditional congee tends to be "meat" oriented -- beef, fish, pork and preserved egg -- nothing that lets out too much liquid on its own. You can also have plain congee. Trix and I found out that cooking it is also very personal, dependent on your own slow cooker, so the recipe is just a guideline. If you decide to make yours on a stovetop, be sure to use extra liquid, as more evaporation takes place. If you're using leftover cooked rice, use less liquid. I don't have an exact proportion, as I haven't tried that method yet. If you're making plain congee, try adding half a pig's foot, which will give the broth some extra dimension.

For this particular attempt, I used duck broth, as I had leftover duck from making Duck L'Pomegranate. The duck broth ended up coloring the congee brown, though traditional congee is white, made with water and/or chicken broth. This made it no less delicious, however. I also used shredded duck meat, shiitake mushrooms, and preserved eggs.

My next experiment with congee will definitely involve making plain congee, with mostly or all water. As much as I love making congee with broth, it not only makes it a little more work, it's also a cheat -- anything tastes good made with a good, deep broth! If I can get plain congee to taste good, then I'll really know I have the right recipe.

Slow Cooker Congee


  • 8 cups of broth (preferably duck, chicken, or pork), water, or a mix
  • 3/4 cup medium- or short-grain white rice, uncooked, washed twice
  • 1 cup shredded duck or pork, cooked
  • 2 century eggs, diced
  • 4-6 shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted, thinly sliced
  • 2 thin slices of ginger
  • salt to taste- white pepper to taste

Optional Post-Cooking Ingredients

  • green onion, thinly sliced, for garnish
  • peanuts, for garnish
  • dash of sesame oil


  1. Wash the rice. Measure it out to a small container and fill it will water. Swish it around and rub it between your hands. The water will be cloudy. Drain the dirty water and repeat.
  2. In a slow cooker, put the rice, broth, and ginger. Cook on low for 12-16 hours. If you're pressed for time, you can put the slow cooker on high for less time.
  3. Half an hour before serving, add the shredded meat and eggs. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove the ginger slices when the cooking is done.
  4. To serve, ladle congee into a bowl. Top with a scatter of peanuts, green onion, and dash of sesame oil, if using.