Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

It had come to my notice a few days ago that I was spending a lot more time cooking than actually eating. This is not to say that I have been burdening myself with tedious and slow-cooking meals. In fact, it was quite the contrary. While my meals have been loaded with quick and simple salads, soups and the occasional sandwich, it seemed strange to me that I was eating in less than half the time I took to prepare the meal at hand.

I have recently begun to have lunch at my desk, if only to try and get as much work done as I possibly could cram int my day. With my food sitting on my right and my laptop on the left, it’s almost impossible for me to sit back and actually take a moment to even look at my plate, let alone enjoy it. And this, my dear friends has been bugging me since the time I started doing it.

There are piles of emails flagged for responses, a ton of article ideas bookmarked for research, a growing tower of books (which I now use as a side table to hold my morning cup of coffee) for review, and the odd request or two for help with a menu plan, that are all screaming for my undivided attention. Well, what can I say but that it’s hard trying to balance your work and hobby at the same time. Even harder when they both are interlinked, like in my case. That was until I found Rachael Ray.

I was first introduced to the great RR a few years ago with her show 30-Minute Meals. Like many, I thought she was too perky to be sane. I thought it was crazy of her to bang pots and pans to flatten meat, and create acronyms like EVOO and GB (which I must add is a wonderful trick I learnt from her!). But what I did admire was her penchant to get real creative in the kitchen and make everyday food seem exotic and exciting.

A few days ago, as I got ready to take my lunch into my home office, I had the sudden urge to stop and see what was on TV. A quick scan and I found myself taking a seat with The Rachael Ray Show. She was just as I remembered her: quirky, overly excited and bubbly. But even then, I found myself grinning at her silly jokes. She passed around the ‘snack of the day’ to her audience as I took the first bite of my lunch. By the end of the episode, I had polished my plate, relishing every bite and enjoying what I ate. I tried doing the same the next day. And the day after. And the day after that.

It’s been more than a week since, and my lunches, though take hardly any time to cook, seem to take a whole hour to be eaten. And not to mention, enjoyed. All thanks to the Queen of Quick!
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Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Me and Hubby Dear are what some might call munchers. You know, the kinds that could live on finger foods alone. Yes, now that I think back a little, we most certainly are one of those kinds.

The first time we went out, ever, we unsuccesfully tried to share a plate of french fries. I say we tried, because truly, I was was the one trying my best to get my fork into the plate while Hubby Dear conviniently walked at a much faster pace covering it with his arms. (Walking, since unlike the tradional way of going out to dinner for a first date, we chose to spend a day at the CNE.) Yes, the guy does like his fries, sometimes, I believe, even more than his pretty little wife. We spent the rest of the day bouncing between samosas, popcorn and fiery wings.

When we’re not having friends over, our Friday nights usually turn out the same each week – a bunch of movies enjoyed over a platter of assorted mini treats. As much as our choice of movies may differ, the only variable constant to our evening would be the finger food. Constant, because they mostly always find themselves to be potato-based. And variable, because they almost never taste the same.

I love experimenting with different flavours, and what better way to try a new flavour than to toss it over a bowl of plain boiled and mashed potatoes. From chat masala to chipotle-lime, the list of flavourings is endless, and the combinations one can come up with is overwhelming. We made this a couple of weeks ago. We, because while I fried, Hubby Dear ate, much to the dismay of his burning tongue. The things men do for food, or should I say, potatoes!

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Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Every once in a while I like to take a vacation. Correction: I need a vacation. But a busy schedule make it an almost impossible desire. Instead, I take time to “zone out.” I take these mini-holidays on any particular day and when I think I most deserve it. I leave everything behind and pretend I’m on an adventure. Anything to spice up my routine lifestyle.I wear my favourite pair of comfortable pants, put on my comfy walking shoes, and armed with a camera and a few bare necessities, I set out on an exploration.

The streets by my home are lined with vintage stores filled with pretty little things. There’s a cafe on the corner of the street that serves the best chocolate eclair I’ve ever had. As I walk down that road, filled with the hustle and bustle of people walking their dogs and moms dragging their kids from the ice-cream shop, it gives me a sense of vacationing. You know, the feeling you get when you experience a place for the first time. It’s curious how enriching it can be just to take in all the sights and sounds and see things from a new perspective. It helps me. It helps me forget deadlines, and to-do lists. It helps to open up my mind to new avenues of thinking. Some I never even knew were embedded somewhere in my head.

I walk the extra mile to a nearby lake. I turn towards my favourite bench overlooking the horizon and I enjoy my eclair. My camera captures things that I see along the way and want to keep imprinted on my mind. These also become inspiration for the rest of the week; sometimes even the month! What is most exhilarating, is the feeling of being free. It gives me a chance to see things around me in a new light.

With food, I often feel the same way too. Sometimes, you just want something different. It doesn’t have to be exotic or even back-breakingly elegant. Just different enough to take your palate on a holiday. I try and keep atleast one day of the week where I try out something different. I create or recreate a recipe from my fancy. Sometimes, it’s the ingredients that are new to me, and most times, the flavours that follow along. This dish is one such feat. With an open mind to create vegetable dishes that I would enjoy and always come back to, I decided to play around with a bunch of fresh Bok Choy I picked up a few days ago. It resulted in what has now become one of my favourite comfort dishes. Yes, it really is that good that I promise you won’t even know that NO oil was use in its creation.

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It’s often believed that no Indian meal is complete without a good helping of tangy chutney and a touch of spicy pickle on the side. Delicately spiced, these Indian condiments range in taste, texture and colour to suit every palate, be it hot, sour, salty or sweet. Since chutneys and pickles hold a very prominent place on every thali, a large round steel tray traditional used to serve a selection of different dishes, including rice, lentils, vegetables, rotis and a sweet dish, I couldn’t help but dedicate a section to highlight its importance in Indian food.

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Pickles

Unlike the classic dill pickle found in almost every refrigerator in every home in North America, Indian pickles are fiery hot condiments that are often eaten in minute quantities. They can be seen as preserves, with salt being the most common preservative and can be stored up to many months. While most Indian pickles tend to be sour, you can also find a good range in the sweet varieties. Earlier pickles were most commonly made from mangoes that are available in abundance throughout, but now one can easily find a jar of pickle of any vegetable desired, or even a combination of them.

Most pickles are made by sun drying the fruits and vegetables, and then storing them in a jar of salt over a period of time. Mixed in oil and spices and they are then flavoured, some even simmered for hours. Over the hot summer months, it’s very common to find a family gathered out on the patios or terraces, sitting in a circle preparing the ingredients for pickling, while at the same time sharing in idle gossip. Each family prides in its own secret recipe passed on from generations, making this a family event to look forward to.

Chutneys

Chutneys can be classified in two basic categories. The fresh chutneys, those that are blended with fresh ingredients and spices, and require no cooking whatsoever, and the cooked chutneys, that are simmered over a low heat till all the flavours are blended well. While chutneys are enjoyed and eaten in almost every home throughout the country, it is as diverse in its flavour as the number of hands that make it everyday.

Some of the most popular chutneys include:

Coconut Chutney: A favourite accompaniment to the spicy Masala Dosa, this fresh chutney is made by blending freshly grated coconut with generous amounts of green chillies, fresh ginger, curry leaves, Urad dal and mustard seeds.

Tomato Chutney: This refreshingly sweet chutney is made by slowing cooking fresh tomatoes with an added flavour of curry leaves, ginger and spices. Eaten hot or cold it brings a wonderful additional dose of flavour to any simple meal.

Tamarind Chutney:A slow simmering chutney of tamarind pulp, jaggery (unrefined sugar) and a mix of spices, this tangy chutney is always a welcome companion to many Indian snacks. It is a wonderful blend of sweet and sour flavours with a hint of spice and adds that much needed zing to many popular street foods.

Mango Chutney:This chutney is easily made by sautéing diced mangoes with an array of different spices and lemon juice. As much as it is enjoyed with a traditional Indian meal, it also serves as a great topping for any regular sandwich.

Onion Chutney:A personal favourite, onion chutney is a quick two-step process. First, sliced onions are sautéed in a skillet with red chillies. Then, once cooled, it is blended to a touch of tamarind and sugar to a smooth fine paste. A perfect blend of spicy, sweet and sour, this delicious relish is good enough to enjoy on its own.

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When I started out to try and impart what I know of Indian cooking, I had a few things in mind that I knew I just had to talk about. I did not want to make this series all about the simplicity in the recipes, but instead, I wanted to discuss the essence of Indian food right from the basics. When one thinks of Indian food, the first few things that come to mind definitely include spice, curries, and Butter Chicken. While these may somewhat play key roles when introducing someone to Indian cuisine, its hard to leave out the other factors that contribute to the rising popularity of Indian food. Picking up from where I last left off with an introduction to the most basic spices found in almost every Indian home, let me go a step further and bring you into the whole new wonderful world of lentils. Lentils, or Dal, as they are most often known in the Indian menu, are a staple at almost every Indian meal. Ranging from the most basic cooking method of simply boiling it with a dash of salt and adding a robust tempering right before serving, to a more tedious method of sautéing it various spices and vegetables, lentils have come a long from where we first knew it to be.

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Lentils are basically legumes and have somewhat of a rich nutty flavour. They are usually sold pre-packaged in bags or boxes, but can also be bought in bulk. When shopping for lentils, it is most important to note how much of an effort you are actually willing to spend in their cooking process. When storing lentils, it is best to keep them in large air-tight containers in a cool spot. Right next to where you store your pasta, is probably also the best spot to display your lentil collection.

Lentils come in varied sizes, shapes and colours, each equipped with its own distinct flavour and commendable cooking times. Many of them cooked be cooked in similar ways, but don’t let the difference in tastes of each of them surprise you. That’s what’s so special about including Dals in your meal plans. Not much of an effort where the cooking is concerned, and yet you can have variety in your meals simply by alternating the kinds of lentils you use.

Some of the most common lentils are:

MASOOR (red lentils): The red split Masoor lentils are most commonly used in many homes. They take the shortest time to cook and require no pre-soaking whatsoever. This type of lentils is usually found in everyday meals and make a quick go-to dish when you’re running short of time.

TOOR/ARHAR (yellow lentils): The Toor Dal, is dull yellow in colour and is most often the base for many South Indian specialities like Sambhar. They need to soak for a few hours before cooking, and take longer to boil down to a soft edible center. A quick way to overcome the long cooking process would be to use a pressure cooker. On the contrary, they are perfect for a slow cooker if you’re in need to let a meal do its own thing while you go about your own.

CHANA (split-pea lentils): The Chana Dal, or split-pea lentils have a deep yellow colour and look like the halves of a chick-pea, only in a smaller size. They take the longest to cook and are extremely compatible with both, the pressure cooker as well as a slow cooker. They often take center stage in special dishes, and are a favourite to serve at dinner parties.

MOONG (green lentils): Being green in colour and taking the shape of a tiny bean is probably what sets this Dal apart from its various counterparts. The Moong Dal is rarely used in preparing everyday meals, but gets its fame as the star of a widely loved dessert call Moong Dal Halwa.

An everyday Indian meal usually comprises of some rice, a few Rotis, a Dal and a vegetable, accompanied with some yogurt, pickle and a light salad. When you’re in no mood to go the whole mile, Dals are best enjoyed with simply rice and a dash of pickle. In many Indian households, a different Dal is cooked each day, accompanied with a complimenting vegetable. Dals are also used in many non-vegetarian preparations, the most popular known being the Dhansak. A gift from the Parsis, Dhansak is a slow cooked stew of meat, vegetables and lentils, all simmering in rich, robust spicy flavours.

With its chockfull of proteins, lentils are great addition to a vegetarian diet. Add a handful to your stews and soups for that extra burst of nutrition. Lentils can easily take on varied flavours and add richness to your daily meals. So go ahead, and give it a try.

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Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

When it comes to entertaining, I prefer to have my invitations sent out well in advance. While that buys me much time to plan a menu and work out the finer details of the evening, it also gives me enough of time to prepare for those expected to attend. And by that I don’t certainly mean that I spend a good chunk of the coming days rehearsing a jig for them. No, nothing like that, I prefer my guests to entertain themselves without having me burst into a spell of break dance. What I do mean, however, is that it gives me ample time to clear up the house.Since I’m someone who could easily let the pile of dirty laundry grow till we literally (literally, like Hubby Dear waking me up a few mornings ago at the shock of not having any clean shirts left to wear to work. Thank goodness for a semi-casual work environment where a golf t-shirt is seen as no reason to question!) run out of clean clothes, or let the vacuum cleaner sit snugly in the corner gathering dust, or let the endless magazines I subscribe to grow into an unbelieveable pile, much like the leaning tower of Piza, er I mean, paper.

Yea, so I guess you’re kinda getting where I’m hinting at. I hate to admit it, but as much as I would prefer otherwise, I hate to have last minute guests. Even worse are those who think it’s so much fun to drop me a surprise visit. I always wonder if they’re the ones surprised by how much clutter one can accumulate with just a weeks subricption of magazines and newspapers. But don’t get horrified. It’s not as bad are you imagine it. I DO NOT live amidst bits of paper scattered throughout the house (I swear Mom, I clean, there are really not that many papers lying around!), neither do I have to wade my way through the different rooms by tripping over things.

For the most part, my floors are carpetted and clear. The main problem lies in, or rather on, my table-tops. With all my writing assigments, I find myself constantly rummaging through books and magazines for both, research and inspiration. My coffee table, and part of my dining table are filled with my current favourites and articles that I want to keep close at hand. Then comes the endless cookbooks I love to collect, which get shoved from one room to another as I read them, due to lack of book shelf space. (Yes, I’ve actually added a book shelf to my birthday list for Hubby Dear. What? Don’t tell me you don’t have a list!) And finally, my notebooks. I can’t even begin to count to the number of notebooks, pads and pieces of paper I’ve scribbled on since I started this blog. It’s rare, if ever, I finish one notebook before I start a new one. The reason for me having so many of them is that part way through, I always seem to misplace one, start a new one, misplace that, start another one, only to find the first one in some remote corner of my study! So yea, it’s not that I dislike having people over, it’s just that I prefer to have the time to clean up a bit so as not to drive them away!

Anyways, coming back to why I started all this rambing in the first place. The first time I had Hubby Dear over at my place for dinner, I had to admit it, but he was one of those, “I’m in the neighbourhood and I think it’ll be awesome if I drop by for some dinner cooked by you!“. We had just started seeing each other a few months ago. He was in town on some work, and thought that instead of meeting up somewhere, it would be great if I could cook him up a meal. Now, mind you, this was a time where I didn’t feel much at home in the kitchen. I was used to cooking, yes, but had never cooked for anyone. Other than my Dad and best friends, and truth be told, I didn’t really care what they thought of my newly acquired talent. But Hubby Dear, now this was BIG! This guy actually wanted me to cook for him, and that meant he had no idea what he was getting into.

Due to the last minute bombshell that fell on me, I had no choice but to say yes, and curse myself later. There was no time to shop, whatever I was going to make had to come from what I already had in my kitchen. Being a student, with almost empty pockets at the time, didn’t allow me to have an overstocked pantry. All I found, that I actually thought I could use, was a can of chickpeas. Perfect! Chickpeas is one of the simplest and quickest things to cook. And seasoned with the perfect spice blend, they were undoubtedly delicious as well. With limited time left before he rang the door bell, I started to get to work. As I quickly chopped and stirred, much calm and collected than I was a few minutes ago, I went into my spice rack to pick out my most trusted ally, the Chana Masala powder. And lo and behold, like all tests of fate that take place around the same time, I was out of it! Today, that would not be any cause for panic, but a few years ago when I had not yet experienced much of my culinary capabilities, I was in for a disaster. But he was on his way, and I no choice but to improvise.

Three years later, we’ve just celebrated our second wedding anniversary a week ago. So you could say the dinner didn’t turn too bad. And wonder of wonders, he still loves my Chana Masala!

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In my quest to dismiss the myth that Indian cooking is not for the faint hearted and to help spread my knowledge on some simple and traditional Indian food recipes, I have started this series called Indian Cooking 101. To make it more interactive and as helpful as I can for my readers, I welcome you to email me any questions that you may have in the process. I will try and respond to the questions personally through email, or in the next part if it’s connected to what I have already planned to discuss. Before I start to talk about cooking Indian food, here are a few tips that I think would help make the process a tad bit simpler. While I already have a Quick-Start Guide on my homepage, this list is minimal for those who want to start slow.

SPICES: If you’ve never cooked Indian food before, and the only spice even remotely connected to Indian cooking ever to step into your spice collection is curry powder, then don’t fret. Start with the basics. Here is a list of the most standard spices that would help you cook many delicious Indian meals without making you go all out and splurge on many exotic flavours that you may be clueless about.

– Cumin Seeds
– Mustard seeds
– Turmeric powder
– Red Chili powder/Cayenne
– Coriander Powder
– Garam Masala

Once you have these staples and are confident about playing with them, then go a step further and try out a few more new to you. Slowly, but surely, you’ll have your own collection of spices that you’re fond of and those that you know would enable you to cook meals that you like.

UTENSILS: While certain dishes require certain traditionally designed equipment, a good start would be to invest in a few simple utensils that you already may or may not have.

– a non-stick wide pan
– a deep heavy-bottomed pot
– a kadhai, or wok, preferably non-stick or aluminum

When it comes to cooking simple Indian food, you would only need to be familiar with a few spices and the flavours that go with them. As a self-starter, it’s very easy to lose yourself in the wide selection of spices. True, they may seem intimidating at first, but then as you go along and acquaint yourself with the robust flavours they have to offer, you can’t help but get excited at the prospect of shopping and stocking your spice racks with some of your favourites.

As a first in this series, I thought I’d start with a recipe so simple, yet so flavourful, that would help you identify its distinct taste and aroma. Most Indian cooking would begin with a tempering, simply put, it’s just a process where spices like cumin or mustard seeds are added to hot oil and allowed to sizzle. Doing so adds plenty of flavour to the oil, which then helps in penetrating through the dish during the cooking process. Tempering, or tadka, is also a common way of adding a burst of flavour to a subtly spiced dal.

Pic for Jeera Alu taken from www.hookedonheat.com. Visit site for a detailed recipe.

The one thing I like about this dish is how the cumin dominates in taste. Another reason for adding it to the menu today, is to allow you to experiment and play around with some of the flavours you already love, or some that you wish to try. Potatoes are a wonderful vegetable to use when you need to experiment with a certain spice. Since they lack in much flavour themselves and carry out others with ease, I’d suggest you use not more than a combination of 2-3 spices to begin with. This would help you identify the flavours and also enable you to decide whether or not you like the mingling of them together.

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Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

With December finally having dawned on us, one can’t help but reflect the year soon to pass us by. I automatically begin with the setting and tackling of my annual resolutions. The most daunting for me of course, is knowing that skipped out on a few of the resolutions I made with gusto at the stroke of midnight eleven months ago.

I frown ever so mildly at the slightly chubbier version of me since a year ago. Needless to say, managing and catering a food blog to ever-indulgent foodies did not play a good part in keeping word to “weight” issue. I twitch my nose and curl my lips at the thought of the next weeks finding me drowned in flour over my over-ambitious Christmas baking plan. The list is being made as we speak, a perfect blend of the sweet, savoury, melt-in-your-mouths, and of course, chocolate choices of the best cookies ever to grace the human palate.

For those who are familiar with my culinary skills, can vouch for my lack of interest to baking. I celebrated my last Christmas with a huge bill of delicous confectionaries, much to Hubby Dear’s dismay. This year, to begin the glorious month with a new resolution, I decided to finally tackle the baking fairy. This I’m guessing, will be no small feat, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Getting back to the topic of concern, I decided to tackle it as best as I could on short notice. With the weather Gods warning us of a cold wintry week ahead, I decided to bring in a little comfort to my very lazy Sunday evening. And I tried my absolute best to make this as healthy as per my earlier resolution demanded. I promise.
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My Mom is a Malaysian. My Dad, an Indian. Theirs is ofcourse, a love marriage. My Dad, being a simple man when it comes to meals, refused to forsake his Dal-Roti routine when he married my Mom. She on the other hand, could never accept that cooking a traditional Indian meal was out of her reach. So she toiled, and she toiled, and today she makes the best curries and the meanest biryanis than any born-Indian I know.

Masala Alu Parathas

When they first got married, as my Mom once very fondly narrated this story to me, she was unaccustomed to the roti. Not knowing the perfect recipe himself, all she could get out of my Dad was that the dough was made from whole wheat and water, and rolled out into thin, soft and fluffy mouthfuls of delight. She tried her various combinations of water and flour for many days to come, until one fine day Dad had a smile on his face after the very first bite, and announced it PERFECT! Since then, she has rolled bagfuls of flour into the most delicate rotis and parathas.

One thing I learnt for Mom, was that making rotis is an art in it’s truest form. I agree. Who ever has tried to roll them into the perfect circle with only the aide of a rolling pin, will know exactly what I mean. I started out with no-so-soft-irregular-shaped ones myself. But as they say, practice makes perfect. Though mine are still not as round as the moon, they do taste good.

The other day when I decided to make one of Hubby Dear’s finest favourites, I had a slight inclination to tamper with things a little. Who ever said never to play with tradition, certainly never tasted my version of it!

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We don’t bicker much, Hubby Dear and I, when it comes to food, except of course when the topic of concern is Dal. Dal, or lentils, is a common staple in Indian cuisine. Be it the North, South, West or East, this is one item you can find on the menu. True, it comes in its variations, but it’s a staple nonetheless. And there’s certainly no denying that on a cold rainy day like today, it is the ultimate comfort food.

Chana Dal Tadka

Hubby Dear and me love our dals, and most importantly, we have our favourites. He loves his Yellow Arhar/Toor dal, and I’m passionate about my Red Masoor. To give tem their due importance, I alternate between the two each week. One may think it might be hard to keep track of whose turn is up next, but since I’m the sole incharge when it comes to all things culinary, I demand the benefit of doubt.

There have been numerous days when Hubby Dear thinks, no, he actually believes, that I’ve been partial to my own needs infront of his wishes. Well, maybe i have. But then again, when you rule the kitchen, there’s not much that can be done about it! So, to avoid matters taking a toll for the worst, I turn to the only intermidiary I know. The Chana dal. Or more explicitly, the Split Pea. This lentil is one that we both happliy agree on. It may take it’s own sweet time to soften down, but the end result never fails to bring a smile to our faces that had been just recently wiped off due to the “episode”.

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