Take-out Cooked-in: Vegetable Hakka Chowmein

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

Until a few years ago, I adored Indian-Chinese cuisine. So much so, that I would gladly stop by our nearby Hakka joint to pick up an order of Chowmein, Chilli Chicken and Spring Rolls, every other week. But over the past two years or so, nothing I’ve tried from their menu has seemed to tantalize my taste buds. I don’t blame the particular restaurant however, since I’ve had the same disappointing feeling no matter which Hakka restaurant we go to – and no matter how highly recommended it comes. Almost anything we’ve ordered has been a flavourless, salty plate of mush. I’ve come to realize that since I’ve started to reduce our salt intake through healthier cooking and eating habits, a lot of the take-out options we used to love don’t quite appeal to us anymore. Just goes to prove that if you reduce the amounts of oil and salt in many of these fast-food items, there’s not much left to be desired.

Now that Baby Dear is an independant ‘lil brat who chooses to entertain himself by nosying around the house, I find myself with enough time to whip up a delicious wholesome dinner almost every evening. Almost. The last couple weeks had been a whirlwind of hot summer days outside, impromtu BBQs, and lawn maintainence. So when this past weekend rolled by as a long one for Canada Day, we were delighted to take it slow and make full use of the heat advisory warning by chilling indoors with the AC cranked up and a bunch of fun movies. It was the perfect excuse and occasion for me to spend some quality time in my kitchen. Baby Dear is a big fan of noodles made anyway, and we were craving some Hakka food ourselves – that definitely called for some wok time!

This recipe is simple, quick and delicious. It’s a definite crowd pleaser and can surely be catered to suit your tastes. I kept it vegetarian since I had a wonderful stock of fresh veggies in my fridge and served it along side some Honey-Garlic Chicken Wings. If you’re up for it, toss in some sliced chicken or shrimp to take this a step further. I’ve also kept the heat level on the mild side since Baby Dear was eating it as well; but if you’d like a slight kick, then add in some finely chopped green chillies. On a lazy weekend afternoon or a busy weeknight, this would make a wonderful meal served by itself. Try it, and I hope you enjoy it as much we did.

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No Can Do – Masala Mushrooms

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

Growing up, the only mushrooms I ever had were the ones my Mom drained out of a can to spread on pizza. It may sound completely appetizing, but I loved it. So much so, that I would actually fish out and pieces I could find on leftover slices of the pizza. And yes, sadly, pizza was the only time my Mom opened the can of mushrooms. It wasn’t until I actually moved to Canada that I had my first taste of a real, fresh mushroom. One bite, and I was blown away. The canned stuff felt like rubber and I was instantly obsessed. Still am, to this day, mushrooms remain a favourite vegetarian option for me. Only second to the humble eggplant, of course!

When my parents were visiting during the early months of Baby Dear’s birth, my Dad had a craving for mushrooms. Like many people from Indian households back home, where mushrooms were a very rare sight at the dinner table, he wanted to know what they were like. He had often heard and read of recipes where mushrooms were cooked in a thick, almost dry masala base. He asked me to cook up a batch for him. I was more than than eager too!

It was almost too simple to put together. Like most Indian recipes, I started with a base of onions and tomatoes, slowly sauteing it till all moisture evaporated and the flavours of the various spices had a chance to deepen. Next came the mushrooms, a few more minutes of slow cooking, and voila! Dinner was ready. My Dad had waited a long while to eat mushrooms cooked this way, and his expectations were pretty high. He took a bite, looked at me, and said that I HAD to teach my Mom this recipe. My Mom’s retort – they didn’t sell mushrooms at the vegetable market she shopped at!

This is a recipe I often fall back on on days when the heart desires something meaty, rich and lip-smackingly good! I’ve made it for fancy dinner parties, used it as an extravagant side for a simple Dal-Chawal, and also as a filling for sandwiches and wraps. I chose white button mushrooms since they easily take on robust flavours and shine through. I suspect creminis and oysters would also work well, but honestly, I have yet to try them this way.

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A Change of Heart: Black Bean Chili

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

The past weekend we had some of our closest friends and family join us to celebrate Hubby Dear’s b’day. It was a surprise party I managed to pull off for him at the very last minute. And that was after I sent him 3 big, fat helium balloons and a box of chocolate covered strawberries to his workplace. Yes, I know, I AM the most awesome wife there is. But don’t worry, I more than let him make up for it on my b’day by making sure I am showered with a boat load of presents! Ladies, if you want to know how I do it, it’s simple – give him a list of all the things you want and make sure to let him know where to get them at. And if your hubs is super busy trying to get multi-million dollar deals for his company like mine is, then just give him a hand by shopping for yourself. With his credit card. Like I do.

Anyway, where was I? Right, awesome wife! Who gave him a fabulous surprise party! And might I add he had no clue. Even with a fridge full of food. But most importantly, even with a clean, pristine home on a Saturday. With Baby Dear around. Yup, he sure didn’t see it coming! Needless to say, it was fun and of course, a tad bit tiring for me too. But to see a large crowd gathered in our home, over delicious comforting food – I’d do it again, in a heart beat!

There was a time when we would have large dinner parties like it was nobody’s business! I would cook a lavish buffet of food, making sure there were at least a few of everyone’s favourite dishes. I have been told that some skip their lunch knowing that sitting down for dinner at our table would totally be worth it. I have also been told (by Hubby Dear, of course) that when I entertain, I turn into this crazy cooking monster who has all the burners on her stove working at once while the food processor’s running and the oven on full steam! Yes, I admit, I do tend to go a bit overboard – most times making twelve different dishes for ten people. And that’s not including appetizers and dessert! But alas, that was all pre-Baby Dear.

Which is why I have no idea what possessed me to send out that email ten days before D-day to a collective group of fifteen. And the fact that I actually pulled it off, has me even more stunned. What I have learnt from it though, is that I have in fact, changed. I’m no longer the Kitchen Hitler who shuns away anyone wandering in while she’s cooking. I do however, blame that on the tiny apartment kitchen we had. Our kitchen now, in our new home, is literally the center of it all. It’s bang in the middle of the main floor, connecting both, our dining and family rooms. It’s open, with an island in the middle where Hubby & Baby Dears often sit while I rustle up something yummy. The island is also where some our friends sat and munched while I continued getting dinner ready at the b’day party, all the while making me feel part of the festivity and not a short order cook!

This weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving, and while there will be some among us who won’t let anyone tip-toe into the kitchen until all the food is perfectly set in their respective serving dishes on the table, I encourage the rest of you to accept all the help you can get and be thankful for those hands that do. As for me, I’m making a large pot of spicy chili in my beautiful red dutch oven, and serving it up alongside some chips, roast potatoes and fixin’s. After all, I’ve never been one to serve a turkey. It just takes too much time!

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Intro to Indian Food, Part 5 – Cooking Curry for Beginners: Pindi Chana

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

I get quite a few emails referring to a past post of mine, How NOT to Cook Indian food, from people confessing to me their creative and not so creative ways of imitating Indian flavours. As much as I love reading each and every one of them, it makes me want to pull my eyes out when I see how much people actually enjoy Indian food, but yet, how ignorant they are about what actually goes into it. A common misdemeanor is of course, by far, the liberal addition of that yellow powdery substance known commercially as curry powder (say it with me now, YUCK!) to a quick saute of chopped onions and tomatoes.

Curry is undoubtedly one the most popular Indian dishes, and can vary in style, colour and flavour depending on the region and kitchen it comes from. Although I can in no way humanly possible, map out step-by-step recipes for every curry that exists, I will try and share with you a few simple tips that I often use myself to create a lip-smacking bowl of curry with little, or no effort needed whatsoever. As with any classic dish, Indian curries vary in taste, colour and style within regions throughout the country, and every household has a secret family recipe that they claim is the best ever!

One thing to note here however, is when I mention the word “curry”, I am clearly pointing to a gravy-based dish of either meat or vegetables. To begin with, let’s start by breaking up a curry into its basic components:

Flavour base: I often like to start with deciding the flavour base for my curry. This would be the main ingredient that would dominate the flavour of the curry dish, and could range anywhere from a simple blend of spices to coconut, yogurt or tomatoes. Deciding on your flavour base before you start to prep ingredients for the cooking will also help you to estimate what spices, meat or vegetables would best compliment it.

Feature ingredient: This would usually be the meat or vegetable that would carry the dish. In many cases, more than one feature ingredient can be used, but be sure to either group items that compliment each other well, or give you a wonderful contrast. Adding peas and carrots to a potato curry would bump up the blandness of the potatoes. But combining squash and sweet potatoes together, might not be such a great idea.

Flavour enhancers: This is undoubtedly my favourite part of the curry, and by far, a highly important one. They can range anywhere from herbs, spices and condiments or sauces. When picking a flavour enhancer, keep in mind that you always want to choose something that would enhance the flavouring of the dish, and not overwhelm it. It’s often best when you get a slight hint of the flavour in the background, giving the other components of the dish enough weightage to bring it out together.

To make a fabulous tasting curry, it’s always best to look at each component separately, and try and combine them together in such a way that they go well with each other. For eg., if I had decided to make a coconut based curry, then I would normally pick fish as my feature ingredient, and ginger, lemon grass, and curry leaves as my flavour enhancers. The sharpness in the ginger and curry leaves would be well balanced with the lemon grass and coconut; and the fish, being much bland in taste, would carry all the flavours fairly well.

To give you an idea of how versatile curries can be, here are three very different recipes that are simple to make and can easily be adapted to suit any kind of taste preference:

Tomato-based curry with yogurt and whole spices:

Heat oil in a thick-bottomed pan and saute some cardamom, peppercorns, bay leaves, cinnamon stick and cloves, till they begin to sizzle. Add sliced onions and green chillies, and fry for 3-5 minutes on medium-high heat till onions turn pink and tender. Stir in some ginger-garlic paste and saute for another minute or two till it starts to gives out oil. Add red chilli powder, cumin powder, turmeric, coriander powder and garam masala, and fry for a minute. Mix in chopped tomatoes and salt, and cook for a few minutes till tomatoes pulp and releases oil around the sides of the pan. Slowly stir in beaten yogurt forming a smooth gravy base.

This curry base would go extremely well with chicken, paneer, mushrooms, and potatoes. A variation on this recipe can be seen here – Dahiwali Chicken Curry

Coconut-based curry:

Toast dried red chilies, cumin seeds and coriander seeds till fragrant. Grind in a food processor to a fine powder and set aside. Heat oil and saute garlic and curry leaves till fragrant. Add onions and fry for a few minutes till tender and pink. Add ground spices and turmeric, and fry for a few seconds before adding coconut milk.

This curry base would go extremely well with chicken, fish, tofu, and many leafy greens like spinach and bok choy. A variation on this recipe can be seen here – Coconut Chicken Curry

Tomato-based, tangy curry:

Add mustard seeds and curry leaves to warm oil and allow to sizzle. Once they begin to splutter, add sliced onions and fry till lightly browned. Add tomatoes, garlic, chilli powder, turmeric and salt, and cook for 5-6 minutes till tomatoes pulp. Add tamarind extract and stir to blend well. Add water and green chillies, and cook covered for 15-20 minutes.

This curry base would go extremely well with chicken, fish, and almost any vegetable. A variation on this recipe can be seen here – Hot & Sour Chicken Curry

These are just a few guidelines and examples to help you understand the versatility of the Indian cuisine. By all means, trust your instinct and experiment flavours with love with those new to you, and you never know; you may just create a masterpiece!

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The Working Cook: Sauteed Spinach with Potatoes

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

My day started with me jumping out of bed realizing that I would be late for a meeting with one of my freelance clients. The leisure morning beauty regime I had planned for myself earlier (read: filing my nails into shape considered somewhat normal and putting on some nail polish) had to be ditched while I settled for a quick shower. The meeting went well, lasted for a couple of hours over large cups of fabulous coffee and never ending bites of warm buttery croissants, and ended with me bagging a couple of new assignments. That was followed by a mad dash home to vacuum and hide all the piled up papers, books and unmentionables under our bed to make the home look invitingly presentable to some last minute guests. dirty dishes where haphazardly shoved into the dish washer, and a sweet aromatic rosemary candle was lit. Amidst all the hoopla of trying to make my world look slightly more normal than it actually was, thoughts of food were attacking my brain cells.

I usually maintain a well stocked fridge, freezer and pantry – enough to whip up a lavish multi course meal without heading for the nearest grocery shelves. But not today. The expected guests were close friends who’d much rather have a simple home cooked meal than be flattered by a flambe of sorts. And I had to admit, I was almost out of breadth and ready to crash when I finally entered the kitchen. It had to be a meal that was quick to prepare and didn’t require much effort from me and of course, had to look grand. The one thing about me that you might have noticed by now is my obsessive need to make the people I feed feel extra special. Most dishes I settle for while entertaining are often a breeze to pull of, but you’d never guess that by looking at the spread. And that’s exactly how I like it to be!

I put out a pack of cut-up chicken to defrost with a plan of making a quick deliciously simple curry. I threw a few cups of fragrant Basmati rice into a pot of water with some aromatic spices for a Pulao, and started to tear up crisp lettuce for a quick tossed salad. Just as the rice started to emit a faint saffron aroma and the curry bubbled under a low simmer, I realized that I was missing a vegetable side dish. I found a large bunch of spinach sitting in my fridge, right after I spotted the basket of potatoes on my counter, and I knew just what I was going to be serving – the perfect accompaniment for the spread I had intended.

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The Joys of Greens: Chilli Tofu with Beans and Bok Choy

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

Over the years it has dawned on me that I am perhaps more Malay than Indian when it comes to my food choices. Offer me a generous plate of stir-fried Kangkong and I would forgo the pot of Butter Chicken without so much as a second glance. Well, maybe it’s that easy for me since I never liked Butter Chicken anyway. But a plate of Biryani – now you’ve me getting greedy and highly confused on what to pick!

The main difference I find in the way vegetables are usually cooked in India and Malaysia is the amount of time it takes. Indian vegetables are often cooked to the max – entirely absorbed of all the seasonings and completely cooked through. Which would easily explain why I was never a fan of the dreaded Alu Gobi – who likes a cauliflower all mushy and soft? We recently had a BBQ party where I grilled cauliflower florets marinated in yogurt and spices till they were tender, yet still retained a slight crunch; it was to die for! Malaysian vegetables on the other hand, are often lightly stir- fried. The dish results in a burst of flavours and the veggies maintain their rich colour and crispness.

A couple of days ago I found myself at a gem of an Asian grocery store. This tiny place carried all sorts of Asian greens you could imagine, complete with all the hard-to-substitute fixins’ like Kaffir lime leaves, galangal and garlic chives. I had finally found my candyland. Spending the time there feeling, picking, and smelling the vegetables transported me to my childhood days – those where Mom would often dish out quick Malaysian vegetable dishes that I would actually enjoy eating.

I finally got home two hours later laden with two large bags of fresh produce and another one with a treasure trove of Southeast Asian pantry essentials. From Laksa, Thai curry and Tom Yum pastes to the best curry powder blends my pots have ever touched upon, I am now fully equipped! Each time I’ve looked into my pantry the past few days, I come out with a wealth of ideas for my next upcoming meals. And receiving this delightful book in the mail a couple of weeks back has only made it worse! I’ve been churning a wonderful array of fusion dinners for us and Hubby Dear’s waistline is having to bear the brunt of it. Let’s just say that it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to him when I hand him a gym membership as his b’day gift!
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A ‘no-recipe’ recipe: Garlic Tofu Noodles

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

Today I have for you what I like to call one of my ‘no-recipe recipes’. These are a class of recipes that I often come up with at the spur of the moment – they have no reason, no inspiration. Just a bunch of ingredients thrown together in the hopes of creating something edible. While a few of such of my creations have turned out perfect to go into the trash, many of them have become a family favourite over the years and continue to make their appearances on my dinner table. Most of them are throw-it-all-into-one-pot-and-hope-for-the-best kinda meals, while others are quick assembly ones. But they each have one thing in common: a few starving mouths waiting to be fed.

I remember this one time when I tried cooking spaghetti with some leftover meatball curry, spaghetti bolognese a la Indian, which did not work out much to our liking. Nethier is combining paneer with green curry paste in hopes of creating a Thai-Indo fusion fried rice such a great idea. But I digress, a ravenous tummy = brains cells on holiday! But sometimes, the lack of time, energy and a frighteningly increasing hunger can create the most delicious meal.

Take today for example – I woke up with a strong will to bake. And bake I did! A bunch of sorry looking carrots found its way into my baking pan and turned into the most deliciously moist treat, a perfect pairing for my evening cup of coffee (but that’s a recipe for another day!). Then I slowly crossed off things on my to-do list one after the other. I was on a roll and nothing was going to stop me. Except, of course, my screaming stomach who knows nothing about keeping its cool when hungry. A quick glance at the clock confirmed that I was past my regular lunch time, and I had to act fast! So I did what I could – picked a bunched of that, chopped a few of those, boiled a pot of this, and stir-fried them all together. And might I add, as hideously simple as it sounds – it was a great meal. Or maybe that’s just my tummy talking!
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Finally, cooking Indian for TV: Chana Dal Masala

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

I have a morning ritual of sorts that I like to follow, which include setting out a fresh pot of coffee to brew, catching up with my emails, and enjoying breakfast while reading through my favourite blogs. This little routine of mine almost always never changes. Except when something (delightfully!) unexpected happens. Like on Monday morning, for instance.

As I sipped on my last few drops of coffee, I received an email that instantly caught my eye. The subject simply said: The Mom Show, and its contents blew me away. I was asked if I would be available to do a cooking segment on Indian food for one of their upcoming episodes. They wanted me to show a few simple, kid-friendly recipes and discuss the best ways to introduce young kids to Indian food. Sweet! The catch? It would have to be taped the very next day in the afternoon. What could I say? Me, on TV, on The Mom Show, talking about Indian food? You bet I was available! Once things started to take shape (picking out the menu was a breeze!), and the timing and all other necessities confirmed, I set out to take care of another important task – my wardrobe! What followed, was a really looooong day of running from store to store looking for the perfect outfit, which might I had, didn’t quite exist as I had hoped! But whatever, I had a look at the clips after the shoot and think I looked pretty cute yapping away on the best ways to introduce kids to Indian food.

The taping took merely half an hour, but I was at the studio close to over three hours – prepping the food, and watching the taping of other segments being filmed. Needless to say, it was another long day but one I will never forget! By the time I got home, I was exhausted and the strain of the many hours spent shopping, prepping and finally shooting, made me crave for some homemade comfort food. And Dal-Chawal (lentils and rice) was what it just had to be for me! Trust me when I say this - no matter how tired you may be, the mere 10 minutes you’ll spend in prepping for this meal is truly worth it all the way. But why wait for the dreaded day when you feel that even lifting a finger could drive you to your grave? It tastes just as good when you’re your normal happy, active self. I can truly promise you that!
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Inspired by Serving Crazy with Curry: Baingan Patiala

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

Talk about being fashionably late, that too, to your very own event! Would it make it easier for you all to forgive me if I said I was busy celebrating my B’day (which just happened to be yesterday, yet the celebrations began 2 weeks in advance thanks to the ever wonderful Hubby Dear!)? I know, excuses, excuses! But still, I’m here now – with a killer recipe in tow!

I first spotted this book at the airport en route to Delhi many moons ago. The title caught my eye and I made a mental note to pick it up on my way back. Pick it up I did, but somehow never got around to reading it. That is of course until I announced it as the month’s pick for the Cook’s Book Club event. Although I thought it was well written, I was sorry to note that I didn’t quite enjoy it much. The story line started out with a bang, but kind of got a bit predictable for me. Nonetheless, I fell absolutely in love with the colourful characters! Set in an American Indian household, the book touches upon the troubled relationships within a family. And in the midst of it all, there is of course, food. After devastating events take place in her life, Devi, the story’s main character, goes into a trance and begins cooking. She cooks when she’s angry, she cooks when she’s sad, and she cooks when she’s happy. In short, her cooking was her way of communicating how she felt.

While I wouldn’t say I’m as dramatic as Devi when it comes to expressing my feelings, I can’t deny the fact that my cooking has many a time reflected my moods. Like the time I baked four large pizzas because I was feeling artistic and wanted to create a masterpiece, literally! Or when I bake a lusciously rich chocolate cake to give myself a pat on the back. Or even the time when I cooked an extravagant 5-course meal to thank Hubby Dear for a wonderful Valentine gift.

When I look back, I always seem to remember food as something that brought our family together. Whenever we were happy or had any big news to share, food would most definitely become the center of our attention. I remember most of our birthday celebrations not by the gifts we received, but by the feast my Mom made for us. Trips home from college during the summer were often preceded by many telephone calls of planning out the menu for the day I arrived. Most of our weekends were spent entertaining friends and family. I fondly remember my Mom working her way through a lavish meal irrespective of how many guests we were expecting. She would always say that it’s better to have food left over than let your guests leave feeling unfull. It should be noted that unless you eat till you almost drop, my Mom thinks you haven’t yet had enough. And so, it is from her that I have inherited this need to cook for my loved ones, and feed them till I know they can’t be fed anymore.

Take for instance this lovely dish of eggplant. I remembered eating something like it a few years ago at a friend’s home. A bunch of us were getting together for a game night and she made an elaborate meal to kick off the evening. Then, a couple of days ago, we invited a few close friends over for an evening of cards. As I was halfway into the book and still immersed in Devi’s character, I wanted to make a meal reminiscent of game night. That’s how this recipe came into being.
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Zooming out: Rajasthani Kadhi

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

Once in a while I like to take a vacation. Correction. I need a vacation, but my busy schedule seldom make taking a long one possible. This is why I take my “zoom out times”. These are a few hours I take in any particular day - when I feel I most deserve it, where I leave everything behind and make believe I am on an adventure. I wear my favourite pair of comfortable pants, put on my comfy walking shoes, and, armed with a camera and other bare necessities, I set out on an exploration–anything to spice up my routine lifestyle.

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

I walk the extra mile to a nearby lake. I turn towards my favourite bench overlooking the horizon and enjoy my éclair. My camera captures things that I have seen along the way and want to keep with me. These are also things that turn into inspiration for me for the rest of the week. Some are so good that they even last a month. But what is most exhilarating is the feeling of being free. It gives me a chance to see things around me in a new light. So the next time you need a breather, take a walk in your neighbourhood. All you need to get away is a smile on your face and an open mind.

When it comes to our everyday meals, I like to follow this very same principle as well. Often, simple weekday dinners may seem repetitive, so much so that you tend to shun it for a while. So I like to try my hand at something new and out of the ordinary atleast a few times each month. This week I felt the need for something creative and full of spunk. With the rainy Spring showers spreading its gloom, it was only just that I whipped us a meal that would not only drive the blues away, but would also give our lazy, tired selves a boost. This subtly spiced version of Kadhi did just that. It was quick and simple enough to prepare, and clubbed with a spicy side dish of eggplants made for a wonderful rainy day dinner.
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