What to Cook: Confused Cook

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

Here is an email I received a few weeks ago that got me thinking, testing and dreaming recipes. Until last night, when I finally saw the table clearly laid out in mind waiting for hungry mouths to dig in, I was seeing ginger, garlic and onions everywhere! I tell you people, the things I do for the love of cooking!

Dear Meena,

I have a co-worker from India who is Jain. I’d like to invite him and his wife to dinner one of these days. Now the problem is I have no idea how to make anything without onion, ginger, potato etc! They are very strict about their food. Help! I want to serve at least three entrees and rice and/or roti. Can you give me suggestions and/or recipes?

- Confused Cook

Dear Confused Cook,

Truth be told, I’ve never attempted to cook Jain food, much less ever had a chance to eat it. So the scary thought of creating a menu for you without any ginger, garlic and onions, without which my kitchen would seem barren and in need of a desperate makeover, turned me into a mad woman that surprised even sweet little Hubby Dear. Ever little thing I cooked and ate over the past few days was scrutinized in hopes of finding a way to recreate it without the bare essentials of my cooking. But as they say, prespiration gives way to perfection (I can swear I heard that somewhere!), and I’m happy to note that your very first Jain dinner party will soon take shape.

- Meena

The menu I designed for this dinner includes the classic favourites like Pulao, Dal, and Rotis. The vegetable dishes I’ve picked for this menu are either traditionally cooked without onions and garlic, or can easily be made without them, without compromising much on flavour.

  • Dal: Cook your choice of Dal in the normal way, omitting the addition of onions, ginger and garlic. Garnish with fresh coriander leaves.
  • Kadhi-Pakodi: This wonderful dish, prepared from yoghurt and gram flour is a personal favourite of mine. While in most cases onions are used in the end as a tempering with dried chillies, it can easily be avoided to accommodate a Jain diet. Bring a mixture of 2 tbsp gram flour, I cup yoghurt and 2 cups water to a boil, stirring occasionally to avoid forming lumps. Season with salt, turmeric and chili powder. Add in pakodas made with vegetables of choice, and stir in a tempering of cumin seeds, dried red chillies and a pinch of dried fenugreek leaves for added flavour.
  • Paneer Tak-a-tak: recipe follows
  • Dahi Bhindi: Follow the recipe avoiding the addition of onions and ginger powder.
  • Fried Baingan
  • Peas Pulao: Again, omit the addition of onions.
  • Plain Rotis and/or Puris

Add in a Raita, salad and Papad, and there you have it CC, a wonderful, Jain accommodated hearty meal! For dessert I suggest the usual favourites, kheer, gulab jamun or halwa.

Do you have any trouble planning a menu or fixing a meal? I’m only a few lines away

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Go Green: Palak Paneer

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

Being born and bred in the Arabian Gulf, everyone simply assumes I am the Guru when it comes to Mid-Eastern fare. But, in fact, I’ve only tasted hummus (and can now gulp down bowls of it!) a mere 10 years ago. In Canada. Yes, strange I know, but also true! You see, when we were growing up, hummus was almost a weekly guest at our table. My parents and siblings loved it, and relished every mouthful. I, on the other hand, thought it to be gooey (my husband would scorn with gooey not being a word!), and hence, never dared to give it a try.

But since being with Hubby Dear, the adventurous soul that he is, I’ve begun to mellow down a lot. It was with him that I took my first scoop of hummus, and decided, that though being gooey, I quite liked it. In fact, now it very easily makes it’s way into my kitchen every week!

Ever since I’ve started this blog, I’ve begun cooking things that I normally wouldn’t. I now see my weekly grocery trips as a chance for me to explore and learn. I pick up veggies that I would run away from and try and create new ways of enjoying it.

When we were growing up, spinach was one such vegetable that I would often hide from. I would cry and cry until my Mom got tired enough to allow me to leave it aside. Then I moved to India and was introduced to a dish I can now swear by. Till today, it’s one of the few ways I will eat spinach without a gun on my head.

So today, as I was scanning my fridge and freezer, thinking of what to make for dinner, my eyes set upon the block of frozen spinach lying there, bought only a few days ago. And what do you know, the rest as they say, is history!

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Sweet Beginnings: Rainbow Cupcakes

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

What can I say. I caved. I didn’t want to. But I did.

Growing up, I remember spending most of my vacation time in the summers pouring over mouth-wateringly tempting photographs of intricately designed cakes, cookies and other baked goodies. My mom had (or must I say, still does) this tendency to pick up wonderfully photographed cookbooks cramped with an even more delicious assortment of recipes. It’s no wonder where I’ve caught the bug from.

One look at the many overstocked shelves throughout my home will give you a slight idea of my fixation to them. Heck, who am I kidding! I have cookbooks peeping out from my pantry shelves, kitchen cabinets, on top of the fridge, and not to mention a few prized possessions that I deem only fit to snuggle on my bedside table. Yes, it’s shameful I know. I’m addicted. Hi, I’m Meena, and I’m a cookbook addict. There, I said it. Now hopefully, we can all get on with our very normal or some not-so-normal lives!

Coming back to my Mom. I must say her favourites to collect included books on baking. And unlike me, who mostly drool over pages and pages of food talk, she actually dons her apron and puts those words into action. It’s no surprise then to point out that she bakes some of the best cakes I know. And not one to let Mr. Opportunity walk past my door without so much as grabbing him with both arms and giving him a tight hug, I decided to learn a few tricks from her while she’s here visiting me.

It’s been good so far. The food comes out from the kitchen faster than I can request them, and I find myself ravishing every spoonful with such passion. But the baking, oh the baking! I always thought of myself as not-a-baker. But she’s adamant on making me one.

What can I say? I caved. And I’m adamant to succeed.

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Not so Rich Anymore: Paneer Makhani

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

Whoever invented the ever-so-rich-finger-licking-melt-in-your-mouth delicious Butter Chicken, truly did not take my whims and fancies into consideration! Let me explain…

I’ve never enjoyed eating Butter Chicken. Yes, you heard me right, and no, I’m not kidding! Whenever I refuse to order this age-old dish at any restaurant, people dining at my table often look at me like I’m from out of space. But it’s true, I don’t quite care much for this dish that is considered to be the epitome of the Indian cuisine. Though Hubby Dear has been seen wiping his plate clean of this dish whenever he gets the (good) fortune to dig into it, being the sweetheart that he is, he has not once asked me to cook it at home. You see, I hate cooking with cream and/or milk. There’s something about adding cream/milk to my food that makes me look at it with such torment. While I happily add dollops of cream to make my own chocolate desserts, adding it to my actual meal gives me the jitters. So clearly, Butter Chicken, which is as rich as the amount of cream and/or milk added to it, steered clear from my palate.

But then now, I also have Baby Dear’s whims and fancies to cater to. This roly-poly little person is infamous for watching The Food Network (I only have myself to blame of course!!), pointing to anything that looks even remotely delicious on the screen,and request that I serve him that for dinner. Need I add, his way of requesting something to be cooked sounds much like this, “I WANT THIS DINNER!!!!”. Yes, the letters in caps are there to make a point. Just the other day, I was catching up on one of my favourite Indian cooking shows by Sanjeev Kapoor and he just happened to be making Butter Chicken. Being an ardent fan of chicken, Baby Dear almost fell off his 2-foot car. I just had to oblige.

It was already too late to defrost the chicken, so I used paneer instead and created my low-fat version of this crowd pleaser. Paneer Makhani is the vegetarian version of Butter Chicken and the sauce for both dishes can be used interchangeably. Try this recipe once, and I promise you that you’ll come back asking for more. Just remember to leave all that butter and cream at the door!

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The Simple Things: Quick & Easy Meat Sauce

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

As I sat down to write this post today, I was suddenly lost for words. No matter how hard I tried to concentrate, I simply could not find the perfect sentence to begin with. My mind wandered, and I found myself sifting through the archives of my blog. I began to read the posts one after another, and found myself smiling. Through all my years of blogging, I’ve hardly ever sat down to read a previous post once it’s been published. It was nice to see how I’ve evolved as a writer and blogger, but most importantly, how my voice has still remained the same.

When I started this blog, I had no idea what I was doing. No goals to reach, no plan in mind. I just dove in and got started. Slowly, with time, things happened – I found a path I wanted to take, I set goals to reach and I challenged myself with ne ideas and inspiration. And with all that, I was able to share with you creative recipes – recipes that I, my family and friends enjoy. But, scrolling down each post also made me realize what I haven’t shared with you enough – the simple, truly simple recipes that is the backbone of my repertoire. These are the recipes that I eat when I’m by myself. They are the ones I fall back on when pressed for time with a hungry baby and hubby in tow. They are the dishes I can whip up on auto-pilot, with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back. These are also the recipes I relied on as a college student, first time away from home with a tiny studio kitchen and a single burner stove.

If there’s anything I look back most fondly on during my college years, then it’s definitely cooking in that mouse hole of a kitchen. Armed with a deep skillet and two hungry bellies to feed besides myself, I created some pretty delicious meals. My friends H & M were my constant dinner companions and were always quick to praise anything I set on their plates. Now that I think back, had it not been for that single burner, I may never have found my niche and love for cooking.

This recipe I have for you today, is one from those olden times. Although I’ve used meat in it now, back then due to a limited budget, I always made it vegetarian. And trust me when I say it was equally delicious, if not better sans meat! It was my go to recipe (still is!), and never failed to please us three. Afterall, what’s better on a Friday night than three girls who are best friends, a bowl of pasta each and a stack full of trashy magazines!

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The Fast and the Famished: Jeera Pulao

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

When it comes to cooking a fulfilling dinner on weeknights, my keyword, or should I say keywords, are QUICK and SIMPLE! I have many a times blogged on how much I love easy recipes that hardly take any of my time and effort and yet seem to please our over-demanding palates. Truly, coming home in the evening after a long and tiring day doesn’t leave me even in the slightest mood to cook anything. But eat we must and that’s where I make use of my instincts. A little bit of this, a splash of that, and dinner is on the table!

I always wonder why people look at cooking Indian food with such disdain. According to so many non-Indians I’ve come accross, they all have the same thing to say – it takes a lot of time and many more ingredients to cook a traditional Indian meal! Well, all I can say yet again is that you, my dear are mistaken! Now, if you are one of those who thinks that the traditional Indian meal comprises of exotic dishes such as, Briyani, Butter Chicken, Dal Makhani and Naans, then, well, I think you need to invite yourself to an Indian home for a simple dinner.

When it comes to food, we Indians know how to make a gala of the mere act of eating. But at the same time, we have our home-grown secrets of making a simple “Dal-Chawal” meal seem fit for a King, or Queen of course! One look at my long list of recipes and you can easily see that many of them are simple to the touch. Don’t get me wrong, I love to cook. Infact, I am known to spend an entire day in the kitchen cooking for parties a day in advance. But sometimes, I just want to take it easy. After all, even the greatest rulers of all-time needed to take a break!

This recipe for a simple Cumin-scented Pulao will do just that! Pair it with a side of Dal and some spiced Jeera Alu, maybe a salad, and you’ll have a delicious well balanced, nutritious meal. At times when I’m in a real crunch, I’ll quickly whip up a mixed veggie Raita and call it day – no other sides needed! Try this for your next dinner party and watch your guests swoon over the aroma and flavor.

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Dip, Spread, Scoop: Paneer Burji

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

For as long as I can remember, I have always been a muncher. You know, the kinds who can nosh through meal times over little bites of delicious finger food. Growing up in a home where tea-time was treated with the greatest pleasure must have had something to do with it, I’m sure. I clearly remember warm summer afternoons, or even cold winter ones for that matter, where we would often substitute our dinner for a platter of the most guilt-ridden snacks. Lovely fritters deep fried till crisp and drowned in a tangy chutney, smoky char-grilled tikkas and kebabs, scrumptious sandwiches with the most amazing toppings, and of course, my personal favourites of deliciously spiced street foods. As I grew older, my love for noshing grew wider, incorporating in it varied flavours, from every cuisine I ever had a go at. Friday nights for me meant junk night – wherein, strictly avoiding a proper 3-course meal for dinner, I would instead opt for a plateful of wings, fries, or on many occasions, samosas. It was the only way I knew how to have a Friday night meal. Anything else seemed totally hideous.

When I first met Hubby Dear, my excitement knew no bounds to find that like me, he too grew up in a household where good food, and especially noshing was of high priority. I’ve heard of many stories from friends on how marriage makes one change your habits and adapt to the other’s way of life. For me, it was a matter of simply combining the two. It wasn’t hard for me to fuse my love for all things spicy with Hubby Dear’s undying addiction to all things edible. Truly, matches are made in Heaven, but I’d like to believe that ours was cooked up in a 5-star kitchen filled with all things a culinary goddess could only dream of having.

With Baby Dear in tow now, our Friday nights are not much different from a few years ago. There’s no denying the kid is a foodie, and good, tasty food is just what gets him going! With the celebratory season upon us, I wanted to indulge in something that wouldn’t leave me feel guilt ridden. Also, it had to be something that fill the little growing tummy of my Bumble Bee and be nutritious and not to mention, easy for him to eat. Paneer Burji sounded perfect. Use it as a filling for sandwiches, scoop it up with tortilla or pita chips, or serve it as a side with rotis or naan.

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The Budding Foodie: Minty Paneer Pulao

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.
Looking back a couple of years from now, I can only smile when I think of how naive I was as a new mom. I had this crazy idea in my head that, being the ardent food lover and advocate of good eating that I am, my ‘lil guy would turn out to be a food connoisseur in the making. I had visions of us carrying huge baskets filled to the brim with fresh fruits and veggies while we discussed how they were organically and locally grown, all the while meeting and greeting the growers themselves at farmer’s markets throughout the summer. I dreamed of Sunday nights where we were all seated at the table enjoying a wholesome spread of slow cooked dishes with family and friends. I got giddy with excitement when I planned out what my weekly menus would look like – a three course meal laden with seasonal ingredients – all fresh, from scratch. And all this, with Baby Dear by my side nodding in agreement as I explained the benefits of everything we put into our mouths.

Baby Dear is growing, and fast. He is at that wonderful age where anything and everything piques his interest. He wants to know what, how and why; and won’t give up asking till he’s satisfied with your answers. Today, our life is anything but. Our summer flew by in a whirlwind, what with family visiting, impromptu weekend trips and lots of fun in between. We didn’t make it to even ONE farmer’s market this year, although, we did go strawberry picking where Baby Dear had a wonderful time filling his basket with biggest, juiciest and freshest strawberries he could find. We even stepped up our container gardening this year and added 4 kinds of chillies, red and green peppers and lettuce along with 2 kinds of cherry tomatoes. So while exchanging pleasantries with our local farmers was not something we could conjure up time for, Baby Dear happily went about his task of plucking fresh red tomatoes from our backyard for salads throughout the week.

When I think of it, it was quite silly of me to think that I could even manage a fresh cooked meal each night of the week let alone a 3-course one. Many days, I still haven’t got a clue of what dinner will look like while Hubby Dear is on his way driving home from work. It’s on days like these that I thank the freezer Gods, whip out that bag of multi-grain chicken nuggets, slice up some fresh veggies, toast some bread and call it a sandwich night! And in all this, Baby Dear still managed to grow into a healthy, adventurous eater, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful. So I guess I must be doing something right after all!

Let me tell you something about Baby Dear and his palate. This wee little guy is nothing if not bold with his flavour pairings. Like any toddler, he loves his burgers – but with tons of mustard and pepper, hold the pickles please! He prefers sharp cheddar cheese to the regular processed yellow stuff you get for snacking. He enjoys his macaroni laced with hefty spoonfuls of pesto and gorges on hummus by the ladle. And garlic? Well, the more the better in his books! So needless to say, it wasn’t a big surprise when he declared his love for Biryani – even braving the super spicy takeout version with copious sips of water in between spoonfuls. So much so, that we even celebrated his birthday recently with my Mom making a Gulliver-sized pot of lamb Biryani. Her plan was for there to be enough leftover for him to enjoy again. And boy did he, for the next two days, lunch and dinner!

Although I pride myself in cooking a meal Indian meal of any form, there are few dishes that I that simply shrug at. Mostly because they are either too time consuming or require ingredients that force me to drive around town for. Biryani, for me, is just one of those dishes that I’d rather get takeout. It’s laborious to begin with, and I simply can’t find the patience to cook up a pot. But I do love my Biryani as much as Baby Dear, and have been known to crave it for days on end. It’s for days like these that I came up with this recipe. Now, while this is nothing close to the real thang, it’s an amazing addition to your repertoire. Use it when you want that something rich and comforting, yet have less time on your hands. Try it out and let me know what you think.

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Easy Entertaining: Matar Paneer

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

The Holiday season is fast approaching and most often than not, it’s already here banging on my door before I can even bat an eyelid. Oh, who am I kidding! My Holiday season began early this month with the onset of Diwali. What started as a simple family brunch, quickly turned into a full fledged dinner party that included some close friends as well. What can I say, I LOVE entertaining and feeding people, and when the opportunity arose – I just couldn’t stop myself from playing hostess. You see, the past couple of years have been pretty lowkey for us on the dinner party front – mainly because it was hard to cater to a baby and guests at the same time. So while we still had friends over, it was mainly for lunch or brunch. With Thanksgiving just peeking around the corner, I thought I’d take the time to address the topic of entertaining with baby in tow.

I’ve had a few readers ask me tips on how to throw a decent party while still managing the demands of a baby/toddler. Although it may seem like an impossible task to take on, I promise you that with a few tips and tricks, you can definitely make it happen. And look like a pro while you do it! Here are some of the few things I did as a new mom that helped me keep sane by not alienating my friends altogether.

Do Lunch Instead: For the past 2-3 years, I always hosted people before 7PM. Sunday lunch was my favourite time pick. That way, I had enough time on Saturday to prep and cook a large part of the menu as well as tidy up the house. I planned my menus in such a way that come Sunday morning, all that was left for me to do was reheat a few things, put some in the oven to bake and add finishing touches like garnishes to the rest. I made sure not to serve anything that needed extra care or undivided attention. Most Indian dishes taste even better the next day, and I solely relied on this when I mapped out my menus. Lunch is generally considered a lighter fare than dinner, so it’s easy to get away with 3 hearty options as opposed to 5. Here is my general rule of thumb: Pick two curries that you can cook the previous day and refrigerate. Add in a dry dish that can be made a day ahead too, or something quick enough to whip up in the morning. Cook the Pulao fresh in the morning, adding in a bunch of pre-chopped frozen veggies for more oomph. Chop up a large bowl of salad and refrigerate, tossing in the dressing when you’re ready to serve. Pick a few bags of frozen Naan/Rotis and warm them in the oven right before serving. Add a few bowls of store bought pickles and some yogurt/Raita on the table, and you’ve got a feast! Dessert is always store bought; take your pick from the huge variety of cakes, ice creams or chocolates readily available at your finger tips. Here are some of my favourite meal combos that always prove to be a hit around here:

Lunch Menu A:
Dahiwali Chicken Curry
Palak Paneer
Jeera Alu

Lunch Menu B:
– Matar Paneer (recipe follows)
Chana Dal Masala
Baingan Patiala

Lunch Menu C:
Dal Makhani
Achari Mushroom
Ginger-Chilli Shrimp

Opt for Tea/Coffee with Snacks: On most weekends, 4 PM in India is a widely popular time to meet up with friends and socialize over endless cups of hot steaming tea or coffee. Throw in a few plates of fresh baked goodies, some store bought savouries and you’ve got a party started! I loved having friends over for coffee when Baby Dear was teeny weeny because it was easy and made me feel empowered. All I had to do was bake a simple, delicious banana or cranberry loaf, fry up a mix of veggie pakodas, and reheat some store bought or frozen Samosas. It’s plain, no fuss entertaining where you can bake your cake and eat it to – literally!

This year, Baby Dear just turned 3 and is now old enough to allow me to manage a dinner party. Only difference is, our dinner parties now start and end at a much earlier time than pre-baby! But who cares, as long as I can cook a feast and feed my village (you all know who you are!) I’m a happy camper. This Diwali was a memorable one – my first big party since Baby Dear was born and it was a soaring success. Since it was a Sunday, I wanted to do an early dinner since everyone had to prep for the dreaded Monday morning start of the week. I decided to go with an Indian street food theme – my all time favourite!

I’d love to hear any tips you have that helped you entertain as a new mom, ‘coz we all know there always new things to learn. So please, do share!

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A Thanksgiving Feast: Rajma

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

This year, Thanksgiving just whizzed by me. Mostly because this time around, Canadian Thanksgiving, which normally falls on the second Monday in October, plopped itself right on Baby Dear’s third birthday! So while the rest of the country feasted on mouthwatering seasonal fare, we folks in the HoH household celebrated the tiny tot’s big  day with things that made him most happy – cake, toys and Biryani.

I’ve always loved the idea of Thanksgiving. After all, what’s there to complain about? A whole day dedicated to spending time with loved ones and eating good, comfort food – count me in! Roasting an entire bird large enough to feed half of my neighbourhood has never been my kinda thing, so I always went for something else. Over the last couple of years, my sister volunteered roasting a whole chicken (something I can never manage to do successfully, no matter how many kinds of recipes I tried!), while I’ve been more than happy to lay out a spread of delicious sides ranging from luscious pulaos, creamy rich curries and a variety of assorted vegetable dishes.

Early on this year, without glancing at the calendar of course, I had decided that I wanted to host a wonderful Indian-inspired Thanksgiving feast.  Well, Thanksgiving came and went. And now here I am still caressing the desire to feed my family and friends.  So like I always do in most cases, I just decided to throw caution to the wind and host a dinner anyway. Folks in the US can say I celebrated with them, while rest of the world can take this as my pre Holiday Season bash. The menu I had in mind definitely resonates with a traditional Thanksgiving feast seasoned with an Indian touch. Here is what my ideal Indian-inspired Thanksgiving dinner table will look like, good enough for a gathering of 12-15 hungry tummies:

Appertizers

Mini Samosa Puffs with Tamarind and Mint-Coriander Chutneys

Tandoori Chicken Pops with Minty Yogurt Dipping Sauce

Dinner

Indian Roast Chicken Legs

Rajma (recipe follows)

Paneer Makhani

Baingan Patiala

Spinach Saag

Mushroom & Peas Pulao

Garlic Naans

Cucumber Raita

Chopped Salad

Dessert

Gajar Halwa

Vanilla Ice-cream

What does your Thanksgiving menu look like? I’d love to hear some of your favourite dishes and traditions around this holiday, so please do share!

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