Sunday, August 22, 2010

An easy-to-make Indian treat: Carrot Halva

Recently, for a fancy Indian dinner I prepared, I needed a dessert in addition to the mangoes we would be serving. I only know three Indian desserts that I can cook without extensive effort.

One is carrot halva, a sort of carrot and milk fudge scented with cardamom. Another is "shahi tukra," (royal toast), which is bread fried in clarified butter then soaked in a sweet syrup made with cooked-down milk and cardamom. The third is rice pudding, a sweet, silky, soup-like mixture of rice cooked with milk and cardamom. (Do you see a pattern?)

One other I've made in the past, but it's elaborate, calorie-intensive and requires dry whole milk powder. Goolab jamun, a sort of Dunkin Donut munchkin with concentrated milk as the principal ingredient, is deep-fried in oil then soaked in a sugar syrup containing cardamom and rosewater.

I first encountered halva as the dry, crumbly Jewish treat "halvah," made from tahini -- finely ground sesame seeds -- and honey. Later, in Asia, I had various types of Indian halva, or "haluwa," made from such items as semolina, or carrots, pumpkin or gourd, or even from cornstarch. Whatever the ingredients, the confection was always sweet.

The origins of the word "halva" indicates the sweet's history. It showed up in English in the mid-19th century from Yiddish, in other words from Central and Eastern European Jews. As it turns out, the word came into Yiddish from Romanian, where in turn it had come from the Turkish "helva." However, neither the word nor the sweet were originally Turkish. Ultimately, both came from the Arabs. The Arabic name transliterates into the Roman alphabet as "Al halwa," meaning sweet confection.

Some Indian carrot halva, or "gajar ka halwa," is made into small, firm cakes. Other versions are softer and fluffier. That's the kind I made.

Typically carrot halva is garnished with pistachios, almonds or cashews. In India, the confection may even have a small sheet of vanishingly thin silver foil on it.

The carrots shrink down during the cooking process. The recipe makes enough for 6-8 persons, but leftovers keep well in the fridge and make delicious nibbling.

Carrot Halva -- Gajar ka Halwa

1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
8 whole cardamoms
1/4 cup butter
1 cup canned evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 to 7 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons toasted (shelled) pistachios, cashews or slivered almonds for garnish

Place grated carrots, whole cardamoms and butter in large, heavy frying pan. Fry gently over low heat, stirring frequently, 2 minutes.

Add 1/2 cup evaporated milk. Mix well. Cover pan and simmer 10 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping bottom of pan.

Add another 1/4 cup evaporated milk plus salt. Fry gently, stirring often, uncovered, so liquid begins to dry down. Repeat, adding the last 1/4 cup milk.

When carrot is tender and becoming dry, add sugar, starting with 6 tablespoons.

Stirring frequently, fry until no more juices are present in carrots. Taste, and add final tablespoon of sugar (or more) if desired. (When cooled, the halva will have less intense flavors.)

The halva can be stored, refrigerated, in a covered container for up to a few days. To serve, bring to room temperature, mix with fork to fluff it and remove cardamoms.

Place in serving dish. Top with a light sprinkling of pistachios, cashews, or almonds.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tomato-Basil Bisque Soup:combatting the restaurants

So often the soup du jour at nice restaurants these days, at least the ones my wife and I frequent, is tomato-basil bisque. Sometimes it seems like their routine main dish rather than the alleged soup special of the day.

The soup sounds fresh and wonderful. And it can be. But it's becoming a bore. And it's too easy to make (if you have a food processor) and makes money too easily for the restaurant.

So my motivation for this blog posting is to show how simple and inexpensive this soup is to make, and maybe (I flatter myself and my readership) encourage good restaurant chefs to create something new for a change -- or even recreate something classical -- for a special soup of the day.

By the way, for my Athens readers, the tomato bisque we serve occasionally at our restaurant, and which is popular, is somewhat different. That's in case you thought I might be giving away our secret.

The recipe serves four, and costs under three dollars to make.

Tomato-Basil Bisque

1 small-medium carrot
1 small onion
1/4 of a large stick of celery
1/2 small red bell pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, Hunts or Kroger brand
1 1/2 cup water (rinse tomato can into soup with it)
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus to taste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon paprika
2 generous sprinkles black pepper
8 medium-large leaves fresh basil, finely shredded
1/2 cup whipping cream

Rinse and trim carrot, but do not peel. Cut it in chunks and put it in food processor. Add onion, peeled and chunked, celery, cut in chunks, and bell pepper, seeded and chunked. Process very finely, scraping down the sides of the processor several times.

In soup pot, fry carrot-onion mixture slowly in olive oil, stirring frequently, until vegetables are tender, but have not started to turn golden.

Add tomatoes, water, and seasonings other than basil. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered and stirring frequently, only 3 minutes (so tomato retains fresh taste).

Stir in shredded basil. Simmer 30 seconds. Add cream, and stir 30 seconds. Remove from heat.

After a few minutes, stir again, taste, and add salt if needed.

Serve now, or chill then rewarm quickly.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Koresh of Beef and Nectarines: a Persian Treat

Few American families can boast having taken a vacation in Iran.

We did, at least a brief one, in Teheran many years ago. That's back during the Shah's days, before the Islamic Revolution. It was during our return from years in Malaysia.

Frankly, I don't recall specific Persian dishes we had. But what I remember is that the food was wonderful, elegant actually, with amazing flavors and fruits and subtle spices cooked with meat.

Here's a koresh, a stew, that I fixed for my wife's staff meeting. The group has lunch during the meeting, pay for the ingredients, and have agreed to guinea pig dishes I'm working on.

The inspiration for this particular dish was having some white-fleshed organic nectarines to use up.

I made a double batch, to feed the crowd. The recipe below will serve six, when accompanied by basmati rice and a yogurt condiment.

[This is added later, based on the comment from a reader, a woman whose father was Iranian. A really Persian yogurt side dish for a koresh would be whole milk yogurt beaten, then mixed with grated cucumber (with liquid squeezed out), salt, and dried mint leaves. I'm pretty sure the name of the dish is "mastakheah." It's a close relative of raita in India and cacik/tsadziki in Turkey and Greece.]

Wine or beer would be culturally inappropriate with Persian food. More typical would be fruit drinks, like limeade or pomegranate juice or a rosewater-scented drink. Iced tea will also do well, even if more of an American drink.

Persian Beef and Nectarine Koresh (Stew)

1 1/2 pounds lean beef (I like "flatiron" steak), cut in 1 1/2-inch chunks
Olive oil or clarified butter for frying
1 large onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 inch fresh ginger, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 medium nectarines, rinsed but not peeled, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon salt plus more to taste
1 1/2 cup water
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut in 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 sprig fresh mint (or 4 large leaves)

In stewing pot over high heat, fry meat in a little oil or clarified butter, stirring frequently and scraping bottom of pot. When starting to brown, remove meat to a bowl.

Add more oil or butter to pot. Fry onions over medium heat, stirring frequently, until becoming golden in color.

Reduce heat to medium low. Stir and fry in garlic and ginger 1 minute.

Add spices and stir and fry another minute.

Add nectarines, salt, and water. Bring to a boil and cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add pre-seared beef plus juices to the pot. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until meat starts to become tender.

Add potatoes plus enough water to just reach the surface. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered and stirring occasionally, until potatoes become tender (test with toothpick). As the mixture cooks, add salt as needed to bring sauce to just faintly salty (the potatoes will soak up more).

When potatoes are tender, turn off heat and stir in the mint.

Serve with lightly salted basmati rice with a side dish of yogurt (preferably whole milk). Stir yogurt before serving to make it creamy.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Chicken Sesame Cakes, Korean American style

I learned this dish from a Korean American woman student who was dating one of my student friends. It was a recipe from her mother.

At her home it would be part of a Korean dinner in which several “entrée” dishes were placed in the middle of the table to be shared by all the diners, accompanied by individual bowls of rice and surrounded by numerous small dishes of kimchee and other condiments. But the chicken dish also served well as a snack alone, and could even be served as a hamburger on a toasted bun.

I included the recipe in one of my international cooking classes for Evening at Emory. By chance there was a Korean American woman in the class. She said that while the dish tasted Korean, she didn't know specifically of it. She then checked with her mother, who also didn't recognize it.

Thus the recipe seems to have been a creation in the family of first woman, a sort of Korean American chicken hamburger. But it certainly tastes good, especially with the dipping sauce.

The recipe as I learned it makes six substantial portions, but 12 smaller ones could also be made.

Korean food is often served with beer, "OB" being the import from that country.

Chicken Cakes with Sesame Seeds, Korean American Style

4 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 pound ground chicken
1 scallion (green onion), finely minced
1 teaspoon sesame oil (available at Asian groceries)
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Large pinch ground hot pepper or cayenne
Large pinch black pepper
Watercress sprigs for garnish or a scallion (green onion) shredded lengthwise and soaked in cold water to curl

In a heavy pan toast the sesame seeds over medium high heat, stirring constantly or shaking the pan, until the seeds become golden brown and fragrant. Pour them into a mixing bowl (do not leave them in the pan, or they will overcook). Set aside a half-teaspoon of the seeds for garnishing.

Add ground chicken and remaining ingredients, other than garnish, to main group of seeds. Mix well.

Form into 6 large or 12 smaller hamburger-like cakes. Fry over medium heat in a non-stick frying pan with a little oil, turning several times to cook until lightly browned on both sides.

Serve on a platter, sprinkled with the reserved sesame seeds and surrounded by several sprigs of watercress or curled green onion. Accompany with dipping sauce.

Korean-style Dipping Sauce for Chicken Cakes

3 tablespoons soy sauce, Korean or Japanese style preferred
3 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons rice or white vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
A few thin slices of scallion (green onion) tops

Combine soy sauce, water, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil. Mix to dissolve sugar.

Transfer to several small sauce dishes. Sprinkle with a few green onion slices.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo -- using fresh summer produce

Gumbo, that thick, luscious, chunk-filled stew of meat or seafood and vegetables, is a fusion of multiple Louisiana cooking traditions. Although considered by outsiders as somehow "French," the stew, in fact, most closely resembles dishes from West Africa, and even draws its name from a West African word for okra.

The seasoning is predominantly Spanish-Caribbean. The flour-fat mixture cooked to a red-brown is a French dark "roux." And if filé [FEE-lay] powder (dried, ground sassafras leaf) is added at the end of the cooking (especially used with seafood gumbo) Choctaw Indian tradition is involved.

So why West African? Who do you think got the job of cooking in old Louisiana? The early cooks were slaves, and perhaps as an irony of history, the French-Louisiana culinary centerpiece of gumbo is primarily an African dish.

Cooking-wise, the roux is the heart of gumbo making. It's the most difficult part and the only really French part of gumbo. It's a dark roux, a mixture of flour and fat or oil slowly cooked down until richly brown. I use olive oil, but other oils, margarine (yuck), or lard or bacon grease will do also. Lard and bacon grease are actually more traditional than the oils.

I use a "Cajun" spice mixture, one of the few pre-mixed seasonings I employ. My personal favorite is "Louisiana" brand (Louisiana Fish Fry Products, Ltd, Baton Rouge, LA). It contains no MSG. Tony Cachere brand is also good. The mixes contain salt (don't bother with the "lite" unless you must avoid salt), and are the only salt used in the gumbo -- with enough spice mix added to the desired level of saltiness. The spices then take care of themselves.

Serve gumbo in wide shallow bowls over a spoonful or two of cooked rice.

The recipe serves 8 to 10.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup olive or canola oil (original was bacon grease or lard)
1 very large or 2 medium-large onions, coarsely chopped
4 large sticks celery, split lengthwise into thirds and cut 1/4-inch wide
1 very large red or green bell pepper, cored and cut in 1/2-inch squares
2 cups water or unseasoned chicken broth
5 teaspoons "Louisiana" brand Cajun seasoning
3 very large tomatoes, cored and coarsely cut up (seeds can be removed, if desired)
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh (or breast) cut in 3/4-inch pieces
1 pound andouille or kielbasa sausage, split lengthwise into quarters then cut in 1/2-inch lengths
1/2 pound fresh okra, trimmed and cut 1/2-inch long (or 12 ounces frozen)
Cooked, unsalted rice for serving

In heavy pot over low-medium heat fry flour and oil to make roux. Stir frequently, scraping bottom of pan, as moisture boils off then mixture turns golden (10-15 minutes).

Reduce heat slightly, and stir very frequently until color is like dark caramel or lightly creamed coffee. Be careful not to scorch the roux.

Add the onions, and fry, stirring frequently 3 to 4 minutes.

Add celery, and fry an additional 2 minutes.

Finally add the bell pepper. Stir and fry 1 minute.

Add water or broth, Cajun seasoning, and simmer 3-4 minutes.

Add tomatoes, and cook 1 more minute.

Add chicken, and if thigh, simmer 4 minutes, if breast, 2 minutes.

Add sausage, and let the gumbo simmer 5 minutes.

Add okra, and simmer 2 minutes or until okra begins to soften.

Taste, and add salt, if needed, to make faintly salty (the okra and meats will soak more up).

Finish by simmering several minutes. Let cool to allow flavors to mingle.

Serve reheated in individual soup bowls over several spoons of cooked rice.