Sunday, December 30, 2012

Towards an Authentic Taco Meal

Even since I got introduced to international cuisine, tacos always meant the special shaped, crispy things...back in India, I even tried making them from scratch (shaping them over a rolling pin or something). Then, in the US, the taco shells came from a box, and made for good grad school gathering chow. And then came the trips to the west coast, with those soft Masa tacos, and obviously, there's no going back now. In my mind, the distinction between Tex-Mex and true Mexican food is much more clear now. No more over-salty taco seasoning packets for me. Rick Bayless is my new hero, Patti's mexican table my new favorite show, and simple, fresh ingredients are the order of the day.

 The problem? I didn't have this realization when I lived in localities with huge Latino populations, and where I live now, many of the basic ingredients are just harder to find...everything from Queso Fresco and Masa-Harina (I bet stores around my older apartments must have even carried fresh ground Masa...which I'm yet to see). I admit, I haven't made a trip to Whole Foods, which I generally avoid, but it looks like my thirst for these ingredients is going to take me there soon. 

Any how, I am determined to get one step closer to the real stuff. There's still lots of substitutions, and compromises, but I'm getting there. Here's what I did:

Fire-Roasted Salsa:
On  a grill, place 5 roma tomatoes, 4-5 cloves of garlic (with skins), 2 spring onions, one small red onion (with skin, quartered), 2 green chillies (I should have used serrano or Jalapeno, but I used the regular bird's eye chillies), 2 spring onions (the white part), and one lime (cut open, cut side down. Once everything is fairly charred, start adding it to the food processor (skin the tomatoes, garlic and onion). Squeeze the smokey lime, add a small handful of cilantro, a pinch of sea salt, some black pepper and process till coarse consistency. 

Mango Salsa: 
Mix together one diced mexican (obviously) mango,  some diced red onion, chopped spring onion (green and white), one diced fresh roma tomato, chopped cilantro, finely chopped green chilli, just a hint of garlic, sea salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lime.

I wanted this to be really chunky, so I diced the avocado into fairly big pieces, instead of mashing it. Mix together diced Avocado, red onion, spring onion, cilantro, green chilli, lime, sea salt and pepper.

Taco Filling:
L. made one with meat, and bought taco seasoning from Trader Joes. Surprisingly, this was nothing like the salty version from the super market. It basically consisted of simple spices (no artificial flavors) like cumin, paprika, etc. I cheated and used a pinch of this seasoning for my filling, but I bet using basic spices would have done the job. I first sliced, oiled, salted and grilled one small zucchini and cut it into smaller pieces. Next, heat some oil, add a little bit of chopped red onion, garlic and a big handful of chopped mushrooms (I chopped them pretty small). Saute till they're soft and a lot of the water evaporates. Add salt, a pinch of the taco seasoning, a few spoons of the fire-roasted salsa, a handful of black beans and the chopped zucchini. Let it all cook till the flavors combine and the liquid evaporates. Set aside.

This is where I would have loved using Masa-Harina, which I couldn't find. So, instead, I used one cup of corm meal (yellow), and 1 cup of all purpose flour. Add a pinch of salt, and make a very soft dough and set aside. I first tried making tortillas on the cast iron skillet, but it was coming out like Makke-ki-roti. So I switched to the regular non-stick tawa, started rolling out really thin rotis, using flour and made soft rotis on tawa, which were great.

Heat olive oil + butter, add red onion, spring onion and garlic and let it soften. Add washed, medium grain rice (I used Khichdi na chokha). Saute till the ride becomes opaque. Now add some chopped cilantro and then add water and salt. Let it boil till water almost evaporates form the surface, cover and let cook for about 10 minutes. Traditionally, they add whole green chilli, but I skipped, since L. is not a big fan.

Black Beans:
I did not use a can. So, I had fresh black beans, but got lazy, and didn't make refried beans. Next time.

Fried Plantains:
This was a big highlight of the meal. I loved it. I used two fairly ripe plantains. Peeled them (with a little help of a knife). Sliced diagonally into thick slices, and fried for about 15-20 minutes on a medium flame till golden brown. Drained the oil and added sea salt. Yum!

Other Toppings:
Finely shredded cabbage (chose not to use lettuce)
Diced Red onions
Diced Spring onion
Chopped cilantro
Green Limes
Goat cheese (instead of queso fresco)
Sour cream (instead of crema)

Fresh tortilla + shredded cabbage + taco filling + mango salsa + guacamole + fire-roasted salsa + spring onion + cilantro + goat cheese + sour cream. Fold and eat.

Latest TV Tip (From Patti's Mexican Table):
Tilt your head, not the taco.

Top it with some Haagan Daaz Dulce-de-leche Ice-cream (yeah, I know I need to work on an authentic dessert. Maybe next time I'll make some flan or even better, my tres-leches cake).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A simple and satisfying Gujarati meal

You don't always need to go crazy when someone is coming over for a meal...Some times, just simple, home-style, tasty meal and old friends can make for a wonderful time. This was one of those meals...

As with most Gujarati meals, you have lots of different dishes, but each one fairly simple to make. Typically, you serve one or two farsans (savory items), one or two misthan (sweet items), one or two main shaak (vegetables), one Kathol (beans), dal and/or kadhi, salad, rice, roti, achar, chutney and papad.

This was my menu:

Samosa and chutney
Patra (They came out from a frozen box).
(a good gujarati menu should have one fried and one steamed "farsan" or savory items.  Another good combination is lilva kachori / vatana ghughra and khandvi / dhokla).
Shrikhand (Yes, the desert is a part of the meal)
Gajar no Sambharo (The salad component)
Fansi dhokli / pakodi (The main shaak/ vegetable)
Khatta Mag (The kathol component)
Rice and Roti
(I skipped some of the condiments like papad etc, lack of time and laziness. Also skipped kadhi, since I was making khatta mag instead of plain ones)

And here are some of the recipes:

Gajar no Sambharo:

Cut the carrots into medium thick, 2" sticks. Heat some oil, add black mustard seeds and let them splutter, once the splutter reduces, Add vertically split green chillies (I used two green chillies for four medium carrots...this should be a bit spicy) and a big pinch of Hing (asafoetida), then add the carrots, a pinch of turmeric and salt. Saute on a very high heat for a couple of minutes, till the carrots are slightly softer, but still maintain some crunch. Add some chopped cilantro and serve.

Fansi Dhokli / Pakodi:

Wash, dry and chop french beans into small pieces (each piece should be about the same length as the width of the don't do the longer cut). Heat some oil in a wide pot, add a big pinch of Ajwain (rub it slightly before adding to the oil to wake up the ajwain), and immediately add a cup of water and a pinch of baking soda. Lift up the pot and shake vigorously to mix the oil, water and soda (you're almost trying to create an emulsion here). Now, heat the mixture till it starts frothing and then add the french beans (yes, the water comes before the beans, unlike typical recipes). Now add salt, and green-chilli + ginger paste and more water to cover the beans completely.

While the beans are cooking, prepare the batter for pakodi. Mix besan, salt, turmeric, red chilli powder, a pinch of soda, a pinch of hing, some oil (you need a little extra oil here) and make a thick batter with water, like you would for making pakodas. Don't worry, there's no frying involved.

Here comes the fun part. Make sure there's good amount of water left in the pot. If not, add and let it heat up. Reduce the heat. Now, add small blobs of the pakodi batter into the beans and water. Do not overlap the pakodis (hence, the wide pot). Once all the pakodis are done, very gently stir the pot, so that some of the water covers them and then cover the pot and let it cook. After a few minutes, turn over the pakodis and let cook till both the beans and the pakodis are both cooked through. Don't worry if a little bit of besan seeps into the water, it will make the dish thick and creamy. Add just a pinch of sugar.

Alternatively, you can add dhokli to the french beans, instead of pakodi. To make dhoklis, take some coarse wheat flour (laadu no lot), add salt, turmeric, red chilli powder, hing, baking soda, oil and make a soft dough. You can also add besan to this dough if you like. make really small balls and fltten each one. Now, add these "dhoklis" to the french beans while cooking as before.

Khatta Mag:

I used Tarla Dalal's recipe for this. Soaked whole Mung overnight. Then cooked in the pressure cooker with some salt (just one whistle). Add turmeric and green chilli + ginger paste. In a tadka pan, heat some oil, add mustard seeds still they splutter, add fresh curry leaves and hing, and then add to the pot with the mung. Mix well. Now, whisk some yoghurt with a bit of water and add citric acid to it (since I almost never have sour yoghurt on hand). Slowly add the yoghurt mixture to the pot and thin out with water to get a kadhi-like consistency (with whole mung that you can see). Let it simmer for about 10-15 minutes and garnish with cilantro.


Line a wire strainer with paper towel and make it rest over a bowl. Empty one container of (preferably full fat) Greek yoghurt on the strainer, cover with the ends of the paper towel and leave in the fridge for 5-6 hours (or overnight). Discard the water. Now add equal parts of sugar as the yoghurt (by volume). Also add freshly ground cardamom seeds, freshly grated nutmeg, soaked and rubbed saffron (soak saffron in a few drops of water/milk for about an hour and then rub it for a few minutes. I use a metal pestle to do it). Mix everything thoroughly, till the shrikhand becomes shiny. Add chopped pistachios (may also add almonds), and if you can find, some charoli (or chironjee). Serve chilled. This time, I also added some sour cream. Once, I even added mascarporne cheese along with greek yoghurt, which worked really well too. Of course, you can flavor the shrikhand however you like, including adding mango pulp, to make amrakhand.