Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Chicken Curry from the past

Recipes keep getting better and fool proof over time. Chicken curry is one where I let my experimentation run while I perfect it. Though the recipe depends a bit on my mood, the weather outside also plays a very important role. The recipe from here has evolved to an almost fool proof one if I can say so myself. Mint leaves are fresh and abundant in the yard but that does not become a sole reason for them being added to the chicken curry. The kick they impart to a chicken biryani is not how they usually work in a chicken curry and they cannot take the place of coriander leaves obviously.

I was looking a perfect opportunity to jot down all these and Desi soccer mom comes up with the repost event to record them for posterity.

The coconut-poppy seed paste is an optional one but I have realized that is the addition that brings out the oohs and aahs. This quick and easy works best when using a pressure cooker. The addition of potatoes is purely optional. DH who was very skeptical when I mentioned adding potatoes now actually prefers chicken curry with them.

The howling winds and below freezing temperatures ensured that the peppercorns added were a bit more

Chicken Curry
1. 1 lb chicken thighs cut into fairly big pieces along with drumsticks
2. 2 white potatoes peeled and cubed into fairly big size chunks (optional)
3. 1 1/2 cup red onion chopped
4. 5 green chillies slit
5. 2 tomatoes chopped - 1/2 cup
6. 6 garlic cloves chopped
7. 1 tbsp ginger grated
8. 2 tsp red chili powder
9. 2-4 tsp turmeric powder
10. 1 tbsp coriander seeds + 1 tsp cumin seeds + 2 tsp pepper powder (adjust to heat) toasted slightly and powdered
11. whole spices - 4 cloves, 2 pieces cinnamon sticks, star anise, bay leaves, curry leaves, fennel seeds and cumin seeds
12. a handful of chopped coriander leaves
13. 2 tsp oil and salt to taste

Paste (optional)
1. 1/2 tbsp grated fresh coconut
2. 1/2 tbsp poppy seeds (soak for at least an hour)
3. a pinch of salt (makes it easy to blend the poppy seeds

1. Add chili powder, turmeric powder and salt to the chicken pieces and let them marinate till they are ready to be cooked. If using drumsticks makes a few slits on it.
2. In a pressure cooker heat oil and add the whole spices and let them brown a bit.
3. Add the onions, green chilies and saute till the onions turns translucent, add the garlic and ginger and saute for a minute or two.
4. Now add the potatoes and chicken and saute them for 5-6 minutes
5. Add the tomatoes, more chili powder if required, the powdered coriander mixture and mix well. Add salt.
6. Add a 1 1/2 cups of water, close the lid and cook for 2 whistles.
7. When cool add the blended paste if doing so and let it boil for a few minutes till the desired consistency s reached.

Serve with rice or bread of any kind.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ragi Vada or is it pakoda (Crunchy savories with finger millet flour)

Mystery stories have always been a fascination for me. Started with Secret Seven and Famous Five in the first decade of my life, growing up in the 70s and 80s Enid Blyton was a right of passage. Graduated to Perry Mason (Erle Stanley Gardener), Harold Robbins, Ayn Rand and John Grisham in the next decade of my life. Feeding a reading habit in those days was not cheap. I was lucky to have a great library at school during my high school days where I probably read through all of the Perry Mason books and uncles who loved pulp fiction as much as I did.

ragi flour mixed in with other ingredients

During visits to my maternal grandparents house and a search of the terrace where my uncles stashed their books introduced to me novelists like Harold Robbins and Ayn Rand. Those days with more time on my hand than I ever wanted, read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Imagine if I had spent time reading sensible books instead. Coming here the public libraries were like a fantasy land and the collection of pulp fiction available ran the gamut. I picked anything and everything that a mystery or had a lawyer as the protagonist and more novelists than I can keep track of.

dough ready for cooking

Even today a good mystery novel is what I look forward to relax. If you had a bowl of your favorite snack and a comfy chair even a cold dreary winter day can be something to look forward to. This Ragi vadai is one of those snacks which is perfect for just such a pleasurable relaxing time.

flattened like this or sprinkle

By the way "The Good Wife" the show on CBS is pretty good. It has Chicago politics and court room stuff to keep a certain somebody awake past 10:00 PM.

Ragi Vadai is a very popular Kongu snack that I have only tasted when I got here but DH and for most Kongus hailing from areas in and around Coimbatore this is a snack that they grew up with, a comfort food bringing them a piece of home every time a piece is popped into the mouth.

A mailing list I belonged to was debating over the name vadai because this snack is more like pakoda in texture. Call it vadai or pakoda this is one addictive snack. You can make it soft like vadai or more crunchy like pakoda. The choice is yours. We prefer the crunchy taste. Don't let the unattractive color fool you. This is a gluten free snack if you are interested in that sort of thing.


The expert at making this snack is a dear friend G. This has been a long pending snack to make and a few events came together to finally give it a try. DD possess one virtue which is way beyond my reach. But this virtue comes very handy when you are standing in front of hot boiling oil. It is that virtue that people call patience. DD had the day off and she was willing to help and this month also happens to be JFI - Ragi month, hosted by Madhuram of Eggless Cooking. It seemed a perfect time to give it a go. G gave precise instructions on how to go about making it. Her tips are under the notes section.

your favorite book or TV show ready? snack is!

Ragi Vadai
1. 2 Cups of Ragi flour
2. 2 tbsp roasted Channa dal (pottu kadalai)
3. 5-6 cloves of garlic chopped into small pieces
4. 1/2 - 1tbsp chili powder or chopped green chilies
5. chopped cashews (optional)
6. 1/2 tbsp curry leaf powder (use a handful of washed, dried, chopped fresh leaves)
7. 1 tbsp oil + 1/2 tbsp ghee
8. salt to taste
9. water as required
10. Oil for deep frying

1. Set a frying pan with oil to heat.
2. In a mixing bowl take ingredients 1-8, mix in the oil and ghee into the flour, add water a tbsp at a time to make a stiff dough.
3. pinch of a bit of dough and press it in the palm of the hand to flatten it to a thickness comparable to 2 potato chips stacked on top of each other and drop it in the oil or sprinkle the dough by rubbing it with your finger.
4. Cook till the bubbles stop
5. Drain on paper towels.

1. Finely chopped onions can be added but the shelf life decreases.
2. Cook the vadai a bit longer because it is brown and it is hard to decipher that it is cooked with change of color. DD pointed out that the change of color of the channa dal to brown is a good indication of right moment to take them out of the oil.
3. Greens like fresh methi chopped can be added
4. If the dough is too dry, the pakoda becomes hard crunchy.
5. If you want it softer like vadai make them slightly thicker.

Off this goes to Madhuram. Be warned this snack is very addictive, hard to control once you start eating.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cabbage with Green Peas curry

Having these winter snow storms once in a while is not always a bad thing. Like cooped up chicken, the minute the snow lets up folks are out and about cleaning and shoveling. This provides an occasion for some neighborly chat and it is kind of nice to see the whole street outside and people helping each other out. I bet folks up north who see the white stuff almost every day would not have the same view but for us who do not get snow that often it still is an occasion to celebrate and close schools over.

Remember the episode with my neighbor that I talked about in this post? The lady of the house who is still my neighbor studiously avoids having even eye contact with me, leave alone conversation. I don't blame her, rightly or wrongly she believes I was not on her side.

On this occasion she was also outside shoveling snow with her son. As I was enjoying(you heard me right) the physical exertion of shoveling snow I saw my neighbor walk towards me. DH has just walked over to my other neighbor's house to help with their snow blower. I was not in a mood for confrontation especially with the whole street watching. I must have had the most sheepish look on my face and had this thought running in my hand "what have I done now?". I scratched my head to remember what nasty deeds I might have done and wishing fervently that DH was next to me. Any way she walked over and thanked me for dropping her son off at home on a particularly bad thunderstorm day. I heaved a sigh of relief. Actually I have picked him up a few times all the while hoping this won't cause a war of words and I am more than glad to know that she appreciates it.

Come to think of it, that was pretty big of her. Anyway the episode is exactly why I like to have good relationships with neighbors, never know when we might need their help. I bet most of you would agree.

Cabbage is one vegetable that is easy to hate. The smell, the very few recipes that actually turn out good and so on. I had a head of cabbage that was begging to be used on one hand and Malika Badrinath's book on the other. These recipe books were a life saver and still are when I am hard pressed for something quick and easy to make. In my early cooking days I would not have been able to dish anything if my mom had not packed these books along.

It is very important when cooking with cabbages to not prejudge the dish even before it is completed and tasted. Even with my best efforts I did prejudge the dish before tasting and once I did it was a revelation and great side for chapatis.

Cabbage with Green Peas
1. 3 Cups shredded cabbage
2. 1 - 1 1/2 cups of green peas (fresh or frozen)
3. 1 cup chopped onions
4. 1 cup chopped tomatoes
5. 2 tsp turmeric powder
6. 5 garlic cloves
7. salt to taste
8. seasonings: cumin and curry leaves

for the paste
1. 2 tbsp coconut
2. a pinch of fennel seeds
3. 5-8 green chilies (the recipe called for red chilies)

blend the above into a paste

1. In a pan heat a tsp of oil and when hot add the seasonings.
2. Add the onions and saute till translucent, add the garlic and saute for a minute followed by the tomatoes and saute till they are mushy.
3. Add the cabbage and peas and let them cook till cabbages are mostly cooked
4. Add the ground paste and salt with a cup of water and let them cook till desired consistency. I let the water completely evaporate.

Note: Do not close the lid while the cabbage is cooking. It take the cabbage a bit longer to cook and the unwanted cabbage odor can be avoided.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Spicy Drumstick stir fry

While addiction to fast food is considered bad and most everyone knows about it, there is one kind of addiction that is hard to detect - the kind me and my family are in the grips of. A habit that is 8 years and counting is got to be serious right? Yes! we are incurably addicted to 24, yes the very same mind numbing Jack Bauer show. Interesting this season, Anil Kapoor stars(the actor who acted as the quiz master in Slumdog millionaire, did not watch the movie then never mind, no worries). He acts pretty good actually, speaks well, acts well and does not hurt the eye, what more can one ask? Any other 24 fans addicts out there?

Addiction to TV watching or fast food is not half as bad as our government's addiction and promotion of GM seeds and crops it seems.

Dawn Sky - Picture by DD

The more I find out about GM seeds the scarier it gets. More than scary it is this uncomfortable feeling that there is more to know than anybody is letting on. Are you ready to learn a bit more about Seed Diversity?

Why is seed diversity important?
Seed diversity is as important to the survival of the human species as water and air. The diversity is what allows for natural selection that helps plant to survive extreme weather conditions like drought, pests and diseases.

Take corn for example there used to long, short, blue, yellow, white, spotted but today we are left with a very few similar tasting and most possibly in the US at least a GM variety of corn.

"Look at this beauty!" he exclaims. "Some are good for starch, some for popcorn. Some grow in the cold. Some are good fried, some broiled. The taste for each is completely different.

"Diversity is what makes us happy, gives us choice and keeps us free. And it's tragic because this is what we are losing."

Says Esquinas, a top official at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, has spent decades campaigning to preserve plants that are used for food, which are becoming extinct at an alarming rate.

More and more acres of land under large scale farming are dependent on a single type of genetically engineered seed with predictable yields but making them extremely susceptible to diseases which can wipe them out in one fell swoop. In, 1970 half of all the corn crop in the southern US was destroyed by a fungus because they were all grown from one seed type. Loss of entire food crops to a single disease or calamity, thereby putting a very large percentage of the world population to the risks of food insecurity is a very real possibility.

The green revolution of the 20th century and introduction of large scale, mechanized agricultural practices which depend on a very few but high yielding seed varieties which require liberal use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have seriously put crop diversity in jeopardy. Repeated application of chemical enhancers, damages the soil and require even larger quantities of those chemicals for comparable yields.

GM and small farmers
Seed companies like Monsanto has been convincing everyone that GM and bio engineered are the way to feed the millions. But the harm they have done to small farmers in this country as well as farmers in poor countries is criminal.

When GM seeds are introduced into the farmlands in a country, it is big profits for a company like Monsanto which sells those seeds. Thugs are on the payroll to enforce patents. Pollination does not respect boundaries or patents, so when cross pollination between the GM seeds takes place with non-GM seeds, Monsanto has rights to demand patent violation. If this is not fucked up what else is?

These very same companies go to great lengths to explain how a tomato with an animal gene would not make it unsuitable for vegetarians or vegans. You have to take their word for it.

What is the difference between GM and BT?
You would not use GM to describe modified fruit and vegetable seeds but you would call hem BT as they are not genetically modified, instead the required traits are accomplished through breeding technology. Biotechnology is utilized to manipulate/improve the seeds at the gene level by introducing desired characteristics to the vegetable or fruit.

Unlike GM seeds, BT fruits and vegetables are still not very common. Even if there were we wouldn't know. There is no labeling requirement for either GM seeds or BT vegetables here in the US or in India, while labeling is required in the European Union.

Thanks Sra for this link, Monsanto announces plans for BT Brinjal that tastes like chicken Why not introduce some chili characteristics into the mix and make ourselves some chili chicken brinjal? While this is meant for laughs and is from fakenews (don't miss the related article), but it is no laughing matter.

Just after the whistle was removed from the cooker

What have governments done to control GM food?
Nothing. Short term goals always override long term objectives.

Governments be it a democracy or whatever is run by people and hence susceptible to big money. In India it is direct bribes, in the US it campaign donations which makes these companies bulldoze and pave way for regulations that make it legal for these patented GM seeds to make their way into the marketplace.

GM seeds are not new, they have been around since the 1970s, it is only now that we as consumers are even paying any situation to them.

Take for example the recent introduction of Bt Brinjal in India. The government found manipulated data to clear these seeds. It was left to activists and small farmers to agitate against its introduction.

Terming the approval of genetically modified brinjal in open market as the 'biggest disaster to hit the country after independence', PM Bhargava, who is the founder director of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, said, "This release is nothing but a fallout of a nexus between the politicians, bureaucrats, MNCs and the US. The policy being chased is to become a satellite of the US."

Read the press statement from Navadanya founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva.

Threats due to loss of seed diversity
We all know the effects of inbreeding in humans, namely genetic defects due to shared common ancestry leading to increased mortality and morbidity. The shared ancestry amplifies negative traits caused by recessive genes.

It is same in the plant world as well, the vast majority of the seeds get extinct leaving only a very variety of seeds whose genetic characteristics are not enough to protect the plant from pests, diseases and adverse climatic conditions.

  • 75% of genetic diversity in agricultural plants has been lost in the last 100 years.

  • Farmers are increasingly at the mercy of big bio-tech companies from whom they have to buy seeds year after year.

  • Contamination of organic seeds by GM(lets equate them to alien)seeds and would make it impossible for GMO free crops to exist if not already.

  • Loss of small farmers and breeders who tend to grow traditional crops and the increasing reach of agro big business has directly contributed to the loss of biodiversity.

  • Traditional knowledge and seed saving techniques will be lost only exacerbating the already threatened seed diversity.

  • References
    Organic Agriculture and Seed Diversity

    Drumstick poriyal (stir fry)

    What can citizens do?
    Dr. Vandana Shiva is the leading voice in India in the fight to maintain bio diversity. She has single handedly kept the issues facing the environment, soil pollution, seed diversity in the conscious of Indians.

    Speaking in a protest in Copenhagen at the World climate summit,
    “It Is Time for the US to Stop Seeing Itself as a Donor and Recognizing Itself as a Polluter, a Polluter who Must Pay”

    Here in the US people like Michael Pollan, Alice Waters and several others have done a lot to keep the issue of food and how it is produced in the news. These issues have the misfortune of being portrayed as a yuppy feel good issue which is further from the truth. The back room deals made in smoke filled rooms between legislators, lobbyists and industry representatives affects the food supply and security of countries directly. More than oil, terrorism, health care - this should be an issue foremost on people's minds.

    While we are all worried about Haiti, lets not forget that US had a direct hand in the overcrowding of Port-Au-Prince. The US government pressured the already unstable Haitian government in accepting subsidized low cost food grains. The end result the local farmers could not compete and had to abandon their farms and move to the city to look for jobs.

    NAFTA did the same to Mexican farmers, subsidized corn robbed several farmers of their livelihood making them cross the border to work as illegal workers in farms in the US.

    If you had ever thought why vegetables have no taste but look beautiful, keep that thought and read this page. Being aware is the least we can do. These companies are rich and powerful but the politicians are dependent on our votes to get elected. Let use that power effectively.

    Award time
    Sayantani of a Homemaker's Diary passed on the Kreativ blogger award. Thank you. The election of a Republican in the almost one party state of Massachusetts it is politics that is on my mind. I will share the 7 facts in the next post, in the fear of making this one really long.

    Sra is talking about rasam and staple foods in this post. It brought to mind my food habits, for while now in the interest of eschewing rice I had forgotten my roots. The uppu paruppu, puli kuzhambu and poriyal that I grew up with was given a short shrift. Not anymore, the defect got rectified almost immediately. I set about making paruppu, rasam and poriyal and was thoroughly enjoyed.

    Drumsticks from the time I had known have always been a favorite. It is a rare occasion that we get fresh ones but the frozen ones we get in the store have filled that hole nicely. I use pressure cooker which ensures the drumsticks are evenly cooked.

    Simply the best - pachai paruppu (split moong dal), rice, moong dal rasam and drumstick stir fry

    Spicy drumstick fry
    1. 2 Cups of cut drumsticks
    2. 1/2 cup red onion chopped (if you have small onions they are the best)
    3. 1/2 cup cut tomatoes
    4. 5 cloves garlic sliced
    5. 1/2 tbsp sambhar powder (2 tsp chili powder, 1 tsp coriander powder + 1/2 tsp cumin powder)
    6. a handful of chopped coriander leaves
    7. seasoning: mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves

    1. In a pressure pan, heat a bit of oil and add the seasonings. When mustard seeds starts to pop add the onions and saute till translucent.
    2. Now add the garlic and saute for a minute followed by the sambhar powder.
    3. Add the tomatoes and salt and saute till the tomatoes are mushy.
    4. Add the drumsticks, 2-3 tbsp of water, coriander leaves, close the lid and let cook for 2 whistles.
    5. When cool open the lid and let cook for a few more minutes if there is moisture.


    if cooking on stove top, add water, close the lid and cook till the drumsticks are soft and cooked through (about 15-20 minutes)

    The drumstick was enjoyed with some pacahai paruppu(yellow split moong dal) and moong dal rasam rice.

    Sunday, January 17, 2010

    Tangy Bitter gourd from Sukham Ayu

    Bitter gourd plant is one vegetable plant that keeps on giving, provided you manage to sprout them. The first year I managed to sprout a few but by the time they were transplanted outdoors only one managed to grow to adulthood and bear fruit. It was the best thing that ever happened, they were atleast 3-4 fruit every week starting late July to the end of October. After enjoying them home grown, straight from plant to pot, the store bought ones just did not cut it. They were too soft and sitting on the shelf too long. Before long I had stopped buying them and not missing them one bit because it was worth the wait. Last week I was at the international market shopping for some chilies when I saw a mother-daughter pair buying some bitter gourd. The bitter gourd looked firm and I am sure they were not that fresh but atleast they were firm and I had just the recipe in mind.

    Browsing through Sukham Ayu a gift from dear Linda the tangy bitter gourd was too tempting to wait till summer.

    Before I move on to the recipe, few tricks to sprout bitter gourd seeds - soak them in hot water first and let them soak for 24-48 hours, with a change of water if require before putting them in the soil for faster and guaranteed sprouting.

    If you do make the recipe don't forget to save some for the next day. It tastes the best the next day even the slight traces of bitterness evident the first day meld well and taste so much better the next day. The recipe was for a dry kind of dish, I added a bit more water to make it slightly wet for parathas or chapatis. The former would be perfect for rice while the later for bread. I added garlic which was not called for in the original recipe. I also used sambhar powder in place of coriander powder, cumin and chili powder.

    Tangy Bitter gourd
    1. 6 bitter gourds, cut into round thick slices and the seeds removed - 4 cups
    2. 1 medium sized onion chopped fine
    3. 5 garlic cloves sliced round
    4. 1 tsp turmeric powder
    5. 1 tbsp sambhar powder or (1/2 tbsp coriander powder + 1 tsp cumin powder + 1/2 tbsp chili powder)
    6. 1/2 tbsp amchur powder (I added bit more than the recipe called for)
    7. 2 tbsp bengal gram flour
    8. 1 tbsp jaggery (I used unprocessed cane sugar, karumbu sarkarai)
    9. roasted peanuts roughly chopped (I left this out)
    10. salt to taste
    11. seasonings: cumin and asfoetida
    12. 1 tsp ghee

    1. Heat ghee in a pan, add the cumin seeds and asfoetida
    2. Reduce the heat to below medium and add the onions,garlic and the bitter gourds and saute for a couple of minutes.
    3. Cover the pan and let it cook for 8-10 minutes till the bitter gourd is soft.
    4. Add all the powders and mix well. Saute till the powders are well coated, switch off the heat if doing a dry curry. (OR)
    5. Add 3 tbsp of water and let it cook for another 6-7 minutes.
    6. Check for salt and add a bit more jaggery or amchur powder if required.

    Serve with rice or chapatis.

    Note: The trick for less bitter, bitter gourd dishes is to not handle the pieces too much meaning sauteing too much. Let them be and they don't taste very bitter.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    Sundried tomato and chili buns

    When I first came to the US all googly eyed and filled with wonder the attractions (like in a theme park) never seemed to end - clean streets, order, vast and wide open spaces and of course the grocery store. The picture is not that perfect today, the shiny gleamy clean surface has lot of unwanted stuff shoved underneath. It is never pretty when a love affair unravels even in movies.

    cut green chilies, remove the seeds

    Moving back to grocery stores, the shiny polished fruits and vegetables, the picture perfect produce, no bug eaten or bug infested veggies, prewashed greens all seemed to make life so much easier. Nature is never perfect and what I was seeing was to the contrary, but I continued buying, cooking and merrily going through life without questioning the merits of perfect food.

    sprinkled with salt and ready for toasting

    Slowly things started to unravel, continuous news of the obesity epidemic, addiction to fast food, agro big business, cheap China products, food contamination, salmonella poisoning, mercury in fish all gave pause to my blinkered approach to food. Reading essays/books by authors like Michael Pollan, seeing the organic food movement take off, the popularity of farmers market have certainly made me think more about the source of food and how food is made.

    after toasting for 10 minutes

    Some foods that we grow during the summer we do mostly without during the winter months. These are mostly Indian vegetables which were never fresh or vibrant in the grocery stores to begin with. Examples of these are eggplants, bitter gourds, snake gourds and ridge gourds. These were not that readily available when we first came here and we survived. So I buy them once in a blue moon these days.

    toasted for 5 more minutes and chopped

    Following Pollan's advice in his book the Omnivore's dilemma I do the grandma test - if the food is something that your grandma would not recognize then don't buy it. I try as much as possible to follow the advice. I don't go crazy and buy exotic foods. I don't stop with what my Indian grandma would buy but I also shift to American, Italian, Spanish and a few cases Chinese grandmas just to cover the vast array of foods available. If I were to stick to just what my grandma would recognize we'd be very unhappy for sure.

    dough ready for rising

    We are a seafood loving family, every single member relishes seafood dishes but the purchase of seafood is harder than ever. The list of fish to be avoided is large because of metal poisoning, determine if it is farm raised or wild caught is enough to make your eyes glaze over. Add to this the uncertainty of where in the world the fish is coming from we now rarely eat fish. Farm raised fish is no better than and in some cases worse than industrialized poultry or meat. They are raised in toxic effluent waters doused with chemicals. I mostly buy frozen fish or shrimp because the false sense of security the "Made in ..." gives me. The rare instances we can make a trip to the waterfront in DC we buy fresh fish.

    baked for 15 minutes and brushed with butter

    What has worked for us is to modify our eating habits and eat seasonal produce and be mindful of how food made its way to our plate.

    Ruchikacooks asked a very relevant question. She says while vegetables can be organic, poultry can be free range, organic, antibiotic free etc but fish which is to a large extent dependent on the water they live in - can it be truly organic? I had not seriously thought about organic fish because the very few I have seen are way over priced. I know for sure to avoid farm fish grown in China, where dumping antibiotic into waste water and raising fish is a common practice.

    Can fish be truly organic?
    Unlike a tomato which is deemed organic if it is grown without pesticides and using well defined organic practices or meat raised without antibiotics and certain other defined practices, labeling fish as organic is not a straight forward process.

    If a fish is labeled as organic and you pay a high price for it, you are probably kidding yourself. The quality of water if wild caught fish cannot be truly ascertained and if they are farm raised the pollution these waters cause to marine life cannot make them truly organic.

    Fish tend to be of different hues, colors and eating habits. If they eat other fish, how can that fish be labeled organic unless the feed fish is also organic.

    If that is not making your head spin, the debates by aquaculturists, environmentalists and fishermen will sure make it.

    Read this article from New York Times Free or Farmed, When Is a Fish Really Organic?

    What about those fish labeled as organic?
    A year ago USDA approved organic labels for fish obviously making aquaculture producers very happy, environmentalists very upset and we the consumer paying extra high price and not really knowing what the label means.

    The organic standards approved by National Organic Standards Board would allow organic fish farmers to use wild fish as part of their feed mix provided it did not exceed 25 percent of the total and did not come from forage species, such as menhaden, that have declined sharply as the demand for farmed fish has skyrocketed.
    Read the article here - 'USDA Panel Approves First Rules For Labeling Farmed Fish 'Organic'.

    The guidelines established by the USDA makes it more confusing than clear. The 25% of feed from forage species can be non organic material is troubling say environmentalists because other animals certified as organic require 100% of the feed to be organic.

    What is a consumer to do?
    Now that I know more about the organic labeling on fish is not worth the premium dollar they command. Moreover the organic labeling just lulls us into a false sense of security. Besides organic labeling there are a few rules that can be followed while buying fish.
  • Buy small fish, those whole life span is not too long. They have lower levels of mercury. eg. mackerel, sardines and anchovies and are heart healthy

  • Do not buy fish that are in the higher levels of the food chain. They are accumulating mercury from the fish in the lower levels of the food chain. eg. swordfish, shark

  • Fish that reproduce quickly and grow quickly are good for eating eg. canned wild Alaskan salmon

  • Follow the politics of over fishing, eg. avoid the blue fin tuna which is in danger of fished to extinction

  • Listen to Good Fish, Bad Fish: A Consumer Guide on NPR.

    Table source Good for the oceans, good for you

    Now on to those spicy buns,

    The perfect results for the pav buns gave me the fillip needed to try a variation on them and was born the sundried tomato chili buns. Remember the sundried tomato paratha and sundried spice powder that was made, I still had a few tables spoons still left.

    baked and cooling

    Detailed instructions here.

    Sundried tomato and chili buns
    1. 1 3/4 cups bread flour
    2. 1 1/2 cups chapati flour
    3. 1 1/2 tbsp raw sugar
    4. 1 1/2 tbsp butter - melted + 1 tsp butter
    5. 1 tsp salt
    6. 1 packet active dry yeast - 2 tsp
    7. 1 tbsp sundried tomato spice mixture / roughly powdered sundried tomato
    8. 5 green thai chilies sliced into rounds and roasted with salt in a toaster oven
    9. 1 cup water + 3/4 cup fat free milk

    Preparing the dough
    1. Mix together the dough and all other ingredients except butter and roughly mix them.
    2. Heat the milk and water separately to lukewarm.
    3. Add the milk to the flour mixture and work it in.
    4. Add the water tbsp by tbsp till the dough is like chapati dough and pliable, should not be loose.
    5. Keep kneading the dough till it become smooth.
    6. spray oil on top of the dough and cover with a cling wrap also sprayed with oil and let it sit in a warm place to rest. (3-4 hours)
    7. Punch it down and make balls of desired size.
    Prepare a cookie sheet spread with wax paper sprayed with oil.
    8. Roll each ball with wet hands on a cutting board with cupped hands and set it on the cookie sheet in 2 columns with a small gap between each of them. Cover again with the cling wrap.
    9. Let it rest for another hour or so.
    1. Preheat oven to 375F and let it bake for 15 minutes.
    2. Brush with the butter on top and bake for 5 more minutes.

    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    Simple Lunches - 19 (cabbage paratha with tomato relish)

    If you want something "ask". This is the philosophy by which DH leads his life and he never hesitates to ask. I on the other live by the opposite philosophy, think 100 times before asking and if possible never ask. Psychoanalysts might give this a different diagnosis but we won't go there. We have saved money, learned stuff that we would never have and saved time because of his policy. We have 2 Japanese made cars (no not that company, the other one). I drive one and DH drives the other. The engine malfunction light came on in the one I was driving, the manual asked not to drive too far and take to the nearest shop/dealer. I should have checked if the car was under warranty before taking it to the shop but I would have been someone else better if I was that perfect :) The shop ran the computer diagnostics and charged about $150 and also told us the car was under warranty and should be taken to the dealer. If we had taken the car to the dealer directly, the problem would have been taken care of without charge. For me that would have been THE END but not for DH he called Honda and asked them about reimbursement for the diagnostics. He asked and they gave, it was that simple. Most companies want to do the right thing if only we would ask.

    The same theory applies to grocery shopping as well I guess but not exactly in the same sense. Even in an impersonal supermarket or a large chain store if we have questions about a product we should certainly ask.I am not sure if you all do but I certainly don't. I get home and send an email or call and talk to the headquarters, which always does not give the best results, it is too impersonal. I am changing and now learning to ask then and there. The more people ask questions the more careful the businesses will be about where and how they source their products don't you think?

    I want to add a disclaimer before we proceed to the second installment of the knowledge gathering posts. These articles are more for my benefit and learning experience than anything else. I am not in favor or against organic, local or conventional food and I will not make any recommendations. I will best describe what works for me and sometimes maybe forcefully but that does not in any way mean it is the only possible way. To be a good consumer we have to be an informed consumer as well. That is my primary motivation.

    In the last post we discussed about the different type of seeds. Today we will focus on Organic farming practices.

    When can something be labeled organic?
    Say for eg. tomatoes, just if the tomato had been grown from an organic seed, can it be called organic? No. A conventional farm takes a minimum of 3 years to be converted to an organic farm. In other words it is the optimal time required for the ill effects of fertilizer/herbicide/pesticide usage to recede and the land can regenerate itself. The farmer also never uses any chemical products(pesticides, fertilizers, herbicide, fungicide etc.,) to increase yield. The organic label is not a purity test rather a standard for a product to be deemed organic.

    Can produce be truly organic?
    An organic farmer purchases seeds that are labeled as organic but there is no independent test conducted to see if the seeds were contaminated prior to usage, so if a batch of GMO contaminated seeds are mixed with the package of seeds, then the produce is still marketed as organic.

    If there are conventional farms nearby using GMO seeds the contamination can lead to the produce not being truly organic. There are also uncontrollable external factors like water, pollution and cross pollination which can affect the organic index of a produce.

    All said and done, produce grown without direct application of pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides is in itself worth the higher price.

    Source- The organic and non-gmo report

    Differences in Organic vs Conventional output

    "Our rice yields under the organic system are almost as good as before," he says, as his wife scoops up cow manure with her hands and pats it into disks to fuel the cooking fire. "And we're spending much less money on inputs, since we're not buying pesticides and fertilizer — although labor costs have increased."

    - Amarjit Sharma,Punjab-India, an organic farming convert from conventional farming.
    Excerpt from NPR 'In India, Bucking The 'Revolution' By Going Organic'.
    Listen to the full story here.

    The yield of wheat were about half after he switched from organic to conventional farming.

    With my limited understanding of organic farming methods I was under the impression that organic farming yields were lower and the costs higher when compared to conventional farming methods. But this is not true, proven by the farmer from India quoted above and a 22 year farming trial study conducted here in the US showed that organic farming produced the same yield as conventional while using 30% less energy, water and no pesticides. Source

    The single forceful argument given by conventional farming, industrial farming supporters has been the need to feed the growing world population. But the reliance on chemical products to increase yield has hurt the land, taking away the ability to regenerate itself and has harmed the land irreversibly denying future generations the ability to feed themselves. Short term profits and food supply cannot be the only goal. Male trout in the Potomac river are growing female sex organs - if we deny that chemical products in the atmosphere had nothing to do with it, we are probably all kidding ourselves.

    Let's go back to 60s and 70s to India, India was a new democracy, food shortages were threatening millions and it needed badly to become self reliant in food production and hence the government's green revolution program. Many farmers like Sharma abandoned traditional farming practices and switched to pesticide, fertilizer usage and high yielding varieties of seeds. Crop rotation was abandoned, the same crop was repeated year after year. In the short term yields soared but then things went south. More fertilizer application was required to produce the same amount of yield and pesticide resistant insects destroyed large portions of crops.

    Sharma again,
    "We are not worried about how much yield we will get," he says. "We are worried about our families, and our children. We want them to be healthy. We will never sell or eat poison."
    In the end isn't that what it is all about.

    Huge companies promoting genetically modified seeds, pesticides and fertilizers have money and a big megaphone to promote what is best way to feed the world, (of course thereby increase their profits manifold) equating organic farming to a yuppy feel good kind of thing. Nothing can be further than the truth.

    What is a consumer to do?
    Does this all mean I only eat organic produce? No! I try to make choices the best I can. Organic produce are expensive and in most cases not always available. Some produce more harmful than others, so I either eliminate them or find the best source to get them. My uncle, refuses to eat eggplants bought from the market because they are doused with pesticides. I have witnessed them first hand when I started growing them in the backyard, they are highly pest prone. Best case is to avoid eating them when I cannot grow them but not practical as I don't live in a tropical country. Cut back immensely when the only option is to eat them from the store. I am no way saying this is an ideal solution but this is what I chose to do till I find another viable alternative. There are many such vegetables that have disappeared from our diet this way :( Not an ideal situation. What about tomatoes, onions and other staples. I don't look for organic, they are not available in most stores and so I buy them.

    Only a few years ago the price of organic milk was astronomical, fast forward a few years to today, while the price is still high compared to regular milk (which has all become hormone free) has reached affordable levels or we have just learned to live with the higher costs.

    If there is enough demand and education the days for good pesticide free produce is not far off.

    If buying vegetables is this hard, consider buying fish, there is no organic labeling or is there?. We will tackle that next time.

    After all this talk if you are still interested in food here goes,

    I mostly have a like, dislike relationship with cabbages. This leads to them either being bought week after week or ignored for months on end. I was going through this dislike phase when I saw the recipe for cabbage roti on Veg Inspirations and went out and bought cabbage and made them the very next day.

    Cabbage Paratha
    1. 3 Cups Whole Wheat Flour
    2. 1 tbsp yogurt whey or yogurt
    3. 1/2 tbsp chili powder
    4. 3 tsp of ajwain
    5. 1 tsp cumin seeds crushed in the palm of your hand
    6. 3 cups of finely cut cabbage
    7. salt
    8. 1-2 tbsp water
    9. all purpose flour for rolling

    1. In a wide mouthed mixing bowl mix all the ingredients together and make a stiff dough and set aside for half an hour.
    2. Pinch of lime sized balls of dough and roll them evenly to 4 inch diameter circle, use the all purpose flour to dust the board and sprinkle on the dough to avoid sticking.
    3 Heat a tava and place the rolled dough, cook on one side, flip and cook on the other side. Apply oil if desired.

    Tomato Relish
    1. 5 Red tomatoes
    2. 1/2 Red onion sliced
    3. 3 green chilies cut in 2
    4. 2 tsp grated ginger
    5. 4 garlic cloves sliced
    6. salt to taste
    7. seasonings: mustard, cumin and curry leaves

    1. Heat oil in a pan and add the seasonings and when mustard starts to splutter
    2. add the onion and saute till translucent. add the garlic and ginger and saute for a few more minutes
    3. add the tomatoes and salt, cover and cook till mushy.

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    Potato, Cauliflower and Green Peas Sukhi style (Dry Curry)

    I think I will be very busy this year if I want to learn and keep up the plans for the blog. Take a minute to read the comments from the last post. Throws up a lot of interesting questions.

    Prepared veggies

    1. Can fish be organic?
    2. Is industrial food production really bad?
    3. What is local food movement? Is it just a yuppy feel good kind of thing?
    4. Can organic farming really provide food for the exploding population of the planet?
    5. What exactly is crop and seed diversity?
    6. Is organic cost efficient to actually make a difference?

    All good questions and we will strive to explore all of them in due time.

    I primarily wanted to learn more about GM(genetically modified), bio-engineered seeds and how lack of bio diversity was going to harm food production. But the issues that have been brought up are all inter connected and a good idea to be researching about all of them.

    Mixed with spices and ready to be covered and cooked

    Over the last decade on every visit to India I have heard mom and several others mention that certain varieties of several vegetables are not in the market anymore. When this particularly hit hard was when the broad beans I was seeing on the last visit was very broad and really big. It was the first time I have even seen it but everybody seemed to think broad beans were always that way. That is so not true, the visit before last the broad beans were the size they always were. Is this a new variety that people have gotten used to quickly or does it make its appearance only during the summer? I have no idea. Next was when I was trying to get seeds for the country tomato (naatu thakkali) the sour short and stout tomato with ridges and my uncle sadly said that the seeds were not available even in the seeds co-operatives that regularly. Were these varieties going to disappear for ever, probably.

    Lid closed and cooking

    For quite a few years now tomatoes that are readily available in the market are mostly the smooth oval shaped ones called Bangalore tomatoes, much sweeter and in my opinion dull and blands the tastes of rasam, sambhar or tomato rice that they are used in. We have gotten used to them like we eventually do.

    What is a bio engineered or genetically modified seed?

    Biotechnology has made it possible to inject genes from other plants and animals into plant seeds to create traits that would help the plant deal with adverse conditions like drought, withstand pesticide exposure, increase yields creating characteristics that do not occur naturally. The most bio engineered seeds are corn, soybean, cotton and canola. This term also includes breeds of crops created by selective breeding.

    After the first 15 minutes

    What is a hybrid seed?
    Hybrid seeds are those that are produced by artificial cross-pollination to create desirable traits like increased yield, drought resistance, better looks and disease resistance.

    What is a heirloom seed?
    Heirloom seeds are those that have been preserved over several years and handed down from the gardeners who preserved them. These are seeds that have to be created by open pollination. Open pollinated plants are those whose seeds are capable of producing plants just like their parent preserving all the good qualities.

    There is no denying the benefits of hybrid seeds, it has increased agriculture output and the ability of governments to pull their masses out of poverty. This seems harmless when compared to GM seeds. Animal characteristics in plants? Is that desirable? Has technology gone overboard? GM seeds which were used in mostly large industrialized farms have now started to contaminate non-GM seeds.

    Now to the recipe of the day,
    The best aloo gobhi I have tasted so far was in a hole in a wall place which sold fresh hot foods at a very reasonable prices. The kitchen was visible from where the order was placed, a much needed confirmation because the place was really dirty. The place was closed by the authorities, no surprises there. I lost my source for aloo gobi and had been on the lookout for something similar till I saw Sookhi Gobhi Aloo over at Mad Tea Party. This is what I have been looking for along with the added bonus, no grease. Some version of this aloo gobhi has been made every week at our house ever since. Sometimes I have followed the exact recipe while other times I improvise a little bit like this one with green chilies.

    Ready for serving

    Serving : 6 people
    Dry Potato, Cauliflower and Peas Curry
    1. 2 Russet Potatoes + 2 Red potatoes (I prefer red potatoes but only had Russet potatoes, DH went shopping) - 4 Cups (peeled and cut into bite sized cubes)
    2. Cauliflower split into small florets - 2 cups
    3. Green Peas - 1 Cup
    4. Green chilies - 4 slit
    5. 1 1/2 inch piece of ginger grated
    6. 5 garlic cloves crushed and chopped
    7. 2 tsp turmeric powder
    8. 1 tbsp sambhar powder or coriander + red chili powder
    9. 1 tsp cumin powder
    10. a small pinch of asfoetida
    11. salt to taste
    12. 2 tsp oil

    1. In a flat bottomed pan, heat oil and add the cumin seeds, asfoetida, garlic and ginger. Saute till the ginger and garlic are fried , take care not to burn.
    2. Add the turmeric powder and green chili and saute for a minute.
    3. Add the potatoes, cauliflower, peas, saute for 2 minutes or so.
    4. Add the sambhar powder and salt and give a good mix.
    5. Close the lid and set the heat to less than medium, cover the lid and cook for 15 minutes.
    6. Open the lid, toss and add more salt and chili powder if required, close and cook for another 8 minutes.
    7. Switch off the heat.

    Tastes best with rotis (wheat breads) or even with steamed white rice.

    Monday, January 4, 2010

    Chicken Curry with yogurt and plans for the year

    We have started the New Year off with frigid temperatures requiring a brave heart and heavy clothing to step out. As you all know I like very much to complain about the weather but I'd let that one go, being the first few days of the new year and all.

    Among all the bickering and bad news emanating out of DC, some good news for the environment and by extension for the people who live there. Washington DC's Plastic Bag Tax Takes Effect This Week.

    It has nothing to do with this post but I wanted to share that anyway and hopefully all 50 states will follow suit.

    And the agenda for the year ahead, I am hoping to discuss, write about and hopefully learn about the sources of the foods that we consume.

    International treaties and multinational companies have done a lot to do away with crop diversity. Where there were hundreds of varieties of a single crop now there are only a handful of bio-engineered seed varieties. This lack of diversity should be very scary, because a single disease or calamity could wipe out whole sources of food. Imagine a world where you are surrounded by people who look the same, speak the same language, eat the same food and behave the same way. That is by far what is happening in the corn, wheat and soy worlds. There are all the same.

    As consumers and in particular as food bloggers we are ahead of the curve in matters of food and environment but there is a lot to learn. I am humbled and a bit actually a lot scared at how much ignorance there is about industrial food production and harm that it has been causing. One only need look, as there is information all around. This will be my primary interest this year.

    The chicken recipe to be presented today and the chicken especially has a story. For years I have been buying chicken in chain grocery stores, where the chicken looks and feels like weeks if not months have passed before it hit the shelves. I read/heard somewhere that a few chicken processing plants in California ship the chicken (I forget if they were alive or not) to China to be packaged to save on costs. A sane person should have stopped eating chicken then and there right? But the insanity continued primarily because I'd rather cook at home than visit a fast food chain when the craving hits. The biggest take away is when possible be aware of where the produce comes from.

    I have purchased chicken from the Lancaster Dutch Market a much loved local store run by Amish folks from Lancaster County, PA every now and then and know that they taste far superior to the supermarket variety. They are open only 3 days a week and a bit of planning is required so I sort of went back to the supermarket till I woke up startled one day and after a friend brought up the same subject. The chicken are grown free range with no antibiotic and hormones and moreover they are brought in fresh. Now we only eat chicken bought at the market and have learned to go without otherwise.

    We had DH's cousin visiting when I made this chicken curry and he could not stop appreciating about how good the chicken tasted. I will share the secret folks, it had nothing to do with the spices, masala, cooking technique and all to do with the fresh good quality chicken.

    I bet this story can be repeated for any fruit or vegetables. How it is grown matters a great deal.

    Chicken Curry with Yogurt
    1. 2 lbs chicken cut into chunks, washed with turmeric powder and set aside
    2. 1/2 onion chopped
    3. 6 green chilies slit
    4. 2 inch piece of ginger grated
    5. 8 garlic cloves chopped fine
    6. 1 tomato chopped fine
    7. 3 tbsp yogurt whisked
    8. 2 tsp turmeric powder
    9. 2 tsp dried curry leaf powder
    10. seasonings whole spices: cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel seeds,cumin seeds, curry leaves

    For the paste
    1. 1/4 cup onion chopped
    2. 1 tbsp coriander seeds
    3. 1 tsp pepper corns
    4. 1 tsp cumin seeds
    5. 3 red chilies

    In a bit of oil saute the onions followed by the other ingredients. Cool and blend with the minimum amount of water.

    1. In a kadai heat 2 tsp of oil and add the whole spices and when they start to turn color and a nice smell comes add the onions and green chilies and saute till the onions become brown.
    2. Now add the garlic and ginger and saute for minute followed by chicken and turmeric powder, saute for 4-5 minutes.
    3. Add the tomatoes and salt, saute for a minute, cover with a lid and let the chicken cook for another 6-8 minutes.
    4. Add the paste and let it cook on medium low heat till the curry comes together about 8 minutes.
    Alternately - 1-4 can all be dumped together in a pressure cooker and cooked for 2 whistles.
    5.Put the flame on low, add the whipped yogurt and let simmer for a few more minutes.
    The yogurt gives the curry a nice creamy texture and taste.

    Serve with rice or chapatis.