I wanted to think well about what this post should convey, and the reasons for writing it in the first place. This has taken me some time, and I feel very thankful that I still have a following of patient, fellow foodie-bloggers that haven’t given up their hopes for this post, for it is the first in a series of posts that deal exclusively with pickles. But I think they, and any far-future readers, will find the information contained herein and in those future posts informative, and, hopefully, handy.
This past summer, I was pointedly-reminded of the main reason for my writing: I was busy outside, pruning a pair of Japanese yews in our front yard, when a large, dark-blue, pick-up truck pulled into the driveway. In the passenger-seat was an old, old friend that I haven’t seen in at least two years, excitedly waving and shouting to me. Her friend in the driver-seat just sat there, smiling sweetly. Eileen my friend’s name is, and she and I worked together for about nine years, and in that time I brought many, many containers of food from various lands to dine upon during our lunch-breaks (of which, it might be said, we had several during an 8-hour shift). Often I shared what I brought with her (I’m that kind of guy, despite what some might say), sometimes eagerly waiting in anticipation to stimulate her curiosity and to see her reaction to food that most, in our neck of the woods, would consider “out-of-the-box”.
She was a good sport, and already well-acquainted with some perky flavours from her Italian-infused home-town of Kenosha, Wisconsin: giardiniera and peperoncini, anchovies and sun-dried tomatoes. “Here, try this…” was all it usually took on my part, and over time we realized our mutual fondness for anything hot-sour-salty. Certainly, I will never forget discovering the girl who could be happy eating a plain grapefruit, peeling and eating it like an orange. “One grapefruit is too much for one you know, but just right for two…”, and so it went, one or the other of us bringing in a gorgeous specimen, plucked from the grocer’s pile at the height of their sweet-sour, highly-aromatic season- a welcome, sun-like orb in the dreary winter months that we endure- sheer delight! And I’d tear the peel into small pieces to better scent the room; she is a girl who burns incense in her home, after all!
So, of course, on this surprise visit, when all of the catching up and gossip was out of the way, our conversation turned to food. Well…I shouldn’t play it as innocent as that. She asked: “So…what have you been up to lately?”
“Pickling,” I said with a grin. And I divulged my long-meaning intent to drop off a jar or two of my experimenting on her doorstep.
She was more-than-happy with this choice of topic: “I tried some of that “mixed pickle” they serve at Taste of India,” she offered. (Taste of India is the one and only Desi-restaurant in our city, but there are two more- but similar- choices in neighboring Appleton)
“And?” said I with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh! I just had to give some to my sister…it was wonderful: very hot, very sour, salty, and a little sweet; it made my taste-buds wonder what I was doing to them…”
And I think that’s a good way to explain why those who love pickles such as these adore them so much: they are works of gastronomic art in a jar, ready to wake up the taste-buds, teasing and eluding them while they try to discern the subtle flavours present amidst an ocean of salty-sour-and-often-hotly-spicedness. Bliss for those forever seeking new sensations, who often discover fascinating strangers in their gastro-wanderings that become time-honored, comfortable friends that are offered a seat of honour at their tables.
I begin my pickle-prattling with those pickles which I consider salt-cured, drawing your attention to some great recipes that I’ve discovered, and sharing some that I’ve re-worked around new, locally-available ingredients. But first things first: the how and the why:
Salt has been produced and used since ancient times as a food-preservative, and continues to be so highly-revered that it has often found a place in religious rituals. While I have no wish to expound further in detail upon its virtues or history here, it is interesting to note that salt was once the greatest commodity in the formation and relation of world economies, which in turn was a driving force that shaped the world as we know it today.
In my part of the U.S., the practice of salt-curing seasonal foods for year-long use has greatly diminished and is reserved only for certain specialty-foods- such as salt-fish, traditional brined meats, meats prepared for smoke-curing, and specific pickles. Gone are the days when extremely-large crocks- brimming with a years’ supply of salt-cured goodies- were mainstay in larders and cellars. Traces of these times still remain, however, if one were to look hard-enough, but already-decades-old warnings of the health-risks of a diet high in salt, coupled with the birth and subsequent waxing, waning and waxing again of the use of home-prepared, vacuum-sealed canning, as well as the widespread use of refrigeration and freezing devices, have pushed this once-venerated, millennia-spanning method of food preservation into a state of near-oblivion; I think I could walk around my city-block taking a survey, and be fortunate to find one person with the skills to salt-cure anything!
But, fortunately, this isn’t the case with the world as a whole: unreliable, expensive electricity- or lack entirely thereof- carries with it the mixed blessing of a non-reliance upon refrigerators and deep-freezers; the unavailability of factory-churned canning-lids (or rubber-rings) with matching mason-jars makes home-canning a luxury enjoyed by precious few. The old, time-tested methods of sun-drying, salt-curing, and fermenting, doused with oil or not, still work to keep that which is seasonal available for enjoyment throughout the year, and long-held tradition in food-preparation keeps these recipes alive and well. And honestly, these older methods are far-less taxing on the environment and energy-consumption on the whole, and are definitely deserving of the budding revival that I see happening in so-called “first-world” countries.
Personally, I have to admit that I have been mostly unaware of the methods of salt-curing for the greater part of my life. I had eaten and heard of some of these foods that, here, still remain popular, but it wasn’t until I was given a sample of a particular, extremely-delicious, Konkani-style, green-mango pickle, read its accompanying post and recipe, and decided to try it out at home that I realized: this pickle does not ferment- there are no escaping bubbles of gas from bacterial action, it is not cooked and therefore there is no reduction to increase the acidity, nor does it contain a potent acid such as vinegar. So then, how does it work?
And really all I had to do was to look at the Konkani word, nonche…which means that-which-is-salted, or perhaps: that-which-is-salt-preserved, or maybe, more simply: a salt-preserve. I see it translated usually as “pickle”, but, in reality, it refers to a specific type of pickle: one in which salt acts as the main preservative.
But how much salt is necessary? And, after that: how does one do it? So began my experimenting. I salt-cured nimbu/key limes and Persian limes, Eureka lemons and Meyer lemons, tangerines, oranges, grapefruits, minneolas and kumquats. And then moved on to fresh ginger. And sliced rhubarb. And then I hit upon a real beauty fairly recently: green crab-apples.
You might be scratching your head at that one, but you see, I love sour things. And sour things seem to be often salt-cured in India to become pickles. And “pickle” is beyond method, beyond texture, beyond qualification by anything other than function: world-wide, pickles are eaten in small amounts to enhance a larger meal. But then again, not always…
I have absolutely no complaints about sitting down (or giving a standing ovation) to a meal of pickles, rice and yoghurt. Or pickles with yoghurt-rice. Or sometimes pickles, yoghurt and roti. And sometimes a sandwich smeared with a fine-textured pickle and cream cheese. Variations on a theme: pickle, curdled milk, grains. Where was I? Oh yes, a recipe!
Early this past summer (I do tend to go on and on, don’t I?), about the first of July, I asked Danny, my other half, if he would mind my picking a few green crab-apples from the tree in his yard; of course he didn’t mind, and so I did. I took them home and set to work washing them and trimming the ends. I hadn’t thought ahead of time that “apples are apples” and apples turn brown when cut unless rubbed with a weak acid. Thankfully, I noticed this oversight right away, and dumped measured amounts of salt-cured lime juice into the bowl to halt any further browning (salt-cured lime juice?). And then I added measured amounts of salt to my best guess as to what the little apples would need, for, in salt-curing anything, it is the water-content that is the determining factor of how much salt to use, and this amount is different for different things; you can use more if you like, but there is always a minimum amount required to completely halt the growth of any spoilage-causing micro-organisms like bacteria and fungi. Salt, being a hygroscopic substance, pulls water from the cells of organic tissue by osmosis, rendering it unable to function, and it this action which renders anything salt-cured fairly immortal- if contained in a vessel to protect it from the weather of course. This is why it is very important to not let a single drop of water touch a stash of finished pickle: that one spot will be diluted in salt-content and thus might be able to support unwanted life in the pickle-jar.
But back to the recipe: I placed apples, lime juice and salt in an opaque jar (clear glass will work, but because it lets light through, the colour of your pickle might be faded by light-bleaching. Ceramic jars or crocks with lead-free glaze are the best; not only do they keep light out: they also act as an insulator against fast temperature-changes; plastic tubs will work too, and I often resort to these when I’ve run out of available crockery), covered it with a tight-fitting lid, and set it in a warm place. Does it have to be in the sun? Nope, just warm. I made this pickle in the heat of summer in a room devoid of air-conditioning; in winter I place jars near the heating-vents; you could also set jars in an oven with just the inside light turned on. In times of wavering heat, setting it outside in the sun during the day and bringing it in at night could be the best option. But what is very important is that the pickle is stirred or shaken daily. In fact, I would suggest twice a day for the first week or so, especially if it is a “drier” fruit or vegetable that releases very little water.
There are ways around all of this, of course, by the very clever device of using a dry masala- mixed with salt and surrounding the vegetable or fruit- which simultaneously absorbs and salts the released moisture. With this method, it is best to keep any pieces of that-which-is-to-be-salted submerged beneath the suface, and I still think it’s a good idea to stir the pickle now and then.
Either way, when the vegetable or fruit is tender- some will be ready in as little 12 days, some take longer; much depends on the temperature- the pickle can then be seasoned to your liking (if it hasn’t been done so before), a tadke added if you like, and allowed to sit for a week or so for the flavours to blend, and then enjoyed for as long as it lasts…
But back to my experiment now: I ended up with beautifully-shriveled, little green apples which looked and had a texture very similar to tiny green mangoes. The flavour was different, of course: crab-apples have spice-like overtones which, if you have never had them, can be a treat! My grandmother made sweet pickles of ripe crab-apples yearly, and I was raised seeing a bowlful of them- stems kept intact for easy plucking- at certain meals that she judged worthy of their presence. Because they are a small fruit, there is a lot of work involved to produce a quartful, therefore, pickled by whatever method, they are a labour of love.
And then I thought: what better way to crown this success of mine than by referring back to that recipe which first enlightened me? I love its masala: it is chile-hot and hing-y, and has the subtle, lightly-roasted flavour of mustard-seeds, and an even-more-subtle touch of pleasant bitterness from a few methi-seeds. Simple, yes, but it has a special brightness and “ring” in its flavour of which I have become most fond! So, I borrowed Mrs. Varada’s masala for kochle nonche and placed it here, with my gatherings of summer. But it doesn’t stop there.
Anita of A Mad tea Party was also quite helpful- in many ways- in my strive to prepare good pickles. She uses a special technique to roast the spices for her Rajasthani-style, green-chilli pickle- wherein she heats oil and adds it into a bowl of ground masala. I have found that by adjusting the amount of hot oil that you add, one can also control the roast of the spices: more oil=more heat=darker roast. And I have also discovered that it is not a good idea to do the vice-versa: never add a large amount of dry masala to a large amount of oil (for larger batches of pickles); apparantly, it can froth and foam and escape your pan onto your stovetop! 🙂 For this pickle, a very light roast is indicated, retaining a hint of the brightness of the raw spices and yet subdued and gilded.
Varadian Salt-Cured Crab-Apples
5 C green crab-apples (pick when plump, but seeds are undeveloped- July 1st for my area)
1 1/2 C lime juice
3/4 C salt (this is 5t per cup of green crab-apples, 7 t per cup of lime juice; use more if you like, but not less)
1/4 C oil (raw sesame/gingelly oil preferred, but any mild-flavoured oil is fine)
5 T mustard seeds
3 3/4 t methi seeds
5 pea-size pieces of pure hing
1 1/4 C red chile powder
1) Wash and trim ends (and any spots) of the crab-apples and place in a jar along with the salt and lime juice; mix once-in-a-while as you go. Cover the jar tightly, and place in a warm spot for about 12-14 days; stir or shake the contents of the jar twice daily until the crab-apples are shriveled and tender.
2) Grind the mustard seeds, methi-seeds and hing to a powder; place this in a small steel bowl; heat the oil smoking-hot, remove from heat and spoon/pour it carefully over the ground spices, and stir well with a steel spoon; allow to cool.(Using a stainless steel bowl allows the mixture to cool rapidly and maintain control over the roast. If you decide that you would like more oil in this pickle, heat all of the oil together to smoking, but use only 1/4 C to pour over the spices- allow the rest to cool and add afterward)
3) Mix well in a bowl the oily spices with the ground red chiles; mix this masala into the salt-cured crab-apples and allow to age at least another week before using (3 more weeks is best), stirring once every few days.
Thank you so much, Mrs. Varada and Shilpa, for sharing; and to Anita for all of your help and patience.
And, oh! Happy 3rd anniversary to AMTP! This will work I hope? All I have to do is make some rice and open a jar…
…and patience. Throughout life it can reward one with many wonderful things: a good harvest from the tender care of plants… bright, kind and thoughtful children… a materialization of a well-planned design…great talent and skill nudged forth by an undying interest….a post on a blog…
…and pickles. Yes.
Over the last few months, I’ve been more-than-hinting to a few of you what I’ve been up to. The thing is: the more research and “clinical studies” I did, the more recipes I stumbled across- some of which totally made me re-write any rules I had by then formulated in my head, and I found that the subject of Desi pickles couldn’t be so easily-contained within a single post. I also found that I knew much less- next to nothing- about them, despite my great curiosity and passion for them.
Seemingly, within the borders of its myriad cuisines, India sports an absolutely bewildering array of preserves, and uses every method known to humankind to achieve the end of food immortality. At first I concluded that some of these methods were peculiar to India, but in my unquenchable, tongue-driven quest for ever-new sour-saltiness, I made brief sojourns (forced, of course) into the documents of other lands’ cuisines, and found kinship there. I became keenly aware that the allegorical pickle jar of the world is very large indeed, but salt and sour seem to be the ties that bind- to keep things safe from the harms of time. The jars are just silent hands.
But how grand!
Maybe some of you know already that the fondest cookbook in my small, humble collection is an old, now-coverless copy of Premila Lal’s Indian Recipes. Though it was reprinted in 1994 in paperback as The Complete Book of Indian Cooking (and yeah, I have one of these too) it just doesn’t compare to the textural quality of my old copy. I found it at a public library book sale (the kind where they purge the library of low-traffic volumes and, once a year, set them out for sale). I guess I can understand why: there are lots of shiny new cookbooks vying to cover the subject with pretty paper dust-covers, pages laden with beautiful photos, oversized overall- all of them making promises to teach you all there is to know. Some of them almost succeed- others? Best relegated to purr and sit demurely at the coffee-table. This little, yellow-canvased unpretension never learned to flaunt and shout: a veritable wall-flower.
And a part of me is like that too. I recall many a fine, warm, sunny summer day spent indoors gliding through its yellowed pages, studying its carefully-composed, black-line drawings that illustrate the head of each chapter. Recipe after recipe, collected helter-skelter from all over vast India, some poorly edited: …then add the green chiles… I scan the ingredient list. What chiles? Where are they?! While I was scratching my head over such important matters I am sure there were many more young men my age busy enjoying the warm weather and sun and wind streaming into open car windows.
These little quirks just add to the fun, but, despite the slew of interesting recipes contained therein (some downright odd!), there is a noticable lack of contextual introductions that writers like the great Madame J. is well-known for- and that has created an inbuilt surreality to meals had over the years arranged from recipes plucked from one chapter or another by an ignorant midwestern American. For instance: I recall being obsessed with the dish known as karhi/kadhi several years ago: I had settled for the time on a recipe found in another book, but desperately wanted potato pakoras like those I tasted from cans of Jyoti… I found a recipe in Premila’s book entitled “potato bondas” under Snacks and Savories. These must be it!, thought I… I made the heavenly stuffing, rolled beautiful balls, dipped them in besan batter and fried them. My then-partner and I thought these were quite tasty on their own- pieces of onions and cashews, and equally-nutty, fried urad dhal, speckling the bright yellow potatoes- so fragrant and steaming within a crispy coat. “Must we put all of the rest into the karhi?” , my partner asked. “Yep!”… and in they went… where they all promptly disintegrated and made for a very thick batch of karhi, with a flavour covering both the north and south of great India.
Luckily, one of Anita‘s posts was able to sort out this sticky mess for me: none of you need fret any longer over Pel’s latest renditions of Punjabi kadhi pakode-wali! But things have an odd way of coming full circle sometimes don’t they? We never know quite what to expect of Anita’s next post, or how she will decide to celebrate something. Two years now in this food-blogging business? That is a feat worth celebrating!
My mother asked me two nights ago, ” What are you making with the potatoes?” I decided to be secretive about it: “Oh…you’ll see.” While the potatoes boiled I fried the masala. I took a cue from Anita and added some hing and took a cupful of frozen peas from the freezer. I drained the potatoes and added the peas and, the filling now finished, plunked it onto a steel thali and quietly placed it in the microwave to cool off. I had tasted it you see, and I knew that if I were to leave it in plain view and give her free reign…
And I also wanted to try making a sweet tamarind chatni, so this was next in line: I page through Premila’s book. Yep. OK, thaw a few cubes of home-made tamarind paste…no dates? I don’t feel like crushing gur tonight either…but I have a jar of date syrup. That’ll be fine. Roast a few spices and make a quick grind in the mortar and pestle, a little salt: sweet chatni done. Time to fry. But… I wonder if the potato-pea stuff still tastes good. Better make sure. Oh yeah. I check again. I sigh. Since I am not behaving, I snatch up a forkful and walk it in defeat to the next room where my mother is busy chatting on the phone to a friend. She looks up in question. “Here, try this…”, I whispered. That was all it took.
As I expected, a few minutes later, her call finished, “Where is that potato stuff you made?” Her small bowlful received a drizzle of the tamarind chatni. She ooohs, she aaahs, she wonders why she can’t have more.
“Yes mum, it gets coated in batter and deep-fried, and then I bought some rolls…”
“Deep-fried mashed potato sandwiches?!!!” You see, this combo-of-carbs-galore is almost unheard of here…
“Yes! With three… different… chatnis!” For health, you know, but the combo just can’t be beat! I know these aren’t authentic Marathi-style batata vadas, no…these hail from a bit furthur south I think. Premila keeps secrets, but I do think this recipe is divine, and when one of these and a smear of chatni are caught between two sides of a bun, there is no chance of it disintegrating anywhere! (except in the direction of my mother and now, too, [sigh] one of her friends!)
Happy 2nd Anniversary to you and your wonderful blog Anita!
And also I thank you: for your constant help, for sharing delicious food and views of the land, and for teaching me words in Hindi, Kashmiri, Marathi, and English.
from Premila Lal’s Indian Recipes, Premila Lal 1968
1 lb. potatoes- about 5 sm-med size
1 C green peas (my addition)
3 T ghee or oil
1/2 t mustard seeds
1/2 t weak hing (my addition)
1 T urad dhal
2 T chopped cashews
1/4 t turmeric powder
2 medium onions, chopped 1/4″ (I used 1+1/2 C)
6 green chiles, seeded if you wish, chopped 1/4″
1″ piece of ginger, minced
1 sprig (about 20 leaves) karipatta
juice of 1/2 small lime, 1/6 of a large one
1) Boil the potatoes until tender. I like to retain the skins of potatoes so I cut them into 3/4″ cubes and boiled them- about 12 minutes. Drain and mash.
2)Heat the ghee in a pan and add the mustard seeds; when they pop add the hing, urad, and nuts; fry until just golden; add the turmeric, onions, chiles, ginger and karipatta; fry until the onions are translucent.
3) Add the potatoes and peas and stir and mash until well-combined; season with salt and lime juice; remove to a plate or bowl and allow to cool a bit.
4) Heat enough oil for deep-frying and make a batter of besan like this: maybe a cup and a half of besan, a spoon of ground red chiles, a big smidge of turmeric, some salt; add water slowly to form a thick batter that clings; add a spoon or two of hot oil and mix well.
5)Make balls of the potato mixture, or if you’d like and as I have done, small, thick patties (vadas); coat all sides well with the batter and carefully drop into the hot oil (a drop of batter should rise to the surface immediately and fry) and fry until golden-brown. Remove and drain on a cloth.
Note—> I used pistachios instead of cashews and left out the karipatta because I had neither handy. Cilantro/coriander leaves seem to be a popular addition and/or the karipatta.
These can be served on their own with various chatnis, or placed inside a bun for vada pav (pav- square dinner-roll-ish bread). I used some whole wheat buns (I toasted them, but pav isn’t usually toasted I’m told), and served them with hari chatni (cilantro-mint chatni…but this might be more authentic), dry garlic chatni (I used Laxmi brand- yeah, storebought. It was hanging about you know?), and lots of this stuff that I also procured from Premila Lal but downsized the quantity and used date syrup instead of gur (pureed dates are often used for this chatni as well):
4 T tamarind paste
2 T date syrup, or to taste (or grated gur or any sugar, or ground dates)
Some of the following masala: lightly roast 1 t cumin seeds, 1 t fennel seeds, 1 t coriander seeds…grind and add 1 t ground red chiles
salt to taste
coriander/cilantro leaves for garnishing
1)Mix the tamarind paste and date syrup (or grated gur, or puree the tam ex with dates and and some water); season with the roasted masala (I used about 1/2 t) and some salt; garnish with coriander leaves. (I didn’t bother with the frou-frou of garnishing and got down to business!)
Of all the wonderful gifts I’ve received over the past year from fellow food-bloggers, none are more precious to me than the garam masalas that I keep carefully tucked-away and labeled in a drawer of my fridge. Some of you might wonder why I feel this way…after all, a simple search through cookbooks or an internet search-engine will land you hundreds of recipes- each of them unique in some way (I seriously believe that a determined person could find enough to grind and sample a new one for each of his/her remaining days! Astounding to think about, no?), but it is far more exciting to hold in your hands a delicious aroma that is connected to a person you have come to know- like how we tend to associate the scent of a flower, or that of a designer fragrance with people who wear it often.
So it is enough to be given such a gift, for, in India’s northerly cuisines, a sprinkling of garam masala seems to function as a final “signature” of a great cook who has gone to great lengths to present a charming, if not splendidly sensual, meal. I ponder whether some of these cooks prefer to limit its use to a single dish at a table (less is more?), or… could it be used to unify divergent dishes on a thali? Such questions! Still, a final, unique signature. And often an unspoken way of saying: this is the flavour of my family, for this recipe has been passed down through many generations of cooks, each one changing it just slightly from its former avatar. (or, I made this one up myself! What do you think?) With you I share its spirit; let it entice your nose and tongue as it passes your way…
It has even greater significance when a food-blogger sends a smidge (or much more than a smidge!), for now all dishes containing it in their ongoing, online collection can be reconstructed very near to what the writer intended: any other garam masala will work, but what a delight to taste it just as it was meant. And this is why I treasure these dry potions so.
But, sadly, I must admit that I am yet to construct my own. True, I came across a lovely recipe a few years back and have stuck with it; I’ve even sent out a smidge or two. I liked it better than any I had tried to that date. But now, I’m not so sure…this past year has exposed me to new things, new people, new food, new spices. It’s hard to remain so faithful to that old standby now. And maybe this is how it should be: the best garam masalas make you turn your head to look again. They tantalize and seduce you as if a most-beautiful person- judiciously-dabbed with a most-alluring fragrance- has passed you on the street and you have no choice but to surrender and silently watch while you can- nevermind who sees you doing it! That is its potential power. Use it sparingly; grind it in small amounts at a time. And why buy ready-made in a packet with all of this at your feet?!
While contemplating these things, an idea struck me. Why not make a very special garam masala that means nothing more or less than right now, your friends, your self. Why not take just a bit of every garam masala that you carefully keep, including your own, and mix them together? Imagine the complexity… And so I did. A half-teaspoon of each. Exquisite, of course…and I reserve it for the most special of dishes. I’ve dubbed it Sri Garam Masala…Thank you.
I would aslo like to extend a very warm thank you to all of my readers- the regulars, the once-in-awhilers, the silent readers, the new readers, and especially to those who can’t stay on the topic in the comment section. You’ve all made this a fine and fabulous first year for Elaichi et Cetera (yes, March 20th was the blog’s anniversary; better late than never!), and I hope to continue posting for awhile yet. I also send wishes to all of you for a very happy spring: may you be as enraptured by its spell as I am… and here is hope that the coming year brings many blessings (and fine vegetables) to you all. Until next time, I’ll be grinding away at something new…
This is a lovely dish from the province of Szechuan, China, with an equally loverly story attached to its origin which may be read here. Only a handful of Chinese restaurants abroad ever offer this dish, for it isn’t a quick stir-fry: it is a simmered, stew-like dish with a bit of preliminary prep-work involved. Traditionally, a small quantity of ground pork (or beef) is included, and hitherto I have followed suit.
When I received an Arusuvai Friendship Chain gift of extremely-fresh, Szechuan peppercorns sent by the ever-talented Musical, I set to work almost immediately to prepare this long-time favorite which prominently features this tongue-numbing spice. I sat there, nibbling daintily away at a plateful with freshly-steamed rice, resisting an urge to shovel it in greedily (it is so delicious…) when a few thoughts struck me: truly, it is the finely-balanced sauce which dominates the flavour….the ground pork lends a gentle sweetness, but mostly the pieces serve as a textural counterpoint to the soft bean-curd…
And then, within a span of a few days, two jolting pieces of information crossed my path: first, I discovered the PETA videos posted on Youtube.com (I won’t go into detail here, but it would be sufficient to say that I saw things which I will not soon forget); second, the family chiropractor sent us his usual monthly newsletter. Most often this contains useful tidbits that he gleans from his personal wanderings in Ayurveda-land, but this time he included a brief summary of the findings of recent research that linked the consumption of animal protein to inflammation, and specifically a link to various forms of arthritis. And then…Jai of Jugalbandi wrote this post– furthur cementing my new convictions. So, I decided to make my consumption of animal protein an even rarer occasion than it already is. And I began to think of a new way to make ma po tofu…
Over the years, I’ve tried a few different recipes, but I really liked the one found in Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking. It’s so delicious. And I knew it would be delicious still without a half-pound of pork. But what to add in its place? TVP (textured vegetable protein) is an obvious choice; it closely replicates the chewy texture of meat, but… I don’t like to rely on a factory-made product too much, nor does it add a whole lot in flavour…
Mushrooms. I’ve sometimes added various types of mushrooms to this dish anyway… they’re somewhat chewy…they would add a subtle flavour… but how will I convert them into little pieces like that? The ways are endless… Walnuts. Coarsely-ground. Delicately-sweet, and they are also used frequently in China. Use both.
But first, who will I pass on the Arusuvai “torch” to? Hmmm…good question. Truly, no-one answered my riddle correctly. However… two people were quite close:
Linda of Out of the Garden answered “tofu” correctly (but seasoned differently)…and
Zlamushka of her own Spicy Kitchen answered “Ma…” correctly (but named another Szechuanese dish).
Since these two were the closest, I invited them to be my recipients of a little suprise…and they have both accepted the offer. Congratulations to both of you!
And now, Mushroom Meal!!!:
I took 1/2 pound (8 oz.) of plain old “button” mushrooms (they’re popular for a reason) and shredded them into a moist heap. But, not wanting shreddy-strands in my dish, I dehydrated this (I used an electric food-dehydrator, but an oven on a low-heat setting will work as well). Then, I took these dried shreds and smashed them into a coarse, granular powder in a mortar…the restrained use of an electric mixer/grinder or food processor will do the job just as nicely. We all end up with about 2-3 tablespoons. I suppose the same could be done to already-dried (stems removed) shiitake/Chinese black mushrooms- though I think their flavour would be too dominant here- but perhaps another milder-flavoured ‘shroom?…
Ma Po Doufu/Tofu
(Pel’s vegan version based on Mrs. Kuo’s)
3 blocks of firm tofu (original recipe calls for 4- 3″X3″ blocks…generally, American blocks are a bit larger)
2 T peanut (or other) oil
4 slices of peeled, fresh ginger; minced
1/2 C coarsely-ground raw walnuts
2-3 T mushroom meal (dried, coarsely-ground mushrooms– see above)
1 T Chinese cooking-wine, or dry sherry
1 T hot bean paste (AKA Szechuan bean paste)
1 T dark/sweet soy sauce
1 t or more, to taste, red chile oil* (optional)
1 C lightly-salted chana broth (liquid from cooking chickpeas/garbanzo beans) or other vegetable-stock
2 t cornstarch dissolved in 1 T cold water
1 T dark/sweet soy sauce
2 t roasted sesame-seed oil
2 whole spring onions (I used more cuz I like ’em: 6), thinly sliced
1/2 t (or more if you like) lightly dry-roasted and crushed Szechuan peppercorns
1)Cut the bean-curd into 1/2″ cubes; cover with hot water and drain just before adding.
2)Heat the peanut oil in a wok over med-low flame; add the ginger and fry until fragrant; add the walnuts and fry just until they begin to smell roasted.
3)Add 1 C of hot water and the mushroom meal; bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally at first and then more frequently, until the mixture is fairly dry and the mushrooms have reconstituted- about 20 minutes.
4)Add the seasonings and stir well; add the chana or vegetable broth.
5)Drain the bean-curd and scatter these into the pan; stir very gently to even these out; bring to a gentle boil, cover the pan and cook for 5 minutes over med-low heat, stirring once during this time.
6)Stir the binding sauce well, then pour in a spiral over the contents of the pan; stir gently until the sauce thickens; turn off heat.
7)Gently fold in the spring onions;
8)Turn onto a serving-platter and sprinkle the ground peppercorns over the top; serve with hot steamed rice. You will assuredly enjoy! (Did I mention this is delicious?)
*Red chile oil can be bought, or simply made this way: heat 1 C oil until quite hot; remove from heat and add 6 T (3/8 C) ground red chiles (stand back, the fumes will irritate your breathing apparatus), stir gently for about a minute, then add 1 C more of oil to halt the frying. Allow to cool completely, strain through a musin cloth or several layers of cheesecloth and pour into a bottle. Besides being a useful cooking-sauce, it can also be used as an ingredient in dipping-sauces and salad-dressings… hotness yum!
…wickedly-wonderfully-fragrant more like! My nose- yet three feet from the mailbox, already in bliss- and curiosity claimed hold of my hands, recasting them into grasping crab-claws to quickly, quietly clasp and crimp the box’s contents that the mail-carrier had bid “adieu”- undoubtedly with a fair measure of grief. Poor thing… but, ah! Lucky me! The Arusuvai Friendship Chain has now crossed over this humble threshold!
I had to inhale once again- before opening the package, before taking another step inwards, before even reading the sender’s name. I must have died within a fond dream, thought I, and day after day, from now until never’s noon, will I be gathering such delights from my mailbox… but, alas, the phone rings and, while I stand stunned, I hesitate and hear while a thoughtful message is left to remind me of a dreaded, upcoming appointment. I heave a sigh, turn the package over and read the sender’s address: “From the lovely and talented Mistress of Music, Deliverer of Dreams, Stocker of Secrets, Sender of Salubrious and Delicious Delicacies…”
…or something like that. [grins] Someone really needs to tone down their intros- wouldn’t you agree? So now come a few photos:
I do wish it were possible to attach a “fragrance-file” to these (it is unfortunate in this case, but then I can imagine others wherein this olfactory handicap in technology might be considered fortunate), but Musical, I thank you thank you thank you for these wonderful things: a nourishing rice of rare origin, two extraordinary masalas, that mysterious spice that begins with a…with an…
These things have inspired me to think of or find new dishes in which to try them, but most of all I am impressed by the freshness of the mystery ingredient– I have never beheld it so! Such a powerful effect it has on the tongue….reminds me of a dish I dearly love and that I haven’t made in several years. It has something to do with an aged woman, I believe… but all in due time! And I’ll announce my forward-moving Arusuvai recipients then. (this is serious business- considering what to send and to whom!)
Clockwise from the bottom: Bhutanese red rice, Punju-style garam masala, Kerala-style garam masala, and a lil’ something that I sampled three of and afterward thought one would have sufficed for sampling- whoa- strong! (but I am not complaining!)
Can anyone guess- not what the mystery ingredient is– but something more difficult: what is the name of the dish which will be my next post? The winner(s) will become my recipients of the outward-moving chain, which will be posted on March 17th.
But what’s a post without a recipe, you might ask? That’d be like a grin without a cat…or something like that! So……here is a recipe from Bihar*, that you may just like- wherever you are! Mustard oil is truly a must- without it the dish might fail; I trust you will find some before you begin this simple venture. Not from a tin, but fresh buy some greens(found near the aubergines)- a pleasant mix is best. The dressing is blessed with raw garlic and ginger (whose taste tends to linger), so be sure to savour it with those who favour such flavours… alas, it would otherwise be like leading the blind to butterflies!
Mixed Greens ka Chokha
1 1/2 lbs. mixed greens
2 T mustard oil
2 T coriander leaves, finely chopped
1/2 t garlic paste (I just took one clove/flake…)
1/2 t ginger paste
1/2 t green chile paste- or to taste (er…does one, maybe two green chiles make that amount?)
1/2 t salt
1) Wash and pick over the greens; bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, add the greens and cook until just tender; remove, let cool; squeeze out excess water- but not excessively, then either puree the greens in a food processor- adding a little cooking-water- or chop very finely by hand.
2)Mix the remaining ingredients together well to form a very pungent, raw-flavoured sauce; pour this over the greens and mix thoroughly (no folks…none of this is applied to a heat-source!). Serve with flat-bread of your choice, but puris are best! (and recommended by Madhur)
*This recipe is taken from (and modified only slightly) from Madhur Jaffrey’s World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cookbook. It is titled Spinach Cooked in a Bihari Style, but there is mention in the foreward that it is traditionally composed of a mixture of chana greens, mustard greens, and spinach… For an exquisitely-written and well-researched post on the subject of chokha, check out Jugalbandi’s post.
P.S. I’ve been reading. About Holi. And thandai… and the secret ingredient that seems to be left out in recipes I’ve read. Is it totally legal in India I ask?!