Monday, October 31, 2005

The canteen at the Ganesh Temple

To celebrate Diwali, I made a trip with some friends on Sunday morning to the Ganesh Temple in Flushing, New York. I so wish I had heard about this temple earlier. It's a pity that my father missed out on the one visit he would have most enjoyed on his recent trip to New York. He would have appreciated the worship and devoured the food!

When my friend, Vikram, mentioned that we should eat lunch there after the morning pooja, I was a bit surprised. I've never heard of temples having canteens so I really did not know what to expect. Vikram was raving about the idli, dosas, vadas and the "deadly" onion rava dosa. The only food experience I have had at a temple is gobbling ladoos and bananas at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, the city of my birth and the place I return to every year to visit my grandmother.

After a quick darshan, we followed the clearly-marked signs to the canteen in an adjoining building where they have a big hall that is rented out for special events like weddings. The thought of steaming idli-vada-dosa had our mouths watering all the way to the basement of the building which housed the canteen. The Ramayana was playing on a large Sony plasma TV. 20 odd tables were scattered unevenly across the hall. The place was packed with families enjoying a hearty Sunday meal. You ordered from a fast food like counter through which you could see the food being prepared. One gentleman took your order and rung you up while the other was getting just-made-food from the open kitchen and calling out your token number. The self-service was understandably a bit slow.

But as you waited in queue to reach the counter, you were tempted by the $1 prasad packets of traditional Brahmin "mixture" (like the Gujju chivda which I consider to be Indian Trail Mix), murukku and laddoos. I grabbed a small mixture packet and a laddoo (sweet fat dumplings!) of course. I remembered how a family friend would insist on calling me Laddoo instead of Lulu when I was a plump teenager and how that use to irritate me so much and I used to keep saying "Please, uncle, stop it!" It brought back those days of carefree fun and frolic (versus the hectic lifestyle today and the tension of preparing PowerPoint decks!!)

Vikram and I debated on all the terrific choices including bisibela, mysore dosa, sada dosa, dahi vada to name a few but we both chose the Special Lunch thali. We wanted a bit of many things. Of course.

My thali came with a huge mound of white rice, rasam, sambhar, cabbage karamndhu and coconut dry vegetable curry, aviyal (mixed vegetables in a yogurt sauce), dahi, applam, payasam and a lemon pickle with a sharp bite. The rasam was by far the tastiest item. It was not only steaming hot but tongue-burning spicy just the way it is meant to be. I also loved the aviyal and the cabbage dishes. The payasam was waaaaaaaaaaay too sweet for my liking but would be loved by those who drink and tea with 2-3 tablespoons of sugar! The only let down was the dahi vada which Vikram and I decided to share. The vada did not melt in my mouth like it was supposed to and the yogurt was a bit off-perfect flavour. I could just hear my mom's age-old warning of not ordering yogurt-based dishes at Indian restaurants because they can never get the sourness and freshness right.

What a fabulous pre-Diwali lunch that was. I wish I had more time this week to cook something special at home for Diwali. In the absence of that, I will be cherishing, all week long, my lovely lunch at the Ganesh Temple canteen.

Happy Diwali to those of you celebrating.

Wishing you a happy and prosperous New Year as well!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Bengali food in Manhattan at Babu

Babu is the only Bengali restaurant in Manhattan that I am aware of. It is less than a year old but it has already cultivated a loyal customer base. My friends, Anil and Payal, own this upscale Indian restaurant on McDougal street that specializes in the regional cuisine of Bengal.

We ate dinner at Babu on Saturday night. My father grew up in Calcutta and speaks fluent Bengali so I was keen for him to try the amazing food at Babu. The ambience was super cozy and homely as always. The diya lights reminded me that diwali is coming up soon. I ordered the dhoi baingan (eggplant cooked in spices and yogurt) which came with rice, light fries, cucumber salad and mango chutney. The eggplant is lightly fried in mustard oil and oozes with the juicy goodness of yogurt and spices. You can have it on its own or with some white rice.

I also dipped into my father's alu dum (potato curry) which was just divine. I love the hints of cinnamon and sugar that lace Bengali dishes. The luchis (deep fried puffed bread) were a great accompaniment for the dhoi baingan as well as the alu dum.

The most outstanding dish at Babu is jhaal muri (spicy hot puffed rice) which is a very popular street food in Calcutta. I just love the combination of puffed rice, chopped onion, tomatoes, green chillies, tamarind paste, crushed peanuts, coconut bits and a dash of mustard oil. I think I like the jhaal muri at Babu even better than the bhel puri at Chennai Garden!

What I love most about Babu is the original presentation of the food including the brown bag for the jhaal muri and the copper thalis for the entrees. I like how each entree is made into a meal of its own and you don't have to order other dishes. The downside, of course, is that you won't have much variety unless you eat with a big group of friends.

My recent visit to Babu has got me all excited about Bengali food. I'm going to finally test out some recipes from the book Rumy sent me a while back.I'm already dreaming of cooking delicacies like cholar dal, khosha bhaja, luchi and rosogolla - my mouth is watering just thinking of all the yummy food I plan to cook!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

All you can eat for $5.95 at Chennai Garden!

Chennai Garden keeps getting better. I go to this Indian restaurant on 27th and Lex quite often to satisfy my bhel puri cravings but I recently discovered an incredibly cheap way to get my Indian food fix. It's the lunch menu served up on weekdays for - hold your breath - $5.95, unlimited servings. I took my father here for the bhel but we discovered a fantastic buffet offering a wide variety of dishes including tomato and onion uttapamlings, spicy sambhar, tadka daal, a few different sabzis, raita, raw veggies (carrost, onions), parathas, lemon rice and payasam. The food (especially the sambhar) tasted like it was made at home with the best spices. My father spoke to one of the owners and found out that the cooks are from Chennai, Coimbatore and Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu. Pretty amazing that these chaps can prepare not only authentic South Indian dishes but also North Indian favourites like daals and subzies. I just can't believe what a great deal this is for a Manhattan restaurant. No wonder the place was packed with Indians and non-Indians alike. The owner was boasting that Chennai Garden has the most non-Indian clientele of all the neighbourhood Indian restaurants. So if you haven't tried Indian food as yet, this is a low-cost way to try authentic Indian food.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Incredible Sicilian Aubergine Stew

A few nights ago I had some friends over to meet my father who is visiting from India. I decided to prepare various Italian tapas, inspired by Jamie's Italy, the latest cookbook from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. I was excited to make caponata for the first time every - Jamie's description, recipe and photo of the "incredible Sicilian aubergine stew" was too good to pass up.

Jamie says that this is a fantastic dish from southern Italy that's eaten as a warm vegetable side dish or a cold antipasto. You need nice, firm aubergines (eggplant), good tomatoes and a fine vinegar. He warns against cutting the aubergines too small as they will soak up too much oil and become heavy.

for 4 servings you will need:
olive oil
2 nice large purple aubergines, cut into large chunks
1 heaped teaspoon dired oregano
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
a small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and stalks finely chopped
2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed, soaked and drained
a handful of green olives, stones removed
2-3 tablespoons best-quality herb vinegar
5 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
optional: 2 tablespoons slivered almonds, lightly toasted

Get yourself a large pan, pour in a couple of glugs of olive oil, and place on the heat. Add your aubergine chunks and oregano, season with a little salt and toss around so the aubergine is evenly coated by the oil. Cook on a high heat for around 4 to 5 minutes, giving the pan a shake every now and then. When the aubergines are nice and golden on each side, add the onion, garlic and parsley stalks and continue cooking for another couple of minutes. Feel free to add a little more oil to the pan if you feel it's getting too dry. Throw in the drained capers and the olives and drizzle over the herb vinegar (I just used a nice white vinegar). When all the vinegar has evaporated, add the tomatoes and simmer for around 15 minutes or until tender. Taste before serving and season if you need to with salt, pepper and a little more vinegar. Drizzle with some good olive oil and serve sprinkled with the chopped parsley leaves and the almonds if you like.

I doubled this recipe as we had 8 people coming over. I served the caponata cold on lightly toasted bread that had been rubbed with a cut garlic. I must say that this dish was a big hit!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Amy's Bread at Chelsea Market

My father is visiting me from Bombay. H hasn't visited Manhattan in more than 10 years. I took him on a long walk this morning to show him around Chelsea, my neighbourhood. We spent twenty minutes at the Whole Food Market where I shop regularly and then we walked along 23rd street to the West Side Highway. From there we went down till 15th and then headed east to the Chelsea Market on 9th Avenue. It was very cold this morning and I was wearing three layers including gloves but my dad was bearing the elements with just a T.shirt and a rain jacket. The sun hasn't made an appearance as yet but at least it's not raining hard like it was yesterday.

At Chelsea Market, I showed my father the different shops and restaurants including Sarabeth's, Bowery Kitchen, Chelsea Thai and BuonItalia. He loved the atmosphere of the old factory turned into a foodie's delight. We were tempted by the delicious aroma of fresh bread coming from Amy's Bread so we went in and succumed to some savoury treats including an onion rosemary focaccia and a cheddar biscuit. They both were super fresh and hit just the right soft, chewy and salty notes. I also picked up a loaf of country bread as I'm having friends over this evening for cocktails so they can mingle with my dad. I'm going to make antipasti from Jamie Oliver's new cookbook.

Friday, October 21, 2005

What's in season?

That's the question I asked myself today when finally in the mood to step into my kitchen again. It seems like ages since I cooked. This has truly been the week from hell. I was supposed to be in London from Wednesday onwards for business and flying to Mumbai on Sunday for a meeting next week but my trip was cancelled last minute on the day I was supposed to leave for London. And somehow I was even busier at the office this week though I was supposed to have been travelling! I had made elaborate plans to hook up with my Dad in Europe and was really distraught that I was going to miss seeing him. But luckily he was able to get a ticket at the last minute from London to New York and is visiting me this weekend. Woohoo!

I plan to wake up early and go to the Farmer's Market with my Dad tomorrow. I'm tempted by the butternut squash (from which I'll make a nice velvety soup), the figs (I love salad of arugula, figs and blue cheese) and the apples (maybe apple clafouti?) which seem to be in season. I found this picture on Food Network's site. Will report back manana with some nice pictures from Green Market, weather permitting. It's supposed to rain all weekend long :(

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Goodies from Vancouver, British Columbia

I learnt about Blogging by Mail from Samantha of The Samantha Files whose blog I've been reading regularly since I met her at the C&Z event several months back in Manhattan. Blogging by Mail is a really fun concept. Hosting is a bit time-intensive since you have compile all the participants and organize the swap partners. The host decides the theme and will send you an email to let you know who to send the package to. As a participant, all it entails is sending a goodies package (food of course, given we're all food bloggers) to another blogger and then blogging about the one you receive!

I signed-up for Samantha's Blogging by Mail 2 event. For my part, I sent The Fabulous Cheese Babe some almond marzipan cookies and hazelnut raisin flute bread from my favourite local bakery, Le Pain Quotidien. Unfortunately, FedEx did not corporate. I feel really bad about that.

I received my goodies package a few days back from Linda of Kayak Soup from Vancouver, British Columbia. Thanks so much, Linda! It was such a plesant surprise to receive a package from so far away. The package got badly damaged in the mail but I was able to salvage the maple sugar cookies and plum jam that you bought from your favourite Farmer's Market and the strawberry bbq jam you made yourself. Another bottle of jam that you sent was completely smashed up and had bits of glass everywhere so I couldnt even taste it. Thank you for sending me these treats. It's so nice to taste your homemade strawberry bbq sauce. Being vegetarian, I'm not a big bbq person but I discovered that the sauce goes really well with the maple sugar cookies. The tang and bit of spice from the sauce nicely offsets the sugar blast. Thanks again!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Jamie Oliver's latest book on Italy

I'm totally besotted with Jamie Oliver. But you already knew that! I just got my copy of Jamie's latest book "Jamie's Italy" from and I'm more in love with him than ever. Reading his story-like, heartfelt intro about his passion for Italy has got me hooked already and I can't wait to learn more about the flavours and foods of the different regions of Italy through the eyes of my favourite chef. Things are crazy-busy right now at work but I'm going to read a few pages every night before tucking into bed. Get your copy soon - what are you waiting for?

Monday, October 10, 2005

Pepper-Cumin Rasam

It rained heavily on Saturday night and it was quite dreary and cold all weekend long. Given how long we've enjoyed the warm weather this year, it was a bit hard to adjust to the fierce wind and pouring rain. I was reminded of the monsoons in Bombay and how much I loved sipping hot rasam and cuddling up with a great book in such weather. So I started craving rasam. Not just simple tomato rasam that I usually make but a very spicy variety called milagu-seeraka rasam that has a fiery kick from the fresh black peppercorn and red chillies ground into a paste and mixed in with the tamarind water. So I made a big batch to last all week long.

Tamarind - a small ball the size of a lime
Salt - 1 1/2 tsp
Asafoetida - a bit
Mustard - 1/2 tsp

For the masala
Coriander seeds - 1/2 tsp
Pepper - 1/2 tsp
Thur Dhal - 1 tsp
Red chillies - 2
Cumin seeds - 1/2 tsp

Fry the masala ingredients (except cumin seeds) and grind them with cumin seeds into a smooth paste. Soak the tamarind and extract about 500 ml of juice. Add salt and asafoetida. Boil for five minutes and then add the ground masala. Simmer for 10 minutes. When the rasam froths up, add curry leaves. Remove from the fire. Season with mustard.

I love how Indian recipes are so perfectly imprecise - please use lots of good sense and intuition when making this! I can hardly describe how I do it myself as I read Indian recipes for the basic proportions and method before doing my own thing.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Essex - best brunch deal in town!

We find ourselves going to the Lower East Side every time we get together with friends whether it's for dinner, drinks or even brunch! A few weeks back I got a taste of the best brunch deal in town at this trendy Latin-Jewish place called Essex which turns into a nightclub after the sun goes down. Their $14 brunch special runs from 11:30am to 4:30pm on the weekends and includes one dish, 3 blood marys, screwdrivers or mimosas and as much coffee or tea that you can stomach.

I was dying to have something sweet and something savory from the very interesting list of options that included foods as diverse as cubano sandwiches and banana chocolate chip pancakes inspired byMexican and Eastern European cooking which seems like an odd combo but actually work quite well together. I ended up sharing with my sister-in-law, Mathili, so we both could eat sweet and savory. Our main dish was Mexican Matzo Brei which is part-scrambled eggs, part-nachos, part chips and salsa. How can that not be absolutely divine? The eggs, cheese, black beans, guacamole, salsa and tortilla chips melded really well with eachother. It was much tastier that huevos rancheros that I usually order at brunch when I am in the mood for spicy eggs.

For dessert, we shared Challah French Toast with cinnamon maple syrup & fresh fruit. Challah is a sweet, eggy bread that is golden colored. It tasted a bit like bread pudding and was intensely sweet thanks to the syrup. Just a few bites were enough to satisfy my sweet craving.

After chowing down the Matzo Brei and the Challah French Toast we were definitely egged out for a few weeks but agreed that Essex was a fabulous spot to return to on weekends.

20 Essex St
At Rivington St

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Tempeh in Charmoula

One last dish from Moroccan cuisine that I want to share with you this month is tempeh in charmoula. I made it for dinner this weekend and everyone loved it! Charmoula is a classic Moroccan herb and spice vinaigrette that is great on tempeh. You can also use this recipe and substitute the tempeh with a fish like tilapia, striped bass or red snapper filletes.

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced (1 cup)
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in warm water until softened, drained and cut into thin strips
1/2 cup olives, preferably Gaeta or calamata, left whole
3 cloves minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped parsely leaves
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 5-ounce pieces of tempeh or fish

Preheat the overn to 400F. Warm 1 tbsp of the olive oil in a meidum skillet. Add the onions and saute until softened over medium-low heat, about 10 minutes. Add the sun-dried tomatoes and the olives and saute to heat through. Place in a baking dish large enough to hold the tempeh or fish in a single layer. In a small bowl stir together the garlic, parsely, cilantro, paprika, cumin, lemon juice, the remaining 1/4 cup oil, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Sprinkle the tempeh or fish with salt and pepper and place on top of the onion mixture. Cover with the herb and spice mixture.Bake about 20 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Serve hot.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The traditional way to make couscous

You may remember that I blogged about my Moroccan cooking class a few months ago. Last night, we had family over for dinner and I dilligently recreated all the recipes I learnt in my class. Some of you were interested in how to make couscous the traditional way so here's Chef Myra Kornfeld's recipe which I used. It was definitely laborious to say the least, but well worth the effort.

The process of wetting, drying, raking, aerarting, and steaming the semolina grains is done with the purpose of swelling them with as much water as possible without allowing them to become lumpy or soggy. You need either a couscousiere or a pot with a colander on top (like the one in the photo). A pasta cooking pot that comes with a steamer insert makes a good substitute couscousiere.

1. First washing and drying of the couscous: Wash the couscous in a large shallow pan by pouring water over the grain in a ratio of 3 parts water to 1 part grain. Stir quickly with the hand and then drain off excess water through a strainer. Return the coucous grains to the pan, smooth them out, and leave them to swell for between 10 and 20 minutes. After about 10 minutes begin, with cupped, wet hands, to work the grains by lifting up handful of grain, rubbing them gently and letting them fall back into the pan. This process should break up any lumps that may have formed. Then rake the couscous with your fingers to circulate it and help the grains to swell.

2. First steaming of the couscous: Dampen a strip of cheesecloth, dust it with flour, and twist into a strip the length of the circumference of the rim of the bottom part of the coucousiere. Use this to seal the perforated top or colander on the top of the pot. Check all sides for effective sealing: the top and the bottom should fit snugly, so that the steam rises only through the holes. The perforated top should not touch the broth below. Slowly dribble one-quarter of the swollen couscous grains into the steamer, allowing them to form a soft mound. Steam 5 minutes and gently add the remaining couscous. When all the grains are in the steamer, lower the heat to moderate and steam 20 minutes. Do not cover the couscous while it steams.

3. Second drying of the couscous: Remove the top part of the couscousiere (or the colander). Dump the couscous into a large, shallow pan and spread out with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle 1/2 to 1 cup cold water and 1 teaspoon salt all over the grains. Separate and break up lumps by lifting and stirring the grains gently. Oil your hand lightly and rework the grains - this helps to keep each grain separate. Smooth the couscous out and allow it to dry for at least 10 minutes. If the couscous feels too dry, then add another cup of water by handful sprinnkles, and rake the couscous well before each addition. If you are preparing couscous in advance, at this point let it dry and cover it with a damp cloth. It can wait many hours.

4. If you want to serve right away, allow the couscous to dry for 10 minutes, then pile it back into the couscousiere top, being sure to reseal the two containers with a cheesecloth, for its final steaming of 20 minutes. If you have prepared steps 1-3 in advance, 30 minutes before serving break up lumps of couscous by working the grains lightly between your wet fingers. Steam the couscous in the couscousiere top for 20 minutes, as previously directed.

Do let me know how the couscous turns out if you follow these steps.

How to roast peppers

Even though the smallest grocery stores in Chelsea stock preserved roasted peppers, nothing compares to the joy of roasting peppers at home. It's totally worth the fresh and asbolutely succulent taste that results.

There are two methods to roast peppers (courtesy of Chef Myra Kornfield):

Place pepper directly on the grate over a gas burner. Turn the heat to high and leave to cook until each side is blistered and charred. Use tongs to turn the pepper and cook each side until the whole surface is blackened. This should only take a few minutes. Place it in a plastic bag or paper bag or under an inverted bowl to steam the skin loose. When the pepper is is cool enough to handle, remove the charred skin, using a paring knife if necessary. Don't run the pepper under water to remove the skin as that washes awy a lot of flavour. You can keep a small bowl nearby to dip your fingers in which makes slipping off the skin much easier.

As alternate methos, halve the pepers and remove the stems, seeds, and white membranes. Place cut-side down on anoiled or parchment covered baking sheet. Place in a very hot over or under a broiler. Roast or broil until evenly charred. Remove from the oven or broiler. Roast or broil untiulevenly charrred. Remove from the over or broiler and cover immediately.

Roasted peppers can be used in literally anything including salads, pizzas, omelettes and sandwiches. They can also be blended and made into a delicious soup. I like to add goat cheese , greens, champagne vinegar, olive oil, salt and peper to my roasted peppers and enjoy as a French Provencal salad.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Bonobo's Vegetarian

I am not a huge raw food fan but I have changed my mind after eating a fabulous lunch at Bonobo's Vegetarian cafe. I got an organic vegetable burger made from nuts and raw veggies which had amazing flavour and texture. The burger was served on mixed greens with a choice of five raw vegetables and a basil dressing. I also got sime Gingeraid made from lime juice, freshly grated ginger and nectar from the agave plant. It was refreshing and had the perfect level of sweetness. The best part of this meal was that I was not hungry again till the evening and did not crave my 4pm chocolate bar that day!

18 E. 23rd Street
at Madison Avenue overlooking Madison Square Park.