Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Aarti Paarti Ep. 26: Beatnik Spinach!

It’s getting to the end of the month, which means I’m looking for cheap recipes! Thank goodness for my stash of Indian vegetarian recipes; I already have the spices, and the lentils in my cupboard, so all I had to do was buy a bag of spinach, and hey presto: dinner’s ready!

Spinach with moong dal (a small yellow lentil, which you can find at Indian groceries, and online) offers you all the nutrition of leafy green vegetables, alongside a light dose of lentil protein, and the healing properties of both turmeric and garlic.

Cool, huh? Real cool. Beatnik cool, even. Yup, stay with me... there's a connection. Check it:

Spinach with Yellow Moong Dal (lentils)

1 handful (about ¼ cup) yellow moong dal, washed and soaked for 30 minutes
2 tbsp vegetable, canola or peanut oil
½ tsp cumin seeds
1 medium clove garlic, crushed and peeled
1 medium red onion, sliced thinly lengthwise (about 1½ cups)
1 green Serrano chile, sliced and seeded if you don’t want it spicy (optional)
1 tbsp ginger, peeled and minced
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp paprika
¼ hing (asfoetida poweder, available at the Indian store)
1 medium roma tomato
1 bag baby spinach

Serve with: brown basmati rice and plain yogurt

1) Heat oil in big skillet over medium heat until shimmering.

2) Add cumin seeds and garlic. Wait until the seeds have finished spluttering, and then add onion, Serrano chile and ginger. Saute until onion has softened.

3) Add spice powders, and sauté for 30 seconds.

4) Add tomatoes; cook until they go mushy.

5) Add lentils, and 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Cover and cook about 5 minutes until the lentils are almost cooked.

6) Add spinach, covering to allow the leaves to wilt. Toss, and cook another 5 minutes so that the flavours go through the spinach. Add a little water if the dish gets too dry. It should have a sauce-y consistency. Serve!



Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tech Support

Oh man. It just keeps coming. First my laptop died. I mean, DIED. And I lost everything on the hard drive. And no, before you ask, I didn't back it all up. Don't even think about saying "I told you so". I've been saying it to myself (and Bren, poor thing) for weeks!

Thankfully, it's back up now, and I didn't have to pay for anything (thankyou AppleCare!). But now I have to restore everything, installing all the programs I normally use, and devising a bullet-proof backup system. And, just when I was about to get that going...

My modem died.

No internet.

Until Friday. Thankfully, I don't have to buy a new modem... funny how one customer "service" rep will tell you one thing, and another one will tell you the opposite. Don't take no for an answer folks! It gets here Friday, so for the moment, I'm at an office somewhere, typing as fast as I can before we have to leave.

Keep your fingers crossed that we won't need any more "tech support" in the next few days! Goodness!



Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Aarti Paarti Ep. 25: Sheesh! Kebabs

Growing up in Dubai, Dad would sometimes surprise us with a feast of Lebanese food on Fridays (our day off).

I'd wait impatiently whilst he drove to the little place 10 minutes down the road from us, prepping the ONE soda that my parents allowed me per week (chilling the glass in the fridge, slicing a piece of lemon to top the whole thing off. Yup. I went through that kind of trouble over a diet Coke. At that age, I thought everyone did it. Telling, huh?)

Once the food had arrived, we'd pile our plates high with generous dollops of smooth hummus, pleasantly bumpy babaghanoush, fresh peppery greens, crunchy radishes, warm bread and of course, the piece de resistance, KEBABS!

Chicken, beef, lamb -- why are kebabs so much fun to eat?! Perhaps it's that inviting char, the pre-portioned pieces of meat, the promise of a crispy exterior and a tender interior. Perhaps though, it's something deeper: a pull only explained by our ancestry as cavemen? Man, woman, fire, meat? Heehee!

As if they weren't delicious enough, I fondly remember that one piece of pita bread that had been lying under the kebabs, soaking up all those exquisite juices; we'd fight over that piece of bread! Ooof!

My favourite kebab is the Lula kebab, or the Koobideh kebab, as the Persians put it. The Indians have their own version of this one too, called seekh kebab. Great minds must think alike: All of them consist of ground beef or lamb (or mutton), mixed together with some onions and spices, shaped into long logs, skewered and then cooked over a grill or in a tandoor oven. I find them so much more satisfying than other kebabs: tender, flavourful, and easy to digest.

But they are harder to make than you think. I literally made this recipe 3 or 4 times, hoping to get it to the right consistency. Finally, one late Wednesday night, when Bren was away at a rehearsal, I cracked it! And I had no one to shout to about it! Thank goodness I get to share it with you!

The secret lies in two parts: first, use a little baking soda to help the meat hold together (I can't tell you how disappointing it is when your skewer falls apart before you very eyes) and secondly, knead the heck out of it!

I know that second secret may strike some of you as blasphemy. I don't know how often I've been told not to overwork ground meat, whether it's for burgers or meatloaf, or else you run the risk of eating a tough, dry hockey puck. In this case though, if you don't knead it well, the meat doesn't turn sticky, and your kebabs turn out tough and oddly-textured.

So this is probably the only time you'll hear me say this: BLASPHEME AWAY! You'll thank me, I promise you!

I made them using lamb, because I love the way lamb stands up to the combination of shallot, ginger, garlic and mint. But you can use beef if you don't like lamb.

Oh, and I hope you'll allow me to gild the lily a little, by adding some pomegranate molasses to this recipe -- I made a glaze using lemon juice and pomegranate molasses that turns the ordinary lamb kebab into something extraordinary: sweet, tangy, sour, umami. Pardon me while I faint.

If you have trouble finding pomegranate molasses (Middle Eastern shops have it), you can make your own by boiling down some pomegranate juice (the pure stuff, not the kind mixed with blueberries or mangoes or whatever) with some sugar. Presto!

I hope you'll give these a go. They're a cheap way to work some meat into your menu (the whole thing, including a bottle of molasses probably cost me about $15 and it'll feed 4 quite comfortably), and your friends and family will think you're extraordinarily fancy, even though they are super easy and quick to pull together. Plus you can make the kebabs up to a day in advance, and grill them right before serving! Sheesh! Splendid!

Sheesh! Kebabs
Ground Lamb kebabs with Pomegranate glaze

2 medium shallots
2 cloves garlic
3 quarter-sized slices ginger
Handful of cilantro
4 sprigs mint
Zest of one lemon, and separately, its juice
3/4 tsp kosher salt
Lots of freshly ground pepper
1/4 tsp garam masala (optional)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1lb ground lamb
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses + 2 tbsp extra for glaze

Special equipment: Food processor if you have it, 8 bamboo skewers, stovetop griddle or big nonstick pan or outside grill

1) Bring lamb to room temperature. If you're going to cook your kebabs on the grill, soak 'em in water for at least 30 minutes, so they don't burn.
2) Grab your food processor. You can chop all this by hand too; just make sure to chop it all up very finely.
3) Throw shallots, garlic, ginger, lemon zest, cilantro, mint and salt into processor. Grind until very finely chopped.
4) Throw lamb into big bowl. Add the shallot mixture, pomegranate molasses, baking soda, garam masala and pepper to the meat. Using your hands, knead 2 to 5 minutes until meat lightens in colour, taking on the appearance of knitted fabric. It will also be very sticky. Perfect!
5) Divide the meat in half, then half again, and then half again, until you have 8 mounds.
6) Have a platter ready for your completed kebabs. Drizzle a little oil on the platter so the kebabs don't stick.
7) Have your bamboo skewers standing by. Take one ball of meat, and roll it into a short stump. Thread the skewer through it, then begin shaping the kebab with quick strokes, pulling the meat down. It should be a little over 1/4" thick. Roll the kebab between your hands to seal the meat. Repeat.
8) Heat griddle over medium heat, drizzling oil over it, so that when it starts to smoke, you'll know it's ready. Meanwhile, mix the juice of half the lemon with extra 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses in a small bowl.
9) When it's hot, place the skewers on the grill. Cook about 2 minutes, then turn a quarter of the way. Brush with lemon-molasses glaze, and cook another 2 minutes. Continue in this way until you've cooked the meat 8-10 minutes.
10) Serve, alongside cucumber-pomegranate raita (recipe tomorrow!).


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A "healthy" appetite

I heard Frank Bruni on my favourite public radio station, KPCC, yesterday. He's promoting his new book, "Born Round" which details his lifelong battle with his weight, and how that was impacted by his long years as the famed New York Times restaurant critic.

My favourite part was when he described how, as a baby, he would howl when he hadn't been given what he had determined was enough food. In fact, he cried so hard and long, that he would end up throwing up, thereby needing even more food! None of his brothers had that issue. For some reason, only he was blessed/cursed with that kind of appetite.

Today, after years of trying every diet out there, and making up a few himself, he's come to realise that he needs to eat a 3500 calories a day. That sounded like a helluva lot to me; I don't count my calories at all, but I think I'm supposed to be eating somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1500 a day. (You can figure out how much the USDA thinks you should consume, here).

BUT, and this is the amazing part, rather than limit his calorie intake to the conventional levels, he just makes sure to exercise enough every day to maintain his weight below 200 lbs.

What a generous way to look at yourself. So much of weight loss theory is about punishing yourself, no pain, no gain... I restrict indulging my sweet tooth to once a month. Growing up, I often compared my plate to my sister's, whose more delicate appetite made me feel like a whopping great big oaf. My close friend and work mate in New York had a small appetite too; I would match my lunches to hers, and while I lost so much weight that I was the thinnest I've ever been, let me tell ya... I was hungry! I still do it now. And come to think of it, I wonder if I subconsciously pick skinny friends with small appetites to keep myself in check? Hmmmmm. That's not entirely true, but there is something there. Thank goodness I picked a husband who can and will eat an entire rack of baby back ribs, twice over, and want dessert. Soul mates indeed!

Bruni talked about exercising self-control of course, about how he still has to grit his teeth every now and then to keep himself from eating more than he needs to, but I was struck by the compassion in his voice when he talked about how he had come to accept that he was born with a big appetite. That's just the way it is. Perhaps I could learn a thing or two from him.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Seeing Red

I'm inspired!

I've never felt like I had a beautiful figure. Not one person on TV or in the movies has ever made me feel like my particular configuration of boobs, hips and thighs was beautiful. Not Marilyn Monroe (my boobs are bigger), not Salma Hayek (her waist is smaller), not even the heroines of Bollywood who have, sadly, now embraced the tiny waist 'n' hip silhouette so common amongst their Hollywood counterparts.

Apparently, when it comes to women, bigger is NOT better. God forbid you do like bigger women; you apparently have a fetish.

Ah, but finally, someone whose buxom beauty has helped me embrace my funny ol' figure!

She's Christina Hendricks, the actress who plays the sexy, confident (if a titch bitchy, really) Joanie on AMC's Mad Men. The critically-acclaimed show follows the life of New York ad men during the late 50s, and Christina plays the head secretary at the ad agency. Every time she's on screen, my eyes sparkle.

She saunters into each scene, her ample hips patiently swaying from side to side, slowing down the anxious, obedient patter of other secretaries. She's always dressed in bright, mono-toned shifts, that fit her voluptuous ins and outs so exactly that she must have been sewn into her clothes; the bright colours offset her curves against the drab, pillared background of the ad agency walls. That naturally-narrow waist, the generous bosom, the exaggerated derriere... there's no mistaking this creature for anything other than a WOMAN -- capitals intended! Here's a woman who's curvy 'cos she likes to eat, not because she's squeezing herself into a ridiculous corset.

I find myself reading every article about her, about how she has struggled to love her figure, how designers still don't send her clothes because she isn't a size 4, about how she tucks into a plate of rabbit ragu and sips a second glass of wine during her interview. Oh, and she's marrying a half-Pakistani actor. Ah, this girl and I could be friends!

I found myself examining my own figure in the mirror. Our silhouettes aren't too different, although I'm working on the cinched-in waist part. Our boobs are too big for Victoria's Secret (I guess the secret is she doesn't make bras for ladies over a D cup), our bums too full for the Gap (insert joke here).

Perhaps, just perhaps, there is something beautiful about my figure too... for the first time, I'm able to see what works about it.

Apparently, the curvy figure is back, because even Kate Moss has put on a few pounds. From the looks of it though, she's going to have to tuck in a few more plates of rabbit ragut before she qualifies as curvy, though. At least in my book.

In an effort to further embrace my inner old-school WOMAN, I bought my first tube of red lipstick. My first. Isn't that crazy? I love it. I find myself wearing it for the smallest errands, even to just pick things up around the house. It just feels... fancy.

If you're my skin tone, my fellow Indians, you know how hard it is to find a red that suits you. I found this one at the Body Shop; it's called "Brilliant Red". It looks a little harsh in photos but in real life, it's awesome.

Here's to your inner WOMAN!


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Aarti Paarti Ep. 24: White Gazpacho

The mercury is coming down a tad now, thankfully. But a few days ago, it was so hot that I realised that I didn't want to cook. That hardly ever happens! Thank goodness I had this recipe tucked away: a thick, chilled soup made with cucumbers, green grapes, yogurt, almonds and mint. Just listing the ingredients brought my temperature down a degree or two. Right? I've never been a fan of the regular kind of gazpacho, but this one really makes me sing. It's stunning.

You will have to cook just a little tiny bit, but it's totally worth it. I am quite impressed with my shortcut technique to soften garlic enough to mimic the way it gets when you roast it for 45 minutes. This way takes only 5 minutes, and is a close cousin. Try it!

If the idea of feta-topped crostini makes you run for the hills, then just omit it, and sup this chiller on its own. You could also poach some shrimp for some extra protein if you like. This is a cheap, quick, easy recipe that is filling enough for a light lunch with the family, and easy-breezy (cover girl!) elegant enough for a dinner with friends.

Sadly, its elegance was lost on a couple of celebrity tasters in my kitchen this week: yup, you guessed it. Heidi and Spencer Pratt stopped by, although I don't know how or why. Watch and see what they thought of my precious white gazpacho!

I'm putting up two versions today, in case your computer struggles with the higher-quality version.

This is the high-quality one:

Aarti Paarti Ep. 24: White Gazpacho (w/ Cukes, Grapes, Almonds, Mint) from aarti on Vimeo.

And this is the regular-quality version:

White Gazpacho with Cucumbers, Grapes, Almonds, Mint

1/4 olive oil
4 cloves garlic, in their skins
Slices of baguette, as many as you like
Feta cheese, enough to top the crostini
Smoked paprika (optional; you can substitute regular paprika)
3 cups cucumber, chopped (use long, English ones or Persian ones. If you use the regular bumpy kind, peel it, and scoop out the seeds because they are quite bitter)
2 cups green seedless grapes
1/2 cup skinned almonds
2/3 cup yogurt
2 sprigs of mint
1/8 tsp ground coriander
Pinch ground cumin
4 tsp sherry vinegar (or red wine vinegar)

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit. Alternatively, you could throw the bread in the toaster oven.

2) Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium heat. When it's shimmering, add the garlic and toss, sometimes tilting the pan so that the garlic "deep-fries" in the oil for a few second. Cook until the skins look translucent, even lightly browned. Remove garlic from the pan, and allow the oil to cool.

3) Brush one side of the bread slices with the same oil you just used to cook the garlic. Place on baking sheet, oiled side up, and bake for about 5 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the oven. Top with feta cheese. Bake another 5 minutes until cheese softens. Set aside.

4) Blend together cucumbers, grapes, yogurt, almonds, mint, spices, sherry vinegar and a couple tablespoons of the garlic oil you just made. Season with salt and pepper. Chill until it's time to serve, with crostini on the side!


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