Thursday, December 30, 2010

Grinding Spices

In a couple of seconds, with the touch of a button, a teaspoon of cumin seeds, a teaspoon of fennel seeds, and a teaspoon of crushed red pepper becomes a custom spice mix. All it takes is a small and inexpensive electric coffee grinder or spice mill, available at any household goods store. At first, grinding your own garam masala, or spice mix seems exotic. Soon it's just like using a food processor.

A small coffee grinder, used just for spices, turns whole spices into fresh powders right in your kitchen. Grinding the whole spices releases an explosion of flavor, especially if the spices are toasted first. Often toasting is done to dry out damp spices, but sometimes toasting really brings out the flavor, such as with toasted cumin seeds.

Once you start grinding whole spices, you find yourself grinding fresh spices for practially every recipe.

Whole Spice
The aromatic oils and compounds in spices are why we use them, and the flavor keeps best in nature's packages. Whole spices keep a year or more. The famous East India Company traders shipped whole spices. For many spices, I used to have both jars of powders and whole, and now keeping just whole spices simplifies my spice rack. You should throw away any spices more than 1 year old, and most powders (except turmeric.)

Why whole spice?
- Whole spice tastes better.
- Whole spice keeps better.
- Whole spice is more flexible; whole can be used either whole or ground as needed.
- Reduces clutter of duplicate spice jars, if you had both whole and ground versions.

Spice Powder
Ground spices release their flavor quickly, and are generally added late to a dish. In contrast, slow cooked dishes generally use whole spices, which have plenty of time to break down, and form a base or bottom layer of flavor complexity. Quick dishes and finishes, however, use powdered spices, to release their flavor right away, and form a finish or top layer of flavor complexity.

Why spice powders?
- Increased surface increases flavor and speeds absorption.
- Blends into sauces and gravies.

Roasting Spices
- Sometimes spices are dry roasted to reduce moisture, to make grinding easier, particularly in moist climates.
- Sometimes spices are dry roasted is to cook and transform flavors. Mustard seeds pop and change flavor when roasted.

- To toast spices, use a dry pan on medium heat, add spices, and watch closely until spices start to release aroma, 1-3 min. Remove immediately from heat, and from pan into into measuring cup. This stops further roasting or burning.
- Grind small amounts, as needed.
- Grind until big piece clatter stops, generally only 5-10 sec.
- Some spices benefit from roasting. This heats and changes their aromatic oils and compounds. Mustard seed and cumin seed are examples.
- Damp spices should be toasted lightly to dry before grinding.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Garam Masala (Spice Mix)

A masala means a spice mix. The most commonly used spices in Indian cuisine, cumin, corriander, black pepper, cardomom, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves, are commonly mixed and ground and used to finish many dishes.
A small coffee grinder, used just for spices, turns whole spices into fresh powders right in your kitchen. Grinding the whole spices releases an explosion of flavor, especially if the spices are toasted first. Often toasting is done to dry out damp spices, but sometimes toasting really brings out the flavor, such as with toasted cumin seeds.

1 tbsp cumin seed
1 tbsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
10 cloves
1 in cinnamon stick
2 cardamom pods
2 bay leaves

Optionally, in pan on medium heat, toast cumin seeds lightly, 3 min. Remove from heat and let cool. Measure whole spices into spice grinder, close lid, and grind for 10-30 seconds. Pour freshly ground powder mix into measuring cup, or using funnel pour directly into empty spice jar.
Ground powder keeps at least a couple of weeks.

Steamed Brown Rice

Plain steamed brown rice is usually prepared as an ingredient for other dishes like lemon rice (great use of leftover rice), or as a side dish for sauces like curries. Steamed rice can be dressed up a bit adding a few small vegetables like peas, and common seasoning like cumin and salt.

1 cup brown rice soaked
1 cup water
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cumin seed ground
1/4 cup green peas

Soak: plan ahead and at morning or noon, measure dry rice and soak, 2 hr. Test by biting a single kernel of wet rice. Wet rice will not crunch like dry rice. Rinse and drain.

Cook: Add rice and water to rice cooker. Add any optional spices and vegetable. Close lid and start cooking and steaming, 35-45 min. When finished, fluff lightly with wooden spoon and serve.

Rice Cooker
- Not enough water, boils out too soon, and undercooks the rice. Rice kernel is hard.
- Too much water, takes forever to boil out, and overcooks the rice. Rice is mushy and sticky.
- Soaked rice both absorbs less water (add less water), and cooks faster (add less water), than dry rice. Start with 1:1 ratio of soaked brown rice to water. (Directions that call for more water probably don't soak the rice.)
- Set a timer to 45 min for the rice cooker. This will guarantee you don't forget the rice. A timer also make you aware of how long the rice boils and steams. When rice cooker switches from boil to steam, note how much time the brown rice boiled (probably 20-30 min), and reduce the timer to 15 min.
- Best use your own measures and ignore the measure and marks provided by the rice cooker. The rice cooker provided measure cup is only 3/4 cup (180 ml), while pan side marks are 2x that, or 1-1/2 cup (360 ml).

Browning Onions

In making my own base and stocks, it all starts with onions. It seems cooks are always chopping and browning onions. Julia Child famously practiced simply chopping onions when she attended cooking school in Paris. Many recipes start with browning onions. Browning the onions combines their proteins and sugars. The taste is quite different from steamed or boiled onions. Browning onions usually takes longer than the recipe claims. Browning onions happens in stages: translucent, golden and finally brown. It's unnecessary and counterproductive to use any fats or oils, or even a non-stick pan. (You want the onions to stick slightly.) Too much heat, and the onions blacken and burn.

1 onion, chopped

Soften: Place onions in regular (not non-stick) saucepan, over medium heat, with lid on. Allow the onions to steam, until they become translucent, 5-10 min. The moisture in the onions becomes steam, and largely keeps the onions from burning. During this time they can mostly be ignored, except perhaps for an occasional stir. You usually catch an aroma when they're done.
Taste test the plain translucent onions.

Brown: Remove the lid, and continue to cook, and allow onions to almost burn slightly, another 5-10 min. As the onions loose moisture they will begin to turn golden and stick to the bottom of the pan. Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pan. If necessary, use a bit of cold water to deglaze the bottom of the pan, scraping the loose bits from the bottom with a wooden spoon. I usually stop here, when onions are nice golden brown.
Taste test the golden onions.

This process goes faster if you use high heat, watch closely, and stir and deglaze often. This results in fully brown onions. Taste test the brown onions.

Brown onions in advance, and store covered 2-3 days in refrigerator.
Cook uncovered during softening to speed the process. But watch more carefuly.

Carrot Rice

Very fragrant and tasty, dressed up with almonds and golden raisins.

1 cup brown rice soaked
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 onion chopped
2 carrots grated
2 inch cinnamon ground
2 pods green cardamoms ground
1 pod black cardamom ground
2-3 bay leaves ground
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup water
1/4 cup golden raisins
handful cilantro

Prepare by soaking brown rice at least 2 hours. Wash and drain.
In saucepan, brown onions, 5 min. Add carrots and saute, 5 min. Meanwhile, use spice grinder to grind cinnamon, cardamoms and bay leaves. In another saucepan, lightly toast almonds, until golden brown. Set aside.
In rice cooker, combine rice, carrot base, spices, raisins, almonds and water. Ratio of rice to water is important. Turn on rice cooker. Rice cooker automatically boils and cooks until water is gone, 30 min, then steams warm, 15 min. After steaming 15 min, open lid and stir.
Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve.

Tomato Rice

This is a pilaf (pullao), where the rice soaks and cooks in broth, infusing the broth flavors into the rice.

1 medium onion
2 medium tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 cup brown rice soaked 2 hr
1 tsp cumin seed ground
1 tsp fennel seed ground
1/4 tsp chili pepper ground
1/2 tsp black pepper ground
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup water
1 tsp lemon juice
handful fresh coriander

Plan ahead and soak brown rice 2 hrs. Wash and drain.
Brown onion, 5 min. Meanwhile, in spice grinder, grind cumin seed, fennel seed, red chili pepper and black pepper. Add tomatoes, tomato puree, spices, salt and water, simmer 5 min. Remove from heat, and use stick blender to blend smooth.
In rice cooker, mix the brown rice and the blended base, and start rice cooker cooking. The water measured and added to the base needs to be just the correct ratio for the rice cooker. Typically, for soaked brown rice this will be 1 cup rice to 1 cup water. The rice cooker will automatically boil and simmer the rice 30 min, then switch to warm and steam the rice 15 min.
If using a pan, mix brown rice into blended base and bring to boil, then turn down heat to simmer and cover with lid, and cook 30 min. After 30 min, without removing lid, remove from heat and allow to steam 15 min.
Add touch of lemon juice to taste, garnish with fresh coriander and serve.

Lemon Rice

Good use of leftover brown rice.

1 cup brown rice soaked
1 cup water
1/4 cup peanuts raw
1 tbsp black lentils (urad dal) split
1/2 tsp mustard seed
1/2 onion
1/2 tsp turmeric
6 leaves curry leaves
2-3 tbsp lemon juice

Prepare by soaking brown rice at least 2 hrs. Wash and drain.
In rice cooker, combine rice and water. Ratio of rice to water is important. Turn on rice cooker. Rice cooker automatically boils and cooks until water is gone, 30 min, then steams warm, 15 min. After steaming 15 min, open lid and stir lightly to separate grains. On baking sheet, spread rice to separate grains and cool.
Meanwhile, in pan with medium heat, lightly toast peanuts, 5 min. When peanuts just start to turn brown, add dal and mustard seed, until shake while dal toasts and mustard seed pops, 1 min. Remove from heat and save.
In sauce pan, brown onion, 5 min. Add turmeric and curry leaves, and a bit of water as necessary. Continue simmer, 5 min.
Mix cooked and cooled rice into onion base. Sprinkle and mix lemon juice, to taste, adding only 1 tbsp at a time. The tart lemon makes the dish, but too much sourness can also ruin the dish.
Finish with toasted nuts, lentil and mustard seeds, which should be added last to keep crunchy.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Basic Lentil Soup

1 cup lentils
4 cups water
1/2 inch ginger, chopped
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin seed
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp red chili pepper
1 onion, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
fresh cilantro

    Boil 1 cup lentils in 4 cups water. Add ground spices. Reduce heat and simmer covered, approximately 30 minutes until tender.
    In separate pan, brown onion, 10 minutes, then add tomato until just cooked, 5 minutes. Add finish to lentil soup. Salt to taste and garnish with fresh cilantro.

    Spices: Pulses

    Cook with spices so the lentils absorb the flavors.
    Aromatics include turmeric, ginger and garlic.
    Spice includes cumin seed.
    Hot spices include black and red chili pepper.
    Finish with browned onion and tomatoes.
    Variations include coriander, mustard seed, bay leaves, curry leaves, green chili pepper and garam masala.

    Cooking: Pulses

    Cooking Time
    Mung Bean, whole, soak 20-40 min, cook 20 minutes.
    Mung Bean, split, no soak, cook 20-30 minutes.
    Masoor, split, no soak, 20 minutes
    Urad, split, no soak, 20 minutes.
    Toor (yellow split pea), no soak, cook 25 minutes.
    Chana (chickpea), split, no soak, 30 minutes.
    Use 1 cup lentils with 4 cups water. Split lentils require slightly less, and whole lentils require slightly more.
    Bring to boil, cover and simmer. Can check water level.

    Refrigeration and Freezing
    Cooked lentils stay fresh in the refrigerator for 3 days, in a covered container.
    Cooked lentils may also be frozen.

    Preparation of Pulses

    Hulling and Splitting

    Lentils can easily be split using a food processor. Using the whole food keeps all of the original plant nutrition. Milling processes remove and discard the hull, which contains fiber. Whole lentils will hold shape better when cooked. Split lentils will mash and blend better.


    Whole and hard lentils should soak 2 hours or overnight. Split and soft lentils like split red dal (masoor) and split black dal (urad) do not need soaking.

    Ingredients: Selecting Pulses

    There are many, many different kinds of lentils. For variation in taste, texture and color, keep 3-5 different kinds of lentil. Red Lentils (Masoor Dal) These are quick to cook. The whole lentils is reddish-brown. The split lentil is orange or pink. Good for mashed or blended soups. Black Lentils (Urad Dal) Skins have strong flavor. Used in curries. Skinned and split are white, soft and mild or bland.

    Green Mung Beans

    Chinese lentils also popular in India.

    Toovar Dal

    Mild nutty. Whole lentil is tan. Popular side dish and ground as flour.

    Channa Dal (split chickpea)

    These popular lentils are sweet and nutty.

    Pantry: Storing Pulses

    Pulses are an staple pantry item.
    Pulses keep well. Dried pulses keep 6 months to 1 year. The ideal pantry should be cool, dry and dark.
    Buy only whole pulses. Whole pulses can be processed and used as either whole or split. By keeping your inventory items down, you increase your quantity turnover and freshness. The hull is also nutritious.
    Pulses can be purchased in 2 pound or 4 pound bags, and kept in dry good containers.

    Saturday, October 2, 2010

    Spices: How Much Heat?

    Preference for heat varies widely by individual. Heat comes from red chili pepper (hot), black pepper (medium) and ginger (mild). Using all three adds not only heat but complexity. To reduce heat, you can drop ingredients (for example, drop the hottest ingredient, which is red chili pepper) or you can reduce the proportions. I like to reduce the proportions, while keeping the complexity. Black pepper, like salt, can always be added at the table.

    These recipes are written with medium heat. Cut in half to reduce heat, and double to increase heat. With hot peppers, a little bit goes a long way. Use less than other spices like cumin and coriander seeds. Remember a typical dry goods to spice ration is 1 cup to 1 teaspoon.

    How Much Heat?

    • Hot: 1 tsp
    • Medium: ½ tsp
    • Mild: ¼ tsp

    Red Chili Pepper and Black Pepper, per 1 cup

    Black pepper and ginger were the traditional ingredients for heat for thousands of years, and India traded black pepper with the Middle East and Europe from at least time of Ancient Greeks and Romans. Black pepper is native to India, while red chili peppers where introduced relatively recent from the New World. Red chili peppers are (considerably) hotter than black pepper.