Or, Let baigans be baigans.

Get it?  See, 'baigan' is Hindi for 'eggplant'.  And it sounds like 'bygone'.  I AM GOOD AT JOKES.

I’ve got another wine to pair with food for Raffi and Margaret over at Tuscany Distributors.  This week, it’s the Graffi white Pinot Noir, which has a pleasant, apple-y taste and scent, and a nice crispness when we drank it at about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is maybe 20 minutes out of the fridge.

They also call them 'brinjals'.  I like that, too.

I planned an Indian meal around this wine: Madhur Jaffrey’s Baigan Bharta, from her lamentably out-of-print An Invitation To Indian Cooking, a book which I first encountered at my college roommate’s home in New Jersey; his mom served us some delicious chana masala – spiced chickpeas – and I eagerly inquired after their provenance.  Her copy was battered, taped-together, and falling apart.  If I were a cookbook, I don’t think I could imagine a greater honor.  Last year, visiting Heather and Kyle in Seattle, I found a copy in excellent condition in a used bookshop.  I pounced on it, explaining unnecessarily to the clerk that I had been looking for this book for some time.  She made a noncommittal noise of congratulation and indicated toward the register, as if to say, “So?  You gonna buy it or what?”  I purchased the book and left, feeling a little embarrassed.  And then I recalled a story from earlier in the week: I was taking the bus back to West Seattle from downtown, and I found myself seated across from a man reading a book titled How to Talk to People.  I tried, and failed, to strike up a conversation with this man:

“Hi, how’s it going?” I said.

“Uh.  Good.”

“I noticed your book.”

“My book?” he said, somewhat alarmed.

“Yes.  It, ah.  It’s called How to Talk to People.”

“Oh. Heh.  Yes it is.”

“How is that going?”

“Not well.”  He smiled weakly and looked away.

Basically, either Seattle is demonstrably weird and full of introverts who don’t like to be bothered, or I just kinda suck.  Either or.  Heather and Kyle have since moved to Los Angeles, if that’s any indication.  ANYWAY.  EGGPLANTS.

I also served a rajma dal, which is nothing more than slow-cooked red kidney beans and lentils, some steamed brown rice (throw in a half-stick of cinnamon and three cracked cardamom pods for a delicate fragrance – it doesn’t have a strong taste on its own, but it complements other Northern Indian foods nicely.), and some roti, although this would go quite well with naan.

This here is what the rice looks like when it's done.

The Graffi white Pinot Noir isn’t particularly dry, but neither would I call it sweet – it tastes of apple without being apple juice-y.  The heat of this dish blooms on your tongue when you follow a bite with a sip of wine – I wouldn’t use it to kill the heat; that ain’t what wine’s for anyhow.

You’re probably wondering, too: “Wait a second – I thought Pinot Noir was a red wine grape.  How is this a white wine?  Wouldn’t that make it a Pinot Grigio?”

That’s what I thought, too – but it turns out that Pinot Grigio is another grape varietal entirely.  You can, it turns out, make white wine from red grapes.  It sounds like a somewhat fiddly process, and apparently Pinot Noir is the most popular grape varietal to do this with.  To the recipe!

Madhur Jaffrey’s Baigan Bharta
Serves 4; adapted from Jaffrey’s Invitation to Indian Cooking

The Setup

You will need:

  • 3 large eggplant, washed and dried
  • 1 large onion, cut into quarters or eighths.
  • 2 inches of ginger
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 smallish jalapeno chile, with or without the seeds (depending on your heat preference)
  • 1 can diced roasted tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
  • Lemon juice
  • salt to taste

Part of the traditional way in which this recipe is prepared is to take the eggplant and sear them over an open flame, or cook them in the ashes of a fire; I find that you still get an excellent smokiness when you broil them, but to assist that flavor, I like to use those ‘flame-roasted’ canned tomatoes that pretty much everyone makes nowadays.

Also, feel free to replace the vegetable oil with ghee (clarified butter), although I can honestly say I’ve never even tasted the stuff.  As it stands now, however, this recipe totally counts as Vegan.  Oh man, and I didn’t even do it on purpose.  Incidentally, if you buy dairy-free products online, check out my friend’s Amazon store, All Dairy-Free.

The Heist

1.  First, set your oven’s broiler to “HIGH”.  While it heats up, start prepping everything – you might as well!  Open the can of tomatoes; measure out your spices; quarter the onion, and peel the garlic and ginger.  When the oven hits temperature, put your eggplants (be sure to remove those produce stickers!) on a broiler pan and put them under the heat.  Broil for 20 to 25 minutes.  You could check on these every ten, and turn them with tongs (which I recommend, to keep ‘em from sticking), or you could simply let them go for the whole time – it’s not the end of the world if they get stuck to the pan; you’re trying to get the skin off anyhow.  Make sure your sink is empty.

Go on now, get to cuttin'!

2. While the eggplant is broiling, plop a few of the onion pieces, as well as the ginger and garlic, into the beaker of an immersion blender or a regular blender.  Pour in a few tablespoons of water, and blend into a paste – get everything incorporated, once the first big things of onion are all annihilated.  You’re going to want this to be nice and smooth and even.

Splorp. Brian indicates his approval.

3.  When the timer goes off, and the skin of the eggplants are nice and blackened, pull them out, and put the broiler tray directly into your sink and let the water run over the eggplants.  As the water cools them off, peel the burnt skin off with your hands, keeping the stem ends of the eggplants attached.  Put these in a colander or a deep bowl or a colander set over a deep bowl.  They’re gonna be a trifle wet.

It's a mighty fine smell they got, I tell you wut.

They’ll look like this when you’ve peeled ‘em:

Splorp.

4. Get out a nice big saute pan – nonstick is probably best – and heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in there (I would recommend something neutral like canola or peanut oil, rather than olive oil).  When the oil is nice and ribbony-hot (waggle the pan around and watch to see what it does), pour the onion-garlic-ginger paste from your beaker/blender, add the turmeric and garam masala, and cook over medium heat, poking it about with your spatula intermittently, for about five to seven minutes.  While you’re doing this, chop the cilantro, reserving half of it for a garnish.  Then chop the jalapeno pepper.

We cannae escape the maelstrom, captain! We're goin' dooooooooon.  Doon.  Doon.

5.  When the aromatic paste has reduced a little bit, and turned somewhat brown, add the jalapeno chile and the tomatoes (with all their juice), as well as the cilantro.  Cook this for about ten minutes, and while it’s working, cut the eggplant into smallish pieces.

Yeah, I made the mistake of  putting too many chiles in this one - it was a trifle unpleasant to eat.  I have since ironed out this error, and the recipe will reward you with a heat that is warming, but not punishing.

6.  High five!  You’re almost done.  Add in the eggplant and cook for 15 minutes.  Add salt and lemon juice to taste, as well as cilantro for garnish.

This is an earlier and less chilefied version.  And it was goddamn delicious.

7. Serve promptly: spoon it onto a plate, scoop it up with a piece of naan and some rice, and chase it with a sip of wine.

Wash 'er down.

Enjoy!  Or, as they say in Punjabi, भोग कीजिए! (bhog keejeeae – have a pleasurable meal!)

Happy cooking!

-D

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Or, I Did It Chai Way.

There’s a resale shop in Chicago – actually, there are a few of them – whose proceeds benefit the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, the premier GLBT health services provider in the Chicago area.  It’s called The Brown Elephant.  I go there whenever I can, because A) It benefits a good cause, B) there are treasures in their used books section, and C) their kitchen goods section is expansive, awesome, and cheap.

I recently bought a teapot that matches my cup-and-saucer set, and since then I have been making tea like a lunatic.  Sure, I made tea before, but in that way that I never particularly liked; I’d fill a teabag with loose tea, plop it in a coffee mug, and pour hot water over it to steep.  It’s the single-serve coffee-shop way of selling tea in the U.S., the way I used to dish out tea when I worked in a coffeeshop as a teenager.  I don’t like the way the teabag flops out of the mug and hits you in the nose; it’s like being slapped by a tiny sea lion.  It seems evident to me that the best way to drink tea is in little cups, out of a teapot.  You can control the sweetener on a per-portion basis, you can make rather a lot at once, and you feel a little bit more like a grown-up, rather than an on-the-go-nup drinking lukewarm, second refill tea out of your sustainable but silly to-go sippy cup.

So, I’ve been drinking a lot of Kenilworth Estate Ceylon tea.  It’s the business, brother.  It’s damned fine, and I can get a pound of it for 16 bucks at the Coffee and Tea Exchange near Carolyn’s apartment (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Teavana, you 8-bucks-an-ounce tea thieves!).  I love this city.

Carolyn’s wanted a Chai Spice mix recipe for a while now, so here we go!  Chai is just Hindi for tea (Hindi and Russian and Persian and Aramaic and Mandarin and Japanese – cha/chai is an incredibly common pronunciation.  Medieval trade was global too, people.), and what we generally think of as the chai stuff in a chai latte is the chai spice-mix, the chai masala, and that’s what I’ll be describing today.

A spice-mix like this has applications beyond tea!  We’ll investigate them after I give you the recipe.

Aww.  Spicy group hug.

Four Friends Chai Spice Mix
A recipe in proportions

The Setup

You will need:

  • 1 part cloves, either ground or whole
  • 1 part cardamom, ground or whole (more on that later)
  • 2 parts ground cinnamon
  • 2 parts ground ginger
  • a spice grinder, probably
  • a plastic bag and a wooden rolling pin for the cardamom

Chances are, if you don’t have ground cardamom, you’ll have purchased the green seed pods.  These things are obnoxious, and until I figured out this option, I used to crack the pods open with my fingernails, and laboriously loosen each of the pod’s small black seeds free from the papery-white pith.  Predictably, the seeds would spring out like cannonballs, shooting across the kitchen, into my shirt, behind the refrigerator, onto the stovetop.  This would not do.

So, what I do now is take my cardamom pods, place them in a bag, and roll them over with a rolling pin or wooden dowel until they’re completely broken up.  Then I put them through the loosest wire-mesh strainer I have to catch the husks, and then I chuckle to myself for my cleverness.

Of course, you could always just buy pre-sorted cardamom seeds, which will keep their flavor longer than ground cardamom but save you the bother as well.  I think you’ll have to buy them online or in specialty shops, as whole cardamom is hard enough to find in this country in the first place.

The Heist

1.  Sort out and measure all your spices.

2.  Using a spice grinder, a mortar and pestle, or a draft horse-driven mill, grind all the spices into a fine powder.

3.  Bottle and label.  Store in a cool, dark cupboard.

 

Making a pot of Masala Chai

 

My girlfriend's parents bought me this lovely bowl as a holiday present!  Isn't it nice?  It came from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland.  I mean, it came from the museum store.  They didn't just lift it from an exhibit.  Although that would have been pretty sweet of them, too.

1.  For every cup of tea you intend to make, use one teaspoon of tea.  For every teaspoon of tea that you add, add 1/3 teaspoon of chai spice mix.  (Thus, a teaspoon of spice mix for every tablespoon of tea.)  And when you’re done calculating that, always add another teaspoon for the pot.  And use a black, unflavored tea, something with a strong taste and a good body – Darjeeling is traditional, but Ceylon or Assam will do fine.  Earl Grey is a no, because of that bergamot oil.

 

The artist's name is Barbara Humpage, which is a name I can't say without snickering and I'M SORRY.

2. Fill your teabag with the chai spice and tea, place it in the teapot, and pour boiling water into the pot.  Cover and steep for five to six minutes.

3.  Pour into cups, add milk and sweetener to taste (I don’t think it’s masala chai unless it’s a milk tea), and enjoy.

Sip.  Do not chug.

Making other things with your chai spice mix

Melissa Clark, the food writer I seem to reference the most often in these entries, has an all-purpose shortbread recipe, which Carolyn swears by.  After I made this spice mix, she made the Rosemary Shortbread, subbing out the rosemary for a teaspoon of masala.  I’ll reprint it here, but buy Melissa’s latest book, Cook This Now!  It’s a recipe book organized seasonally; unsure of what to make?  Befuddled by the variety of recipes available?  Flip open Cook This Now to January.  There.  She’s just made it easier for you.

Melissa Clark’s Everything Is Shortbread Cookie (Chai Spice Edition)

You will need:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon chai spice mix
  • 1 teaspoon plus 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted cold butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons dark, full-flavored honey (optional).

Instructions:

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, chai spice and salt. Add butter, and honey if desired, and pulse to fine crumbs. Pulse a few more times until some crumbs start to come together, but don’t overprocess. Dough should not be smooth.

2. Press dough into an ungreased 8- or 9-inch-square baking pan or 9-inch pie pan. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes for 9-inch pan, 45 to 50 minutes for 8-inch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into squares, bars or wedges while still warm.

You could also make Heather’s Blackberry Flan with chai spice instead of (or in addition to the vanilla) – take out the blackberries.  And my sister Julie likes these Chai Cupcakes, but I think you could get away with using a tablespoon of chai spice (or 2 and a half teaspoons of chai spice and a half-teaspoon of nutmeg), and make your own chai-spiced milk tea for the cupcake batter instead of using bagged chai.

But really, the applications are pretty widespread.

Ah, friends.  Where would I be without friends?  And tea?

Probably prison, that’s where.

Oh.  Oh, that was a rhetorical question.  You didn’t need to hear the end of that thought, did you?

Happy cooking, everyone.

The Whole Foods by my girlfriend’s apartment used to sell Sukhi’s Naanwiches, or at least, the kind she liked – the kind with spinach and potato and tofu.  She’d keep them in her fridge, and hurl one into the oven for dinner if the mood struck her.  I had one, once, and liked it.  I developed this copycat recipe back in February 2011; we made a bunch of homemade naanwiches and brought them to a Super Bowl party, where, despite the preponderance of popcorn, dips, and peanut M&Ms, they disappeared off the platter at Warp 9.

And then I forgot about it.  Completely.  Until Carolyn’s Whole Foods stopped selling the spinach Naanwiches.  “Remember when you made those?” she said.

“Sort of,” I said.

“I think that would make a great blog post,” she said, coyly.  I know what you were after, Girlfriend.  You mercenary.  She was in it for the naanwiches, America!

So, using the naan recipe I’ve previously detailed on this site, and the following recipe for saag paneer, I recreated the magic.  Except I did it a little differently; instead of just making a folded piece of dough like I had previously, enfolding the filling in a sort of folded pita configuration, this time I crimped the dough into little hand pies, so that they most resembled empanadas, or, more accurately, spanakopita – Greek spinach pies.  (Or Lebanese fatayer.  Or calzones!)

My cultural depredations lead me from India to the Levant to the Greek Isles* to, as you shall shortly see, Mexico.  I shall never rest.  I shall never stop bastardizing the cuisines of nations – not until I have trod on every page of Larousse Gastronomique.

I’d call this a samosa, except it isn’t, really.  It’s too large, and it’s baked, not fried.  I’m sure there aren’t exactly hard lines on nomenclature, but it feels like I’d be calling a knackwurst a cocktail wiener.  But yet, it’s not a spanakopita, either; it’s not made with phyllo dough, and it’s also a little bit too large.  If anything, it’s like a pasty, but it’s made with the wrong sort of dough.  It’s its own classification.  Naanwich or Naanakopita will do, although I prefer the second, for its quality of sheer phonemic bewilderment.

Now, palak paneer is a classic Indian dish, which I shall further insult by describing as being “essentially creamed spinach with fried cubes of fresh Indian cheese in it.”  It is very easy to make your own paneer.  I was going to advocate that you do it for this recipe.  In fact, I nearly did it myself, figuring there wasn’t any place within walking distance of me that sold paneer cheese.

But guess what?  There is.  Paneer is a fresh farmer’s cheese – it’s firm, kinda squeaky, and somewhat bland.  It doesn’t melt like other cheeses  would– it just gets nice and brown and crisp when you cook it in a non-stick skillet.  It is, in fact, identical to Mexican panela.  Identical.  There is nothing in the production of those two cheeses that would set them apart – you heat some milk; you add some lemon juice, you drain it, you press it, you salt it.  The end.  Cheese.

It looks like this!

Now, if you’re an American, and you live near a large city, there is undoubtedly a sizeable Mexican population in your community, and the grocery stores in your neighborhood undoubtedly stock Mexican goods.  You’re going to want to march right up to the deli counter and order several inches of cheese – don’t get it in slices, get it in a big ol’  chunk.  This stuff is delicious.

So.  If you can get paneer, excellent!  Good for you; it’s not so terribly difficult to come by in the first place.  And you could always make your own.  But I like the firmness of store-bought stuff.  It’s made with more patience, weight, and industry than I could ever muster.

* Which reminds me of a story my classmate Molly told, once.  She had pledged a college sorority, and her father, upon hearing this, exclaimed, “Excellent!  I’m so pleased you are Greek, now; did they bid you drink from the brackish waters of the Aegean Sea?”  Molly’s father is, evidently, awesome.

Naanakopita
A tasty pocket of spinach and cheese!

The Setup

You will need:

  • One full recipe of naan dough
  • a 10-ounce bag of fresh spinach, or, failing that, a thawed and drained package of frozen spinach
  • 1 cup of paneer/panela, cubed
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk (feel free to use 1/4 cup of milk with a teaspoon of vinegar – just let it sit for ten minutes)
  • 1/4 cup yogurt
  • 1 onion
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons of ginger
  • 2-3 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • salt, to taste

The Heist

1.  First, make the dough, following the instructions in my entry.  Set the oven to 400 degrees F.

2.  Fill the sink with water, if you’re using fresh spinach, and soak the spinach in the basin, shaking it around to get rid of any sand or dirt.

3.  Dice the onion, mince the ginger, and mince the garlic, too.  Set it aside.  Cut the paneer or panela into smallish, 1/2-inch cubes.

4.  In a medium-sized nonstick pan, heat a few teaspoons of oil and begin cooking the cheese, not doing much to them.  Make sure they don’t stick (use a rubber or silicone spatula), but other than that, let them cook at medium heat, turning every four minutes or so, until they’re brown on a few sides.  Reserve the cooked pieces of cheese on a plate or in a bowl.  Keep the pan on the stove.

What a fantastic smell this is.

5.  Meanwhile, in a large skillet or pot, heat a little oil, and wilt the spinach in it – use a tongs to squeeze all the water out of it as it cooks down, and plop it into a bowl.  It should take about two to four minutes to wilt all the spinach.  I grow weary of having to blanch spinach in a big pot of water, only to have to squeeze all the water out of it endlessly.  I think this way is a little easier.

And there's fewer pots and bowls to clean, too.  The more surface area you have, incidentally, the faster this'll go.

6.  Give the person next to you a high five.  You’re making naanwiches!

7.  In the pan you used to cook the cheese, which should still have some oil in it, add the aromatics (the onion, the garlic, and the ginger), and cook them, with a touch of salt, the curry powder, the coriander, and an optional pinch of hot red pepper flakes, until the onion is soft and yellow, about 5 minutes.  I believe it was around this time that I said, “Maybe this is too much onion.”  Carolyn almost slapped me.  She was right.  It cooks down.  And there’s no much thing as too much onion.

Just like there's no such thing as too much garlic.  And just like there's no such thing as Toledo.

8.  When the onions are soft, add the spinach in – stir until the spinach is evenly distributed , then add the yogurt and the buttermilk.  Stir, taste for seasonings, and cook until the mixture is still a little wet, but not drippy.  We don’t want too much buttermilk leakage in the naanakopita.  Stir in the cubes of paneer and kill the heat.

You could totally stop here, too, if you wanted, and just serve the saag paneer as is.  We had a lot of trouble not eating it all out of the pan.  Just sayin’.

 

Still not too many onions!

9.  Line a baking sheet with tin foil, and spray it with cooking spray.  Roll out your dough into six-inch rounds – just like you would for the naan recipe, but thinner – you might be able to get eight to ten of these, depending on how thin you go.  Place these rounds on the greased tin foil on the baking sheet.

All rolled out.  I made mine into half-moons, just 'cause.

 

10.   Plop a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of saag paneer into the middle of them.

10 deposit

11.  Fold them in half, and crimp up the edges.  There’s no need to seal them super well, because if they leak, they won’t leak so terribly much – the filling shouldn’t be all that wet.

Crimp my ride.  Yo, Carolyn - we heard you liked Indian food, so we put Indian food inside your Indian food so you could, I dunno.  Eat both at once.  Look, don't blame me.  I know I wasn't Xibiting proper judgment at the time.

 

12.  Bake the naanakopita at 400 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, depending on how crispy and brown you want them to be.  Let them rest for at least 10 minutes before serving, because they will be insanely hot on the inside.

The one on top is upside-down.  You may want to flip them during cooking, if you want each side to be evenly browned, but I didn't mind.  It's still delicious.

These reheat spendidly. but they also freeze, uncooked, exceptionally well: cook them, straight out of the freezer, for 25 minutes at 425 degrees F – spray them with a little cooking spray first, though.  But pop ‘ em in, hot ’em up, take ’em out.  And that’s sort of the entire point of these – while they certainly make an excellent sit-down meal, I’ve designed these with long-term frozen storage in mind, so you can say, “Oh, dang.  It’s 5:45, and I want to eat something at 7, but I don’t want to make anything.  And I don’t want to get takeout.”  This is me, reaching out across the ether, preventing you from tearing the lid on another loathsome Lean Cuisine.

Why would you want to, honestly?

This is the first entry in The Clone Platter, a new feature in which I will attempt to clone an existing commercial product or piece of restaurant food, or generate a home-cooked equivalent.  If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!  As a warning, I probably won’t take on anything that requires a deep-fryer – so I probably won’t take on the suggestion of “David, clone McDonald’s french fries!”, because, first of all, fried, and second of all, there’s an immense supply chain with a very specialized cultivar of potato (Oh sure, their website says they use regular old Russet Burbanks, but I’m convinced they’re the ones who buy up all the fancy Kennebec potatoes).  So there.  Lots of caveats, but request away.  If the product in question is available in my area, I’ll buy it, dissect it, and eat it, and then try to recreate it!  Otherwise, you’ll need to describe the hell out of it, and maybe take a photo.

Happy cooking!