Saturday, December 31, 2005

From My Rasoi - "Winter"

Winter in the San Francisco area is mild and rainy, with temperatures in the 40s and 50s F and two or three day rainstorms passing through weekly. Not as bad as North Dakota, to be sure, but because I keep the temperature in my (poorly insulated) house on the cool side, stews and soups are frequently on my menu.

Legumes make a perfect base for a hearty winter stew or soup, and this month I wrote about four different legumes (known as "dal" in Indian cooking): split masoor, whole urad, split moong, and toor. The cooking method is simple and allows countless variations:
  • Cook the dal with water, turmeric and possibly some other flavorings like bay leaf or ginger.
  • Prepare vegetables like onion, tomato or greens in a skillet or saucepan.
  • Prepare the tempering (a.k.a. tadka) by frying whole spices or spice powder in oil or ghee.
  • Mix everything together.
  • Garnish with chopped cilantro, pickles or other chopped herb.
In most cases, the dish can be completed in the time it takes the dal to cook (20-60 minutes).

Vegetables can provide additional flavor and nutrition to a dal soup or stew. In the Bay Area, the farmers' markets are full of freshly dug potatoes, brassicas like cauliflower and broccoli, citrus, a variety of squash, and leafy greens ranging from tender lettuces to kale so rugged you could use it to build shelter. Although not as exciting as summer's bounty, they provide extensive possibilities for flavor, color and texture. Squash and kale, for example, bring sweetness and sharpness to a spicy soup base. Lightly cooked cauliflower and diced carrots offer textural interest. The possibilities are endless within the Indian-style of spicing, and I can imagine other ethnic spicing styles, such as a Mexican-inspired combination of masoor dal with freshly made ancho chile powder, cilantro, white onions, and pumpkin.

Friday, December 30, 2005

December Dal - Part 4, Toor Dal

The fourth part of my December Dal series focuses on cajanus cajan, a legume commonly known as toor dal, toovar, thuvar, arhar, frijol de arbol and pigeon pea (quite a few more are listed at ecoport). Toor dal is relatively large (average diameter about 8 mm) compared to other split legumes used in Indian cooking. Photographs and other information about this legume can be found at Tropical Forages, at Wikipedia, and in the references listed in the ILDIS. Some interesting facts from these pages include

  • The plant is a 1-4 m tall shrub with woody stems
  • Over 90% of the world's crop is grown in India
  • The plant is very drought tolerant, and can survive a 6 month dry season
  • The plants and its seeds are used as human food, animal forage, and fuel

I used toor dal to make a winter soup that contains two contrasting vegetables: sweet butternut squash and assertive kale. These vegetables sit in a broth thickened by well-cooked toor dal and flavored with a classic Indian blend of spices.

Golden Dal with Gold and Green Vegetables -
Toor Dal with Squash and Kale


The dal

1 cup toor dal
6 cups water
1 T. vegetable oil or ghee
3/4 t. turmeric
1 dried bay leaf
1 hot green chili
1 T. grated ginger

1 t. brown mustard seeds
2 t. cumin seeds
1 t. fenugreek seeds
2 dry red chilies
1 T. sugar or jaggery

2 cups cubed butternut squash
1 bunch of kale (or mustard greens), washed and chopped coarsely

Salt to taste
Chopped cilantro to garnish

(Unit conversion page)

Most of the ingredients

Cooking the dal
Pick through the dal for stones, sticks and other unacceptable items. Rinse the dal thoroughly, drain, and put into a large pot. Add the 6 cups of water, 1 T. oil, bay leaf, green chili, ginger, and turmeric to the pot containing the dal. Bring to a boil (be careful that it doesn't boil over), then reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover the pot and cook until the dal are tender (30-40 minutes). Add 1 t. salt or more to taste. Reduce heat to very low.

Prepare the Vegetables
After peeling the squash and cutting it into small cube-ish pieces, there are several options for cooking it. I prefer to roast squash to bring out its sweetness: preheat the oven to 450 F; toss the squash with oil, salt and pepper; spread onto a baking sheet; bake for 10-20 minutes (the time depends on the size of the pieces), turning once or twice. Alternatively, you could steam or microwave the squash pieces.

Similarly, for the kale, several methods are available: steaming, boiling, microwaving, or sauteing.

For both vegetables, they should be cooked to your preferred doneness, since they will be added to the broth at the end (as opposed to a long soak in the broth).

Tempering and Finishing
Heat some vegetable oil or ghee in a small skillet over medium heat. Have a pot lid handy in case the mustard seeds start to scatter and splatter. When it is hot, add the mustard seeds, cumin, fenugreek, and dried chili, cook for about 30 seconds, then add the sugar. Cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds, or until the sugar carmelizes. Pour the spiced oil over the dal and stir. Add the cooked squash and stir.

Ladle some of the spiced dal and squash mixture into a bowl and top with a large spoonful of the cooked kale. Serve along with a bowl of chopped cilantro and some rice or bread.

tags :: : : recipes

Monday, December 26, 2005

December Dal - Part 3, Split Moong Dal

The dal of this week is the mung bean, Vigna radiata, also known as green gram and golden gram. When split and peeled, it is called moong dal; when whole it is sometimes called sabat mung. The mung bean shares a long lost ancestor with last week's dal, the urad dal (Vigna mungo). This legume is quite important in Asia, as it is the source of bean sprouts and the starch used to make bean thread noodles (clear vermicelli). For photos, botanical, and agricultural information see also the Illustrated Legume Database, Wikipedia, the AEP, and the University of Melbourne.

When split and peeled, the dal is quick cooking and easy to digest. That first characteristic was key for me because I only had a short time available for cooking. If you are motivated, this dal soup can be put together in just a few minutes more than the time it takes for the dal to cook. The result is a fairly thin soup with a rich, earthy background and a complex spice foreground. With some steamed basmati rice or a paratha (shown below), the soup makes a delicious and warming meal for a cold winter evening. For something more substantial, add cubes of precooked potatoes, peas, diced carrots or other vegetables at the end.

Moong Dal with Tomato
Adapated from Lord Krishna's Cuisine

The dal
3/4 cup split, peeled moong dal
6 cups water
1 T. vegetable oil or ghee
3/4 t. turmeric
1 t. salt

Spice paste
2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
2 t. coriander seeds
2 t. cumin seeds
1/2 t. fennel seeds
1/2 T. sesame seeds
3 whole cloves
4 green cardamom pods
5 black peppercorns

For the finish
2 green chilies, seeded and cut in quarters lengthwise
1 T. sugar or jaggery
2 medium tomatoes, chopped coarsely (these could also be from a can)
Salt to taste

Chopped cilantro to garnish

(Unit conversion page)

Most of the ingredients

Cooking the dal
Pick through the dal for stones, sticks and other unacceptable items. Rinse the dal thoroughly, drain, and put into a large pot. Add the 6 cups of water, 1 T. oil, and turmeric to the pot containing the dal. Bring to a boil (be careful that it doesn't boil over), then reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover the pot and cook until the dal are tender (30-40 minutes). Add 1 t. salt. Reduce heat to very low.

Making the spice powder
Dry roast the spices and seeds in a skillet over medium heat for a few minutes until fragrant and slightly darker. Remove from the pan into another container (heavy stainless steel would be ideal) to allow for quick cooling and to prevent overroasting. When the spices are reasonably cool, remove the cardamom pods from the mixture, extract the black seeds, and return the seeds to the spice mixture. Discard the pod casings. Grind the spice mixture to a fine powder, then put it in a small bowl and stir in enough water to make a paste.

Finishing the dal
Heat some vegetable oil or ghee in a small skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, add the spice paste and chili pieces, cook for about 30 second, then add the sugar. Cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds, or until the sugar carmelizes. Add the chopped tomatoes, lower the heat to medium-low and cook for a few more minutes until the tomatoes fall apart. Remove the chilies (unless you like a lot of heat), and pour the spice-tomato mixture over the dal. Stir, then let it rest for a few minutes for the flavors to blend.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Negative Space in Asian Art and Cooking

If you came to read about food and cooking, bear with me in this post. I'll get to that subject in a few lines.

Recently I visited the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco to see a new survey of Japanese painting called Traditions Unbound. It features work from a group of Kyoto painters who---because of a political realignment within Japan---were able to break away from the rigid traditions of the ruling painting school in the 17th and 18th centuries and create their own style. I admit that Japanese painting had never been one of my favorite areas---I have seen too many screen paintings of The Tale of Genji, I suppose---but this exhibition was astonishing. Although most works are paintings of black ink on a gold or wheat-colored background, the artists were able to create dynamic worlds with their brushstrokes. A painting of a marsh and birds by Goshun (Matsumura Gekkei) made me feel like I was there and could see and hear the willows swaying in a morning breeze. A painting of a crane and waves by Okyo was also stunning (the less interesting half of the painting).

Now to the connection to food, tenuous as it may be...

The exhibition will include two collections of vegetable paintings by Ito Jakuchu (1715-1800). The first one to be exhibited is one of his most famous: a recreation of the Buddha's attainment of Nirvana ("parinirvana") with the Buddha and his followers depicted as vegetables (image here). At the time of the painting, the Japanese had a standard way of illustrating the Buddha's death, with the Buddha lying on a platform with his head to the left, a grove of trees in the background, disciples and bodhisattvas surrounding the Buddha, and the Buddha's mother (Queen Maya) visiting from the heavens. In his painting, Jakuchu represented the figures with vegetables and fruits. The commentary on this work in the exhibition catalog says that Jakuchu's intentions were never fully known: was this a light-hearted parody or a statement of his religious beliefs? Various sects in Japanese Buddhism believed that all beings---including plant and animals---possessed the Buddha nature. Perhaps Jakuchu was reaffirming his devotion in the painting. Alternatively, since his family was in the vegetable business, it was possibly a memorial for a recently deceased relative. Note that this painting will be on display only from December 19 to January 8.

Starting January 11th, the exhibit will have set of 12 large paintings of vegetables in various states of freshness and decay by Jakuchu with dimensions of 33 cm across and 123 cm high.

The second connection to food is the concept of "negative space." Japanese painters and printmakers were (and still are) masters in the use of negative space, which is the area around the main subject(s) that enhance the effect of the artwork. For example, unpainted areas or a sparse background as in Wyeth's Christina's World can heighten a mood or say something about the subject's condition. In the world, of cooking, "negative space" also has a place. For example, one could argue that various dishes in a meal can each contain negative space that plays off of the flavors and textures in the other dishes. In other words, what isn't there is important and can enhance what is there. Another concept that the Japanese paintings share with cooking is restraint, i.e., less is more. Sometimes the simplest preparation can be the finest.

Asian Art Museum of San Francisco hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm with extended evening hours every Thursday until 9:00 pm. Closed Mondays, major holidays (New Years Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas), and during certain large scale Civic Center Events (please call for details). Because of the fragility of the artworks and requirements of some of the owners, the exhibit is undergoing a changeover on January 10. The first set of art is shown until January 8, the museum is closed for the changeover, and second set is on display from January 11 to February 26.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Ethereal Orange Sabayon

For Slashfood's Spirited Cooking Day, I used some orange liqueur to make an ethereal dessert: an orange sabayon with satsuma mandarin sections and sliced almonds. It was light, flavorful, and a beautiful contrast to the sharpness of the mandarins.

Sabayon is a relative of the classic Italian zabaglione, which is a light, foamy dessert made with sweet Marsala wine, egg yolks, and sugar. It can be eaten on its own, used as a sauce, or frozen to become a semifreddo. The word "zabaglione" is derived from the Neapolitan dialect word "zapillare", which means to foam (ref: Larousse Gastronomique).

For versions made without Marsala wine, the French term "sabayon" is typically used. The marvelous---but apparently out of print---Stars Desserts by Emily Luchetti has recipes for Champagne sabayon, cider sabayon (apple juice and calvados), Grand Marnier sabayon, and Basque sabayon (armagnac, orange flower water, dark rum and anisette).

Winter is citrus time and I had some delicious satsuma mandarin oranges and also some Cointreau in my pantry. Cointreau is a liqueur made from a blend of peels from bitter and sweet oranges. It was created in 1849 by confectioner Adolphe Cointreau and his brother in Angers, France. With these ingredients on hand, I slightly adapted on a recipe from Epicurious, with satsuma mandarin orange replacing the blood orange.

The first step was to combine the starting ingredients: two egg yolks, some sugar, orange juice, orange liqueur, and orange zest. Next, I whisked them together. The volume at this point was less than 1/2 cup, and climbed barely two centimeters up the side of the bowl.

The raw ingredients

Whisking the ingredients

After combining the ingredients, I put the bowl over a pan of simmering water and started cooking it, all the while whisking vigorously.

Cooking the sabayon over simmering water

Over the period of a few minutes, a marvelous transformation occurred in the workbowl: a light foam formed and the mixture increased in volume by 4 or 5 times. I whisked until the foam reached 140 degrees F, then whisked for a few more minutes until it thickened so that the whisk left trails in the foam. At that time, I took it off the heat, let it sit for a few minutes, then spooned it over orange sections and topped with sliced toasted almonds.

Almost done

So how did the liquid in the second photo turn into the light foam in the last photo? The secret is to defeat surface tension. A foam is a collection of gas bubbles spread through a liquid or solid. Liquid-based foams like zabaglione are mostly water, and depend on the substances dissolved in the water to stabilize the foam. Pure water, as we all know, makes lousy bubbles. The reason for this is that the surface tension in the water and gravity pull apart any structure that you try to build. But when something like egg yolks and sugar are dissolved in---or emulsified with---the water, a temporarily stable matrix can be created. Egg whites, of course, make outstanding foams (as illustrated recently in IMBB #20, Has My Blog Fallen), primarily because of their albumen proteins. Egg yolks have significant fat content which interferes with foam formation. Nonetheless, with proper technique a light and foamy dessert can be whisked up. (for a few pages of the science behind egg foams, consult Harold McGee's comprehensive On Food and Cooking, or visit the Exploratorium's Egg Science page)

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Boat Chaat - The Return of Whole Urad Dal

Mexican cuisine has a group of foods called antojitos ("little whims"), that includes popular items such as quesadillas, taquitos, and tostadas. One of my favorites is the sope: a small disk (5-8 cm diameter, 3 mm thick) of corn-based dough (masa) with a rim around the outside to contain a spoonful of salsa and a sprinkling of cheese.

Since I was in a Mexican-Indian fusion mode when I made the urad dal soup, I decided to experiment again and use the sope techniques to make an Indian chaat.

As noted above, the traditional dough for a sope is made with a corn-based dough (masa). Since masa is distinctly Mexican (as far as I know), it wouldn't be an appropriate pairing with the urad dal. So as a substitute, I made a basic chapati dough with whole-wheat flour and water (alternative ideas to this are encouraged. Potato? Channa dal flour?). To make the boat, I first shaped disks of the rested chapati dough to about 1/4" thick by 2" diameter (0.6 cm by 5 cm). Then I cooked the disks on a medium-hot griddle until both sides were lightly browned (a few minutes per side). I let them cool for a few minutes, then carefully pinched a border around each disk of hot dough to make a little shell that will hold the goodies. I heated some oil in a pan and lightly fried the bottom of the boat. To finish the dish, I filled the boats with the urad dal and topped them with the chutney and yogurt. The result was quite a tasty little snack. The crispy base of the disk was a pleasant contrast to the soft toppings, but the inside of the disk was a little bit too gooey for me. A problem that could be solved through many approaches: adding leavening to the dough, attempting a paratha-type dough, switching to a potato base, to name a few.

Boat Chaat

Basic chapati dough
Urad dal soup or other relatively thick dal
Toppings like chutney, yogurt, chopped cilantro, pickles, mango powder

  1. Heat a griddle on medium heat.

  2. Using your hands, a rolling pin or a tortilla press, form a small disk of chapati dough that is roughly 5-8 cm in diameter and 3 mm thick.

  3. Place on the preheated griddle and bake until both sides are lightly browned, a few minutes per side. Remove to a plate and let them cool for a few minutes.

  4. Cooking the disks

  5. When the disks are cool enough to handle, pinch around the edge of the disk with your thumb and finger to create a rim. Press down in the middle of the disk to improve the holding capacity.

  6. Pinching the border

  7. In a small skillet (or the griddle used in step 3 if it has sides), heat a thin layer of vegetable oil over medium heat. When the oil is hot, gently set the disks into the oil, flat side down. When the bottom is crisp, place on a paper towel lined plate for a seconds, then fill with dal, chutney, yogurt, and whatever else you feel like.

Panfrying the disks just before serving

The first photo in this post has a tenuous similarity to chaat that I have eaten in the past, namely pani puri and one with potato patties. And since the concept of putting a topping on a disk of bread is not novel, I wonder if the world of chaat already has a boat-like item.

I'm fortunate to live near a Latin American grocery store that sells fresh masa dough on weekends (Mi Tierra at 2096 San Pablo Ave in Berkeley), and one of these weekends I plan to have a "masa fest", in which I finally figure out how to make good corn tortillas. I will make sopes with tomatillo salsa and aged cheese and record the process for the blog. Other East Bay/SF locations to buy fresh masa include the Primavera stand at the Saturday Berkeley Farmers' Market and Las Palmas on 24th Street in San Francisco.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

December Dal - Part 2, Whole Urad Dal

Part 2: Whole Urad Dal

This week's dal is whole urad dal (Vigna mungo). According to Achaya's A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, urad dal are indigenous to India, and remnants have been found in archeological sites dating to about 1500 BC. They are small (roughly 5x4x3 mm), black in color, with a somewhat dull luster and a prominent white spot along the major axis (photos and information at NIAS Genebank). When split and peeled, the dal is a standard part of the tempering spices in South Indian cooking along with mustard seeds, asafoetida, curry leaves and split channa dal.

My inspiration for preparing this dal came from Mexico, specifically, black bean soup with garnishes (Epicurious has over 100 examples). To stay connected to the origin of the urad dal, though, I used spices associated with Indian cooking: cumin, coriander and black pepper.

I also went a little wild with this Mexico theme, and will post about that in a day or two.

Urad Dal Soup, Inspired by Mexico

The dal
1 cup whole urad dal
Water for soaking the dal
4 cups water for cooking the dal
1/2 t. turmeric powder
1-2 whole green chilies

For the fresh chutney
1 cup chopped tomato
1-2 green chilies, chopped
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste

To finish the dal
1 onion, minced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. coriander seeds
5-10 black peppercorns
1 t. cumin seeds
1 t. salt
Vegetable oil or ghee

For garnish
Plain yogurt
Chopped cilantro

(Unit conversion page)

Cooking the dal
Pick through the dal for stones, sticks and other unacceptable items. Rinse the dal thoroughly, drain, and put into a large bowl. Cover with a few inches of water, and place in the refrigerator for several hours. Drain and pour the dal into a pot.

Add the 4 cups of water, turmeric, chilies (I used serrano) to the pot containing the dal. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover the pot and cook until the dal are tender (1-2 hours).

Making the chutney
Combine the tomato, chilies, and cilantro in a bowl. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Finishing the dal
Dry roast the coriander, cumin and peppercorns in a skillet over medium heat for a few minutes until fragrant and slightly darker. Remove from the pan into another container (heavy stainless steel would be ideal) to allow for quick cooking and to prevent overroasting. When the spices are reasonably cool, grind them to a powder.

Saute the onion in oil over medium heat until soft. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or so, then add the spice powder and salt. Cook for 30 seconds, then add to the dal.

Scoop some of the dal into a bowl and top with a dollop of the chutney, a dollop of yogurt, and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro.

Cubes of roasted butternut squash as a garnish for a textural contrast and element of sweetness (I have a squash in my pantry, but I forgot about it).
Other garnishes: chopped raw onion, lime juice, mango powder, green pepper.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Citron Tea - A Winter Warmer

I first discovered Yuzu (Citrus aurantium), when my brother brought me a jar of yuzu marmalade from Japan. Known as yuzu in Japanese and yuja in Korean, this round Asian citrus has a distinctive flavor that is somewhere between lemon and orange.

Yuzu marmalade is a mixture of the sliced fruit (peel and all) and a sweetner (honey and/or sugar). As far as I know, it is not intended for spreading on toast (serious citrus fans, however, might give it a try.); the marmalade's primary use seems to be for tea. Indeed, the jar I bought at a Korean market in Oakland says "Citron Honey Tea" on the label, and is called "Yuja cha" in Korean (lit.: citron tea).

To make a cup of yuzu tea, spoon a few teaspoons of the marmalade into a mug or heat-resistant glass, then pour hot water over the fruit. Stir to distribute the flavor and sweetness through the water. On the cold nights and mornings of winter, I'll be drinking this tea a lot. It is especially nice when I have a sore throat or a cold.

Yuzu marmalade can be a ingredient in cocktails. An easy one is the "yu-gin cocktail": put a few ice cubes in a cocktail shaker, add a few ounces of good gin (my favorite is Plymouth) and a tablespoon of yuzu marmalade, put on the cover, and shake for 10 or 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Vodka would be an easy alternative. For a traditional Korean approach, you could use soju---the clear and mostly flavorless alcohol of the Korean countryside---as the alcohol base. The alcohol content is about one-half that of vodka or gin.

The tea aisle of a Korean, Japanese or Chinese market sometimes has other interesting "teas", like jujube (a.k.a., Chinese date) or fresh ginger in jars, or dried persimmon leaves in bags. I imagine that they are purported to each have their own health benefits, but I don't know what they are.

Jars of yuzu marmalade can be found in Asian grocery stores, especially those with Japanese and Korean specialities. The 1 liter jar containing 1 kg of marmalade pictured above was about $8.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Strawberry's Long Journey

(Updated 10/2/16: fixed broken links, i.e., almost all of them.  Removed beach photos.)

While visiting a nature preserve in California between Half Moon Bay and Pescadero State Beach, I learned something very interesting about the origin of strawberries. Thanks to an interpretive sign at the preserve, I learned that the beach strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, is one of the ancestors of today's domestic strawberries. The plant is native to most of the west coast of North and South America, and was named after Chiloe Island in Southern Chile (700 mi south of Santiago). It grows on coastal dunes and grasslands, which can be harsh on the Pacific Coast, with such stresses as unrelenting winds, salt spray, and 8-9 months without rain. In the spring, it develops white five-petaled flowers and small red fruit.

Above photo © 2005 Doreen L. Smith, used with permission.

The story of how the beach strawberry entered the world of commercial agriculture is told in a direct way in the Oxford Companion to Food, and more indirectly and personally by Raymond Sokolov in his Why We Eat What We Eat. My comments below draw from both sources.

The strawberry named itself: its Latin name is "Fragaria", for its fragrance. There are four main species of wild strawberries:
  • Fragaria vesca, indigenous to Europe and Asia (photos at CalPhotos)
  • F. moschata, Central Europe
  • F. virginiana (the scarlet or Virginia strawberry), Eastern North American (photos at CalPhotos)
  • F. chiloensis (the pine or beach strawberry), West Coast of North and South America (photos at CalPhotos)

Although wild strawberries have small fruits, lots of seeds and low yield, they are sought after because of their wonderful flavor. Wild strawberries have probably been eaten by humans since their discovery, but serious cultivation attempts began in Europe in the 14th century. In the 17th century, a few decades after the Virginia colonies were established, the Virginia strawberry (F. virginiana) was brought back to Europe. However, it would not cross breed with the European wild strawberries.

Also in the 17th century, a few beach strawberry plants (F. chiloensis) were imported into France from Chile by a member of the French Navy named Amédée François Frézier. The specimens were given to the great botanist Bernard de Jussieu at the King's Garden in Paris. Jussieu propagated the plant and gave specimens to botanists around Europe. They tinkered and made a variety of fruit sizes (including some as large as an apple), but none had sufficiently attractive flavor, aroma, or hardiness to become commercial plants.

Another French botanist, Antoine Nicholas Duchesne, was working on the strawberry, and planted a Virginia strawberry near a beach strawberry in his experimental plots. The two New World plants cross pollinated, and produced a hardy plant with excellent fruit. It was named F. ananassa, because of a pineapple fragrance. These hybrids were sent to various botanists in Europe, with the first commercially successful plants produced in England in 1819 and called "Keen's seedlings." Some of these were brought to the United States and were used to start a commercial strawberry industry. In more recent times, University of California agriculture departments have worked hard to create new varieties.

It almost seems like a fairy tale. Scrawny and unruly plants from two opposite coasts of newly colonized continents accidentally meet in Paris, and their descendents go on to great success as a famous, delicious and versatile fruit.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

December Dal - Part 1, Masoor Dal

The cabinet that holds my legumes is getting nearly full, primarily because I have a bit of a control problem when I go into Indian markets. So many things look interesting and/or tasty that my basket quickly fills up. The many kinds of Indian dals are especially enticing (see D is for Dalimbay Bhatt by Nupur of One Hot Stove for a beautiful "gallery of dals"), but in the kitchen I all too often stick with one or two varieties. Given that I currently have about 10 different kinds (as seen in the above photo), I need to improve the my dal-cooking versatility. (Top row, from left to right, are toovar dal, whole mung beans, moong dal, split mung beans, split and peeled mung beans, channa dal. Bottom row jars, from left to right, are whole urad dal, split and peeled urad dal, split urad dal, and masoor dal.)

I thought it would be interesting and tasty to explore the elements in my "dal house" during the month of December. Each week I will cook a different dal and post something about the method and results. Ideally, it will be something new for me. However, in the first week I'm cooking one of my old favorites: Masoor dal with Bengali spices and tomatoes.

Part 1: Masoor dal

Split masoor dal are a coral pink color, and come in two general sizes: small and large. Small are about 2-3 mm across, large are 3-5 mm across. They cook quickly and do not require soaking. The flavor is mild but distinctive. I have also seen this dal labelled as masar, masur, and masor.

Masoor Dal with Bengali Spices and Tomatoes
Adapted from Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, by Julie Sahni

1 1/2 cups masoor dal
4 1/2 cups water
A few fresh hot chilies
1 t. turmeric
1 t. salt

1 large onion, diced
1 cup tomatoes, chopped fine (fresh or canned)
1 T. grated ginger

Spiced Oil
Vegetable oil or ghee
1 tablespoon panch phoron mix (see note below)
5 dry bay leaves
5 dried red chilies

(Unit conversion page)

The ingredients

The cooking process requires several steps: cooking the dal; cooking the onion, ginger and tomato; frying spices in oil; and assembling everything.

Cooking the Dal
Sort through the dal for rocks and other non-dal debris. Rinse the dal thoroughly, then put them in a large pot and cover with the water. Add the turmeric and salt. Turn the heat to high, and bring the mixture to a boil. Be watchful when the mixture nears the boiling point because legumes have an annoying tendency to boil over violently. When the mixture comes to a boil, turn the heat to medium-low and cook, partially covered, for about 20-30 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Cooking the lentils

Cooking the Onion-tomato-ginger mixture
In another pot or saute pan, heat some vegetable oil or ghee over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until they are soft. Add the tomato and ginger, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes more. If the dal has finished cooking, pour the onion mixture into the dal. Otherwise, set aside until the dal has finished cooking (then pour into the dal).

Frying the onion

Cooking the tomato, ginger, onion mixture

Making the spiced oil
In a small skillet, heat some vegetable oil or ghee (2-4 T.) over high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the panch phoron mix. Keep a pot lid handy in case the mustard seeds spatter. Stir or shake the mixture for about 20 seconds, then add the bay leaves and chiles, cook for a little longer.

Frying the spice mixture

After adding chilies and bay leaves

Assembling the dish
Pour the spice mixture into the dal. It might splatter a little bit, so keep back when you pour. Stir the dal, and simmer for a few minutes before serving. Serve with basmati rice and a vegetable side dish.

Panch phoron is a Bengali spice mixture containing equal quantities of five spices. My version is equal parts cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, black mustard seeds, black onion (a.k.a. Kalonji, Nigella) seeds and fennel seeds. Variations exist, with anise seed instead of fennel seeds, for example, or celery seed replacing mustard seeds.

Because it is so smooth and well-cooked, this dal freezes nicely for long storage. I typically make a large batch and freeze about 3 or 4 lunch-sized portions for those weeks when I don't have time to freshly prepare a lunch.

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