Vendakkai Kari (Pan-fried Okra)

I’ve always had a thing for cooking/buying local, in-season produce. I don’t understand people who live in India and pay Rs.200 for an avocado, or people living abroad hunting for imported Indian mangoes. Sure, once in a while is fine. But regularly, we should all try to eat local produce. They’re fresher, cheaper and definitely much healthier.

Hence, I frequent farmer’s markets. After our recent move, it took me one day to locate the time and place of the local market. It was quite easy given that the area of the island is just 75sqmi. But the local market here is so different from those I’ve been to before, the produce so different. Summer in NY means, best of fruits – peaches and apricots and berries. Here it’s mangoes. So many varieties of local mangoes. And star fruit and guavas and coconut. It’s quite a revelation. As far as veggies go, right now, okra and plantains are in season. I buy them every week and try out new ways to fix them.

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Today, I will give here my Okra recipe. I never buy frozen okra, because my favorite way to make it crispy, pan-fried, and okra and moisture don’t go well. Look how gorgeous this farmer’s market haul is! And I’ve never seen red okra before! I’ve always loved okra, and not because my mom told me that eating okra makes you a genius at Math. Now my kids love it too. It’s their favorite vegetable of all time. Here’s how I make it (and how my mom made it).

Pan-fried Okra (Vendakkai kari in Tamil)

Ingredients

Okra – 1/2 kg (about 1 pound)
Oil for tempering
Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
Urad dal – 1/2 tsp
Asafoetida – a pinch
Curry leaves – few
Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp
Red chili powder – 1tsp (You can change this based on your spice level, but I keep it here otherwise you can’t really taste the okra, or anything else)
Salt – to taste

Method

1. Wash the okra well. Wipe it well with a fresh tea towel. Let it sit in a colander for 10-15 min to air dry. You don’t want any water on the okra. Dry it again with a paper towel if you must. No water!

2. Slice it with a sharp knife, taking care not to bruise it too much. And don’t slice it carpaccio-thin, thinking it would be crisper. Slice it thusly.

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3. Use a wide pan. Don’t use your vANali/wok here. You need a pan wide enough to fit the okra without crowding it in a pile. You don’t want it to steam.

4. Heat oil (medium high heat). Temper mustard seeds, urad dal, asafoetida and curry leaves. Once the mustard seeds have spluttered and the dal is brown, add turmeric powder and chili powder. Don’t burn them, but let it mix with the oil well.

5. Add the chopped okra. Mix with the seasoned oil well and spread it out evenly in the pan so it’s not all crowded. Let it sit here and cook for a bit.

6. Resist the temptation to stir the okra too much. The more you stir, the more gooey the okra becomes. Also, notice we haven’t added salt yet. And we won’t till the very end. This is because salt is hydrophilic, and will draw moisture out of the food. We don’t want more moisture in there. Keep the heat at medium-high as well.

7. Stir the okra once every five minutes. so it cooks evenly on all sides. In about 15 min, you will notice, while stirring, the okra is no longer gooey and has turned color slightly. At this point, add salt to taste, stir well, and cook for another 5-7 minutes, till the okra is at desired level of crispness.

8. Take off heat and serve with rice/roti or just eat it off the pan. I’ve done all 3.

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Masala Bread

There was an Iyengar bakery in every corner of Madras in the 90s. There was one very close to my school. I’ve had so many slices of the spicy, fragrant masala bread from there, our bicycles parked outside, laughing with friends.. such happy times. Even now the aroma of cumin and onion and green chilies evokes memories from high school for me. Of course, this recipe is a bit more milder, mainly because my kids don’t like it too spicy.

Masala Bread

Ingredients:

3 &1/4 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 small bunch of cilantro,finely chopped
1 bunch of curry leaves, finely chopped
1 onion,finely chopped
1 tbsp green chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
2-3 pinches of salt
1 tsp of turmeric
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Method:
1) Make masala:
Heat 1tbsp of oil, add cumin. Then add onions, chili, curry leaves, salt & turmeric. Saute for 4-5 min, turn off the heat and add the cilantro. Let the masala cool.

2) Make Dough:
Warm the milk in the microwave for 20-30 seconds (Milk should be luke warm).
Add sugar and yeast and mix well. Let it sit for 10 min till it becomes frothy.
In a big bowl, mix dough, oil, yeast mixture and salt. Add the water and mix till the dough is homogenous.
Add the masala and mix once more.
Then knead the dough on a floured counter for about 10 min, till the dough isn’t sticky, but soft and springy. (you can do this whole thing in a stand mixer too)
Shape into a ball, place it in an oiled bowl, and cover with a tea towel. Let it proof in a warm place for an hour- 90 min.

3) Shape the dough:
Punch the dough to de-gas.
On a floured counter, flatten the dough to a roughly rectangle shape. The width of the rectangle should be the same as the length of your loaf pan.
Fold the lengthy side of the rectangle (which is closer to you) a little past the half way of the length of the rectangle. Fold over the other side, overlapping slightly. (It is like folding a letter to put in an envelope, except for the overlap).
Seal the seam tightly by pinching together (so that the top of the loaf is nice and taut).
Place in the greased loaf pan seam side down.
Cover with a oiled plastic wrap loosely (the loaf will rise over the pan and you want it to rise).
Let the dough rise till the center is about an inch over the loaf pan sides (about an hour-90min)

4) Bake the bread:
Preheat your oven to 375F.
Brush the top of the loaf with milk/butter.
Bake for 45-50 min, until the top is golden brown. Turn the pan around 180degress halfway through baking, so it bakes evenly.
Take the bread out, let it sit in the pan for 10 min, turn out on the cooling rack, and let it cool completely before slicing.
Slice with a serrated blade (motion like a saw) for uniform slicing.

Tips:

Alternately, you can also shape the dough into buns, dinner rolls etc. Baking times would vary: about 20-25 min for dinner rolls, 18-20 min for buns.
Herbs can be varied: you can use dill or parsley instead of cilantro. And you can make your bread more spicier with more green chilies.
Since the bread has no preservatives, it will harden after 2-3 days. Don’t throw it away, it makes amazing ‘spicy french toast’.

Kancheepuram Idli

Temples in India are special in that they attract food enthusiasts and gourmands as well, thanks to their “prasadham” (offering). Each temple (let me stick to my homeland) in Tamilnadu, has it’s own special food offering. And for a relatively cheap price, sell it to all the visitors. One temple in Kancheepuram, Varadharajar temple, offers this special, spicy idli as prasadham. My mom tells me, her great uncle was the cook there for many years, making these idlis day after day, and this recipe from him, has been in the family forever. Try it, it’s both healthy and delicious, with a spicy kick from the dry ginger and black peppercorns.

Kancheepuram Idli

Ingredients:

Idli Rice – 1 cup
Raw Rice – 1 cup
Black Urad dal – 1 cup
Salt – as per taste
Sour yogurt – 1/4 cup
Dry ginger (sukku) – 1″ piece
Black Pepper Corn – 1 tbsp
Cumin – 1/2 tbsp
Curry leaves (fresh) – 10
Ghee – 2 tbsp

Method:

1. Soak black urad dal overnight.
2. In the morning, soak the rice, for 3-4 hours.
3. Grind the dal, and rice  separately, into thick batter (don’t add too much water).
4. Mix the dal and rice batter with salt, and ferment for 10-12 hours. (or until the dough rises and has bubbles on the surface). At this point, you can store the batter in the refrigerator for future use. It can be used for a week.
5. On the day of cooking, mix in sour yogurt (just leave 1/4 cup of yogurt on the counter overnight).
6. Coarsely powder dry ginger, cumin and black peppercorns and add it to the dough, along with fresh curry leaves.
7. Heat the ghee (clarified butter) in a small pan, and pour hot ghee over the spice powder on the batter.
8. Mix the batter well.
9. Now you have two choices, you can cook it in regular idli pan for 20 mins, or pour all the batter into a cake pan, or the steamer pan of your rice cooker (lined with aluminum foil), and steam for an hour or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
10. Cut into wedges and serve with idli molaga podi, or chutney of your choice.

Tips:

1. If you can’t find whole black urad dal, you could replace it with regular urad dal. You don’t have to soak regular urad dal overnight though.