Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shubhra Ramineni’s “Palak” Paneer

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I first met the genteel and beautiful Shubhra Ramineni at a pasta class hosted by fellow Chowhound Jay Francis.  With her handsome husband and the cutest baby in tow, she graciously allowed us a first look at her cookbook, Entice with Spice, Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People which was in the process of publication. 

imageUpon opening the book, I was greeted by a collage of family photos, travel images of India and of course, Indian food and markets.   Particularly catchy to me was a colorful map of Shubhra’s motherland citing family members’ birthplaces, notable monuments and regional food products.  What followed was a listing of over 90 recipes and a veritable account of how a successful engineer became a cook and author:  it came from a need to drop the unhealthy eating habits she had developed as an overworked corporate individual and go back to the nutritious diet on which she was raised.  

Shubhra naturally turned to her family for recipes and developed them with a busy lifestyle in mind.  The novice cook will find an invaluable 25-page mini-encyclopedia within the book which includes sections headed Indian Cooking Made Easy; Cookware and Tools; Tips and Techniques; Freezing, Refrigerating and Reheating Methods; and Essential Indian Ingredients.  Did you know that in India “curry” is a plant and also means ‘gravy’ or ‘sauce’ and not the blend of spices developed by English colonists; that the bright red color of tandoori chicken comes from the addition of coloring (!); and that carom seeds (a new one for me) aid in settling upset gassy tummies?   The book has helpful tips accompanying many recipes; some including instructional photos showing the important steps.

I have had limited success with cooking Indian food because I was usually following recipes with a mind-boggling array of spices and complicated and long-winded cooking methods.  After less than stellar results, my family would drop hints about “going out for Indian” more often!  That’s not the case with Shubhra’s Saag Paneer.  It’s my favorite Indian dish and the first recipe I made from her book.   Hubs and I finished it off quickly and I made more a few days later.  It is easy to make and it’s full of spicy flavor!  For part of the spinach, I substituted chard and kale that I harvested in the beautiful garden of Ralph Smith Photography.   The garden is an organic wonder that provides herbs, fruits and vegetables year round, some of which are used in Ralph’s photo shoots.

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A colorful feast for the eyes

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Creamy and spicy with home made paneer

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“Palak” Paneer slightly adapted from Shubhra Ramineni’s Saag Paneer

Serves 4

1 pound (500g) fresh chard, washed, de-ribbed and coarsely chopped

1 pound (500g) fresh spinach, washed, trimmed and coarsely chopped, or a 10-ounce (285g) package of frozen spinach

2 ripe tomatoes, quartered

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

¼ to ½ heaping teaspoon cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

1 small onion, diced

1 – 2 serrano peppers, diced

1 recipe Paneer (Indian cheese), cubed and pan-fried, see recipe below

½ cup (125ml) heavy cream, or more to taste

Place chard, spinach and tomato in a medium saucepan over medium heat. If you’re using frozen spinach add ½ cup water. Cook for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add turmeric, red pepper, salt and black pepper. Stir to combine and cover. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The greens will become soft and tender and the tomatoes will become mushy. Remove from heat and puree using an immersion blender or transfer contents to a blender and puree until smooth.

Pour the oil into a small skillet and place over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the ginger, onion and serrano pepper. Sauté until the onion is browned, stirring frequently, about 4 minutes. Pour into the saucepan with the greens. Add the paneer (cheese cubes) and heavy cream and stir to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Enjoy immediately or cool and refrigerate for later.

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Paneer (Indian cheese)

Makes ¼ pound (125g)

4 cups (1 liter) whole milk

juice of 1 lime

Pour milk into a heavy medium pot. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat, stirring frequently as it comes to a boil. Don’t let it boil over. Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low.

Add lime juice and stir for about 45 seconds or until the milk separates into curds (solids) and whey (liquid). If the milk does not separate add more lime juice - 2 teaspoons at a time – until it separates.

Fold a large piece of cheesecloth to create four layers. Line a colander with cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl to catch the whey. Pour the curds into the cheesecloth. Let the whey drain through the cheesecloth into the bowl.

Gather the sides of the cheesecloth to create a bundle and press it against the side of the pot to squeeze out the excess whey. Be careful as it will be hot.

Place the bundle on a plate. Unfold the cheesecloth and with your hands, mold the cheese, now paneer, into a square block about ¾-inch thick. Fold the cheesecloth back over the paneer.

Pour the whey into the pot that the milk boiled in. Place the pot on top of the paneer and allow the rest of the whey to drain out, about 30 minutes.

Remove pot and discard the whey. Unfold the cheesecloth. Transfer the paneer to a plate and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a minimum of one hour and up to one day before using.

To fry Paneer:  Cut the paneer into ¾-inch cubes. You should get about 16 or so. Pour 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil into a non-stick skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the cubed paneer. Fry the cubes until they are lightly browned on all sides, turning very carefully to retain their shapes. Remove from skillet and drain on a plate that has been lined with a paper towel.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Root Vegetable Soup

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As I sit at my computer today, the sun has made a strong appearance and is cheekily playing on the lifeless leaves of our many dead plants and trees.  The view outside is not too encouraging.  After two hard freezes earlier this month and the promise of snow (alas, Mother Nature did not deliver) it’s time to uproot that which could not withstand the extreme temperatures and wind, and replant.

After the loss of a bumper producing Key (Mexican) lime tree – the one that was responsible for the most amazing ‘Lime-cello’ - we have decided that our new lime trees will grow in large pots from now on.  Even though it will be a pain to move them come winter, it will be easier than having to start anew.  Citrus trees take several years to establish themselves but once they are ready their harvests are truly enjoyable!  After finally amazing us with dozens of beautiful lemons hanging like golden ornaments a couple of years ago my Meyer lemon produced only 2 lemons this year.  I’m hoping it will recover in time for the next crop. 

I was fortunate not to have to leave home while temperatures in the twenties brought freezing rain and caused no less than 750 traffic accidents during a 15-hour period alone!  There was much whining down south and much teasing from our hardier countrymen up north!  Say what you will, but our cars and homes are equipped to handle extreme heat and not the ice and freeze, and the memory of Husbie watching TV with his ski cap on always produces a chuckle!

This Root Vegetable Soup first introduced on New Year’s Day made a heartwarming reprise.  Each root vegetable has a distinctive flavor that is not lost in the simple broth.  It’s not too late to make it this winter.

From left to right:  rutabaga, carrots, fennel, red jalapeno peppers, garlic and parsnips

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Root Vegetable Soup

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ onion, diced

1 small fennel bulb, trimmed at the bottom and sliced, including tops (save some leaves for decoration)

½ red bell pepper or 2 red jalapeno peppers, halved lengthwise and then sliced

1 clove garlic, smashed, peeled and sliced

1 small rutabaga, peeled and diced in ¾ inch pieces

1 carrot, peeled and sliced into ½ inch discs

1 parsnip, peeled and sliced into ½ inch discs

6 black whole peppercorns

5 - 6 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade

salt, to taste

1 chicken bouillon cube, optional

1 scallion, sliced on the diagonal

sprinkle of red pepper flakes for some heat, optional

Heat olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until soft and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add fennel, red peppers and garlic. Sauté for 1 minute, stirring constantly so that the garlic doesn’t burn.

Add rutabaga, carrot, parsnip and peppercorns to the pot. Cover with chicken broth and cook until vegetables are just tender. Season with salt and chicken bouillon, if desired.

Serve hot with sliced scallion, red pepper flakes and fennel fronds.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Roasted poblano and corn soup

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Every New Year’s Day our home calls for a gathering of family and friends.   After the detritus from fireworks has been swept away and our minds have cleared of the bubbly imbibed the night before, those closest to me trickle in for a low-key celebration to welcome the start of a new calendar year.  The stars of the meal are invariably Krofne - Serbian doughnuts.  Sweet and yeasty, they symbolize growth, abundance and everything good from the first day on.   While the yeast dough is rising and the kids wait patiently for the first batch of krofne to come out of the fryer, we indulge in a variety of soups.   In the old country soup is consumed almost every day and is an integral part of the main meal.   A clear thin broth at the start stimulates the appetite for heavier courses to follow.

In our new homeland, there are heartwarming and nourishing favorites that make an appearance every New Year’s Day – my sister’s Chicken Tortilla Soup from Stop and Smell the Rosemary;  Wild Mushroom Soup - a thick and creamy combination of wild and cultivated mushrooms always laced with sherry, port or Marsala and sometimes finished off with dried porcini powder; and Debbie’s Potato Soup that I learned to make during a ski trip to Utah several years ago. 

Since I love to change things up and can’t leave well alone (a common complaint of favorite husband!) I introduce a couple of new soups every year.  This year I made a Root Vegetable Soup including rutabagas and parsnips and a Roasted Poblano and Corn Soup.   Both were very well received!

My personal favorite this year was the Roasted Poblano and Corn Soup.   I come from a food culture that takes its peppers very seriously.  Every fall a haze blankets the old country and excites the senses with its sweet-smoky aroma.  Caused by the rising smoke of roasting sumptuous red peppers, families gather to make and can this distinctive relish known as ajvar.   It is a labor-intensive but much loved tradition.   Ajvar defines our cuisine and is eaten daily throughout the year. 

Living in Texas and in close proximity to Mexico has been a boon for me when it comes to food.   I think it’s safe to say that much of Mexican cuisine includes the use of an enormous variety of peppers.   Native to South and Central America, peppers were introduced to southeast Asia hundreds of years ago and spread throughout the world during the spice trade.   The poblano pepper has been my favorite pepper for many years now.   Far more complex in taste than your common green bell pepper, the poblano chile can range in heat from mild to hot.   My Roasted Poblano and Corn Soup will be as spicy as the heat intensity in the poblano peppers dictate.   In my mind, the higher on the poblano range of the Scoville scale the better!  

The poblano pepper’s firm walls and pseudo heart shape lends itself well to being roasted and stuffed as in Chiles en Nogada and Chiles Rellenos.   Poblano chiles are a bold contrast to avocados in my favorite omelette and add crunch to a flavorful chicken salad.    When dried, the poblano chile is called an ancho chile, a key ingredient of Mexican mole

Poblano peppers under the broiler.   Roasting the peppers imparts a smoky flavor and intensifies the heat:

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As you can see the skin has already separated from the flesh and is very easy to peel:

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Corn, another ‘new world’ wonder, adds sweetness and balance to the heat:

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The soup before it is blended:

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Roasted Poblano and Corn Soup  loosely adapted from a recipe by M.S. Milliken & S. Feniger

Serves 6

9 – 10 poblano chiles, about 2 pounds

2 ears or fresh corn, husks intact, silken ends trimmed

1 quart milk (I used 1% but any other milk will do)

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 large cloves garlic, minced

½ -1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 cups chicken stock

chopped chives, cilantro, sour cream and lime segments for garnish, optional

To roast the poblano chiles and corn you may grill or broil them – the choice is yours. Preheat the broiler in your oven or fire up your grill. Grease the poblanos by dipping your fingers in a little oil and rubbing them all around. Place poblanos and corn about 5 inches below the broiler or on the grill. Roast until charred on all sides, turning every few minutes. Place roasted poblanos in a bowl or paper bag. Cover and allow them to steam for about 15 minutes. Now clean them but do not run them under water to rinse them. You will lose their flavorful juices if you do so. Carefully peel the skin off the poblanos. Pull the stem off but be careful not to burn your fingers as the steam escapes.  Split the poblanos in two lengthwise. Remove the seeds and discard. Chop coarsely and place in a bowl with any juices that they may have released. When the corn husks are charred on all sides, remove them from the broiler or grill and cool. Remove husks and silk and cut kernels off with a knife. Place in a bowl with the chopped poblano peppers. Set aside.

Infuse the milk by placing it in a medium saucepan with the cumin seeds and bay leaf. Place over medium heat and bring to a bare simmer but do not boil. Remove from heat and let sit for 20 minutes.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and sauté until starting to brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the garlic and ground cumin and cook, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes. Then stir in the diced poblanos and corn kernels and continue to cook over low heat for 5 more minutes.

Using a sieve, strain the infused milk into the corn and chili mixture. Add the chicken stock and bring to a slow simmer over low heat. Simmer gently for 15 minutes.

To puree the soup you can use an immersion blender and puree to the consistency of your liking. You can also cool the soup for about 20 minutes (to prevent possible explosion of soup) and pour it into a food processor or blender to puree it. Pour it back into the soup pot to warm before serving.

Serve hot with sour cream, chives and cilantro as garnish and a squeeze of few drops of fresh lime juice.

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