Monday, May 30, 2011

Samosa Inspired Tartlets

My parents entertained a lot when we were kids. The day of a dinner party, my mom would pat ground beef into cutlets and whack apart a whole chicken for biryani. She would fry papadum, one by one, and stir together a bowl of raitha. For dessert, she would roll out dozens of little footballs from a milk-based dough (her signature shape for gulab jaman), fry them, and soak them in a simple syrup perfumed with cardamom and rose water. She never referred to recipes while she cooked.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

When I walked into the kitchen after completing a task I had been assigned (dusting shelves, vacuuming stairs, polishing mirrors), she would accost me with questions.

"Does the rice have enough salt?" "Are the cutlets too hot?"

By mid-day, there was desperation in her voice.

"Did I fry enough papadum???"

My mom always felt trapped in the kitchen
. But she had standards to uphold. I had seen it in India. My aunts served multiple courses and pulled everything together from scratch. They closely monitored guests as they ate and plopped servings of rice on half-filled plates. When glasses were emptied, they were quick to fill them.

Thirty minutes before the dinner party was supposed to start, my mom would put the mop away and fold up wet dish towels. My dad would put the needle on a record of belly dancing music and bring out the wine glasses.

Their guests would always stay well into the night. I took it as a sign that my parents had done something right.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2010)

(2010 Cardamom Kitchen LLC All Rights Reserved)

I've preserved my mom's three-course tradition. It charms and baffles my guests since so few people seem to cook these day. But I have tweaked my mom's menu to make it my own. I serve a lighter starter: samosa inspired tartlets. They are faster to make than cutlets and less filing than regular samosas. The phyllo cups offer a wonderful crunch. If you're in a hurry, skip all the spices except for cumin, garlic, cayenne and salt.

Makes 12 tartlets


For tartlets:

6 sheets phyllo dough

For filing:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup boiled and cubed potatoes
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 teaspoon finely minced ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
2 teaspoons finely diced cilantro

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Unwrap six sheets of phyllo from the roll. Keep the sheets stacked and place them on a cutting board. Using kitchen scissors, cut out 12 3 inch x 3 inch squares from the dough. Gently push a square of phyllo in each cup of a miniature muffin tin.

Bake until the cups become golden brown, about 10 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Gently remove the cups from the tin. Time saver: The phyllo cups can be baked up to one month ahead. Store them in an air tight container at room temperature. Do not put them in the refrigerator. The moisture will cause the cups to soften and wilt.

Heat the oil on medium heat in saucepan. Add the onions and ginger and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the cumin, garlic powder, garam masala, turmeric, cayenne, and salt. Cook for another 5 minutes.

Add the potatoes and peas. Cook until the peas become bright green, about 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro. Cool.

Place the phyllo cups on serving plate and fill them with the potato mixture.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)
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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Strawberry Banana Bread

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

A few weeks ago, I traveled to southern Illinois. For most of the six-hour journey, our train chugged through open prairie. Golden rods layered the fields and, hawks dipped into sight, slicing the air with their broad, scalloped wings. I nodded in and out of sleep soon after we left Chicago. By the time the conductor announced "Effingham, Effingham, Illinois!" I could no longer sleep. I sat up and started scribbling a list of things I wanted to do during my brief visit. It began with picking strawberries.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

As a child, I spent summers catching army green frogs and stirring wild mint with water from the garden hose. At dusk, my friend Annette and I would track lightening bugs with repurposed glass jars, devising new navigational strategies when the sky turned black enough to see the stars.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

During summer vacation, Annette's mom would take us strawberry picking. At the farm, we would hop on to a flatbed waiting in the parking lot and dangle our feet over the edge. Once all the U-pickers had boarded, the truck inched toward the berries, passing a barn, tractors, and maybe a few cows. Soon, rows of strawberry plants appeared. We would hoist ourselves to the ground, cushioned by a light layering of hay, and spend the morning hovered over the plants, pulling back their leaves in search of the colorful, low-lying fruit.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

When I left Chicago, the strawberry plants in the community garden had just unfurled their leaves. It would be several weeks before they grew delicate, daisy-like flowers and even longer before any fruit appeared. In the region of the Bible Belt where I grew up, the strawberry farms would be open for the first round of picking. All winter long, I had longed for the floral sweetness of June bearing strawberries. With a little luck, I would be able to enjoy a bowlful alongside a plate of fried catfish and some sweet iced tea.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)


When I tracked down the list of fruits that contain the most pesticides, I learned that strawberries are part of the Dirty Dozen. So be sure to wash them thoroughly before you use them or buy organic strawberries. Do the same with lemons.

Also, try to use strawberries as soon as possible. If you need to store them for a day or two, lay them out in a single layer and refrigerate them. Be sure to throw out moldy berries to keep mold from spreading.


1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wheat flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup strawberries, finely diced
1 1/2 cups mashed ripe bananas (about 3 bananas)
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons plain nonfat yogurt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
6 teaspoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla


Heat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. 

In another bowl, mix together the strawberries, bananas, lemon zest, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla.

Carefully mix the banana-strawberry mixture into the dry ingredients until the flour is just absorbed. Do not over mix.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan.

Bake until the bread is golden brown, about an hour. Cool for at least 15 minutes on wire rack.

Susan Pachikara (COPYRIGHT 2011)

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Kerala-Style Fried Fish

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

The first day I was in Kottayam, Iyshakochamma and I went in search of a meen chutty – an earthenware pot dedicated to cooSking fish. We walked to the main thoroughfare to flag down an auto rickshaw. Tatas, Suzukis, and the pod-shaped three wheelers zipped by us, like twigs travelling downstream. After several minutes of futile waving, a rickshaw swung off the road and abruptly stopped in front of us. We slid in back. Iyshakochamma asked the driver to take us to the main business district and he strong-armed the steering wheel back towards the charging traffic.

As the driver dodged harried taxis, barreling buses, and whole families on scooters, we jerked left and right, up and down. Flocks of school children, street side temples, and white washed churches where Syrian Christians worship shot by on either side. Our hair tossed and flipped in the gritty, open air and our noses perked as the smell of fried fish, exhaust, and jasmine ebbed and flowed. After several minutes, we pulled behind a truck transporting a towering heap of green bananas and we followed it to a large open market.

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

We slipped out of the rickshaw and into a zig-zag of commerce being carried out of storefronts, off carts and curbsides. A lemon vendor gave way to a man selling fresh fish. A purveyor of coconuts segued into a woman peddling bananas. We passed concord grapes with skin that rivaled fine velvet and sunset yellow papayas. Hawkers beckoned us to try their lanky beans, which sat within eyesight of ruddy tomatoes and pineapples topped with fountains of green. 

The Portuguese who were the first to find a sea route to India brought much of this bounty. Their most pivotal contribution to India, and other parts of Asia, was the introduction of the chili. The spice is so integral to everyday Kerala cooking that nearly every family has a hot pepper plant (and when I was charting out my plot in the community garden, miles away, my mom insisted that I plant hot peppers, which I did.) At the market, we saw an array of chili – red, green, fat, lean. 

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)

As we navigated the bustling market, Iyshakochamma continued sleuthing for the meen chutty. Each vendor directed us to walk a bit further. About an hour into our search, we came to a narrow alleyway. An elderly woman in a faded cotton sari stood in a doorway. Around her feet, sat an army of clay red and charcoal black meen chutties, their straight sides giving way to a slightly rounded bottom. These pots conduct heat more evenly than their aluminum counterparts and are ideal for gently cooking fish. The woman turned over my selection, and tapped the bottom, testing its craftsmanship in front of us. She handed me the pot shrouded in newspaper and we headed home. 


This recipe demonstrates how gorgeous cayenne pepper tastes when it is part of a simple, well-balanced spice mixture. Here it adds dynamic flavor rather than overpowering heat. (When a dish is really hot, it can be because the spices are poorly portioned. Items that are meant to be hot-hot, such as pickles and chutneys, tend to be eaten in small portions.)

I love making this recipe with salmon, but you can substitute just about any other fish from catfish to pampano. It's glorious with sardines, but they'll leave a fishy odor in your kitchen for days. Also, this recipe is very delicious broiled or grilled if you prefer a more heart heathy dish.

Serves 4 to 6


1 pound salmon fillets
2 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash of turmeric
2 tablespoons shallots, finely minced (optional)
2 teaspoons water
Canola oil for deep frying

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)


Wash the salmon and slice it into roughly 2 inch x 3 inch pieces. Cut 1/2 inch diagonal slits into flesh.

Mash the shallots in a mortar and pestle.

In a small bowl, mix the cayenne, garlic powder, salt, turmeric, and shallots. Add the water and mix to form a paste.

Rub the fish with the paste. Marinate it in the refrigerate for at least two hours.

Heat the oil in a pot over medium high heat. Add the onion slices. Add a few pieces of fish, skin side down to oil. Lower the heat to medium and cook until the fish browns, about 5 minutes. Turn the fish and cook other side.

Remove the fish from the oil with a slotted spoon and place it on a paper towel to cool.

(Susan Pachikara COPYRIGHT 2011)
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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Asparagus Soup

Chicago winters last a long time. I don't mind the low temperatures or the snow. (I spent my early childhood in Canada.) But the gray skies that persist from late November through mid-April are another thing. For five months, Mother Nature experiments with nearly every shade of gray: steel gray, bluish-gray, pinkish-gray, the list goes on. In December, the dreary skies are bearable because most of us are distracted by the commotion of the holidays and the promise of the New Year. Snow is a novelty, a delight, really, compared to the late fall landscape - bare trees, dead leaves, tired brown grass. 

In January, snow blankets the ground and the sky is often a whitish-gray, making the horizon hard to find. We continue to take pleasure in fresh snow, packing it into snowballs, rolling into snowmen, listening for the crunch under our feet. By February, we begin to feel sapped by the lack of color and days being book marked by darkness. We boast of our Midwest hardiness, but deep inside, we long for winter’s spell to be lifted. March brings about the cracking point. We feel crazed by weeks without sun, so crazed we expect a ground hog to bring about winter’s end. Still, we keep our spring clothes in storage and goggle “beach vacations” should it linger on.

Early April brings forth the tempestuous side of spring - fits of rain, temperature dips, and crabby skies. We replace boots with waterproof shoes and scarves with umbrellas. The snow melts away, leaving weathered sidewalks and naked trees. Not the sort of change we've ached for. Then slowly, amidst the chill and sullenness, golden clouds begin to huddle among the trees; their soft contours and luminous color countering months of monotony. 

In fact, the clouds turn out to be bouquets of tiny yellow flowers with bright green stems. Their colors blend into the new birth green that appears only in spring, and "is Her (nature's) hardest hue to hold" as Robert Frost concluded. Within days, rain scatters many of the bouquets over sidewalks and into gutters, spreading fragments of color from the sky to the ground.

Daffodils and dandelions usher in even more green and gold. As the grass gets a solid footing, the trees toss off hundreds of tiny golden petals, inaugurating the end of winter’s long reach with the regality of a royal wedding.



This time of year, when the heater continues to kick on, there are days I crave the comfort of soup. This dish, which blends asparagus, artichokes, and leeks, offers warmth while capturing the freshness of spring. I like to include the eggs, cooked until the yolks are silky. But the soup is full-flavored without them. Also, if you're itching to make your own bread, take a look at Jim Lahey's book. He makes it remarkably easy. Really, you'll be amazed.

Also, here's a helpful video on prepping leeks.

Serves 6-8


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium leek
2 pounds of asparagus, washed
1 teaspoon minced garlic
4 cups (or two 14.5 cans) vegetable broth
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 jar (6.5 ounce) marinated artichoke hearts
6 eggs
Pecorino cheese as garnish


Slice away the dark green portion of the leek. Cut the white base into disks widthwise. Place the pieces in a bowl and cover them with water. Rinse until all of the silt is removed. Drain.

Chop off the ends of the asparagus. With a peeler, remove the outer skin from the woody section (usually the bottom 2 inches or so). Chop the spears into 2-inch pieces.

Heat the oil in Dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat. Add the leek. Cook for 3 minutes. Add the asparagus, garlic, stock, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until the asparagus is tender. Let cool for 5 minutes.

Place the eggs in a pot and cover them with water. Bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and cover the pot with a lid. After 5 minutes, transfer the eggs to a bowl of cold water. Let them cool for 3 minutes. Peel the eggs.

Place the artichokes and 2 cups of soup in a blender or food processor. Puree. Stir it back into soup.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Top each bowl with a sliced egg and a sprinkling of cheese. Serve with crusty bread.

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