Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mung Bean (Dhal) Pudding


Having grown up on juicy mangoes, plump papaya, and other freshly plucked tropical fruit, my mom often ended family meals with a serving of fruit. (To do this day, I don’t know anyone who can skin, core, and carve pineapple with as much ease and speed). Baking required an irksome degree of precision that she generally reserved for birthdays. In the lulls between, we snacked on Oreos, Twinkies, and other prepared desserts until I took over all the baking. 


At least once a month, my mom prepared an elaborate meal for dinner guests which required retrieving a long list of groceries and being marooned in the kitchen for hours. If everything seemed on task by mid-afternoon, she mixed together dough for gulab jamun (more on that later). If the menu felt out of hand, she would send my dad on a run for a 3-layer Pepperidge Farm cake. I loved how the frosting formed right angles on all four corners of the cake as a kid. 


Like all the women that came before her, my mom has always used food to express love and other deep emotions. So for my dad’s birthday and other very special occasions celebrated with family, she makes payasm (mung dhal pudding). A labor of love, I’m convinced that it has helped sustain their 50 plus year marriage.  



Serves 4

Mung Dhal Pudding (Payasam) is my favorite Indian dessert. It has a rich caramel base flavored with cardamom, cumin, and ginger. The dhal gives it a chunky, chewy texture. Although it is traditionally made with slivers of coconut pan-fried in butter, I grew up eating it with chopped cashews and raisons which is equally delicious. The dhal takes a while to cook. If you're short on time, prepare it ahead of time.


1 cup whole, skinned mung dhal (green gram)
2½ cups water
¼ teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons sweet molasses
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cardamom pods or ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1¼ cup half and half
½ cup cashews, chopped
½ cup raisins


Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the dhal in a single layer on a large cookie sheet. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring once or twice to ensure even browning. The dhal will turn brownish-green when it’s cooked. Cool.

In a blender, process the dhal on the lowest speed until the lentils split and their skins become powdered (about 1 to 2 minutes). 

Pour the dhal in a medium size saucepan and cover it with water. Swish the water around with your fingers to force the powdered skins to the surface. Slowly pour out the cloudy water and repeat until the rinse water is almost clear. Drain. 

Add the water and salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook until the dhal is soft, about 1½ to 2 hours. 

Gently mash the dhal with the back of a spoon. 

Add the molasses, sugar, 2 tablespoons of butter, and stir. Cook over medium-low heat until the butter melts, stirring frequently. 

Crush the cardamom pods using a mortar and pestle. Discard the papery husks and powder the seeds. 

Add the cardamom, cumin, ginger, and half and half. Stir and cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Put the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. When it melts, add the cashews and raisins. Cook until the cashews turn golden, stirring frequently. Mix into the dhal. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Kerala Fried Shrimp


At the heart of winter, when Chicago skies are still sullen, I like to reminisce about trips to the  beach.  Among those memories, one of my favorites is a family vacation we took to Kovalam, Kerala. I was ten at the time, and vexed to be spending so much of my summer vacation in India. Back in the Midwest, my friends were playing Jacks, biking with abandon, and plotting to win over all the cute boys.


By the time our family got to Kovalam, we’d spent hours shuffling between a tangle of relatives squeezed in the back of Ambassadors fitted with bony seats. We’d been stuffed with rice, charred by the sun, and pelted by thunderous monsoon rain. We were in need of respite. 


What we came upon back in the eighties, was a mellow beach town that borders the Arabian Sea. We kicked off our chappals (sandals), crossed the warm yellow-white sand, raised our skirts modestly, and frolicked in the low-tide. 

In the evening, we dined on shrimp and other freshly caught seafood that so deftly defines Kerala cuisine. Afterwards, we fell into bed with our stomachs full.  


Around 3 a.m., the electricity got cut. The fans stopped working, and we became a Smorgasbord for a hoard of mosquitoes making it impossible to sleep. With no end to the onslaught in sight, we got dressed and headed back out the beach just into time to catch the ghostly silhouettes of local fishermen heading out for their first catch.   



Serves 4 

It took me a couple of years to realize that hot peppers are my mom’s secret weapon. They not only add heat to her culinary repertoire, they heighten the flavor of other ingredients, much like salt. Cayenne plays the starring role in my mom’s recipe for fried shrimp. For added flavor, puree the shallots and mix them into the marinade before coating the shrimp. 


2½ teaspoons cayenne
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons water
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 large shallots roughly chopped (optional)
2 cups canola oil


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

Place the shrimp in a medium sized bowl. Rub it with the paste, thoroughly coating each piece. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. 

Line a large plate with paper towels. Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium high heat. 

Place the shallots and several shrimp in the oil and lower the heat to medium. Cook until the shrimp become opaque, turning them in the oil to ensure even cooking. 

Remove the shrimp with a slotted spoon and place them on the paper towels to cool. 

Repeat until all the shrimp is cooked. Remove the shallots with the last batch of shrimp.
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