Thursday, September 20, 2018

Spiced Yogurt (Morum Vellam)


When we traveled to India as a family, we landed in Cochin during the summer monsoon season. Torrential rains soaked the ground, and although black umbrellas were pulled out to protect us, our chappals were often engulfed in a wave of water. At night, lightening blazed across the sky as if competing with the candles that were lit when the electricity went out. Thunder erupted with the force of what felt like 1,000 tons of TNT, occasionally jolting me out of sleep.

Crush ginger and onions

The heavy rains were accompanied by highs of 90 degrees and oppressive humidity. At the time, no one had air-conditioning, and the muggy air, which moistened the back of my neck and lower back, was circulated around the room by high-powered ceiling fans.
 Add curry leaves_edited-1
No matter where we went, piping hot tea was offered to ward off the heavy-handed heat. It was combined with whole milk and a very generous quantity of sugar. Sari shops and jewelry stores handed it out in a ceramic mugs mid-way through a sale. Snack vendors poured the scalding drink from one steel cup to another to produce a froth before serving it to customers who they had beckoned with their rhythmic call. "Chai, chai, chai, chai!!!”

Stir ingredients

At some point, I’d start to complain about having to drink so much tea as it never seemed to quench my thirst and, worse yet, forced me to frequent the bathroom. In response, my parents would buy me a bottle of Thums Up or Campa Cola from a snack stand en route to a relative’s house. They would also stop the car for tender coconuts that had been harvested and scalped with a sharp machete for their fresh, rejuvenating water. Afterwards, my parents would eagerly scoop out the tender flesh, which giggled like a soft boiled egg. At the time, I thought they were crazy.


When I complained to my aunts about having to drink so much tea, they would make me a glass of sweetened lime juice or morum vellam (spiced yogurt). Both drinks were perfect for battling Kerala’s tropical heat. 

Morum vellam


Serves 2 to 4

Morum Vellam is a comforting drink any time of year. If you’re sensitive to heat, I suggest removing the seeds and ribs from the serrano pepper before adding it in.


1 cup organic low-fat yogurt
2 cups water
10 curry leaves
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot or red onion
1 tablespoon roughly chopped ginger
1 small serrano pepper, sliced lengthwise - hot
3/4 teaspoon salt


Crush the onions and ginger using a mortar and pestle.

Put the yogurt and water in a blender. Blend them together until fully incorporated. Pour into a pitcher. 

Add the curry leaves, ginger, pepper, and salt. Stir together. 

Chill for 4 to 6 hours. 

Strain liquid to remove curry leaves, ginger, and pepper.
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Saturday, August 4, 2018

Slice and Dice: Summer Melon

Watermelon and canteloupe with prosciutto

Melons are the underdogs of summer. Bulky and thick-skinned, their beauty lies within (making them easy to ignore). However, on a hot day when there’s sweat suspended on your brow, melons provide more relief than a pretty peach or a palmful of berries. Nearly 90 percent water, a wedge of watermelon or spoonful of cantaloupe often offers more nuance and refreshment than a fancy poolside drink. So, if you didn't get a beach vacation this summer, don’t fret. Pull out a lawn chair and slice up a melon.   

How to Select a Summer Melon

Although there are many varieties of melon grown in the U.S., cantaloupe and watermelon are often the easiest to find. The fruit that is sold as cantaloupe is often really muskmelon. Unlike true cantaloupe, muskmelon has deeply netted skin that resembles a curvy Celtic pattern. Look for a muskmelon that feels solid, but is not rock hard. Beware: If the skin has a greenish tone, it’s not fully ripe. Always give the fruit a whiff. If it’s ready to eat, you’ll breathe in a sweet perfume.

Ripe watermelon should feel heavy for its size. In addition, look for a patch of light yellow skin on the side that was resting on the ground.

How to Peel a Summer Melon

Muskmelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, and other sweet summer melons can be peeled.

Melons grow on the ground, so be sure to wash them thoroughly.

Place the melon on a cutting board on its side. Hold it in place with one hand. In the other hand, hold a chef’s knife perpendicular to the cutting board and slice off the stem end and the end opposite to it.

Slicing off one end of the canteloupe

Slicing the skin of the melon in thick strips

When the knife hits the cutting board, discard the strip of skin. Rotate the fruit, and continue peeling the skin until all of it is removed.

How to Slice a Summer Melon

Cut the skinned melon in half lengthwise. 

Scoop out the seeds with a spoon. 

Hold one half of the melon on the cutting board with the seeded side facing up. With a chef’s knife, slice it in half lengthwise. 

Continue to slice each melon quarter lengthwise until each piece is an inch or so thick. 

Slicing in half, seeding, and cutting the melon in wedges

How to Cube a Summer Melon

Place a slice of the melon on a cutting board. Hold the end of the slice securely with one hand, and cut across the length of the melon with a chef's knife to form cubes.

Cutting the melon in cubes

How to Cut a Small Watermelon into Wedges

Note: Watermelon has much thicker skin (often referred to as a rind) than other summer melons. Be sure to use a sharp knife when cutting it. You can also stabilize it by placing a damp kitchen towel between it and the cutting board before making the first cut.

Select a small watermelon and place it on a cutting board with the stem side down. With a chef's knife, cut it in half lengthwise. With the cut side facing up, cut each half of the melon in half lengthwise. Take each quartered piece and slice it in half lengthwise again.

Cutting the watermelon in half and then in quarters

How to Cut a Large Watermelon into Wedges

Place a large watermelon on a cutting board with the stem side down and cut it in half lengthwise. With the cut sides facing down, cut each half in half lengthwise again to make quarters. Place one quarter of the melon on the cutting board, with the rind facing you and one of the cut sides facing down. Cut it widthwise into 1-inch thick triangular slices. Repeat with remaining quarters.

Cutting the watermelon in half and quarters and then into wedges

To cube the watermelon, simply place a slice on the cutting board with one side of the flesh touching the board. With a paring knife, cut the rind away from the flesh. 

Cutting the watermelon along the rind

With a chef’s knife, cut across the fruit.

Cutting across the watermelon wedge

Rotate the fruit 90 degree and cut across it again to form cubes. 

Cutting the melon to form cubes

How to Make Melon Balls

Press the melon baller into the fruit, avoiding the rind. Rotate it 360 degrees to form a circle, and then drop the melon ball into a bowl. Repeat until no more balls can be taken from the melon, leaving space between each scoop to ensure melon balls are completely round and cutting the melon down to a smaller size from time to time to reveal untouched flesh.

Using a melon baller to form spheres

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Slice and Dice: Chili Peppers

Bowl of beef and rice with fresh chili peppers

My mom is a sorcerer in the kitchen. She uses spices like potions, never measuring anything out. A pinch of  turmeric goes here. A palm full of  coriander goes there. Then she tosses in a little bit of cardamom. Thanks to her culinary prowess, we sit down to an enchanting array of dishes - Beef Cutlets, Chicken Biryani, Mung Bean Pudding - that seem to have magically appeared. 

When I started recreating my mom's recipes, I was surprised to find that there was one ingredient I could never leave out: chili peppers. They add spunk to curries, stir-fries, and casseroles, but more importantly they bring out the flavor of other ingredients, like a good team player. Any time I excluded them, a dish would fall flat. If you're sensitive to heat, use the tips below to dial it back. Affordable and available year-round, I suggest you keep a steady supply in the kitchen. 

How to Select

Chili peppers continue to ripen after they are harvested and many become hotter as they mature. Their color also deepens or changes. Jalapeños, for example, go from green to red as they age. If you’re looking for maximum heat, select darker chili peppers from the bunch. Taut, shiny skin is a sign of freshness. Avoid soft, wrinkled chili peppers that look like they could use a boost of Botox.

How to Remove the Seeds and Inner Tissue

Chili peppers get their kick from capsaicin, a chemical concentrated in the spongy inner tissue and seeds. Since capsaicin has an irritating affect, avoid touching any part of your face (especially your eyes) when prepping chili peppers. If you have sensitive skin, be sure to wear gloves. During clean-up, carefully wash your hands and kitchen equipment with soapy water to cleanse away any capsaicin that may  linger behind.

Chili peppers can be prepped with the capsaicin-laden tissues and seeds intact. If you want to dial down the heat, use these simple steps to remove them:

Thoroughly wash and dry the chili pepper. Lay it on its side on a cutting board and use a chef’s knife to slice off the stem end. 

Slice off top of chili pepper
Slice the chili pepper in half lengthwise.

Slice chili pepper in half length wise
Chili pepper sliced in half
Place one half of the chili pepper on the cutting board with the cut side facing up. Slide the tip of the knife under the tissue and carefully cut it away from the inner wall of the chili pepper without cutting through the flesh.

Remove ribs and seeds from chili peppers
Use your fingers or the tip of the knife to scrape out the seeds.

Chili peppers with ribs and seeds removed
How to Chop

Lay one half of the trimmed, deseeded chili pepper on a cutting board skin side down. Cut it in thick slices lengthwise.

Slice chili peppers into quarters
Rotate the slices 90 degrees and cut across them widthwise.

Slice chili peppers into chunks
How to Julienne

Lay one half of the trimmed, deseeded chili pepper on a cutting board skin side down. Cut it in thin slices lengthwise.

Chili peppers cut lengthwise into strips

How to Mince

Lay one half of the trimmed, deseeded chili pepper on a cutting board skin side down. Cut it in thin slices lengthwise In culinary school, this is called a julienne. 

Rotate the slices 90 degrees and cut across the slices widthwise.

Slice slivers of chili peppers

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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Slice and Dice: Jackfruit

Jackfruit tree, close up jackfruit, pile of fruit pods, jackfruit at Jewel
The last time I landed at Cochin International Airport, there was a taxi cab driver bandh or strike. My cousin Kunjumon miraculously managed to retrieve me with the help of a private driver. 

Soon after we arrived at his house, I stepped under a canopy of coconut trees towering in the backyard. The toasty air and lush green landscape provided the perfect counterpoint to the steely winter weather I'd left behind. 

Before I could take a breath, Kujumon ran out and accosted me.

"What are you doing out here? You could get hit by a coconut."

I thought he was teasing me as my Dad's side is full of pranksters. 

"Really you could get killed." Rats, he was serious. 

As it turns out, death by hard-shelled fruit is no joke in Kerala (a.k.a the land of coconuts). I learned that the only thing worse is getting pummeled by jackfruit, which can weigh over 100 pounds. 

Like turmeric and cardamom, jackfruit is a Kerala original. From the outside, it looks like a portly, prehistoric reptile. Picture an elephantine watermelon covered in a tapestry of poky, grasshopper green nubs. Carve open a ripe one, however, and they will come. It's gentle flavor falls somewhere between a banana and a perfectly ripened cantaloupe. It's texture has bite. No fruity mush here.  

In the U.S., fresh jackfruit used to be a rare find. Recognizing that dilemma, my cousin Sunil once lugged a sizable one from Miami to Cleveland to surprise his parents. He held it close at check in to manage the weight. A fellow passenger assumed it was a child and asked, "Can I see your baby?" No joke. 

Thanks to its growing popularity, fresh jackfruit has become increasingly available, cutting down on such awkward moments. In Chicago, precut wedges are often available along Devon Avenue. More surprisingly, it now pops up at mainstream grocery stores, including Jewel. 

Prepping ripe jackfruit is a multi-stepped labor of love. If you want to bring a fresh bowlful to the table, read on.

How to Select Jackfruit

Since the good stuff is inside, it's easiest to start with a precut wedge of jackfruit (just as you might with watermelon) and work your way to the tasty pods. If you go this route, look for a wedge that is pineapple yellow versus butter yellow for the fullest
 flavor. Warning: ripe jackfruit has a funky aroma, which may emanate through the wrapping. Don't let it scare you.

If you're beginning with a whole fruit, look for a yellow-green shell. Green-shelled jackfruit may be prettier, but the fruit will not be ripe. 

Wedges of jackfruit

How to Cut Jackfruit

Jackfruit contains ribs covered in a very stick resin. To begin, coat your hands, your chef's knife, and your cutting board with a thin layer of neutral oil to keep it from globing on. Soap and water will not do the trick. Trust me, you do not want to skip this step. 

Cut the fruit width wise to create a disk and make it easier to handle.

Slice the disk in half.
Slice away the fibrous core and cut into wedges.

Pull out the fleshy pods.

Pull open the pods like a clam shell and remove the seeds, which are also edible. (More on that later.)

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Basmati Rice

Cooked basmati rice in a bowl
Rice forms the foundation of every meal in Kerala, and as a second generation South Indian, I was subject to that culinary tradition growing up. Most nights my mom cooked a heaping cup of long-grain, parboiled rice. The nutritionally-rich staple provided the perfect counterpoint to the Spicy Fried Beef, Chicken Stew, Sambar, and thorans (sauteed vegetables) that she rotated on and off the table. My mom insisted that the cooked granules be taut, with one easily separating from the next.

There was always a 10-pound bag of basmati rice in the pantry. My mom used it to make pilafs for dinner guests and Chicken Biryani for family celebrations. It filled the house with an exotic, nutty aroma.

Parboiled rice is my go-to staple (surprise, surprise), but my husband prefers basmati rice. He often makes a pot from the 10-pound bag that we always have on hand. If you're looking for a gluten-free dish to anchor a meal, consider following suit. Basmati rice has exceptionally long and slender granules (pictured above front and center above) making it the Audrey Hepburn of the rice world. When prepared with care, it takes on a slightly toothsome texture that can elevate any meal. 

Tips for Making Rice

Purchase basmati rice that has been aged. The aging process reduces moisture content, intensifying essential oils and boosting flavor over all. 

- Rinse the rice to remove excess starch before cooking. This helps prevent the granules from sticking. 

- If you have time, soak the rice for 20 to 30 minutes before cooking it. This helps hydrate the granules and produce fluffy rice.

- For added flavor, add spices, such as cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon, or saffron to the cooking liquid. 
It will be absorbed by the rice. Coconut oil also adds a lovely flavor. 

Rinsing, draining, and cooking basmati rice


Serves 4


1 cup basmati rice

1 3/4 cups water, broth, or other flavorful liquid
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon coconut oil (optional)


Place the rice in a bowl and cover with water. Using your hand, swish the water and rice around. Drain water. Repeat until water becomes clear.

Cover the rice with fresh water and soak for 30 minutes.

Drain water.

Add 1 3/4 cups of water, salt, and coconut oil to rice. Stir. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Do not stir the rice while it is simmering as it will cook unevenly and become sticky. 

Cook until the rice becomes tender, about 15 minutes. 

Remove from heat. Keep covered for 10 minutes.   

Fluff with a spoon before serving.

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Frosting a Cake

Slice of frosted chocolate cake

“There's nothing better than cake but more cake.” Harry Truman

What is your favorite comfort food - the dish that makes your shoulders relax and your mouth water? For me, it's home-baked chocolate cake tucked under a supple layer of fudgy frosting. I've made many versions (including a double-decker, ganache-filled extravaganza topped with flowers sculpted from modeling chocolate for my sister's 40th birthday). When I show up for celebratory gatherings, family and friends assume I'll be toting cake.

The most important thing I’ve learned over the years is that no one expects perfection. In fact, they rarely seem to notice (or care) if a cake tilts or frosting gets smudged. The intoxicating flavor of homemade icing and cake makes them feel loved. Use the tips below to spread that warm fuzzy feeling. 

Basic Tools for Frosting Cakes

  • A serrated knife: Many cakes develop a domed top when baked, which should be removed before they are frosted. A serrated knife, such as a bread knife, is the best tool for the job as it easily slices through cake crumbs. 
  • Offset spatula: Although I try my best to get by with basic kitchen equipment, I believe a small offset is an essential tool for the avid baker. Use it to spread icing, custard, and other fillings on cakes and pastries.
  • Parchment paper or wax paper: You can use either of these products to keep trimmed cakes from spreading crumbs.
How to Frost a Cake

Make sure that the cake has cooled completely or your frosting will melt. 

Place the first layer of cake on a sheet of parchment paper or wax paper. Hold the knife horizontally against the cake where it starts to dome and carefully slice across the top to create a flat surface. Repeat with the other layers.

Slice dome off of layer of cake
Place the first layer of cake on a plate or cake stand with the bottom facing up. This helps to ensure that the top is completely flat.

Place cake on a cake stand or plate bottom side up
Tuck strips of parchment paper or wax paper between the cake and the plate to catch crumbs and bits of frosting.

Tuck parchment paper underneath cake
Gently remove any loose crumbs with your fingers or a pastry brush.

Remove loose crumbs with your fingers or a pastry brush
Place a dollop of frosting on the center of the cake.

Using the offset spatula spread the frosting to cover the top of the cake.

Spread frosting evenly across the top of the cake
Place the second layer of cake on the first layer with the bottom facing up. Again, dust away any loose crumbs. 

Now it’s time to add the “crumb coat” which locks in any wayward crumbs. Place a scoop of frosting on the top layer of the cake.

Spread frosting across the top of the cake
Using the offset spatula, spread the frosting from the center of the cake to the top edges.

Spread icing on sides of cake
Chill the cake for 30 minutes in the refrigerator (or for 15 minutes in the freezer).

Remove the cake from the refrigerator. Place a generous scoop of frosting on top of the cake. Using the offset spatula spread the frosting across the top of the cake starting in the center.

Add layer of frosting over crumb coat

Spread the frosting on the sides of the cake to cover completely.

Spread frosting over crumb coat
Remove the strip of parchment paper or wax paper.  

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Cooking Pot Roast

Plate of roast and green beans
People think of the Midwest as a monolith of meat and potatoes, and there was ample evidence of that when I was growing up in rural Illinois. Plenty of kids I knew sat down to a cadence of meatloaf, Sloppy Joe's, Salisbury steak. Repeat. My mom served at least one meat dish a night because my Dad couldn't bear a meal without Spicy Fried Beef, Chicken Stew, or some other carnivorous option. Every once in a while, she would rotate in a pot roast flavored with the holy trinity: cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. To this day, it is my favorite beef dish.

When I started cooking for myself, I learned that braising beef includes a simple two-part process. The first involves searing meat to produce a full-flavored, outer crust. Then the meat is slow cooked in the oven or on the stove until it (or other tough cuts of meat) become ooh-la-la tender. All that's needed to pull it off is a heavy pot with a snugly fitted lid and a large pair of tongs.

How to Braise Beef

With a paper towel, pat the meat dry on all sides.
Season it with salt and pepper or your favorite spice rub.

Season beef with salt and pepper

Coat the bottom of a heavy pot with a thin layer of oil and place it over medium-high heat.

Using tongs, lower the meat into the pot.

Use tongs to lower meat into pot
Sear the bottom side. Rotate the meat and repeat until all sides are browned.

Sear meat

Remove meat from the pot and place it on a plate.

Let meat rest

Add aromatics and spices to the pot. Here, I’m using onions, garlic, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon.  Cook until the onions start to soften.

Add aromatics
Add a liquid (such as water, wine, stock, or a combination) and stir to scrap off any bits of meat or onion sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Place the meat back into the pot.

Place meat back into pot
Cover it with a tight-fitting lid. Continue to cook on the stove top or place in a low oven (about 300 degrees) until the meat becomes tender. Store leftover braised beef in its braising liquid to prevent the meat from drying out.

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