Masala Paste from Scratch


Ok. Here I am again, posting about cooking. Let me put in a quick disclaimer: I am not a chef. I am a self taught dabbler, a mother of two and wife of one (no polygamy here). I had no interest in food until, in art school, I discovered that I needed to cook, or die. Thus began my foray into cuisine, first by frantically phoning my mom to ask basic cooking questions, and then, starting to use my gut.

If you are a details person, you like to follow instructions to a tee, measure out everything exactly, this is not the post for you, stop reading immediately and find another recipe.

If you are a person who, like me, tends to scan recipes, compile the fundamentals in your mind basket, and then go-to with wild abandon, substituting with rough equivalents where ingredients are lacking, then this might be for you, read on.

A dear friend of mine recently tried my curry from scratch and asked if I could give her my recipe. I had to answer “no”. Not because it is any great secret, but because I really haven’t the foggiest when it comes to the exact ingredients I use when making my basic masala paste from which my curries emerge. I realized that this has got to change. I really do need to lay it out once and for all. My husband is a huge fan of my curries so I make it quite regularly, however, they always turn out a little different.

Can I also preface this with…I am an ignoramus when it comes to Indian cuisine. I do not know the specifics about the different curries nor their names. I am a novice in the world of Indian spices, yet they delight and tantalize me. They have an amazing power and fragrance and in a world of less is more, the opposite is actually true of these incredible spices, just add more, more, more! It took me a while to realize that I needed to not hold back with the amount of spices I put in. My measly amounts of spices were pathetic. Now, I happily purchase bulk spices in their seed form. You can buy the pre-ground and make life easier, but I believe much of the deliciousness comes from freshly grinding the spices as needed.

So, saying that, if you are anything like me, you already want to throw in the towel. I always get overwhelmed by the prerequisites to a recipe “oh, I need that tool?” “oh, I have to get those spices?””Gaw, I’ll just eat ramen”

Hear me out. What you need is a coffee grinder if you are using the spice seeds. If you have pre-ground, give that grinder no second thought. ( most of us have coffee grinders. I now possess my own “spices” coffee grinder after one too many coffee tasting of cumin. However, coffee with a hint of cardamom is delicious!). It is also helpful to have either an immersion blender or food processors (food processors, I hear they are useful. I haven’t got one).

What you need for spices seems like a long list. It is. But, if you get hooked like I did, you are going to be using them for a long time. Heck, you probably have a few already:

  • cumin seeds
  • paprika
  • garam masala
  • cardamom (whole) or inner cardamom seeds
  • coriander seeds
  • black pepper corns
  • turmeric (I use the powder)
  • mustard seeds
  • clove
  • fenugreek seeds

 

If you don’t have all of those, that’s ok, it’s still going to taste delicious.

Other ingredients:

  • 2 med onions
  • sea salt
  • 5 to 6 cloves of garlic
  • a thumbs length of garlic (roughly two tablespoons when chopped)
  • a can of diced tomatoes or several large tomatoes diced.
  • ghee…or butter…or coconut oil.

Here we go, step by step with pictures!

  1. Get out a pan. ( If you are using powder, skip this and the next step) I love my cast iron skillets. I despise non-stick. The first will (apparently) leave trace amounts of iron in your food- good for those of us always low on iron and pregnant ladies. The latter, will leave trace amounts of mystery chemicals, especially if it’s been scratched or roughed up. A good compromise: a stainless steel pan. With pan on medium heat toss on a tablespoon of each of the following: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, inner cardamom seeds*, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and roughly twenty cloves.  Toast them in the pan. Toast until fragrant (roughly 30 seconds?) If they start to smoke, you’re done! Take the pan off the heat. This happens relatively quickly, so do not walk away. Use your expert tossing skills to shimmy those seeds around the pan as they heat.* On closer examination of this photo I realized I had no cardamom on the pan. Further sleuthing revealed that the spice lady at the shop had neglected to even sell me any. Oops. I can attest to the fact that this recipe is delish sans cardamom).

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2. Pour toasted seeds into a grinder and grind until fine and fragrant.20160816_150138.jpg

3. Chop the garlic, ginger and onions roughly and set aside in either separate ( if you like to feel like those chefs on TV with pinch bowls) or a single bowl. It is not necessary to spend time on this as it will all be blended once cooked.

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4. Begin heating a decent sized pot. It’s going to hold all of your masala, so make sure it’s not a small pot. I’d say a medium to large one. In the warm pot, add 2 tablespoons ghee (or whatever oil you’ve chosen). I like to use ghee…it makes it feel more authentic, though I can’t honestly say it is any different from butter. Coconut oil adds a little bit of flavor. In my estimation, if you are going to use coconut oil, this is the type of dish to use it in, the flavor lends itself well to curries. Sprinkle in some salt too…this is a great time to incorporate some salty goodness. Now toss in the ground spice. If this is the first time the spice has touched a pan, aka if you bought it pre-ground, I recommend putting it in first, before the oil and salt and letting it warm and “toast” briefly before adding the other stuff. It’s all about releasing the aroma and flavor!20160816_150731.jpg

5. Once the ghee has melted (it happens fast) toss in the onions, garlic and ginger. Stir well on high heat, then lower to a simmer.20160816_150813.jpg

Now make a cup of tea (preferably a spiced chai) and hold your horses while you wait for the onions to cook down. You want them to be transparent. Don’t rush this stage. If you don’t let the onions caramelize you are wasting some great natural sweetness. This could take at least 10 minutes. Breathe.20160816_151043.jpg

6. As you wait, or in your own good time, gather together the following spices, all approximately a tablespoon …except for the cayenne: that is “to taste”. (I have some incredible Birds Eye Pepper cayenne that is HOT. I used only a quarter teaspoon): Black pepper (preferably freshly ground), turmeric (this is a root, so I buy it in powder form), garam masala ( also a proprietary blend of spices, so comes in powder form) and cayenne.20160816_151555.jpg

Go ahead and add those spices to the pot. Stir well to incorporate.20160816_151623.jpg

By now the whole thing should be thickening up and gluing itself together. You will also start to worry that it’s drying out and about to burn. If the onions are still not transparent, then add a bit of water, just enough to keep it from burning. Do this periodically until those onions are soft. Then cook until dry and about to burn. Now’s the time to…

7. throw in the diced tomatoes. Fresh is best but I did not have any, so canned it was (if you really want to go the health nut way, you only use fresh, because there’s good research that shows that canned tomatoes are pretty bad for you – the acid in them leeches the plastic lining out. Yes, even if it’s BPA free lining, it’s still a synthetic lining of some kind. But if, like me, you’ve obsessed, stressed and ultimately surrendered to theses realities, you will weigh the good against the bad and just go ahead and use it anyway…if sparingly).20160816_151655.jpg

Stir. Now watch as that tomato and its juices helps to de-glaze the pan. Now you’re lookin’ at an almost finished masala paste. You just need to cook that down for a bit. I’d say roughly 15 minutes of simmering with the lid off.

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8. When you’ve cooked it down a decent amount (it should look like a thick tomato sauce) turn of the heat and let cool.

9. If you are anxious like me, sometimes, or in a time bind, you’re gonna want to blend that up right away. I advise not to. Do you like being burned by scalding hot masala paste? I didn’t think so. Hopefully, you’ve waited at least 20 minutes. Now, go ahead and blend that masala smooth using your immersion blender or whatever other fancy tool you might have for doing this. You can now use this masala paste to immediately make a massive vat of curry. Or, like me, you might choose to divide it and sock some away in the freezer for a future meal. This is how I divided mine:

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2/3 in a jar to be used the next day on a curry for four adults and two kids. The last third in a ziplock to be frozen. It will expand to make enough curry for my family of 4.

That’s it. That’s all. I hope you could follow that relatively well. Just in case not, I have handily combined the instructions without the pics and needless commentary below!

Cooking Instructions:

1 With pan on medium heat toss on a tablespoon of each of the following: cumen seeds, coriander seeds, inner cardamom seeds*, mustard seeds, fennugreek seeds and roughly twenty cloves.  Toast them in the pan. Toast until fragrant (roughly 30 seconds) If they start to smoke, you’re done! Take the pan off the heat. 

2. Grind the toasted seeds and set aside.

3. Chop the garlic, ginger and onions roughly and set aside in either separate or a single bowl.

4. Begin heating a large pot. In the warm pot, add 2 tablespoons ghee (or whatever oil you’ve chosen). Add a teaspoon of salt. Add in the ground spices. Stir.

5. Toss in the onions, garlic and ginger. Stir well on high heat, then lower to a simmer.

6. Gather together a teaspoon each of the following spices ( cayenne to taste): black pepper, turmeric, garam masala, cayenne. Add to pot and stir well to incorporate. 

7. When onion mixture is well caramelized and transparent, add in one large can of diced tomato, stir well. Set on simmer until cooked down to consistency of a thick tomato sauce. Approximately 20 minutes.

8. Blend cooled masala into a paste. Use immediately or store in zip lock bags in freezer. Makes enough for roughly two meals (for up to 4 adults per meal).

 

Thanks for checking this out. If you are curious about how I expand this into a curry, check out my next blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

Salt Brine


Ahh. This poor wallowing blog. It’s a sad state of affairs, I know, when I have no creative endeavor to blog about.

So, I will seek out the creative in my everyday, because being a mom is a creativity-on-the-fly kind of a proposition.

In recent years I’ve actually turned to cooking as a creative/relaxing-ish process. I’m in the kitchen a lot anyway, and I can’t not cook, sooo …might as well enjoy it. I approach it much like I do my painting and drawing: I do not ever use a recipe, I do use references and then piece it together, I do it all on the fly and often from random things I find in my fridge and cupboards. The less planned out, the more satisfying (my high school art teacher will be clutching his heart at this point; what, no pre sketches?!).

So, because I don’t have any methodical method to this madness, it sometimes takes me a bit to figure out the trick to something. I have to accidentally hit on it several times before the correlation between certain ingredients, time, application etc. spark recognition in me. Then, out of that comes a dish I can mostly replicate…but never exactly.

The recent discovery, people, is salt brining.

How many times have I made…or more often had chicken, or pork, that looks absolutely delicious, but when I bite into it, I am appalled by its lack of flavour?

The answer is: many. Many times. Too many times.

The problem is not even that it isn’t salted (that’s another issue I have…you HAVE to salt meat), it’s that it wasn’t salted properly.

When I bite into meat, I don’t want flavour just on the outside layer, I want it all the way through.

That’s simple, you say, just marinate the damn thing for 24 hours. Oh, you bet, that is definitely the way.

Did I mention I am now a mom of two under three? Did I mention that I am not a planner? Quite frankly, getting frozen meat out of the freezer with enough time allotted to thaw is a challenge for me most of the time. So, yes, if I manage to think days ahead, I can thaw my meat and soak it in a 24 hour marinade and it’s golden.

BBUUUUUT for all you last minute chicas and hombres out there, there is an easier way. And, even if you still want to put a 12 hour marinade on a choice piece of meat, this method I am about to tell you about is STILL an awesome precursor to that and will only make your meat of choice that much yummier.

Here’s the secret: A 30 minute salt brine.

Yeah. Look it up. I am not making this up. It’s out there.

( I know, salt is the new poison…however, I am betting that the salt content ultimately is less and definitely not more than the salt you would automatically get in a pre-prepared chicken from the grocery store.You are the one adding the salt, so you have full control of amounts. For all of you salt enthusiasts, this is for you. For those on a strict no salt diet, I am truly sorry.)

Take your thawed meat: chicken thighs, pork loin, skirt steak, whatever: place in a bowl that is deep enough so that when you fill it with water, the meat is fully immersed. Dump in roughly (I am not a measurer) 2 teaspoons of your salt of choice ( I use sea salt), then fill with water, stir, and then place your meat in it and let it sit, covered, in the fridge, for a minimum of 30 minutes (note: you don’t have to do it in that order, I often have the meat in first, then I sprinkle the salt all over and then add water then gently move the meat around so the salty water fills every nook and cranny). For chicken, especially drum sticks, 30 minutes is plenty.( You can prep your other dishes while you wait. Heck, you can be distracted by your toddler pooping on the floor and by the time you’ve cleaned that mess up, the chicken is ready.) If it’s something like a pork loin, or a thick roast of some sort, you can leave it for several hours or overnight. But you’d be amazed how just 30 minutes can be enough in a pinch.

Then when you are ready to get cookin’, pour out that water, dab your meat dry with paper towel and then season how you would normally season it. Cook it. Gaw, it will change your life.

Oh, wait! If you are going to slow cook that bad boy, don’t pour out that water, use it in the crock pot. When you’ve finished cooking that meat in the crock pot, don’t pour out the cooking juice, use it to cook rice or other grains in it – too f*&in’ good.

That’s it, my epiphany. Since I started prepping my meat that way, my hubby has only had good things to say…as well as my toddler and baby who gobble it all up.

Cheers. Happy cooking/creating.

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Tee hee , we gobbled it up so fast I had no time to take a picture of it just after it was cooked. Here are the cold left overs.

In addition:

I just discovered you can salt brine brussel sprouts. Oh yes, I did. My kid chose brussel sprouts as we meandered through the produce section of the grocery store. She thought they were cute because they looked like mini cabbages. I knew this was do or die…I had to make it tasty so that she’d want them again and again. So, same idea, salt brined those puppies, then cooked em up with garlic, ginger and tamari making sure to really brown them on each side in the pan before deglazing with a bit of rice vinegar and water. Also sprinkled it with sesame seeds and a drizzle of sesame oil for fragrance. The verdict: my kid loved them. I even got an “if I have to eat brussel sprouts, this is the way I want to eat them” from the hubs. High praise, high praise.

A Few Shots


It has truly been a while since I’ve posted on this blog. A lot falls by the way side when you have a baby. Photography has been one of the last things on my list of to dos. But luckily, I decided to take my Nikon D300 with me when we went camping a few weeks back. Lett’s Lake, in Mendocino National Forest, is truly beautiful and I feel like the photos pretty much took themselves. I had some fun switching some images to black and white where I felt the colour was unnecessary. I’m not a landscape photographer; Ansel Adams pretty much did that better than anyone. No, I like looking for form, textures and sometimes the colour. However, there are a few landscape shots just because the landscape was calling out to be recorded. I do not profess to be any good at it. Below are my best shots, landscape photos included. Hope you enjoy.

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Joint Inspiration: Making Homemade Ricotta from Leftover Milk


So we’re not milk drinkers in this house hold. I ended up with a nearly-full half gallon carton of milk after making my hubby a birthday cake (first cake I ever made, but that’s a story for another time). I looked at him and just threw it out there: “what can you make with milk? ” and his response was to Google that exact question. The two top options were dulce de leche and ricotta. Well that started my creative cooking juices flowing. ..I had left-over pasta sauce and also a half box of lasagna noodles. ..why not make ricotta stuffed pasta? But first, could we pull off homemade ricotta?

Using the first recipe we found online we gathered these items:
1. 1/2 gallon milk
2. 1 and 1/2 lemon
3. 1 tsp salt

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I brought the milk up to “just before” boiling when it’s steaming with a few frothy bubbles

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Then I removed it from the heat, poured in the lemon juice and salt, stirred gently with a slotted spoon and waited 10 minutes. ..though you can start to see it curdle almost immediately. At this point my baby started to cry for the food only mommy can provide so hubby took over.
Using cheese cloth laid into a strainer set in an empty pot to catch the whey,  he scooped the curds into it and let it sit another ten minutes.

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Then all that was left was to fill the pasta with the ricotta. We were so amazed by how easy it was to make. Literally anyone could do it. No doubt we’ll do it again. So glad we found this solution rather than letting the milk slowly go bad and eventually dumping it out.

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Yummiest solution ever!

Dairy Free Fudgesicles


This is SO simple you’ll be laughing all the way to fudgesicle heaven. I came up with this recipe in about 5 minutes expecting to have to do a lot of doctoring and fine tuning, but it was great right off the bat.

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Ingredients list:
1 can coconut milk
3Tbs coco powder
4Tbs agave
5Tbs almond milk

Throw all ingredients in a blender and dispense into popsicle forms. Ta da!

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Aaannd with the left overs you can make a better-than-Starbucks fancy coffee by:

Adding 1 cup cold/left over coffee
1 more tablespoon of agave
And a handful of ice cubes.

Run the blender on ice-crushing mode and then serve. Yumms!

Enjoy! The hardest part is waiting for the fudgesicles to freeze!

Mom


On the verge of becoming one myself (currently gestating a little one of my own) I feel the need to stop and  think about mom and what motherhood is all about.

I called mom today to wish her ‘Happy Mother’s Day’, but rather tentatively. It seems arbitrary to have just one day to celebrate someone so essential to my life. And I suppose it’s because she’s trained me well that I was so tentative; growing up she always said how silly it was to celebrate just that day, because she knew we loved and cared for her all year long. But here’s the thing, we actually do need this day. We need this day to remind ourselves to step back from whatever busy work we’re doing and think about mom and hopefully not just go through the motions of buying a card and flowers.

That brings to mind one example of what motherhood is: selflessness.

I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to that. I consider myself to be rather selfish. Up until now I have not had to really think about anyone else but myself. Sure, we love and care for our friends and family, we send them cards and give them gifts on the days designated to celebrate them, we do thoughtful things for them when we are so inspired…but we don’t do it EVERY DAMN DAY. That’s what moms do. Every day they wake up and devote themselves to their family, tired, sore, sick, hungry, whatever, there is never a day off. That is dedication. That is selflessness.

 

That sounds like a lot of work!

 

So number two, motherhood is not for slackers! Moms work HARD. Me thinks there is not a day when mom gets to roll over in bed and say, “I’ll just sleep in today, catch up on some TV watching and order take out…I’ll do groceries another day….the baby can feed itself, right?” I fear this aspect so very much. What if I do not have the stamina?

I turned to Nat in bed the other night and I said, “We can always just return him/her if it doesn’t work out, right?”

And we grinned, paused and then laughed, while in our heads we were thinking “We can’t return the baby! We CAN’T return the baby!!!”

Number three, being fearful, unsure, but doing it anyway: courageous motherhood. There’s no school for it, not even a licensing process. Moms learn by doing; by hitting the ground running. I am so grateful that my mom was a fast learner and a bold innovator in child rearing. I imagine when she didn’t know something she used all the resources available to her to figure it out, or she made it up- and look how great we turned out!

As a mom-to-be the question that arises is: can I do this? Which is to say, will I screw up? Is it possible to fail? And if so, what does a pass look like? What is success in motherhood?

Mom is the example because I think she passed with flying colours. First off she birthed me and Vieve with all fingers and toes intact- success number one (amazing how this is an overriding concern in pregnancy even though it is essentially out of my hands)!

But seriously, I think it’s this: that I know that I am loved 100% of the time regardless of whether we’ve talked just yesterday or two weeks ago. That if I have a problem, like an illness or an emotional issue I can talk to mom about it, all of it with nothing held back; and she will dispense wisdom I may or may not have heard before but is always music to my ears. And even when the phone has been put back in its cradle (yes, a cradle- she does not have a cell), I know that mom is still thinking about ways she can help and advise and will most likely call me again to fill in the gaps in the wisdom she dispensed the first time round. She’s always in my corner, even if her opinion is contrary to mine.

I look forward to family gatherings and mom time. I do not fit into the typical story of ‘oh gosh, we’ve got to visit family, let’s figure out how to make our exit as soon as possible’; no, I want to stay for as long as I possibly can. When I do have to go it is with a lump in my throat the size of a watermelon. That’s success in motherhood. That is all mom.

 

I only hope that I can be something approaching that for my little one.

 

Mom, I’m gonna need your help.

 

To my selfless, non-slacking, courageous mother: I love you.

 

LynkserWeek 23 054

The Heir Apparent: Air Plants


Anyone who has read a few of my previous posts related to plants knows that I love succulents. They are beautiful and for the most part easy to keep alive ( provided they have the right soil to start with and do not get some random plant disease). I like having plants around, but I don’t like having plants that demand too much of my time. If they can’t learn to survive with a little bit of neglect…well…they’re toast.

Enter the air plant. What?!? Why have I not discovered them earlier? I knew they existed, remember my aunts having a few when I was a kid, but never considered getting my own.

My interest was piqued when I saw a beautifully tendrilled green plant, sans earth, sitting on the counter top by the cash register at my local nursery. I asked a few questions about it but didn’t buy it. Then I saw it in a few more shops, sometimes just as decor enhancements. Suddenly I was hooked on the idea of getting a few. When my sister visited me a few months ago we stumbled on a shop that had a few for sale and I picked some up.

This is how you care for it:

#1. Place in filtered not direct sunlight, indoors.

#2. Spritz with water once a week and set it upside down for a few minutes to make sure water beads don’t collect on its leaves. ( If you want to get away with watering even less, put your plant in a bathroom where shower steam aids hydration)

#3. There is no number three, THAT’S IT!!

 

I’ve since ogled a few more exotic looking air plants and added them to my collection. The really fun part is finding vessels to hold them. Your local thrift shop is a great place to find unique and cheap glassware.

thrift ship glassware, 50 cents a piece.
thrift ship glassware, 50 cents a piece.
Gorgeous, mini, fuchsia air plant
Gorgeous, mini, fuchsia air plant
a tall, cylindrical glass vase is great for the leggy ones.
a tall, cylindrical glass vase is great for the leggy ones.

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This one is my favorite. It's  ball shaped and fits perfectly in this min fish bowl
This one is my favorite. It’s ball-shaped and fits perfectly in this min fish bowl
I found this cool looking metal goblet which fits this air plant perfectly
I found this cool looking metal goblet which fits this air plant perfectly