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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Letts Lake October 2014 126

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.

air plants and belly pics 007

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

Interior Decorating for Dummies, *emphasis on Dummy*


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I’m an artist, so I should know about colour, right?

Wrong.

News flash: interior decorating is nothing like painting on a canvas. I know…a house is just as much a blank canvas as a real canvas for the creative soul…but this creative soul is having a dark tea-time of the soul as regards colour choice for our house.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to re-invent our space, which, when we moved in was awash with a sort of piss-tinted hue throughout the entire house (A+ for consistency I suppose), not to mention a musty, smoker-lived-here smell that we were anxious to exorcise. I happily ran down to our local  hardware store, spent a few puzzled/overwhelmed  minutes gazing at paint chips ( like a kid in a non-edible candy store you might say) before going with a gut instinct for a grey-blue tone.

Excellent. No problemo. The colour went on magnificently, only it was a little too subtle. “Dang!, I knew it!” I muttered under my breath. At the last moment I had let my husband cloud my judgement and went a shade lighter than I’d wanted to. Needless to say, though we liked the colour, we agreed it was too light and  ended up repainting. No real problem, but additional time was required.

Then it came time to paint the hallway. I didn’t want a repeat of the last time. I wanted to go bold. I have this gorgeous Laotian tapestry we picked up years ago in Thailand and working from those colours I decided to boldly go purple. Crazy, I know. But I felt it in my gut, this was going to work and I would consult no one. Purity of vision and all that.

paint chips and Loatian tapestry
paint chips and Laotian tapestry

A trip to the hardware store, an unwavering finger proudly pointing at my colour swatch with the command of, “mix this”  and four hours of painting later (I could have bought the $2 sample and painted a wall, but why go the wussy way?) my hallway looked….well, it looked like …a cut of pastrami had exploded on my walls. A mix between gaudy easter purple and say, SPAM…or as my sister-in-law put it, “sort of intestinal”. Yeah, that’s what I was going for.

Back to the drawing board. Back to the paint aisle where a helpful fellow wanna-be interior decorator gave me tips on the trendiness of brown and blue after overhearing my discussion with my sister-in-law…until she saw the colour swatch I was working with already and a look of horror edged into her expression and an “oh” escaped her lips, like “oh, that kind of blue, well then there’s no colour that will go with that“, that kind of “oh”.

When all else fails, stick with the colour you’ve got and just go with shades ( I don’t know that that is a design thing, but I have a gut feeling I’m right). So that’s what I did;  a bolder shade of the existing colour. And you know what, I love it and so does hubby. In my books, that’s a success.

This interior decorating is harder than I thought. When you make a mistake, you can’t just paint over it with a big brush and a few strokes, no, you’ve got to cut in (gack) and roll for hours.

And gut instinct that works when painting on canvas does not necessarily work for painting walls. Lesson learned. I could benefit from reading a few decorating books.


After all the frustration, it is at last resolved. Now it’s time to sit back with my Winter Spiced Ale and enjoy.

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..while sitting on my Craigslist find…new home 019 Not bad, eh? But I’d still put me down more in the dummy column when it comes to decor. However, I do shoot half decent photos. So enjoy the illusion of a magazine ready home (hint: it’s all in the cropping!):

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our fireplace, now painted white with the blue-grey accent wall complete.

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Finished hallway.
Finished hallway.

Yes, Hello! I’m Still Here!


I’ve been feeling immense guilt at having not posted in over a month. I was in the midst of a move, and blogging about creativity was far from my mind. That’s not to say that I haven’t been creative. I’m lucky to have a job that requires creativity on a daily basis, so that even if I am not creating at home, I am creative at work. I have some great “Keep It Simple Genius” recipes I will be posting soon. Right now, I thought I’d share some photos.

Photography is something I’ve been away from for quite some time. I’ve been meaning to get back in the saddle but have not been inspired to take the ol’ camera out of the saddle bag as it were. Then I was asked to photograph a fundraising event at my local art center. The event is called the Soup-er Bowl ( get it? ) which leads to no end of confusion when said verbally without the benefit of seeing the pun. It’s my favourite event because it involves ceramic bowls and soup – LOTS of soup. My sister would approve as she is a soup junky. Basically, you pay $45 and you get to choose a bowl that’s been hand-made by one of the students ( my mother-in-law makes amazing bowls!) and then you taste up to 14 different soups from local restaurants and vote on the best one. I treat it like an Olympic sport. Have you ever tried to eat 14 different soups at a sitting? It is tres difficile. But I’m usually up to the challenge – it’s called a muumuu and no food all day leading up.

This time around I was simply the photographer. As sad as it was to not participate in the yumminess, I was freed to just focus on getting the shots.

The lighting was tough – mixed lighting (mostly halogen)  in a dim, cavernous room at night. My flash unit wasn’t working because I had an accident with a leaking battery that killed it. Aargh! So, I had to rely on a steady hand, highest ISO I could use without too much noise and a wide open aperture at f 5.6

Sorry if a bit of photography speak snuck out and made you blank out momentarily (the photographer in me).

I was nervous about doing documentary photography. So much happens at the same time it’s hard to know where to be and how to choose the shot. If you lose the moment it’s gone. Not to mention that I’m shy about being all up in peoples’ grill. It’s not really my forte, but I tried to relax and just have fun with it. I even got up on a stool in the middle of the crowd to get  better perspective. I was surprised to discover that people just forget that you’re there (so much so I had to make sure they didn’t knock me from my stool). I can’t say that I had a break-out, spectacular, Henri Cartier Bresson-esque photographic moment, but I was pleased. Here are the results:

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Long Time No Post


Let’s face it, I’m overwhelmed. I have a little too much on my plate and I need to at least acknowledge that fact if not change it.

The good news is that the plate is loaded with mostly creative ventures. The sucky news is that I have more ideas than time. If only I could leave the day job to do art full-time. But if my Farmer’s Market sales are any indication of my success, I’d better stick with the day job! Same ol’ artist’s sob story; can’t make a living from my art.

Only, I don’t believe that. I believe that one day I will find my niche and I will tap into an as yet undiscovered reservoir of art patrons who get what I do, like what I do and want to pay for it too! Yes, that got rather rhymy.

I’ve been plugging away at the Farmer’s Market, making myself visible, going through the chore of set-up and take down, for those few moments of joy when a person has the courage to actually walk into my tent and really look at what I do. When they laugh and enjoy any of my paintings or drawings, I feel immense satisfaction. I feel even more satisfaction when they like it enough to want to take something home, even if it’s just a little art magnet or card. Pieces of my expression out in the universe!

I’m trying to put out of my mind the other stuff, the business stuff like paperwork: applications for fairs and their fees, logistics of set-up and schedule, even casting my mind forward to tax time – YIKES! Panicking over cost vs income. I seem to tick something off the list and then add another two.

I’m actually losing sleep over this stuff. I never lose sleep, I love sleep. I’d chose sleep over breakfast,  I’d EAT sleep for breakfast.

Just get through the season…i.e. the Christmas selling season, and then I will take stock. What works, what doesn’t. What I can and love to do and what I can do without.

I leave you with some drawings I’ve been working on. I’m considering having them printed as Christmas cards. I’m enjoying drawing tremendously and am wondering why I’ve been away from it for so long. I hope you enjoy!