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.

Rhino Dung Magic


So, as it turns out, rhino dung is fantastic. Mixed in with the existing soil in proved to be the perfect environment for our lovely veggie garden. I’ve harvested two bok choi crops, tons of lettuce and some chard. The ones I planted in the planters..not so good. Probably too confined, and no rhino dung in those so of course they’re inferior! Garden March 2013 004

Garden March 2013 008

yumptious peas
yumptious peas

 

lettuce that doubles in size every time I harvest a few leaves.
lettuce that doubles in size every time I harvest a few leaves.

 

arugula gargantua - exponential growth each time I harvest. I'm drowning in the stuff
arugula gargantua – exponential growth each time I harvest. I’m drowning in the stuff

 

chard
chard

 

We’ve also dig up another patch of ground, not a raised bed, in which we are going to plant the veggies that no animals tend to dig up, i.e. zucchini and spring onions. We’re also starting some tomatoes for that little plot.

newly dug bed, also featuring rhino dung!
newly dug bed, also featuring rhino dung!

Slowly but surely our garden grows, by both senses of the meaning. Our backyard is still monstrously huge and could stand another bed. The question is whether we can afford the water bill to sustain said garden beds. We plan on mulching with hay or sawdust in an attempt to trap the moisture. Let’s hope it works.

my man going on a weeding-fest right after a rain - best time to do it!
my man going on a weeding-fest right after a rain – best time to do it!

 

It Begins Anew


So, the hubby was home this weekend – the WHOLE weekend which was a true miracle as he usually works. So we decided to put in some time on the house. Our master bedroom is now completely sheet-rocked, our tub re-caulked for the third time (don’t ask), we have a treasure trove of great tiles from the Re-Store for our bathroom remodel(half off on tiles that day!)  and…we started a garden!

It had to be done. We have a massive back yard. So big that we are completely overwhelmed and don’t know where to start with the landscaping. Especially landscaping on a budget. So, we thought, the one thing that was doable was re-assembling the planter box we’d taken from our previous garden at our old rental. Hubby had gotten two loads of composted rhino dung from work (he’s a guide at a place called Safari West here in Nor Cal) so we tossed that in and then went to our local garden center to pick up some regular soil to mix in and did a little cheating by buying our veggies already sprouted. Insta -garden!

lettuce of two varieties
lettuce of two varieties

 

 

arugula!
arugula!

 

bok choi
bok choi

Since we have no idea what rhino dung can do, we were afraid it might just kill the plants, so as a back-up I also planted a few veg in some little planters with regular soil.

planter with lettuces, arugula, bok choi and rainbow chard
planter with lettuces, arugula, bok choi and rainbow chard

 

snap peas
snap peas

Et voila! It was just about he easiest thing we could have done to feel like we were moving forward on making the yard our own.

voila!
voila!

Update on the Accidental Garden aka Hanging Gardens


So, as I’ve mentioned before, we didn’t put much thought into our garden this year being that we thought we were buying a house and moving out. Regardless of our neglect, the garden thrives on. And to his credit, my hubby waters the place every morning before he goes to work. In regards to actually planting anything, those that were are long gone:

Seedless Bok Choi

This is the Bok Choi I planted in early spring hoping to have it ready before the heat…unfortunately my timing was again off, and it bolted. I kept it in the bed, hoping that they would have some seeds to harvest…but alack and to my horrified dismay: seed pods with no seeds in them! Can anyone say Monsanto? I blame them for everything!

 

But on to cheerier, hardier things:

Mystery Squash

Early summer my hubby discovered a squash plant of unknown origin growing in a corner of one of our raised beds. Actually, he found many, but pulled all but one. This move is something he regretted, because as the plant grew, it formed lovely flowers, but no fruit.

With our non-expert, non-researched, unfounded opinions, we concluded that the plant would be a dud because there were no other plants around it to aid fertilization. So my hubby, unsure of what to do with the many gangly arms the plant was putting out, decided to strap them along the top of our fence. If they weren’t going to bear fruit, they were at least going to green up the place and we were going to enjoy their blooms. Well, sure enough, suddenly the splendid thing started to bear fruit…and it turns out to be a most amazing squash (exact type not yet identified) that I had discovered I loved last year at the farmer’s market!

The Fruit of our Non-Labor

Well, if we wanted to stop it from bearing fruit we couldn’t. The thing is a monster growing machine of the most impressive kind. Our impromptu “Hanging Garden” is such a success it even reaches into our neighbors yard where it also hangs it’s fruit tantalizingly. We are not opposed to sharing, so when I finally met our neighbor the other day, I encouraged her to please pluck and use the squash encroaching on her side of the fence.  Not just that side of the fence, but the back-end too:

Over the fence facing a back field
Hanging Bounty

The trick is to know when to pick them. One must wait until they are a deep red-orange for optimal tastiness, but weight is also a factor and I’m not sure if the stems can sustain such a load for too long. If anyone can hazard a guess as to the type of squash it is, please let me know!

I ventured out into the back field to take these shots, knowing full well I’d pay for it. You see, the back field is empty save for two things: moles and goat head weeds. Both have their disadvantages for gardens…and walking. We seem to have the mole problem taken care of this year, the goat heads are another thing. My hubby has been waging war with them since we moved here. If you’re not familiar with them, feel free to wikipedia the awful things. They grow, well…like weeds, and produce the hardest, spikiest seed that when in contact with anything rubber and full of air, aka bike tires, will pop them like no ones business. If one is unfortunate enough to track several of those into the house, and say those awful things actually relinquish their spiky hold on the soles of your shoes, then watch out! My bare foot has come in contact more than once with those nasty buggers hiding in the carpet tufts and has never failed in eliciting a scream of pain followed by a stream of expletives.

When visiting the field, one has to resigns oneself to the fact that there will be a lot of goat head removal before going even near the garden or the house or even drive-way (where our bikes reside). Check out the bottom of my flip-flops from my short photo-op adventure:

Goat Heads make spongy work of my poor flip-flops

 

More than once, a spike has managed to make its way all the way through the sole to my tender tootsies. Nasty stuff.

Moving on from nastiness, I leave you with a few images of the glorious growth in our Accidental Garden:

Morning Glories

Black tomatoes

(okay, we did plant the tomatoes, but also unplanned ‘cuz my boss begged me to take a few off his hands (he had over 60 tomato plants donated to the club and couldn’t fit them all)…so kind of accidental if you think about it…)

 

S

 

 

 

 

 

From the Lavender Laboratory


What to do with 8 oz of Lavender oil and 2 cups of lavender buds?

I don’t know. I haven’t come close to using all that, but I can show you what I did do to use about 16 drops of that 8 ozs.

Important: Before beginning experiments, decant lavender oil into a dropper bottle; this will make life a lot easier.

Lavender Laboratory Experiment #1 : Lavender Relaxation & Refresher Spray

  • Fill clean, dark-coloured, spray bottle with filtered water (can be distilled but not necessary)
  • add 4-8 drops lavender oil
  • That’s it. What? You expected more? If this were rocket science, I would not be doing this my friend.

Shake and spritz liberally. But not too liberally if you need to get things done because it might put you to sleep.

Lavender Laboratory Experiment #2: Foot Scrub

What you need:

  • Clean container with screw top lid
  • sugar (any kind; the grain and texture is up to you. I used pure cane sugar)
  • olive oil
  • Approx. 8 drops lavender oil
  • pinch of lavender buds

My jar was a small face-cream-sized jar, so I used a 1/4 cup sugar and filled the rest with olive oil and mixed it. You can use another oil like almond or grape  for example, but a thick oil is nice for something as gnarly, dry and cracked as your feet very moisturizing for your deserving tootsies.

Note that lavender buds are optional…they can look a little bit like mouse turds on the floor of your tub after a good foot scrubbing…so if you’re not easily spooked (meaning you don’t have a tendency to jump into the air landing on the most elevated surface available while screaming “mouse! mouse!”), it’s easy enough to wash down the drain and adds a nice touch to the scrub, otherwise just leave it out.

Lavender Laboratory Experiment #3: Lavender Salt

  • Any amount kosher salt  (in this case about 3 tablespoons)
  • An appropriate amount of lavender as to not over or underwhelm the salt (in this case, a pinch)
  • Combine.

Note: If you have a sea salt mill, combine coarse sea salt and lavender buds in the mill for a more fragrant salt.

Aye, aye captain, but what to do with lavender salt?

It’s amazing combined with lemon and butter(or olive oil) as a rub for chicken destined for the grill…or so I’ve been told and plan on trying.

Or perhaps on buttered popcorn…yum!

Here’s what I did do:

Pan fried asparagus with butter and lavender salt.

Need I say more?

…okay, just a little more:

As you can see, my experiments are none too scientific as I didn’t provide any measurements ( okay, I did mention a ‘quarter cup’ once and ‘a pinch’ more than that…but how big are your fingers compared to mine? See what I mean?),which is to say, experiment for yourself and see because how am I supposed to know how much scent or flavour you like? Have fun and let me know how your experiments turn out. Got any amazing lavender recipes or home-made cosmetic ideas? Please share!

S

Lavender Fields Forever


My friend and I recently went to the Lavender Festival in Sonoma

The entrance fee was a mere $5 dollars and well worth it. Vendors were set up all around a lavender field full of the Grosso and Provence varieties.

I sound like I know what I’m talking about but that’s only because they also had on-going seminars about lavender and what was growing in that particular field. 

Both my friend and I were rather excited and frolicked through the place gaily for several hours. There was food, wine, stuff to buy, wreath making, photo ops and an outdoor spa demonstrating some of the products.

In the end we came away with some pretty neat stuff. We wanted to buy the whole place, but in an attempt to be conservative ended up with a 16 oz bottle of lavender oil  and a bag of edible lavender to split and from which we could make all the other products on display there ( or so we hoped in our inspired state).

 

Did I end up using any of my portion of lavender oil (all 8 oz of it)? That my friends is for another post. For now, just enjoy the lovely view of lavender! Get yourself to a lavender festival if you get the chance- a great way to spend a few hours ( and a few bucks)!

 

S