Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Authentic Red Lentil Dhal (Tarka Dhal)

Since my Trader Joe’s channa masala re-cooking experience, I proclaimed to my (Indian) friend S. that I would ‘cook’ India dishes and figure them out. An autodidact of Indian cuisine! She smiled politely and looked concerned at the same time (What I would do to those dishes?). Yesterday I said “Today, I will cook dal. Dal is a really bland dish, right?” she at last volunteered a recipe of how to cook it authentically. “It is really easy, you do……..”


And so, here we have it, authentic Indian dal. Naturally, I had to check the internet if others cooked it in the same way. Only Jamie Oliver and Madhur Jaffrey, the Marcella Hazan of Indian cooking, came close. The style of cooking it is also specific to Indian cooking. First, the lentils are cooked with water and a few spices, and then they are ‘dressed’ with hot, spiced oil with chilies and fried onions (the ‘tarka’). Normally, I would start with oil, onions, garlic, spices, and then add lentils and water, and cook it all together. But, alas, I was willing to do it the authentic way. 

The lentils are cooked to a really mushy, mashed potato like texture. When I sent S. a photo of the finished dish she remarked I could add some water. I guess, the texture is not quite so mousse like. Jamie Oliver recommends “They should have the consistency of porridge – thicker than soup and looser than houmous.”

Nevertheless the texture, it tasted really great.


Tarka Dhal (Red Lentil Dal)

  • 1 cup of dry red lentils (dal)
  • pinch of ground turmeric (1/8th – 1/4th of teaspoon)
  • pinch of cayenne pepper (1/8th – 1/4th of teaspoon)
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1 TB ghee or butter (ghee == clarified butter)
  • 1 shallot, small diced
  • 1 hot green chili, diced (I did not have any at hand, so I used hot chili oil)
  • salt to taste

In a heavy bottomed pot (best: le creuset dutch oven, or faster  in a pressure cooker), place the picked over lentils, water, the turmeric and cayenne pepper, and stir. Bring to a boil, reduce heat significantly, close with a lid, and let simmer for 50 min. Occasionally stir, and check for water levels, add more water if necessary.

At the end of the cooking time, heat the ghee in a pan, add the diced shallots and chili, and cook until browned and crispy. Add to the dal, and close the lid to capture the flavors for the dal. I mixed it in, and served it.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Channa Masala

And so Christmas is over. We rewind the clock and count down until Christmas next year. It also means, we have another little party (New Years Eve) that officially starts the clock anew, with a new year, longer days, and the general upswing towards summer. We can sit back, relax and we are on our way, to the bright, sunny, warm long days (besides in Florida, where people are probably counting down the pleasant weather days). It is also the time when smart shopping happens because the stores want to sell the remaining winter gear and room needs to be made for the spring clothes.

It feels like renewal, shedding a skin, on all fronts. The darkest days (of the year) have passed, families have joyfully convened and it is time to move on and get back to business. In a little while, at least. Let’s regroup, and sort things out, check the presents, and fold the wrapping paper.


(Xmas 2013 with ice storm)

We had a record-breaking mild Christmas in Maine this year, with some of the mildest temperatures in the entire US. It will last until Sunday, and then, eventually the inevitable will happen, cold and snow and winterwonderland.


(Xmas 2014 with temperatures in the mid 50s)

The other day I perused the international frozen food section at Trader Joes, and picked up a package of Channa Masala. I am not sure if the flavors are authentic Indian, but you would assume that Trader Joes puts some effort in it, however, it tastes marvelous. I was on a mission to replicate the dish, first inspecting the ingredients lists on the package and taking it from there.


Often, Indian dishes are convoluted with spices and if you don’t know you are doing it is difficult to find out which should really be the flavor notes of a particular dish. I decided: Simpler is better. Like a piece of music, there is the main melody, and the background notes. In Chana Massala, the main flavors are supposed to be tangy, aromatic flavorful, and not too spicy. Therefore, I chose turmeric and dried mango powder as the main spices. As a base Indian melody, there are fresh curry leaves and black mustard seeds sauted in hot ghee, and a tad of garam masala. For the aromatic flavorful I added star anise, cardamon and cinnamon. To round it out I added  bay leaves and a bit of maple syrup, which are likely not authentic Indian. – Love this dish, whether it is authentic or inspired Indian.



(Note: I make this dish with dried, un-soaked chickpeas. The cooking time is about 3-4h on very low in a cast iron pot. You can make it with cooked chickpeas or chickpeas from a can, of course).

Channa Masala (makes 2 large, or 4 side servings)

  • 1 teaspoon ghee
  • about 10-12 fresh curry leaves
  • 1 TB black mustard seeds
  • 3 green cardamom pods, whole
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 TB garam masala
  • 1 small yellow onion, diced
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas (or 2 cans cooked chickpeas)
  • 2 teaspoons dried ground mango powder (amchur)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 10 fresh cherry tomatoes, sliced
  • 1/2 can of tomato paste
  • 1 quart of vegetable broth (if you are using dried chickpeas) --- no broth if you used cooked chickpeas.
  • 1 TB maple syrup (or agave nectar)
  • 1 teaspoon dried vegetable bouillon powder (in lieu of salt)

In a heavy bottomed, cast iron pot, melt the ghee and add the curry leaves, black mustard seeds, cardamom, and star anise. Cover pot 3/4 with a lid (not fully, but don’t leave it open because the black mustard seeds like ‘pop’ like popcorn and pop all over your stove). Heating the spices like that in hot butter makes them fragrant, so it is an essential step before adding any other ingredients. Keep the heat at medium high, and listen until the mustard seeds seem to pop.

Reduce the heat slightly, add the onion and saute until translucent (1-2 min).

Now, add the chickpeas, remaining spices, broth (if you use dried chickpeas), and tomatoes. Stir, first bring to a simmer, and then significantly reduce the heat and cover with the lid. Let simmer with a tightly fitting lid, for about 3-4h, checking occasionally for sufficient liquid and softness of the chickpeas. The dish is done cooking once the chickpeas’ texture is soft enough for your liking (if using cooked chickpeas, simmer of medium low for 30min for the flavors to combine).

Now, add the maple syrup, the bouillon powder and remove the bay leaves, cardamom and star anise. –कृपया भोजन का आनंद लीजिये !


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Gingerbread Soft Cookies

At last, the running around was over. It is cold outside, a thin crust of snow covers the landscape, not enough to ski or snow shoe, just to look good for Christmas. It’s been a race through advent time this year, and any Holiday spirit seemed not to come up. Today at last there was time to set up an improvised advent wreath and bake at least one batch of holiday cookies.

For the cookies, I adapted the soft cookie recipe for a Christmassy version --- gingerbread flavored with pine nuts, pecans and white chocolate chips. They are soft, chewy and elicit a feeling of holiday festivity.


Gingerbread soft cookies

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, soften
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 TB maple syrup
  • 1 TB organic molasses
  • 2 teaspoons ground dry ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • zest of 1/2 orange
  • 2 TB milk
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons instant vanilla pudding mix
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch salt, optional and to taste
  • 1 cup white chocolate chips
  • 1 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans


  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or large bowl and electric hand mixer), cream together the butter, sugars, egg, vanilla extract, maple syrup, molasses and all the spices on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, salt, baking soda and pudding mix.
  4. Put speed on low, and slowly added the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix on low speed until just combined, about 1 minute; don't overmix.
  5. Toast the pine nuts and pecan in a dry pan for a few minutes (watch it!)
  6. Add the white chocolate chips, toasted pine nuts and pecans to the batter and mix until just incorporated.
  7. Line a baking sheet with a silicon mat or parchment paper. Using a small ice cream scoop, (or any size of ice cream scoop you like based on the size of the cookies you would like to make) form heaping 1 – 1 1/2 –tablespoon sized mounds and place mounds on baking sheet (ca. 8 cookies per cookie sheet)
  8. Press mounds slightly flat, and press 3 additional pine nuts on top of the cookie dough ball.
  9. Bake for about 12 minutes.
  10. Do not overbake since the cookies will firm up as they cool. Cool cookies on the baking sheet for about at least 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooking.






A real advent sitdown with home-baked cookies.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Gift guide 2014

It is almost Christmas. The semester is over, the weather has chilled and a thin, decorative layer of 3 inches of fresh snow. Most people have their Christmas gifts by now, and the others will run crazy in the malls this weekend. Last night I perused the Williams Sonoma website for anything that I could still buy for the 20% off coupon I received in the email, and debated to get a Cuisinart Electric Pressure cooker for cooking all those chickpeas and kidney beans in 30 minutes flat without soaking them. But accommodating another huge appliance somewhere made me loose the idea. Then I read the Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Guide Christmas Edition, and that finally produced an idea: a shitake growing log!

Here are few other ideas of things that are me-approved (meaning, I own and love them, and no one paid me to talk about them).

  • Alpaca inserts

I purchased a pair of alpaca inserts back in the Fall at a Maine fall market from a local vendor who has her own Alpaca herd. Once the weather became older and the winter boots came out, I inserted the pair, and could not get over myself of how soft, comfortable, warm and overall cozy I felt all day like my feet were wrapped in their own down blanket. I was looking for another pair for another pair of boots, but all my investigating on typical online outlets (Amazon) showed that they are not really mainstream, and you only get them on Etsy. I ordered another pair at this etsy seller and highly recommend them. Great communication, really good prices ($8.50/insert) and fast shipping. If you want to make any man, woman, or child happy, get them some Alpaca inserts.


  • Timberland booties

Winter time is not a time of pretty footwear, at least not in snow-rich longitudes such as Maine. Practicality comes before beauty, and boots are often clobbery and manly. Not these! They are Timberland women’s winter boots, and they could not look more feminine while still having all the sturdiness, warmth, snow and ice repellant and safe on ice nature of real winter boots. The Timberland Earthkeeper Glancy go well with skinny jeans, boyfriends jeans and even tights and skirts. They make winter boots look petite and are still practical.


  • Stonewall kitchen caramel sea salt sauce

Whenever I end up in Camden, I make my way into the Stonewall Kitchen Store. There is a reliable spread of samples and, like on good days in WholeFoods, you can eat your way through the store. Last time I tried something that made me immediately grab a jar --- the Sea Salt Caramel Sauce. This is the perfect combination of buttery, sugary, caramelized heaven with a hunch of salt. Drizzle this over a piece of fudgy chocolate cake or a chocolate cookies will make you remember your most profound sensual experiences of your life.


So, that’s is for my last gift recommendations for this holiday season. There is always the Dude’s guide for guy gifting and the gift guide for women.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Christmas by the Sea

It was my well-earned day off and I headed out of town. We are between snowstorms (the last one is mostly melted away), and the Christmas decorations are up. It was the usual route to Belfast, Cellardoor Winery, and then Camden. It was a good day to go since Camden celebrated “Christmas by the sea” weekend and the small businesses gave 15% off storewide and then there was a Christmas parade, Santa arriving by boat, horse-drawn carriages, storytelling with kids, fireworks and many more activities. Despite the influx of winter tourists, Camden with the Christmas décor looks like Christmas in the good old days: local, festive, intimate.

Frozen pond at Cellardoor Winery

Cellardoor Winery, still open until Christmas, and then closed until April.

The 225 year old barn.

All the medals…

Merryspring Holiday Bazaar

Need ornaments for your nautical themed Christmas tree?

The Camden harbor is rather empty this time of the year.

The Owl and Turtle Bookstore, what a gem.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pre-holiday rummagings

The weather is still pretty meschugge. One day it is warm, the next day 20 degree colder, then warm again, then rain, freezing rain, and freezing the whole mess over, people flying off the freeway in their cars. Where are the old days when it just got really cold, and then it started snowing at some point, which accumulated until five feet piled up along the drive way, people skiing every day and then it slowly melted away?


Yes, Mr. Winter.

Recently, I made the candy corn cookies with mini m&ms and they were gone even faster than the candy corn ones.


I found this really cute rolling pin that can be customized on etsy. Now, I am debating which of the beautiful designs to get? They come with tiny reindeer, dinosaurs, owls, or flowers, or a custom-made name.


This also looks like a good project and gift – Peppermint Pretzel Marshmallow fudge (Joy the Baker).


This might be appreciated by my cats – a felted, warm hideout.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

White Thanksgiving

Normally, we are happy if there is white Christmas, so peaceful and festive that even songs are written about it. This year we are blessed with White Thanksgiving. 14 inches of new powder, having arrived on Thanksgiving morning. Ok, so after we dig ourselves out, we will be thankful. The landscape looks like winterwonderland, the snow powdery, the sky blue and the sun bright. This combination has a significant effect on most people: they get the skis out.

While I prepare for the day, I glance through my email inbox, and humming to myself the tantric wisdom of JOMO (the Joy of Missing Out). “I don’t really need anything… I am good. I am immune. I have everything I need. I don’t even like a Canon Rebel T5, not even if it is 50% off.” Ah, yes, all those deals of all those things I potentially want. But not need. Can I close my eyes, and let this Black Friday after White Thanksgiving pass me by this year? Or will I get up electrified tomorrow morning, and jump in my car, and explore, caving fully to FOMO?

The wise plan is likely to figure out ahead of time, what I really need. Instead of being part of a swarm of shoppers, collectively tipsy from a Black Friday high, rummaging through the stores, leaves shelves look like they’ve been hit by the 8th plague.

But then, first things first. The snow was to be enjoyed and a wilderness adventure to be had before all the cooking, drinking and shopping would commence.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Snow galore!

This is my worst nightmare snowstorm scenario: you open the door and you can’t even get out anymore. The people of Buffalo, NY, just experienced it.

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Yes, the snowblower is ready. But….

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Some also made the best out of it.