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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stuffed Naan (lazy man's version)

So, my family's been Indian my whole life. My mother's been an amazing cook, my whole life. And yet, somehow,  the first time we made this unbelievable concoction was three weeks ago. How is this possible?! I can't emphasize this enough: these things are awesome. In fact, I should warn you to NOT make this recipe. It will only haunt you. Because not only are stuffed naans delicious, they are surprisingly easy to make.

Ok, I'll admit, these aren't REAL naans. Real naan involves actually making a bread dough, which no one in my family really felt like doing. Plus, we had an extra bag of Trader Joe's pizza dough sitting in the fridge, so...

The base ingredient in our version of stuffed naan is paneer, a form of Indian cheese. Now, sometimes, when people hear of a bread stuffed with cheese, they think "Ooh! Gooey, meltey cheese! Awesome!" No. Stop thinking that. Paneer does not melt, nor is it supposed to. It's meant to be crumbly, have texture. Could you add mozzarella or a nice gruyere? Sure. But then you're not eating stuffed naan. Sorry. 

The great thing about this recipe is that it's unbelievably customizable. You can add almost any combination of things. Enjoy sauteed okra, chicken, along with a bit of garlic? Go ahead. How about ground lamb and peas? Why not. Freedom is a beautiful thing.

Our version had a fairly extensive list of ingredients, but I'm pretty sure that's because we just started throwing everything we like in there. There is of course some method to the madness, and the combination of everything we added was...mmmm....let's just say words fail me. Again, with stuffed naan, you don't want to forget about texture. The crumbly goodness of the cheese, paired with the crunch of the cashews and the chew of the raisins really keeps your mouth interested.

Also, don't be afraid of extra stuffing. This can be great in sandwiches, or even on top a pile of greens. 


Now, the one hard part about making stuffed naans is, unsurprisingly, the stuffing part. It's not so bad when you get the hang of if, but they're kinda like pancakes. The first one is always bad. The images above act as a pictorial guide to how to make your naans perfect. I'd refer to them when following the recipe below.

At this point, I was about to eat these things raw. The problem with my family is we enjoy cooking in a very leisurely manner, and halfway through the process we're all dizzy with hunger. Mind you, my sister and I had taken several nibbles of the stuffing at this point to keep up our energy. The seeds on top of ours, by the way, are not sesame. We used kalonji, or Nigella seeds. They are traditionally what you sprinkle on top of Indian breads, but just in case you can't get your hands on some, sesame seeds work just as well.

This is the chicken dish my mother made alongside with our naans. It's a hybrid between Chicken Makhni (Butter Chicken) and Chicken Tikka. As soon as she teaches me how to make it, I promise I'll be passing the knowledge to you guys.

So there you have it. People generally think Indian food is always extremely complicated, but hey, we're pretty lazy people! Shortcuts aren't always a bad thing. And in this case, it's kind of an awesome thing.

Stuffed Naan

*Note: The ingredients you use to stuff your naan can vary incredibly. This is our version, and  it really was phenomenal. Like, sneak down to the kitchen at 2 am and eat the last one cold phenomenal.
*Note II: Any prepared pizza dough works, but I'd recommend Trader Joe's.

1.5 cups paneer, shredded (farmer's cheese and queso blanco work too)
1/3 cup red onion, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp salt
1 small thai green chili
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tbsp ginger
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup cashews, chopped
32 oz pizza dough
2-3 tbsp sesame seeds
flour, to keep dough from sticking
a bit of olive oil

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place a cookie sheet inside while you prepare the naans.

Combine the first 11 ingredients, stirring them together.

Place the flour in a small bowl and dip your fingers in, to keep the dough from sticking to your hands. Rip off a chunk of dough, a ball with a diameter of about 2".

Roll into a smooth sphere between your palms, then flatten into a disk with your fingers, stretching the dough a bit near the end. Take a large spoonful of the cheese mixture and place in the middle of the circle. Don't be shy with the stuffing, put a good amount in there. Then, carefully fold the edges into the center, enveloping the filling, till you get a thick patty. Carefully press down and flatten so it becomes thinner and thinner, and the filling inside distributes throughout the naan. You want the finished naan to be about the same size as the original circle of dough.

Take the cookie sheet out of the preheated oven and carefully spread a bit of olive oil on the surface. Place the naans on, giving them about an inch of space all around. Rub a bit more olive oil over the top and sprinkle on the sesame seeds.

Bake the naans for about 20 to 25 minutes. We took them out when we couldn't stand waiting any longer, and they were slightly underdone, which is how I like my breads. If you'd like them fully cooked, I'd give it another 5 minutes or so.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cardamom Tea Cake...slight disaster

Alright, so usually, I'm good with cakes; they're my comfort zone. But somehow, my attention strayed and I only added half the amount of flour needed in this still pretty tasty dessert. This is so embarrassing. We hardly know each other. 

Alright, even still, this is a good cake, I promise. I'm a big fan of cardamom; it's got a beautiful fragrance, and is a flavor I've lived with my whole life. For as long as I remember my family has had a mortar and pestle on the kitchen counter to crush cardamom pods for Indian tea (real Indian chai, not the kind you get at Starbucks). And then, my mom had this amazing idea to add a bag of loose leaf tea as well, giving it this whole new level of flavor. So essentially, this is an authentic cup of Indian tea, in cake form. 

Mom always keeps a ziploc bag of cardamom pods in the freezer. They last quite a while.

The Bombay Chai (I know, this makes me a bit of a hypocrite) from Mighty Leaf was our choice of tea. 

Now, this is a very fragrant cake. It might be a bit too intense for some American palates. But if you're adventurous, I'd say go whole hog. We added a good amount of seeds, as well as the whole tea bag. After I mashed the two together, the smell was intoxicating. Seriously, my sister had to pull the bowl away from me so I'd stop smelling it and get on with making the cake. 

I'm so smug when I find a really simple recipe, that still sounds super fancy. This is one of those. Seriously, the batter is nothing too complicated (and yet I STILL screwed it up), but it becomes transformed into this lovely creation that you could give the most annoyingly high brow name to if you wished. "Anyone care for some Cardamom Chai Tea Fusion/Infusion Torte?"

One thing to mention is that this is by no means a "pretty" batter. It doesn't fall in velvety ribbons from the mixer paddle blade, it is in no way a smooth ocean of gorgeous yellow/white/gold/dark mahogany brown. It looks like batter gone wrong. Curdled, strangely pale, and when you add the ground spices, it takes on this watery gray tinge, like old dishwater. Don't believe your eyes. Shut them tight as pour your hideous child into your prepared cake pan. If you're brave (or like me, just hungry), you'll dip your finger in for a quick nip and realize it actually tastes good. Really good. It's like the chubby girl in 10th grade who's really funny.

Now, like I said, I screwed up. But it was still tasty! At least, my dad ate it. So while I still say you should add all the flour I mention below, if you like your cakes seriously dense, sweet and buttery (as well as strongly cardamom-y), go ahead and halve the flour. Unfortunately, your cake will come out sad and flat looking like mine. But that didn't stop my mom, my sister, and I from taking nibbles from the side. Well, let's be honest. Very little could happen to stop that.

Cardamom Tea Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 packet of tea (don't skimp, get the good stuff)
1 - 1 1/2 tsp ground/crushed cardamom seeds
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups cake flour
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9" round cake pan. To take extra precaution, cut a circle of parchment paper to lay on the bottom of the pan.  

Crush the cardamom seeds and tea leaves together. This is most easily done with a mortar and pestle, although a small bowl, a wooden spoon, and LOTS of elbow grease work too. (I did this, and it sucks, but hey no pain no gain). You want to make sure there are no large bits of anything. Your mixture will resemble a rough powder.

Fit your mixer with the paddle attachment and mix butter and sugar together till light and fluffy. (If you're like me and live in a cute yet ill equipped kitchen in Brooklyn and have no mixer, use a fork to whip these together. Unless your butter's really soft, a whisk just makes things messy.) Add the eggs one at a time, incorporating fully before adding the next. Then add the vanilla. Toss in the cardamom and tea, and when that is fully mixed, add the buttermilk.

In another bowl, mix the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Add in small batches to the mixer, mixing slowly until just incorporated. To be safe, use a silicone spatula and fold batter gently, to make sure no flour is stuck to the sides of the bowl.

Pour into prepared pan and pop into the oven for approximately 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden and toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then flip out onto cooling rack. Serve room temperature with a dollop of fresh whipped cream.  

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Argentina, how can you have all the gorgeous men AND wonderful steak? It's not fair. Please share with the rest of us.

Goalie chilling in a friendly game of futbol (La Boca, Buenos Aires)

A lone intern is sitting at her very large desk in front of a fancy computer monitor that is about twice the size of her torso. Her head is resting on her palm, and keeps dipping down and snapping back up. She's bored. Really bored.

After her body's third attempt to shut down, she sits up. That's it. She picks up the phone, dials, and waits. Finally, a voice can be heard on the other end.

                                                     INTERN'S SISTER (on the phone)
                             Hey. What's up.

                             Do you want to go somewhere?

                                                     INTERN'S SISTER (phone)
                             What, like out for dinner tonight?

                                                     INTERN (phone)
                             No, I mean out. Of the country.

There is a pause on the other line for a few moments.

                                                     INTERN'S SISTER (phone)
                             Um, hell yes.

The intern smiles, a new glint of energy in her eyes.

                                                     INTERN'S SISTER (phone)
                             So....where are we going?


And that's how it started. After that phone conversation I had no idea where my sister (Ajooni) and I would end up, but I knew one big clue. I wanted to see South America. Somehow, we had family friends in Buenos Aires, and then I remembered how everyone's raved about the sausages, the empanadas, the pasta, the gelato....alright, that's it. My mind was made up.

See the wonderful and horrible thing about having such an overdeveloped sense of wanderlust is that it hits you anywhere and anytime, so after looking up some airline tickets, and having a few quick conversations with my parents, our trip was pretty much decided within a few days. And then a month later, Ajooni and I found ourselves being picked up by one the loveliest older couples in the world, who invited us back to their home for what is now the only form of grilling experience I consider acceptable: a parilla.

Homemade blood sausage (San Isidro, Buenos Aires)


So, my sister and I decided to see as much of Argentina as physically possible within about 15 days. What does that mean? Visiting 4 towns in the country, each representing an arrow on the compass; North, South, East and West. Iguazu, Bariloche, Buenos Aires, and Mendoza. 

First thing you notice about this country: there is a disproportionate amount of unbelievably good looking men. I'm being dead serious. Neither of us could believe how many there were. After a while, we came up with a quick coding system to communicate quickly with one another. Sitting at a cafe in the morning, munching on croissants (medialunas), Ajooni would look past my shoulder and simply say, "Oh god. Eyes. And hair." I would do my best to casually twist my torso to look behind me and there I'd see yet another gorgeous man, with stunning green/gold eyes and perfect hair. I think it's the water.

Fishing in San Isidro
But hey, I had more important things to do than stare at men. Well, not more important. But essential nonetheless. So what do we do? We take a 26 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, a gorgeous Sweden-esque town in the south of Argentina. Of course, we learn after we've gotten on the bus already that the one toilet we've got isn't able to take "solids". This unnerves me, and I decide I'm going to hunker down, and wait for land. 26 hours. One 10 minute bathroom break. Oh yeah, this was an experience.

Tea. There was lots of tea on this bus. Not good for the bathroom situation.

Can we agree? Best town sign. Ever.
Finally, we got there. The hostel, Alaska Youth, was adorable. We immediately met three Brazilians and opened a bottle of wine, drinking from mismatched glasses at one of the rough wooden tables in the kitchen. And since I hadn't really eaten since we first got on the bus, I immediately got a bit drunk. So what do we do? Dinner, of course. (I apologize, as the food photos are annoyingly blurry.) 

Ajooni's venison goulash with homemade pasta. So. Freaking. Good. 

My fresh trout and garlic potatoes. I'm not going to lie, the fish was quite "fishy".

The next day I am on a mission. I have heard from travel guides, native Argentinians, and random people I ask on the street: Mamuschka's is the best chocolate store in South America. And it's in Bariloche. So one of the Brazilians, Jonis, offers to take Ajooni and I around the tiny town. Which, admittedly, is adorable, but all I can hear in my head is "Mamuschka....Mamuschka...." Finally, MUCH later in the day than I felt was necessary, after we had split ways with our guide and began wandering around on our own, we got me some chocolate.

Adorable, right?
Hot chocolate (they serve it unsweetened), and The Mamuschka: a decadent chocolate cake, with dulce de leche filling, dipping in chocolate. And two complimentary truffles.
I need to come to terms with the fact that I might be a chocolate snob, because honestly, it was good, but the best? (Argentinians reading this, please don't hate me.)

And just so it looks like I WAS interested in the rest of the town:

View looking onto part of Bariloche
This is your souvenir shop. This is your souvenir shop on crack. 
So the next day we said goodbye to Bariloche and took a 17 hour bus ride to Mendoza. In first class (we learned out lesson). 

Mendoza, well I'll just say it. I want to live here. I want to ride past vineyards on my bike and gallop through the Andes every day. And drink delicious Malbecs and eat amazing steak grilled for me by a real, honest to goodness gaucho (cowboy). If I had my way, I'd have stayed another day. Or week. Or year.

First place we go? Mendoza's Serpentario, of course; a.k.a House of Snakes. Which is, creatively, shaped like a snake.
An abandoned carnival we stumbled upon. I felt like I needed to make a slasher flick here.
We finally try Argentinian gelato! My verdict: the best I've ever had. And, I'm sorry Italians, but I've been to Italy. This is a mixture of three flavors: walnut and pistachio, mascarpone, and something called tramontana.
So let me just say. If you go to Mendoza, get a bike. And go to the vineyards. More than one. And buy wine. Don't worry about it, just buy some bottles, and figure out later how you're going to get them home. 

So of course, biking several miles to different vineyards in the brisk Argentinian winter gets you a bit hungry. One of the wineries we visited served homemade pizzas for lunch, and I can't tell you how wonderful these pizzas were. Good enough that I've tried to recreate them twice back at home, with a fair amount of success (recipes to follow soon, I promise). 

Ajooni's pancetta and salted cheese pizza topped with fresh arugula at Vein Garten
Now, when someone says to you "Hey, let's go check out the Andes," and you're actually close enough to do so, you would go, wouldn't you? My sister and our new friend Anna were not these people. They didn't like cold, and I can promise you, in winter, the Andes in Argentina are cold. They wanted a day at the spa. But thankfully I am ridiculously stubborn. And guess what: that might have been the best day we had in Argentina. 

Since both Ajooni and I had many years of horseback riding lessons back when we were kids, we asked the guides to allow us to do a bit more than walking. They were very excited to have a few people who wanted a bit more excitement, and soon we were trotting and galloping along the trails. Galloping, by the way, is awesome. You're going a hundred miles an hour and being shaken and jiggled like a finely prepared cocktail all at the same time. And then, when it couldn't get any better, our guide (an honest to goodness Argentinian cowboy) made us lunch. We ate in the wood cabin near the stables, near a roaring fire.
A lunch of bistec al chorizo, fresh tomatoes and lettuce, and thick bread. All served on a wooden plank.
My noble steed, who we lovingly nicknamed Super Lomo. Who, incidentally, was the largest horse in our group by far. And I am 5'3". It was very amusing to watch me scale this hairy mountain.
So Mendoza was put (sadly) behind us, and we headed to Iguazu. Funny enough, we had some amazing meals here, which was extremely unexpected, and I, like a fool, took no photos. There was fried alligator in a honey mustard sauce, veal in mushroom cream sauce, delicious steak (of course), and more wonderful gelato. Please allow your imaginations to fill in the rest. 

I won't spend too much time on Iguazu, as the main reason we came here was to see the Iguazu Falls. Which are incredible. Miles and miles of waterfalls. It got to the point where we had to filter what we were going to photograph. "So we're agreed. No more photos unless there's at least four waterfalls and two rainbows." 

I'm soaking wet because we've just taken a boat partially into one of the falls.  This shot is of course posed, but hey, it's still kinda cool, right?
So then we headed back to Buenos Aires, for our last two days in Argentina. We visited one of the most famous cemeteries in the world (Cemetario Recoleta), saw some modern art in the Recoleta Cultural Center, wandered around La Boca, got conned into appearing in a tango show (each of us were dragged on stage twice and no, I'm not putting the photos up here), and met up with all the friends we had made on the trip thus far. There were street tango shows, cheap and delicious chorizo sandwiches, arguments with discoteque bouncers, a makeshift game of soccer on one Avenida de Mayo at 4 am with several garbage men, and an hour spent watching the sunrise in the middle of the city on an island of grass. 

The cemetery was like a really ritzy neighborhood in the North Side of Chicago. A bit creepy, no?
Something we finally got our hands on the 2nd to last day. A Super Pancho. An obscenely large hotdog topped with pickled onions, tomatoes, cilantro, mayo, chimichurri,  and fried onions. Our huge pile of napkins transformed into a stained  glass mosaic after this

I won't say this trip was spectacular, because that's trying to put it in words, which is unfair. If you like food, if you like people, just go. It's a place that is both buttoned up yet passionate. European and urban yet also overflowing with nature. Have a glass of wine in a cafe, maybe go grab an empanada in a tiny bakery, wander into an empty opera house and share a glass of mate with a bunch of ushers, of course you'll go dance a tango, take a walk through the rainforest, then go wander into the mosh pit of a heavy metal concert. It's all Argentina.