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’tis the season!

Its that time of the year, when everyone in India is celebrating…..

Navratri & Dasara followed by Diwali, are the two festivals that evoke wonderful memories of the time I spent with family and friends back home. Its been almost eight years since I moved to America and I haven’t been able to time my travel so that I can join them in these festivities. However, the spirit of the season is very much alive in me and I do my best to enjoy the festivals with the same excitement and enthusiasm, at my home away from home.

I grew up in a family where a great emphasis is placed on the religious aspect of the festivals and everything is strictly done by the books.  I didn’t get very much involved in all those rituals and customs then, but now looking back, I appreciate all the things my parents do, even today, to preserve and carry on the family traditions. Somehow, I never got those complex rules in my head. So when I left my parents’ cozy nest and took off to a land far far away, I redesigned some of those traditions and created some new ones to retrofit America. I do simple things like placing a jhendu phool on our altar (yes, we have a beautiful altar in our home where Jesus and Ganpati live in perfect harmony) during Navratri, may be a visit to the Indian temple on Dasara, lighting the whole house with diyas for Diwali and celebrating with family and friends here.

Of course, ’tis the season and there’s every reason to enjoy those festive delicacies! Here are a few of my favorite things….

Basundi for Dasara

(Creamy Milk Pudding)

During the Navaratri festival, my parents have the puja performed daily by offering fresh garland of the jhendu (marigold) flowers on each of the nine days followed by naivedya (food offering) before lunch. Mom prepares vegetarian food every morning including a sweet item on the naivedya menu for each of the nine days!

I am not a big fan of sweets and as a kid, I remember getting bored of eating those sweet dishes prepared everyday for nine days. I would only be waiting for Dasara, the tenth day, when dad would go over to the Chitale store in the morning and bring home a litre of their sweet, creamy “basundi “.

Basundi is a very simple sweet dish prepared by boiling milk. Sugar and some spices are then added and milk is simmered till it reduces to half the quantity. The reduced milk is then chilled for a couple of hours to make a thick and creamy milk pudding.

Try my basundi recipe, its as close as you can get to the Chitale store in Pune!

Serves 4

4 cups whole milk (You could use reduced fat milk but I wouldn’t recommend low fat or skim milk for this)

5-6 saffron strands

1 can sweetened condensed milk (Milkmaid, Nestle La Lechara or Carnation)

4-5 green cardamom pods (elaichi), seeds removed and powdered or 1/2 tsp cardamom powder

charoli or chironji, for garnishing (These are aparently dried and roasted melon seeds with almondish flavor. Here’s more details on Chef In You and Mahanandi)

In a medium pot over medium-high heat, bring the milk to a boil. Turn the heat down to a low simmer and add the saffron, sweetened condensed milk and cardamom powder. Mix well and continue to simmer for 25-30 mins, stirring continuously, making sure milk does not overflow or stick too much on the sides or bottom of the pot.

Remove the pot from heat, scrape the milk sticking to the sides or bottom and let it cool down to room temperature. Pop it into the refrigerator for atleast 2 hours before serving.

Garnish every bowl of basundi with 8-10 charolis and serve chilled.


Diwali Brunch with Brown Pohe

(Flattened Rice with Cumin and Peanut Powder)

Diwali is one reason to make all the special “faral” items. Back home, even today, my mom goes the whole nine yards and sincerely makes everything for the Diwali faral Laadoo, Chivda, Chakali, Shankarpali and what not! She has been making all that ever since I remember and we have always done justice to her efforts by enjoy all those goodies on all the days of Diwali.

In my family, we usually have the big “faral” on Narak Chaturdashi. My parents host a morning brunch on this day and have relatives and friends over. Growing up I remember us kids bursting fire crackers outside while mom busy working in the kitchen preparing for the big brunch. Obviously the table would be set with all the faral items, but mom liked to make a couple of freshly prepared dishes to go with them. The most popular request for a freshly prepared dish used to be for the “Brown Pohe“.

Brown Pohe are not the healthier brown version of regular pohe , like brown rice; nor are they made the usual way with turmeric or mustard or onions or any other ingredients. This pohe recipe is our family recipe that has been handed down through generations and I have never had it anywhere else but home. It’s simply made by stir frying pohe with cumin seeds, few green chillies for some heat  and roasted peanut powder with salt and sugar seasoning.  The peanut powder gives the white pohe a characteristic “brown” color and hence the name.

With it’s simple and earthy flavor, this elegant dish is a centerpiece of my Diwali spread!

Serves 2

2 handfuls (about 2 cups) thick pohe (flattened rice)

1 cup roasted peanut powder (general rule of thumb is to have 2:1 proportion of pohe:peanut powder)

2-3 tbsp oil

1 tsp cumin seeds (jeera)

1-2 green chillies, roughly chopped

salt

1 tsp sugar

quartered lemon wedges

cilantro/coriander, finely chopped for garnishing

coconut, frozen thawed or freshly grated, for garnishing

Take the pohe in a colander or sieve and rinse thoroughly under running water, making sure all of it is completely soaked. Set aside to drain completely.

In the meantime, heat oil in a frying pan/wok/kadhai over medium heat and add cumin seeds. When they start to splutter in a min or two, add green chilies.  Then gently fluff the wet pohe in the colander with your fingers to loosen them up and add them to the pan. Stir in the roasted peanut powder and season with salt and sugar.

Mix well, drizzle some lemon juice by squeezing 1-2 wedges and cook covered on low heat for about 5 mins stirring occassionally.

Garnish with cilantro and grated coconut and serve warm with a side of a lemon wedge.


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