October 5, 2015

Winter Squash Soup

October 5, 2015
Four months ago, when dahlias and asters were crowning the summer season, I inserted a mesh on the windows to bar insects from entering, and to hear the swish of an oak tree that quivers on the backyard like a parasol. Under the canopy you’ll find clusters of acorn – little nuts that look like heads wearing a cap or, as I like to imagine, bells that jingle in the evenings when the man-made world – far away – quiets down. Although woodland creatures – deer, squirrels and birds – gobble them like a starving tribe, I’m sure it is the humming of these wind-chimes that lulls us to sleep every night.
Like adulthood, summer induces the best of many. It stands for potential, and ushers us to wander and explore. Time expands to ripen everything that started earlier as a seed: red currants, wheat, families, and our hopes and needs. With more ease and comfort than in youth, our self-acceptance matures like a corncob in the field.

But, usually sooner than we’d like, shadows grow taller and the breeze hints at the change of mood. Blooms retreat and greens fade. Then, one morning, chirping becomes but a heavy sigh. That’s when you have to pull down the screens and install the windows back. Hey mosquitoes, bees and flies! Where are you now? Have you escaped to a warmer sphere because the autumn is here?
Leaves fall from a tree when they lose their grasp. They hover down and transform. Such falling has indicated autumn (in English) since the early 1600s. Before that, the season was called a harvest.

‘Harvest’ sounds so much more abundant than ‘fall’, doesn’t it?

Although labor-intensive, it reminds of togetherness, woolen socks, hot chocolate, and thanks-giving. It’s the time to reap our quota, gather crops, preserve energy, extract from the culture, wind down, retire to an inner space, and stack for the winter (or the old age). Falling, which is an urban term, signals that something or someone is becoming less, diminishing and sinking inward, failing to keep up or meet expectations, and descending or collapsing by a force, such as gravity. Many have fallen from grace. Which of us hasn’t fallen apart at times?
Autumn is one the scenes nature lays out to teach. As a constant, it walks us through a series of changes, year after year, to show decomposition and the end of all, and then, a renewal. Past the prime, at fifty, I can relate to this better than ever. The seasonal cycle offers a program for a slow-learner like me to reflect on the wheel of samsara, repeated birth and death, and the duties that come along with participating in such a pastime.
To undergo a change is rarely easy – especially when it defies my identity, relationships, abilities or means. When a challenge becomes too overbearing, I take shelter of routines or my personal invariables that anchor me to the favorable side of the situation. Sanguinity works as an inherent antidepressant and enables discernment that clears doubts. Such keenness of insight is an essential element of meditative outlook. It activates the brain’s reward center in a sustainable manner. A conscious effort to recognize positive and negative emotions by describing them in words boosts serotonin and dopamine, the feel good hormones that reduce stress. A constructive disposition of the mind – acquiring knowledge, and feeling grateful and humble – produces good impressions which, in turn, develop into a good habit that will gradually expand awareness. To solve problems by employing guilt, shame, anger and anxiety, on the other hand, gives a quick release, but will propel to destructive impulses again in the future.
Pumpkin soup is one on my autumnal balance points. This must be the third pumpkin soup recipe on the blog; not because I’m addicted to the gourd family fruits or consider them more noteworthy than other vegetables, but I jump at them on the market because they represent the bright face of autumn. Under their skin beats a soft, generous heart – the kind I’d like to cultivate, too.
In what ways is the autumn tutoring and empowering you?

Ingredients for the soup:
2 Tbsp ghee (or butter, or oil)
¼ tsp pure hing powder
1 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp grated fresh turmeric
2 medium size potatoes, diced
4 cups (1 liter) diced winter squash
¼ - ½ tsp cayenne powder
4 cups (1 liter) water
2 tsp dry roasted panch phoron powder
2 cups (500 ml) whey
2-3 tsp Himalayan salt
½ - 1 tsp garam masala powder

Ingredients for the garnish:
1 Tbsp ghee (or butter, or oil)
2 cups (500 ml) diced Hokkaido squash (red kuri)
2 pinches of Himalayan salt
1 pinch of cayenne powder
Roasted pumpkin seeds
1 -2 cups (250-500 ml) shalloew-fried paneer cubes

Cooking method:
Heat up the ghee (or butter, or oil) in a large pot. When it’s hot but not smoking; sprinkle in the hing powder, and grated ginger and turmeric. After about a minute, add the potato dices. Fry the potatoes over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Then toss in the winter squash dices and continue frying for another 5 minutes before pouring in the water. Cook (covered) until the vegetables are soft. Use a food processor, a stand blender or a hand blender to break the vegetables into a velvety soup. Whisk in the panch phoron powder, whey and salt. Bring the soup to a boil again, reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Finally add the garam masala powder before serving.

While the soup is cooking, heat up a tablespoon of ghee (or butter, or oil) in a wok or a pan. Add the Hokkaido squash dices and sprinkle them with salt and cayenne. Fry them until they are cooked, stirring occasionally. Add the roasted seeds and fried paneer cubes. Combine the garnish with the soup.

A tip:
For panch phoron powder, take equal amount of each: mustard, fennel, jeera, kalonji and fenugreek seeds. Dry roast them on a pan over a moderately low heat until the seeds are a few shades darker and aromatic, for about 5 minutes. Let the spices cool down and grind them into powder.

The simplest garam masala powder consists of toasted cinnamon stick, cardamom seeds and cloves. You may add black peppercorns, jeera, fennel, coriander, tejpatta, nutmeg and other spices to make it more complex.

Thank you.

September 22, 2015

Lentil cakes in Potato & Tomato curry

September 22, 2015
Sponge-like patties, dhokla, have been steaming on Gujarati stoves for centuries. Made of fermented chickpea lentils and rice, they look like yellow diamonds on a plate.

Also for hundreds of years, but some 2000 kilometers (1300 miles) east – across the core lands of India – mothers and aunties by the muddy slopes of Ganges, in Bengal, have been frying another kind of savory cakes, dhoka. They are smaller and crispier than their northwestern resemblance. Bengalis dip them in curries instead of serving them as a side-dish, snack or breakfast. In addition to their likeness in etymology, dhokla and dhoka are also bound together by a common ingredient, chana-dal.

Consider chana-dal as lentil because it’s processed from hulled and split gram, or chola boot – the most popular chickpea variety growing in Indian subcontinent. Plump and meaty, chana-dal has higher fibre content than many lentils and it provides a valuable source of plant protein.
Now, take the shortest route from Kolkata to Helsinki via Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. Our cottage is an hour drive from the airport. Because there are similar country houses around, look for the one that carries off the fragrance of ghee, hing and kalonji along with the wood smoke. We have set the midday meal on the table, and it includes dhokar dalna. Hopefully you don’t mind sitting on the floor!

When your eyes meet a gravy-like main dish in which the sauce is fairly thin – that’s dalna. It usually has potatoes, either alone or with other absorbent vegetables like cauliflower or pumpkin. Tomatoes, yogurt, coconut milk, and different seed pastes may enrich the sauce. Whereas chenna dalna contains cheese patties, dhokar dalna comes with lentil cakes. Sometimes other legumes, like split peas, replace chana-dal; sometimes chickpea flour, or besan, plays the leading role.
Making dhoka is easy but there are few things to pay attention to. When grinding dal, use very little but enough water to reach a smooth consistency. If the mixture is too dry, the patties will crack when you fry them. Trust me; I’ve experienced that, too.

You could substitute kalonji seeds for dry-roasted jeera powder when making dhokar. In that case, throw them in at the same time with hing powder. I would probably omit kalonji seeds in the gravy then and, instead, sauté jeera seeds with ginger, tejpatta and hing.

For spicier dhokar dalna, supplement the recipe with green chilies. You can also mix finely grated ginger in the dal paste.
I’ll show you some other time how to prepare dhokla. You will then be able to decide whether you are Gujarati or Bengali at heart! I already know which one I am.


Ingredients for the lentil cakes:
½ cup (125 ml) split gram (chana dal)
Water for soaking overnight
About 2 Tbsp water for grinding
1 Tbsp ghee or oil
A pinch of pure hing powder
A pinch of Himalayan salt
1 tsp jeera seeds, dry roasted and ground

Ingredients for the gravy:
2 – 3 Tbsp ghee or oil
1 Tbsp grated ginger (juice removed)
2 small tejpatta
Less than ¼ tsp pure hing powder
1 tsp kalonji seeds
2 medium size potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 medium size tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 cups (500 ml) water
½ tsp cayenne powder
¼ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp jeera seeds, dry roasted and ground
2 green cardamom seeds, lightly crushed (or ½ - 1 tsp powdered garam masala)
1 tsp Himalayan salt

Ingredients for frying the cakes:
Ghee or oil

Cooking method:
Sort, wash and soak the dal in plenty of water for about 8 hours. Drain.

Add enough water to the dal to grind it in a spice mill or food processor (1 to 3 Tbsp).

Heat up the ghee or oil over moderate heat and sauté the hing powder for about 30 seconds and then scoop in the dal paste. Keep stirring it until it thickens for about 5 minutes. As it will stick to the bottom of the pan, keep stirring. It’s ready when it pulls away from the sides and forms a solid mass. Now add the roasted jeera powder and salt. Mix well and spread the paste in a buttered/oiled platter.Tap it into an even rectangle. When it cools down, cut it into mouth size diamond shapes or squares.

While the paste is cooling down, make the gravy. Heat up the ghee or oil in a pot. When it’s hot but not smoking, drop in the ginger paste and tejpatta. When the ginger turns a few shades darker, add the hing powder and kalonji seeds. Fry for 30 to 40 seconds and add the potato cubes. Keep frying them until they become golden and crispy. Mix the potatoes occasionally. Add the tomatoes and fry until they start to stick to the bottom of the pan, and the ghee or oil begins to separate from them. Now pour in the water and powdered spices, salt and cardamom seeds. Cook until the gravy thickens.Some of the potatoes may dissolve and some of them may retain the shape.

While the gravy is cooking, shallow-fry the lentil cakes in hot ghee or oil. Drain and add them to the gravy when it is somewhat thick. Remember that the cakes will absorb liquid; you may have to add some more water if the gravy dries up.

Remove the whole spices before serving.

Thank you.

September 14, 2015

Zucchini Blossoms

September 14, 2015
According to weather reports, the remote lowland of permafrost in Oymyakon, Siberia, where the winter temperature may drop below -70 Celsius (-95 F), was warmer than Finland in the past June and July. This summer seemed like a long rainy afternoon that lasted until the middle of August. Then the clouds suddenly gave way to the sun for two weeks, and then it started to pour down and thunder again.
Our little lodge is so cozy – wood crackling in the stove and all – that I was hardly disturbed by the weather, unlike the seeds and seedlings in our garden. They simply refused to grow. And, those that finally sprouted in July (yes, in July!) were immediately savored by the same white-tail-doe whom we see sporting with a fawn on our backyard. She has gusto for beans and zucchini-leaves, but dislikes spinach, and is indifferent to beetroot and swizz chard. Had I failed to build a fence around the garden, she would have left nothing to harvest. As naughty as she is, she is a majestic animal; despite of trying to be upset with her, I'm not able to.
Like every summer, I stuffed zucchini blossoms this year, too. Again, I was like being bewitched. For some reason, I don’t get the recipe right: either I forget an ingredient or a procedure while being clueless that I’m doing something incorrect.

Last year I neglected to dip the flowers in tempura batter before deep-frying them – a serious mistake, causing the blooms to explode in hot ghee. Although I specifically reminded myself of the mayhem this year, I repeated the blunder again! However, now – instead of being humble – I blamed the wok, the stove, the ghee, and the zucchini mother who sacrificed her buds before I realized no one or nothing else was culpable for my mental haze. I mean, who forgets what she is doing while doing it?

To save the situation, I plunged a slotted spoon into the ghee and scooped out the gruel of spinach, ricotta, feta, spices, basil and what was left from the delicate flowers, and filled a pie crust with the mixture. That day we ate cheese and zucchini flower tart for lunch. It tasted more terrestrial than tempura, but filled the belly nonetheless.
Some days later our zucchinis bore new blossoms. I picked and washed them, and unplugged the pistils in order to pipe the tiny envelopes of petals with homemade chenna (fresh cheese), feta-like salty cheese, basil, black pepper, Himalayan salt, and kala namak. When I was whisking the batter of rice flour, pinch of salt and ice-cold water, it dawn to me that I had ran out of ghee! There was just enough fat to shallow-fry the flowers. As a result, the dish became quite heavy, similar to a patty you would expect to be served by a grey-haired, black-wearing yiayia (grandma) in a roadside tavern of a Greek village.

What about the third time, was the spell lifted? I’m not sure. Although I had all the ingredients (I even used creamy mascarpone as the base stuffing and carbonated water instead of icy tab water for the batter), and followed the cooking instructions, I wasn’t impressed by the result. The charm of tempura is that you have to eat it immediately when it’s still hot and crispy. If it sits for five or ten minutes, it begins to taste unhealthy and pointless. It is finger food you should fry in an outdoor grill during a party, and eat from a newspaper slip with a lemon wedge.
Maybe next summer I’ll get the zucchini blossoms rock and include the recipe. How do you like to eat them?

Thank you.

August 26, 2015

Eggless Meringues

August 26, 2015
Internet – the modern day village where masses gather to entertain, and to be entertained, and where Facebook along with blogs comprise message boards and news booths at the central marketplace – has been buzzing about aquafaba for some time. Although I’ve stayed away from the latest feeds for the best part of the summer, whenever I’ve connected online, recipes for this new culinary obsession have popped up on my screen.

Finally, I gave it a try, too.
It wasn’t that I craved for eggless meringues. After all, I belong to the tribe that has never understood the thrill behind veggie-burgers, mock pork-chops or imitation chicken nuggets. I mean, if you are a vegetarian, why would you enjoy dishes that echo values associated with meat? To some extent, I have the same attitude towards veganized meringues, macaroons, pavlovas and marshmallows that look pretty but simply mimic egg-based classics.

Ethics aside, I didn’t taste the meringues because of my sugar free lifestyle, but my husband indulged in them while oohing and aahing. You have to rely on his word here.
There hasn’t been scientific research or formal chemical analysis about cooked chickpea liquid, showing why it is such a competitive emulsifier, and leavening and foaming agent. It looks like someone figured out (accidentally?) in a home laboratory that the high protein content of aquafaba behaves in a similar manner than egg-whites, and to some degree, egg yolks, too.
To get aquafaba you boil whole chickpeas (after soaking them in plenty of water overnight) until they become tender, and then collect the water. When the liquid cools down it forms jelly like consistency that turns into white, hard foam when you whisk it. Add sugar, a pinch of vanilla and a squeeze of lemon; pipe the mixture on a baking tray, and slowly dehydrate it in the oven; and – voilà! – there is your batch of meringues. If you are looking for an egg-replacer, you won’t find a better one. And, no, aquafaba doesn’t taste like chickpeas.

I added beet-juice to the part of the foam but my hopes of getting pink meringues burnt when our oven over-heated. Have you ever tried to keep a wood oven around 100 C (212 F) for two hours? It’s a laborious job!

Do you see the small cracks on the meringues? They are caused by too high temperature.
Eggless Meringues

(The recipe makes about 30-40 small pieces)

3/4 cup (187 ml) aquafaba
1/2 - 3/4 cup (125 - 187 ml) caster sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla sugar
1/2 tsp lemon juice

Whip the aquafaba with an electric mixer until it becomes white and light, and forms soft peaks. A balloon whisk of a stand mixer works best. Blender isn’t suitable because the blades spin too fast and don’t aerate the foam.

Add the sugar gradually towards the end of whisking along with the vanilla and lemon. Keep processing until the mixture becomes glossy and so hard that you can turn the bowl upside down without spilling the contents.

Pipe or spoon the mixture on a baking tray.

Bake in 100 C (212 F) for 1 ½ to 2 hours until the meringues are completely dry.

Store the meringues in an airtight container. If they become moist and sticky, re-dehydrate them again in the oven.


I pressure-cooked 400 grams (500 ml / 2 cups) chickpeas in 1 liter / 4 cups of water until only half of it was left. The chickpeas were butter-soft and the aquafaba was concentrated.

The aquafaba becomes even stronger when you refrigerate the chickpeas for a day in the same liquid you cooked them in.

You can directly use the liquid from canned chickpeas, too.

Thank you.