Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bharwaan Karela

I used to be a very vocal member of the anti green brigade. No, I wasn’t opposed to trying to reduce our carbon footprints or any such - I just didn’t like eating the green stuff. Wait- I need to clarify- I don’t like eating most green vegetables that are good for your eyesight, bring in various vitamins and what not, in their cooked form. I do like them raw with a dash of vinaigrette and some citrus fruit and nuts thrown in- but I digress. This is not what I wanted to talk about today. I will talk about my love for meat and mayo-free salads another time- but today I want to talk about something I make for my husband using a recipe from Dadi.

Karela (Bitter-gourd)- is the bumpy green vegetable that makes me think of a mouse when stuffed and fried. This recipe of karela has a tongue tickling blend of spices that fill my little kitchen with aromas and memories of yesteryears when Ma and Dadi made bharwan karela.
I have two different hastily scribbled recipes in my folder – both labeled karela, both rather incoherent. So here is my attempt to remember how I do what I do to try recreating bharwan karela.

Karelas - Six or Seven, about 6 inches in size.

Chopped Garlic - 1 tablespoon
Diced onions - About 2 cups
Tomato paste - 2 tablespoons
Turmeric – ½ teaspoon
Dhaniya Powder – 1 tablespoon
Powdered Panchphoran – 2 teaspoons
Amchoor/khatai – 1 teaspoon
Sugar- 1 teaspoon
Salt- to taste
3 tablespoons of oil

This is a multi step recipe with some degree of concurrency possible. Here’s how I do it:

Roughly peel the karelas and make a lengthwise slit making sure that the top and bottom edges are still well attached. Remove the seeds and other goodies from inside the karela. Don’t throw them out- we need them for our filling. ( And even the seeds that look weirdly brightly red are Ok to use for the filling.) Apply about 1 tablespoon of salt to both the insides and the outsides of the karela and set aside for 10-15 minutes. At this time I also set a pot of water (which can be used as a steamer for karelas) to boil as soon as I am done with peeling the karelas as it takes about 10-12 minutes for water to boil on my ceramic cook-top.

Now, two activities happen in parallel:

Activity one: The Stuffing

I start heating the frying pan on medium heat with about two tablespoons of oil in it. I also chop the onions. It takes me about 5 minutes to finish with the onions- the same amount of time for the oil to get hot. I add turmeric, dhaniya powder and garlic and wait for the garlic to change colour, and then add the onions. I cook the onions for about 15 minutes- stirring them every 3 minutes or so. I now add the seeds and the innards of the karelas and let everything cook happily for another 6-8 minutes. I then add tomato paste to the onions and stir the contents of the frying pan. After ten minutes of onions and tomatoes getting friendly with each other, I add the flavoring agents- salt, sugar and panchphoran, and turn off the heat. The amchoor is the last thing to go in and then I let it all cool.

Activity two: Prepare the shell

In parallel, while the onions are cooking, I rinse the salt out from the karelas and toss them in the steamer insert of the pot with boiling water. I set a timer to check on the karelas in ten minutes to see if they look done- if they do- turn off the heat and let them come to safe-handling temperature.
I am absentminded- I need reminders. So things like the timer make me not burn our house down. Also, if you are thinking she has now used a frying pan, a steamer and has taken too long to cook one dish- I would have to say- yes you are absolutely right! We are approximately forty minutes into cooking the dish and have at least another twenty to go – but this is one of those special dishes I make for K who eats it with such a look of contentment, that it is worth all the cleanup and multiple trips to stir the pot. Also, I am mostly reading a book on the side while my timers remind me to stir/check/spice or what not- so I am Ok with this set up.

Now- to the final phase-
I start with cutting out two feet of white thread to bind each karela with – so six karelas need six separate strings. Then I place a karela across the thread, and gently coax the stuffing inside the karela and then I tie it up making a compact packet. I try to wind the thread across the length of the karela so that all the bits of the karela are kept together. Lather, rinse, repeat for the rest of the shells. (not literally). As soon as I am done with this process, I start heating the frying pan I had used for the filling add the rest of the oil, and add the stuffed karelas to the pan. Cook for about 5 minutes before turning gently. Give about 3 turns and yes- it is now done!

If you are being industrious, use the time while the karelas are cooking to wash and put away the steamer, start up the rice cooker and start heating up frozen parathas. OTOH, you can be like me and go right back to the book you’re reading and set up multiple timers to remind you to flip stuff every five minutes :-)

Breakfast one winter's morning

Today morning, my phone conversation with my mother touched upon all kinds of topics- her morning glories’ untimely demise, the grand-parents’ beliefs, her trip to Bombay, my sister’s new house-mate, my mother’s music classes, new plates that took me only about two years to buy, and eventually food!
We were talking about kachauris and other food from Banaras and from I remembered chuda matar. Winters in my city of birth featured Chuda matar as an omnipresent breakfast/snack served by everyone. Whenever my friends in Benaras and I [ages 6-10] had a terrace-picnic where we brought something to eat from home and it happened to be December-January, 75% of our menu comprised of chuda matar.
I am not sure why I haven’t ever made chuda matar before. It is a very easy to put together and hard to mess up dish- a distant cousin of Kanda Poha from Maharashtra. Chuda matar is made of fresh green peas bursting with sweetness and thick robust poha that retains shape instead of lumping into gooiness when in contact with water.

I asked my mother for its recipe and while talking to her, finished making and eating it.

Here’s how I went about it-I ground together the green masala that defines this dish- half an onion, half a bunch of cilantro, 4-5 green chilies and an inch of ginger using Magic Bullet’s little cup with four blades. The resulting masala was a very bright green and slightly liquid, since I added a half a cup of water to rinse out the cup.

Next, I heated up a heavy bottomed sauce pan with a tablespoon of olive oil and a tea spoon of ghee. I added a teaspoon of cumin let it sizzle for half a minute and then added the ground masala. I let it cook on a medium flame stirring occasionally for about 7-10 minutes. I added a handful of frozen peas to the now almost thick green paste- and salt to taste. I covered and cooked it another couple of minutes. I just realized - I haven’t had un-sweet peas in my adopted country so far. So I guess, this chuda matar can be made in all seasons- not just when it is super cold.

At this time, I rinsed about a cup and a half of thick poha in a colander and added it to the peas in the pan along with half a teaspoon of sugar and a quarter cup of water. I stirred everything together and let it cook covered for another couple of minutes- enough time for the water to vanish and poha to look green and fluffy. I seasoned the finished product with some lemon juice and topped it with salted cashews.
It was delicious and my husband and I finished the entire pan in one sitting.
Notes from my mother:
- A two is to one ratio of Poha to Peas is normally used for this recipe.
- The green chillies and the cilantro define this recipe. You can switch out the tomatoes and garlic for onions or go crazy and add it all!
- Half a teaspoon of Garam masala is frequently sprinkled on chuda matar to kick up the flavor profile a notch.