Recession Food: Emergency Recipes

So the economy is crashing and burning, and with oil pushing $150 a barrel, it’s unlikely that food prices will drop, or even plateau, anytime soon.  Most people are struggling to get by (link via What to Eat), and food banks are struggling to keep up with demand as hunger increases among the working poor.

As you might expect, the food media is following suit by publishing lots of money-saving tips.  We’re encouraged to pack our lunches, stop buying prepared foods, eat legumes instead of meat and use coupons wisely– good ideas all.  Our grandparents survived the Depression, and our generation has a lot to learn from them.

But what do you eat when you’re really, really broke?  When you’re down to the change in your couch cushions, what’s for dinner?  Is Taco Bell the only option?

Well, readers, my dear husband and I are card-carrying members of the Working Poor, and we faced this question very regularly in college and then during some lean years trying to survive in New York City.  Since Joe in particular is a master at making something from nothing, we’ve amassed some lovely food-emergency recipes to share with you.  Well… lovely might be pushing it, but they’ll get you through the day.   Here are our top five day-before-payday meals. Read the rest of this entry »


Simple Dal for Winter Nights

It’s February, and you just spent an hour driving home from work in a treacherous ice storm. You’re cold and tired, and there’s not much food in the house. What do you do?

Here’s what we did: ad libbed from an already-easy dal recipe. This requires a bit of time but very little effort, and the results are warming, comforting and satisfying (not to mention gluten-free and vegetarian). This is our version, but you can throw in some vegetables or whatever you’ve got around the house. This serves 2, with some leftovers.

Simple Dal

Throw into a pot:

1/2 lb lentils (use your favorite kind)

1 1/4 pint water

1 bay leaf

3 cloves garlic, broken up a bit but not chopped

about 1 tbsp chopped ginger

1 cinnamon stick

large pinch of turmeric

Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 35 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Then add:

Juice of 1 lemon

pinch of salt

pinch of pepper

pinch of cayenne

Simmer for 5 more minutes.

In a small pan, heat about 3 tbsp of ghee or vegetable oil. Add:

pinch of black cumin

pinch of regular cumin seeds

pinch of asafetida

Let it sizzle for a few seconds, then stir into the dal.

Serve with rice. That’s all there is to it. By the way, this process will leave your dal studded with tender, sweet pieces of garlic.

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Lamb Chops in Yogurt with Whole Spices; Potato Patties (aloo-ki-tikiya): Take 2

Back in June, I found myself with four lamb chops and some potatoes, and decided to make these two Jaffrey recipes.  It turned out well, so when we bought lamb chops again (Trader Joe’s, people, seriously!) I decided to revisit the recipe. 

I won’t go into great detail about the technique, since I covered that pretty well in the last post.  I did, however, learn a few things this time.

The lamb recipe was, as before, easy but time-consuming.  You just brown your lamb chops, fry your spices for a minute, pour in a yogurt/water mixture and let the whole thing simmer for an hour.  Once again, my yogurt curdled.  The recipe has you pouring yogurt water into hot oil, so even vigorous whisking doesn’t really solve the problem.  The good news, however, is that this isn’t a yogurt sauce meant to be served with the lamb chops; it’s more of a straight-up simmer sauce.  It’s mostly there to soak into the lamb chops, keep them moist and infuse them with the flavor of the spices– which it does admirably, whether or not the yogurt curdles, so I’m not going to beat myself up about it.  (Although reader tips are more than welcome!)  Also, one change I did make was to used smoked peppercorns.  The flavor difference was subtle, but I think it added something to the meat overall.  Man, those things are potent.

The potato patties definitely turned out better this time around.  It’s easy in theory but difficult to do well; you form cooled mashed potatoes into a ball, flatten it, add a center of fried dal/onion/fenugreek (methi) mixture, form it into a patty, and fry it slowly till it get a nice red-brown crust.  Last time, I didn’t have time to let the potatoes thoroughly cool before making the patties.  The result was that they didn’t hold together well and kept trying to break apart in the pan.

This time, Joe made the potatoes before I got home from work, so they sat for about two hours in a covered bowl.  This helped, but when I went to form the patties they were still warm and sticky, and kept breaking apart in my hands.  I was really worried about their ability to hold together. 

As it turned out, they behaved just fine.  A crack or two formed when I flipped the patties, but they held together and were delicious.  Next time, I’d like to make the potatoes a day in advance and keep them in the fridge, and see if that helps.  Also, I added just a bit of chopped green chilli to the dal mixture, which gave the patties a nice little kick.

Last time, we had two patties left over, and we kept them in the fridge and made them the next day.  They held together well and were an easy side dish.  We have two left over this time as well, so I’m looking forward to having them tonight or tomorrow.

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LeftyProf’s Moong Dal with Tomato and Ginger

This dish was served to Joe and me by our good friend, culinary collaborator and desi political blogger LeftyProf.  It’s South Indian comfort food: warming, filling, simple and healthy. 

 After a week without food (and yes, it really is Crohn’s, with a possible but yet-to-be-confirmed side of celiac disease), I was in need of exactly this dish… there’s a reason they call it comfort food, you know?

 So.  Here’s what you do, and LP, please correct me if I’ve gotten anything wrong.  Your ingredients:

Moong Dal

Three tomatoes, diced

Four inches of ginger, peeled and jullienned as fine and thin as you can get it

One large onion or two small onions finely sliced in half-moons

Four or five small green chillies chopped finely

Boil moong dal, as much as you want to make, in a large pot with plenty of water, for 30-40 minutes. 

Slice one large onion (or two small ones) into half-moons.  Sweet onions are good for this dish.  Brown them ever so slightly in the bottom of a second pan.  (Do not throw the onions into the pot of dal, like Joe did.)  As soon as the onions get a hint of brown on them, throw in the ginger and give it a few minutes in the pan.  Add the tomatoes and green chillies, and cook until the tomatoes start to get soft. 

 Empty the pan of vegetables into the pot of dal and mix.  Salt to taste (you can also do this on the plate).  Serve with rice or roti. 

As our host demonstrated to us, you can also add a kick by serving raw whole green chillies with this.  Pick thin ones, and bite off the very tip, then follow it with a bite of dal.  I couldn’t try it without risking Crohn-ly unpleasantness, but the guys tell me that this method gives you an initial rush of heat from the pepper that’s immediately cut by the dal, so that the heat achieves a pleasant balance over the course of the meal.  Joe liked this so much that I think he’ll be eating green chillies with his spaghetti and meatballs soon.

You’ll notice that I don’t give exact  measurements on this recipe, or on anything I know by heart.  In the words of the chef: ‘We don’t measure, are you fucking kidding me?’   It’s the Indian version of the motto my college friends Nancy and Maribel used to shout across the dorm: ‘Mexicans don’t measure!’ 

Other ethnic groups who do not, I am told, measure: African-Americans, Ghanians, North Carolinians, Texans, Taiwanese, Afghans, and the French.  In fact, I’d wager that anyone who cooks by heart scorns the little metal spoons– I know I do when I’m making my grammy’s dishes.  Grammy measures, but her units of measurement are dabs of dough and pinches of salt.  But so many of the American cooks I know are almost obsessive about measurement– is it a teaspoon of salt, or a half a teaspoon?

I think this is an expression of caution and unfamiliarity.  When I’m following one of Jaffrey’s recipes, lord knows I’m the queen of the little metal spoons, carefully counting out my teaspoons and tablespoons.  But I’ve found, over the course of writing this blog, that as my comfort level increases and I become more confident in the kitchen, I’m more and more content to leave the little metal spoons in their drawer.  It’s about whether you own the dish, or the dish owns you.  I think there’s something to be said for following recipes exactly the first time around, especially if you are unfamiliar with the cuisine from which you’re cooking.  Once you start to get the hang of it, though, you can improvise, edit, and get a feel for what you’re trying to accomplish– and the spoons become irrelevant.  Maybe when I’ve been making Indian food as long as LeftyProf has, I’ll forsake them entirely.

In the meantime, though, I’ll try to relax a little more in the kitchen, and remember that no one has a monopoly on the ‘correct’ recipe– and it’s improvisation and experimentation that evolve into the regional and cultural variations that make food exciting.  After all, who’d want to live in a world where you can’t try both Texan and Carolinian barbecue?

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Kheema, moong dal and chapatis

Back to the book! I made three recipes from the Jaffrey cookbook for dinner last night: kheema, a spiced ground beef dish; moong dal, a classic North Indian lentil recipe; and chapatis, a simple bread which I’ve done a few times before. Jaffrey recommends this combination, and I can see why– the flavors mingled really well together. Also, they’re both simple and good for leftovers, so we’re pretty much set for next week’s lunches now.

The dal has to simmer for an hour and a half, the kheema has to simmer for an hour, and the chapati dough has to rise for at least 30 minutes, so I made the dishes in that order.

The dal recipe is actually incredibly easy. I’ve made some fairly complicated dals in my time. When I first went on a gluten-free diet after being misdiagnosed with celiac disease, I was totally broke and didn’t know what was safe to eat, and pretty much survived the first month on dal and rice. It’s nutritionally fantastic and very versatile, but it can be an intricate pain to make. Not so much this dal. Anyone with a pot, a pan and an hour and a half can pretty much do this one with their eyes closed.

Get yourself some moong dal. The lentils should be split open, dark green on the outside and light yellow on the inside. Put 10 oz. in a pot with two pints of water, and boil. Clean the scum off the top with a strainer. Throw in a few cloves of garlic, some ginger (no need to chop), turmeric, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and chopped cilantro or parsley if you have it (I didn’t). Turn down the heat, cover but leave a little vent open, and leave it for an hour and a half, stirring every ten minutes or so. Try to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. I was sure, initially, that this would run out of moisture, but it didn’t. About ten minutes before it’s done, throw in one lemon’s worth of juice and some salt. Then, right before service, melt ghee in a pan– about 3 tbsp– and put in a pinch of asafetida and an equal amount of whole cumin seeds. When the asafetida starts to snap-crackle-pop, pour the whole thing into the dal. Sprinkle with a handful of fried onions and serve immediately, with a lemon wedge on the side.

While that’s simmering: kheema. I halved the recipe, because two pounds of ground beef is too much for two people. This has both warm spices and a bit of heat. First, you need to fry some onion half-rings, because both this recipe and the dal are finished with them. Just put them in hot oil and keep stirring until they get nice and brown. You don’t want them to burn. Make sure you start taking them out of the pan just before they are done, because these little suckers are slippery and you don’t want them burning while you’re still struggling to get them out of the pan.

Keep the oil from the onions. Throw in two bay leaves, a cinnamon stick and six cloves. Once the leaves change color, throw in a finely chopped onion, three cloves chopped garlic and a spoonful of chopped ginger (I admit it, I used the emergency ginger jar). Keep those going until things are just barely starting to brown, then add your classic North Indian spice mix– ground cumin, coriander seeds and turmeric. Mix and fry. Then add a tablespoon of plain yogurt and stir that in very quickly. Give that a minute, then put in one chopped tomato. Fresh would be great, but I was out so I used canned chopped tomato, which actually works beautifully and even gives a slightly more consistent texture. Next time I use fresh, I think I’ll run it through the food processor!

Give that a few minutes, then add the meat, chop it all up with your flipper, mix well with the sauce and let it start to brown. Then add your warm spices: mace, nutmeg, cayenne and salt, plus a few ounces of water. Bring to a boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer for an hour, stirring every ten minutes or so. If you are not making chapatis, what you can do at this point is go zone out in front of Law & Order, and get up at every commercial break to go and stir your pots. (I know, it’s an awful show, but I’m addicted. You never know what character actor will show up– Aasif Mandvi was on last night! Aasif– if you’re reading– call me!) About halfway through the simmering, put the fried onions in (reserving some to top the dal) and stir. That’s it.

Now for the chapatis. I was worried about having enough time, so I had Joe do most of the kheema prep while I kneaded chapati dough. I needn’t have worried– I had time to spare, as it turned out. Chapatis are the easiest Indian bread I’ve tried– spelt flour and water in about equal parts, knead for 8 minutes, let rise for half an hour. Knead again, divide into 8 balls. Roll each ball into about a 5-6 inch circle, flouring all the while. To cook, put the chapatis, one at a time, on your very hot tava or cast iron pan. Once they solidify and start to get brown, grab with tongs and hold over an open flame until they puff. Brush with a bit of butter, and repeat with the next chapati. These ones came out fluffier than previous chapatis– we had some excellent puffing action this time.

All this should be served with rice, by the way. We still had some of this rice left over, so we tossed it in the microwave and it went perfectly.

So: rice, kheema, dal with a lemon wedge and fried onions, chapatis, Wild Goose IPA. Both the kheema and dal had a kick to them, more so than a lot of the food I’ve made from the Jaffrey book so far. Joe and I found our sinuses clearing by the end of the meal, but it wasn’t so hot that the flavors were disguised. We were amazed at how well the flavors complemented each other.

I wasn’t sure I’d like this dal. When I was growing up, most of the veggies we ate were of the frozen-microwaved variety or the slimy-okra variety, and I didn’t like them one bit. My stepbrothers still tease me about the time I gagged over a bowl of peas. It’s only recently, under the tutelage of a former-vegetarian husband and Indian vegetable-eating friends, that I’ve started learning to like my vegetables. (My friend Gagan’s mom’s okra blew my mind.) But I’m still a bit leery about anything green and savory. So when I was cooking these lentils, and they were very green with lots of brown liquid, and they smelled sort of pea-like, I was worried. But once I added the spiced ghee, I started to relax. And by the time it got to my plate, I was thrilled. The vegetable-ness of the lentils is balanced with the richness of the ghee, the heat from the spices, the tang of the lemon juice and the sweetness of the fried onions. The lemon juice, in particular, really made the flavors from the spices bright and vivid. There’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple dish, and I have to say that I am now looking forward to eating this particular vegetable. I hope you’re reading this, Mom!

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Red Joe said…
This was a great dish on Saturday. I just had some for lunch today and it was AMAZING! The flavors of the spices, in particular the asafetida, really come out more than they did before. It is hot but very flavorful with a pleasant bitter after taste. A real winner. I’ll be requesting this one for a while.
July 9, 2007 12:24 PM  

Chana Dal with Lamb

This is the first real dal recipe I’ve done from the Jaffrey cookbook. It’s kind of an unusual one, because it contains lamb, and also you don’t let the lentils fall apart– they stay whole and a bit al dente.

I know I say this a lot, but… this was easy but time-consuming! My Indian foodie friend Nagesh thinks that some of Jaffrey’s recipes are needlessly complicated, which is interesting. It’s certainly true that it’s hard to make a Jaffrey recipe without dirtying half the dishes and pans in your kitchen.

First, you fry four onions’ worth of onion half-rings, till they’re brown and sweet. Don’t burn them. Also, don’t hover over the pot so much that your eyes start stinging and you have to call your husband over to help you scoop out the onions because you can’t see. Not that such a thing would ever happen to me. Set aside.

Next, put your lamb chunks (we got some nice local lamb stew meat from the Fair Food Farmstand) into the hot onion oil and brown them on high heat. Set aside.

Meanwhile, you will have blended your Indian mirepoix (onions, ginger, garlic) into a fine paste in the mini-food processor. Dump this into the oil and fry for close to ten minutes, until it starts to cook off a bit. Then add your turmeric, coriander and cumin. Give it a minute, then stir in a tablespoon of tomato puree (I used paste). Next, the warm spices: mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and ground cloves. I hadn’t used mace before– it has a strong flavor and goes well in the warm-spice mix. Give that about five minutes, then add 4 oz chana dal, the lamb, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and a cup of water. Stir well, bring to a boil, and simmer for an hour, pausing your movie every ten minutes to stir.

Before service, stir in a few tablespoons of lemon juice. I served this with rice and topped it with the fried onions and chopped coriander, which made for a nice presentation.

This was delicious! It had a nice kick– definitely the spiciest recipe I’ve made yet, which isn’t saying much, but still. Tasty. The lamb was very tender, and the dal had this al dente not-quite-crunch to them that was very pleasant. The sweetness of the onions was a nice counterpoint to the heat and the richness of the lamb.

I’m packing some of this for my trip this weekend, and I have a feeling it’s going to get very happy in the fridge!

-Next time, I think I can drain off some of the oil before putting in the mirepoix. It was a little oily.
-Good lamb really makes a difference. We were surprised at how meat-heavy this dish was- we actually used only half the amount of meat called for in the recipe, because that’s what we had on hand, and it was still very meat-centric.
-Be careful when frying onions! I need some goggles or something. Except that if I actually wore goggles around onions, Joe would never, ever let me live it down!

Lamb Chops in Yogurt with Whole Spices; Potato Patties (aloo-ki-tikiya)

For once, I actually made a lamb dish with lamb! Very exciting. And my dear husband Joe made a trip to the Indian grocery store, so we filled in a few of the gaps in our spice cabinet. (International Foods at 42nd and Walnut– check them out!) I finally have cardamom pods and fenugreek seeds! Woo! And let me tell you, cardamom pods? They’re magical. They smell wonderful and they add so much flavor to a simmering sauce… I’m actually a little annoyed with myself for making so many recipes with crappy-ass cardamom powder instead of the real deal. Sigh. No matter– I have lots of pods now!

The lamb had to simmer for an hour, so while Joe was out returning our car, I started chopping. This was a deceptively simple dish. Here’s what you do: Mix 4 tbsp yogurt with water and set aside. Brown your lamb chops in the pan. Set aside. Fry the spices– a cinnamon stick, a red pepper, cloves, peppercorns, and a bay leaf. (We also got some decent dried red peppers– the old ones from the grocery store in Queens just weren’t giving off much flavor. These, on the other hand…) Put in your chopped ginger and garlic. (My ginger got moldy, so I had to break out the emergency jar. Yes, that’s right, I keep an emergency jar of ginger in my fridge. What are you laughing at?) Fry for a minute, then throw in your chopped green coriander. Let it wilt for a bit, then put the lamb chops back in. Pour the watered-down yogurt into the pan, add salt, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and cover. Check it every ten minutes, stir a bit, whatever it seems to need.

That’s pretty much it. This was nice and low-maintenance. The lamb came out really tender and moist and just a hair above medium rare. I realized just now, while writing this, that in halving the recipe, I got a bit confused and added too much water to the yogurt, which may be why the sauce was really thin. I didn’t treat it like a sauce, more like a poaching liquid, and that worked out well.

Then there were the potatoes. Madhur Jaffrey recommends boiling the potatoes whole two hours before dinner, then chopping and mashing them about half an hour before showtime. But I had to work late tonight, and Joe had to run to South Philly to pick up a package from UPS, so our potatoes got chopped, boiled and mashed in quick succession. They sat for maybe twenty minutes while I dealt with their filling.

The filling: this is a recipe that requires some advance planning. You have to soak 3 tbsp of urad dal for 24 hours. The problem with such recipes is that I’m a total slacker, and if it’s been a rough day and I have cramps and I worked late, I’m liable to put off the dinner I’d planned and order takeout. Which is what happened yesterday and the day before. So by the time I got around to making this dish, my dal had been soaking in a glass of water on the counter for three days. There was a funky, bubbly skin of lentil starch that had formed at the surface of the water, and the whole thing smelled like it might have fermented just a bit. But they looked fine and the texture was right, so I decided to give it a shot. (Very unusual– I’m normally a bit of a paranoid freak when it comes to food safety. I’ve had some bad experiences.)

Turned out the urad dal was just fine. I put a few fenugreek seeds in hot oil– those smell great too, by the way. Then I added chopped onions and a pinch of cayenne pepper– the recipe calls for green chilies, but we didn’t have any. You’re supposed to let the onions get just a bit brown at the edges, then put in the coriander. I cooked everything at the correct heat, etc., and put the coriander in just as the onions got brown at the edges, but I found that by the time I’d reached for the coriander the onions were close to burning. I had to turn the heat down very quickly to save them. I was using the cast iron pan, which I suspect conducts heat better than the average frying pan. So dear readers, if I have convinced you to use cast iron (which, I admit, is one of the secret goals of this blog), keep that in mind. OK, so you fry all that for just a little bit, then put the (drained! not wet anymore!) dal in the pan and keep stirring for five minutes or so. Madhur says it’ll all turn into one big lump in the pan, but that didn’t happen– I suspect she used a smaller pan than I did.

While you’re doing that, your potatoes are resting. Wake them up and bring them over to a cutting board or other useful surface. Divide them into balls– Madhur Jaffrey calls for 12, I halved the recipe and did 6. Now take a ball and flatten it in your palm. Take a spoonful of the dal mixture and put it right in the center, then gently, gently form the potatoes into a ball with the dal at the center. Then flatten it out (again, gently) so that you have a nice little potato pancake with a spicy dal center.

Meanwhile, put just a bit of oil in your cast iron pan, which you cleaned out after making the dal. Once it’s hot, put the patties in. Make sure to leave them some room. I had six patties, but ended up only making four because I didn’t have time to do two panfuls. (Pansful?)

Once the patties are in the oil, LEAVE THEM ALONE. 8-10 minutes. Just let ’em sit, with the heat on medium low. My potatoes were a bit less thick than I’d like, probably because we made them at the last minute, and I was concerned that things were so liquid-y that a crust wouldn’t form. Silly me, I should have trusted in the amazing crust-forming abilities of my cast iron pan. The crust was lovely and golden brown. Once that forms, it’s time for a flip– a fish spatula (flat, slotted metal) is ideal, just be eeeever so careful when you turn them over. These have a tendency to break if you’re not really gentle.

There it is, that’s your dinner. Plate and serve. We had this with a Flying Fish Belgian-Style Dubbel, which I think went particularly well with the potatoes. The potatoes had a nice little kick from the cayenne, and the combination of crunchy crust, smooth inside potato and spicy, slightly crunchy dal was delicious and fun to eat. It went well with the lamb, too– I still can’t believe how tender that lamb was! We got it at Trader Joe’s– I’m always happy with their lamb chops.

Things to consider for next time:
1. When halving the recipe, halve the freakin’ recipe. If you accidentally use twice as much water as you need, your sauce will be too thin. Duh.
2. Real spices make a real difference. As does freshness.
3. If Madhur says to do something ahead of time, she probably has her reasons. I saved the two patties I didn’t cook tonight– I’m going to make them this weekend and see how their time in the fridge changes their behavior in the pan. Purely for scientific inquiry, of course, it has nothing to do with the way they melt in your mouth… mmm… aloo ki-tikiya…

If attempting to describe a tasty meal turns you into Homer Simpson, that’s a good sign, right?

There had been talk of grilled mangoes (Mexican, we still haven’t landed Indian mangoes) and ice cream for dessert, but we ate late and then Joe fell asleep on the couch, so I think we’ll have to save that for tomorrow.

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Nagesh said…
June 13, 2007 1:19 AM  
Sarah said…
Hee. Ready to come down for dinner yet?
June 13, 2007 8:28 AM  

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