Passover Bitter:Gourd stuffed with Cabbage & Merguez

We live in topsy turvy times: for the first time the rich are thin & scrawny, pay a premium for in-season farmers’ market produce and hanker for bitter over sweet, while for the entire history of humankind, it was the poor and supressed who were saddled with these. Today even the bitter gourd is considered a super food.

In fact at a seder, I learnt about the use of bitter in the ceremonial meal of Passover as a token  reminder of the hardships the Jewish people endured in Egypt. So when my friend asked me to create a  recipe symbolic of Passover “that should have lots of meat”; I came up with this that uses kosher Merguez, in-season cabbage,  and a gourd that lends a hint of bitterness. Turned out delicious. Even the following day, when the flavors had melded and the bitterness further mellowed.

It is quite possible that if you serve this at your seder, the children may never speak to you again while the adults may never leave your table.

Special tools:

None

Ingredients

  • Stuffing:  2 Merguez + 2 cups of shredded cabbage + 2 tsps garbanzo flour (besan)
  • Shells:  4 medium sized bitter gourds
  • salt to taste
  • 3 tbsps oil for shallow frying (in the pot-sticker technique)
  • Butcher’s string

Method

Stuffing: Heat a large skillet.  Remove the skin of the sausage and saute the meat on the skillet for a few minutes, breaking up the chunks.  Add the finely shredded cabbage and mix in well.  Cover and let cook for 3-4 minutes until the cabbage has softened. Mix in besan and salt to taste.  Let cook the besan for a minute or so. Set aside.

Shells: Wash and dry the gourds. Slice off the edges. Using a peeler, gently remove the bumpy ridges, but dont peel any deeper.  Place the four gourds on a platter and microwave on high for 3 minutes to make it pliable. Let cool.

Stuffing the shells: Use a knife to make a slit while the gourd continues to be intact. With a spoon remove the interior seeds. Lightly salt the interior. Spoon filling into the slit and use your finger to push the stuffing in. Secure neatly with butcher’s twine.  Lightly salt the exterior, cover with plastic wrap and set in refrigerator for one hour or more.

The pot-sticker technique: In a skillet, add the oil and about 1/2 cup water. Slide in the tied-up gourds (no need to cut the twine now). Cover and bring to a boil. Then lower heat and let it cook in medium-low.  In five minutes or so the water dries up and the gourd softens.  If not soft enough to your liking, add a little more water, cover and continue to cook. After all the water is dried up, let the gourd brown lightly in the residual oil.

Let cool, cut off the strings and slice the gourds. Serve warm.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. It is easier to use a food processor with a shredder for the cabbage.
  2. The garbanzo flour helps hold the stuffing together and adds a bit of nutty flavor. But if you are not permitted to use it for Passover, you can skip it, wihtout major loss.
  3. Don’t be in a rush for this one. Plan to stuff the gourds in the morning and refrigerate.  Go about your life and then cook them later in the day when their form holds up  well. But if you do not have the time, you can cook them as soon as you stuff them and that is fine too– you may have to be a little gentle with them.
  4. Although the stuffing is well flavored with Merguez, you could add 1 tsp of cumin powder + 1/2 tsp of chilli powder.
    If you like your stuffing more meaty, you can halve the shredded cabbage to just 1 cup in the recipe.
    For a fully vegetarian version, use only the cabbage and the flavoring spices of above.
  5. If you know how to tie a roast; use that technique here. Much less ad hoc.
  6. If dietary restrictions permit –certainly not for Passover–, you could also use Chorizo instead of Merguez.
  7. An alternative way to cook the gourds in the Milanese Breading Style: Once the stuffing and the gourd is set, cut the the string.  Roll in flour (the kind permitted), dip the gourd in egg whites and roll in matzah crumbs (or breadcrumbs, if no restrictions apply); spray a little oil and bake on a wire rack at 350 F for 30 minutes or until done. Or, for a more luxurious version, deep fry in oil.

    The seeds of the gourd can be dry-toasted on a skillet. Lightly salted, it makes a  delicious, crunchy snack (see rightmost picture above)

Tree to Table: Baby Jackfruit

My parents’ garden has a jackfruit tree that generously bears fruits every year. What is surprising is that not just that these are not little excuses for fruits, but the backyard location is in the heart of metropolitan Bhubaneswar.  How lovely is that.

I was visiting during what was pre-season for these majestic fruits; but the tender green fruit can also be used in cooking and I share a simple recipe here.  I trace the source of the staple ingredient from tree to table.

The tender jackfruit is quite cumbersome to skin, chop, and separate the flesh from the inedible strands. We took intrepid Ranjeeta’s help (in picture). She amazed me by turning upavishta konasana — a yoga pose that I struggle with at a well equipped studio back home — into a real life functional pose to tame this recalcitrant fruit, with well-oiled palms.

But not to fear, canned jackfruits are also available in supermarkets in the west. Just remember that the tender green ones are used for cooking while the mature (yellow) ones are ready-to-eat as fruits, often in syrup. Check the label carefully.

Often touted as a meat substitute, the jackfruit texture is indeed meaty. Also low-in-fat nutritious.

Special tools:

Pressure cooker

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup chana dal soaked for at least 1 hour
  • Whole garam masala: 2 black cardamoms + 2 green cardamoms + 2 cloves + 1 bay leaf
  • Spice powder: 1 tsp curry powder + 1 tsp cumin powder + 1/2 tsp turmeric + 1/4 tsp chilli powder
  • 2-3 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
  • 250 gms chopped jackfruit
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • salt to taste

Method.

Heat oil. Add the whole garam masala and saute for a minute.  Add the ginger-garlic paste. Keep stirring to avoid sticking or burning. Add about 2 tbsps water. Continue stirring and adding water a few more times till the paste is cooked (about 5-6 mins). Add the powdered spices and saute for a minute or two. Then add the jackfruit pieces, chana dal, 1 cup water and salt to taste. Pressure cook to tenderize and cook the vegetable- the time depends on your pressure cooker model. It should not take more than 5 minutes under high pressure.

Serve with rice.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. If you are using canned jackfruit, note that it is already cleaned and cooked. But rinse it well. You can just make it in a regular pot (instead of a pressure cooker). In any case, you can always cook in a regular pot, it may just take a little longer.
  2. If using a pressure cooker, follow the instructions in your manual. There are too many varieties of pressure cooker in the market to have a generic method that works for all.
  3. You can make the ginger-garlic paste in big batches in a food processor, adding little water as necessary. Then freeze the remainder for the next use.
  4. You can add potatoes to this as well.
  5. The curry powder is here is a specialized mix of the local spice bazaar, much like the Ras el Hanout.

Snowstorm Corn Butternut Soup

Stranded in a snowstorm, I made this warming soup from freezer and pantry ingredients. The recipe is utterly simple (no mirepoix, no butter, no stock), yet it will blow your taste buds away!

The combination of fresh ginger root and sweet corn is intoxicating. Do give it a try.  A very careful choice of toppings elevates the soup even further.

soup
Corn and Butternut Squash Soup
Special tools:

Immersion blender, microplane

Ingredients

  • 16 oz sweet corn kernels
  • 2 butternut squashes, each halved and roasted, skin side up, at at 350 F for 30-35 minutes
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, grated with a microplane
  • 1 cup skim milk
  • salt to taste
  • Topping: toasted pumpkin seeds and green Harissa

Method

Using a large spoon remove the pulp from the roasted butternut squash shell.

Add about 1 cup water and grated ginger to the corn kernels in a soup pot and simmer for 10-12 minutes till soft.  Using the immersion blender, blend the corn, adding milk. Add the pulp of the butternut squashes and salt to taste. Continue to blend till well mixed.

Serve warm and top each serving with a tsp of toasted pumpkin seeds and a pinch of Harissa based on how much of tearing up you like. Just kidding.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. Harissa is a Moroccan pepper mix. Make sure that it is of very good quality and can be served on the table, since it is not cooked in this recipe. This topping is optional, of course.
  2. If you dont have butternut squashes in your cellar, this soup is equally good with just corn alone.
  3. The fresh ginger has no substitute in this recipe. If you find one, do drop me a line.

Minimalist Flan

Once I was strapped and tasked with producing a dessert. This was my answer: a minimalist flan or caramel custard.  This needs only three ingredients and a heat proof dish (if you d not have a fancy mould accessible) and can be steamed or baked in a bain marie.  And the taste is exquisite!

It is possible to use agar agar powder or blocks instead of the eggs. But the texture is a little different– ever so lightly al dente.  On the other hand,  the eggs give a smooth creamy texture. It is a matter of personal preference as to what to use.

flan
caramel custard
Special tools:

Heat proof  mould

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (1/2 liter) whole milk
  • 5 tbsp sugar (more or less to taste)
  • 3 eggs, at room temperature
  • 2-3 tbsp sugar for the caramel

Method

Dissolve the sugar in warm milk.  Gradually add little milk at a time to the eggs. When well mixed (but not beaten; since you dont want to include air that could form bubbles), gradually and mix in the rest of the milk.

Spread the sugar at the bottom of the heatproof dish. Turn on the stove and carefully melt/caramelize the sugar till it is brown, but not burnt. Evenly spread the sugar at the bottom using a pair of tongs. Pour the milk-egg mixture. In a large pan bring about 2 cups water to a simmer. Place the flan dish in the water bath and steam for 45 minutes.

Let Let cool for 2-3 hours, if not overnight, before unmoulding. To unmould the flan, run a knife along the sides of the dish and dip in the bottom of the pan in warm water. Place a large plate on top and turn it over so that the flan gently flops down with the caramel on top.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. If you use agar agar instead of eggs, please follow the instructions on the packet.
  2. Instead of steaming, you could bake in a bain marie, at 325F  for 45 -60 minutes or until the flan is done.
  3. If you make the flan in single portion moulds, you will have to pour the caramel into individual moulds. It also will cook faster than the single mould.

Little fish: Tokyo to Toirano to Tankapani

In my last trip to Tokyo, I was exposed to the simplicity of whitebait or the little white fish, which are actually immature anchovies or sardines. Named shirasu in Japan, they make a great topping or an appetizer accompanying sake (which is how I had it). In Liguria (Italy), the same is boiled or fried and dressed with lemon juice and/or oil.  Here I share a classic recipe for the little fish  mahuradi from Tankapani (India). Unlike the whitebait, these are not babies; they just happen to be tiny adults!

little-fish-mahuradi

Special tools:

Spice grinder

Ingredients
  • 1 cup  little fish, cleaned, smeared with little salt + little turmeric powder + 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • Seasoning: 1 tbsp oil +  1/2 tsp pancha phutana + few curry leaves
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and diced into 1/2″ cubes
  • Spice mix in a spice grinder:  1 1/2 tbsp black mustard seeds + 1  tsp cumin seeds + pinch turmeric + red chilli powder
  • 2-3 pods of garlic very finely minced
  • 1 small tomato peeled and diced fine

Method

Deep fry the fish in oil in 2 or 3 batches till lightly brown. It is fine even if they clump together. Drain and keep aside.  Dissolve or mix the spice mix and the minced garlic in 2 cups of water.  Heat oil and add the pancha phutana + curry leaves. Add the diced potatoes. When well coated in oil add the spice mixture. Bring to a slow simmer until potatoes are soft (10-12 minutes). Then add the finely diced tomatoes. When it comes to a boil, add the deep fried fish and turn off the heat.

Serve hot with steamed rice.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. You can use any small fish in this recipe, including whitebait. Needless to mention, there is no need to debone the fish. In fact, once for a squeamish eater, I beheaded a thousand!
  2. How can an Indian classic have cornstarch in its recipe? You got me. That’s my humble contribution.
  3. You could shallow fry the fish– but they disintegrate rapidly.  The cornstarch (or whole wheat flour/ata) helps in binding and crisping the fish.
  4. Instead of cumin seeds in the mix; you can use the fragrant ras el hanout.
  5. You can use a different souring agent than tomato (like ambula)
  6. See my pancha phutana mix

 

Ayurvedic Madras Gram Dal

Madras gram or kolatha is also known as horse gram, for obvious reasons.  Relax, who do you think is the biggest consumer of oats, the colon-friendly cereal.  I will let wiki tout the health benefits of Madras gram while I will talk about its exquisite taste.  Mildly sour from the dried mango, it is a rustic dal and goes very well with steamed white rice.

kolatha-dali
Madras gram dal
Special tools:

Pressure cooker, Immersion blender.

Ingredients
  • 1 cup split Madras gram soaked overnight (or at least 1 hr)
  • Souring agent:  1 ambula (salted & dehydrated mango) soaked in hot water for 15-20 minutes or 1 tsp tamarind paste
  • 2 Bay leaves + pinch turmeric powder + 1 tsp chilli powder + 1 tsp cumin powder + salt to taste
  • Seasoning: 1 tbsp oil +  1/2 tsp pancha phutana +1 pod of garlic minced

Method

Drain the dal and add all the ingredients except the seasoning and pressure cook for 20 mins on high. Release pressure; remove bay leaves and ambula. Then use the immersion blender to mix the dal till smooth.  Heat oil, sputter the whole spices  add the garlic. Mix till fragrant and add the seasoned oil to the dal mix.

Notes, hints, tips:
  1. This is a tough dal/gram; so presoaking is essential.
  2. Very seldom will I ask for the use of more than one bay leaf– this is one of those.
  3. Instead of cumin, you can use a fragrant ras el hanout.
  4. My panch phutana is a mixture of whole spices: cumin seeds + mustard seeds + fennel seeds+ nigella seeds + crushed red pepper
  5. The dal  can be had as a soup or served with steamed white rice.