Make Like Grandma and Toss the Cookbook

For most of us, the holiday season provides ample opportunity to throw all calorie-counting inhibitions into the gusts of winter wind and gorge ourselves shamelessly.

But in my family, a string of birthdays kicks off the holiday season early. This past Friday, my dad came into town from Singapore to celebrate his 52nd birthday with us, and we decided to throw a reunion potluck. Always starved for column inspiration, I jumped on this opportunity for culinary/literary greatness.

The potluck’s theme was Indian, and to contribute, I’d have to take a step out of my formulaic comfort zone to bust out more challenging, Emeril-esque ethnic cuisine.

Naturally, I sought my grandmother’s assistance. My dish of choice had to accommodate the vegetarians in the family and yet stay simple enough for my novice (though slowly expanding) cooking capacity.

Accordingly, Grandma suggested a curry called vegetable makanwala — a collection of onions, carrots, green beans, cauliflower and peas mixed with an Indian cottage cheese called paneer (which can be found at most international markets), simmered in a rich, milk-based curry.

With the flash of a knife, I filled six cups with diced onions, carrots, green beans and cauliflower. I then sauteed the onions in vegetable oil until they browned, adding the carrots, green beans, cauliflower and peas at two-minute intervals (in that precise order, to ensure each vegetable would cook to its ideal texture — bendable, but not soggy).

Once the veggies were cooked, I added a few pinches of curry and chili powder (an old pro, Grandma bypassed the measuring spoon), instantly releasing a pungent aroma as it hit the veggies. After adding the chili, I poured two cups of water in the mix and let it simmer for five minutes.

Now that things were really simmering, I created a thick milky solution by stirring two teaspoons of rice flower into two cups of milk, and — after five minutes had passed — I added the flour-thickened milk. I then stirred in the collection of spicy veggies, turned down the burner for a slow boil, added the paneer — and it was ready to serve.

My next undertaking was one of Dad’s favorite desserts: a rice-pudding relative called kheer. Making the stuff from scratch can be an excruciatingly long affair, so my grandmother taught me a much easier shortcut, which she learned from her best friend in college. The recipe required one cup of pohe (flattened Indian rice flakes that can be found at most international markets), one cup of water, five cups of milk, one cup of sugar, one can of evaporated milk and a few pinches of saffron and cardamom.

The first step was to fry the pohe in some teaspoons of vegetable oil and butter. Once the pohe turned a creamy white, I added a cup of water, let it simmer for a few more minutes (while stirring) and slowly poured in the five cups of milk to keep it from curdling.

After some 15 minutes of periodic stirring, the milk had condensed to about half its original volume. I added a can of evaporated milk, a cup of sugar and a pinch of saffron and ground cardamom to finish it off.

The result was a thick, milky delight — topped off with a few sliced almonds for presentation points.

My family’s snarky reception to the dishes — as evidenced by my uncle’s fake dry heave upon tasting the first bite — suggested their approval in a perverse, sarcastic way that characterizes most of our interactions. I knew from the beginning that my tasters would be a rough crowd, but the speed at which the dinner was devoured led me to believe they might have genuinely enjoyed it.

My dad, who had no previous knowledge of my culinary endeavors, even told me that my kitchen skills put his own to shame — which, given the fact that his are nonexistent, could’ve been a back-handed compliment, had his trip to the kitchen for seconds not suggested otherwise.

Aside from the obvious satisfaction of seeing my dishes go over well with my toughest critics, the experience also made me realize I could kill a yearly holiday problem with the same stone: gift-giving.

With just a few months’ cooking practice, I’ve uncovered the solution to my poor present-purchasing skills. Those excruciating 30 minutes it takes to park at the mall during the peak holiday hours could be much more efficiently spent baking up a storm — because if there’s one thing more endearing than a Hallmark card with a couple bills slipped in it (which I’ve been known for the past few years) it’s an oven-fresh batch of chocolate-chip cookies.

VISHAL’S SPECIAL ONLINE RECIPE

Vegetable Makhanwala ( serves 8 )

Ingredients
4 tps vegetable oil
1 diced white onion
2 cups diced carrots
2 cups diced/strung green beans
2 cups diced cauliflower
1 tbspoon curry powder
1 tbspoon chili powder
2 cups water
2 cups milk
2 teaspoons rice flower

Methodology

1. Saute onions in vegetable oil until cream/brown color is achieved.
2. Add carrots, green beans, and cauliflower in two minute intervals so
the vegetables cook until flexible but not soggy.
3. Add the curry and chili power and stir.
4. Add the water and allow stew to boil.
5. Stir the rice flower into the 2 cups of milk, and add mixture into the
vegetable stew and achieve boil.
6. Once boiling, remove from heat, and serve.

Kheer

Ingredients

2 tps butter
2 tps vegetable oil
1 cup pohe
1 cup water
5 cups milk
1 cup sugar
Can of evaporated milk
pinch of Saffron
pinch of Cardamom seeds

Methodology

1. Fry pohe on medium heat in butter and vegetable oil until whitish brown.
2. Add water and achieve boil – rice flake should puff up.
3. Add 5 cups of milk slowly, stirring often to avoid curdling.
4. After 15 minutes, add the sugar, and the condensed milk, stir attentively.
5. Add Saffron and Cardamom seeds and stir.
6. Take off heat, allow to cool. serve warm.

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