Ammini Ramachandran's Image

Ammini Ramachandran

From:

Plano, Texas

Author's website
Author's twitter
Author's facebook

Ammini Ramachandran is a freelance writer, cooking teacher and author of "Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy" (iUniverse 2007).

Her work has been published in Flavor & Fortune, Gastronomica, and Heritage India. She was a presenter at the 10th annual Worlds of Flavor International Conference & Festival -- Rise of Asia -- at the Culinary Institute of America in 2007 and her recipes appear in "The Flavors of Asia" published by the Culinary Institute of America. She has contributed articles to Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism, Storied Dishes, Sacred Waters, and Food History Primer.

Her website, Peppertrail, introduces readers to her home state of Kerala’s cultural and culinary traditions through articles and recipes. The site’s Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts section is a preview of her cookbook on Kerala’s vegetarian cuisine. The latest addition to the site, Treasures from the Past, explores India's ancient culinary history though articles, stories and recipes.

Ramachandran has taught Indian cooking classes at Central Market Cooking Schools in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston, the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, in Boulder, Colorado. She has made presentations at The New York Women's Culinary Alliance, Queens Library System, American Institute of Wine and Food in Dallas, the Houston Culinary Guild and Culinary Historians of New York.

Before becoming a freelance writer she was a financial analyst in international banking. She has a B.Sc. in chemistry and MBA in finance. Ramachandran is a member of the culinary historians of New York.

Articles by Author

Pongal: Indian Comfort Food For A Cold Day Image

There’s something particularly delicious about humble ingredients cooked together in a pot and served up. All it involves is mingling an eclectic collection of ingredients, transforming their texture into something smooth, thick, creamy and comforting, and digging in. We all have beloved foods that typically remind us of a happy and carefree time in our lives. As the temperature plummets to the teens on cold winter days, the comfort foods I crave are venpongal — rice, mung dal, milk, and water cooked over a slow fire to a creamy polenta-like consistency and seasoned with ghee, black pepper, cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves and its sweet counterpart, chakkarai pongal, in which the hot spices are replaced with golden brown jaggery and sweet cardamom.

These are not dishes that were traditionally made at our home, but gifts from our friendly neighbors, Tamil Brahmins settled in Kerala. Every year in mid-January, when they celebrated pongal festival, they sent us these delicious pongals packed in fresh banana leaves. On cold January days, I enjoy cooking and savoring these delicious recipes of our neighbors.

Ancient agrarian practices of India depended solely on the movement of the sun. The beginning of the sun’s northbound journey, utharayana, on the 14th of January is celebrated with different rituals and names — Pongal, Lohri, Bihu and Makara Sankranthi — all over India. In Hinduism, utharayana is considered auspicious, and it symbolizes nature’s regeneration, fertility and bounty, and is believed to usher in prosperity.

Overflowing with good tidings

This festival is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu to mark a good harvest. The name of the festival and also the dishes made to celebrate, pongal, come from the Tamil word pongal, meaning to boil over. Rice is boiled in milk in an earthenware pot and allowed to overflow, signifying prosperity and hope that the coming year will overflow with good luck and good tidings. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated over four days. For Pongal, the people of Tamil Nadu who have settled in Kerala generally do not follow the custom of boiling milk till it overflows, but prepare venpongal and chakkarai pongal at home.

There are many versions of these popular recipes for venpongal and chakkarai pongal. However all will have rice, mung dal, milk, cumin seeds, black pepper and ghee for venpongal and rice, mung dal, milk, jaggery, ghee and cardamom for chakkarai pongal. Pongal, when it is cooked, should be moist, but not wet and certainly not dry. If it looks dry, stir in a little boiled milk to get the right consistency. Use short- or medium-grained raw rice to make Pongal. You will rarely find Basmati rice used in South Indian cooking. Ghee is the only fat traditionally used in pongal dishes. Without ghee, pongal wouldn’t taste as good as it should.

These are comfort foods, and comfort foods are ideal winter foods. They translate into easy, effortless cooking and delicious results that reheat well. Following are my neighbor’s recipes.

Venpongal

Venpongal is a popular breakfast dish in Tamil Nadu even on non-festive days. Traditionally, it is served warm with coconut chutney and sambar. If you prefer the heat of black pepper, crush them before adding. Otherwise leave them whole for a milder taste.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup mung dal

1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon ghee

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

1 cup whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

Salt to taste

1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

8 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 1/2 teaspoon whole black pepper (or coarsely crushed)

1/8 teaspoon asafoetida

A few curry leaves

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and if the mix looks dry add some more milk and stir well. When it is almost cooked, add salt and stir well. Remove the pot from the stove when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. In a small pan, heat the remaining ghee and add the cumin seeds and cashew nuts. Then stir in the asafoetida powder and black pepper. Stir once and add the curry leaves and remove from the stove. Combine the seasoned spices with the cooked rice and dal and mix well. Serve warm with fresh coconut chutney.

Chakkarai Pongal

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ghee

1/2 cup mung dal

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

2 1/2 cups crushed jaggery

2 cups whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

1/2 cup coconut milk

10 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 tablespoon raisins

1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and add the coconut milk to the pot. If the mix looks dry, add more milk and stir well. Remove the pot from the pan when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. Make a syrup by boiling jaggery with 1/3 cup of water for five minutes. Strain the syrup into the cooked rice and dal mix. Keep the pot on low heat and stir well until the syrup is absorbed and then remove from the stove. Heat two tablespoons of ghee is a frying pan and fry the cashews and until they begin to turn golden brown. Stir in the raisins and they will plump up. Remove the pan from the stove and add the fried raisins, nuts and crushed cardamom to the rice mix. Add the remaining ghee to the mix a little at a time and stir well to combine. Serve warm.

 Main photo: Pongal is the ideal comfort food for chilly nights. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Read More
The Feast That Celebrates India’s Plentiful Plantains Image

Thousands of years ago, pioneers among the central Malayo-Polynesian-speaking populations are believed to have traveled across the Indian Ocean and brought plantains, water yams and taro to India. Now, they have become central to the vegetarian cuisine in the Kerala region of southwest India.

Plantains are a variety of bananas from the plant Musa paradisiaca, which have thicker skins than regular bananas. Plantains are also sometimes called cooking bananas. Even when ripe, they are not very sweet, and they are not eaten raw.

The plantain rules at Kerala’s most important festival, Thiruvonam (or Onam for short), celebrated in late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar) by Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. The big event at Onam is the sadya (feast), which is served on fresh, green banana leaves around noon. Although rice is the centerpiece of the feast, several dishes both sweet and savory are prepared with plantains, each with its own taste and texture.

In every cuisine, there are certain dishes that make the menu more complete and more festive. They may not have the status of a course in and of themselves, but without them, the meal would lose some of its festive appeal. Two signature dishes of Onam Sadya are the deep-fried, salty and crispy golden yellow plantain chips and their sweet counterpart, sarkkara upperi, thick slices deep-fried and drenched in jaggery syrup. No matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious. Locally called upperi, but better known as banana chips, it is the favorite snack of Kerala and provides the crispy crunch to traditional feasts.

And then there is kaya mezukkupuratti, cubed green plantains cooked with salt and turmeric and then pan-fried over low heat in coconut oil until they fully absorb the flavor of the curry leaves and oil. It’s a dish that’s as unfussy and simple as you can imagine.

Plantains useful in curries

There are two types of curries made with just plantains for the Onam feast. They are also found in the signature mixed vegetable dish aviyal. One of the curries, varutha erisseri, is made by cooking chunks of green plantain in a sauce of golden brown toasted coconut. It has a complexity and aroma peculiarly and delightfully its own. The word “curry” often evokes a sense of tropical spiciness. Kerala’s cuisine is known for its variety of spicy curries, but there are also some mildly sweet, tropical fruit curries that are cooked in a mellow coconut and yogurt sauce.

The fruit curry kaalan is made by cooking ripe plantain slices in a thick coconut and yogurt sauce sweetened with jaggery and garnished with mustard and fenugreek seeds and fresh curry leaves.

Steamed ripe plantains are another must at the Onam feast. And, finally, rounding out the menu is a delicately smooth and creamy pudding — pazza pradhaman — made with homemade plantain jam cooked in coconut milk sweetened with jaggery and garnished with crushed cardamom and toasted coconut pieces.

Though not necessarily a part of the Onam feast, other plantain treats can be found in Kerala: sun-dried ripe plantains and banana fritters made with thin ripe plantain slices dipped in a mildly sweet batter and deep-fried.

Plantain Chips

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: 20 servings

Making deep-fried chips at home is not a difficult task. Thanks to food processors, slicing is a breeze. It is important to use oil that can be heated to high temperatures. The oil must be well heated before adding the sliced plantains for frying or otherwise, oil seeps in and will make them soggy. Hot oil sears the surface to a firm crispiness. For serving at feasts, they are generally quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin triangular slices. To serve as a snack, they are cut as full rounds or as half rounds. But no matter what the shape, these crunchy morsels taste simply delicious.

Ingredients

  • 6 firm green plantains
  • 6 cups vegetable oil
  • ½ cup concentrated saltwater (*see directions below)

Directions

  1. Peel off the thick green skins from the plantains, and wash them to remove any dark stain from the outside. Pat them dry with paper towels.
  2. When making the smaller, triangular chips, halve the plantain lengthwise, and cut each piece lengthwise again. Then cut each piece crosswise into thin slices. For the round chips, cut the whole plantain crosswise into thin rounds. A food processor comes in handy for cutting them into thin rounds. Fit the processor with the 2mm blade and slowly feed the peeled plantains through the top. This blade cuts the plantains evenly.
  3. Heat the oil in a heavy wok or deep-frying pan to 365 F.
  4. When the oil is hot, spread the plantain pieces evenly in the oil and deep-fry until they are golden and crisp, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add a teaspoon of concentrated saltwater to the oil, and cover the pan with a splatter screen. The water will really splatter and make a lot of noise.
  6. In a minute or so, when the water has stopped sputtering, remove the cover. By now, all the water should have evaporated, and the crispy fries will be golden and evenly salted.
  7. Drain well, and store in airtight containers. The best way to drain deep-fried plantains is to use a cake cooling rack placed over a cookie tray. The excess oil will drip through the cooling rack and fall onto the cookie tray.
  8. *Add one tablespoon of salt to a half-cup of water, and stir well. If there is no salt sediment at the bottom, add more salt, and stir until there is some salt residue left at the bottom and the water is saturated with salt.

Main photo: Golden yellow plantain chips are part of the Onam feast in India. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Read More
Cool Summer Drinks, With A Dash Of Indian Flavor Image

In the outermost reaches of southwestern India, the soundtrack of summer has a deeper bass and a heavier beat than the rest of the year. The sun shines down with all its might and glory, and we reach for cool summer drinks.

The best thirst quencher is of, course, water; nothing hydrates like water. Growing up in southern India, we drank water stored in unglazed earthen pots, which cooled the water amazingly well. Sometimes, the water was delicately flavored with the fragrance of cleaned roots of raamacham (Chrysopogon zizanioids), a perennial grass native to India.

When it comes to summer drinks, the top five south Indian favorites are tangy sambharam with a hint of chili, sweet paanakam flavored with ginger and cardamom, homemade lemonade, freshly squeezed sugarcane juice and fresh green coconuts filled with sweet coconut water. Living in Texas, the 100 degree-plus summer temperatures often make me crave these refreshingly cool libations. Luckily, sambharam and paanakam are easy to prepare with a few readily available ingredients.

When the thermometer hits triple digits, do you automatically reach for a soda? The next time you are tempted to drink a soda, read the label. They are loaded with sugars and artificial food colors and flavors. When you are planning a summer gathering, try one of these delicious summer drinks from India.

Sambharam

Summertime conjures up memories of big pots of sambharam, home-churned buttermilk spiced with green chilies, fresh ginger, curry leaves, lemon leaves and coriander leaves, kept in the open veranda of my ancestral home. The sight of this big pot was a welcome sign to those who walked by to stop and get a glass of this cool refreshing summer drink.

Buttermilk is the liquid left behind after churning fermented milk to make butter. Before the widespread industrialization of the dairy industry, most butter in India was made by mixing boiled and cooled milk with yogurt culture and allowing it to sit overnight to ferment. During those unrefrigerated hours, the added yogurt culture caused the microorganisms in the milk to sour slightly, taking on a nutty tanginess. This fermented milk was then churned to separate the butter from the buttermilk. Drinking tangy buttermilk helps to lower the body temperature and keeps the body cool and revitalized. Salty, tangy and spicy, this drink is a sure energy booster.

Back home, sambharam is prepared with slightly sour buttermilk. Homemade yogurt and buttermilk always taste fresher. They do not contain any thickeners or preservatives. Plain yogurt also makes good sambharam.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 12 minutes

Yield: 6  servings

Ingredients

2 cups plain yogurt or 3 cups buttermilk

Salt to taste

4 cups ice-cold water

1 or 2 fresh green chilies (serrano or Thai) (less for a milder taste)

3 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime leaves, thinly sliced (if available)

½ cup fresh curry leaves

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

2 teaspoons very finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

Directions

1. Combine the yogurt, salt and water in a blender, and mix well. If using buttermilk, reduce the quantity of water.

2. Pour into a pitcher.

3. Cut the green chilies lengthwise and then into thin strips. (If you prefer the drink mild, reduce or eliminate the green chilies.)

4. Stir in the green chilies, lime or lemon leaves, curry leaves and grated ginger.

5. Garnish with finely chopped cilantro leaves. Usually this drink is not strained; it is served with all the added ingredients. If you prefer, refrigerate it for an hour and strain before serving.

Paanakam

Another cool drink perfect for the scorching heat of August is paanakam. This ginger and cardamom-flavored drink is sweetened with jaggery (Indian unrefined brown sugar), known for its digestive and cooling properties. Paanakam is usually served as an offering to the gods during Hindu religious rituals and festivities. Although considered a celestial favorite, it is also a refreshing, cool drink on a hot summer day anywhere in the world. Some traditional recipes include flavorings such as sandalwood and the fragrant root raamacham. It tastes quite delicious even when these ingredients are substituted with crushed cardamom. It is also very easy to make. Use as much jaggery and spices as your prefer. For me, the perfect Paanakam is one that has a kick of ginger and a hint of cardamom.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6  servings

Ingredients

1¼ cups jaggery or brown sugar

1 pitcher cold water

1 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon ginger powder

3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice

Directions

1. Heat the jaggery/ brown sugar and one cup of water till the sugar is dissolved.

2. After it has cooled down, pour into the cold water and stir well.

3. If using jaggery, strain the liquid through a fine-meshed strainer.

4. Sprinkle cardamom powder and ginger powder. Add lemon juice and stir well.

5. Chill in the refrigerator. Serve over crushed ice cubes for a cool, refreshing drink.

Main photo: Sambharam and paanakam make for cool summer drinks. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Read More
India’s Magic Bean? You Won’t Find It At Restaurants Image

The two comfort foods I missed most when I first came to the United States revolved around legumes: muthira upperi (horse gram stir-fry) and idli, steamed rice cakes made with black gram and rice. Horse gram was unavailable in the United States during the 1970s, and idli batter never fermented properly in my New England kitchen.

To those who are not familiar with Indian cuisine the variety of dried legumes used in India can be quite overwhelming. Although red gram, black gram and green gram are all familiar names, one of the legumes that is not very well-known, but is quite nutritious, is horse gram (macrotyloma uniflorum). Unfortunately, rarely will you find recipes for horse gram dishes in Indian cookbooks, and Indian restaurants mostly avoid serving this healthy legume. But in the rural kitchens of India, people prepare some very tasty and nutritious dishes with this legume.

Dried beans, peas and lentils are one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops and a major component of human diets throughout history. An excellent source of protein, dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, legumes and pulses are tasty, nutritious, inexpensive and versatile. Horse gram native to Africa, Asia and Australia is an important and unexploited tropical legume crop grown mostly in dry agricultural lands. It is a relatively short duration summer crop and fits well into crop rotations. It is often intercropped with various cereals, such as sorghum, maize, pearl millet and millet, which ensures increased soil fertility and increased production. It is also grown in citrus orchards in the vacant space between trees. It is an extremely drought-resistant crop.

Horse gram derives its English-language name from its use as a staple food for horses and cattle. The green plant—its leaves and branches, as well as the beans—are highly nutritive and are used as fodder. These small and somewhat kidney-shaped beans, which are greenish brown to reddish brown, are equally good for human consumption. In comparison, horse gram ranks as high as “super foods” such as quinoa and chickpeas that only health advocates have known about for years, but which have become common fare now.

Horse gram is gluten-free, high in iron, calcium, and protein, and contains no fat, cholesterol, or sodium; horse gram has the highest calcium content among pulses. It is also a good source of natural antioxidants. One-hundred grams of cooked horse gram has 22 grams of protein, 57 grams of dietary carbohydrates, 287 milligrams of calcium and 7 milligrams of iron.

Health benefits

The health benefits of horse gram have been well-known since ancient times. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of asthma, bronchitis, cough, gastric and urinary problems, and kidney stones. Studies by scientists at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology have found that unprocessed horse gram seeds not only possess anti-hyperglycemic properties but also have qualities which reduce insulin resistance. The study found that horse gram is rich in polyphenols, which have high antioxidant capacity. It also found that horse gram has the ability to reduce high blood sugar following a meal by slowing down carbohydrate digestion and reducing insulin resistance. The majority of antioxidant properties are in the seed coat, and any dish made of whole grain horse gram is better than dishes made from the sprouts, which have less of the anti-diabetic medicinal property.

In cooking

Horse gram is cooked and consumed as whole seed, sprouts or as whole meal, largely in the rural areas of India. It is very hard in texture and requires lengthy cooking time. A pressure cooker can cut down on the cooking time substantially. Even after cooking, it does not get soft like chickpeas. It does not absorb water like other pulses, but soaking reduces cooking time and improves protein quality.

In India, traditionally different dishes were made with this pulse to suit different seasons. Horse gram is used to make idlis, dosas, various curries, soups and chutneys. The following is a recipe for a simple stir-fry made with cooked horse gram, mustard seeds, green chilies, asafoetida, cumin seeds and fresh coconut.

Stir-Fry With Horse Gram

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Note: Remember to allow for soaking the horse gram for eight hours (or overnight).

Ingredients

  • 2 cups horse gram
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
  • ½ teaspoon dried red cayenne, or Thai chili powder (less for a milder taste)
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 teaspoons oil (preferably coconut oil)
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 green Thai chili pepper sliced lengthwise
  • ⅛ teaspoon asafoetida
  • 12 to 15 fresh curry leaves
  • ¼ cup freshly grated coconut for garnish

Directions

  1. Soak the horse gram for eight hours (or overnight). Wash and drain well. Place the beans, turmeric powder, and red chili powder in a saucepan, and add water to cover. Cook until the beans are soft to the touch. If necessary, add more water. When the beans are soft to the touch, stir in the salt, and cook for five more minutes. Alternatively, cook in a pressure cooker (following the manufacturer’s directions) for six to eight minutes. Most of the water should be absorbed by the time the beans are well cooked. Drain any remaining water.
  2. Heat the oil in a large skillet, and add the mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start sputtering, add the cumin seeds, sliced chili pepper, asafoetida and curry leaves. Transfer the cooked beans to the skillet, and panfry over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Garnish with fresh grated coconut.

Main photo: Horse gram is a little-known but very nutritious legume. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

Read More
Saffron’s Magic In A Thirst-Quenching Drink Image

In tropical south India, our pantry had shelves running the length of walls that stored all types of basic provisions. Large brass containers held various dried legumes and smaller containers held dried spices and nuts. But saffron was not among them. My mother kept it in a small jar inside a large locked metal cupboard along with her silver utensils used for special occasions. She called it kumkumapoo — flower of the kumkuma plant; kumkuma is saffron’s Sanskrit name. The precious bottle came out only when special treats were made at home.

Saffron in cooking

Saffron has been a classic ingredient in various cuisines since ancient times. It is a versatile spice that adds a new dimension to savory and sweet dishes. Saffron threads are soaked in water, broths or other liquids, which become infused with the flavor and orange-yellow coloring, and then added to a dish.

Typically, the saffron threads are crushed or ground before soaking them. Saffron threads may also be ground or crushed into a powder and added to a dish. Good quality saffron develops to a bright golden yellow color, poorer quality saffron to either a pale straw color or bright orange.

From paella to risotto to biriyani, saffron is the main flavoring ingredient in various rice as well as meat dishes. There are numerous desserts that incorporate saffron for its color and flavor. It is widely featured in Spanish, Mediterranean, Persian, Iranian, Iraqi, Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Italian cuisines. Saffron from Iran, India and Spain are considered the best quality.

Where does it come from?

Saffron, the spice obtained from the gently dried stigmas of the purple saffron crocuses (Crocus sativus), has remained the world’s most expensive spice throughout history. Saffron’s unmistakable traits are its color and flavor. Since the strength of color determines its flavor, the higher the coloring strength, the higher its value. Saffron is sold as threads or as a ground powder. It is usually sold by the gram — just a small bunch of slender red threads. Fortunately, most recipes call for just a pinch, and a pinch of saffron goes a long way. It is grown primarily in Iran (more than 90% of the world production), followed by Spain, Greece, India (Kashmir) Egypt, Morocco and Turkey.

Why the high price?

An ounce of Spanish saffron costs about $54 and, when it is labeled pure, the price can go up to $77. The orange-red threads of saffron are very expensive for several reasons. Cultivation of saffron requires particular climate and soil conditions. The flowers have to be individually handpicked in the autumn when fully open. Saffron stigmas are harvested between dawn and 10 a.m., as they lose their color and aroma if left too long in the plant. Each crocus flower only produces three stigmas of saffron and thousands of blossoms are needed to produce even a small amount of spice. The stigmas have high moisture content and are gently dried for preservation.

Saffron’s history

The history of saffron goes back to ancient Egypt and Rome, where it was used as a dye, in perfumes, and as a drug, as well as for culinary purposes. It was known since antiquity in Persia, Mesopotamia and surrounding areas. Cultivation of saffron was also widespread in Asia Minor far before the birth of Christ. There are conflicting accounts about saffron’s arrival in South and East Asia. One theory is that when Persia conquered Kashmir, Persian saffron crocuses were transplanted to Kashmir. It is believed to have reached China in the 7th century. Arabs introduced saffron in Spain by 960. Cultivation spread to Italy, France and Germany when crusaders returned from Asia Minor with saffron corms.

Many uses of saffron

Saffron is used as an aromatic, and also used in perfumes and dyes. Saffron is often added to many food products simply as a coloring, such as cheese, soups and even various alcohols.

Saffron has very significant nutrients and chemical compounds that provide many health benefits. Saffron is an important ingredient in a number of Ayurvedic, Chinese, Unani and Tibetan medicines. According to Ayurvedic medicine, it is oily and light in properties, bitter in taste, and helps to pacify vata, pitta and kapha (air, fire and earth, the three fundamental body humors that make up one’s constitution, according to Ayurveda).

Saffron is used by Ayurvedic practitioners to treat asthma, arthritis, cold, cough and flu, acne and skin diseases, inflammation and indigestion. It is also a cooling spice and said to be an effective antidepressant. Some studies have shown that saffron contains antioxidants and other healthful properties that may help prevent cancer.

Saffron Almond Milk

On a hot summer day a cool glass of soothing and wholesome almond milk flavored with saffron makes the perfect thirst quencher. Here is a recipe for this delicious cold drink made with almonds, saffron and milk.

Ingredients

½ cup slivered almonds and few extra for garnish
½ cup water
3½ cups low fat (2%) milk
⅓ cup sugar
5 cardamom pods crushed
10 to 15 strands saffron

Directions

1. In a blender, grind the almonds with half cup of water to a smooth paste.

2. Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy bottomed vessel. Take a tablespoon of hot milk and add to the saffron strands and set aside.

3. Add the sugar, saffron soaked in milk and cardamom to the milk and bring back to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

4. Stir in the almond paste and simmer at medium heat for another five minutes. Keep stirring the pot. Remove from the stove and keep it covered.

5. Chill in the refrigerator and garnish with silvered toasted almonds and a pinch of saffron before serving.

Main photo: Saffron almond milk. R.V. Ramachandran

Read More
How Chef Iliana De La Vega Reinvents Oaxacan Food Image

Sometimes traditional and inventive are mutually exclusive concepts in classic global cuisine, but one Texas chef has found a way to translate traditional Oaxacan food with both concepts in mind.

Chef Iliana de la Vega has created a menu beyond familiar Mexican specialties with innovative dishes at her Austin, Texas, restaurant El Naranjo.

How about chili-rich, velvety smooth Oaxacan moles? Or tacos dorados — tortillas stuffed with potatoes or chicken and served with avocado-green salsa with a hint of jalapeño peppers, cream and queso fresco? Or chile relleno with smoky chile pasilla oaxaqueño stuffed with plantains and light queso panela cheese in a black bean and avocado leaf sauce?

Although steeped in tradition, De la Vega’s cuisine emphasizes distinctive flavors and a balance between the traditional and the innovative. She creates this balance with flavors drawn from the many rich traditions of Mexican cooking. Although De la Vega grew up in Mexico City, her family hailed from Oaxaca and she learned the regional cuisine from her mother, her aunt and other relatives in Oaxaca during her visits.

The real Oaxacan food

She and her husband, architect Ernesto Torrealba, moved to Oaxaca in 1994 and opened El Naranjo in a colonial-era house in 1997.

What she served there was the food she grew up eating at home, traditional Oaxacan fare. Although initially her interpretation of traditional cooking was not well received by the locals, it gained international recognition after being featured in various publications including the New York Times, Bon Appetit and the Chicago Tribune. A handwritten note from the famous chef Rick Bayless — “this is the real food of Oaxaca” — hung in the entryway of the restaurant.

Unfortunately the political unrest and violence in Oaxaca resulted in the closure of El Naranjo in 2006. But Oaxaca’s loss was Texas’ gain. The couple soon immigrated to the United States and settled in Austin.

She accepted a position at the Center for Foods of The Americas at the Culinary Institute of America. While teaching at the CIA she commuted to San Antonio and her evenings and weekends were spent re-creating a new El Naranjo, initially as an Oaxacan cuisine food truck. The El Naranjo food truck was a huge success and was the only food truck included in the Texas Monthly’s list of 50 best Mexican restaurants.

A new start for El Naranjo

In May 2012, after five years, she stepped down from her position at the CIA, and began dedicating her time fully to the new restaurant in the middle of Rainey Street in downtown Austin. Amid converted houses serving as restaurants and bars, El Naranjo stands apart.  The modest bungalow’s pale facade conceals the attractive space inside featuring a bar area, two dining rooms and a patio.

Though many people like Mexican food, most diners haven’t experienced much of that cuisine’s diverse or varied offerings, De la Vega said.

“The public is just beginning to see the top of the iceberg,” she said.  “Mexican food has so much more to offer. … It is growing and people are exploring ‘new’ ingredients, recipes and acquiring more knowledge of the fundamentals of traditional cuisine.”

Velvety smooth moles

She bakes bread and makes tortillas fresh every day. Velvety smooth moles, the signature dish of Oaxacan cuisine, are also prepared in house and are vegetable-based. At least three varieties are always on the menu with a different mole featured every week.

De la Vega’s freshly made salsas are in a class by themselves; fiery hot salsa macha is my favorite. The incredible flan and Mille-feuille of dulce de leche pair with a cup of cafe de olla to make the perfect dessert course. And the chef offers a wonderful selection for vegetarians, an added bonus that you rarely see in Mexican restaurants.

De la Vega and her husband are even considering expanding their business.

“We would love to expand or create different concepts,” she said. “That is an option that we are considering.”

Main photo: Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo restaurant in Austin, Texas. Credit: Courtesy of Iliana de la Vega.

Read More