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Ammini Ramachandran

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Plano, Texas

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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

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

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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

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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.

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How Favorite Indian Sweets Changed Dramatically Image

The plethora of colors, shapes and sizes of Indian sweets are bewildering. Taste, color and shape often vary from region to region, but gulab jamun, the spongy milky balls soaked in rose-scented syrup, are an exception. These are popular all over India, and just like naan and tandoori chicken, almost all Indian restaurants in the West include gulab jamun in their menu.

Gulab jamun is a delicious dessert consisting of dumplings, traditionally made of milk boiled down to a solid mass, mixed with flour and deep-fried in ghee to golden brown color and then soaked in rose and cardamom-scented sugar syrup. This sweet derives its name from two words — gulab, meaning rose, and jamun, the purple-colored jamun berry (Syzygium cumini) fruit of an evergreen tropical tree.

Muslim impact on Indian sweets

India has a national obsession with sweets and desserts. Traditionally, sweets have been made mostly with milk, ghee and honey.

Drawn by the fertile plains of the Punjab and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples, invaders from central Asia began attacking India around 1000 A.D., with the aim of establishing Muslim kingdoms in India. The Mugahl emperor Babur conquered India in 1526 A.D. and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years.

Desserts of central Asian origin, often flour based, reached India during this time. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. Palace cooks came from all over India and many other parts of the world, each specializing in a particular delicacy. Ingredients were imported from Afghanistan and Persia. When Persian food first arrived in India, the local cooks at the palace kitchens adapted their cuisine by combining the newly arrived ingredients with familiar tastes of local Hindu culinary traditions. Soon this food, including gulab jamun, was introduced in the Mughal courts.

Gulab Jamun’s origins are in Persia and the Mediterranean, where its equivalent, luqmat al qadi, consists of deep-fried dough balls dipped in honey syrup and sprinkled with sugar.

Frying gulab jamun. Credit:Shiyam Sundar

Frying gulab jamun. Credit: Shiyam Sundar

Milk-based sweets were already popular in India at that time. Morendka was a sweet made with khoa (made by simmering full-fat milk several hours, over a medium fire until the gradual vaporization of its water content leaves coagulated solids in milk) formed into the shape of eggs and deep-fried in ghee and coated with sugar. The Indian cooks adapted the recipe for this Persian sweet to include khoa.

Tricks for perfect gulab jamun

Cooks who are new to gulab jamun commonly make the mistake of frying the sweet at a very high temperature. This will result in the outside appearing too dark and the center becoming a lump of uncooked, solid dough. The temperature of the oil for frying has to be on low-to-medium heat.

Over the years gulab jamun has incorporated many subtle variations. A relatively easy version uses milk powder instead of khoa. Kala-jamuns are coated with sugar before frying, which gives them a dark brown color. Some cooks stuff the gulab jamun with slivered nuts and others make the dish with sweet potatoes.

Following is a recipe for gulab jamun using milk powder.

Gulab Jamun

Makes  20 to 25 pieces

For the dough:

1 cup milk powder

4 tablespoons ghee

⅓cup all- purpose flour

½teaspoon baking powder

6 to 7 tablespoons whole milk

For sugar syrup:

1¼ cups water

1¾ cups sugar

2 teaspoons cardamom powder

2 teaspoons rose water

For frying:

6 to 8 cups of sunflower oil or other oils with no fragrance

Directions

1. Place milk powder in a mixing bowl and rub in the ghee gently to form a sandy texture.

2. Combine the flour and baking powder and mix well and then add to the milk powder and ghee mixture and mix well.

3. Gradually add milk, a few spoonfuls at a time, and mix softly with clean fingers to make a soft dough. The mix should be like a soft dough but not like a thick batter. Be careful not to work the dough as it will increase the gluten. The less kneading,  the better.  You want the jamuns to be soft. Rest the mix for 10 minutes.

4. Grease your palms with ghee or oil and pinch marble-sized pieces of dough and roll them into smooth round or oval-shaped balls. Make sure that the balls are small as they double in size once they are fried and soaked in sugar syrup. The dough balls should be smooth without any cracks as they will split and crumble when deep frying. Arrange the balls on a plate and cover with a kitchen towel to prevent from drying out.

5. For the syrup, in a sauce pan bring water to boil, add the sugar and allow it to dissolve. Simmer for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the stove and set aside.

6. Heat oil over slow to medium flame. I cannot emphasize enough that the temperature of the frying oil for frying must be low-to-medium to cook the gulab jamuns through completely.

7. Drop one jamun into the hot oil and check for coloring. Reduce flame if the dough is coloring quickly.

8. Drop the jamuns 8 to 10 pieces at a time and gently swirl the oil for them to float. Fry them until golden brown in color, 6 to 7 minutes approximately. Once they are a golden brown, remove them from the oil and let them drain on a paper towel. Then remove from the paper towel and soak them in the warm sugar syrup.

9. With the gulab jamuns in the syrup, flavor the syrup with cardamom powder and rose water and give a gentle stir to mix. Cover the gulab jamuns and let them soak in the syrup overnight or at least for an hour or so before serving.

Top photo: Gulab jamun. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Sweet Hindu Offerings Fit For The Gods In India Image

Up on a tall peak of the Western Ghats mountain range in India called Sabarimala, a Hindu shrine lures hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from mid- November through the first half of January. The devotees undertake an arduous journey, the final few miles of it barefoot, over a rough and rocky terrain through low-lying fog accompanying a cold season’s chill, to worship at Sabarimala. The temples provide food offerings called neyyappam, made with rice, jaggery (Indian unrefined brown sugar) and cooked in ghee.

With close to 70 million people making the pilgrimage annually, this is one of the largest in the world.  To help make their important offerings, about 4 million neyyappams were sold to pilgrims as Hindu offerings by the end of the first 10 days of the pilgrimage season in 2013.

Sabarimala is one of hundreds of temples all over South India that prepare this sweet dish and several others as offerings. The enshrined deities of the Hindu temples are faithfully fed with formal offerings of food every day. The offerings at temples are always the most excellent food.

The favorite food of the gods

The priests and their helpers prepare them in the temple kitchen. The traditional cooks who prepare them do not follow any written recipes, nor are they trained at any culinary schools. They perfect their art through practice under the watchful eyes of senior priests. But the proof of their culinary skills is in the most delicious prasadam (food that has been offered to God), which devotees receive from the temples.

Those little morsels of prasadam have a very special taste, maybe because visitors receive only a small serving, or maybe because it is the gods’ favorite food. Biting through the dark brown crust, crisped by rice flour and savoring the soft and chewy middle of the neyyappam is sheer delight.

There are no written records of their origin, but sweetened cakes made of grains as Hindu offerings were prevalent since very ancient times in India. Apupa, a prototype of neyyappam, was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies. In “Food and Drink in Ancient India” Om Prakash writes that apupa possibly was the earliest sweet known in India. Apupa was believed to be a favorite food of the gods and it was offered in various sacrificial ceremonies.

It was made with barley or rice flour cooked in ghee on a low fire and sweetened with honey, and later with sugar cane juice. The cook made apupa assume the shape of a tortoise by cooking it on clay pot with a curved bottom. Even centuries later, the recipe and the method of cooking this ancient dish have remained practically unchanged.

A world of cooking vessels

Neyyappam is traditionally cooked in a bronze pan called appakara, about 8 inches in diameter, with three or more large cavities, giving the dish a tortoise-like shape. Recipes are varied, but sometimes the batter includes a softening agent such as ripe bananas. Sometimes the batter is flavored with coconut, cardamom, sesame seeds, dried ginger or poppy seeds.

Many cuisines use variations on this pan for similar dishes. An ideal substitute for an appakara is the utensil used for making the Danish pancake balls called aebleskiver, the tasty Danish dessert that looks like round puffy pancakes.

The Vikings also originally used damaged shields to cook a similar dish called ebelskivers.

Kevin Crafts, in his cookbook “Ebelskivers,” described: “The invention of ebelskivers is much debated, but one story tells of the Vikings returning very hungry from a fierce battle. With no frying pans on which to cook, they placed their damaged shields over a hot fire and cooked pancakes in the indentations.”

In the absence of these special skillets, neyyappam may be cooked on a griddle or a small skillet.

Neyyappam

Makes 12 to 15

Ingredients

1 cup long-grain rice

1 cup jaggery

1 medium-sized ripe banana, peeled and sliced

1 teaspoon cardamom powder (optional)

1 tablespoon thinly sliced coconut pieces (optional)

½ cup ghee, divided

Directions

1. Soak the rice in water for two to three hours, and then rinse it in several changes of water until the water runs clear, and drain.

2. In a sauce pan melt the jaggery with ¼ cup of water. Strain through a fine sieve and cool.

3. In a blender, combine the rice, banana, and jaggery with just enough water to grind it into a fine, smooth, thick batter.

4. Stir in the cardamom powder and coconut slices if using. This batter should have the consistency of a thick pancake batter.

5. Heat an aebleskiver pan over medium heat.

6. Pour ½ teaspoon ghee in each cavity of the pan.

7. Pour in the batter, ¾ of the way in each cavity. Pour a ½ teaspoon of ghee on top of each neyyappam and cook over medium heat.

8. When the bottom of the neyyappam is cooked (in a minute or so), turn it over, and cook the other side.

9. When neyyappam turns brown in color, remove from the griddle, and drain on paper towels. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Top photo: Neyyappam prepared in appakara as an offering for the gods in Indian Hindu temples. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Fenugreek Works Its Magic On Sweet Potatoes Image

On dark, cold winter nights, nothing is more comforting than a warm kitchen filled with the aromas of a favorite comfort food simmering on the stovetop. For me, fresh fenugreek leaves cooked with sweet potatoes is one such comfort food.

Although a few summer vegetables remain available at U.S. grocery stores, most are long gone. Indian grocers, though, still stock frozen okra and eggplant. Along with several root vegetables, the one thing they stock abundantly is one of my favorite leaf vegetables, fenugreek leaves.

Fenugreek, one of the earliest known plant species, belongs to the bean family trigonella foenumgracum. It  sprouts in cold weather with leaves consisting of three small ovate to oblong leaflets. The plant can grow to be about 2 feet tall. It blooms white flowers in the summer and has very aromatic seeds. Although it is a legume, fenugreek’s sprouts and fresh leaves are used as leaf vegetables, its dried leaves are used as an herb, and the small and oblong shaped yellowish brown seeds are used as a spice.

Fenugreek sprouts have a slightly pungent-sweet taste, which adds texture, taste and color to salads. Fresh leaves have a bitter-sweet taste and in Indian cuisine they are cooked as any leaf vegetable in curries as well as Indian flat breads. Dried fenugreek leaves are used in Northern Indian curries to enhance the flavor. Uncooked fenugreek seeds have an unpleasant, bitter taste. Dry roasting enhances the flavor and reduces their bitterness. These need close attention while toasting because over-roasting will make them turn reddish brown and taste very bitter.

Health benefits through history

Ayurveda defines a balanced meal as one that includes six tastes:  sweet, salty, bitter, astringent, sour and hot. Fenugreek is an ideal source of the bitter constituent in this balance. It’s rich in iron, calcium, phosphorous and is high in protein. According to Ayurveda, fenugreek slows the absorption of sugars in the stomach and stimulates insulin production. Both of these positively affect blood sugar in people with diabetes. It is believed to help lower triglycerides and cholesterol levels. Fenugreek is used for digestive problems, such as loss of appetite and inflammation of the stomach. It is also used in preparing an herbal infusion to break up respiratory congestion.

Fenugreek is indigenous to western Asia, and southeastern Europe. Today it is cultivated worldwide as a semi-arid crop. It has a long history as a culinary and medicinal herb in the ancient world. Its bitter seeds have held medicinal promise for many cultures over thousands of years. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used fenugreek for medicinal and culinary purposes. In ancient Egypt, fenugreek was used for the mummification process. It is widely used in the West, Central and South Asia and Northern and Eastern Africa. Iran has a rich tradition of cooking with fenugreek leaves. The Ethiopian spice mixture berbere contains small amounts of fenugreek.

Sweet potatoes as a perfect partner

Fenugreek leaves cooked with potatoes yields a very tasty side dish that is popular in India. Although the recipe calls for white potatoes, I prefer to use sweet potatoes. The mild sweetness of sweet potatoes perfectly balances the slight bitterness of the fenugreek leaves.

It is a bit time-consuming to separate the small leaves from the stem, but the resulting dish is well worth the effort. It is ideal to use the sweet potatoes with a golden skin and creamy white or pale flesh in this dish. These have a crumbly texture compared to the very soft texture of the orange flesh variety. Though orange-fleshed varieties are most common, white or very light yellow-fleshed types are also available at most grocery stores.

Fenugreek Leaves With Sweet Potato

Serves 4

Ingredients

One large, or two medium, sweet potatoes

2 cups fenugreek leaves removed from stems

2 tablespoons ghee or coconut oil

1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds

1 teaspoon dry-roasted and crushed cumin seeds

A few fresh curry leaves (if available)

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Salt to taste

¼ teaspoon turmeric powder

½ teaspoon cayenne powder (less for milder taste)

Directions

1. Peel and cut the sweet potato into ½-inch cubes.

2. Clean the fenugreek leaves and separate the leaves from the stems. Roughly chop the fenugreek leaves.

3. Heat ghee/oil in a saucepan at medium heat and add mustard seeds. When the seeds start spluttering, stir in cumin seeds, curry leaves and ginger. Fry for a minute and then add the cubed sweet potatoes. Stir well, reduce the heat, and cover and cook.

4. After five minutes, sprinkle salt, turmeric and cayenne powder into the mixture and stir gently. Cover again and cook for 10 to 12 minutes until the sweet potato pieces are cooked tender.

5. Add chopped fenugreek leaves, stir and cover the pan. Cook until the leaves wilt, about five minutes

6. Remove from the stove and serve hot with rice or Indian flat breads.

Top photo: Fenugreek leaves and seeds. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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