Tried & Tested – Biryani

I have been trying since last year to learn one delicacy at a time and attempting to make them in the most authentic form possible. I started by making Puran Polis for Holi (another version of which will be made this year) then Modaks – I couldn’t source all ingredients I needed so did best with what was available. But apart from sweet-dishes the one food item I really wanted to learn and make was the Biryani. Biryani, a beautiful dish prepared in many parts of Asia with each region having their own special recipe for it. It has a blend meat, semi spicy gravy, sweetness of raisins, some nuts and rice. Hence this is one of the very few delicacies which pleases my heart and my taste buds. So when I checked online for some recipes of Biryani, my screen was filled with all kinds and variations for it …Hyderabadi, Kashmiri, Lahore, Quick cooking, slow cooking, etc etc!! Overwhelmed by the number of recipes online, I turned to the one person who I remember makes an amazing biryani every single time …my Mum 🙂 Last year when I visited India to meet my folks, I looked over my Mum as she carefully went through the whole process of making this brilliant blend of rice, meat and spices!

Making a biryani is not something you can make in under 30 minutes and you require a really long list of ingredients for this. So when my Mum was teaching me how to make it, she broke down the process into a number of steps, some of which can be done a day prior to the actual preparation.

Biryani basically involves cooking a meat curry, cooking fragrant rice and then layering the two together with fried onions, potatoes and aromatics and cooking it together so the flavors blend with each other.

PS : This is not a “traditional” or “authentic” biryani recipe, it is just a recipe which has been made in my family since a number of years and I personally love its taste.

So to begin with the preparation, we started with frying the onions till dark golden brown and crisp. They are traditionally deep fried but you can pan fry them or roast them in the oven. I found a ready made air fried version of these in my local grocery store so I purchased them. I would suggest frying these before hand because they are required for the marination and the cooking too. Once fried you can let them cool and store in an air-tight container till required. Then comes the part of marinating the meat of your choice with a number of spices and aromatics. Make sure you take a darker cut of meat so it won’t dry out during the intense cooking process. So if you are using chicken, use the drumsticks and thigh portion and if you are using lamb use the lamb shoulder.

If you are using vegetables instead of meat, replace the meat with veggies like bell peppers, white mushrooms, baby corn and paneer (Indian cottage cheese).

I used lamb this time and I used 2 pieces of lamb shoulder cut into inch sized chunks. I marinated the lamb shoulder with yogurt, ground Serrano peppers, mint, coriander, fried onions, ginger garlic paste and spices like garam masala and red chili powder. This marination needs to sit for at least one hour and preferably overnight. I let the meat marinate overnight. Both these steps can be done the day before so you don’t have a lot of do on the day of.

On the day of making the biryani I gave myself at least 2 hours to go through the whole process, this is because I was making it for the first time so I needed to ensure every step was followed well. I started by making the curry in ghee. Before adding the spices, I fried some cubed potatoes and pieces of dried fruits in the ghee before proceeding to the tempering or the tadka. For this, I used whole spices like bay leaf, cumin, cardamon both green and larger one called “badi elaichi” ,peppercorns and cloves. These same whole spices are also used to cook the rice in so make sure you keep some extra handy. Once the spices were fragrant I added in finely sliced onions and tomatoes till they are mushy and then adding in the entire mixture of marinated meat. Once the sauce was simmering a bit, I added in a cup of milk and let it simmer and cook for almost 40 minutes on a medium flame.

While the meat was cooking, I moved to preparing the rice. I filled a pot with water and started to bring it to a boil. While it was heating up I added enough salt, the whole spices mentioned above and a teaspoon of ghee. Once the water boiled I added in the soaked rice and let it cook till it was 75% done. Then I drained out the water and let the rice sit till the curry was ready

Pro tip The trick to a perfect biryani is rice to meat ratio – rice should be double the meat you plan to use, and cooking the rice. Here, once you add the rice in boiling water, wait till the water starts boiling again then reduce the heat to medium and let it cook for another 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and strain out the water.

Layering the Biryani – Once the meat is cooked, take out half the meat and gravy and start layering your biryani. Divide rice and gravy into two equal portions. Start with a base of gravy in the pot, layer it with rice (do not press the rice in). On the rice sprinkle half of the cooked potatoes and dried fruit, half a cup of chopped mint and cilantro, half a cup of warm milk. Repeat this again with the gravy and rice and cover with a tight lid.

Cooking the Biryani – There are two ways to this, if you are cooking on a stove top place the pot at the lowest heat for 15 minutes. If you are cooking in an oven then heat it to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and place your pot on the top most tray for 10 minutes. Once done, let it stand for another 10 minutes before serving it up!

I know all this sounds like a long and tedious task and many of us would prefer to head out to the nearest Indian restaurant and order one up instead. But, if you decide to go ahead and experience the fun in making this wonderful delicacy here’s a free printable recipe. So print it out, stick it in your kitchen and get cooking!!

Don’t forget to follow me on Facebook & Instagram for some quick recipes and regular updates 🙂

Crisp Winter Snack – The Savory Shankarpalle

Winters are my favorite time of the year even though Chicago winters can be a bit harsh. They are the perfect time to curl up at home, indulge in your favorite meals and spend some quality time with your loved ones.

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Usually in India, evening time meaning time for Chai with some crispy snacks and cookies. You will find this routine in almost every Indian household. Snacks are made especially for chai time (as it is fondly called in India) and today’s recipe is something you will love to snack on during your chai-time or anytime during the day.

This is the recipe for  Shankarpali or Shankarpalle or shakkarpara which is a sweet Indian snack, rich in carbs. It is usually sweet, but many people make them both sweet and spicy. It is basically a sweet/savory dough which is flattened and cut into tiny squares which are then deep fried in oil or ghee till golden and crispy. 

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In my version of the recipe, I made two changes – I swapped the all purpose flour or maida for whole wheat flour and I baked them instead of deep frying. The baking part took some time compared to the time it usually takes to deep fry them. Also I’ve made the savory version here instead of the sweet one.

The spices I used for the savory version were whole cumin and sesame seeds, Serrano peppers and garlic. I ground these spices before adding them to the flour mix and kneaded the dough to  a soft pasta dough like consistency. 

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I let the dough rest for a while after which I flattened it out till it was a quarter inch thick, cut it into small squares and lined the squares on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking oil. 

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I baked these in an oven pre-heated to 180 degrees celsius for 12 minutes on one side before turning them over and baking again for 10 minutes. 

Once out of the oven, I let it rest till it was completely cooled down (you can transfer them on a wire rack too at this stage) and packed them up in an airtight container. 

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Heres a free printable recipe for this for your collection!!

savoury crisp shankarpalle (1)

 

 

 

Indian Festive Food Ideas – Chole

Festive season in India is just starting which means a lot of get-togethers, small parties, large celebrations etc are on cards and if you love planning a get-together like I do, the first thing which crosses my mind is, what should we eat? 😀 It has to be something indulgent and delicious, something which everyone loves and if the food is to be made on an auspicious day then it has to be vegetarian. The food prepared on an auspicious day is usually served in a Puja thali, thal, puja naivedya which describes the festive platter – an entire vegetarian spread made usually on festive occasions offered with prayers to the deities and also served to friends and families.

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On any given day an Indian household will prepare meals consisting of roti i.e. the flatbread, rice, dal i.e. the lentil soup and one vegetarian dish called subji – it is either in gravy form or in a drier form.  Sometimes, this vegetarian subji is accompanied by or substituted by a meat or fish variant. This is the daily meal in any Indian household. However, this changes during festive occasion. The number of dishes made are increased, there are fritters included in the platter and then there are the traditional sweet dishes.

All the elements of the platter are such that they include all 6 tastes – sweet, sour, salty, astringent, pungent and bitter as recommended by Ayurveda. The balance of these 6 tastes is essential to maintain the Doshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha – the elements of movement, fire and water in the body.

Till  recent times, I would merely participate in helping the preparations of such festive platters and had never really made the whole spread from scratch myself. I however got a chance to cook this spread after my wedding when I moved to Chicago and wanted to celebrate Indian festivals here with as much as authenticity as possible. Also a lot of friends asked for these recipes, so i’m going to share with you all a few recipes for vegetarian and festive food, which you can make with ease at home and heres the bonus – they work well in winters i.e. they help provide your body the added nourishment which the cold weather calls for!! Here’s the first one up –

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CHOLE – chickpeas cooked in onion and tomato based gravy

This one is my favorite vegetarian gravy. I use the ready spice mix provided by Everest for cooking this and you can easily get that on Amazon. You can prep the chickpeas by soaking them in water overnight and boiling them / pressure cooking them till done.Alternatively, you can also use the canned chickpeas available in supermarkets (make sure you drain them well and give them a wash before using, that will remove the excess sodium). This is a well favored dish in Indian get-togethers and I remember my mum making them for all the guests during our diwali celebrations. It can be paired with deep fried puris or bhature, but I wanted to avoid deep frying (I fear the oil splatter 😛 ) so I decided to go with simple and easy to make rotis. I’ve made these with Ghee in order to add some goodness and additional taste to the dish. You can read more about the benefits of ghee in my previous post here. So this is how I went about with it –

Ingredients –

  • 2 cups Chickpeas – soaked and cooked
  • 1 onion finely chopped
  • 1 tomato finely chopped
  • 1 cup tomato paste (if you want a lot of gravy)
  • Everest Chole Masala
  • 1 tbsp ginger garlic paste
  • ½ tsp each of cumin and caraway seeds
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tbsp Ghee

Instructions –

  • In a deep pan or kadhai/ wok heat ghee and add the bay leaf
  • Temper with cumin and caraway seeds and add ginger garlic paste Saute till the raw smell disappears.
  • Add the finely chopped onions and saute till the onions are soft
  • Add 2 tbsp Everest Chole masala and cook this on medium flame till the oil separates
  • Add in the tomato cubes, tomato paste and salt to taste and cover and cook for 10 minutes on medium flame till a rich gravy is formed
  • Finally stir in the cooked chick-peas and simmer this for another 10 minutes till the chickpeas soak up all the gravy.

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Fall Winter Recipes – Gajar ka Halwa (Carrot Pudding)

Its that time of the year again when the temperatures are dipping, there is a slight nip in the air and if you are based in a windy location like Chicago the wind gods are having a blast 😛 Just a few days ago it was warm enough to step out of the house without a jacket and suddenly today I find myself cranking up the heater and fishing out my woolies. I have no idea how cold can the Chicago Fall be since its my first time here, but I am bracing myself for the worse since last winter wasn’t too forgiving either.  So while I prepare my woolies and my home for the colder days, I have also planned out some healthy meals which will help us beat the cold and stay warm. The cold winds and drier climate makes me susceptible to colds, flu and dry skin and hair. While there are medicines and lotions which help you with this, it is also essential to give yourself proper nutrition to aid your body. Indian cuisine has a lot of recipes which include foods that will increase your immunity, provide warmth and overall help you in the cold and dry weather. Most of these recipes include use of fruits and vegetables grown in this season, along with generous use of dry fruits, nuts, milk and Ghee. Generally considered to be high fat and avoided by many, these ingredients if used in the right proportion will do more good than harm for your body. 

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So keeping this in mind, I have decided to share with you few such recipes which do include the so called “fat rich” ingredients, but are good for your health and are a good inclusion in your winter diets. There are a lot of such recipes, but I will be sharing only those which I have tried to cook personally in USA since all the ingredients cannot be easily sourced here. Also, I have trimmed off some excess fat content in these and tried to retain the health quotient. The first recipe I would love to share is of a warm and sweet delicacy made especially in winters and is  my all time favorite  – Gajar ka halwa or Carrot Pudding.

Carrot pudding or Gajar ka Halwa is a sweet North Indian delicacy primarily made in India in winters a time when the sweet juicy orange carrots are grown. It requires very less sugar, it is traditionally made with heavy cream – (which I have replaced with skimmed milk in my recipe but feel free to sub it in), Ghee and a lot of dried fruits. It can be eaten warm or chilled, just by itself or served as a dessert with your meals.

Why is this dish good for winters?

Ghee and dry fruits used in the Halwa are natural agents which help your body stay warm. Ghee is full of fat soluble vitamins and healthy fatty acids which makes it a good alternative to butter. Offcourse you cannot have excess of it, but if taken in proportion (1-3 teaspoons per day) ghee contributes to healthy bones and joints, healthy skin and hair and keeps your gut healthy. Plus it is lactose free!

The carrots in this recipe are high in antioxidants, minerals, fiber and vitamin A.

Coming back to the recipe – it does not need a lot of preparations here and you can whip it up in minutes. The only tedious part of the preparations would be shredding the carrots which I did manually using my little Ikea veggie shredder (not sponsored) but you can whizz them once through a food processor to get good results.

Once the Halwa is ready, it stays well in the fridge for a week though I haven’t really frozen it so I can’t comment on that. Also, when it comes to using the dry-fruits in this recipe, you can use them directly in the end to garnish but I prefer to cook them a bit in Ghee and then mixing them in a later stage in the Halwa.

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Also, this can be made in huge batches and is perfect for parties (a definite crowd pleaser) , so here’s my quick and healthy version of Gajar ka Halwa

Ingredients –

  • Carrots shredded 4 cups
  • Fine sugar ½ cup
  • Dry fruits (mixed assorted – cashews, almonds, pistachios, raisins) 1 cup – (you can add more if you so prefer)
  • Milk – 2 cups skimmed milk / if you want to try the full-fat version  use heavy cream instead of milk
  • Ghee – 1 tablespoon
  • Cardamom and nutmeg powder – ½ teaspoon each
  • Saffron – a pinch for garnish (optional)

Instructions

  • Heat Ghee in a wok and stir fry the dry fruits in it for approximately 2 minutes.
  • Remove the dry fruits and set them aside, preserve the ghee and add carrots to it.
  • The carrots will start breaking down and releasing water so keep on sauteeing them till the water evaporates.
  • Add in the milk/ heavy cream and saute till it is completely absorbed by the carrots.
  • Finally add in the dry fruits and sugar and stir till the sugar dissolves
  • Cover and cook for another minute on medium flame and then turn off the heat

Serve warm immediately or let it cool down before serving it. Enjoy!

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Billy Bricks Wood Fired Pizzas – bite into the authentic wood fired pizzas and make them too!

Pizzas have been a soul-food for me since I was a little kid. The delicious combination of bread, marinara and cheese baked together to crispy yet soft perfection gets my heart every time I dig into it. So when I was invited by Billy Bricks Pizza at Oak Park to try out their fresh wood fired pizzas and even get a chance to make one I simply could not refuse!

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Image source – Billy Bricks

Billy Bricks Pizza is a lovely eatery located in Oak Park Chicago, right opposite the Scoville Park. Their first restaurant was started some 13 years ago in downtown Lombart and the Oak Par restaurant started in April, this place is now a hot spot for regulars who stop by for their pizzas, sandwiches and salads. This restaurant is also frequented by a lot of tourists who visit the beautiful Hemingway district.  I was invited by their owner, Ric Gruber, to try out their pizza and also try my hand at their pizza – making class. I knew that I was in for a super fun experience. Apart from Oak Park, they also have 6 other branches in – Lombard downtown, Lombard Yorktown, Mount Prospect, Naperville, West Dundee and Wheaton.

Their pizza making class is conducted once a month on one of 7 their locations. This includes learning the pizza making process from scratch, learning how a pizza restaurant functions, what products & gadgets they use ( I love checking out those things 😛 ) and finally rolling your own pizza! One of their very talented Pizzaiolos is present there to train you and help you build your own pizza and in the end you can relax with a glass of wine/ beer/ soft drink and enjoy the pizza you freshly baked!

Here’s how we went about with the process of making our own pizzas!

We started off  by learning to roll these dough balls. The dough is carefully prepared and stored by them and always scrutinized for freshness before they use it –

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We were then taught how to perfectly roll these dough balls into a pizza base without using a rolling pin (which is real fun to do!)

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We were then taught a bit about the toppings and which toppings go where and then we had to chose how to assort our pizzas using any of these toppings

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And that’ s how our pizzas looked like before baking

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Ric helped us with baking in this wood fired oven while we helped ourselves on the drinks and found a good spot to sit and enjoy the final product

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And this was product of my 1 hour pizza making training 😀 I have never made a pizza before!

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Apart from the whole pizza making experience, I also loved the fact that the restaurant is exceptionally clean, the management and staff care for it like family and they are very friendly. They are very swift yet efficient with their work and they do this with a smile :D. While the class was in session Ric and the staff there also ensured that the regular patrons at their restaurant were promptly served too!

Bricks Pizza also specializes in sandwiches and salads and these are particularly their week-day lunch time specials. I saw a sandwich being made from scratch (bread included) and now I can’t wait to try it out! Who doesn’t love freshly made breads anyways. They have also recently introduced skillet cookies in their menu which would make for a great dessert option.

Apart from their restaurants, Bricks Pizzas also have an awesome completely glass covered food truck  called BRICKSONWHEELS which caters at various fests, locations and you can also call them over for a wedding 😀 (PS: if my wedding was in Chicago I would have definitely called them! 😉 ) Heres a link to all their upcoming events where you can catch live creating Pizza – magic! .

 Overall, whether you decide to go for a pizza making class or just drop by for some great food, I would really suggest visiting Billy Bricks Wood Fired Pizza for indulging in some really good quality authentic Neapolitan Pizza, Salads and Sandwiches!

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Ukdiche Modak – Steamed sweet dumpling

Its been a long time since I’ve shared a recipe with you all!! Here is one for a  sweet dish which I have been fond of since childhood. It is also associated with some of the Indian festivals, especially those celebrated in Maharashtra. But most prominently, Modak are made during Ganesh Chaturthi – a festival for Indian deity Ganpati. These Modak are said to be the favorite food of the deity and are made to appease him. Every year my mother would patiently make them for us on this day and serve them with a platter of beautiful Indian vegetarian food.

 

This year, being miles away from home, it was but natural that I was missing these festivities and wanted to celebrate in my own small way in Chicago. So after hours of Skype instructions from my mom, reading the recipes online and in the books I had I mustered to courage to make them 😀 . Yes it is a courageous task for me because the process of making these dumplings in the most traditional way is lengthy and delicate, you mess one step and you can mess it all up 😦 . So here I am sharing with you my experience of making these delicious Modaks. This won’t be in a typical recipe form, and I will include links to the video tutorials so it would help you out.

You need just three main ingredients for this, Rice Flour, Jaggery and fresh grated coconut. If you do not have freshly grated coconut use desiccated coconut (which is what I did) and I will be sharing the ratio below too. The rice flour can be purchased online or in any Asian grocery store. I used the one made by Swad brand (this is not an advertisement, I am not posting any affiliate links too 😀 ) . I would suggest you make the filling before-hand so it gets enough time to cool down while you prep the rice flour for the cover.

Heres a fun fact about Modaks – they are made all over India, but their form varies, it is made in form of a pedha i.e. in a marzipan form with cashew nut paste, milk and cream and then formed into their shapes using a mold. The Modaks I am writing here about are made mainly in the state of Maharashtra and further down south in India. These are steamed hence called “ukdiche” i.e. steamed in Marathi and they have the soft rice flour cover filled with coconut filling in it. These are usually made and consumed on the same day partly to maintain the freshness and partly because they are too good to resist. Although made mainly during the festival of  Ganesh Chaturthi, these are also made on any other festive occasion.

So to start with the stuffing for your modaks, use 1:2 ratio when making the stuffing with fresh coconut. This would be 1 portion of fresh grated coconut and 2 portions of jaggery. In a pan, heat some Ghee and stir in the coconut till its warm, gradually add the jaggery and softly mix it all till the jaggery melts and the coconut mixes with it well. Turn of the heat and top the stuffing with a pinch of cardamon powder to enhance the flavors and let it cool down.

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If you are using dessicated coconut, reduce the amount of coconut more and keep some milk handy. Usually once you turn off the heat, the mixture will stiffen up like a granola bar which you dont want. The stuffing has to be soft, so we can soften it by adding a splash of milk and letting it rest. I used this technique when the stuffing I made turned out to be a bit too sticky.

Till the mixture cools, its time to prepare the rice flour to make the modak. Once again we use 1:1 ratio here i.e. one cup of rice flour to one cup of water. One cup of rice flour yeilded around 15 small modaks for me. In a deep pan, heat one cup of water with a teaspoon of Ghee and pinch of salt till the water boils. Reduce heat to medium and gradually stir in the rice flour till the water is absorbed. Cover and let it steam up for couple of minutes before shutting off the heat. Keep the cover on for another 5 minutes and then take the mixture on a flat plate or a bowl to knead it while its still warm. The kneading process is easy, similar to kneading dough for bread but here you have to dip your hand alternatively in water and some cooking oil while kneading. I can’t explain enough so here’s a video link where they show how perfectly it is done 😀 I referred to this video while cooking it.

Once your dough is ready, cover it with a damp cheesecloth. Keep the dough covered in a damp cheesecloth or muslin cloth all the times, this keeps it soft and pliable. To make the modak, first start with moistening your palms with water and oil – its a weird mix which works 😛 then take a small golf ball size of dough ball in your hands, and press it to make a cup. Stuff a tablespoon of the filling in it and fold the cup so as to close it. While folding the cup close, give the cup some petals by slightly pinching its sides with damp fingers and close it up. Dip the tip of your modak in water (this ensures they dont break while steaming) and once again place it on an oiled surface and cover it with a damp cheesecloth/muslin cloth.

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Check the video out for the details!

Once all the modaks are ready, prep your steamer. If you have a dumpling steamer then great! If not, fill up a deep pan with 1/4th levels of water and bring it to boil. Place some utensil which will rise above the water level in this pan and cover it to let the steam accumulate.  Layer a plate with a damp cloth and place the modaks on it with some distance between them. Place this plate over your utensil in the pan and then cover and let it steam for 12 minutes.

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Once done, carefully get the plate out (because its super hot by this time) and let the modaks cool down a bit before you can transfer them to another plate. Once they are completely cooled you can store them in an airtight container and refrigerate them for upto a week. When consuming refrigerated modaks, simply pop them in a microwave for 30 seconds and enjoy!

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This is the link for the entire process. If you need any help, I am just a comment/message away 😀

Some other links – Ukdiche Modak in a Maharashtrian way with more explanation

The Recipe

Ingredients –

  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 2 cups water – one cup for cooking the rice flour and one cup for the other process
  •  1 cup jaggery
  • 1/2 cup fresh grated coconut / 1/4 cup desicated coconut
  • 1/4 cup milk (only if using desiccated coconut)
  • 1/2 cup of dried fruits of choice
  • pinch of  cardamon powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ghee
  • 1/4 cup oil (to help dampen palms)

Instructions

For the filling

  1. Heat 1/2 teaspoon ghee in a pan, and add the coconut and jaggery to it. Use low heat.
  2. Mix well till everything combines and top the mixture with dried fruits and cardamon powder, turn off the heat and let it cool.

For the modak cover

  1. Boil 1 cup water in a pan, add salt and 1/2 teaspoon ghee to it.
  2. Lower the heat and add the rice flour and mix well with a wooden spoon/ spatula
  3. Cover and let it steam for 2 minutes before turning off the heat and letting it sit for another 5 minutes.
  4.  Take out the flour and knead thoroughly using water and oil to grease your palms in the process .
  5. Cover the prepared dough with damp cloth.
  6. Take a small golf ball sized piece of dough and flatten it to make a cup, stuff the filling in it and make some pleats/ petals before closing the cup.
  7. Dip the tip in water before storing under a damp cloth.
  8. Prepare the steamer and place modaks to steam them for 12 minutes on medium heat.

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5 things to do if you have a day in Chicago

Situated by Lake Michigan, the third largest city in US, Chicago is a city of wonder. Often referred to as Chicagoland, this city is the birthplace of skyscrapers and is well known for its hot-dogs, deep dish pizzas, mindblowing architecture and scenic views of Lake Michigan. This city has a lot to explore and I’ve been here just for 8 months or so. So from a new-comers perspective I wanted to share with you a few things that a newcomer to this city should not miss out on!! 😀

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Weather you are here for leisure or business, or you have a small layover in this city, even if you have just one day to explore the beautiful city of Chicago, you have to make the most of it and here are five things you can do within one day to get a feel of Chicago 

1. Visit Museum Campus at Soldier Field –

The Museum Campus at Soldier field is home to some of the most prestigious institutions of the city, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. Exploring all three of these in one day is possible, however you won’t have time for anything else 😛 Hence you can visit one of these three spots and reserve the rest for your next visit. For a more detailed itinerary on the museums, you can read my blog on spending a weekend in Chicago here  . In a gist here is a look at these three locations –

Field Museum – The Field Museum of Natural History is one of the largest natural history museums in the world with interesting permanent exhibits such as the largest fossil of T-Rex fondly named Sue, Twenty-three human mummies and mummified animals, replica of the tomb of the last pharaoh, working laboratories and fossil laboratories, cultural exhibits and various interesting temporary exhibits.

The Basic Admission here is for $24 with all access pass for $38 per person and this Museum is open from 9am to 5pm all days of the year apart from Christmas Day

Adler Planetarium – Located at the far end of Museum Campus besides the scenic Lake Michigan, Adler Planetarium is home to full size, extensive exhibits on space science, a wonderful collection on space scientific equipments used since the ancient times and they also have research-active, public-urban observatory – Doane Observatory.

Adler is open every day from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, their  Basic Admission is for $24.95 with the All Access Pass for $34.95 per person.

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The scenic view of Chicago Skyline from Adler Planeterium 

Shedd Aquarium  – One of the largest aquariums in the world, this place is a must visit for their extensive display of aquatic life, their special exhibits, informative movies and my personal favorite the Pacific wide sided dolphins! Don’t miss to catch the dolphins live in action while you are there and make sure you get a front row seat to high-five the penguins 😀

The General Admission is for $39.95 with a 50% for Chicago residents. Shedd has different operating hours changing as per the season, click here for a detailed chart.

 

 

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2. Cloud Gate & Millennium Park

Also plan a visit to Millenium Park in the Loop area of Chicago for a look at the Cloud Gate and of course for clicking some great pictures at the iconic sculpture of Chicago. The sculpture, nicknamed as “the Bean” for its bean-like appearance is made out of 168 stainless steel plates welded together to give a highly polished exterior and no visible seams. The sculpture reflects Chicago skyline in multiple ways and you can click some really interesting pictures and selfies here by playing around with the reflections.

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3. Take a pizza break

Deep dish pizza is quintessential to Chicago. Some argue it is not a pizza, it is a pie, but Chicago-people simply love their deep dish pizza. Two famous locations for trying this cheesy wonder are Giordanos Pizza and Lou Malnatis Pizzeria. The pizza wars between these two chains are common 😛 and if you ask me, I tend to favor Lou Malnatis 😉

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If you are not a pizza fan, try out Chicago style hot dogs at Portillos or grab some delicious caramel popcorn from Garrett Popcorn Shops 

4. A Panoramic view of the City

While you are exploring Chicago downtown make your way towards Willis Towers for a panoramic view of the city at Skydeck Chicago. Skydeck Chicago is located on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower and it gives you an amazing panaromic view of the city. You can click as many pictures as you like and also get some pictures professionally clicked there, The Skydeck is open 365 days and you can visit here from  October through February from 10am-8pm and March through September from 9am-10pm

The Basic Admission here is $24.00 and the Fast Pass is for $49.00 which gives you express entry to the elevators.

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5. The Chicago River-walk

Chicago river cuts its way through this city and the pedestrian walkway by the side of the river called Chicago River-walk. It offers some amazing views of the skyscrapers of the city and great food and drink options. You can walk the entire stretch and make your way towards Navy Pier for a beautiful view of Lake Michigan, and check out the ongoing events there. This is a great way to spend your evening, taking a leisurely stroll by the river or hopping into one of the many river-cruises available there.

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There are a lot of other things to do in Chicago and places to explore, but sadly these cannot be done in a single day. This is what I believe to be the best things to do in Chicago in a day. Are there any suggestions to it? Let me know!!

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Zaytinya – A beautiful Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of Washington DC

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Mediterranean food always has a very special place in my heart. I love the freshness and the warmth in every dish and the variety of flavors which pleases your palette. Last month I tried cooking some Mediterranean food and while in the process of finding the perfect recipe and spice blends, I read a lot about the Mediterranean cuisine. So obviously I was craving to try out some delicious authentic Mediterranean spread.

When we were visiting Washington DC earlier this month I asked around for suggestions of good restaurants and one name which stayed constant in all the suggestions was Zaytinya. Started by chef Jose Andres in 2002, Zaytinya is one of the most recommended dining spots in Washington DC. It specializes in mezze menu inspired by Turkish, Greek and Lebanese cuisines.

Mezze Platters or Mezze meals are inspired with the idea of a whole family or a group of friends eating together and sharing the meal. Hence here the meal is served in smaller plates and there are a lot of variations in the dishes.  In some Mediterranean cultures, Mezze meals are considered to be a part of the appetizers while in other, Mezze meals are considered to be an entire meal in itself.

Zaytinya has created a wide range of Mezze meals to satisfy almost all kinds of tastes. Their menu is truly vast and if you want to be avoid making any blunders while choosing what to eat they lined up these specials for you –  Lunch Mezze Meal,  Zaytinya Experience and Chefs Experience.

We opted for the Lunch Mezze Meal where we had to choose from this Menu –

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Also I must tell you’ll their every meal is accompanied by an endless supply of freshly baked perfectly fluffed delicious Pita breads!

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The delicious and endless supply of Pita Bread

In the first section, we ordered their Hommous and Baba Ghanoush. Both the Hummus and the Baba Ghanoush were fresh, delicately flavored and were devoured by us within minutes.

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Hommous and Baba Ghanoush

Next up were Skuna Bay Salmon – Salmon served with herbed tahini, roasted pine nuts, Persian cucumber, pickled radish, preserved lemon and Kotopoulo Youvetsi – chicken, orzo, tomato, kefalograviera cheese. The Salmon was cooked to perfection, plated on herbed tahini, radish and cucumber. It was by far the most beautiful plating I had seen :D. It was not heavy on the palette and the portion size was perfect for one person.

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Skuna Bay Salmon

The Kotopoulo Youvetsi was my favorite from this menu and I seriously considered calling for seconds on this. The Orzo was cooked to perfection in cheesy tomato sauce and tiny chicken chunks and this was broiled till a crisp layer formed on the top. It was truly a soul-food for me.

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Kotopoulo Youvetsi

For the third course we ordered Adana Kebab – skewered ground lamb, house-made harissa, grilled tomatoes, sumac, onions and Keftedes Kapama – beef and lamb meatballs, feta cheese, rustic tomato sauce, cinnamon, allspice.

The Adana Kebabs were juicy and not very spicy. They were served on a fresh flat bread with some pickled onions which reminded me of how kebabs are served back home in India 😛 another similarity in Indian and Mediterranean cuisine ;).

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Adana Kebabs

The Keftedes Kapama is a wonderful dish made with juicy keftes/koftas served in luscious tomato sauce with was mildly spiced and the feta cheese crumbled on top of it added just the right amount of creamy tang to the whole dish. Definitely a must try if you are fan of tomato based dishes like me :D.

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Keftedes Kapama

We ended our wonderful lunch with the dessert being Greek Yogurt with Apricots  – which was soaked apricots served with fresh vanilla yogurt cream, apricot sorbet and pistachio powder. The dessert was very visually appealing, the apricot sorbet layered with Greek yogurt was a fresh combination and the pistachio powder added a good nutty flavor to the whole dessert.

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Greek Yogurt with Apricots

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Overall, I would really suggest visiting Zaytinya on your visit to Washington DC. Here are some tips for your next visit to Zaytinya

  • Reserve a table – we decided to walk in but were told that the waiting time for a table was 30 mins. They were however swift enough to give us a table in less than 20 minutes that too on a crowded weekday lunch time.
  • Enjoy patio dining when the weather is pleasant, the food just calls for patio dining 😀
  • Go with a group so you can truly enjoy the Mezze dining experience

 

Hike through Starved Rock State Park

Summer has finally set in at Chicago which means its time to don that hiking gear and get exploring. When I moved here, I set out finding out some cool options where we could go a for a hike and the name which constantly popped up in all my searches along with some amazing photographs was STARVED ROCK STATE PARK. So as soon as the climate warmed up a bit we simply had to go hiking there. Located in Utica IL, Starved Rock State  park is a  stunning stretch of land complete with natural canyons and waterfalls and makes for a great Day out Destination.

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A BIT OF HISTORY

Starved Rock State Park was home to the Native Americans in late 1600’s.The name of the park is based on an old legend where two Native American tribes were fighting and the losing side took refuge atop a butte where they eventually starved themselves. Gradually, as the Europeans explored the United States of America, this area was occupied by the French.

In the late 19th Century this park was converted into a vacation resort and it was later acquired by the State of Illinois for a state park. This park has been subject to several archaeological studies and has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

THE PARK

Stretched over a massive 2630 acres, this State Park has 18 canyons and is divided into 10 different trails so hikers can explore one canyon at a time. During Spring and Summer, you can also find waterfalls in 14 of these 18 canyons.  The best time for waterfalls is after heavy rains and in early spring when the snow is melting. But even if you don’t get to view the waterfalls, the Park itself is gorgeous, the hikes are fun and its a wonderland for photographers. We visited it in Summer, but we are also looking forward to visit this place again in Fall for the Fall colors. Also if you love hiking in winters then a visit here to watch the frozen waterfalls is a must.

PLANNING THE HIKE

Hiking across the entire park will take seasoned hikers an entire day and if you want to leisurely explore it will take you at least 2 days. Entry to the park is free and they even welcome pets. I would suggest that you reach the park early and grab a map from their Visitors Center. The also have some great volunteers who would be happy to assist you with the best route to take and with any other suggestions which you may have.

What we did was, we reached the park at about 10:30 am, geared up with lots of water, sandwiches and trail-mix, grabbed a map and started with our hike.

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A copy of the visitors guide plus their map can also be downloaded here.

 

THE HIKE

We started our hike from the highest point of the Park located near the visitors center i.e. the Lovers Leap Overlook. It is just 5 minutes from the visitors center, gives a good start to your hike. You also get a scenic view of the Illinois River, Plum Island and Leopold Island.

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View from the Lovers Leap Outlook

 

Descending from the Lovers Leap Overlook we proceeded to the French Canyon, one of the most photographed canyon in Starved rock. We visited after 2 days of rainfall so we were lucky to catch the waterfalls but that also meant a slightly slippery hike. The French Canyon is definitely worth the visit when you come here. If you are planning a one day hike in Starved Rock it is difficult to cover all the canyons. But French Canyon is something you shouldn’t miss.

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The trail map shows you routes to reach various canyons through the River-Trail and the Interconnecting Bluff Trail. We hiked from the French Canyon through the Pontiac Canyon and Wildcat Canyon on Bluff trail. The trail routes are marked throughout the park, and if you don’t want to get lost, you simply have to stick on the paved hiking routes. Places where it is unsafe to hike are also marked on the trail, so we have to keep a watch for them.

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Sights from the River-trail 

We checked out the Wildcat Canyon from the top and we wanted to hike down for another look at the waterfall but we lost our way and ended up on the River Trail instead 😛 So we decided to move towards LaSalle Canyon, which another long but enjoyable hike on the river trail.

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Top view of the Pontiac Canyon  

The La Salle Canyon is more fun during the waterfall. It was also the most crowded of the canyons we visited. This is a perfect spot to rest and grab a bite (provided you find a good spot to rest..when we visited we couldnt find an empty spot) . IMG_0337.jpg

You can walk under the waterfalls and also dip in the reflecting pool in which the water flows into.

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Under the LaSalle Waterfall

We turned back from this canyon and hiked our way out, because most of the day was over and we were famished 😛 Next time around we do intend to camp out at Starved Rock and complete hiking the entire path.

Till then, here are some tips for the first time hikers –

  • Always carry lots of water with you, it is essential to stay hydrated during the hikes.
  • pack a bag of hiking friendly foods like nuts, energy bars, small sandwiches. Don’t pack elaborate meals as you may have to eat on the go.
  • Wear comfortable hiking gear and sturdy shoes, the climbs and descends get challenging.
  • Carry an extra pair of clothes in your car just in case you want to freshen up after the hike
  • Apply loads of sunscreen
  • Use the map and signs posted along the trail
  • Finally, please do not litter the Parks, like they say at Starved Rock Leave no trace, take only memories and leave only footprints” 

 

 

The Indo-Mediterranean spice story & Kebabs

I was recently looking up some recipes for authentic Mediterranean food and I was surprised to learn that most of the Mediterranean food and Indian food is connected. The spice mixes used are similar, the ingredients used are similar, just the cooking techniques vary a bit to adapt geographically. For example, there is use of olive oil in Mediterranean food (since it amply available in those regions) and the use of ground-nut oil, coconut oil and Ghee is common in Indian food since those ingredients are available in India. 

Mediterranean region includes a variety of cultures each with its distinct cuisines. These include, the Maghrebi, the Egyptian, the Levantine, the Ottoman (Turkish), the Italian, the Provencial, and Spanish culture. Also the geographical impact of Mediterranean Sea and the regions climate makes an impact on the food habits in these region. Similarly Indian cuisine is as diversified as the country itself. Based on the geography of the country, the foods change. India also has a vast coastal stretch which has aided in development of a varied coastal food cuisine in India. Just like in the Mediterranean regions, in India too, it is common to consume salt cured dried fish. These are some of the common dishes between Mediterranean and Indian culture which I have come across –   

  1. The Baigan Bharta in India is similar to the Baba Ghanoush, the Indian version is slightly spicy and nutty with inclusion of green chillies and peanuts. Similarly the Daal in India is very similar to the Mediterranean lentil soup.
  2. The Indian Kebabs and Mediterranean Kebabs are related too. The spices used in marination of these kebabs are similar.
  3. The Lentil soup having its roots in the bible and a common delicacy in the French and Middle Eastern regions is commonly known as Dal in India. (You will find a wide range of Dals too in India) 
  4. The Halva (flour and nut based confectionery sweet) is common both in India and Egypt, Iran and Middle East. 

The spices used in cooking are common too. Indian cooking involves use of Chili powder, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, bay leaf and all spice, so does Mediterranean food. When you read the recipes for Mediterranean and Indian food you realize that although the spices and the ingredients are the same, the cooking method and the quantity in which the spices are used varies. I am still reading up on how this similarity came into existence and am experimenting between a fusion of Mediterranean and Indian tastes and I started with my favorite..Kebabs. 

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Mediterranean kebabs are made using spices such as bay leaf, allspice, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and Indian kebabs are made using the same spices along with garam masala and they are usually marinated in yogurt. Yogurt or Lime works well for tenderizing the meat so I wanted to use one of these. Since I was planning on making a yogurt dip to go with the kebabs, I decided to marinate them with lime. 

I decided to make a mild spice mix of smoked paprika, red chili powder, cinnamon, cardamon (for the Indian blend) along with all spice, salt and pepper. Also Mediterranean spice mixes are blended with olive oil before being applied on the meat and set for marination for around 8-10 hours or even overnight. I also added a bit of lime juice to tenderize the meat and aid the marination and let it rest overnight. 

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The Indo-Mediterranean spice mix

The next day, I grilled the meat at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for around 15 minutes before broiling it for another 5-7 minutes till slightly charred. I served it with home-made whole-wheat flat bread, yogurt sauce, chopped bell peppers and onions. 

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My choice of serving style with flatbread, veggies and a dollop of the yogurt dip

The best part about these kebabs is that they are extremely versatile, require very little oil and you can make them beforehand and grill them in time for your meals. Here are a few variations for these kebabs – 

Kebabs & Rice –  

Serve these with some rice spiced with turmeric & nuts to make a delicious scrumptious meal for the family 

Wraps 

This is my favorite variant. I love to make wraps with these kebabs and stir fried veggies. You can add a bit of home made hummus or yogurt sauce for making it more delicious.

Appetizers – 

Just the grilled kebabs by themselves are delicious enough. Garnish them with onions and serve them with the yogurt dip 

Salad- 

Toss the kebabs with freshly chopped lettuce, spinach and any other greens of your choice, add some onions for the crunch and tomatoes for the tang, top it with lime juice salt and pepper for a great summer time salad!


Ingredients

  • 500 grams boneless chicken thighs (cut into small bite sized pieces) 
  • 1 tbsp red chili powder
  • 1 tbsp all spice mix
  • 1/2 tbsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tbsp cumin powder
  • pinch of cardamon powder
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • juice of one lime
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil 

Instructions 

  • Mix together the spices in a bowl. (You can increase or decrease the quantities for chili powder as per your choice) 
  • Pour in the olive oil and lime juice and whisk till its well blended
  • Pour this marinade over the chicken  and mix to coat it well. Let this rest at least for an hour and preferably for more than 12 hours
  • Heat oven till 450 degree Fahrenheit / 220 degrees Celsius and cook for 15 minutes or cooked through. 
  • Make sure you stir the kebabs at least once while cooking. 
  • You can also fry them on a pan or skewer them and grill them over coals (grilling would make them taste much more better)
  • Serve them in any way you prefer with a dip, in a wrap or with rice 🙂

THE YOGURT DIP

This is a garlic based yogurt dip. Mince around 3 medium cloves of garlic and whisk them with a cup of Greek Yogurt. Add salt to taste and once well blended you can top it off with freshly chopped mint and cilantro

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Drizzle the yogurt dip over some grilled veggies and kebabs