Jackfruit Curry / Palakai Kari

(30 minutes, serves 6)

Young jackfruit has a texture similar to meat, though softer; it’s more delicate, as is the flavor. It’s easy to find online in cans, packed in brine; it’s also often available at grocery stores, especially ones that cater to vegetarians. This savory curry sauce is identical to what I’d use for beef, but gives a notably different (and delicious) result when cooked with jackfruit instead. I’d serve this with rice, a green vegetable, and chutneys, pickles, and/or sambols.

2 medium onions, chopped fine
1 TBL ginger, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, chopped fine
3 TBL vegetable oil
1/4 tsp black mustard seed
1/4 tsp cumin seed
1 TBL red chili powder
1 tsp Sri Lankan curry powder
1 lb young jackfruit, cut into bite-size pieces
1/3 cup ketchup
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1 tsp salt
2 TBL lime juice
1 cup coconut milk + 1 cup water

1. In a large pot, sauté onions, ginger, and garlic in oil on medium-high with mustard seed and cumin seeds until onions are golden/translucent (not brown), stirring as needed. Add chili powder and cook 1 minute, stirring. Immediately stir in curry powder, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and lime juice.

2. Add jackfruit and stir on high for a few minutes. Add coconut milk and water, stirring gently to combine. Turn down to medium, and let cook 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally; add water if needed. Serve hot with rice or bread.

Paneer

I had this sudden brainstorm that I wanted to make Kevin a spinach curry and lamb curry pizza for Valentine’s Day (see next post), and I really did want paneer on it, but I also didn’t have any paneer on hand — not fresh, not in the freezer. Very sad. On the other hand, I had a quart of whole milk, a lemon, cheesecloth, and 30 minutes to spare.

So before long — paneer! Way better than store-bought too, delicate and lovely, reminiscent of burrata in texture and flavor (not quite as rich, though, since there’s no cream), and so easy. I should make paneer more often.

Recipe courtesy The Kitchn: https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-paneer-cheese-in-30-minutes-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-57008

Sri Lankan Spinach Curry

Sri Lankan Spinach Curry

A friend asked me for a good spinach curry recipe, and I had to admit that I’ve never managed one I was happy with, so I tried working on it this weekend. I love saag / palak in restaurants, but my earlier attempts came out sort of watery and lacking in flavor; they just made me sad.

So I spent a while looking up recipes, and it seemed like most of the ones I found which might approximate restaurant saag used chopped spinach and went heavy on the cream. Which, okay, cream makes things delicious. But I was hoping to do a vegan version, and also one that was a little bit lighter and healthier, with some good fresh spinach brightness.

The key to that, I think, is the onions. And I know you’ve heard me go on about onions before, and their importance to Sri Lankan cuisine, but seriously, the amount of flavor you get out of a properly cooked onion is hard to beat.

For this, I chopped a mix of red onion and shallot — you could do either separately; I just happened to have both on hand. Yellow or white onions would also be fine, but the red onion and shallots gave a sweetness and delicacy that I thought worked particularly well with the fresh spinach. (And of course, they were awfully pretty contrasting with the curry leaves and green chili as I cooked!)

After that, it was a fairly standard base approach — sauté in oil or ghee with cumin seed and mustard seed (I call for traditional black mustard seed in my recipes, but brown is really fine; I’d avoid yellow, though, as it changes the flavor noticeably) until golden. Keeping heat on medium or even medium-low will reduce the risk of burning if you’ve stepped away to chop something; it’ll take a little longer, but the onions also caramelize beautifully this way, so if you can afford the time, I’d do that.

Add garlic after a bit (if you put it in with the onions initially, it’s susceptible to burning), curry leaves if you have them (there are no good substitutes, so just skip if not), and chopped green chili. (I didn’t have fresh ginger on hand, but if I did, I would have added some with the onions. Since I didn’t, I added a t. of ground ginger later in the dish, with the turmeric and salt.)

This basic approach is what I’d recommend for most of our vegetable curries, and indeed, for curries in general.

I’ve found over the past few years of talking to folks about their cooking habits that a lot of people skip the onions in a dish, or reduce the amount dramatically, not realizing that they’re the base of the flavor. That applies to Italian spaghetti sauce as much as to Sri Lankan curry.

I know chopping onions is a bit of a pain, but it can’t be beat for depth of flavor. There’s a reason why cooking school makes aspiring chefs start with chopping mounds and mounds and mounds of onions. 

*****

So once you have the seasoned onions cooked down nicely (see previous post), the next step is to add some more spices — turmeric and salt are really all you need at this point. And then you could use chopped frozen spinach, but if you have fresh baby spinach, it’s lovely — I dumped two bags in here.

You basically can’t stir them at this point without lots of spinach falling out of your pan (I tried), but if you’re just patient and let it be, within a few minutes the spinach will have reduced enough to stir into the onions for a few more minutes.

You could stop the recipe at this point if you’re aiming for super-healthy low-calorie greens, and it would be tasty! But I definitely wanted a sauce, and anyway, coconut makes things better. So I added 1 cup (half a can) of coconut milk and stirred that in too.

You’re almost done at this point — the last step, always, is to check the seasonings. I’ve been surprised to learn, over the last few years of working on the cookbook, how many people are intimidated by phrases like ‘salt to taste.’

As a very rough estimate, most ‘feed 4-6 people’ dishes I use call for a teaspoon of salt for the pot, so if you’re really not sure, I’d go with something like that.

(Better to undersalt than over, so if you’re not sure, start with 1/2 a teaspoon — you can always add more, but you can’t take salt out of the curry!

If you DO oversalt, that’s tricky to fix — if it’s a dish where you can add potatoes, I’d do that (you can cut them up and cook them in the microwave separately, or boil them, so that you’re adding cooked potatoes to the dish, rather than raw potatoes which will make the whole dish cook for an extra 20-30 minutes, dulling the overall flavors.

Alternately, make a second batch of the dish, without salt. Combine them, so the salt flavors the whole thing more evenly. And if you have too much for your needs, then freeze some. That’s a lot of work, though, and requires you to have enough ingredients on hand to do this. Or you can freeze the over-salted batch to fix on another day, labelling appropriately. Yes, I’ve done this. Have I mentioned that I *hate* wasting food?)

I always take a little bit of sauce at the end, dab it on the back of my left hand, and lick it up to taste. Sometimes it’s perfect; sometimes it wants a little more salt. For this one, I added another 1/2 t. of salt, and then a T of fresh-squeezed lime juice. (Bottled is fine if you don’t have fresh on hand.)

Be a little careful adding lemon or lime if you’re using cream instead of coconut milk — when acid hits hot dairy, it tends to curdle. You’ll make cheese, which is another post altogether. So stir in the cream or coconut milk, let it cook and blend with the other ingredients for a few minutes, make sure your heat is at medium and not boiling over, and THEN add the lime juice.

The result will be glorious.  Enjoy with rice and curry, or as we did this weekend, spread on naan and toasted as delicious flatbread / pizza.

Will post actual recipe in next post, with measurements.

Part 3

Sri Lankan Spinach Curry
(30 minutes, serves 4; gluten-free, vegan)

(This is the actual recipe — see previous two posts for Cook’s Illustrated-style explication of recipe development + paean to onions.)

2 medium onions (preferably red), chopped fine
2 T oil or ghee
1 t. black mustard seed
1 t. cumin seed
1 T ginger, chopped
1 dozen curry leaves
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 t. salt
1/2 t. turmeric
22 ounces baby spinach (2 bags)
1 c. coconut milk
1 T lime juice

1. Sauté onions in oil or ghee over medium heat. Add mustard seed, cumin seed, ginger, and curry leaves.

2. After a few minutes, add chopped garlic, salt, and turmeric, and continue cooking until golden-translucent, stirring as needed, about 15 minutes total.

3. Add spinach to pan (in two batches if necessary, depending on size of pan), let cook down for a few minutes. When reduced, stir into onions and cook for a few more minutes.

4. Add coconut milk and stir; add lime juice and stir. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. Serve hot with rice or roti.

*****

I could photograph this spinach curry ALL DAY.

(And hey, ten years in, my zinc island countertop really has weathered and patinated the way I’d hoped. Makes me so happy. (It’s not heat-proof, though, so use with care.))

(Sri Lankan spinach curry recipe in previous post.)

Quick question primarily for vegetarians/vegans

Quick question (primarily for vegetarians / vegans).

Some of you may remember that I did two little mini cookbooks before Feast, The Marshmallows of Serendib and Vegan Serendib. I thought to keep the price point low on those e-books, so they’re more samplers — marshmallows is just 13 recipes, and vegan is 41 recipes. The vegan one is priced at $5.99 currently. (Marshmallows is $2.99).

I was thinking about it more, and I keep feeling like heck, at least half of Feast is already vegan (as is much Sri Lankan cuisine by nature, esp. since we use coconut milk instead of cow milk). Maybe I should just do another edition of that book, and put ALL the vegan recipes from Feast in there?

I’d already been thinking about doing this for a while, and then last night I just read an article about the vegan race wars in Nosrat’s Best American Food Writing 2019: “The Vegan Race Wars: How the Mainstream Ignores Vegans of Color” (Khusbhu Shah). (Recommended, fairly short: https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/vegan-race-wars-white-veganism) Which emphasized to me that it’d be good to have more visible representation in America of vegan cuisine from other parts of the world.

But if I do put ALL the vegan recipes from Feast in this vegan e-book, it does undercut the main book sales. (As a reminder, I have 2000 hardcover print copies sitting in a warehouse right now. Eep.) To avoid that, I should probably raise the price to something closer to the ebook price for Feast? (Mascot Books — I don’t see a pre-order page for Feast ebook on Amazon — am I missing it? Jed, do you know?)

WHAT’S THE ACTUAL QUESTION, MARY ANNE?

I guess this is a question mostly for vegans (I’m not sure whom I know who is vegan, aside from Swati?) and maybe vegetarians:

Would you be interested in buying a 100+ recipe vegan version of Feast of Serendib, at something like $9.99 for the ebook? With a possible print edition to follow eventually, if there’s interest and I have time? (Really, more if Stephanie Bailey and Heather Rainwater Campbell have time, as I suspect much of the production work would fall to them.)

Or should I just stop thinking about this and just leave the little vegan sampler up there as is? (We’re going to have our Feast cover designer Jeremy John Parker change the cover regardless, to make it look more like the Feast cover and less like something I hacked together on Canva, so I have to upload a new edition anyway, which is another part of why I’m thinking about all this.)

Small version already up:  https://smile.amazon.com/Vegan-Serendib-Small-Lankan-Cookbook-ebook/dp/B07GRDVTX3

 

Cashew-Mushroom Cornbread Stuffing, Sri Lankan-Inflected

People often get intimidated by recipes with lots of ingredients and steps, which is understandable, but many of them aren’t actually complicated or hard — it’s just a sequence of very simple things, like what you’d do to make this cashew-mushroom cornbread stuffing.

One of my favorite TV cooking episodes is the one where Alton Brown teaches Waldorf salad, because he starts with a basic Waldorf (apples, mayo, and lettuce), and then starts adding other ingredients (toasted walnuts, celery, mint, red onion), making it better and better with each step. That’s basically the same approach I use with this stuffing, and with a lot of my recipes — layering in simple ingredients, one after another, building to a complex, nuanced final dish.

When composing this particular recipe, I was thinking of Karina, my vegetarian ex-girlfriend from Australia. She really did not love American Thanksgiving, with the whole turkey thing. As I’m writing this, tender-hearted Anand is having a conversation in the kitchen with Kavi and Kevin about reducing his meat consumption — he’s not ready to go vegetarian yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did in the future.

It was tough eating out with Karina in Philly in the 1990s when we were dating — so many places just offered rather boring vegetarian dishes. Basic pasta. Basic salad. So for this stuffing, I wanted to be sure to compose something with exciting flavors, but also exciting colors. Not just green, not just brown. A delight on the plate!

I start with onions (a mix of red and white) sautéed with Sri Lankan spicing, plenty of colorful bell pepper, ginger & garlic (I used a spoon of jarred today, because I’m a bit tired, but chopping fresh would be even better), green chili for heat, color, and flavor, nutty-sweet cashews, mushrooms and our Sri Lankan toasted curry powder, tomatoes and lime juice for balancing tang — and now you have a beautiful, hearty curry. You could just serve it as is, perhaps with rice or naan, or with a dollop of yogurt or coconut milk stirred in. Taste seasonings, add salt / pepper as desired.

But we’re going for stuffing! So add liquid — water or vegetable broth or even chicken broth if you’re not actually cooking for vegetarians, and bring that to a boil. This is a good point to taste again, see if you like it. The cornbread’s going to add a lot of sweetness, and while this is a sweet stuffing overall, you might want a bit more salt / pepper / tang to balance. When you’re happy with it, add the cornbread, turn off the heat and mix it in — you’re done.

It’s really very simple, even though there are lots of ingredients and lots of steps! For our Thanksgiving, this is going to complement a salty ham beautifully — for a vegetarian Thanksgiving (or any dinner party), I might recommend slicing, salting, and grilling some nice thick slices of eggplant, and topping that with this stuffing.

You could even get super fancy, and make a beautiful stack: rounds of grilled salty eggplant and zucchini, alternating with this stuffing, drizzled with a yogurt-lime dressing. Maybe even served on a bed of kale mallung? Mmm….

*****

Cashew-Mushroom Cornbread Stuffing, Sri Lankan-Inflected
(30 minutes, serves 8-12)

1/4 c. vegetable oil or ghee
1 red onion and 2 yellow onions, chopped
1.5 bell peppers, chopped
1 T ginger and 3 cloves garlic, chopped, or 2 T ginger-garlic paste
3 green chilies, chopped
1 c. roasted cashews, chopped (salted is fine)
8 oz. mushrooms, quartered
1 t. salt
1 t. Sri Lankan curry powder
1 t. black pepper
1 tomato, chopped
1 T lime juice
2 c. water, vegetable broth, or chicken broth
3 c. cornbread stuffing

1. In a large sauté pan, sauté onions in oil on medium-high until golden-translucent, stirring as needed.

2. Add bell pepper, ginger, garlic and stir to combine. Add green chilies and stir. Add cashews and stir. Add mushrooms and stir. If sticking, feel free to add a little more oil, or a T or two of butter.

3. Add salt, curry powder, pepper and stir until well blended. Cook 5-10 minutes or so, stirring as needed, until mushrooms are reduced and browned nicely; adjust seasonings to taste. (You can stop and serve at this point, as a curry.)

4. Add tomato, lime juice, and water or broth. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Taste seasonings and adjust as desired; it should be on the slightly salty / tangy / peppery side at this point.

4. Crumble in corn bread and gently combine. Turn off heat, and when it’s well-blended, either serve immediately, or transfer into a baking dish for storage in the fridge.

NOTE: May be baked to bring back up to serving temperature — 30 minutes @ 350, covered, then remove cover and bake 15 minutes more.

Redbud & Cucumber Tea Sandwiches

Fairy food! I had a redbud for a few years, but I didn’t realize the flowers were edible. Once someone told me they were, I had to try experimenting. (We’ve kept our garden pesticide-free for ten years now, which makes it much easier to eat out of it!)

To be honest, I find that the flowers, like most, have almost no flavor — if I eat them on their own, I can taste a very faint sweetness, slightly nutty. But put them in a cucumber sandwich, and you have a teatime treat to brighten any fairy’s heart!

My daughter was a little suspicious — ‘flowers aren’t for eating!’ But I convinced her to try, and she admitted that the cucumber sandwiches were quite yummy. Of course, I think she mostly likes the butter…

Beet Curry

Heather and I spent much of the weekend assigning photos to recipes for Feast — only to find that I somehow didn’t actually have a photo of the beet curry. So I made it again today and photographed it. Guess I know what’s for dinner tonight…

*****

Sri Lankan Beet Curry
(30 minutes, serves 4)

This dish has a lovely sweet flavor with just a hint of spice—beets have a higher sugar content than any other vegetable, and sugar is sometimes made from beets.

3 medium onions, chopped fine
3 TBL vegetable oil
1/4 tsp black mustard seed
1/4 tsp cumin seed
4 large beets (about one lb), peeled, cut in thick matchsticks
1-2 rounded tsp salt
1 rounded tsp turmeric
2-3 tsp lime juice
1-3 chopped green chilies
two dozen curry leaves (optional)
2 cups coconut milk

1. Sauté onions in oil on high with mustard seed and cumin seeds until onions are golden/translucent (not brown). Add beets, salt, turmeric, lime juice, chilies, and curry leaves.

2. Lower heat to medium and add coconut milk. Cover and cook, stirring frequently, until beets are cooked through, about 20 minutes.

3. Remove cover and simmer, stirring, until well blended. Serve hot.

Instant Pot Sri Lankan Red Lentils (Masoor Dal)

  Okay, so this was my first instant pot experiment, and I definitely went wrong in a few ways. For one, red lentils are delicate and don’t actually take that long to cook, so it doesn’t really make sense to make them in a pressure cooker — the stovetop works fine. All the lentil recipes I looked at warned against red lentils for the pressure cooker!

But I love them, and they’re what I normally cook if I’m making a Sri Lankan lentil dish — I’m pretty sure that’s common throughout the country. Also, I’m nothing if not stubborn. So I figured what the heck, let’s try.

And so I cobbled together a recipe from suggestions here and there, using my own regular Sri Lankan red lentil recipe as the base, and set it going. Only to hear a beep and see the ‘burning’ alarm! OH NO.

(I admit to a brief moment of panic there, that I had perhaps just broken my new expensive device!)

But it turned out to be basically fine — when my instant pot thinks it doesn’t have enough water, and things have started sticking to the bottom, it turns itself off (and tells you it’s burning). So I opened it up, took the lentils out, and there was a little stuck to the bottom, yes, but I’d say more caramelized than burnt; I didn’t feel like it hurt the flavors at all. (A bit of a nuisance to clean, but not bad. Soaking took care of it.)

The lentils overall were quite porridge-like in consistency, but that’s actually how I usually cook them on the stovetop anyway; I like them better that way than the more soup-y preparation that is common. But I’m pretty sure that if you just added 1-2 c. of water, you’d get that version, and without the ‘burning’ warning!

I’ll try that next time, just to know for certain, but here’s the ‘burning’ porridge version, for your amusement. I served it to guests, and they said it was delicous!

2-3 T oil or ghee

2 medium onions
1 stick of cinnamon
3 strips of lemon rind (about a quarter lemon)
dozen curry leaves
2 c. red lentils
1 can coconut milk + 2 can water
1 dried red chili, broken into pieces
1 pinch saffron
1 t. salt

1. Dice two medium onions and put in Instapot with oil, cinnamon stick, lemon rind, and curry leaves. Sauté 2 minutes, stirring. Hit cancel to stop the sauté function.

2. Add lentils, coconut milk, chili, and saffron to pot (should not be more than 1/2 up the pot interior).

3. Seal the lid, then set to cook on HIGH pressure for 10 minutes. (It will take about 8 minutes for the pressure to build, then the timer will begin.) [note –I’m not actually sure where in here it turned itself off, but close to 10 minutes, I think]

4. Once the timer has stopped, let the pressure release naturally for 15 minutes, then vent to release the pressure completely.

5. Open the lid, taste, and adjust seasoning as desired. Serve hot with rice, garnished with cilantro.

Pongee

Happy Pongal! Pongal is a four-day-long harvest festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka (this year it’s Tues Jan 15 – Fri Jan 18) — when crops like rice are harvested. Yes, it’s a little goofy celebrating it in Chicago in midwinter, but any excuse to celebrate, right?

I haven’t made pongal (rice & lentil porridge) before, but I think it came out pretty well. A quick, simple, one-pot dish, packed with protein, that would be even better accompanied by a nice curry –– eggplant, perhaps? Coconut chutney and sambar are traditional accompaniments.

Pongal
20 minutes, serves 4

1 c. rice
1 c. moong dal
4 c. water
1/2 t. salt

2 T butter or ghee
1/2 c. cashews
1/2 c. sultanas
1 t. cumin seeds
8-12 fresh curry leaves
1-2 green chilies, chopped, optional

1. Add rice, dal, water, and salt to a pot. Bring to a boil, cover, and let simmer 15-20 minutes, until cooked.

2. While rice is cooking, heat butter or ghee, sauté cashews, stirring, until golden. Add cumin seeds, sultanas, curry leaves, and green chili if using, stirring for a few more minutes. Mix into cooked rice & lentils and serve hot.

Other standard ingredients: chopped ginger, pinch of asafoetida, turmeric, black peppercorns (whole or crushed).

 

Sweet & Spicy Brussels Sprouts with Pomegranate Seeds

People ask a lot how I do all this stuff, so I must periodically make clear that my life wouldn’t function if Kevin couldn’t feed himself and the kids as needed. Sometimes he’s cooking from scratch, and making well-balanced meals or fresh-baked bread; sometimes he’s throwing some frozen peas on the plate and calling it a day. That’s parenting for both of us around here. But I can go out of the country for a week, or spend all weekend at holiday fairs, and I know that as long as Kev’s not cross-scheduled (we do have to be a little careful about that), he’ll get the family fed. It’s not nothing.
 
I don’t know what the rest of the family ate for dinner tonight; I was still out. Kev would’ve made me dinner too if I’d said I’d be home in time. This picture is actually what I made myself for dinner tonight. With all the running around, I’d been eating poorly for a few days, grabbing mostly starch things because that’s what was easily accessible. Also too many sweets — it’s hard not to nibble truffles and marshmallows and rich cake when you’re making them!
 
So I came home from the sale today, flopped in a chair for an hour….and then got up, trimmed some brussels sprouts, tossed them with olive oil, salt, pepper, chili powder, honey, and apple cider vinegar, then roasted them at 375 for 25 minutes. Sprinkle with some fresh pomegranate seeds and a few more grinds of salt if needed, and you are good to go! It was nice to cook something not on a deadline and just because I felt like eating it. 🙂
 
Kevin loves brussels sprouts, so it’ll be nice for him too. Which is the only reason I didn’t eat all of them with a fork out of the roasting pan, standing right at the kitchen counter. Mmmm….