Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nalla Sappaadu has MOVED!

Nalla Sappaadu has moved!

It is now The Real Potato.

Please follow me to my new home at

and update your bookmarks accordingly.

See you over there!

The Real Potato

Thanks, all, for your blog naming suggestions! There were some fabulous ones (No Pappadums came close) but I think I'm going with something from a little further back in my personal history:

The Real Potato.

When we were in high school, my friend Kara had a dream in which she was in a grocery store where all of the food was plastic, except for one real potato. The potato had a sign pointing to it that said "The Real Potato."

For years we've been kicking ideas back and forth about doing something with that name. I think, in addition to being easy to remember and spell, it conveys something about what I'm trying to do with this blog.

I know that it's a little much, sometimes, to be simmering dal for an hour and a half or spending an afternoon kneading dough or breading zucchini, although often I find the process as rewarding as the meal. But what I'm trying to do is to make real food-- Slow Food, if you will-- in the middle of a sea of plastic food.

I work full time, as does Joe, and we live paycheck to paycheck. We're not the sort of foodies you see profiled in the New York Times, sitting in their Upper East Side co-ops arguing over whose olive oil is best. I don't think that's what real food is about. It's about finding things that are fresh and local and authentic, however you choose to define that, and putting love into what you make. It's about getting recipes from your grandmother, and your friends' grandmothers from around the world. It's about paying attention to your food-- how it tastes, where it came from, and what goes into it. It doesn't have to cost a fortune or take forever.

I've eaten plastic food my whole life-- I'm a working-class American. But I don't think that being working class means you have to settle for plastic (or high fructose corn syrup and red #5). And while more and more of our food comes from fewer and fewer sources, food-related problems like food allergies, diabetes, irritable bowel and celiac disease are on the rise. More people are being forced to look beyond processed food-in-a-box and find new ways to eat. That's what this blog is about. I've been looking for better, tastier and less harmful ways to eat for a while now. I'm looking for the Real Potato. I hope you'll come along for the ride.

Monday, July 9, 2007


Name this blog!

I used a gift certificate from work to pick up two food-related books this weekend: The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, and The Indian Grocery Store Demystified by Linda Bladholm. Haven't cooked anything from the Mexican book yet, but it seems, in my limited understanding, like a reasonably comprehensive guide to Mexico City cooking. Should be fun. The Bladholm book...

OK, here's the thing about the Bladholm book. The introductory material is fairly Orientalist.
Here's an example of what I mean:

You pull open the door and a string of brass bells jangle, ushering you into
another land. The heady aromas of cardamom, black pepper, perfumed
incense, and rose-scented sweets fill the air. You are surrounded by
exotic provisions with colorful wrappers and labels. The strains of a
sitar resonate from a far corner. There is the rustle of a saree...
And so on and so forth. This is worthless at best and racist at worst. However, the explanations of various spices, their origins, uses and alternate names, are incredibly useful, as are the sections on cooking instruments and produce that are hard to find in the US. I'll at least stop confusing kalonji with black cumin!

If you're going to be in Philadelphia this weekend (and I am not), the White Dog Foundation is sponsoring a local food event at Yard's Brewery:

Yards Kick Off Event:

All Local Ingredient Cheese Steaks
(Pastured Beef and Veg.) * Hand Crafted Ales * Live Music * Dunk Local Food
Leaders in Dunk Tank

Sunday, July 15th 2:00pm - 6:30pm

2439 Amber Street, Philadelphia, PA. Located in the
Kensington neighborhood of Philly. The brewery entrance is on Martha Street
close to Hagert St.

There will be a dunk tank at the event in which Local Food
Leaders (including Judy Wicks) from Fair Food, Farm to City, Reading Terminal
Market, The Book & The Cook and The Food Trust will be submerged — that is,
provided you can hit the target.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Name This Blog!

Things are picking up around here. You lovely readers are starting to appear, and I'm having a great time writing about food. I've got some big ideas and I want to do some cool things with this blog.


While I love "Nalla Sappaadu," it's maybe not the greatest blog name. Non-Tamil-speaking readers can't remember it, and thanks to the magic of transliteration nobody can spell it. I hate to do it, but I think I need a new name, one that's easy to remember and would make a good domain name. I'll probably migrate to a nicer blogging site at some point too, but I need a name first.

So, dear readers, I need your help: what's a catchy, witty, easily spelled and remembered name for this blog? The winner gets... um... the people's ovation and fame forever! And possibly dinner, if you're anywhere near Philly.

Kheema, moong dal and chapatis

Back to the book! I made three recipes from the Jaffrey cookbook for dinner last night: kheema, a spiced ground beef dish; moong dal, a classic North Indian lentil recipe; and chapatis, a simple bread which I've done a few times before. Jaffrey recommends this combination, and I can see why-- the flavors mingled really well together. Also, they're both simple and good for leftovers, so we're pretty much set for next week's lunches now.

The dal has to simmer for an hour and a half, the kheema has to simmer for an hour, and the chapati dough has to rise for at least 30 minutes, so I made the dishes in that order.

The dal recipe is actually incredibly easy. I've made some fairly complicated dals in my time. When I first went on a gluten-free diet after being misdiagnosed with celiac disease, I was totally broke and didn't know what was safe to eat, and pretty much survived the first month on dal and rice. It's nutritionally fantastic and very versatile, but it can be an intricate pain to make. Not so much this dal. Anyone with a pot, a pan and an hour and a half can pretty much do this one with their eyes closed.

Get yourself some moong dal. The lentils should be split open, dark green on the outside and light yellow on the inside. Put 10 oz. in a pot with two pints of water, and boil. Clean the scum off the top with a strainer. Throw in a few cloves of garlic, some ginger (no need to chop), turmeric, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and chopped cilantro or parsley if you have it (I didn't). Turn down the heat, cover but leave a little vent open, and leave it for an hour and a half, stirring every ten minutes or so. Try to make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. I was sure, initially, that this would run out of moisture, but it didn't. About ten minutes before it's done, throw in one lemon's worth of juice and some salt. Then, right before service, melt ghee in a pan-- about 3 tbsp-- and put in a pinch of asafetida and an equal amount of whole cumin seeds. When the asafetida starts to snap-crackle-pop, pour the whole thing into the dal. Sprinkle with a handful of fried onions and serve immediately, with a lemon wedge on the side.

While that's simmering: kheema. I halved the recipe, because two pounds of ground beef is too much for two people. This has both warm spices and a bit of heat. First, you need to fry some onion half-rings, because both this recipe and the dal are finished with them. Just put them in hot oil and keep stirring until they get nice and brown. You don't want them to burn. Make sure you start taking them out of the pan just before they are done, because these little suckers are slippery and you don't want them burning while you're still struggling to get them out of the pan.

Keep the oil from the onions. Throw in two bay leaves, a cinnamon stick and six cloves. Once the leaves change color, throw in a finely chopped onion, three cloves chopped garlic and a spoonful of chopped ginger (I admit it, I used the emergency ginger jar). Keep those going until things are just barely starting to brown, then add your classic North Indian spice mix-- ground cumin, coriander seeds and turmeric. Mix and fry. Then add a tablespoon of plain yogurt and stir that in very quickly. Give that a minute, then put in one chopped tomato. Fresh would be great, but I was out so I used canned chopped tomato, which actually works beautifully and even gives a slightly more consistent texture. Next time I use fresh, I think I'll run it through the food processor!

Give that a few minutes, then add the meat, chop it all up with your flipper, mix well with the sauce and let it start to brown. Then add your warm spices: mace, nutmeg, cayenne and salt, plus a few ounces of water. Bring to a boil, cover, lower heat, and simmer for an hour, stirring every ten minutes or so. If you are not making chapatis, what you can do at this point is go zone out in front of Law & Order, and get up at every commercial break to go and stir your pots. (I know, it's an awful show, but I'm addicted. You never know what character actor will show up-- Aasif Mandvi was on last night! Aasif-- if you're reading-- call me!) About halfway through the simmering, put the fried onions in (reserving some to top the dal) and stir. That's it.

Now for the chapatis. I was worried about having enough time, so I had Joe do most of the kheema prep while I kneaded chapati dough. I needn't have worried-- I had time to spare, as it turned out. Chapatis are the easiest Indian bread I've tried-- spelt flour and water in about equal parts, knead for 8 minutes, let rise for half an hour. Knead again, divide into 8 balls. Roll each ball into about a 5-6 inch circle, flouring all the while. To cook, put the chapatis, one at a time, on your very hot tava or cast iron pan. Once they solidify and start to get brown, grab with tongs and hold over an open flame until they puff. Brush with a bit of butter, and repeat with the next chapati. These ones came out fluffier than previous chapatis-- we had some excellent puffing action this time.

All this should be served with rice, by the way. We still had some of this rice left over, so we tossed it in the microwave and it went perfectly.

So: rice, kheema, dal with a lemon wedge and fried onions, chapatis, Wild Goose IPA. Both the kheema and dal had a kick to them, more so than a lot of the food I've made from the Jaffrey book so far. Joe and I found our sinuses clearing by the end of the meal, but it wasn't so hot that the flavors were disguised. We were amazed at how well the flavors complemented each other.

I wasn't sure I'd like this dal. When I was growing up, most of the veggies we ate were of the frozen-microwaved variety or the slimy-okra variety, and I didn't like them one bit. My stepbrothers still tease me about the time I gagged over a bowl of peas. It's only recently, under the tutelage of a former-vegetarian husband and Indian vegetable-eating friends, that I've started learning to like my vegetables. (My friend Gagan's mom's okra blew my mind.) But I'm still a bit leery about anything green and savory. So when I was cooking these lentils, and they were very green with lots of brown liquid, and they smelled sort of pea-like, I was worried. But once I added the spiced ghee, I started to relax. And by the time it got to my plate, I was thrilled. The vegetable-ness of the lentils is balanced with the richness of the ghee, the heat from the spices, the tang of the lemon juice and the sweetness of the fried onions. The lemon juice, in particular, really made the flavors from the spices bright and vivid. There's a lot going on in this deceptively simple dish, and I have to say that I am now looking forward to eating this particular vegetable. I hope you're reading this, Mom!

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee

Last week, the New York Times ran a great article on how to make cold-brewed iced coffee. Unfortunately, that article is now for sale at $4.95 as a "TimesSelect" article, and I still haven't convinced myself to subscribe to, so I'm afraid the link won't be much help. But I'm going to tell you how to make this stuff, so screw the Times and its for-profit archive.

The article explains that cold-brewed iced coffee is way better than the usual stuff- it's less bitter, and its flavors are more complex. I'm a big iced coffee fan, but I'd never heard of this before, so I was intrigued. One of Joe's coworkers also swears by cold brewing, so we decided to give it a try.

Iced coffee is usually made in one of two ways:

(a) you brew a pot of coffee, let it cool and pour it over ice; or

(b) you make a few shots of espresso, dilute them with cold water, and pour it over ice.

If you are fortunate, your local coffee shop will have some simple syrup on hand for sweetening-- otherwise, you'll find yourself sucking unmelted sugar crystals through your straw, which is not (everybody say it with me now!) good eats.

Cold brewing, however, is done thusly:

Get yourself a big glass jar-- a Mason jar would be perfect. Fill it with 4 cups water and 3/4 cup of medium-course ground coffee. (We got ours at La Colombe, a well-loved local roaster.) Cover it and let it sit on your kitchen counter overnight (at least 12 hours).

Strain it twice-- use a really fine strainer if you can. The Times recipe recommends "a coffee filter, a fine-mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth." We didn't have any cheesecloth, so we tried a paper coffee filter, but it broke pretty quickly. Joe (who did the actual work on this one) used our fine-mesh strainer, but found that the coffee still had a lot of sediment. Fortunately, I have a very resourceful husband. He took the top from our super-neato coffee maker, which has a very fine mesh filter, and filtered the coffee through it into a thermos.

This makes a coffee concentrate-- you dilute it to drink it, unless you're way more hardcore than we are. The Times recipe calls for a one-to-one ratio of water to concentrate, but we found that a two-to-one ratio of coffee to water was about right.

Joe also made some simple syrup-- great for iced coffee and also for cocktails. This is really easy-- get yourself equal parts sugar and water. Put the water in a pot to boil. While it's heating up, start stirring the sugar into it in small parts until it dissolves. Bring it just to a boil. You'll know it's ready because it'll be cloudy, and then suddenly start to clear up-- that means it's done. Put it in a squeeze bottle and use it for everything.

So: the finished product. Add your water to taste. You can drink this black even if you're not normally into black coffee-- it really isn't bitter. I still prefer mine with half-and-half and simple syrup. The result was a surprisingly flavorful coffee. We both used to think it was sort of silly how people would talk about a coffee as having 'chocolate notes' or some such wine-like descriptors, but now I kind of get it. This is good stuff.

Joe's coworker also recommended making ice cubes with this stuff, so that you can ice your coffee without it getting all diluted at the end.

Another yummy option is to add sweetened condensed milk for what my corner coffee shop (which is wonderful, by the way) calls a Thai iced coffee. They charge four bucks for it there, and this is way, way cheaper in addition to being really delicious.

Milk is $3.50 a gallon and rising-- that's way too expensive AND unrealistically cheap.

A quick tidbit: This article rightly condemns the fact that milk prices are soaring. It argues that this is the case because corn meal (cow feed, in other words) is rising in price due to the diversion of corn to the newly subsidized ethanol industry.

The article is absolutely correct in its argument that ethanol production is in fact not environmentally friendly. However, I would clarify that the overproduction of corn is so high in the US that it's not a matter of shortages; in fact, the push toward ethanol production is profitable because it allows agribusiness to grow the same amount of corn without the downward push on prices that is an inevitable result of overproduction. We produce too much corn; massive agribusiness producers receive huge subsidies from the federal government (subsidies originally intended to protect small farmers from the vagaries of the market); prices have to be kept artificially high in order to protect profits. Producers have for decades dumped billions of tons of grain (mostly wheat and corn) into the ocean in order to keep prices high-- an unforgivable crime in a world in which people still starve to death. But shipping free grain to, say, the Sudan wouldn't inflate prices; creating a new fuel industry that puts the grain glut to use does.

Furthermore, the article is right that ethanol production doesn't do a damn thing about global warming. Its carbon emissions are slightly lower than those of gasoline, but such massive quantities of fossil fuels are used in the production of the corn that the net lessening of emissions is negligible. (Agriculture produces more carbon emissions than any other US industry.) The only claim to 'sustainability' ethanol has is that it is a renewable energy source, unlike oil.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's eye-opening tour through food production in the US, Pollan demolishes these claims-- and points out that the milk we drink, like other industrial food, is artificially cheap. Paying a dollar for a gallon of milk-- or even $3.50-- doesn't reflect the true cost to our health, our economy and the environment involved in the production of that milk.

So the next time you see a slick ad for BP or Shell telling you how very environmentally responsible and kind-hearted and lovable energy companies are-- don't buy it. And consider getting your milk from your local farmstand, where the cows might just eat grass, like their bodies are built to do. It'll be better for you, and the way prices are going this summer, it might just be cheaper.