“Mise en Place” (to put in place)

Mise en Place3

The idea of sharing my cooking routine with you in today’s blog post came to me when my friend asked me the question, “Maggie, how do you cook?”

“Mise en place” is a French culinary term which means “to put in place.” I am sure you have eaten at a restaurant where you could watch the chefs at work through a large glass window. You could not have missed seeing all the little containers with herbs and spices, and bottles of sauces close to their work stations. Well, that’s “mise en place” in action. I think that is the most important lesson I learned from watching chefs at work and also watching cooking shows on TV.

Planning and reading a recipe completely is key. There have been a number of times I’ve gone down to the kitchen to bake a cake only to realize that the butter and eggs needed to be at room temperature. Yes, I’ve tried to cheat, but using the microwave to soften the butter and placing the eggs in a warm bath produced a less than perfect cake. There have also been a number of times when I started cooking and found I had an ingredient missing. So, here is how “mise en place” works for me.

1. If I’m using a recipe from a cookbook, blog, or magazine, I read the recipe more than once. Skimming leads to buying wrong ingredients like filo dough instead of puff pastry dough! I keep my recipes, cookbook, or iPad in a well-lit spot, away from my prep area.

2. The process always begins with a clean kitchen.

3. All the dry ingredients like spices, herbs, turmeric, cumin, salt etc. are measured and organized in the order that I’ll need them. If the spices go into the dish I am preparing all at the same time, I put them together on a plate. Cooking utensils are picked and ready for use.

4. I put things back in their place as soon as I finish using them. Spice bottles go back on the shelf as soon as I’ve measured the amount that I need, yoghurt goes back in the fridge, sugar back in the pantry, etc.

5. Next, I do the prep work for fresh herbs and vegetables – chopping, mincing, grating, grinding, blending, etc. Measured ingredients are put into bowls. I keep a small garbage bowl or a plastic bag on my counter to collect scraps for disposal. It makes for an easy clean up.

If I’m baking, I make sure that ingredients that need to be at room temperature are taken out, the oven is preheated, and baking pans are ready.

When I’m cooking Indian food for a large number of guests, I schedule a prep day to get a head start. I make the ginger and garlic paste, clean and wash my cilantro, mint, green chillies, chop my vegetables, cut and marinate meat, fry the paneer, and cook the lentils.

6. I clean up as I go, or if I have some slack time in between cooking. A messy kitchen can be frustrating, so cleaning as you go makes the experience more pleasant.

7. I cook dishes that take the longest first. Then I work  my way down to the easier dishes and those that take the least amount of time to prepare.

8. I have my serving dishes ready.

It is true that many home cooks, like our mothers, didn’t use measuring cups and spoons and had the ability to simply start a recipe and everything just fell into place. Some people just have that talent! For the rest of us, “mise en place” has many benefits. For me, it has made my cooking process quicker, smoother, more enjoyable, and less stressful. Even while writing this piece I had to organize my thoughts like I do ingredients in a recipe. It was like putting “mise en place” in the form of an outline. So, whether you are stepping into the world of cooking for the first time or whether you are an aspiring Food Network Star here’s the secret ingredient to inevitable success –  “mise en place!”

Malaysian Chicken Curry – Nyonya Chicken Curry

Malaysian Chicken Curry4

Nyonya chicken curry is one of my all time favorite dishes. I love it and it is worth hunting for all the ingredients that go into making it. Some time ago, I shared my beef rendang recipe, another one of my favorite Malaysian dishes. The next item that I will share with you, from my list of favorite Malaysian recipes, is roti canai.

Nyonya cuisine is a blend of Chinese ingredients with spices and cooking techniques used by the Malay/Indonesian community. They call their wet spice paste rempah. The cooking skill of a new daughter-in-law is judged by listening to her preparing rempah with a mortar and pestle. I definitely wouldn’t qualify as a good cook, because I used a blender to make my rempah!

When I first started experimenting with other world cuisines, many of the herbs, spices and techniques were unfamiliar to me. Some of the ingredients mentioned in this recipe may not normally be on your kitchen shelf or in your refrigerator. But with all the specialty markets springing up these days, it was easy for me to find all these ingredients. Challenge yourself and try cooking this dish. I am sure you, your family, and your friends will be delighted with the results.

Malaysian Chicken Curry – Nyonya chicken curry
Prep time: 30 minutes, (includes time for soaking chillies)
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Serves: 6-8

½ cup peanut oil
1 star anise
3 cloves
3-inch piece cinnamon, (broken in half)
2 sprigs of curry leaves
3 lbs chicken, (cut into small pieces)
10 baby potatoes, (peeled, halved and parboiled)
2 Thai red chillies, (slit in half)
2 14 fl oz (400 ml) cans of coconut milk
1 kaffir lime leaf
2 teaspoons sugar

For the wet spice paste (Rempah):
4 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
20 dried red chillies, (broken in half, seeded, and soaked in boiling water)
1 teaspoon fish sauce, (or one piece belacan, broken into bits)
3 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh turmeric root
3 tablespoons finely chopped galangal
3 tablespoons finely chopped lemon grass
2 tablespoons sliced garlic
2 cups roughly chopped shallots or red onions
½ cup water, (or use the water that you soaked the red chillies in)

To make the wet spice paste, break the red chillies in half, remove the seeds, and soak them in boiling water for 20 minutes. Drain and save the water to use to grind the paste.

Next, roast the coriander, cumin, and fennel seeds in a small non-stick pan over medium-low heat for five minutes or until they smell fragrant. Cool completely.

Drain the soaked red chillies and put them into a blender. Add the roasted spices, fish sauce or belacan, turmeric root, galangal, garlic, shallots and half a cup of the water that you soaked the red chillies in.  If you forgot to save it just use water. Blend to a smooth puree.

Place a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add oil and when it shimmers, add the wet spice paste, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and curry leaves and sauté for 10 minutes or until you see the paste thicken, darken in color, and the oil separating from the mixture.

Add the chicken, stir until the paste coats each piece. Add potatoes, chillies, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaf, salt, and sugar. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes or until the chicken and potatoes are cooked. Roti canai is the perfect accompaniment to this Malaysian chicken curry.

Paneer Makhani

Paneer Makhani5
Have you ever been to a restaurant and eaten a dish that you really liked and you wanted to make that dish at home? Well, this is one of those dishes that I really enjoyed in a restaurant in India and wanted to replicate at home. With every bite that I took, I tried desperately to detect what went into it. I also tried many recipes from cookbooks and finally came up with this version of paneer makhani which I felt matched what I tasted at the restaurant.

I recently made this dish for a potluck with my friends and was pleased when they asked me to post the recipe on my blog. The restaurant version had a lot of makhan (butter) floating in it, but I didn’t use as much as they did. Of course, adding an extra pat of makhan just before finishing the dish makes it richer and yummier. But I’ll let you be the judge of whether that is necessary or not when you taste my version.

There is a bit of prep work that goes into making this dish. The paneer needs to be cut into cubes, lightly fried and soaked in hot water. The onions need to be boiled and puréed. The tomatoes need to be blanched, the skin discarded, and then puréed. The ginger-garlic paste can be bought from an Indian grocery store or you can make it at home. I’ve described how to do that in the directions. Cashew nuts need to be soaked in hot water for 30 minutes and then puréed in a blender. Once all the prep work is done and you have all the other ingredients measured and ready to be used, it is easy to put the paneer makhani together. Please note that I made this dish for a large group so it is a larger quantity than I usually make. I hope you will enjoy this dish as much as I do. Happy cooking!

Paneer Makhani
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Serves: 10

3 cups water
2 14 ounce (400 grams) packets of paneer, cut into cubes
2 tablespoons oil
2 large onions, (quartered, boiled, drained and puréed – 2 cups onion purée)
4 large tomatoes, (blanched, peeled, and puréed – 3 cups tomato purée)
5 tablespoons butter, plus 2 teaspoons oil
2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
2 teaspoons Kashmiri chilli powder
1 teaspoon hot red chilli powder
2 teaspoons coriander powder
2 teaspoons cumin powder
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
3 teaspoons garam masala powder
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/8 teaspoon red food color, (optional)
2 teaspoons kasoori methi, (dry fenugreek leaves)
20 cashew nuts, (soaked in water for 30 minutes and puréed)
¼ cup whipping cream
2 cubes grated fresh paneer, for garnishing

In a medium-sized saucepan, bring three cups of water to a boil, over high heat. Once it comes to a boil, turn the heat off, and set it aside. You will use this to soak the fried paneer.

Set two cubes of paneer aside to be used for garnishing this dish. Fry the paneer cubes in two batches. Add one tablespoon of oil to a non-stick frying pan and place over medium-high heat. Swirl the oil so that it coats the bottom and sides of the pan. Add half the paneer cubes and fry until very lightly colored. Remove and put them into the hot water that you set aside for this purpose. Add another tablespoon of oil to the frying pan and fry the rest of paneer cubes until light brown. Remove and put them also into the hot water. Let the paneer soak until you need to add them to the gravy, and continue with the rest of the prep work.

Cut the onions into quarters, boil them in one cup of water until they turn translucent, drain and save the water as you will use some of it in the gravy. Cool the onion and purée. You should have two cups of onion purée. Set aside. Next blanch the tomatoes in hot water, drain, cool, remove the skin, and purée the tomatoes. You should have three cups of tomato purée. Set aside. If you are making the ginger-garlic paste yourself, clean and chop a two-inch piece of ginger and eight cloves of garlic. Add them to a blender along with one tablespoon of water. Blend until a paste is formed. Set aside. Soak cashew nuts in hot water for 30 minutes and then purée in a blender until smooth. Set aside until you are ready to use it in the paneer makhani.

Heat a large heavy bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add two teaspoons oil and the butter. The oil is being added so that the butter does not burn easily. When the butter melts add the ginger-garlic paste. Fry for three minutes or until the raw smell of ginger-garlic disappears. Add puréed onion. Sauté for eight minutes. Make sure that it does not burn or catch to the bottom of the dish. Turn the heat to medium-low if needs be.

Next, add Kashmiri chilli powder, hot chilli powder, coriander powder, cumin powder, turmeric powder, garam masala powder, and salt. Sauté for a minute and add quarter cup of the water in which the onion was boiled (if you remembered to save it or you can just add water). Sauté again till the water evaporates. Add tomato purée, tomato paste and food color. If you are using powdered food color, first dissolve it in a few drops of water and then add it. Stir, cover with a lid, and cook on medium-low heat for 15 minutes.

Add the cashew paste and crushed kasoori methi. Stir well, cover and cook for another five minutes. Use a slotted spoon to drain the paneer that is soaking in hot water and add them. You don’t need to squeeze the water out of the paneer pieces. Add whipped cream. Stir gently so paneer pieces are coated with the creamy gravy and cook on low heat for five minutes. Dish out into a serving bowl. Grate the two cubes of fresh paneer, that you saved to garnish the dish, and sprinkle on top. There you have it, a restaurant style Paneer Makhani.

Lemon Rice

Lemon RiceNew3

If you like the tart, citrusy note of lemon, I am sure you will like the lemon rice recipe that I am sharing with you today. It is a simple South Indian rice dish that can be made in a jiffy. I remember my mom making lemon rice whenever we went on our long train journey from Pune to Kerala to visit my grandparents. We could hardly wait for mealtime and lemon rice never tasted better. It keeps well and doesn’t spoil so its great for picnics and packing in your child’s lunchbox.

This recipe is also great when you have leftover rice. I’ve used Basmati rice, but you can use any short-grain or long-grain white rice to make it. Sesame oil, green and red chillies, black gram dal and bengal gram dal add flavor to this dish so make sure that you use them. I had to use six tablespoons of lemon juice because my lemon was not tangy enough. So, taste and adjust the amount of lemon juice that you use. Try this dish and let me know how it turns out.

Lemon Rice
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Serves: 2-3

2 tablespoons sesame oil
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoons Bengal gram dal, (channa dal)
1 teaspoon black gram dal, (urad dal)
3 tablespoons raw peanuts
3 dry red chillies, (broken into bits)
1 tablespoons finely chopped green chillies, (depending on heat and your preference)
1/8 teaspoon asafoetida
1 sprig curry leaves
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
6 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cups cooked rice, (cool and fluff the rice with a fork to separate the grains)

Heat a wok (kadai) over medium-high heat. Add sesame oil and when it shimmers add the mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds splutter, add the peanuts and fry them for two seconds. Next add the Bengal gram dal , black gram dal, red chillies and fry until the dal turns light brown. Add the green chillies, asafoetida, curry leaves, turmeric, salt and fry for one second. Turn off the heat and stir in lemon juice. Finally add the cooked rice. Mix well, cover and keep for 20 minutes so that the rice can absorb the flavor from all the ingredients and the lemon juice. Serve with mango pickle and papadum.