Idli – Rice and Lentil Steamed Cake

Idlis are traditional South Indian steamed rice cakes that are eaten at breakfast or at tea time. Black lentils and rice are soaked, ground, fermented, poured into idli moulds, steamed, and eaten with sambar and chutney. There are hundreds of variations. Making idlis, when I lived in India, was easy. The climate was conducive to the fermentation process. After moving to the US, I had to learn some new tricks to get the batter to cooperate.

The table top wet grinder that my daughter bought for me as a birthday gift made the grinding process easy (thank you, daughter). Many of my friends still use their trusted mixies (powerful blenders) to do the job. I learned the most important secret to soft, spongy idlis is using the right amount of water while grinding the lentils and rice. So, in my directions below, I’ll go to great lengths to explain the process and to give you the approximate amount of water to be used.

Fermenting the batter in winter is difficult. I turn the oven on and bring the temperature up to 200°F. Then I turn the oven off, wait for about 15 minutes and then put the batter in the oven. I also leave the oven light on to ensure that the oven stays warm. To avoid accidents, I put a sheet tray under the pot just in case the batter overflows. Could I be more optimistic than that?

While experimenting with this recipe, I tested using a teaspoon and a half of fenugreek seeds which I soaked along with the rice to help with the fermentation process, but it changed the color of the idli. So, instead, I recommend using beaten rice (poha), or cooked rice. To get the light sour taste and smell in your idlis, the batter has to ferment well. Using three tablespoons of starter batter also helps to achieve this.

Try my recipe, and I hope your next batch of idlis will turn out perfectly. If you do try my recipe, please post a picture of your results on my Facebook page.

Prep Time: 8 hours (includes soaking time but does not include time to ferment batter)
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Serves: 8 (makes around 72 small 2.5″ idlis)

3 cups idli rice
1 cup whole black lentils, (whole urad dal)
½ cup beaten rice, (flattened rice flakes, poha)
3 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons olive oil or sesame oil, (to grease idli mould)

Wash the rice in three changes of water. Place it in a large bowl and add filtered water to cover the rice by about three inches. Set it aside for four hours.

After the rice has soaked for four hours, soak the black lentils. Wash the lentils in three changes of water. Put it into a medium bowl and add filtered water to cover it by about three inches. Soak the beaten rice in a small bowl with one cup of filtered water. Let the rice, lentils, and beaten rice soak for one hour.

I used a table top wet grinder to make the idli batter. Clean the grinder. Drain the black lentils. Make sure that you save the water the lentils were soaking in. Use this water when you grind. I also want to tell you that the amount of water that I suggest works well for me. But it depends on the kind of rice and lentils you will use. It might require a little more or a little less water. But this will give you an idea.

Add the drained lentils and 1 cup of water into the grinder and turn it on. The whole process of grinding the lentils will take about 15 minutes. Let the machine run for five minutes. Scrape the sides and add ½ cup water and grind for another five minutes. You will see the batter turn light, fluffy, and increase in volume. Scrape the sides and add another ½ cup of water – one tablespoon at a time. Grind for five minutes. Turn the machine off and feel the batter. It should be light and when you rub the batter between your finger and thumb, the texture should be smooth and light. You should not feel any coarse grains, and if you put a spoon full into a bowl of water it will float. Remove the lentil batter into a large stainless steel pot.

If there is a little of the lentil batter remaining in the wet grinder, don’t worry. Add the rice and ½ cup water. Then, while the machine is running add another ½ cup of water. Grind for five minutes. Scrape the sides. Drain the beaten rice. Add it to the rice and add ½ cup water and grind for ten minutes. Scrape the sides, add salt, ½ cup water – one tablespoon at a time – and grind for the final ten minutes. Turn off the machine. It will take about 20-25 minutes to grind the rice. The batter can be anywhere from slightly coarse to smooth. Depends on how you like it.

Add the rice batter to the lentil batter in the large pot. The batter will rise during fermentation, so make sure that the pot is only half full of batter. Mix the lentil batter and rice batter with your hand. The warmth of your hand will help speed the fermentation process. If you live in a country where the weather is hot. You can leave your pot on your kitchen counter. However, if it is cold, turn your oven to 200°F. Wait for about 15 minutes. Cover the pot with a lid, set the pot in the oven, and turn the oven light on. The batter will ferment in about 8-10 hours. I leave it overnight and make idlis in the morning for breakfast.

When you are ready to start making idlis, fold the batter using a spatula. Just like you would do with a light, chiffon cake! The rice batter would have fallen to the bottom of the pot and the lentil batter would have risen to the top. Fold them together, gently.

Grease the idli mould with olive oil or sesame oil. Fill the idli mould leaving a little space for the batter to rise. Steam for 12 minutes. I use an idli steamer for this purpose but you can also use your pressure cooker (weight not required). Let the idlis cool down before you remove them with a wet idli spoon or butter knife.

The idlis turn out best on the first day. They freeze well. So you can use the whole batter to make idlis on the first day and then freeze them for use later. I usually make idlis on the first day and then use the remaining batter to make dosas. Store the batter in the refrigerator. Just add a little water to make the batter a pouring consistency before you make dosas.

To reheat idlis put them in a steamer. Or, if you are like me, put three idlis in a small bowl, put three drops of water in the center of each idli and microwave them for 20 seconds. You will have to eat the microwaved idlis right away because they get tough after a while. If you have ideas that could help me make better idlis, let me know. If you have questions for me, I’m only a phone call or email away.

Oil – What kind of cooking oil do you use?

What kind of cooking oil do you use? This is a question that I’m asked all the time. Several years ago in India, the oil you used in your kitchen depended on where you came from. Coconut oil was used in Kerala and sesame oil in Andhra and Rajasthan. In the East and North mustard oil was most common and in Central India and Gujarat it was peanut oil.

Then, in the 80’s, all that changed when people became more aware of heart disease and high cholesterol. Today, the debate on the healthiest oil continues in the news and on popular shows like the Dr. Oz show. Grocery shelves are stocked with whatever the latest trends may be.

If you ask me, the right type of oil to use depends on the cooking method and the dish you’re going to prepare. I have a few different types of oils in my kitchen. When I am ready to cook, I select an oil with a low smoke point or high smoke point. I also take into consideration who I am cooking for and whether they have any food allergies.

What does low smoke point and high smoke point mean? Every oil or fat has its own smoke point – the temperature at which it starts to burn and produce potentially harmful chemicals. When oil or fat is heated it changes texture, color, taste as well as it’s nutritional properties. When it reaches its smoking point a lot of the nutrients are destroyed and it can sometimes form harmful compounds. So, matching the right type of oil to your cooking method is key.

I use cooking oil with a high smoke point to deep fry, stir fry, temper (season), and grill. Some of the oils I use for this purpose are peanut oil, sesame oil, and ghee. For my everyday cooking I use grapeseed oil (my new favorite), coconut oil, refined canola oil, and ghee. I use extra virgin olive oil for dips, dressings and marinades. I use butter, coconut oil, and canola oil for baking. I don’t keep all these oils on my kitchen shelves all the time because oils can get rancid. But I like to rotate having four or five of them in my kitchen. It’s nice to be able to use different oils in my cooking. For example, olive oil for my breakfasts, pastas and salads, peanut oil for deep frying, sesame oil for Asian food, and grapeseed oil for Indian food. If you are uncertain of an oil’s smoke point, look at the label on the bottle. Most bottles will give you the correct temperature.

A note on reusing oil: When oil is overheated repeatedly it can break down and become carcinogenic. So, using the same oil that you’ve used for deep frying over and over again can be dangerous.

Don’t go out there and buy cooking oil just because you heard that a certain oil is the best. Remember it all comes down to heat. Choose the right type of oil for the method you use to cook your every day dishes. You may use this Wikipedia guide that lists the various oil types and their smoke points.

Tadka Dal – Tempered Red Lentils

Tadka Dal2Madhur Jaffrey says in her book Ultimate Curry Bible, “you can take meat, fish and vegetables away from an Indian, but you cannot take away his dal – the core of his meal.” Dal, in Hindi, means lentils, but the word is used for the soupy dish that you will find in the poorest as well as the richest homes in India. Every home has its own way of preparing dal. To complicate matters, there are at least 60 different kinds of dals. I learned how to cook dal (red lentils) from my mother-in-law and how to temper dal from my own mother. Cooking dal that is flavorful and creamy is an art. Let me explain.

I’ve learned from my mistakes that perfect flavor and texture cannot be achieved in a hurry. One of the first things mom-in-law did when she started cooking for the day, was to start preparing dal. A slow-cooking process was vital. She used a heavy bottomed, medium-sized pan, to cook the dal.  Once the dal and water came to a boil, she turned the heat to low and went about her other kitchen chores until the dal was perfectly done. This method produced a rich, silky textured dal.

The tempering or tadka (also called tarka, chaunk, baghaar) part of making dal, I learned from Amma, my mother. Most non-Indian cooks think of tempering as a way of heating and cooling chocolate. In Indian cooking, it’s also the method used at the beginning of the cooking process or at the end of the cooking process, to flavor a dish. The ingredients are usually added in rapid succession to hot oil or ghee. Tempering dal should be done just a few minutes before serving. The aroma of sizzling spices in hot oil is one of the best parts of eating a simple meal of plain rice and dal. For me, tadka dal takes me back to when I was a young girl growing up in Pune. It soothes my spirits, cheers me up, and brings back happy memories.

Tadka Dal – Tempered Red Lentils
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 40-50 minutes
Serves: 6

1 cup red lentils, (masoor dal)
3 cups water (plus more hot water to achieve your preferred consistency)
2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

Ingredients for tempering (tadka):
2 tablespoons peanut oil, (or ghee)
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1-2 dry red chillies, (depending on heat and your preference, optional)
a pinch of asafoetida, (optional)
1/2 cup diced shallots, (optional)
5 curry leaves, (optional)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro leaves, (optional)

Wash the masoor dal (red lentils) in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Add the dal to a heavy bottomed saucepan and cover with three cups of cold water. Bring to a boil and skim off any scum that rises to the top. Add the ginger, garlic, and turmeric. Turn the heat to low. Cover with the lid, that is slightly ajar, to avoid from boiling over, and simmer gently for about 40-50 minutes. Stir occasionally until the dal is completely broken down. Use a whisk to stir until the dal becomes creamy. Add hot water to bring the dal to the consistency that you like. It can be as thin and soupy or thick and creamy as you desire. Add salt.

Having all the ingredients for the tempering process ready. Heat oil or ghee in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds splutter, turn the heat to medium, and add cumin seeds, dry red chillies, and asafoetida. Fry for 15 seconds and then add the chopped shallots. Stir and cook until the shallots turn golden. Add curry leaves and fry for 20 seconds. Pour this over the dal. Add chopped cilantro as garnish. Cover with lid and let the dal stand for a few minutes. Serve with plain rice or rotis.

Quinoa Salad

Quinoa, Cucumber and Cherry Tomato Salad
I’ve been attending cooking classes at Sur la Table and the first class I attended was called, “Healthy Mediterranean Cooking.” Chef Bradley Curtis was a superb teacher. Not only did he share several easy and healthy dishes, but he taught us good knife skills and introduced us to spices and herbs from around the world. I was excited to learn how to use Moroccan preserved lemons and Northwest African harissa. I could not wait to get home so I could use these two ingredients in my recipes, and this salad was my first creation.

I used quinoa because it is an excellent source of iron, phosphorus, fiber, and riboflavin. It is gluten-free and one of only a few plant foods that are considered a complete protein. Doctors and nutritionists call it a “super grain.” A natural soap-like substance, that is bitter, covers each grain. It is said that the bitter taste deters birds and insects from eating it. So, that also means it is low in pesticides.

Spring is here and it’s a good time to get back on track on eating right. Here’s a salad that’s “super” good!

Quinoa Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 25 Minutes
Serves: 4

1 cup quinoa
2 cups vegetable broth or water
1 seedless English cucumber, diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
¼ cup finely chopped green onions, white parts only
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
1 tablespoons pumpkin/sunflower seeds, (optional)
1 tablespoons dry cranberries, (optional)
1 tablespoon raisins, (optional)

Quinoa has a natural coating, called saponin. If it is not washed, the grains taste bitter or soapy. So, rinse the quinoa well under cold water and drain. It helps to use a fine mesh sieve to do this. Boxed quinoa is often pre-rinsed, but an additional rinse doesn’t hurt. Put the rinsed quinoa into a saucepan and add vegetable broth or water. The quinoa to broth/water ratio is 1:2. Add a little salt if you are not using broth.

Cover and bring to a boil. When it starts boiling, turn the heat to low. The lid should be slightly ajar, to prevent boiling over. Simmer for 20 minutes. It’s just like cooking rice. The grains get a bit transparent when it is cooked, except for a little spiral sprout. Use a fork to fluff it up and then let it cool.

Once the quinoa comes to room temperature, put it into a large bowl. Add cucumber, cherry tomatoes, green onion, and cilantro. Set aside and make the dressing.

Ingredients for dressing:
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey
2-3 tablespoons harissa, (depending on heat and your preference)
1 small Moroccan preserved lemon, rind only, rinsed and finely chopped
¼ teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
1 garlic clove, minced

Directions for the dressing:
Whisk lemon juice, honey, harissa, preserved lemon, pepper, and salt in a small non-reactive bowl. Heat olive oil in a small non-stick pan and when it shimmers add cumin seeds and garlic. Stir for 30 seconds and then turn off the heat. Cool and drizzle the seasoned oil into the rest of the ingredients that are in the small bowl. Whisk vigorously.

To finish the salad:
Pour the dressing over the quinoa and vegetables. Toss gently. Cover and let stand at room temperature for one hour. It can also be kept in the refrigerator overnight. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Sprinkle pumpkin seeds, cranberries, and raisins just before you serve.

Note on how to use Moroccan preserved lemon: Remove lemon from the bottle with clean utensils to avoid contaminating the inside of the jar. This way, the remaining contents of the jar will not need to be refrigerated. Rinse the lemon under cold water to remove excess salt. Cut the lemon in quarters. Scoop off the insides. With a sharp knife remove the pith. Dice the lemon rind into small 1/8-inch cubes or finely chop.
Quinoa salad Harissa2