How to Season Your Cast Iron Skillet

How to Season Your Cast Iron SkilletMy mother-in-law had two beautiful cast iron skillets that I loved to use when I cooked in her kitchen. When I moved to the U.S., I bought a couple of my own. Cooking in a cast iron skillet increases the iron content in food. The longer the food is in contact with the skillet the more iron it will absorb. Cast iron skillets can be used to cook on the stove, the oven or the grill.

You may ask, what is seasoning and why do I need to season my cast iron skillet? Coating your cast iron skillet with cooking oil or shortening and baking it in an oven at 350° F for an hour is called seasoning. This process makes the surface of your cast iron skillet non-stick.

This past weekend, I used my cast iron skillet to make a scrumptious apple pie. I will share the recipe with you soon. But first, I want to share some easy steps on how to season your cast iron skillet. If taken care of properly, a good cast iron skillet can last a lifetime. It can be passed down to your children as an heirloom. I bet they will be happy to inherit it.

Here are the steps on how to season your cast iron skillet:
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Wash the skillet with warm, soapy water. Use a sponge or stiff brush to clean grime.
3. Rinse and dry thoroughly.
4. Use a paper towel or a piece of cloth to apply a thin coat of vegetable oil or melted vegetable shortening to the inside and outside of the skillet.
5. Place the skillet upside down on the oven’s center rack.
6. Place a sheet of aluminum foil below the rack to catch any particles or oil that may drip.
7. Bake for one hour.
8. Turn off the oven and allow the skillet to cool completely, before taking it out of the oven.

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.

What is Kashmiri Chilli Powder?

Kashmiri Chilli Powder3
Many of my recipes call for Kashmiri chilli powder.  One of my friends told me that she went looking of Kashmiri chilli powder and could not find it at the India grocery store where she lived. I realized then that it was important for me to talk about some of the ingredients, spices, and equipment that I frequently use in my cooking. So, today I am going to start with the famous Kashmiri chilli powder which (shhh) doesn’t even come from Kashmir!

Kashmiri chilli powder is the name given to a powdered chilli pepper. It is mildly hot, has a distinct flavor, and it adds a bright red color to food. True Kashmiri chillies are in high demand and since there is a short supply in India, substitutes are used to make Kashmiri chilli powder. You can identify dry Kashmiri chillies by their medium size, cone shape, wrinkles, and dark red color. One of the substitutes used is Byadagi chillies. They are grown in the state of Karnataka in India. Byadgi chillies are long, deep red, mildly pungent, and wrinkled. They have more color content than any other chilli in India. It is also nice to know that the least amount of pesticides are used in growing these chillies.

Kashmiri chilli powder is produced by hundreds of Indian spice companies – MDH, Everest, Eastern, Sakthi, Aachi, Swad, Badsha, just to name a few. The Indian grocery store, where I live, sells Kashmiri chilli powder under these names: Kashmiri chilli powder, Kashmiri Mirch. If you cannot find Kashmiri chilli powder, you can use deggi mirch. It is made from a blend of red bell peppers and Kashmiri chillies. It adds color but has a slightly higher heat level than Kashmiri chilli powder. You will find it at Indian grocery stores where it may be sold as deggi mirch, degi mirch, or deghi mirch. Different brands of chilli powder taste different and have different strengths regardless of being labelled hot, extra hot, very hot etc. I tend to use chilli powder by their difference in heat, rather than the name on the box. Yes, I taste the chilli powder before I use it.

I love the brilliant red color, flavor, and mild zing of Kashmiri chilli powder so I use it in most of my recipes. I also have a bottle of hot chilli powder that I use, if I want to bump up the heat level in my dish.  When I list the ingredients in my recipes, right next to chilli you will see in parenthesis, “depending on heat and your preference.” I say this because the type of chilli – fresh green/red chillies, canned chillies, dry red chillies, red chilli powder, or chill flakes – could change the heat from mild to very hot. So, depending on the heat level of the chilli you are using and the amount of chilli you personally prefer, add less or more. Many of you want to know if there is a substitute for Kashmiri chilli powder. In a pinch, use three parts paprika and one part cayenne. But, if you want flavor and color, it’s worth your time and effort to hunt down a box of Kashmiri chilli powder.

“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!”

Carving a Strawberry Rose

Strawberry Rose3

I am a strawberry lover and I’m not just talking about eating the fruit. I love its vibrant color and I think it is one of the most beautiful fruits. I like them so much that I had a whole bunch of strawberry kitchen gear – strawberry dinner set, strawberry canister set, strawberry napkin rings, potholders, and the list goes on! I haven’t let go of my love for “anything strawberry” completely, because they are still sitting on my garage shelves!

A recent study called strawberries “brain berries” and confirmed that older adults who ate strawberries on a regular basis experienced improved brain function and memory. Needless to say, I’ve been eating my daily quota. One cup of fresh strawberries provides about 140 percent of our daily vitamin C needs. Strawberries are high in nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber and they are low on calories.

Many of you asked me how I made the strawberry rose that was on my Valentine’s Day blog, so my children helped me make this short video to show you how it’s done. Thank you, Dharti and Sanjay. It was fun working on this blog post with you.

Vegetable Stock

Vegetable Stock3

I learned the basics of cooking American food from my mother-in-law. She made everything from scratch because, back then, Indian grocery stores did not carry the kind of vegetables, herbs, pastas, sauces, and ingredients like they do today. She made her own whole wheat bread, peanut butter, mayonnaise, a variety of jams, soups, stews, and even complicated stuff like meatless salami. Her desserts were to die for – lemon pies with mile-high meringue, cakes, puddings, cookies, and brownies. The table was set for every meal. The laughter and stories that we shared around the table are memories that I will always cherish. My mother-in-law is beautiful, wise, strong, and more fun than a mother-in-law should be! Thank you, mom, for being such an incredible teacher.

I wanted to share a winter soup recipe with you today, but realized that one of the ingredients that I asked for was vegetable stock. So, first, let me share with you a simple vegetable stock recipe that I make very often. I think it is much better to make your own stock, because that way you control the amount of salt that you put into it. You could also buy low-sodium vegetable, chicken, fish or beef stock from the grocery store. But once you learn how to make it yourself, and you use it in making your soup – there is no going back to store-bought stock. It is by far one of the easiest things you can make, so let’s begin.

Vegetable Stock
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Makes: 4 cups of stock

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion
1 large red potato
3 carrots
3 celery stalks
6 mushrooms
3 garlic cloves
6 sprigs of parsley
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons soy sauce
8 cups water
salt to taste

Wash all the vegetables and give them a rough chop. You don’t even need to peel the onion or the garlic.

You need a large pot that will hold all the vegetables and the water. Heat the pot over medium-high heat. Add vegetable oil. When the oil shimmers add onion, potato, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and whole garlic cloves. Cook without stirring for about five minutes. Then stir infrequently, allowing the vegetables to get lightly brown. It will take about 10-15 minutes.

Add parsley, black peppercorns, bay leaf, soy sauce, and water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and allow the soup to simmer steadily. Cook for 45 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

Strain, taste and add more salt if needed before storing. Use this stock for soups, stews and other recipes that call for vegetable stock.

Home-made Garam Masala – Indian Spice Blend

Garam Masala4

This home-made garam masala is the secret ingredient to my Chop n’ Drop Chicken Curry recipe that will be posted next week. It is definitely a chicken curry recipe you will want to bookmark and save. It is also a great recipe for your children who may want to try their hand at cooking.

Garam masala in Hindi means “hot spice mixture.” However, it is not hot like chilli pepper, but rather a pungent, warm, blend of exotic spices. The spices are roasted and then ground to a fine powder. In India, the composition of garam masala differs from region and household. Families take pride in preserving their recipes for their own special blend of garam masala, which they hand down from generation to generation.

You can buy garam masala powder from an India grocery store. It is usually added to a dish as the finishing touch in the cooking process. Once you make your own garam masala and you taste the difference it makes to your dish, you will never go back to buying store-bought garam masala again!

Home-made Garam Masala – Indian Spice Blend
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Makes: Half a cup

2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
2 tablespoons whole black pepper
2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons cloves
4-inch piece cinnamon, broken into bits
12 black cardamoms
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Dry roast coriander seeds, black pepper, cumin seeds, cloves, cinnamon, and black cardamom in a small non-stick pan over medium-low heat. Stir occasionally to ensure even roasting. When the spices release their sweet aroma, it is time to turn off the heat and transfer the spices to another bowl. This process will take about 15-20 minutes. Cool the spices completely. Remove the outer covering of the black cardamoms and discard. Use only the seeds.

Grind all the roasted ingredients to a powder in a coffee grinder. You may want to do this in batches if your coffee grinder is small, like mine. I also sifted mine to make sure it was well ground. Once all the spices have been ground, add the grated nutmeg and mix well. Store in an airtight bottle in a cool, dry place. This recipe makes half a cup of garam masala.

Playing with Food – Carving a Tomato Rose

Tomato rose 7
Have your parents ever told you to stop playing with your food? Well, there are some professional chefs that are called Chefs du Garde Manger, who are famous and much sought after because they play with food. They are masters of sculpting ice, carving fruits and vegetables, or creating elaborate buffets.

Margaret_BangkokThe way we present food greatly enhances the appetites of our diners, and the overall experience of the meal. Even a small garnish makes a huge difference. My fascination with fruit and vegetable carving began when I first visited Thailand. It seemed like every fruit on the platter was carved. It was an insatiable feast for my eyes. I enrolled in a short course in Bangkok that taught me the basics. When I wrote my first cookbook, some of my pictures included what I had learned – an onion lotus, carrot knots, radish tulips, a watermelon basket and an onion chrysanthemum.

Today I will share with you how to make a tomato rose. There are specialized tools for vegetable and fruit carving but all you will need to make the tomato rose is a small sharp knife. I added a short video at the end of this post that might also be helpful.

Tomato Rose

You will need a sharp knife and a tomato that is ripe but firm.

Starting at the stem end of the tomato, peel a half-inch wide, thin strip of the skin all the way around the tomato, finishing at the base end. The strip must be peeled thinly so it will roll evenly.

Next place the tomato strip skin-side down, on a cutting board. It will form an elongated “S.”  Start rolling up the tomato skin to form a coil. When almost all the skin has been rolled, sit the tomato rose on its stem end.

If your rose looks odd, you’ve probably turned it upside down while rolling the peel onto the stem end. I’ve done it many times. Just turn it over.

You can use the tomato rose to garnish your dishes or it can be used for a place setting, with a personal touch, like the picture above.

Video on how to make a tomato rose

What’s in My Masala Dabba (Indian Spice Box)

First, for those of you that are not familiar with the masala dabba, let me describe it. A masala dabba is a round, stainless steel container that holds several removable bowls. The bowls are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Each of them holds traditional Indian spices, depending on the region you come from, and based on the spices and lentils you used in everyday cooking. My masala dabba saves me from hunting for spices when I’m ready to cook.

Right in the center, in bold yellow, is turmeric powder (haldi). Ground turmeric is used to flavor and color Indian dishes. It has a warm, pungent, earthy aroma and taste. It comes from the ginger family, and it is the root of the turmeric plant that is dried, powdered and used as turmeric powder. Turmeric has great digestive properties and it is good for weight loss as well. I’ve even heard Dr. Oz sing its praise.

In vibrant red is Kashmiri chilli powder (lal mirchi). It is moderately hot and it adds a rich red color to the gravy in curries. It is made from dried, ground red chillies seeds. A little goes a long way.

The next item is coriander powder (dhaniya). It is the same plant as the cilantro, but coriander powder refers to the seeds that are dried and ground. It has a sweet and slightly tangy taste.

Bengal gram (chana dal) comes next. It is a type of split chickpea and belongs to the same family with a similar flavor. I use it to season my dishes. The process of seasoning in Indian cooking is called “tadka.”

Black gram dal (urad dal) is a lentil that is rich in protein and iron. It is used a lot in South India to make vadai, dosa, and idli. I use this to season my dishes.

Next come mustard seeds (rai). These tiny seeds are powerful and they pop and add flavor to the oil. I use mustard seeds in almost every savory dish that I make. I guess I like it when they sputter in hot oil like applause at the opening of a show!

Last, but not the least, are cumin seeds (jeera). These beige beauties are aromatic and have a nutty, warm flavor. The full potential of cumin seeds are released when you put them in hot oil and the air is filled with their fragrance. Seasoning the dal with cumin seeds is often the final step in making an Indian meal. No need to ring the dinner bell as the aroma of cumin seeds does the job.

There is no rule as to what goes into your masala dabba. Create your own as you experiment and feel free to modify over time. Mastering the essence of each spice and lentil is a sign of an accomplished Indian cook.