May 26, 2011

Simple Tomato Sauce with Pasta

I try to plan out my family’s meals ahead of time and buy my groceries accordingly. I’m less likely to have to throw out rotting produce at the end of the week if I only buy what I specifically plan to use.

But the best laid plans are no match for real life. Zucchini that was going to be sautéed and served alongside the chicken gets forgotten in the fridge. Roasted asparagus is left for another day when someone (not naming any names here) forgets to preheat the oven. And the green beans just feel like too much effort at the end of a long day.

grape tomatoes
Then there are the times when I end up buying way too much of something. Like last week. We had friends over for dinner and I was serving a hefty main course, so I decided to keep the appetizers on the lighter side with some veggies and dip. I happened to be at BJs so instead of picking up the usual pint of grape tomatoes I ended up with a whopping 2 pound container.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t make much of dent in them. Now I enjoy those sweet little tomatoes on my salad as much as the next person. But I didn’t think I’d be able to eat my way though a pound and a half of them before they started to get moldy.

The solution turned out to be a simple yet surprisingly tasty tomato sauce that I adapted from this month’s issue of Bon Appetit. The sauce packs a lot of flavor for such a simple recipe with so few ingredients. It tastes purely of tomatoes and garlic, with just the faintest touch of heat from crushed red pepper flakes. 

Heat some olive oil in a large skillet over medium low heat. When the oil is hot, add your thinly sliced garlic. Saute the garlic in the oil for a minute or so, until it turns a light golden brown.

Add the crushed red pepper flakes and the tomatoes.

Cook the tomatoes in the skillet for about 10 to 12 minutes, mostly covered. At first the tomatoes will get beautifully shiny.

Then they’ll start to blister in spots.

Finally the tomatoes will start to break down and burst open.

At this point, press down on the tomatoes to release more of their juices. I used a potato masher for this job. 

You can stop here and serve the sauce over fish or on toasted bread.

If you want to combine the sauce with pasta, cook your pasta until it’s a minute or two from being done. Add about a half cup of the salted, starchy pasta water to the tomato sauce, then add the pasta to the skillet as well. At first the sauce will look very thin and watery. But then it will begin to thicken and coat the pasta.

Turn off the heat and add some additional olive oil and parmesan cheese to the pasta. The oil and cheese will add some more body to the sauce and help it stick to the pasta. Add basil if you have some, and serve.

Simple Tomato Sauce with Pasta

Adapted from Bon Appetit

4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 lb Sun Gold or cherry tomatoes (I used grape tomatoes)
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt
12 oz capellini, spaghetti, or bucatini
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
8 fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces (I didn't have basil but I did have some O&Co. basil oil that I drizzled on top of the pasta before serving.)

1.      Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium low heat. Add garlic and sauté for a minute or so until light golden brown.

2.      Add red pepper flakes and tomatoes and raise heat to medium high. Season with salt. Cook, mostly covered, and swirling pan often, until tomatoes blister and burst, 10-12 minutes. Press down on tomatoes to release their juices. Remove pan from heat and set aside.

3.      Meanwhile, bring water to a boil in a pot. Season with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking water.

4.      Raise heat under tomato sauce to high. Add 1/2 cup pasta water to tomato sauce, then transfer pasta to the skillet. Cook, stirring and tossing often, until sauce thickens and begins to coat the pasta, about 1 minute. Continue to cook until the pasta is al dente (add more pasta water if sauce seems dry.)

5.      Off the heat, stir in remaining oil, cheese, and basil and toss until sauce coats pasta. Season with more salt if needed.

Serves 4

May 20, 2011


Last month I headed to New Jersey with my son for spring break. It had been a while since we’d spent some quality, relaxed time with my parents. My son had a blast, spoiled by his grandparents who were always happy to take him to the playground or park.

I was spoiled too, but with food. Food is usually the center activity when we visit and this time was no different. My dad generally experiments and presents us with a new creation or a fresh take on a classic. This time we were treated to mussels in a creamy, winey broth, fried clam strips, and a new take on chicken curry (not all in the same meal).

My mom is more likely to stick to Indian classics, prepared the way she grew up eating them. So one morning for brunch she made thalipeeth. Thalipeeth is one of my favorite Indian brunch/lunch dishes, but one I’ve never made myself. So this time I pulled my laptop and camera into the kitchen with my mom and documented the process.

Thalipeeth is a savory, dense pancake. Thalipeeth flour is made out of a combination of grains, legumes and rice. In India, no two recipes for thalipeeth flour are the same. Every family has a particular recipe that combines different proportions of the basic ingredients. These ingredients are toasted and then sent to the mill to be ground up into a coarse powder. 

Thalipeeth hails from Maharashtra, a coastal state on the western side of India. Mumbai (Bombay) is in Maharashtra, and it’s where both of my parents grew up.

Whenever my mom visits India, she brings back thalipeeth flour that has been prepared by my grandmother. To me, the thalipeeth made from this flour is the only one that tastes like “real” thalipeeth.

Lately, pre-ground thalipeeth flour has become available in India and in some Indian grocery stores in the U.S. 

Thalipeeth flour purchased at the Indian store

Like so many traditional Indian recipes, this one is hearty and healthy. Although thalipeeth is usually served for brunch or lunch in India, it’s substantial enough for dinner.

To transform your thalipeeth flour into the final thalipeeth pancake, begin by putting the flour in a large, shallow dish with raised sides. In the meantime, heat some water in a small saucepan.

Add the dry spices to the flour.

Then add the chopped onion and butter cubes. (You can use oil or melted butter in place of the butter cubes.) This would also be the stage at which you would add the cilantro if you were using it. I am not a fan of cilantro so my mom left it out. (Aren’t moms great?)

Now start mixing up the flour, spices, onions and butter with your fingertips. Break up the butter into the flour until it is the size of small peas.

Slowly add hot water to the flour. You can mix it with a spoon at first.

Continue to add water, then begin to mix with your hands until the mixture just comes together.

Once the dough is ready, set everything up to cook the pancakes. Preheat a frying pan and place a piece of paper on your counter or a marble board. Put some canola oil in the pan, on the paper, and on your fingers. (Be patient, you’ll see where we’re going with the paper.)

Grab a piece of dough about the size of a medium onion and pat it down into a circle on the oiled paper until it is about 1/8 inch thick.

Pick up the paper and flip the pancake onto your palm (the oil will make it easier for the paper to release the sticky dough). Slide the pancake onto your pan. With a knife, cut a small slit in the center to allow the steam to release. Cover your pan and let it cook for a few minutes until the pancake begins to brown on the bottom.

Now drizzle a bit of oil on the pancake. Flip it over and cook, covered, until the second side begins to brown. This should take another 2 minutes or so.

Add a pat of butter on top of the thalipeeth and remove from the pan. Serve warm with any or all of the following – yogurt, pickle, butter, or ghee!


1 cup thalipeeth flour
1 ½ tsp chili powder (or to taste)
¾ tsp salt, or to taste
Pinch of asafoetida
1/3 tsp turmeric
1/3 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp goda masala (Goda masala is a combination of coriander seeds, cumin seeds, white sesame seeds, cloves, big cardamom, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, bay leaf and dried coconut that is roasted in oil and then ground up into a powder.)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
Chopped cilantro (optional)
2 Tbsp butter, cut into small cubes
Canola or vegetable oil

1.      Heat a few cups of water in a saucepan.

2.      Place thalipeeth flour in a large, shallow dish with raised sides.

3.      Add the chili powder, salt, asafoetida, turmeric, cumin powder, and goda masala to flour. (If any of these spices are already in the thalipeeth flour you have purchased, you can leave them out.)

4.      Add onion and butter cubes (or oil or melted butter) to the flour. Also add the cilantro if you are using it.

5.      With your fingers, combine all ingredients. Break up butter into flour with fingers, until the butter pieces are the size of small peas.

6.      Slowly add hot water to the flour. Keep mixing. At first you can mix with a spoon. Eventually begin to mix it with your hands. Continue adding water and mixing until the mixture just comes together.

7.      Put a piece of paper on your counter or a marble board. Put canola oil on the paper and on your fingers and on a preheating pan. The oil prevents the sticky dough from sticking to the paper.

8.      Grab a piece of dough about the size of a medium onion. Pat it down on the oiled paper into a circle, about 1/8 inch thick.

9.      Heat oil on a pan over medium heat. Flip the circle onto your hand, then slide it onto the pan. With a knife, make a small slit in the center of the circle. This allows steam to be released from underneath the thalipeeth while it’s cooking. Cover the pan and cook for about 3 minutes, until browned on the bottom.

10.  Uncover and add a bit of oil on top. Flip over and continue to cook, covered, until the second side browns, about 2 more minutes.

11.  Add a pat of butter on top and serve warm.

Note: Thalipeeth can be served with yogurt, pickle, butter, ghee, or some combination of these. I love mine with yogurt and mango pickle.

Serves 3

May 14, 2011

Seafood Gumbo

Our May hostess, Denise of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need from creole spices, homemade stock and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans:  The Cookbook, by John Besh.

Daring Cooks is an online community of enthusiastic cooks from all over the world. Once a month we are challenged to cook a particular dish or type of dish, usually one that forces us to get out of our comfort zones. Then we all reveal the dish on our blogs on the same day. This was my very first Daring Cooks Challenge, and gumbo was quite an initiation!

Gumbo is a stew that originates in the Cajun Creole area of southern Louisiana. Gumbo is made up of a base of onions, celery and bell peppers (the so-called “holy trinity”), stock, and seafood or meat. There are many variation of gumbo, from seafood to chicken or duck. You can even make a vegetarian version known as Gumbo Z’herbes.

Then there’s the thickener, which is what often sets one gumbo apart from another. To thicken your gumbo you can use okra (a vegetable), roux (a combination of fat and flour), or file powder (ground up sassafras leaves).

I decided to make a seafood gumbo based on a recipe from a cookbook by John Besh called My New Orleans: The Cookbook. Besh’s recipe for seafood gumbo calls for both okra and roux as thickeners. The thickener is where gumbo gets tricky and it was my biggest worry when making the gumbo.

Okra, also called lady fingers, is a green vegetable. It’s used a lot in Indian cooking, so I’d eaten it many times, but I’d never cooked it before. The problem with okra is that if you don’t cook it properly, it turns into a slimy mess. 

The other thickener, the roux, is also tricky. To make it, you heat a fat (in this case, canola oil) and add flour to it. A proper roux is crucial to good gumbo. Made properly, the roux gives the gumbo its characteristic flavor and thickens the stew. But it’s a balancing act. For gumbo, you have to get your roux to a point where it’s a really deep, dark brown color — just this side of a burnt, black roux that will ruin the entire dish.

Aside from the okra and roux, the recipe was fairly straightforward. That’s not to say it wasn’t involved. On first (and second and third) glance, it seemed intimidatingly long and complex. So I broke it down into steps. The first was to make the Creole spice mix. Next was to make the shrimp stock. Finally, once the spice blend and stock were prepared, it would be time to make the gumbo itself.

I stuck to the recipe as closely as I could. The main changes I made were to the types of seafood I used. I left out the blue crabs and shucked oysters, because neither were available in my area. I added lump crabmeat in place of the whole crabs, and substituted quartered sea scallops for the oysters. The scallops were fabulous in the stew, silky and perfectly cooked.

The recipe for the shrimp stock called for using the shells and heads of the shrimp. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any head-on shrimp. I think if I had, the stock would have been much richer and tastier, and probably would have enhanced the final gumbo.

Gumbo is the perfect dish to share with friends and family, so I threw a little Gumbo Party. Everyone enjoyed the deep, rich flavor of the gumbo. It was flavorful and spicy with a heat that settled on the tongue over time. A few spice-lovers at the table added extra Tabasco to the gumbo but I didn’t think it was necessary. The Andouille sausage provided a tasty, substantive bite. And the seafood, added during the final minutes of cooking, was perfectly cooked.  

As they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” – Let the Good Times Roll!

First make the Creole spice blend, a mix of savory and spicy flavors.

Then on to the shrimp stock. First, peel the shrimp. The shells (and heads if you’re lucky enough to have them) form the basis of the stock.

Prep the other vegetables and spices. These add their own flavors to the stock.

Saute the shrimp shells with the Creole spice blend until they turn pink.

Then add the onion, celery, carrots, bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme, and rosemary to the pot.

Add wine and reduce it down for a few minutes. Then add the water and simmer for about an hour.

Strain the stock through a sieve into a large bowl. Press down on the shells and vegetables to get all the bits of flavor.

Now you have a flavorful shrimp stock.

Before you begin making the gumbo, you should have all of your ingredients prepped and ready. This includes the holy trinity of onions, celery and bell pepper (there’s some garlic there too)...

...the Andouille sausage, which is a spicy, smoked, Cajun-style sausage...

...and the okra (make sure you dry each pod carefully before you cut it to avoid having it turn into a sticky mess).

The roux for this recipe consists of equal parts canola oil and flour. Heat the oil in the pot and then add the flour. Whisk it continuously for the next 15 minutes as it progressively darkens from light yellow to dark, chocolately brown. If you stop whisking, you run the risk of the burning the roux and ruining the entire dish.

you can see how my roux progressed from pale yellow to deep, dark brown

Once the roux is dark brown, add the onions.

Next add the Andouille sausage and crabs (if you’re using them). And then the celery, bell peppers, garlic and okra.

Add the thyme, bay leaves and shrimp stock. Simmer for 45 minutes.

I made the dish up to this point and then held it until we were ready to eat. The seafood only takes about 15 minutes to cook, and you don’t want it to overcook sitting in the hot liquid. So, about 30 minutes before you’re ready to eat, reheat the gumbo base and get your seafood ready.

When the gumbo is hot, add your seafood and cook for 15 minutes. Finally, have a taste and adjust your seasonings. This is an important step, so don’t skip it. I added quite a bit of salt and Creole spice at this point, as well as some Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco.

I served the gumbo with Louisiana white rice, which is long-grain rice cooked with sautéed onions in chicken broth.

Laissez les bons temps rouler, indeed!

Seafood Gumbo

Adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh

To Make the Gumbo
1 cup (240 ml) canola oil
1 cup (240 ml) (140 gm) (5 oz) flour
2 large onions, diced
6 jumbo blue crabs, each cut into four pieces (if unavailable, omit, or substitute another type of crab)
1 lb spicy smoked sausage links (like Andouille), sliced ½ inch thick
1 stalk celery, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup sliced fresh okra, sliced ½ -inch thick (or frozen, if fresh is not available).
Leaves from sprig of fresh thyme
3 qt shrimp stock (see recipe below)
2 bay leaves
1 lb peeled and deveined medium shrimp. (Note: If you are buying whole, head-on shrimp, which you will need in order to use the heads and peels for stock, you will then need approximately 4 pounds of shrimp to yield enough heads/shells for the stock. Although the recipe only calls for 1 pound of shrimp, you will end up with a little over 2 pounds of cleaned shrimp, which I found was perfect for this size pot of gumbo)
1 lb shucked oysters (I substituted 1 lb of sea scallops, which I cut into quarters)
1 lb lump crabmeat
1 cup minced green onions
Freshly ground black pepper
Basic Creole Spices, to taste (see recipe below)
Worcestershire, to taste
Tabasco, to taste
8 cups cooked Basic Louisiana White Rice (recipe follows)
1.      Prepare shrimp stock, if using (recipe below).
2.      Prepare homemade Basic Creole Spices, if using (recipe below).
3.      Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning.
4.      In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the canola oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes.
5.      Add the onions. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the onions into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and continue stirring until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.
6.      Add the blue crabs and smoked sausage and stir for a minute before adding the celery, bell peppers, garlic, and okra. Increase the heat to moderate and cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes.
7.      Add the thyme, shellfish stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally.
8.      Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.
9.      Add the shrimp, oysters, crabmeat and green onions to the pot and cook for 15 minutes. Make sure everything is ready to serve before adding the shellfish to the gumbo. DO NOT OVERCOOK your shellfish.
10.  Season with salt and pepper, Creole Spices, Worcestershire, and Tabasco.
11.  Serve in bowls over rice.
Storage/Freezing Information: Store gumbo in the refrigerator for up to three days and then reheat gently before serving. As with many stews and braises, gumbo tastes better the second day. You can also freeze it for up to eight months. Simply transfer to freezer-safe containers.

Shrimp Stock
Adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh and Real Cajun, by Donald Link
Servings: About 3 quarts
¼ cup (120 ml) canola oil
Shells and heads (about 1 ½ pounds (700 gm)) from 4 pounds (2 kg) shrimp (prawns)
1 tablespoon Basic Creole Spices (recipe below) or paprika
1 large onion coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
6 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons (10 ml) (5 gm) black peppercorns
2 cups (480 ml) dry white wine (optional)
3 ½ quarts (3⅓ liters) water
1.      Heat the canola oil in a large stockpot over moderate heat. When the oil begins to smoke slightly, add the shells and Creole spice blend (or paprika). Stir continuously, for 2 minutes, until the shells crisp up and turn pink.
2.      Add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. 3. Add the white wine (skip this step if not using wine) and bring to a boil. Allow the wine to reduce for an additional 5 minutes.
3.      Add the water and return to a boil. Reduce heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, skimming off any foam or oil that rises to the surface, for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
4.      Strain through a fine sieve into a large bowl. Discard all the solids. Allow the stock to cool, cover and refrigerate, then skim off the fat. Use immediately, or freeze for later use.

Creole Spice Blend
From My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh
Makes ½ cup
2 Tbsp celery salt
1 Tbsp sweet paprika
1 Tbsp coarse sea salt
1 Tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp onion powder
2 tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp ground allspice
1.      Mix together all spices in a bowl.
2.      Transfer the spices to a clean container with a tight-fitting lid. Store up to six months.

Louisiana White Rice
Adapted from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh
Servings: About 8 cups
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, or butter
2 small onions, minced
3 cups long-grain white rice
6 cups chicken stock
2 bay leaves
2 pinches salt
1.      Put the fat, oil, or butter and the onions into a medium saucepan and sweat the onions over moderate heat until they are translucent, about 5 minutes.
2.      Pour the rice into the pan and stir for 2 minutes.
3.      Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil.
4.      Add the bay leaf and salt.
5.      Cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 18 minutes.
6.      Remove the pan from the heat, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.

Gumbo serves 10