Chutney Challenged: on location, off topic

Well, I did make the channa masala on Sunday. Things went okay. Folks told me — I served it to six adults and three kids within 24 hours — “Your chickpeas are so firm. But tender.” I would agree. Maybe because I soaked them for 12 hours. Channa masala takes up a lot of time, many steps, squeezing and sautéing, boiling and scraping. Kids told me: “I’m not. HAVING. Anymore of this!” Ignore them, because they are not our target audience. 

General advice:

  • Read the entire recipe carefully and fully. Once or twice. If you just “skim” the recipe, a few steps might take you by surprise when it’s too late.
  • Use a non-stick pan, all the oil (maybe a bit more than the 1/3 cup grapeseed or peanut oil the recipe requires) and watch the temperature carefully. Channa masala has a long cooking time: 90-120+ minutes. First you make the spiced tomato & onion gravy. Then you add it to the chick peas. That combination simmers stovetop for quite some time. After a while, both the gravy alone and then gravy combo will do their best to adhere to the bottom of the pan. Avoid this, unless you want to make charred masala instead of channa masala. 
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Channa masala quartet.

Changing topics/locations

I wanted to write more about the masala earlier this week . And I couldn’t. I woke Monday morning to two awful stories: another gang rape in India and media sympathy for Steubenville (umm, the rapists, not the young woman at the center of this case). For a few days, I couldn’t be a food blogger. So I blogged nothing. 

Yesterday I boarded a plane to Austin, and from Atlanta to Austin I did write about what happened in India, what’s happening in Steubenville, what I observed in middle school — from the nightly news to home ec. class. How no one among us should be surprised that rape and sexual violence happens everywhere — could happen to anyone.

It’s personal and political and kind of … out there. So I might post it, or I might not. I guess you can take this paragraph as warning that a “very special” Chutney Challenged post might be coming soon. So maybe you’ll want to avoid it, or read it. Or fundamentally disagree.  

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.

Another thing that’s next

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My clients: Edit, Jessica, Nicole, Sharifah. En route is Jennifer.
Photo credit: Jessica.

Ragda pattice. I was invited to Austin to play personal chef to a group of dynamic, successful, cultured and very Midwestern ladies with an appetite for adventure. I loaded my suitcase with hand-blender, pressure cooker, gym clothes, chilies, spices and some heels and glitter because, come on people, this is Texas. Terrified that a jar of tamarind chutney might wreak havoc in my luggage, I packed none of this ragda pattice essential. Soon we’re off to Central Market to stock up on mint, cilantro, onions, potatoes, tamarind chutney, ginger, etc. The white vatana is already creamy, golden and all soaked up. A cloudy, spicy, reflective day in Austin awaits us.

That’s vacation, baby.  

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My spices, my toiletries, my clothes = fifty pounds of baggage.

Ragda: The Final Chapter

Mealtime in Madurai

My last time eating ragda patties was a delicious and miserable affair. It was a Friday night in November 2012 and Tamil Nadu state was in the grip of its worst mosquito season in decades. Dengue Fever was setting new fatality records. I had just been denied bowling and alcohol privileges at Vishal de Mall, a shopping mall in Madurai. I am from Milwaukee, where bowling and beer are birthright. To be denied either at the age of 34 is a shock, a wound. A minor identity crisis. To say nothing of the fact that I was not served an irish coffee because, as the clerk explained, “we don’t serve ladies.” Now I am a lot of things, but ladylike has never been one of them.

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Vishal de Mall, where things started to get weird.

With these defeats and 63 mosquito bites fresh on the mind and body, I arrived for family dinner at 8 p.m. Ragda Patties were on the menu and the scheduled blackout would dim the lights by 9. No time to waste.

At this point, I knew that India had invaded my GI tract, but not before I had enjoyed dietary riches beyond anything you’ve read about here at Chutney Challenged: meen pollichathu and lobster curry in Kerala; veggie sandwiches with paper-thin cucumbers, shaved tomatoes and deep-emerald chutney at Cafe Mysore on King’s Circle; steaming steel cups of strong sweet coffee at Cafe Madras.

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Veggie sandwich at Cafe Mysore.

I knew that the 48-hour flu was coming for me whether I ate the ragda patties or I did not. So I went for it. Reluctantly, I ate the ragda, savoring its thick potato patties. I could still appreciate how the thin crispy sev perched atop the pea curry crackles in your mouth gently, like paper. The zip of tamarind chutney! I suffered through every bite of this deliciousness, and vowed I would soon experience a ragda re-do.

Two hours later I was in the depths of 48-hour illness. If that’s the kind of thing you want to read about, head over to Al Roker’s blog. Immediately. And do not come back to Chutney Challenged.

Mealtime in Milwaukee

Do-over time began Dec. 30, 2012. I headed to Best Foods on 13th St. for vatana, whole mustard seeds, curry leaves and chilies. There were no chilies. The fresh produce is stocked in plastic tupperware bins and baskets, like what you keep stage makeup in for the big fall musical. I combed through the dregs of chiles with another woman – our nails scratching the plastic. No chili was too small, but many were too moldy. I grabbed two bottles of tamarind chutney and put them both in my reusable tote bag, except for the one that landed all over the floor. Silently a gentleman who had tired of me on my first visit to the store began mopping the sweet brown slop-pile. I remember our first interaction. I asked him, “Where are the spices located?” He responded: “So many spices. Everywhere.” We would need to work on our relationship. In the meantime, Ragda do-over day was off to an inauspicious start.

At Target I bought the last remaining pressure cooker, one that had been ripped open and its pieces exposed. Everything seemed to be there. I brusquely negotiated a thirty percent discount for the inconvenience, then lost the essential tiny metal valve trekking back to my minivan. There were three pressure cookers left at the Target in Waukesha but none in Milwaukee. Time was running out. I desperately googled and recipe-checked “making vatana” and “no pressure cooker.” No way; not even possible. My husband called Best Foods and confirmed, in his most proper Gujarati, that several pressure cookers were on their shelves. I stopped the weeping and futile googling. Ragda do-over 2012 was back on, bitches.

The Reviews

The ragda got made, just in time for a 6 p.m. New Year’s Eve party. Folks seemed to like it, but here’s the thing: no one requested seconds.No matter how many good friends tell you they like your culinary offerings, nothing proves their approval like a second serving. Perhaps it wasn’t served hot enough. Maybe the red-hot chilies I used to fill in for the missing greenies were too hot. Did they all have the stomach flu, now? I was having fun, I was proud of my radga patties, but I was confused.

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Ragda patties om corningware, an aerial view.

The next day I texted a neighbor and old friend of the family from university. He is a middle-school principal, so if anyone was going to break it to me straight about my ragda, it was Principal M. Also, he had been part of my December bhel puri party. He had perspective.

Hours later my husband and Principal M. were seated on my couch watching the Rose Bowl. Our kids were crunching legos in the playroom. I was anxiously reheating left over patties on the waffle griddle. More onions were diced, more cilantro was chopped. I made sure the ragda and patties were piping hot. Cold corona was served. Then out came the ragda.

They liked it. They had seconds. Photos were taken and comparisons were made. Principal M. said I am now on his list of “Top Three Friends Who Can Cook,” just on the strength of my ragda do-over. And the guy in his first place can make dinner for 200 bikers at 7 a.m. of a 24-hour urban bike race. I’ll take it.

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Mr. Chutney Challenged, man of the hour.

Oh, and my husband liked it. He said it’s as good as his mom’s ragda patties, or maybe he said mine were better? Really mom, I can’t remember what he exactly said. So he’s the star of this blog post for 1. Getting me a new, functional pressure cooker just hours before show time 2. Giving me my best compliment yet as the blogstress of Chutney Challenged.

Ragda Patties Part One: The Ingredients

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Ragda patties provide an immensity of flavor thanks to pounds of distinct, separate ingredients that you marry through heat, garnish, grinding and chopping.

Ragda patties is a compound recipe requiring significant prep time.

The pattice/patties require boiled mashed potatoes mixed with spices, formed into mealy, zingy potato cakes that you’ll fry. The ragda is a spicy pea gravy that begins as the white, dry, stone-like lentil “vatana.” Vatana needs to soak for eight hours minimum, then be pressure cooked, then be mixed with a variety of spices from tamarind to turmeric. Top the pattice with the ragda. Top the ragda with tamarind chutney, green/coriander chutney, cilantro, red onion and, finally, sev. Serve very hot and prepare for an onslaught of compliments. Ragda pattice are serious. SO are you. Let’s do this.

THE PATTIES

  • Two cups boiled, peeled, mashed potatoes. Idaho works great. Make the pattice with hot potatoes so freshly boiled they’re almost creamy. Cold potatoes make for flaky cakes.
  • Four chopped green chilies. These can be fun to work with. Just slice off the top, grab a teaspoon and use the dull end to scrape out the ribs and seeds. Your fingers will ache for  few hours from the heat of the peppers. Use gloves if you’re concerned.
  • Ginger garlic paste, ¾ teaspoon. This is great to have in your refrigerator for making chutney, as well. Faster and more potent than grating fresh ginger and dicing garlic cloves.
  • Cilantro, two tablespoons. Dice it. Chop it. It will look beautiful in the pattice.
  • Lemon juice, one tablespoon. Overdo the lemon juice a little if you like. I always do!
  • Corn starch, two tablespoons.
  • Sugar and salt, 1 to 1.5 pinches/each.
  • One tablespoon oil that holds well at medium-high heat. I use safflower.

THE RAGDA

  • One cup white vatana.
  • One tablespoon oil.
  • ½ teaspoon whole mustard seeds. Don’t buy the cracked ones!
  • 1 teaspoon sesame seeds.
  • Three green chilies.
  • Ginger garlic paste, 1 teaspoon.
  • Four curry leaves. As far as I can tell, these must be whole leaves, stems removed. Go!
  • Chopped red onion, ½ cup.
  • Red chili powder, 1 teaspoon.
  • Turmeric ½ teaspoon.
  • Jaggery, 1 tablespoon. As far as I can tell, this is an earthy brown sugar made from the sap of palm trees. It is sold by the bag in small lumps, or in one big flat-topped cone resembling a DIY candle. Grates easily. Use brown sugar if you prefer.
  • Tamarind paste, 1 teaspoon. Not the sauce, not the chutney: the paste.
  • Salt, to your taste.

THE GARNISH

  • Coriander (green) chutney
  • Tamarind or tamarind-date chutney
  • Chopped red onion
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Sev

There’s more to me than chutney

Disclosure time: I’m neither a foodie, nor a food blogger. As I noted in an earlier post, I’m just a midwestern, multi-tasking soccer mom trying to cook more and write more. Just trying to do one of those things would be too easy.

About the challenge: I tried the whole “write daily, write what you know” approach to creativity and inspiration. Didn’t work. I always found myself distracted by laundry or the treadmill, by exhaustion or a weeknight late-movie get-away with a girlfriend. I like my lady-friends and my movies. In fact, I need them. They go very well together. One exception to this would be an October 2012 screening of “Perks of Being a Wallflower.” What a miserable film. I saw it with two new-ish friends. It was our first date. I thought we’d progress slowly, the three of us. But after enduring 120 minutes of moony teenagers in their underpants and prom-wear dealing with depression, first-love, milk shakes and SAT prep, I feel bonded to these two women for life. We’re probably doing a three-day spa weekend in Nova Scotia for my birthday. Or at least I hope they are planning that for me. As a surprise. Someone should ask them.

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Rejecting preconceived notions of what my shopping list should look like.

The chutney: Last Christmas, my husband bought me a stylish and practical menu-planner/calendar hybrid. It really was a thoughtful gift and well conceived concept. There was a strip of paper for every day of the week, and the last strip of paper was detachable. For making lists of groceries. There were even categories of groceries pre-printed – the same ones every week – on that wee little scrap of paper: produce, dairy, meats, frozen. But the more people expect me to do something, the more those menu-planner calendar designers think they know about me, the more I resist. I planned five menus that year, 2012, using the calendar. In an ode to potential that may yet be filled, however, I have kept the calendar. And so I keep this blog.

About chutney challenged: All of this is my way of telling you that finding the right recipes, the right pace and a truly adventurous culinary spirit could take a while. I am very excited to write here about making and serving ragda pattice, just as I was about bhel puri. But there’s so much to do any given day that i find myself stretching one recipe into three blog posts. And here’s the thing about Indian cooking: it takes a lot of dishes. I’m still washing dishes from the ragda experiment two days later.

I think about my aunts in Mumbai and their small kitchens where everything from sponges to teaspoons has its very own groove. No square inch in their kitchens goes unused. Their stovetops are not much bigger than your toaster oven. But over here in Milwaukee I am using every darn dish in my kitchen and realizing that even more than new spices, sharper knives and an extra three hours/day minimum, what I really need to master Mumbai street cuisine is an economy-sized dishwasher.

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Warning: some may find the contents of pre-printed grocery list offensive.

Next post we will drench ourselves in chutnies and chilies. The ragda pattice were a trial to make, but totally worth it. 

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