Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sambar from suburban gardens

Sambar is a lentil-based vegetable stew that furnishes yet another example of how back yard gardeners can put their copious crops to optimal use.
The top pic shows the vegetables that I harvested on one particular day, but the beauty of sambar is that it can be made with whatever you happen to be harvesting at the time.  
Here's Wikipedia's vegetable line-up.  Very different from mine.    
If you've ever eaten in a south (not north) Indian restaurant, you most likely had sambar and maybe didn't even know it.  It was that surprisingly-flavorful orange thing that you probably wished you knew how to make.  It's vegan, it's gluten-free (double check the ingredient list on the sambar powder listed below), it's kosher, it's consistent with many popular diet programs (for example, it appears to be consistent with Ornish Spectrum Group 1), and it's no accident that it's a dietary staple for millions of people.  I'm going to present my own somewhat Americanized sambar recipe in this post because this dish has all these things going for it:
  1. Despite its Asian origins, it tends to be liked even by folks whose tastes are more toward Western traditions (my Houston-born meat-and-potatoes husband gobbles it up).  
  2. It is extremely healthy and furnishes nutrition from the legume category, which is underrepresented in the typical American diet.  
  3. It is easy to make, although it does require certain specific cooking implements and non-mainstream ingredients (shown below).
  4. It freezes beautifully with no detectable loss of taste. 
  5. It pairs well with other foods (vegan or non-vegan).
  6. It can be fashioned out of almost any vegetables, as long as the base ingredient list (especially the herbs and spices) is adhered to.
  • You'll need a pressure cooker, which is a device that most Americans don't use any longer.  If you've got Grandma's old cooker stored in your garage, go dust it off. Mine is an old Fagor Multi-Rapid; the Rapid Express is probably the closest modern-day analog.  If you plan to cook in big batches and freeze your food, get the biggest pressure cooker that you can afford.  Mine is 7 quart, which is too small, but I had not yet developed my food management strategy 15 years ago when I bought it, so I didn't know I'd need a larger one.  
  • You'll also need three of the typical stainless steel inserts that go into a pressure cooker - one with steam holes, two solid.   
Regardless of where you get your pressure cooker, you can buy inserts at any Indian store.
Photo screengrabbed from this blog site.  
Here are two of the better-known Asian grocers in Clear Lake Texas.  I use them both.
Screengrabbed from Yelp
  • A selection of vegetables similar to the following in quantity:
Everything here is from our back yard, but grocery store stuff will work just fine.

Regardless of what vegetables you pick, I do recommend that you include plenty of onions and squash.  The squash that is traditionally used in sambar is upo or opo which is also called sorakaya or just "bottle gourd".  But here I used plain old ordinary yellow squash (summer squash), the kind that grows so well in our part of Texas.  You could also use calabaza (Mexican squash) or zucchini - squash doesn't have much flavor and its main function in this dish is to give body and convey the taste of spices, so substitutions don't make a big difference.  

Those nubby orange things are carrots, by the way.  I haven't figured out why my carrots grow stunted like this (their taste is excellent despite the bizarre appearance).

The only tricky ingredient in this photo is the curry leaves shown at lower right.  They are often grown hydroponically and sold in little plastic bags in the Asian grocery stores (produce section, refrigerated case).  I grow my own curry tree and that's an option if you really like Asian food and need a reliable supply.

Curry leaves are an indispensable ingredient responsible for much of the sambar's taste, so if you can't find them, ask one of your Indian American neighbors where to get them.  And if you live in greater Houston, don't tell me that you don't have any Indian American neighbors, because you do, by definition.  They will be glad to help you even if they've never spoken to you before.  I've yet to meet an Indian American who didn't love to discuss their native foods.  
  • Black mustard seeds.  They are sold in small packs at Asian stores.  
  • The following four additional ingredients from an Asian grocery store (if you buy your fresh curry leaves and mustard seeds at the Asian store, count six ingredients total from there):
Toor dal and sambar powder, which is a spice blend - get this exact brand if you can.  

Urad dal and tamarind concentrate.

If you have an Indian neighbor, you might ask for a few tablespoons of urad dal, because it would save you from buying a whole bag.  The recipe does not call for much.  It's the Asian variant of, "Can I borrow a cup of sugar?"
  • Coriander seeds or ground coriander if you don't have a grinder. 
I prefer to grind my own coriander seed. I don't drink coffee any longer, so I use my old coffee grinder as a spice grinder. 
  • Light olive oil.
  • Cumin seeds.
  • Turmeric powder.
  • Chili powder (ground chili peppers).
  • Salt
  • Drumstick vegetable (moringa) if it is available as a frozen food in the Asian grocery store (it is seasonal and often not available, and is not shown in this photo series).  If you add drumstick, note that only the inside of the sticks are eaten.  The outside is tough and woody and is discarded after scraping out the highly-nutritious interior, analogous to removing a clam from its shell in a seafood linguine, for instance.  
Put about 1.5 inches of water in the bottom of the pressure cooker.
Put the steam tray upside down over the water in the bottom of the pot.  
Put 1 to 1.5 cups of toor dal in one of the stainless steel inserts and lower that into the pressure cooker on top of the inverted steam tray.  Fill the insert to the top with water.  Forget about the onion pieces and few curry leaves here - they fell in by accident.  
I depart from Indian tradition at this point by pre-cooking my toor dal halfways prior to pressure cooking the whole lot together.  I put the cover on the cooker but I don't bring it to pressure.  While I'm chopping the other vegetables, I simply bring the cooker to a boil to get a head start on the dal.
Coarsely chop all the other vegetables and put them into another of the inserts with a few of the curry leaves.  Lower that one on top of the toor dal insert.  Add about 2 tablespoons sambar powder, 1 teaspoon turmeric powder, and about a quarter cup of tamarind paste loosened and dispersed in about cup of water.   
Cover the cooker and bring to pressure.  If your cooker has multiple settings, use the lowest one and cook for about 15 minutes at that pressure.
While the pressure cooker is doing its job, add about 2 tablespoons of mustard seeds, 2 tablespoons of urad dal, and 1 tablespoon of cumin seeds to a large stove-top pot. I use a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok but any large stock pot will do.    
Add about a half cup of light olive oil, maybe a bit more.  The oil is key to transmitting the flavors of the dish, especially the spice flavors, so don't skimp on it.  
Fry the spices in the oil (this is called 'tempering').  The mustard seeds will pop, so using a screen can help contain the mess.  Be careful not to burn this stuff, as olive oil scorches at a low temperature.  
Throw a few of the fresh curry leaves in near the end of frying.  
Once your pressure cooking is done, run cold water over it to condense the steam and release pressure.

The obligatory art shot, close up of tap water spilling onto the lid of the pressure cooker (camera info here).    
Now you can open up the pressure cooker and see the cooked vegetables.  

Carefully spoon the cooked vegetables into the oil.  Be careful - the oil will be hotter and you'll have some splatter from flash boiling.  
Next, dump the pressure-cooked toor dal into the mix.  Tongs help with this task.  
Don't discard the water in the bottom of the pressure cooker.  During the cooking, it turned itself into tamarind-rich vegetable stock.  Pour all of that into the pot as well.  
Add water to bring the level up to being a soupy stew.  
From that point, you'll adjust the stew according to your own taste.  I usually add the following:
  • About 2 tablespoons of freshly-ground coriander seed.
  • About 2 more tablespoons of sambar powder.
  • About 2 tablespoons of medium-hot ground chili powder.
  • More fresh curry leaves.
  • Salt to taste.
Even though you've pressure cooked the heck out of this stuff, I recommend at least one additional hour of simmering so that all spices and tastes blend well.  
Serve with rice cakes or mix in some cooked rice when ready to eat (in this pic, I have poured it over brown rice).  Or eat with sliced bread.  Or tortillas.  Or pita bread.  Or quinoa.  Or bulghur.  Or cooked pasta, for a south Indian interpretation of vegetable noodle soup.  The fusion possibilities are endless.

Doesn't have to be that way.  All it takes is learning some new recipes that make good use of what gets harvested.  

Gardening meme screengrabbed from Cheezburger.  

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