Thursday, January 9, 2014

Cranberry Relish/Thokku/Chutney/Pulikaachal

The Journey

One of the classic elements in a TamBram refrigerator or pantry is "Thokku" or Relish. Simply stated Thokku is a spicy chutney made with a grated vegetable or fruit, best for mixing with rice or as an accompaniment to yogurt rice or breads. The preparation and the nature of the ingredients naturally extends the shelf life of Thokku, especially when refrigerated. Given my spicy palette, I always had a penchant for this relish and growing up, the thought of yogurt rice without some thokku was unimaginable. The combination of anything sour and spicy has the "spontaneous and uncontrolled drool effect" on me - guaranteed! The quintessential TamBram thokku/relish is Raw Mango aka Manga Thokku (don't be fooled by the sweetened chutney versions of this in the US).  One of my other favorites is Tomato Thokku - relish made from tomatoes. Another classic known to many Tam Brams and the holy grail of South Indian flavored rice is Puliyogare (Tamarind Rice). This is made with cooked rice mixed with Pulikkachhal/Tamarind relish cooked to perfection with spices. The Vishnu temples in South India usually offer this Rice dish dish as an offering to the devotees. Why am I writing about may wonder..Here's why. Cranberry is a very close but more healthier cousin of Tamarind and can be easily substituted for Tamarind in select Indian recipes and the Thokku recipe of Cranberry comes close to Pulikacchal in taste. It is readily available in plenty in the fall and winter months in American groceries and the health benefice make it hard to ignore. You might be thinking that I am a genius for figuring this out, but the credit really goes to my mother in law - another TamBramTwist-er in my family! The next time you see cranberry in the supermarket aisle, don't walk past it. If you are working on a ThanksGiving feast, try this recipe.  I am drooling as I am typing this up...and you will too once you make this. Keep lots towels handy!

The Ingredients

6 cups of fresh cranberry (canned won't work, craisins won't work, frozen will work once thawed, but only if it is unsweetened)
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp asafetida
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp chilly powder
4 tsp of sesame oil or gingerly oil
1/2 tsp turmeric powder

Let's get cooking..

Heat the sesame oil in a pan. After a few minutes, add the mustard seeds. Order does matter for the best taste. 

When they splutter, add the curry leaves. Take a few steps back as the curry leaves tend to splutter and fight back at you.

After a few seconds, add asafetida, salt, sugar and turmeric. A word on the addition of sugar - adding sugar to anything sour brings out the flavors better. I generally apply this rule to cranberries and tamarind. Adding sugar to something sour is like adding a flavor adding coffee to chocolate. 

Stir for a couple seconds until it looks caramelly brown in color. 

Add the fresh cranberry. Stir and fold in the spices, but never never poke or crumble the cranberries (I can literally hear my mother in law say this). I don't think she has emphasized anything more in this recipe except the request to handle the cranberries with care! So please be nice to her and the cranberries and treat them gently.

Continue to fold every couple minutes and drool (away from the pan) for 15 more minutes. As they cook, the cranberries will pop. Don't be alarmed. Allizwell :) !
In 10 minutes, see some have peeled and the popping is continuous.
In about 15-20 minutes, most of the cranberry will have bursted and formed a mush consistency. The time really depends on the cranberries. So go for the consistency rather than time to know when this is ready. The volume will be reduced in half from when you added the fresh cranberries. 
In 12-15 minutes, most of the cranberry has popped but we are not there yet..

I do not recommend blending this as it tastes fine as is. But if you want a smooth puree, go ahead and blend coarsely.
In 15-20 minutes

The Cranberry Relish is drool ready. This stores well in the refrigerator for months.

The Good in this recipe


Unique, wild and natural by habitat, cranberries are rich in phyto-nutrients (naturally derived plant compounds), particularly proanthocyanidin antioxidants, which are essential for all-round wellness. The berries are indeed containing numerous chemical substances that may offer protection from tooth cavities, urinary tract infection, and inflammatory diseases. The berries prevent plaque formation on the tooth surface by interfering with the ability of another gram-negative bacterium, Streptococcus mutans, to stick to the surface. It thus helps prevent the development of cavities in a way similar to the action in preventing urinary tract infections. In addition, the berries are an also good source of many vitamins like vitamin C, vitamin A, ß-carotene, lutein, zea-xanthin, and folate and minerals like potassium, and manganese.

Sesame Oil

Ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic practitioners utilized sesame oil to combat a variety of inflammatory, infectious and cancer causing processes. Sesame oil is believed to relieve pain syndromes such as tendonitis, bursitis, arthritis, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and GERD. Holistic medicine practitioners use sesame seed oil to treat strep throat, staphylococcus bacteria and also athlete’s foot. It can also reduce stress, lower cholesterol and detoxify the body.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Spicy Butternut Squash Soup with Brown Butter Sage

The Story

One of the first herbs that I started growing in my garden was Sage..and boy did it grow like a weed! I needed to try and pair sage with more foods to start using the leaves in my backyard. I also have a humongous rosemary bush in my yard and had to find recipes that use those leaves too. Fall is a beautiful time of the year with the vibrant brown and red colors and Butternut Squash is a quintessential fall vegetable. I came across butternut squash as a good partner to sage and rosemary and so started thinking about making a soup. I have tasted this soup in many restaurants and also several ravioli versions of this. Most of the soups I have tasted in the popular restaurants are sweet with loads of brown sugar or maple syrup and that to me is more a warm dessert than an appetizer like soup.  So I had to shake this up a bit and bring a spicy and savory twist to this traditional soup.  A true Tam Bram household never runs out of Sambar powder...yes it is very crazy but true that we get into panic mode if we run out of this. It is therefore the curry powder I chose to use in this recipe, but if you cannot find this, you can easily substitute with good quality curry powder that has not been in your pantry for years. Penzey's Spices in St.Louis has a wonderful curry powder that would be a great alternative and I have made this soup with both spice mixes and it tastes wonderful. Adding cinnamon to this soup counters the impact to your blood sugar caused by the sweetness in the butternut squash...something I always worry about whenever I cook. What can warm you more than a sweet and spicy butternut squash soup in fall/winter? 


1 large butternut squash or you can cheat and buy a box of the cubed fresh butternut squash
1/2 onion
2 cloves of garlic - diced
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
2-4 dried red chillies
2 tsp. Sambar powder/curry powder
2 tsp salt
2 tsp. olive oil
2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp cinnamon powder or 1 stick of cinnamon
3 Vegetable Bouillons and 1 cup water OR 1 cup vegetable stock 

For the Garnish:
10-12 sage leaves
1 tablespoon of salted butter

Now, let's start cooking

Preheat oven to 400 degrees farenheit.

Peal and cube the butternut squash into 1 inch cubes. There are many folks who insist on roasting the whole butternut squash, then peeling out the skin. I would whole heartedly agree with this technique if I were roasting eggplants, but for butternut squash, I have personally not seen a difference in flavor between the two ways of cooking and this way cooks faster. So either way works just fine.

Remove the Rosemary from the stem by pulling it apart in the opposite direction of the leaves. Leave them whole since these are going to roast away in the oven anyway. 

Toss with 2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil, salt, rosemary and black pepper. 

Spread out this mixture on a cookie sheet and roast in the oven for 30 mins until the squash is caramelized and your whole kitchen smells absolutely wonderful. 

Caramelization brings out the real flavor. 

In a sauce pot, add 2 tsp olive oil and roast the dry red chillies, garlic, vegetable bouillons (till they are all crumbled up) with onion until onion is tender. If you do not have vegetable bouillon, that's OK. Just use Vegetable stock later on for thinning out the soup.

Add the cinnamon and sambar powder to this mixture.

Now add the roasted squash to this mixture and 1/2 cup water to rinse out everything on the cookie sheet because you want all those caramel-ly yummy bits in your soup and in general I like to waste nothing.

Add the vegetable stock to this mixture until it comes to a boil.

If you used vegetable bouillon, please skip the stock and just add water. Adding stock to the bouillon will overpower the butternut squash flavor in the soup.

Using a powerful blender like Vitamix, puree this mixture and then add water to bring it to the right consistency.You are looking for a smooth consistency but not baby food either. It is important to use the right blender or the cinnamon stick will not puree. If you do not have one of those powerful blenders, simply use the Cinnamon powder. 

In a separate sauté pan, brown the salted butter on low heat and lightly roast the sage leaves till they turn crisp. You can also brown the sage leaves in Ghee or Clarified butter.
Serve soup in a bowl with 1-2 sage leaves per bowl and drizzle a little bit of the brown butter.

The Good in this Recipe

Butternut squash is low in calories, carbohydrates and is packed with Vitamins. At the top of the list is vitamin A, a nutritional element that helps with eye function. Butternut squash is also a major source of other vitamins like vitamin C, a classic antioxidant, as well as vitamins E and B6, and other nutrients like thiamin and riboflavin.It contains no saturated fats or cholesterol; however, is rich source of dietary fiber and phyto-nutrients. It is one of the common vegetables that often recommended by dieticians in the cholesterol controlling and weight reduction programs.It has similar mineral profile as that in pumpkin, containing adequate levels of minerals like iron, zinc, copper, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus.

Rosemary contains substances that are useful for stimulating the immune system, increasing circulation, and improving digestion. Rosemary also contains anti-inflammatory compounds that may make it useful for reducing the severity of asthma attacks. In addition, rosemary has been shown to increase the blood flow to the head and brain, improving concentration. Try adding a rosemary sprig to a warm bath or just leave it in your car and the great smell will be a fantastic and natural air freshener for days. Stick a stem of rosemary in your olive oil canister and it will perfume the oil over time. It is totally fuss free and evergreen, so try replacing one of your evergreens in your front yard with rosemary - not only will it welcome your guests with the amazing fragrance, it is also useful. 

Sage is a hardy perennial that literally grows like a weed with little or no care. There is lot of herbal research that has shown medicinal properties in this herb - anti inflammatory, gum protection properties, menopausal relief are a few to be named. Sage has an anti-spasmodic action, which reduces tension in smooth muscle, and it can be used in a steam inhalation for asthma attacks. It is an excellent remedy for helping to remove mucous congestion in the airways and for checking or preventing secondary infection. Its bitter component stimulates upper digestive secretions, intestinal mobility, bile flow, and pancreatic function, while the volatile oil has a carminative and stimulating effect on the digestion. For what it's worth, there is some mythology that shows that having sage in your garden can ward off evils! 

Cinnamon is just one of those spices that tastes fantastic.  But taste is not the only reason to love cinnamon.  Numerous studies show that cinnamon regulates blood sugar, making it a great choice for diabetics and hypoglycemics alike.  That’s also great news for anyone who wants stable energy levels and moods.It reduces LDL cholesterol levels.  LDL is also known as the harmful cholesterol.  Reducing it may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.It has natural anti-infectious compounds.  In studies, cinnamon has been effective against ulcer-causing H. pylori bacteria and other pathogens.It reduces pain linked to arthritisResearch shows promise that cinnamon may reduce the proliferation of cancer cells, holding promise for cancer prevention and sufferers of the disease. It is a natural food preservativeIt contains fiber, calcium, iron, and manganese—albeit small amounts to the typical dose of ground cinnamon. It’s been proven effective for menstrual pain and infertility.  Cinnamon contains a natural chemical called cinnamaldehyde, which studies show increases the hormone progesterone and decreases testosterone production in women, helping to balance hormones. Need I say more?