Bhindi Aloo (Spiced Okra & Potatoes)

IMG_8376-2The first thing to be spotted in markets at the turn of April or May as soon as the short fairytale called winter is over is okra pods. It probably tops the list of summer vegetables in India. I would compare the hue and cry about it to sight of fresh tomatoes here. I would accompany my grandmother to our daily vegetable vendor, leaned over his cart and gazed at the pile of okra that occupied half of the space and observed how my grandmother chose the dark green, soft, slender ones while arguing about how costly he sold his produce. Almost each week, sometimes more than once, okra formed a part of our meals. My mother tells me that it was my grandfather’s favorite vegetable so our family recipe repertoire is packed with a lot of ways to cook it. As the summer progressed, by the months of July and august and with the knock of monsoons and okra slowly losing their crisp texture, only then the focus shifted to other vegetables.

However, it was not until I met the husband that I cooked okra with potatoes. Kid you not, I had not even heard about it in all my years of living in northern parts. It’s hard to say if his suggestion to do so was driven by his childhood food memories or his obnoxious need to combine potatoes with each and every food group possible, but the deal didn’t get too bad here and these two vegetables worked beautifully the first time I cooked them. We continued discussing for many years, each chance I got to get okra home as to how the recipe can get better and better until I mastered it.

These emerald looking, slender beauties pair with earthly flavor of starchy potatoes so well. On the lines of stuffed okra, I always add fennel seeds to my okra recipes and you will need to do that to know how deliciously this grassy vegetable braces the liquorice of that spice.Try it. The deal with dealing with all the nuances which people associate with okra is not to go too stingy on oil quantity  as well as not to let the vegetable steam too much while cooking. I cover it for no more than few initial minutes after its added to pan and then continue cooking uncovered till its done, this preserves the beautiful color as well as eliminates the chances of mushy okra.

Serve these as a side with daal (lentils ) and rice or with skillet fried flatbreads and chutney. It is good on side as well as on its own.

Zarda – Sweet Saffron Rice

A little while away, I got this immense craving to gorge on these sweet saffron rice. It was sparked by the sticky rice pudding that we relished a night before that day. Usually, if you follow me on Instagram or here on the blog, you would have noticed that there is more savory than sweet in my feed. I had this huge sweet tooth in my teens, but somehow it faded away as I grew older. There are certain things I enjoy, a delicious chunk of homemade gulab jamun and a moist slice of butter cake, but usually sugar doesn’t get me too too excited. Only when there is a good enough reason to make them, I retort towards making desserts at home. Buying a single serve slice from our favorite bakery almost always seems to be a superior option than baking and frosting a whole 9 inch round which will then lurk at me in the refrigerator for whole week. Its a bit too logical for some of you who swear by regular dessert making but that’s how I think.

Anyhow, that same night, chatting over a Thai food takeout, we delved into discussing new year traditions growing up. My husband recollected coconut sweet balls & rice pudding, both made with palm jaggery, a typical in east indian homes and I could only think of my grandmother’s zarda, only about it. That night, I must have dreamed  about it. The little puffy, steamy bubbles that surface on the top layer when a pot of  basmati is slowly boiled, or of the sniff of saffron which after filling each nook and corner of our big kitchen reached out to those sitting in the verandah through two large, dark brown windows with green painted grille. Next morning this sweet saffron rice was the only thing I could think of. Out of nowhere, in the middle of summer, but I just had to recreate those memories.

Each year, every year at the dawn of the first day of the year, I woke up to a quiet house with busy kitchen. BadI mummy (my grandma) standing right infront of the stove, rice boiling on one side and aroma wafting through a pot of simmering whole milk to which cloves, cardamom and nutmeg had been added. These blonde looking rice, she remarked were an incoming of prosperity into the house. In those days, we lived in a joint family and with few guests added on the new year eve along with distribution to all house help, the quantity of zarda to be cooked would be thrice the amount than usual. Speckled with ground cardamom and streaks of strong-smelling kashmiri zaffran(saffron) all through it, a bowl of it was so delicious garnished with a handful of nuts or raisins. Much like today, in those days saffron was exuberantly priced, so it came to life in cooking a few dishes on special occasions only. New Years day was one.

My mom got me these little packs of saffron from India a couple of weeks back, a delicate virgin variety of this spice, it is sharp and strong. A few strands is what it took to turn rice into a golden looking treat. This recipe can be easily made vegan by using full fat coconut or cashew milk and substituting any neutral oil in place of ghee. Try using a long grain basmati rice and be watchful during cooking period for separated, fluffy grains. I have included a few notes in the recipe which will help making this sweet rice delicacy an easy task.

Ingredients (Serves 3-4)

  • 1 cup long grain basmati rice
  • 1 green cardamom, break open
  • 3-4 cups water to par boil the rice
  • 1 tablespoon ghee (substitute with coconut oil for vegan)
  • 1 cup whole milk (use unsweetened cashew/full fat coconut milk for vegan)
  • 3 tablespoon ghee (substitute with coconut oil for vegan)
  • 2-3 green cardamom, break open
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 heaping teaspoon good quality saffron
  • 1 generous pinch of fresh ground nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar (can go upto 1 cup)
  • 3 tablespoon roasted, unsalted nuts (almonds, pistachios, cashews) + more for garnish
  • 2 tablespoon golden raisins + more for garnish

Notes

  1. Use good quality spices in this recipe.
  2. Different varieties of saffron have different sharpness and strength. Adjust the quantity depending on the brand you are using.
  3. To make the zarda more rich, instead of using roasted nuts, you can fry them in a small pan in 1/2 tablespoon of ghee and add on top.

Method

Wash the rice under running stream of water 2-3 times until the water runs clear. Soak the rice for 45 minutes in enough water (add a green cardamom to it) required for parboiling. You can soak rice in the same pot that you will use for cooking.

Once the rice has soaked. Parboil the rice until 80% cooked (takes about 10 minutes).The cooking time will depend on quality of rice.  To check the rice, take a grain and press it between the index finger and thumb. The rice grain will we brittle (break easily) and you will feel & see hard whitish bits in the center of the grain. Once the rice has parboiled, immediately drain it and gently mix a tablespoon of melted ghee in the warm rice.

 While the rice is boiling, add milk, 3 tablespoon ghee, cardamom and clove to a small pot and set it to simmer on a medium low flame. Let milk simmer for 5-7 minutes on low heat and then put the stove off. Once the milk has cooled off a bit and is warm(not hot) to touch add sugar, saffron and nutmeg to it. Let sit.

In the same pot in which you parboiled the rice, add the warm spiced milk sugar mixture. Very gently add the drained rice to the milk. Add the nuts and raisins. Cover and let cook on medium low heat for 10-12 minutes until all the milk is absorbed and the rice is completely done. Put the stove off.

After 15-20 minutes of sitting, gently fluff the rice with the help a fork.Garnish with more nuts and raisins if you want.

Serve warm or at room temperature.