Perfect rice

 Pilau rice with turmeric and peas  

Pilau rice with turmeric and peas  

Cooking perfect rice is one of the essential skills in Indian home cooking. And the secret to this art? Buy the right rice and you're halfway there.

I would never recommend buying rice from the supermarket, you need to get yourself to an Indian grocery shop and find the best Basmati you can. Look for aged Basmati rice, beautiful long fragrant grains which will cook separately (Indian rice should never be soft and mushy).

You can even buy Sela Basmati, which is parboiled before milling to preserve its nutrients, and cooks even faster. Most Pakistani Basmati is good, a couple of the brands I buy include Dawaat, Lal Qila and Kohinoor. The rice comes in big five kilo bags, but it will last for ages.

The next trick is soaking the rice before you cook it. Always wash it well, and then leave it to rest in the water you are going to cook it in for at least 15 minutes, though half an hour is better.  In terms of the ratio of rice to water, I use 1:2 - a cup of rice (usually enough for four people) and 2 cups of water. You want the water level to be about an inch higher than the level of the rice in the pan.

To cook the rice, turn your heat to high and bring it to a boil. As soon as it boils, turn the heat down to very low, partially cover with a lid and cook for 10-12 minutes until all the water has evaporated, then turn the heat off. Put the lid on fully and leave the rice to keep cooking in its own steam for another 10 minutes, if you have an electric stove just keep it on the warm hob.

Always fluff the rice up before serving, you can drizzle in some olive oil or a spoon of butter or ghee.

There are infinite variations for flavouring rice as you cook it, and I have included a few below.  All quantities are based on a one cup serve of rice. If you are cooking more than a cup, you probably want to increase the amounts by one and a half.

Basic rice

Add a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of olive oil to the cooking water.... include this in all variations below.

 Jeera rice

Add a teaspoon of cumin seeds along with the salt and oil.

 Turmeric rice

Add half a teaspoon of turmeric along with the salt and oil, with or without cumin seeds as well.

Pilau rice

Whole garam masala adds a beautiful fragrance to your rice. Add a bay leaf, 3-4 cloves, 2-3 cardamom, a few peppercorns and a stick of cinnamon.  You can also fry these in a bit of oil first, then add the raw rice and water, but simply adding them to the water is fine.

You can also include half a teaspoon of cumin seeds, and half a teaspoon of turmeric.

Cooking liquid

Another easy variation is to change the cooking liquid. Instead of water, you can use stock (homemade chicken stock is amazing with all the whole spices), or even coconut milk.

Another option is to add a quartered tomato, or include some tomato passata in the liquid. Throwing in some frozen peas as the rice cooks is also nice.

Garnish

All sorts of garnishes work well on rice, especially if you have made a lovely yellow pea pilau, or a fragrant rice with stock.

Chopped herbs, coriander, spring onions or mint, or a bit of red chilli for colour are perfect.

Deep fried shallots or onions give a lovely crunchy texture, and this also pairs well with sliced hard boiled eggs.

There are so many more delicious ways to cook rice, lovely pilaus with lots of veggies, khichri, which is rice cooked with lentils, and lots of rice variaties to use, like brown and red rice.

I'll be posting some of these more complex recipes separately this year, so stay tuned.

Simple paneer cheese

 

Making paneer is one of life's small simple joys.  I think we're so used to buying all our food we sometimes forget how easy it is to make things yourself: I'm thinking bread, butter, cheese... recipes our grandmothers used to know by heart.

We've made paneer at The Bombay Cook Club a few times, and have been experimenting with adding flavours to it.  Here are suggestions for three we made recently, but you can experiment with adding things according to your own preferences once you've mastered the basics.

To make one small round of cheese you will need:

2 litres of full cream milk (you can also add cream as a portion of this for a richer cheese)

3-4 tablespoons of vinegar (we use apple cider vinegar but you can use any type)

1 teaspoon of salt

Bring the milk to boil in a large pan, stirring frequently so the bottom doesn't burn. Once it is boiling, add salt and any flavourings, then add the vinegar and keep stirring. The milk will split into curds and whey very quickly.  When it does, take the pan to the sink and strain the curds into a strainer lined with a muslin cloth, or nut milk bag.  If you'd like to save the whey, do so, it can be used in baking in place of buttermilk.

Wrap the muslin cloth tightly around the curds and squeeze as much liquid out as you can.  Form a pat and place it back in the strainer, with a heavy weight on top of it. Leave for half an hour, then unwrap: you should have a firm block of cheese you can slice, eat immediately, use to make palak paneer, or fry like halloumi.

To make flavoured paneer, you basically need to add your extras to the milk at the same time as you add salt as follows:

RED CHILLI AND CUMIN SEED PANEER

Use 1 teaspoon of red chilli flakes and 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds.

FRESH HERB PANEER

Use 1 tablespoon of a couple of different herbs: we used basil and garlic chives.

SWEET PANEER

Don't add salt to this one.  Instead add 2 teaspoons of brown sugar, a good pinch of cardamom powder and as much saffron as you can spare: around 1/3 of a teaspoon works.  We also added a tablespoon of finely chopped walnuts.  

We served our sweet paneer with honey.

You can use your paneer to make palak paneer, from the recipe on this site. 

 

 

 

Spice mama's recipe for healthy eating

 

Nutrition Australia released a new food pyramid this week, updating its advice on healthy eating for the first time in 15 years.  It promotes the consumption of lots more vegetables, legumes and grains, limiting salt consumption and most importantly, using herbs and spices to flavour food.

What I love about the new pyramid is the extent to which it reflects the range of foods and style of cooking towards which I am increasingly gravitating. Everything old really is new again, and the century old recipes I have been recreating from the books of my spice mama ancestresses fit perfectly into this healthy eating template. 

Indian food specializes in using a range of fresh, healthy natural ingredients paired with herbs and spices packed with antioxidant and health giving properties. 

Take turmeric for example, which has been used for thousands of years, and contains anti-inflammatory and potentially cancer and dementia reducing properties.

Cumin, which can improve digestion and immune system resistance. 

Cinnamon, which also aids digestion and can regulate blood sugar levels, and cloves, with their anti-bacterial properties. 

Cardamom is widely used not just in cooking but to treat mouth infections and digestive disorders. 

Pepper has also been used for its anti-bacterial properties, is a rich source of many vitamins and can also like so many of these spices boost immune resistance.  

Let’s also look at some of the other key ingredients in any curry - onions, garlic and ginger, all of which contribute to a healthy immune system. 

Chillies, packed to the brim with vitamins, anti-inflammatory properties and cardiovascular benefits (they are also supposed to help you lose weight, though I’m not convinced I have personally enjoyed that benefit yet).

I use all of these ingredients on a daily basis to replace the use of excess fats, salt, sugar and artificial flavourings and colourings in my cooking.  I can eat vegetarian food for days without missing meat, as long as its full of flavor – spicy Bombay potatoes with lots of turmeric, beans pungent with mustard seeds and cumin seeds, my favourite green chutney which is so full of healthy ingredients it beats a green juice any day.

When I was young many of these herbs and spices were also used for medicinal purposes.  We were always made to gargle with a potent mix of hot water, turmeric and salt if we felt a cough coming on – as much as I hated it, it worked, and I still do it.  I also remember a strange mixture of warm oil and garlic for earaches – but I’m not going near that one again.

So many people grow up with the idea of Indian food as the greasy but satisfying (after a few beers) fare produced by Indian restaurants around the world.  Indian home cooking is the polar opposite of this – fresh, healthy and packed with an amazing array of natural ingredients used for their flavor and medicinal potential for centuries.

The quest for exotic spices motivated the world’s first wave of globalization in the 14th and 15th centuries as European explorers searched for, discovered and colonized the sources of these precious commodities.  

Luckily for us, most of these once highly prized and valuable spices are now easily available on the shelves of our local supermarkets.  My bottle masala uses a mix of 20 natural spices, freshly roasted and ground to make the task of using them to flavor Indian food an easier one.  Turmeric and cumin are two other common spices you should always have on hand.

If you’re looking for an easy and very satisfying way of making your cooking and eating healthier, increasing your use of herbs and spices is highly recommended.