September 26, 2013

Reflections from a Modern Indian Kitchen I: A few easy-to-make must-haves

There's no arguing about how fast-paced life has become today. We've meetings, deadlines, ambitions, stress and there's very little time to eat, let alone cook. It takes a toll on health and I'm sure most of us have faced situations where we're tired of eating at Mc Donald's four out of five working days in a week or simply tired of eating out. Those of us who don't have a cook (like me) and sometimes even those who do (when the cook is away or you don't want to eat the actual 'meal-food') are very familiar with the times when we're dog-tired and do not have energy to so much as cut a carrot but are sick of ordering from the same 'near the home restaurant' again. After my stunts in the kitchen, I realized there're a few things which I would always want to keep a stock of - Some healthy options and some not-healthy-but-happy-energizing options:

1. Crackers, rusks, biscuits and cookies: Health-freaks can try out the no-sugar crackers or Marie-lite (like me). You can savor with chai at leisure. Cookies are a must for mood-uplifting - I would prefer Oreo :P Suit yourself based on what you like! I would recommend keeping more low-fat options and one good mood-uplifting option in stock :)

2. Nuts & raisins (also, pumpkin seeds maybe..?): Instant energy. Almonds, pistachios, kishmish, dates, peanuts & cashew/khaju (not as healthy..but yummy!!). Need I say more? Just drop in a few into your mouth to be instantly energized or get creative to mix them with bread-spreads. 

Note: Cut-cashew and almond/badam flakes which can be readily used for adding in the preparation of other dishes are available now. So you can buy them directly based on what you're planning to use them for. I buy cut-khaju as I use cashew mostly in other dishes and whole-almonds as I like to eat them directly.

Speaking of badam, I'm planning to try this easy-to-make version of badam-milk: Soak lots of badam for long time (> 6 hours) and mix with cold milk on a blender. Lemme see how it works...

3. Bread and of course, a wide array of  bread-spreads: You can choose from lots of healthy & not-so-healthy options - Many are filling, give instant energy & taste yummy. Honey , NutraLite, peanut-butter (I love this), Nutella (Chocolate fans should dig into this one), low fat cheese, fruit jams, marmalade.... And there's a whole array of sandwich-spreads there to explore - even if you don't have a filling, just the spread should suffice!! And when in no mood to even toast bread, you can always put it in milk with sugar. Our crash-version of bread-pudding is ready!! People with more culinary orientations & refined taste-buds can explore the slightly (mind you - I said slightly!) more complicated & less healthy options like bread-pakora and bread-n-butter pudding :D

Tip: If you want to toast the bread, store it in the deep-freezer. The bread becomes nicely crisp when you heat it on the pan. If you want to eat it with milk or use for puddings, store in the regular compartment of your refrigerator or outside.

4. Eggs: There's a whole new dimension now!! The no. of yummy wholesome options eggs present is amazing. Boil and eat as a side with some main-dish or simply eat with/without pickle. Or boil, cut and eat with salt n pepper/spices. Omlette & scrambled eggs are world favorites. Even in these two dishes, there're so many versions. Simple omlette, Indian masala omlette with onion and/or mirchi, tomato omlette - You can always experiment by adding other vegetables (spinach, pudina, carrot for instance). There're quite some options with scrambled eggs too: Simple scrambled eggs without oil & just salt n pepper (my favorite) or the Indian famous egg-bhurji with mirchi and/or onions and/or tomatoes (I don't like tomatoes in mine). Egg-based dishes are life-saving options for me to fall back on when I'm in no mood to cut or wait forever to watch the vegetables get cooked. There're so many versions of egg-curries & egg-fries in India. Boil eggs, cut them to pieces and fry them with your choice of tadka to make a yummy egg-fry. Boil eggs, cut them to pieces or keep them whole and add to your choice of gravy for egg-curry. And one can always add other vegetables like capsicum, mushrooms etc. with eggs in curries (works especially when you've unexpected guests and less quantity of the other vegetable). 

Bread + Eggs: Mix eggs with bread and we have a few of India's most popular breakfast cum snack dishes: Bread-omlette.. or omlette-bread based on whether you place the omlette between bread slices or dip bread in raw egg and toast it. Then there's egg sandwich - one can always add more layers to it - egg n cheese, egg n tomato are some more classic combinations in the West.

5. Ready-to-drink drinks: Juice (me and my ex-flatmate always keep stock of Real Activ juices), tetra-pack milk (slim-milk: based on your preference but has to be tetra-pack - no boiling please!!) & Amul buttermilk (this is just me but you might want to consider too - it's healthy!). You also have fizzy drinks and other stuff but I wouldn't recommend them - I think we drink enough soft drinks outside so it's better to keep the 'at-home' options healthy!!

6. Ready-to-eat cereals (read corn-flakes/wheat-flakes/any-flakes, museli or oats if you like them): The most filling, healthy, yummy breakfast options. My health-freak friend eats oats with milk and fruits (no sugar) for breakfast. I can't eat oats without sugar so my standard breakfast has become museli. Another yummy, no-nonsense option is to have poha (beaten rice) with milk & sugar. Just soak poha (both thick & thin versions work) for a couple of minutes and try it. I love it.

7. Fruits: Especially the minimal cutting/peeling ones like grapes, oranges, apples, bananas (should try a smoothie with milk), strawberries, guavas etc. And the seasonal lychees, custard-apples & mangoes. I would put water-melons, musk-melons, pomegranates and papayas in the very-yummy-but-painful-to-cut category!! Umm kiwis & chikkus? Somewhere in between maybe. But it's good to have a stock of fruit-mix from all categories so that you can choose what to eat based on the energy at that point of time.

8. Vermicelli, poha & instant noodles: Instant noodles is my last-option scenario because I'm sort of cautious about health. But it's an excellent option if a tasty, quick-to-make dish is all one is looking for. Being a South-Indian, there're times when I want to eat something more 'traditional dish-like' food. Vermicelli and poha are the first line of rescue then. Talking of vermicelli, I mean the roasted one of course. After all, this whole post is about minimizing our efforts! Just add tadka and boil vermicelli for 5-10 mins - We have South India's favorite semiya upma. Or boil with milk & sugar to make an equally popular South Indian desert kheer. Poha is more of a North-Indian favorite but I love poha because of the simplicity involved in preparing it. And I had to face situations without a pressure-cooker so I used poha as the main-dish instead of boiled rice to eat with sides (read curries). Works well as it has a simple-taste which is good to be accompanied with anything.

My recipe for poha: Heat oil in a kadai/pan and add mustard & cumin-seeds (based availability). Add lentil-seeds, curry-leaves as per your preference. Fry green-chilies and thinly-cut onions (onions can be skipped if you don't have energy to cut them but they add to the taste) in this. Now, wash poha in water and soak for a minute (Usually the amount of time required to remove the water in which you've washed is enough). Remove water and add poha to the tadka. Stir after adding turmeric & salt as per your taste for 3-4 minutes :)

What are your quick-to-make/ready-to-eat must-haves? I would be at peace if I have atleast some of the above items stocked in my kitchen.