Rice with a Twist: Transforming the Mundane and Boring

Ajwain rice spiced with cardamon pod, cinnamon stick, and shredded cilantro. Also on the plate are field greens and a sliced heirloom tomato from my CSA, plus my mixed bean dish.

“I cook rice.”

You say, “What’s the big deal?  Tis easy!  Ratio of 1 cup of rice to 2 cups of water, heat to boil, simmer until water absorbed and you are done.  They even have rice cookers for those of us who are kitchen challenged, or too lazy to monitor and determine when the rice is done.  No risk of burning at all, and the rice kept nice and warm.”

“True, very true… But, how about changing things up a bit?”

I did just that.

Cooking 2 cups of organic long grain brown rice in 4 cups of water I added a new item: 1/3 teaspoon of ajwain seeds.  I had first seen ajwain/carom seeds added to bread dough by my mom some years back.  But what was the connection – for me – from bread to rice? Why and how did I make that leap?

Previously, I had used whole cumin seeds when cooking rice, and it is a common Indian spice additive.  Both ajwain and cumin seeds are whole seed spices, with similar yet still distinctively different taste profiles.  Ajwain imparts a particularly pungent and bitter aromatic flavor.  I connected two similar spices (cumin and ajwain) used in cooking carbohydrates (rice and bread) and made the switch.  I tried ajwain once, liked the end result, and now I have a new simple way to make rice with a difference.

Creativity in cooking is not about big changes and complicated procedures and processes.  It can be as little as switching an ingredient, making a connection between your current use in one carbohydrate (bread) and trying it in a different one – rice.  Other items that I have successfully used include cardamon pods, cinnamon sticks, cilantro and a whole cayenne pepper.

The final step?  Presentation.  Food that looks good stimulates the appetite.  To freshly prepared steaming rice I added some shredded cilantro.  With my mixed bean dish to the side, and field greens from my CSA, we have a feast for all the senses – sight, smell and taste. Bon Appetit!

N.B. 9/3/12. I just read this article on Oprah.com where Ted Allen changes common dinners by changing one ingredient in the dish.


The Steamer and Boiler Veggie Battle

Freshly steamed green beans. Pull the steamer basket right out of the pot using the center O ring, and serve direct.

“Eat your veggies” seems a common refrain of childhood, and that battle over veggies continues as an adult, with many of us carrying the fight over by struggling to include enough vegetables in our daily diet.  This does not have to be so, and I submit that the biggest culprit is the way we prepare them.

Looking at the steamed green beans with their vivid color and presentation right from the cooking pot makes me want to grab a few right now.  Takes minutes to make, is bursting with flavor and texture, and chock full of vitamins and minerals.  Avoid the boiling method as cooking in water for long time easily destroys the vitamins, significantly reducing the nutritional value.

It was around 2000/2001 that I bought my stainless steel steamer basket, tried it once, and have never looked back. And my intake of veggies has exponentially increased.

Steaming green beans is easy:  I add not more than 1/8th inch water in the cooking pot, add the steamer, veggies to the steamer, and close.  When I see steam coming out I turn off the heat, close the steam valve, and wait. (Note that I use a fancy pot as I really am into cooking.  You can do just as well with any cooking pot that you have, as I used to when I started out.) About 5 minutes later I take the steamer of veggies out, and run under cold water to arrest the cooking process and keep the green beans vivid and firm. La voila! You get the green beans that you see in the picture above.

You can steam almost any veggie that you want to.  How long you steam depends on veggie and size.  I have steamed broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, asparagus, artichokes, zucchini, green beans (also known as French beans and string beans), potatoes, and leafy greens.  Potatoes take the longest and leafy greens the least amount of time.

Steaming is an easy cook method for even those who say “I cannot cook”.  All you need to get started is a steamer basket, which is readily available at a reasonable price.  I got mine for less than nine dollars at Bed Bath and Beyond.  I actually bought a steamer basket for a friend today, and I’m predicting another future steaming convert in the very near future.

Chick Peas and Swiss Chard with Amaranth

This weekend I cooked chickpeas with Swiss chard and the end result was delicious, so I thought that I would share.

Ingredients: 1 cup of pressure cooked chick peas (can use canned ones if you wish), pepper, two green chilies, a handful of purple basil, salt, cumin seed powder,coriander powder, chili powder, tumeric powder, .25tsp of cinnamon powder, two small cardamon cloves, crushed ginger (not more than .25 tsp), three crushed cloves of garlic, large onion, large tomato, and 8/9 Swiss Chard leaves.

Chop up large onion and saute in oil, add spices to taste (Watch out for turmeric and ginger – how much you add of those as too much can make a dish bitter.  I would say it is ok to add up to a level teaspoon of cumin and coriander. Black pepper and chili powder add pungency=heat so add according to how hot you want it to be.)  Add chopped up tomato, and then chopped basil.  Add chickpeas and after cooking for about 10 minutes, add the chopped Swiss chard on top, and cook for another 5, turn off heat, and mix Swiss chard with chick peas and let sit for another ten.  Ready to eat!

I cooked the amaranth separately using a ratio of 2.25 cups of water to 1 cup of amaranth.  Bring to boil and then let simmer until cooked.

Chick Peas in a Spicy Tamarind Sauce

To a hot pot with oil add 2 small chopped onions, and after frying for a while add spices.  Add a tsp of cumin powder, a pinch of turmeric, half a tsp of black pepper, two tsp of chopped garlic in water, a pinch of crushed ginger, a tsp of chili powder, and 1/4 tsp of cinnamon powder.  Mix and let fry for 5 or so minutes before adding a large chopped tomato.  Then add 1 cup of chick peas (otherwise known as garbanzo beans), a tablespoon of Maggi tamarind sauce, two hot peppers, and a handful of chopped cilantro. Let simmer for 15/20 minutes so that the peas absorb the flavors.  Voila! You have spicy chick peas in a tamarind sauce.

Spicy Mini-Burger Patties

So, one thing that I like to do is make up big quantities and freeze portions, and this process is ideal for mini-burgers.  Once you have it prepared the mixture you can use it to make normal size burger patties, make meat balls..dip in batter and then breadcrumbs before frying/baking to make it a little different…let your creativity run free! I have deliberately written this in a free flowing format rather than using a typical recipe style as this is how I make it, and if I haven’t made it in a long time I need to experiment a little, as I ask you to do.

I take 1 lb of ground meat, a large finely chopped onion, a finely chopped hot pepper, chili powder, cumin seed powder, black pepper, chili powder, turmeric powder, cinnamon powder, 4 crushed garlic cloves, half a tsp of ginger, a couple pinches of salt, two eggs, bread crumbs, a tablespoon of lime juice, chopped cilantro and mix well.  Spices are to taste.  Add a little first and then if you fry and it needs more add some more.  Quarter teaspoon of each spice powder with half teaspoon of cumin, 1/8 tsp of turmeric should be a safe bet to start out with. I add enough bread crumbs so that the meat does not fall apart and liquid does not come out when frying.  Trial and error.

The cilantro really adds a nice piquancy to the mixture.  Now that it is prepared you can make portions of the final mixture and freeze to take out and make fresh when you want to use it.  This helps speed up making meals.  Alternatively you can make the entire lot and freeze.  That works pretty well, too, but it isn’t as good as freshly made.

Note that some people put the entire mixture through a food processor so that you don’t see/feel pieces of onion etc…That is an extra step that you can add.  To make the patties you can fry or bake.  I’ve done both and they come out fine.

In terms of ground meat I have used chicken, fish, turkey…the outline that I have given is for ground beef.  For fish, for example, I would definitely use ginger and garlic more sparingly.

The egg is used as a binding agent.  The yolk makes it richer, but if you worried about cholesterol etc you can skip the yolks and add more whites.         

Ox Tail

Yup, you read it, ox tail, or otherwise knows as cow’s tail.  Skin this, and pressure cook it and you get some of the richest tasting meat that melts in your mouth.  This weekend I made some.  After pressure cooking with garlic,ginger,black pepper and a little salt I take off the liquid and let it cool down, removing the fat that collects at the top.  Then I make a base of fried chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, cumin, black pepper, chili powder, and a hot pepper.  To the base I add the oxtail, the cooled liquid and let it simmer for half an hour.  Le voila!  It is ready!

The oxtail is also great as a soup base.  I have fond childhood memories of oxtail soup.  Yum.

Another great childhood treat is the other extremity of the cow – the tongue.  But that is for another day. 

Whole wheat bread

Ingredients:2 2/3 cup wheat four, 1/3 cup gluten, 2 tsp brown sugar, 2 slightly heaped tsp yeast, 1/3 tsp salt, 5 tsp oil, water as needed

Warm up some water in a bowl, and add 1 tsp brown sugar, 1 tsp wheat gluten, 1 tsp wheat flour. Dip finger to make sure water is luke warm. Add yeast. Let sit until the surface is covered with reacted yeast and bubbles. It usually takes couple minutes. Add this mixture to remaining dry ingredients in a large bowl. Knead, adding water as necessary until all the flour is incorporated and dough stops being sticky. Add 5 tsp oil and then knead until oil in incorporated. Total time from adding liquid to dry ingredients to final dough is usually under 30 minutes.
Cover bowl and put in luke warm oven (I heat oven for a minute or two) to rise. After an hour take out, put in oiled baking pans (you can make little more than a loaf or buns) and put back in oven to rise for 45 minutes. Remove, preheat oven to 350, then bake for 25 minutes.


This rice and lentil dish is an easy way to make a nutritious healthy and delicious one pot meal. This is even easier than the traditional khichdi, if you can imagine such a thing.

Ingredients: 1 cup rice, 1/2 cup lentils (any of your choice from masoor, moong, French, mung….), 1/4 tsp salt, pinches of whatever spices you like (tumeric, garam masala, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamon), 1/2 an onion and 1/2 a tomato, 3 cups water.

Wash rice and lentils well, then add three cups of water. Add the spices, cut tomato and onion. Cook until the water is boiling, stir and then cover pot and let simmer until all the water is absorbed. It usually takes about 35/40 minutes of simmering. Sometimes I have added veggies as well when I turn down the heat and let it simmer.

How much time you need to cook will vary on the rice and lentil you use and type of stove you have. I always cook with brown rice which takes longer. Using white rice and red lentils will result in a shorter cooking time.

Black Bean Xacuti Curry

There is no excuse not to make quick and delicious home cooked meals nowadays. And it’s very easy to make different dishes with the plethora of readymade spice mixes available. Today afternoon my spice was xacuti powder. I fried a cut onion, added a cut tomato, ginger garlic paste, pepper, a little salt and xacuti spice. Added black beans last and simmered. Dish in a nutshell!

Don’t like xacuti, or interested in other flavors? Use a different readymade mix and you can get a different dish. For example one, you can make cooking even easier, use an Italian tomato sauce instead of cutting a tomato and get an Italian flavored dish.

Black Eye Pea Curry

When I cook I use recipes as a guideline. I take the inspiration provided and make it my own. Just one ingredient can transform a dish. I made black eye pea curry today. It was good, then thought of adding tamarind sauce and wow! Nice tang on the palate! Too often we stop before taking that additional step that would lead us to transforming experiences. Maybe we should all try going beyond the usual more often. Anyway abbreviated bean recipe follows:

Soak a cup of beans, and then pressure cook until melting soft. In a pan heat oil and then add mustard and curry leaves. Add jeera/cumin seed and cook. Add a little fenugeek, but don’t cook long. Add onion and fry, together with black pepper, chili powder, turmeric. Then add tomato and garlic and cook. Add pressure cooked beans and mix. The dish is done. Can be had as is or add the tamarind for that tang!