Living the Good Life…

My food blog & cookbook in progress

Midnight feast

The first homemade meal we ever consumed in B-22 was that good old Punjabi classic, Rajma-chawal, the Indian version of rice and beans, only its called beans and rice in Hindi. It was well past midnight, closer to the next morning actually, and we were all quite hungry having helped Adam move some of his stuff over from his old apartment a couple of blocks over. Most other details of that evening are obscure now, although there is one clear memory of Manish and myself wondering at an enormous plastic coke bottle. About 3 feet tall, (or is that memory exaggerating?) it was filled with pennies. There must have been several hundred dollars worth of pennies in that thing. Adam must have traded it in or taken it over to his Mom’s at some point because I can’t remember ever seeing it again.

Anyway, working until the wee hours had left us all hungry, and with no eateries open that late, I decided to initiate our kitchen with the ingredients at hand. Either Manish or Chris had brought over some of the items from their kitchens, or maybe I had made a quick trip to the grocery earlier but we had the basics – rice, a can of beans, onions, and tomatoes. We also had small arsenal in Indian spices. Not only was there the stash – regularly refreshed and replenished – that migrates from house to house with me as I move, but Adam was possessed of a set as well, a Christmas gift or something of the most beautiful boxes done up in Muglai art with a small cookbook included. So we were set. Less than one hour later the four of us – Adam, Chris, Manish and myself sat down to a pre-dawn meal, in what was to be our home.

A bowl of rajma


The midnight quickie version:

Dice one small onion or half of a large one. Chop coarsely a small knob of ginger and/or 1-2 cloves of garlic. (The proportion of ginger and garlic may be varied according to personal preference. In my parent’s home we seldom add garlic for they don’t care for it.) In a small saucepan heat 1 Tbsp of oil. When warm, add 1 small stick of cinnamon, 1-2 cloves and 1-2 pods of cardamom*, and some whole black peppercorns. You should be able to hear the spices sizzle as they hit the hot oil. Then add the chopped onions etc. and sauté still softened but not browned. Add 1-2 chopped tomatoes (fresh or from a can, it doesn’t matter. Even 1-2 Tbsp tomato puree is fine if that’s all you have) and 1 green chilly (you can substitute this with a Jalapeno pepper but NOT Habanero – the latter has a flavor that does not blend particularly well with Indian food) cut up into visible pieces. Continue sautéing until the tomatoes have been incorporated into the mixture*. Stir in 1 can red kidney beans. * Add just enough water to cover. At this point you should season the gravy with salt*, ½ tsp of turmeric and some red chilly powder (a.k.a. cayenne pepper)* depending on the heat of the green chilly and your preferred spice level. Bring to a boil and turn down to simmer to let the flavors meld and the gravy thicken slightly. The consistency of the finished dish should be quite soupy.

Just before serving garnish with some chopped fresh cilantro (we call them coriander leaves in India). Serve with plain boiled rice – preferably Basmati, although the Thai Jasmine rice is nearly as good – and plain yogurt* or a raita* on the side if you wish.

*Rajma Notes:

(i) Cardamom (elaichi) is available in 2 distinct varieties, at least in India. The more common variety that is available in virtually any supermarket today is a greenish-grey oblong pod about the size of a pea. The second, less commonly known variety is larger in size – comparable to a nutmeg or a peachstone – and black in color and has an earthier flavor. It is called “badi” (big) or “kali” (black) elaichi. You may find it in Indian grocery stores or in specialized spice stores. When it’s available, I like to use the large black variety in savory dishes like rajma. The green pods, more delicate in flavor, are especially good in chai and sweets but may be used in any dish that calls for cardamom. Be warned that substitution between the two varieties is a one-way street – the black pods are not typically used in sweets.

(ii) My Mom has devised still another short cut whereby she cooks up a large batch of this onion/ginger/garlic/tomato mixture (an Indian sofrito) and stores it in a jar in the fridge. Then when she’s cooking, she simply uses several tablespoons of this paste. If you go this route (assuming you already have this mixture at hand) add some turmeric to the mixture as it helps keep the mixture from spoiling quickly. Since this mixture lacks any of the whole spices remember to add these ingredient to the pot of beans at the same time as the wet spices.

(iii) While red kidney beans are the classic for this dish, you may prepare many other canned beans in just this manner. Black beans have been a common substitute, as have pinto beans. More recently, in Egypt, I used canned fava beans to good effect. Somehow, and this is just a personal preference, I never use garbanzo beans/chick peas in this way. The basic recipe for garbanzos or chole, another Punjabi classic, is the subject of another page.

(iv) When using canned vegetables and beans, I typically like to drain and rinse the food in a colander first to get rid of the tinny taste as well as any added preservative. Kidney beans, especially if they are of the organic variety, are one exception for I find that the liquid gives a nice thickening texture to the gravy of the dish. If you do decide to go this route be sure to adjust your seasonings according to the amount of salt in the mixture.

(v) In the best-case scenario, you should use Kashmiri mirch, a red chilly powder from the Kashmir region, which is available in most Indian groceries in N. America nowadays. It gives a special deep red color to the gravy but any good quality hot cayenne will work just fine.

(vi) Yogurt in some form or another is integral to an Indian meal. Adam, like the good South Indian son-in-law he eventually became, very quickly learned to never sit down to a meal without a dish of yoghurt to accompany his meal to cool off his mouth when the going got too hot.

(vii) Raita is simply side dish made of yogurt mixed with any vegetable, most commonly cucumber, which complements the rest of the meal. Due to the popularity of yogurt and its derivatives among friends and guests, I have reserved a small chapter for directions on homemade yogurt as well as some tried and tested variations of raita.

While the quick version of Rajma is good, the end product is distinctly superior in both taste and texture if you have the time to make this dish from scratch. In this case, you stew red kidney beans overnight in a crock-pot (slow cooker) on a low setting, sans anything else (adding salt to the beans while cooking them from scratch seems to toughen the skin somewhat so add salt later). The next day, prepare the gravy as described above (minus stirring the beans in) using the liquid from the bean pot to thin out the onion mixture. Add this mixture back to the crock-pot and let cook for a couple of more hours on a low setting until flavors are melded.

Yet another way to cook beans from scratch is to use a pressure cooker. In this case you should first soak the beans. Cook soaked beans under pressure until done (use the manufacturer’s guidelines for time), add the sautéed gravy mixture, and cook under pressure for one more short cycle.


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