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Feature Fri Dec 05 2008

Helping Perfect a South Indian Stew

Sambar is a South Indian stew that is tricky to get used to making - especially when you're not measuring. You need to get the right feel for how toor dal, the critical ingredient, helps create just the right thin, chowdery consistency. I'd been following my South Indian friend Vidya's fabulous instructions and meticulous step-by-step photos, logging my trials in a previous post, but something still wasn't perfect.

Then about a month and a half ago, I asked my friend Satya to come over and help me connect some dots, to give a sort of live demonstration to the instructions I'd been following. Except that we followed Satya's own method. Having grown up in Bombay, north of Vidya's Mangalore, she's quite familiar with how to make a sambar. But recipes vary between regions, and Satya likes her sambar a little thin and soupy. And she wasn't blending the shredded coconut that Vidya had used, a treat that definitely added some thickness. Satya's version was smooth and light. I had prepared an acorn squash upon her request, snapping its stem off to fit it in my toaster oven. Even though the current bitter cold makes me forget about fall and the amazing squashes that autumn brings, sambar with squash would still be a comforting, warm treat.

After Satya had left and her demonstration had set in weeks later, I'd become ready for another go at sambar: Number Six. I think two main points had become instilled in me by now. First, cook the toor dal until it's soft and thick. And, second, plenty of blended coconut definitely can't do any damage to trying to make a thick sambar. Days later, I'd been reheating the leftovers of my Sambar Number Six again and again, feeling like I'd finally corrected the big mistakes I'd made before. Except perhaps one: my sambar was a bit too thick, something not at all helped by the thickening that inevitably sets in when stews sit waiting in a fridge. I loosened it up with water and it was brilliantly going well with fresh-made dosas using a tub of pre-made dosa batter from the refrigerated case in the back of Patel Brothers on Devon Avenue. (Make sure to dilute the batter as well, to about the consistency of pancake batter.)

Satya's Sambar Step 22. Eat

Here are my observations on Satya's Sambar 5.

Satya's Sambar Step 1. Satya's Chop
Oct 15, 2008: This was the fifth version of it to come from my kitchen. We started off with some brown basmati rice, cooking it per its bag's instructions, one cup of rice to two cups of water, with a little salt and (in my kitchen) olive oil (not at all Indian as far as I know). Satya had brought toor dal - the critical ingredient of sambar - cooked already from her kitchen, and was reheating it with more water on my stove. I turned up the music, my latest favorites from rcrdlbl.com, and watched her. She added a tiny spoonful of tamarind paste (to taste), mixing it into the pot of dal and water that was going to come to simmer. Satya chopped the onion, demonstrating her ideal size being a long and wide curl (see photo above), before adding that, too, to the dal. More and more shakes of salt would go into the sambar as we progressed, to taste as it developed.

Satya's Sambar Step 7. Slice Acorn Squash-2
When the acorn squash was tender and hot, right out of the perfectly-sized 350 F degree toaster oven, Satya grabbed a half straight away with her pain averting hands, just like she would grab the hot spoon that had been long sitting in the simmering pot of scalding sambar - and just like she would in a simple Bombay kitchen, she told me. She chopped up the squash into chunks, keeping the skin on. (I had oiled and salted the insides before baking each half open-side down, after scooping the seeds).

Satya's Sambar Step 10. Sambar Powder
Cook the sambar until the onions are a little translucent. You don't want them to be raw. Satya mixed in a few teaspoons of store bought, packaged sambar powder. She used plenty of water to make the sambar runny. Use less, obviously, to make it thick. Next, the squash goes in, followed by tomato that's been chopped into chunks. This sambar was plenty hearty from its chunkiness.

Satya's Sambar Step 19. Add Curry Leaves
Let the pot of sambar stew for a bit. Meanwhile, in a small pan on the side, heat some 2 or 3 tablespoons of oil. When it gets hot, runny and perhaps a bit fragrant, add a small handful of black mustard seeds. Try just one seed first to see if it sizzles, the sure sign of hot and ready oil. When all of the seeds are sputtering, Satya's intuition told her it was time to add a handful of cumin seeds and a few fresh curry leaves. When this is fragrant, pour it into the pot of sambar. Although Satya didn't blend in coconut, she suggested you could put some coconut shavings on top of the sambar, but she skips this.

Satya's Sambar Step 21. Done
We poured our sambar over the rice and ate up, with a side of sautéed, salted arugula. I asked why toor dal is the type of dal used in sambar. It's like using couscous in couscous. Use anything else, and it wouldn't be couscous - just like you can't have pasta without pasta. Squash is seasonal, so skip it if you don't have it. Sweet potatoes would work just as well.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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