September 25, 2010

In My Godmother's Kitchen

Some places are sacred. Not always for religious reasons, but because they are so very important. My Godmother’s kitchen is one of those places.

Annie has been in my life since I was born. More than just my Mother’s friend from years ago, she was there at every birthday party, at every recital, at every holiday. I had grandmothers, I have aunts, I have cousins, but she was something more and in my mind, deserved a title – and Godmother fit perfectly.

She introduced me to worlds that I may not have appreciated without her - modern dance, water color painting, and foreign films. Through all of our amazing outings and experiences, the thing I’ll remember most, however, is her kitchen table. There were enough sugar cookies decorated, valentines made, and laughter shared at that table to last a lifetime. We used to make chutney together as holiday gifts; if I concentrate I can still smell the simmering apples…

It was around that sacred table that we once again found ourselves laughing and cooking this weekend.  My mother met Annie at a meditation center in New York. Together they traveled to India to study with a famous Jain Guru; it’s an extraordinary story involving elephants, a sacred mountain, temples, a broken ankle, lots of cilantro, and Kashmiri houseboats. During that trip, Annie became friends with Pramoda, the Guru’s wife. From her, Annie learned to perfect the art of Guajarati’s classic vegetarian cuisine. Annie has a natural gift in the kitchen and I’d like to think that she helped spark my love of cooking.

So with a happy heart, I called my Godmother once again for another kitchen adventure.

Vangi Batata Bhaji is a classic Gujarati dish made with eggplants and potatoes. It’s a little spicy, a little smoky, and like almost everything, tastes so much better the next day! A few pointers: make sure that your spices are fresh. Indian food relies heavily on them and if they are old, dishes can turn bland or worst, bitter. Also, don’t skimp on the fresh lemon juice, it’s a lovely dish that really sings once you add that splash of brightness.

Vangi Batata Bhaji
3 eggplants (the long thin kind, like Chinese or Japanese eggplants)
3-4 potatoes (We used three large Yukon Gold. If the potatoes are on the smaller size use four. You want a nice balance of potato and eggplant)
4 tomatoes

1/2 onion
Salt to taste 
2 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala (a sweet spice mixture. It’s fairly easy to find but here is a recipe)
1 tsp turmeric powder
4 tbs oil (not olive oil. Sunflower, canola, something that won’t alter the taste of the dish)
2 cups water
1 1/2 tsp sugar
3 tbs fresh lemon or lime juice
Fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves for garnish

-Dice the tomatoes and onion finely. Peel the potatoes. Cut potatoes and eggplants roughly the same size, large cubes.
-Heat oil in pan, add the tomatoes, onion, salt, and turmeric powder. Cook for 4-5 minutes until aromatic and soft.
-Add the potatoes, eggplant, the rest of the spices, sugar and mix well. Add water, mix again.
-Bring to boil then let simmer uncovered until the potatoes are tender, the eggplant is soft, liquid has absorbed into the dish, about 15-20 minutes.
-Before serving, mix in the lemon juice and adjust salt. Serve with fresh cilantro leaves over rice.

Indian rice pudding, or Kheer, is a favorite desert of mine. I’ve never made it and surprisingly, neither had Annie. We decided to figure it out together - it came out perfectly. Be sure that you rinse the rice three times (or until the water runs clearly). I know it’s a drag, but it really makes a better dish. Kheer is much thinner than European/American style rice puddings; it’s closer to a sweet rice soup or porridge. The added delight of rosewater and the surprise crunch of slivered almonds makes this even more special.

You could easily replace the rose water with orange blossom water and instead of almonds try raisins or pistachios. Be careful with either the rosewater or the orange blossom water, a little bit goes a very long way. Also, whichever nuts you use, just don’t toast them; you want them there for crunch more than anything and toasted nuts have an intense flavor which would overtake the lovely subtleness of Kheer.

1/2 cup long grain rice (washed and drained, we used Basmati)
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 whole cardamom seeds, smashed (if you can't find whole seeds, use 1 tsp ground)
1/3 cup blanched, sliced or slivered almonds
4 tbsp sugar or more to your liking
2 tbs rosewater

-Bring rice, milk, cream, and cardamom seeds to a boil then simmer gently until the rice is soft and the milk has thickened, about 20-30 minutes.
-Fish out the cardamom pods with a fork, discard. Add the almonds and stir in the sugar gently with a fork until dissolved. Let simmer for about five minutes, adjust sugar to your liking.
-Before serving, gently mix in the rosewater with fork. This can be served warm or cold - personally I like it kind of room temperature. We garnished it with some candied ginger, but thats not necessarily traditional.


  1. congrats for moving to Challenge #2 - couldn't wait to read your post...not disappointed...

  2. Sounds delicious! As a vegetarian, I'll definitely try out the Vangi Batata Bhaji. Plus I love eggplant. I'd love to try to make the Kheer too, but I have no clue where to find rosewater. Our local grocery stores leave a lot to be desired. They are the reason I'm vegetarian & not straight up vegan actually (I love cheese & baked goods & I can't get soy cheese or the egg replacement stuff locally). :-\

    And congrats on making round two! You have my vote.

  3. Not only do your recipes sound great, I also love your stories. They make me want to keep reading your blog.

  4. What a beautiful story, the dish looks delicious. Must be very flavorful, Good luck with this round. Have a great week.

  5. I'm in love with Indian cooking and all the vegetarian dishes it offers. I can almost smell your bahji from here, in fact, reading your post made my stomach growl. I really like your writing, I'm sure you'll go far in this competition. Best of luck, you got my vote!

  6. What a beautiful story--you need to write a book! I love anything with garam masala and I can't wait to try making kheer. Glad to vote for you and keep the momentum up :)

  7. Just discovered you through the contest and loving your blog. You definitely have my vote :) and you should be able to make it through the next round with this dish.

  8. OMG that sounds soooo good! I'm going to have to try it. Voted for you. Good luck!

  9. i love your stories! you have my vote!

  10. I love hearing about all of your adventures in the kitchen and have just signed up for e-mails. Congrats on getting to the next level in the Food Buzz contest: well deserved. Good luck!

  11. Voted for you and good luck with PFB :)

    I would like to invite you to participate in my giveaway

    Here is my entry for PFB

  12. Delightful :) Annie sounds like a wonderful ally both in the kitchen and elsewhere. And I'm sure I've made a version of that eggplant + potato dish at one time or another - I remember it as being a divine plate of food...

  13. Lovely. What a great story! You've got my vote again! :)

  14. Sounds wonderful, and this is a great entry...Good luck :)

  15. I'm adoring these stories of yours, Duchess. :-) I just love the amazing tales from your life, these fabulous people that I'm getting to know through your words and descriptions. This dish sounds marvelous! :-)

  16. The Vangi Batata Bhaji sounds wonderful, and the rice sounds heavenly :)! Great job on this one :)!