First published: Inside Toronto - August 11, 2015
I have this really cool idea; at least I think it is. I want to do a series on wonderful home cooks. You know the ones. These are the people in their ethnic community who everyone says really gets it. They just know how to mix and add and make everything that much tastier than anyone else.
I went to au pair and cook in the south of France many years ago. I realized how much “sameness” was in Europe and to a greater extent still is. Now don’t get me wrong, you and I both celebrate this “sameness” as it is what makes France have the best breads, Italy the best pasta or is that China? You get my drift. What makes Toronto truly incredible is I can travel to the best of the best Italian, Ethiopian, Korean and so on and not leave the comfort of my city.
We all know Toronto is a melting pot. Cultural diversity is our middle name. Our city is now on par or moving past both London and New York as the most culturally diverse city in the world. This is according to Michael Doucet, geography professor at Ryerson and Andrew Weir, vice president of communications at Tourism Toronto.
But what does this really mean? It means we can eat like queens and kings, travel the world and be home in time for bed. To me it means I can taste, learn and grow. I can open my mind and my heart to different cultures and religions through food. I believe we all are very similar in our core beliefs. We wish for peace on Earth, in our families and for our friends. No one I know believes a child should go hungry or uneducated. Food brings us together with its similarities and create a bond through sharing.
This leads me to my two new, and now good friends, Geeta and Tara Maini. Social media, like everything, has both its good and its bad qualities. For the sake of this article, I am going to focus on the good ones. I met these two lovely ladies, a mother and daughter, through pictures and posts on social media. Along with a good friend, I do these super fun events called Ladies Who Dine. These are food-driven evenings where we bring together women to network at a predetermined restaurant. The chosen establishment has the opportunity to entertain 30 to 40 women and receive some social media-driven comments. A win, win all around. On one of these nights, both Geeta and Tara joined in and we got to chatting about how to get a food group to India. One thing led to another and I was invited to their beautiful home to have lunch.
So you think you know what lunch is? Wrong! You don’t unless you have eaten at Nonna’s who tries to kill you with endless Italian and Argentine food. Geeta and Tara did a bang-up job turning me into the proverbial stuffed Christmas Goose with their multitude of delicacies. Did I mind? Hell no!
Let me tell you a bit about these very cool women. Both were born in Kenya where there is a large Indian heritage population. This, to an extent, has a lot to do with British rule in both Kenya and India. Many Indians came over both by choice and economics. The railroad was a huge part of the enticement. It has not always been easy, but let’s just say ethnic plight, not something I am not used to, makes one stronger. The cup is half full keep in mind.
OK back to these lovelies. Geeta and Tara come from a long line of great cooks. Geeta’s mom taught Tara how to rool roti and that stirring lentils is also important. Patience and time makes for great food. Geeta, who learnt from the same woman, came to Canada at an early age so actually had to learn over the phone, which back then made for some very costly cooking lessons. Geeta’s brother runs a food company in Kenya and a cousin is a trained chef. Tara must have figured that food was in her blood and cooking was a family sport so in she dove and now has a chef degree herself.
Geeta reminds me of Lydia Bastianich who, one could easily say, is the Mother of Italian Food in New York and now the world. An incredible woman with no formal training who was desperate for proper Italian food in a food desert many moons ago in New York. She began teaching how to cook out of boredom and the fact that her food is just that good. Geeta is a cooking teacher and cookbook author.
She is super smart and is on the go at all times. What I love about this mother and daughter team is the way they approach food. Geeta is the perfect traditional home cook. Remember when I spoke earlier about how important it is for traditions to remain traditions? Geeta is keeping true classic Indian cuisine alive. This is not easy as it is a huge country with many diversified cuisines, climates and various religions within it; all determining factors as to what ends up on the plate. Tara on the other hand has embraced the new world approach and is taking Indian cuisine for a drive on the highway around twisty turns to fun and funky. What I requested from both women is a recipe with two variations on the same theme. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
First recipe on the block: Tara Maini’s Cool Fritters
Indian Spiced Spinach and Ricotta Fritters
Serves: 4 to 6
2 cups freshly washed spinach, finely chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 1/4 cup ricotta salata or if necessary, Canadian feta as it crumbles well
1 tsp ginger, minced
1/2 tsp garlic, minced
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp red chili powder or fresh chopped chilies
1/2 tsp turmeric (optional, for colour)
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds, coarse ground. Smash under a rolling pin
1 tsp salt
coking oil, we recommend sunflower oil but if possible grapeseed
Mix all ingredients together in a medium-size bowl except the ricotta cheese. Make sure the batter is smooth.
Fold the ricotta in gently, making sure the ricotta doesn’t break.
Heat a non-stick pan on medium heat and coat the bottom with oil, approximately one knuckle’s worth.
Cook a small bit of the batter to taste for seasoning. Season appropriately.
Drop 2 tablespoons of the mixture for each and flatten lightly. Cook until golden brown and crisp. This takes about three to four minutes each side.
Place on a plate lined with paper towel mixed with freshly washed, finely chopped coriander for zing.
Repeat until all batter is used up.
Serve warm, with yogurt or a squeeze of lemon.
Re-heat in a single layer in the oven on 350 F for 10 minutes.
To make a complete meal, stuff in a pita shell with a yogurt sauce and greens.
Geeta’s Recipe for Palak Paneer Ka Milaap
Palak Paneer Ka Milaap
Growing up in Kenya it is made differently to the one from India. Unlike the saag, which is pureed spinach with the addition of paneer, my Mum made palak paneer without pureeing the spinach. This in my mind is the real palak paneer. Leafy spinach cooked with a blend of spices and each morsel of ricotta is enveloped in the chunkier spinach. I have taken my Mum’s recipe and modified it slightly. Simple enough to make and yet full of flavour.
1/2 cup oil, sunflower or grape seed, for frying and cooking
7 cups spinach, freshly washed, finely chopped (about three bunches), blanched for two to three minutes
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
3 cups paneer (Indian-style ricotta cheese), cubed (about one block of hard paneer)
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds, fresh roasted, coarsely crushed under a wine bottle
2 medium red onions, finely chopped
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
5 plum tomatoes, washed, seeded and finely chopped
2 tsp ginger, finely chopped
1 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1/2 tsp sugar, to taste
3/4 tsp garam masala
In a large pot, bring six cups of water to boil, add the chopped spinach and blanch it for two to three minutes.
Drain and run under cold water, squeeze excess liquid and set aside.
While the water is boiling in the above step, heat the oil in a large frypan on medium high heat.
Add the garlic and stir them slightly, cooking them (on medium high heat) to a golden brown. Remove the garlic chips with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper towel.
In the same oil, add the cubed paneer and shallow fry to a golden brown. Once browned on all sides, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a platter lined with a paper towel.
Remove all but 3 tablespoons of the oil from the frypan. On medium high, heat the oil, add the cumin and coriander seeds.
Once they begin to sizzle, add the red chilli powder and gently mix. This gives off a nice colour to the base of the dish.
Reduce the heat to medium and add the chopped onions, cooking them for about seven to eight minutes until nicely caramelized and a soft golden brown.
To the onions, add the tomatoes and ginger, stir to mix well and cook covered for three to five minutes until the tomatoes are soft and mushy
Add the spinach, fried garlic chips, milk and sugar to this tomato and onion mixture. Stir well and cook covered on medium low for five minutes and this will create a thick mixture.
Add the paneer cubes and cook this partially uncovered for three to four minutes on medium low to blend all the flavours together.
Sprinkle with the garam masala stirring it into the spinach and paneer.
Serve warm with any Indian bread, some condiments and pappadums if desired.
Tofu or Soy chunks can be substituted for the ricotta cheese
Paneer can be found in mainstream grocery stores in a block, vacuum packed.