Sunday, March 2, 2014

Indian Brunch Part 1: Upma (Cream of Wheat with Stir-Fried Vegetables)

India is a stupendously diverse place, you guys.

Every time I refer to something as "Indian" I get a little ping of guilt.  Not only is the country itself huge, it's chockabock full of hundreds of different subcultures that vary by caste, ethnic group, religion, region, and of course the normal variation that occurs just from family to family.  To help confuse things more, when I say "Indian" I often mean "South Asian, generally," or "countries in the Indian sub-continent," because several countries in South Asia have a number of similarities across culture and cuisine and it's difficult to hone in on what precisely I mean without the wording getting awkward.  It's kind of like how people refer to America when a number of things that are true for the U.S. are also true for Canada, but maybe not the case across the entire North American continent.  Or the difficulty that some of us experience when trying to refer to places in and around the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.  These things get tricky.

So when I say this is an "Indian" brunch, I'm using that as a shorthand to refer to a couple dishes I put together this past weekend using savory, produce-filled breakfast-type foods that are sometimes served in parts of South Asia, though I've added some fusion elements to bring it more in line with my own tastes.  As if all that weren't confusing enough, part of the brunch was a dish called akoori, or Parsi eggs, which have a middle-eastern influence.

Although I made the upma and the akoori together for a single Sunday brunch, there is nothing in the world stopping you from making them separately.  To my knowledge they're not commonly eaten together.  I like the idea that both are similar to western breakfast foods and the carbs in the cream of wheat complement the protein in the eggs, resulting in a more balanced meal than either provided on their own.

Do what makes you happiest, I say.  And as always scroll to the bottom if you want the condensed recipe.

Upma (Savory Cream of Wheat with Stir-Fried Veggies)

Total Time:  About 20-30 minutes, depending on how fast you chop.
Weirdest Ingredient:  curry leaves
Credits:  Believe it or not, I first spotted a version of this recipe in a Betty Crocker cookbook that Doc got me the week I moved in with him.  From there I adapted it using influences from Veg Recipes of India, Vegan Richa, and Indiaphile.  Making upma is like making oatmeal: you can personalize it pretty much any way you want, so please feel free to get creative with the ingredients.

Because this all comes together so fast I suggest gathering all the ingredients first and then cooking.  Normally I tend to dig things out as I go, but for this I line it all up ahead of time.  Which, as you probably know, is how "real" cooks do it.  I never seem to have the patience to think that far ahead unless there's a reason I need to move quickly.

First, let's talk terminology.  Semolina is a wheat by-product made from soft (durum) wheat and is coarser than flour.  When boiled with water, it makes a porridge that -- depending on your location -- is called either cream of wheat or farina.  In the west we tend to eat it like oatmeal: typically as a hot breakfast cereal with sweet additives like cinnamon, honey, or fruit.  Raw semolina is also a popular way to dust pizza stones (along with cornmeal) to give that grainy, slightly nutty quality to the crust.  In India (see above re: shorthand) one of the many uses of semolina (aka sooji / suji) is to boil it up, similar to cream of wheat, but with savory elements like vegetables and spices.  I've also seen versions of upma made with vermicelli noodles and quinoa, so I'd like to think that this recipe is pretty forgiving of substitutions.  The quinoa in particular appeals to me since that'd be a wonderful way to swap in some extra protein if that's of interest to you.

Completely unnecessary trivia:  Like cream of wheat and grits in the U.S., upma is more of a "southern" dish -- in this case referring to the south part of India and into (so I've read) Sri Lanka.  For northerners like me (and north Indians like Doc), it's a less common food where we're respectively from.  In fact, until I started researching this post I wasn't 100% certain of the difference between cream of wheat (made from -- get this! -- ground wheat) compared to grits (made from ground hominy, or white corn treated with lime).

Isn't learning fun?

So anyway, to get started the first thing is to "roast" the semolina grains.  Not a strictly necessary step if you're in a hurry.  On medium-low heat, I use a skillet to heat 3/4 cup of semolina (more than plenty for two adults) for about 3-4 minutes, stirring them about every 20-30 seconds or so:

What you're looking for is a color shift from pale white to more of a very, very light golden.  Thing is, it was very cloudy and my camera battery was running low, so I wasn't really able to capture that color shift in a photo.  This is the after shot, which is ostensibly the same color as the one above.  I guess the advantage there is that it shows we're not looking for a dramatic browning of the grains here -- just enough to give them a lightly toasted flavor is plenty:

Take the pan off the heat and scrape the grains into a separate bowl to cool.  I then use a damp paper towel to wipe down the skillet to remove any semolina dust and then re-use the same one for the next step, which is to heat 1 tsp of oil (ghee is a popular choice, I myself prefer olive oil) and 1.5 tsp of mustard seeds:

You'd think I'd just start recycling these oil + seeds photos from all the other Indian recipes I've posted, and yet I can't seem to shake the impulse to take a fresh photo each time.

Anyway, about 10-30 seconds is plenty of time for the mustard seeds to start to sizzle, at which point you'll want to add 1 tablespoon of dal (small lentils, I used masoor dal since they cook fast) and 2 tablespoons of unsalted broken cashew pieces:

Because the dal are so small they can actually cook about as well in oil ("dal fry") as they do in water.  Give 'em about 2 minutes of stir-frying -- as in, you keep stirring continuously as they fry -- before adding in 2 tsp of curry leaves (okay to omit if you don't have them):

Stir-fry for 1-2 minutes.  Next up are 1/3 cup of minced onion (any kind is okay, doesn't have to be a red onion like in the picture) and 1 tsp of ginger paste:

Stir-fry this for another 3-5 minutes to soften up the onion, then add in Veggies of Your Choice.  Tomatoes, green chillies, and peppers are popular.  I swapped the chilies for spinach.  There's about a quarter cup of each vegetable here.  I encourage you to add more or swap things out according to your tastes.

Another 3ish minutes should be enough to soften up the veggies, at which time you can add an optional teaspoon of red chili powder for kick, if you'd like:

Last is 1/3 cup of green peas.

You don't have to stir-fry these if you're using frozen since they'll heat up enough in the next step.  Overcooked peas get mushy so unless you're using raw I'd immediately push everything to the edges:

And then add in 1.5 cups of either vegetable stock or water and the roasted semolina you made a few minutes ago.  The rule is 2x as much liquid as you've got semolina, in case you want to adjust the amounts.

At this point I reduce the heat to low and just stir it every 1-2 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed.  As you might guess, the semolina expands quite a bit when it's cooked.  As long as the dish is hot and all the liquid is absorbed (add more if you want to water it down some), you're done:

If you've got other things going on the stove then feel free to let this sit on low heat.  Give it an occasional stir to prevent burning or sticking.

I added in fruit raita (swap in fruit of choice, such as berries, pomegranate seeds, mango slices, apple, banana, etc. for the veggies in this recipe) along with akoori (Parsi eggs) to round out the meal.

Upma (Savory Cream of Wheat)

Serves 2-3 adults

  • 3/4 cup of semolina (also called sooji/suji or farina/cream of wheat)
    • It's okay to use 2 packets of plain cream of wheat / farina from the cereal aisle since it's just a pre-measured serving of semolina.
  • 1 tsp oil or ghee (clarified butter)
  • 1.5 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 TBS dal/lentils (such as masoor dal or urad dal, ok to mix multiple kinds)
  • 2 TBS unsalted cashew pieces
  • 2 tsp curry leaves (okay to omit)
  • 1/3 cup minced onion
  • 1 tsp ginger paste
  • Apx. two cups of thinly-sliced vegetables of your choice (e.g. bell pepper, chili pepper, spinach, mushroom, tomato, kale, zucchini, cooked potato cubes, shredded carrot, etc.)
  • 1 tsp red chili powder or paprika (optional)
  • 1/3 cup frozen green peas
  • 1.5 cups vegetable stock or water
  • 2 tsp minced cilantro (fresh coriander) for optional garnish
  • salt & black pepper to taste
  1. In a large skillet on medium heat, roast the semolina grains 3-4 minutes or until very lightly toasted.  Remove from skillet and set aside in a separate bowl.  Wipe down the skillet with a damp paper towel and return to stove.
  2. Roast mustard seeds in hot oil for 10-30 seconds or until they start to sizzle.
  3. Add lentils and cashew pieces, stir-fry 2 minutes or until lentils just begin to brown slightly.
  4. Add curry leaves and stir-fry another 1-2 minutes.
  5. Add onion & ginger paste, stir-fry 3-5 minutes or until onions soften.
  6. Add vegetables, stir-fry 3-5 minutes or until soft.
  7. Add chili powder, stir-fry 1 minute.
  8. Add green peas and immediately push all vegetables to the edge of the pan to create a hole in the center.
  9. Into the cleared space add first the liquid (stock or water) followed by the semolina.
  10. Stir the mixture every 1 minute or so for about 5 minutes or until semolina has absorbed all the water and heated through.  Turn down heat to low.
  11. If desired, add additional liquid to thin out the mixture.  
  12. Add cilantro if desired, along with salt and pepper to taste.
  13. Can be served either hot or cold.

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