Friday, 27 January 2012

Green Gram or Moong

A while ago, I'd scattered some mung sprouts, which had gone slightly stale, into an empty container.  I had  expected the sprouts to quickly decay and nourish the soil. Instead, one of the sprouts chose to take root. Destined to bloom, it even survived the recent cyclone Thane, which had denuded some of my other sturdier plants.
Moong Pods on the Plant
Moong Bean Flower
While the couple of pods that have emerged aren't really worth a nibble, I'm still glad to see this unexpected shoot. It's always nice to know what our food looks like before it reaches the table.
Dried Green Gram in the Pod
Green gram or moong beans are extremely versatile. They can be had as fresh sprouts, as dal, as noodles and even as dessert. Moong dal is very easy to digest; in fact it was one of the first solid foods I fed my son. My favourite moong dal recipes include the Pesarattu (similar to a dosa) and Moong Dal Payasam (a lentil pudding). While Indian Payasams/Kheers are milk based, the moong dal payasam from Kerala is the only Indian vegan payasam that I know of. Here's my easy-to-make version of the dish.

Moong Dal Payasam / Parippu Pradhaman
Roasted Split Moong Dal
Yellow Split Moong Dal - 1/2 cup
Jaggery - 1/2 cup
Coconut Milk - 100 ml or the milk from 1 coconut  
Cardamom (Elaichi) - 3 pods
Water 2 1/3 cups

For the Garnish:
Halved Cashew nuts - a handful.
Raisins - a handful
Chopped coconut pieces - a handful
Enough ghee to fry the above. (Vegans can substitute the ghee with oil.)

My recipe is only mildly sweet, so those of you with a sweet tooth can increase the amount of jaggery.

1. Dry roast the dal in a heavy bottom pan. Once the dal gets a pink tinge and a lovely roasted aroma emanates, consider the roasting done. Wash the roasted dal. Add 2 cups of water and cook it until it is soft. (You could cook it in a pressure cooker for 2 minutes after the first whistle.) Once cooked, most of the lentils should hold their shape. Lightly mash the cooked dal with a spoon or masher.
2. In a separate vessel, melt the jaggery with 1/3 cup of water on a low flame. Be careful not to let the jaggery burn. Add the melted jaggery and crushed cardamom pods to the dal. (Only jaggery can lend the dish its characteristic flavour and dark colour, so try not to substitute jaggery with sugar.)
3. Slowly add the coconut milk to the dal mixture. The mixture should be gently heated over a low flame for 5 minutes, while stirring it all the time. The coconut milk can curdle if it is heated rapidly.
4. Fry the cashew nuts in ghee/oil till they are golden brown. In the same ghee, you could fry the raisins and coconut pieces. The raisins will plump up and the coconut pieces will dry out and turn brown. Add the cashew nuts, raisins and coconut pieces to the payasam.

The payasam will thicken within an hour, and can be had warm or chilled.
Moong Dal Payasam: Not great food photography, but it's both healthy and tasty.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Coco Peat and Other Garden Experiments for 2012

My foray into vegetable gardening began only last year. And while I'm far from attaining any kind of self sufficiency in the garden, the experience has been very fruitful.

Prior to my little rooftop patch, I didn't know the taste of a tomato picked fresh off the vine. I didn't even know that at the end of their season, it would be harder to get red tomatoes. But that it was okay. Green tomatoes are perfectly edible. They just need to be used differently. It's not just the tomatoes that I understand better now. I know the taste of raw lady's fingers: they're sweet and crunchy when freshly picked and not all slimy like I expected them to be. I know that moolis don't have to be peeled when they're garden fresh, that growing fennel is as simple as growing weeds.... the list is long.
End-of-season Green Tomatoes and Other Garden Produce for a Chutney
Most of all, I'm glad to see that my son is learning about the food he eats. While most kids (including mine) can be picky about their vegetables, my son is very enthusiastic about the ones he's helped grow. Gardening (i.e. mucking around) is one of his favourite activities and what grows in the garden is treated with due reverence by him and indeed the whole family.
My Son Enjoys Messing Around in the Dirt
So this year, I've decided to expand my garden. My plans include growing plants I've not grown before: lemon, curry leaf, capsicum and onion. I also have ambitions of growing some cool-weather vegetables. Then there are the potting soil experiments I have to do. I've heard of so many formulas for the ideal potting soil that I've now come to believe I need to develop my own, for the kind of compost I use and the weather we have.
Curry Leaf Sapling
At a recent gardening workshop that I attended, the many benefits of coco peat were elucidated. But sourcing coco peat in Chennai is not that easy. It was only after some hunting that I found a supplier that sells the stuff  at a reasonable price. In case you're from Chennai and interested, it's the Prarthana Inn Drive Nursery on East Coast Road. Though Chennai is not lacking in coconut trees, it's unfortunate that coco peat isn't easily available in the market. It appears that TN suppliers find it more profitable to export this wonder material than stock it for the local market. For those of you who cannot source coco peat, an alternative would be to tear away the little coconut husk that is left on the coconuts that one gets in shops. Don't try to separate them too much and use them as little chunks itself. On separating the fibre, it seems to retain less water. Since this form of husk is not an exact substitute, use it much  more judiciously.

Coco Peat / Coir Fibre Pith / Coir
What's so great about Coco Peat?
Coco peat is a natural fibre derived from coconut husks. Since coconut trees grow in abundance in India, its use is environment friendly. It has tremendous water retention capacity and cannot be easily over-watered. It helps soil aeration and provides for a healthy root system. Because it is lightweight, it's a good option for rooftop gardens housed on roofs that haven't been treated to bear the extra weight. However, since coco peat doesn't provide any nutrients of its own -- it could in fact draw some of the nutrition away from the plant -- regular fertilizing is important.

Equipped with plenty of coco peat and compost this year, I've begun planting my seeds in my new potting soil. If my soil recipe works well, I shall post it. Here is my homemade seed starter tray - a discarded egg carton. The seeds were from a coloured capsicum that I dried at home. The  >90% germination rate indicates that I'm on the right track. While I like to start all my plants from seed, the lemon and curry leaf trees are going to be exceptions. I've got saplings of the two as the right seeds are hard to find.
Capsicum Seedlings: 11/12 Sprouts in a Converted Egg Carton
More about them and other new plants in future posts. Till then, happy gardening!
A Sunny Zinnia