All posts by Avinash

Eggplant Bhaji

vaa.ngyaachii bhaajii (वांग्याची भाजी)

Serve with rice and varan (yellow lentil soup), or with chappati.

Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 3-4

Eggplant – 1 large, to fill 10″ saute pan (but use larger pot for cooking)
Chop into small pieces (0.5-1″ cubes)
Black Mustard Seeds – 1/2 teaspoon
Cumin Seeds – 1 teaspoon
Turmeric – 1/2 teaspoon
Green Chilies – chopped, as needed
Garlic – chopped, if needed
Salt
Water – 1/2 cup
Oil for frying

Heat oil
Add Mohri (black mustard seeds), when pops, add Jeera (cumin seeds)
Add chopped green chilies, to taste – should be hot/spicy
Cook for a minute or so, then added chopped eggplant, with turmeric.
Coat eggplant well with the cooking oil, and then add water – half a cup
or less, cover and let it cook – 10-15 minutes.
Add more water if needed, then add salt to taste.

Sabudana Khichdi

saabudaaNaa khichaDii (साबुदाणा खिचडी)

Comfort food: Sabudana Khichdi

In Marathi: साबुदाणा खिचडी

Time: 30-60 minutes (4-8 hour including soaking time)
Serves: 3-6

Sabudana (pearl sago) – 1 pound (around 2 cups)
Peanuts – 1/2 pound
Cumin Seeds – 1 tablespoon
Green Chilles – chopped, as needed
Boiled potatoes – chopped in small cubes, two large
Curry Leaves (kadi patta) – 2 to 4
Salt to taste

Wash sabudana in water for a minute, drain nearly all of the water, level should just cover the sabudana, and leave in covered vessel for half-hour. Then drain all water, and leave covered for 4 hours or overnight. When done soaking, no liquid should be left, and all the grains should be soft but not mushed together – pressing between fingers should find no hard material in the middle, should be soft all the way.

Toast the raw peanuts in a pan, and then let them cool down. Then coarsely grind the peanuts in a blender or mixer or similar.

Heat oil, add curry leaves, cumin seeds, green chilles, fry for a minute or so. Add cubed potatos, cook until brown, around 5-10 minutes.

Add the sabudana and cook on low heat for 10-15 minutes, until the color turns from solid white to more of a translucent color, stirring frequently to prevent clumping.
Mix peanuts into the sabudana, cook for 5-10 minutes more, until color turns light-brown.

Garnish with chopped cilantro.

Serve with plain yoghurt.

Another recipe, external link: Aayi’s recipes

Sambar Recipe

Sambar Recipe (सांबर)

Turned out great. Quantity overshot a lot, did not need that much!

Probably cooked around 16 cups (4 quarts in a 5-qt pot), needed only around 6-10 cups of sambar.

This was very easy to cook using prepared sambar powder. Only thing is that it needs a number of ingredients.
Sambar is great in that one can add any vegetables. For me, drumsticks are a must. For fun and because I like the texture, I also added Woodear mushrooms from the local Korean shop!
Serve sambar with rice or dosa or idli.

The tricky thing here is how much hot red chilli to add. Chillies or chilli powder can’t be added as salt can, it requires cooking, so difficult to adjust it while cooking. I added 4 chillies, 1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder, along with the 2 tablespoons of sambar powder (which also has the chilli spices), and it turned out a bit on the hot/spicy side. So for the recipe below, I removed the 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder, though if you like things hot, feel free to add it.

Time: 60-90 minutes
Serves: 10-16 (makes around 4 quarts or 16 cups)

Toor dal – 1/3 cup
Masoor dal – 1/3 cup
Wash dals, soak in cold water for around 30 minutes.
Then add 3-5 cups water as needed, boil it, lower to simmer and cook until they almost dissolve. No need to mash it, just fine with boiling. Takes around 30-40 minutes.

Tamarind – soak 1-2 tablespoons in 3/4 cup warm water for 30 minutes then filter it out to get tamarind juice. Or use 1 tablespoon tamarind paste and add it while cooking.

In parallel, cook the sambar. Some recipes call for just boiling all the vegetables with the spices, while some saute vegetables and then proceed to boiling. I prefer the latter, though I’m told it probably makes no difference in the final taste.

Mustard seeds – 1 teaspoon
Cumin Seeds – 2 teaspoons
Curry Leaves (kadi patta) – 10-12
Dry red whole chillies – 3-5
Oil – 2-4 tablespoons
Onion (1 large – 1-1.5 cups), chopped into around 1 inch squares, or any way you wish, just keep the pieces large or long.
Asafoetida (hing – 1/4 teaspoon)
Urad dal (white, husked, 1 teaspoon)
Fenugreek seeds (1 teaspoon)
Cumin powder (1 teaspoon, optional)
Coriander powder (1 teaspoon, optional)

Add oil to a pot, covering the bottom of the pan.
Add red chillies and mustard seeds. When seeds start to pop, add the cumin seeds, curry leaves, urad dal, fenugreek seeds. The urad dal will turn a bit darker in a few seconds, add asafoetida, coriander powder, cumin powder, stir a few times, then add the onions.

Cook the onions for 2-4 minutes, until they become a bit soft.

Sambar powder – 2 tablespoons (I used MTR Brand)
Drumsticks – handful (1-1.5 cups)
Got the frozen variety, only one available in most parts of the US, I bet. Cut into 3 inch/finger length pieces if not already sliced. Thaw them for cooking (run them through cool tap water for quicker thawing).

Eggplant (1-2 small – 1-1.5 cups when cut into cubes)
US grocery stores have humongous eggplants, only used a quarter of one large eggplant for this.

Okra – (0.5 pounds, around 1-1.5 cups).
Cut into 1-2 inch pieces. Cut and discard small sections at the top and bottom of each okra.

Woodear mushroom (7-9 pieces, optional – any vegetables you want can be added to sambar!)

Salt to taste

Add all the other vegetables you want with the sambar powder and cook for 5-7 minutes.
Important to add salt along with the vegetables. 1-2 teaspoon at this time, and then later can add more to taste.

Tomatoes (1 large or 2-3 small, around 1-1.5 cups)
Jaggery (gur) – 1-2 tablespoon

Add tomatoes, tamarind juice and jaggery and cook for 5-7 minutes more.

Then add 1-2 cups of water, bring to boil, and then cover pot and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes. After this, vegetables should be soft and nearly cooked.

Then add the cooked dals and sufficient amount of water to get the consistency you want. Add more salt and jaggery as needed at this point too.
Cook on low heat for another 10-20 minutes, and it is done.

Sprinkle chopped green cilantro on top, and it is now ready to serve.

Sambar tastes good even after refrigerating it and cooking it on day two and day three and so on. Vegetables taste more flavorful after soaking in the sambar spices.

Absolute Bagels

These bagels are the best in New York City and therefore in all of the US. 🙂
Perfect combination of chewy bagels with crusty exterior and light-airy interior. And they taste great too. Of course, people who like their bagels dense and chewy may not appreciate these bagels, but try these once and you might just change your mind. My second choice bagel place in NYC is Russ & Daughters at 179 East Houston Street, near Chinatown. Have tried all the usual other well-known places, but Absolute Bagels has the best bagels.

Sesame Bagels
Absolute Bagels – Inside
Mornings – especially weekends, be prepared for long lines. And if you want sesame bagels, arrive a few hours before closing – they usually run out. This is important for me since every few months or so I buy a dozen plus bagels from NYC to carry back to Boston – really a downer when they run out of bagels. Best to call if you are going to get there late afternoon or evenings. There have been a couple of times when I had to leave without sesame bagels.
Sometimes they have the dough ready and can bake up bagels in under 20 minutes which they did for me once!

When taking a dozen or more bagels home, be careful to let the bagels breathe. Warm bagels will steam up and the steam should be allowed to escape otherwise it will flatten the bagels at the bottom of the bag and make the bagels go all crooked.

Unlike Montreal bagels, NYC bagels are pretty big. Which actually may be what allows them to freeze very well. They easily last 3-6 months in the freezer, and thaw out nicely, and still taste great. No need to slice them before freezing too, in fact, they are better off not sliced beforehand. Montreal bagels are good too, but they just don’t freeze well – they don’t taste as good after a stint in the freezer, have to eat them fresh.

Absolute Bagels Price for a dozen: $12 (2012), $15 (2016). They have a small seating area, and also offer the usual toppings – cream cheeses, salmon, etc.
Zagat Review
And what about the New York vs Montreal bagels comparisons? Pointless. They are quite different and both are great! Here’s a write-up on the St Viateur Bagels of Montreal.

Poutine

A dish unique to Quebec. BBC article: How the Quebecois came to love poutine.

Fries, Gravy, and fresh Cheddar Cheese Curds (fromage en grains) make poutine! An exclamation point seems necessary for this dish.

The process of making cheese from milk goes through a step that results in curds. These are small chunks of solid cheese that are not yet pressed into molds for the final aging process. Fresh cheese curds only last a day or two, therefore are only available in places where a lot of cheese is manufactured. Cheddar cheese curds are available widely in Montreal, and it is the key ingredient of poutine. Fresh cheese curds are easy to recognize – they will make a squeaking sound when you eat them.

From fast food joints to celebrated chefs, there is no shortage of places to get poutine in Montreal. Montreal Poutine has good information on all poutine places in that city.

Poutine fries should at least start crispy, and have sufficient amount of gravy to smother the fries.
The run-down looking Poutine Lafleur has pretty good poutine. This is the standalone place on Rue Wellington and not the chain of the same name. Maamm Bolduc was not as good – not enough gravy or cheese – but many consider it one of the best, so worth checking out. Many places that claim to be famous, or are very old diners that should probably have good poutine, do not. French fries may be limp and not crisp, sauce may be tasteless, and they dish may not be warm enough. So for a short visit, just try the known-to-be-good places, do not experiment.
La Cantine, closed in 2012. This bistro on Mont Royal had excellent poutine, in very nice surroundings. The fries stay nice and crispy to the last bite. There is a photo provided below, which now serves as a memory only!

Surprisingly, some fast food joints have good poutine too – such as La Belle Province (the Ste Catherine @ St Laurent location). And Frite Alors! has amazing fries, and good poutine too.

2013: Schwartz’s has gotten onto the poutine act with Schwartz’s Poutine. It is essentially fine as a novelty item, but the basic poutine elsewhere, and the smoked-meat sandwiches at Schwartz’s, are both best eaten without anything else added to either dish.

Schwartz’s

Is this one of the best foods in the world, or what!
Schwartz’s Jewish Deli on Boul St-Laurent and its smoked meat!

As I write this paragraph sitting in Boston, I am reminded of the taste of those excellent smoked meat sandwiches — tender, succulent meat that falls apart easily with the touch of a fork, the exquisite mild pepper spices… accompanied by a black cherry soda or hot tea, it is truly an unique experience! Take a seat at the bar-stool at the deli counter, and enjoy the food amidst the hustle and bustle. The interior of Schwartz’s is kind-of run-down, but that, with the extremely busy waiters, and the tables where you will find yourself doubled up with strangers because space is so tight, is what creates the unique atmosphere of enjoying smoked meat at Schwartz’s.

The protocol: order a medium (sandwich is understood), black cherry, pickle, and french fries. My exact order is a medium, hot water + tea bag, and a pickle (no fries).

The medium is a medium-fat sandwich. Lean is available, but what is the point? Fatty is available, but if you eat here 3-4 times a week, that would be foolhardy. They also have plates, with bread served on the side, but the sandwich is better with the meat warming up the bread, which tastes nicer.
Most people drink the Black Cherry Soda with it. But black tea without sugar or milk is definitely healthier (not that anyone comes here to eat healthy food!).
And easier to ask for hot-water and a tea-bag, since asking for just tea seems to cause the staff to be somewhat surprised.

Some guidebooks will mention that the waitstaff is curt, even rude. Not true in general, but there are some who do fit this description. One guy in particular, has been working here for decades, always refuses to serve hot, black tea, his response is – what is this, a hospital? ☺ Black hot tea actually goes very well with smoked meat, especially on cold winter nights. I continue to ask the guy for hot tea, and for years now, he has always refused to serve this item that is on their menu! [2008: I believe his name was Peter, and seems like he is now retired.]

In the sandwich picture, the slices that look whole will taste very tender, given the fat with it.
The broken-down crumbs are the lean variety, and there is an abundant amount of black pepper spices seen on the meat. So each bite can be medium, lean, spicy, just as you like it. And wash it down with the Black Cherry Soda, or black tea works well too.

It is this combination of hand-sliced meat, meat that fall apart easily, and the small slivers of lean meat, and the special spices that make the Schwartz’s experience so different from other smoked meat places which seem to have a more orderly, sameness in consistency all across, and spices not as good – Schwartz’s beats them all in taste and experience. The color is the first indicator – smoked meat that is pink or light red – and not dark red – never tastes as good as the dark red smoked meat.

Those with a larger appetite can order the small plate, which is equal to 2-3 sandwiches. There is also a large plate, but that is probably best when shared with multiple diners.

There is a marked difference between the smoked meat at Schwartz’s and other places in Montreal. Ben’s is the other place that is mentioned a lot, but it closed down in 2007. Lester’s at 1057 Bernard West, Snowdon at 5265 Decarie, The Main at 3864 St-Laurent, Reuben’s at 1116 Ste-Catherine, and Dunn’s at 1249 Metcalfe are other contenders. They have good smoked meat, but Schwartz’s is just much tastier. The difference is that Schwartz’s is spicier, and it has more interesting taste and texture. The marbling, the fat, is visible in Schwartz’s sandwiches, and they are a dark red color. Other places have meat that is more of a pink color, and the consistency of meat is too uniform. Of course, some people may like it, but if you like spicy meat, and looking for fantastic texture in the meat, stick to Schwartz’s. In a pinch, if cannot get to Schwartz’s, I will go to Dunn’s which has a very convenient downtown location just off Ste-Catherine, and their smoked meat is pretty decent, nice red color but it has a very uniform texture, lacking the character of the Schwartz’s variety, but sometimes and for some people certainly, that may be a good thing.

[2004-2008] I used to pack up a pound of the smoked meat for taking back to Boston, but since 2004 US customs no longer allows even cooked meat to be transported back into the USofA, sad state of affairs we find ourselves in.
[2009] Meat import selectively lifted. Visit the US Customs Know Before You Go page for current information. Note: the customs officers at the roadway entry areas and the US pre-clearance at Montreal airport may apply different rules than the customs officers in US proper. So be warned that this whole thing is quite a mess…
As for Cott’s Black Cherry Soda (probably an off-brand, generic brand soda), I initially could not find it in any grocery store in Montreal, it but finally discovered that most Dollarama stores sell Cott’s Black Cherry Soda – 3 cans for $1 in 2004. [Same price in 2009 too!] [2013]: So many years have gone by, but still a thrill to visit Montreal and eat this sandwich.
[2016]: Dollarama is no longer offering Cott’s. Dollarama seems to be moving upscale with $2 and $4 items now, so maybe they decided they could not use up space with 3 for $1 items. ☹

Sampling of the price of the sandwich in CA$ – an inflation indicator!
September 2006: $4.55
November 2007: $4.95
February 2012: $6.15
July 2013: $6.65
July 2014: $7.75
November 2014: $8.70
February 2015: $9.35, so more than doubled in 8.5 years. 9% annual rate of increase, higher than inflation which was 0.5% to 3% over this same period.
May 2016: $9.60

BIXI Montreal Key and Dock

How to use the BIXI Montréal system with a subscription key.

The key is shown on the left top of the picture.

Insert the key into the key slot. The LED indicators will start blinking orange and then turn green on a successful unlock and then the bike can be removed from the dock.

Be sure to remember to take the key with you! It is very easy to forget it, and that could turn out to be a very expensive $1000+ mistake if someone uses the key to “permanently borrow” a bike

If the LED indicators turn red instead, as happened to me a many times, just remove the key from that dock and try another one.

And on returning the bike make sure the LED turns green before you leave the dock.

The BIXI smartphone app is also an essential tool, so set that up beforehand. It shows a map with available docks and bikes on a map and can also be used to keep track of all your trips in real-time so can be used to check the start time of the current bike rental.

BIXI

Visiting Montreal between Spring and Fall means it is BIXI bike season!

While the BIXI web site does not make it clear, it is possible for US residents to sign up for a BIXI subscription.
30-day membership is CA$30 for the 2016 season and it is worth it even if you are just visiting for at least 7 days in a 30-day period. These subscriptions also offer 45 minute rides instead of the normal 30 minute rides.

Sign up for the subscription a couple of days before your arrival. The sign up page will ask for a Canadian address. Use your hotel address. You’ll receive an email confirming subscription and if the email says that they are going to mail the BIXI key to the address, then call the BIXI customer service center and tell them not to send the key and that you’ll pick up the key personally.

You can pick up the key from a handful of main STM Metro Stations during normal working hours. Berri-UQAM is one of the stations that is also open on the weekend.

Once you have the key, call up customer service and they will attach the key to your account and activate it.

BIXI key instructions has a picture and instructions on using the key – ready to ride!

Be sure to read the FAQ and the Instructions at the BIXI web site. Any mistake can end up with $1000+ charge on your credit card. Be sure to check that the LED indicator turns green after you return and dock a bike.

Disclaimer: The above instructions worked for me in 2016. Be sure to read up all the BIXI rules on their website and also call up the customer service center for any additional information.

In addition to the key, it is quite critical to have a smartphone with a data plan since the BIXI phone app is critical to have. Many times you’ll find docks full or no bikes at docks so having an app to quickly see all nearby BIXI stations with available bikes or free docks on a map is essential.
The BIXI app also allows you to rent a bike without the key. It has an button on the app to generate a code which can be used to unlock a bike.

Drupal to WordPress

This site is now using WordPress and no longer using the old Drupal 6 system.

It was not an easy process to maintain the old content! Took many iterations, trying it out a couple of times a year starting in 2014!
Creating a static drupal site.

Then in WordPress, created a plugin to customize the plugins being used and for general WordPress customization.
For example: hook into WP action to trap all 404s.
add_action('wp', 'redirect_all_404s');
This was preferable to a .htaccess redirect since I wanted to first have WordPress check whether it had a link and then look into checking if the link was a file in the archived Drupal subfolder.

It is all done now, so migration is finally complete in December 2016.

Avesta

This Turkish restaurant has a unique window display of the cooks making lavash – basically huge chappatis/tortillas.

The appetizers – Mezze platters – are good enough for a meal, many choices to pick from, and come with a freshly made lavash bread. The appetizers include Baba Ghannouj – charbroiled eggplant puree with pomegranate paste and roasted vegetables, Hummus – chickpeas puree with tahini, lemon, garlic, olive oil, Muhammara d’Alep – pomegranate paste with mixture of walnuts, pine nuts, pepper.

The borek – Turkish feuillette – is excellent. These are flaky phyllo dough pastries filled with feta and spinach or beef and potatoes along with a splash of hot spice – really good. The spinach and feta borek is a great accompaniment to main dishes like Manti, or to a sampling of the mezzes. With a main dish, you can request an half-order of borek so you have chance of finishing it all. 2015 update: They heard me! Now the borek is half-size – a single large square instead of two, so it is now the perfect accompaniment to Manti. 2015 Manti and Borek picture.

Manti is listed in the specials section – small meat filled dumplings in a thin yogurt sauce with mint, and melted pepper butter paste on the top. Looks nice, and tastes great. It does take 20-30 minutes to prepare this but the wait is all worth it. 2015 update: Looks like they redid the whole menu, and also tweaked the recipes a bit. They are better prepared to make Manti and now takes just 10 minutes or so. And it is no longer a mix of hot dumplings and cold yogurt – the yogurt now seems to be room temperature. Still the best Manti around. Even NYC does not have this good a version.

Gozleme – two lavash breads with feta and spinach sounded good – but this was a bit too dry and lean – not enough feta or spinach in it. This would work well when taken along with the appetizers. The borek is much better in that it is more balanced in having sufficient quantity of fillings and is not dry like the gozleme.

The main dishes are listed as Sach Kavurma – sauted meat with vegetables, and Tava Kavurma – sauted meat with onions and eggs. These are served with pilau – bulghur wheat. And to top this all, they also serve sandwiches, and have items for breakfast also.

[2007] Prices range from $8 to $15 for the major dishes, Manti for example is $9. Entrées are just under $4 for one, and get two or more in a platter, and get a borek thrown in for free. In fact, the mezze platters can be a full meal- select 3-4 varieties, and add the excellent feta and spinach borek. The mezze platters also come with the lavash bread.
[2012] Add around $2-$4 to the prices above. Manti is $13 for example, and it still is a great dish.
[2015] Manti is around $16, Borek is $3.