Thursday, May 24, 2018

Idli: making strangers into friends since... last night

So we joined a supper club last winter. However, since we have been traveling abroad for the last 6 months, we had never actually met our supping amigos until last night. Having not cooked for our 6 strange new companions before, I was a little apprehensive about what to make. Would they have weird food allergies? Would they hate spicy food? What if they weren't into my default Ethiopian or Afghani dishes? My solution: make idli! Our new friends wouldn't be able to complain about something as delicious and mainstream as Indian food. And idli, in particular, is an amazingly versatile dish--little mild, pillowy dumplings that can be loaded with flavorful chutney. As it turns out, our supper club companions were a marvelous batch. And they loved the idli--almost too much! So a note to anybody out there: if you're not good at accepting compliments or you don't want to have new friends pestering you to make amazing Indian food every time you see them in the future, then this recipe isn't for you. But if you are into making a bunch of strangers think you're a marvel in the kitchen and clamoring for seconds, then this is your jam!

This recipe calls for urad dal, a split black lentil, which can be found at many Asian grocers or online. You'll also need to purchase an inexpensive idli steaming stand. The one I use makes 24 idlies with depressions that are roughly 3" across by 2/3" deep. This batch leaves me with just a little bit of batter at the end, so you may want to adjust the quantities based on your idli maker and needs.

However, if you end up with a lot of leftover batter, fear not! Leftover idli batter makes excellent uttapam! Uttapam is basically just like a crepe or pancake. To make these, just take your old idli batter and add any veggies you might like (carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, peas, and cabbage are all great) plus some extra salt, onions, and garlic. Ladle this mixture into hot, frying pan that has been sprayed with some cooking spray. I've had best results from cooking these covered and flipping each one halfway through.

Anyhow, back to the idli. You want to have a pretty good blender for this. I use a Vitamix, but anything of reasonably high quality will have the horsepower to break everything down.

You'll also want to serve the idli with coconut cilantro chutney or any other chutneys, dals, or other toppings of your choice, as the idlis themselves are fairly mild.

Prep time: 1 cocktail (after a couple days of fermentation)

1/2 cup urad dal
1/2 cup basmati rice
1/2 cup parboiled rice
Salt to taste
2 pinches baking soda
Optional toppings - including sauteed minced onions, brown mustard seeds, curry leaves, or diced chilies

In a large mixing bowl, combine the dal and both types of rice. Cover with a lot of water, as the contents will triple in volume as they absorb the water. Let soak 24 hours.

After soaking, drain the water off, but do it kind of half-assed. I like a little bit of the soaking water to make it into the final batter, as I think it accelerates the fermentation process a bit. In any event, after you have mostly drained the grains, transfer them to a blender. Add some fresh water and blend until the grains have totally been broken down--this can take several minutes. IMPORTANT: you want this batter to have the consistency halfway between crepe batter and pancake batter. So add as much fresh water as you need to in order to achieve this consistency.

Transfer idli batter to a mixing bowl and stir in salt. The amount will vary, but it should taste pretty damn salty. Stir well, cover with a wet towel and let sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours, until the fermentation has expanded the batter and it has a consistency similar to that of lightly whipped cream (the amount of time varies, depending on how warm the batter is--a really warm environment will achieve this in as little as 4 hours).

Now the batter is ready to use (alternatively, it can be stored in the refrigerator, covered with a wet towel, for up to 2 more days). Before cooking, sprinkle baking soda on surface of batter and VERY GENTLY fold it in a little bit with a rubber spatula. You need to be gentle because you want to preserve the foamy structure of the batter.

Now boil an inch or so of water in a pot with a lid that's tall enough to fit your idli steamer. Once water is boiling, spray the idli trays with cooking spray and ladle batter into each mold--filling each one 75-80 percent, allowing enough space for a little expansion. Sprinkle the tops of idli with any of the toppings you're using.

Transfer idli tray to pot, cover, and steam until idlis have steamed fully and are a bit firm and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. For me, this is 25 minutes, but will vary depending on batter, size of idlis, and snugness of your steamer lid. Remove and serve right away with chutney.

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