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Grab Your Dosa While It’s Hot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some people serve pancakes for Sunday brunch. Smita Salgaonkar serves dosas. They’re pancakes, south Indian style. Instead of butter, syrup or fruit, dosas are often accompanied by coconut chutney and sambar, a stewy lentil and vegetable mixture. They are thin like crepes, but crisp and large. Sometimes they are filled with spiced potatoes. And instead of flour and eggs, the batter is based on finely ground rice and lentils.

Dosas must be eaten hot off the griddle, so when Salgaonkar stages a dosa brunch, she invites only a handful of guests.

Because good dosas are hard to find outside India, Salgaonkar’s invitations are prized. She has not only mastered the dosa but also has added touches of her own that make it even more appealing.

For example, rather than the usual plain coconut chutney, she has come up with a luscious pale green mixture that contains yogurt, cilantro, peanuts and three kinds of fried dal (lentils) in addition to coconut. “I improvised it,” she says.

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Dosas originated in southern India but have spread to other parts of India, including Salgaonkar’s home city, Mumbai (Bombay). Salgaonkar learned dosa making from her mother, Nisha Sathaye, an artist living in Mumbai. Her mother’s special touch is adding moong dal to the batter, which usually includes just small pale ivory urad dal and rice. The idea was to make the dosas more nutritious. It also makes them delicious.

On a recent Sunday, close relatives and a few friends gather at the Salgaonkar home in Orange to indulge in this treat. As the first guests arrive, they snack on chevda, a spicy mixture that in India usually involves crisp fried lentils and dough shreds made from chickpea flour. Salgaonkar’s Southern California variation substitutes American cereals, Spanish peanuts and shoestring potatoes for the usual components.

Brunch begins with an appetizer, meat-filled samosas. Here too, Salgaonkar’s creativity comes into play. Instead of conventional samosa dough, she uses puff pastry, which she forms into triangles filled with spiced ground pork. After baking these until crisp, she passes them to guests to eat with date and tamarind chutney. “I call them samosas,” she says, “but they’re really pseudo-samosas.”

Now Salgaonkar starts the dosas. She spoons a bit of batter into a large nonstick skillet and swirls it into an even circle with the back of the spoon. In one sense, the procedure is the same as for making French crepes.

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“The first one is always a test,” Salgaonkar says, laughing, as the dosa batter cooks. Nevertheless, she produces a beautiful, perfectly round, thin dosa on the first try.

Unlike pancakes, dosas are not flipped; they cook on one side only. As the batter begins to firm, Salgaonkar sprinkles oil lightly around the edges. “I’ve tried making them without oil,” she explains, “but they get too dry.”

When a dosa is almost done, she spoons potato filling down the center and folds each side over the top. The potatoes are seasoned with turmeric, which turns them bright yellow, and mixed with moong dal (mung beans), green chiles, curry leaves and mustard seeds.

Cooking dosas appears simple, but a few tricks are involved. The dough must be swirled quickly and evenly before it sets to form a smooth circle. If not enough batter is added, the dosa will be ragged and unusable.

Although dosas must be cooked just before serving, most of the work takes place in advance. The lentils and rice are soaked separately overnight. The next day, they are ground with water and combined into a batter. Salgaonkar places the batter in a sunny window to ferment all day, then stores it in the refrigerator until the next day.

Salgaonkar’s mother sends her own blend of spices for the lentil accompaniment, sambar. Sambar masala, however, is available in all Indian shops.

While Salgaonkar cooks, Hindi film tunes play on the stereo, and her husband, Jagdish, pours wine. This touch is strictly Californian. In India, the beverage choice might be tea, coffee, water or juice.

With the dosas, he poured first a Chardonnay from California, then an Australian Semillon-Chardonnay blend. The fruitier Australian wine emerged as the better match, and Jagdish quickly dubbed it “special dosa wine.”

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After the dosas came dessert, yet another of Salgaonkar’s inventions: ice cream flavored with rose syrup, saffron, pistachios and cardamom. And before departing, guests sipped cardamom-scented Indian chai (tea).

The Salgaonkars run a busy household. She is marketing manager for a health-care company, and he is an environmental consulting engineer. Parents of two daughters, they entertain frequently and give dosa parties several times a year.

When they were married 15 years ago, Smita Salgaonkar did not know how to cook. “Absolutely zero,” says her husband proudly. That has certainly changed. Now he prefers not to go out to Indian restaurants. As he puts it, “I just eat dosas here.”

Menu

Chevda (crisp lentil snack)

Samosas

Dosas With Spiced Potatoes and Sambar

Coconut Chutney

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Saffron-Rose Ice Cream

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This is a versatile menu. Cooks who like to work ahead can accomplish most of the steps the day before the party for a low-stress experience. Last-minute cooks can do everything--except for the no-work pre-soaking of the dals and the making of the ice cream (which can be replaced with store-bought ice cream)--the day of the party, starting about four hours ahead.

2 days to 1 morning before: Put lentils and rice for Dosas to soak in separate containers.

1 day before to evening before: Put saffron threads to soak for ice cream for 1 hour. Grind lentils and rice for Dosas in blender. Combine in bowl and leave to ferment about 10 hours. Make custard for ice cream, then freeze it in ice cream maker. Store ice cream in freezer.

1 night before to morning of party: Store fermented batter, covered, in refrigerator.

1 day before to 4 hours before: Put toor dal for Sambar (if using stove-top method) and urad dal for Potato Bhaji to soak for two hours. Cook potatoes for Bhaji in boiling water one hour.

1 day before to 3 hours before: Remove potatoes from water. Let cool slightly, then peel and dice them. (If boiling day before, potatoes will peel easier if they are stored whole in refrigerator then peeled cold next day.)

1 day before to 1 1/2 hours before: Cook soaked toor dal until soft, 50 to 60 minutes, for sambar if using stove-top method. (If using pressure cooker, toor dal may be cooked day before to 30 minutes before.) Cooked dal may be refrigerated overnight, then made into sambar next morning.

1 day before to 1 hour before: Make coconut chutney. Store, covered, in refrigerator if made day before; leave at room temperature if made morning of party.

1 day before to 30 minutes before: Fry cooked toor dal with spices, etc. for sambar. May be refrigerated, covered, overnight. If making same day, do not refrigerate.

2 hours before: Remove Coconut Chutney from refrigerator if made day ahead.

1 hour before: Finish preparing Potato Bhaji. (May also be made day before and reheated.) Keep warm. Remove Dosa batter from refrigerator.

30 minutes before: Reheat sambar. Add water if necessary for fluid consistency. Warm store-bought samosas in oven.

When guests arrive: Place store-bought chevda, Coconut Chutney and Sambar on table for guests to help themselves. Make Dosas, fill with Potato Bhaji and serve at once.

After the Dosas: Serve ice cream followed by Indian chai or plain tea.

INGREDIENTS

SHOPPING LIST

1 (1-pound) package split, peeled moong dal

1 (1-pound) package split, peeled urad dal

1 (1-pound) package split, peeled toor dal

1 (1-pound) package split, peeled chana dal

1 small package methi (fenugreek) seeds

6 medium white boiling potatoes

1 small package brown mustard seeds.

7 serrano chiles

2 bunches cilantro

3 sprigs curry leaves

1 small container asafetida

2 large tomatoes

1 package sambar masala

1 jar unsalted dry roasted peanuts

1 package fresh frozen shredded coconut

1/2 pint plain yogurt

1 small package saffron threads

1 (8-ounce) carton whipping cream

1 (1-pint) carton half and half

1 bottle rose syrup

1/2 pound pistachios

Chevda (crisp lentil snack)

Samosas (from Indian snack shop or restaurant)

STAPLES

Salt

Corn or vegetable oil

Turmeric

Ground cardamom

Onions

Granulated sugar

Light brown sugar

Limes

Salt

Small dried red chiles

POTATO BHAJI

You can eat this potato mixture with naan or a flour tortilla instead of dosas. Smita Salgaonkar also puts bhaji between bread slices and warms them in her sandwich maker.

1/4 cup split peeled urad dal

6 white boiling potatoes

1/2 cup oil

2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds

2 to 3 serrano chiles, sliced thin

8 curry leaves

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 onion, chopped

Salt

2 teaspoons sugar

Chopped cilantro

Soak dal in water to cover 2 hours.

Boil unpeeled whole potatoes until just tender, about 1 hour. Peel when cool enough to handle, then dice.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add mustard seeds and fry briefly until seeds pop, then add chiles, curry leaves and turmeric. Saute 1 minute. Add onion and fry until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add drained dal and saute 2 minutes. Add potatoes, salt to taste and sugar. Mix well, cover and cook over medium-low heat 5 to 8 minutes. Garnish with cilantro.

12 (1/2-cup) servings. Each serving:

133 calories; 28 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.52 gram fiber.

SAMBAR

2 1/2 cups split, peeled toor dal

Water

1 teaspoon turmeric

Pinch asafetida

1/2 cup oil

1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon methi seeds

10 curry leaves

1 large onion, diced

2 large tomatoes, diced, or 1 cup canned diced tomatoes

1/4 cup sambar masala

1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

2 teaspoons lime juice

Salt

Chopped cilantro

Pressure Cooker Method: Soak toor dal 30 minutes, drain and rinse well. Place in cooker with 4 cups water, turmeric and asafetida. Bring to pressure over medium heat. As soon as pressure is reached, reduce heat to medium-low and cook 5 minutes. Let pressure drop naturally.

Stove-top Method: Soak toor dal at least 2 hours, drain and rinse well. Place in Dutch oven with 6 cups water, turmeric and asafetida. Bring to boil, lower heat and cook uncovered over medium heat until water evaporates, 50 to 60 minutes. Cover and cook 15 minutes longer. Dal should form smooth paste.

Heat oil. Add mustard seeds and fry until seeds pop. Add methi seeds and curry leaves and fry 30 seconds, then add onion and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and fry until thoroughly cooked, 5 more minutes. Add sambar masala and fry until oil starts to separate from sides of mixture, about 3 minutes. Add cooked dal and 1 to 2 cups water, enough to make mixture soupy but not thin. Bring to boil and boil 10 minutes. Add sugar, lime juice and salt to taste. Turn into serving bowl and garnish with cilantro.

16 (1/2-cup) servings. Each serving:

184 calories; 48 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 22 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 1.75 grams fiber.

COCONUT CHUTNEY

All large Asian markets carry packets of fresh frozen coconut in the freezer section, so there’s no need to peel and grind a fresh coconut. Besides, many of the coconuts sold in Southern California are older and drier than those that would be used for chutney in India.

2 tablespoons split peeled chana dal

1 tablespoon split peeled moong dal

1 tablespoon split peeled urad dal

3 tablespoons oil

1/4 cup unsalted dry roasted peanuts

1 small bunch cilantro

4 serrano chiles or to taste

Water

3 cups grated fresh or frozen fresh coconut

1 cup plain yogurt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoon lime juice

Salt

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

8 curry leaves

Small dried red chiles

Fry chana, moong and urad dals in 1 tablespoon oil until browned. Set aside.

Toast peanuts in dry skillet until browned.

Remove coarse stems from cilantro. Grind cilantro leaves and serrano chiles in food processor with enough water to make fine paste. Add fried dals and peanuts and blend to coarse texture. Add coconut and 1/4 to 1/2 cup water and blend until mixture is coarsely ground, not smooth.

Turn chutney into serving bowl. Add yogurt, sugar, lime juice and salt to taste and mix well. Texture should be medium-soft but not runny.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add mustard seeds. After seeds pop, 1 to 2 minutes, remove from heat and stir in curry leaves and whole dried chiles. Pour over top of chutney as garnish. Extra dal may be fried in first step and reserved to be sprinkled on top as garnish.

4 cups. Each tablespoon:

29 calories; 9 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.24 gram fiber.

SMITA SALGAONKAR’S DOSAS

Notice that the batter for these dosas takes 2 to 3 days to prepare. You can begin soaking the dal and rice the morning before your dosa party, make the batter when you come home from work and let it sour overnight so it will be ready the next day. For best results on the first try, make sure the batter is fairly thin. If making only a few dosas, separate out the amount of batter needed, then thin with water. Keep remainder refrigerated.

3 cups long-grain rice

1 1/2 cups peeled split moong dal

3/4 cup peeled split urad dal

1 teaspoon methi seeds

Water, if needed

Salt

Corn or other vegetable oil

Potato Bhaji

Sambar

Coconut Chutney

Wash rice and dals separately. Place each in separate bowl and cover generously with water. Add methi seeds to 1 of dals. Soak at least 6 hours or overnight.

Drain rice and dals. Combine in blender or food processor and puree until fine, adding water as necessary to make thick, smooth paste. Add salt to taste.

Place batter in large bowl, cover with foil and set in warm place such as sunny window to ferment until light and fluffy and slightly sour in aroma, about 10 hours. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Heat large nonstick skillet or nonstick griddle. Stir water into thick batter until it is consistency of thin crepe batter. Place large spoonful, about 1/2 cup, batter in pan. With back of ladle or offset spatula, immediately swirl until batter forms large, thin circle across surface of griddle. Add small amount batter to fill any holes. Drizzle about 1 teaspoon oil around edge of dosa. Cook without turning until dosa is light brown or starts to peel from sides. Fold over and serve plain, or place Potato Bhaji in strip down center, fold 1 side over filling, then other side and lift with large spatula onto plate. Accompany with Sambar and Coconut Chutney.

24 dosas. Each dosa, without Bhaji, Sambar or Chutney:

24 calories; 28 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 29 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.01 grams fiber.

SMITA SALGAONKAR’S SAFFRON-ROSE ICE CREAM

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1 pint whipping cream

1 quart half and half

2 cups bottled rose syrup

1/4 cup sugar, about

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 cup coarsely ground pistachios

Soak saffron threads in whipping cream 1 hour before making ice cream.

Combine saffron cream, half and half and rose syrup. Taste for sugar and add sugar to taste (some sugar needed for ice cream to freeze; see Cook’s Tip, H3). Stir in cardamom. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions.

Stir in pistachios, spoon ice cream into glass container and place in freezer to harden, at least 1 hour.

16 servings. Each (1/4 cup) serving:

243 calories; 36 mg sodium; 63 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.16 gram fiber.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Indian Pantry

A guide to some of the ingredients used in the recipes on this page:

*Asafetida: This strong-smelling white powder derived from a gum resin is used by some Indian cooks as a replacement for onion and garlic. Store it tightly covered.

*Brown mustard seeds: Small dark-colored mustard seeds widely used in Indian cooking. It’s customary to fry the seeds until they pop to bring out the flavor. They may fly out of the pan, so cover the pan quickly when the popping starts.

*Curry leaves: Common in south Indian cooking, the fresh leaves are becoming widely available in Indian shops. The aroma is strong but different from curry powder’s. Often a sprig or two of leaves is added to curries, and the leaves may be incorporated into lentil dishes or even rice.

*Chana dal: A legume that resembles small garbanzo beans. Chana comes in both light and dark-colored varieties.

*Methi seeds: These are fenugreek seeds. Small and rosy, they are sold whole or ground. And if planted, they’ll yield sprouts that are also used in cooking.

*Moong dal: Mung beans, a legume that cooks very quickly. Whole unpeeled mung beans are green. The split, peeled version is yellow.

*Sambar masala: A combination of spices used to season a south Indian lentil dish. It’s different from curry powder, but the packaging may identify it as curry powder.

*Toor dal: A yellow lentil popular in Indian dishes. Sometimes it’s called toovar dal.

*Turmeric: Ground dried turmeric root, used to impart a yellow color to food. It’s also considered medicinal.

*Urad dal: Also spelled urid, this small black legume is white when peeled. Often a teaspoon or so is fried as seasoning for a dish.

Look for Indian ingredients in Indian and other ethnic grocery stores, including the following shops:

*Bezjian’s Grocery, 4725 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 663-1503.

*Bharat Bazaar, 11510 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 398-6766.

*Bombay Spiceland, 8650 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, (919) 701-9381.

*India Spices & Groceries, 5891 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 931-4871.

*India Sweets and Spices, 72011 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, (818) 887-0868.

*New India Sweets & Spices, 1245-47 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 936-6736.

*Sunshine Groceries, 7530 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Canoga Park, (818) 887-6917.

*Patel Brothers, 18636 S. Pioneer Blvd., Artesia, (310) 402-2953.

*The Geetanjali, 2960-F W. Lincoln, Anaheim, (714) 828-2960.

*Kajala Imports, 23 E. Main St., Alhambra, (818) 576-2455.


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