Rasika’s Palak Chaat – Fried Spinach with a Yogurt Sauce

Rasika's Palak Chaat is one of my favorite dishes

Rasika’s Palak Chaat is amazing and one of my favorite dishes at the restaurant. This is a pretty close recipe and just as addicting!

Rasika’s Palak Chaat is quite simply amazing.  Palak, meaning Spinach, and Chaat, roughly translated to a savory snack, is an easy to make fried spinach dish that’s garnished with a sweet yogurt sauce.  The crispness of the spinach coupled with the sweetness of the sauce really makes for an interesting dish.

Sautéed spinach used to be my go-to side dish for most of my meals but after discovering how easy this recipe is to make at home I now do this more regularly.  After first trying this at Rasika I googled around trying to figure out exactly what Palak Chaat was and why it was so delicious! The recipe by Vivi on PoPville seemed to have nailed it as close as possible.  I’ve modified the original recipe slightly to fit my own taste (mainly using honey flavored yogurt and using Trader Joe’s amazing curry powder).

Palak Chaat is not a complex dish to make given how wonderful it is.  Just fry spinach leaves, chop some tomato, dates, onion and combine with a yogurt sauce.  I can typically have this dish put together in less then 15 minutes. So it’s a quick, tasty side dish that can be added to any meal.  I guarantee anyone skeptical of Indian food will become a raving fan after serving them this dish!

Rasika’s Palak Chaat - Fried Spinach with a Yogurt Sauce
 
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The yogurt sauce combined with the crispness of the fried spinach give this dish a unique, delicious flavor.
Author:
Recipe type: Side
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 2
Ingredients
Main Ingredients
  • Frying oil (see notes below on amount needed, I typically use sunflower seed oil)
  • ½ bag of baby spinach (about 4 oz, completely dry)
Sauce
  • ¼ cup Greek yogurt (I use Honey flavored)
  • 2 dates, pitted and chopped
  • Juice from ½ lemon
  • ⅛ tsp coriander
  • ⅛ tsp cumin
  • ⅛ tsp curry powder (I use Trader Joes brand)
  • 1 tbsp tomato, chopped
  • 1 tbsp red onion, chopped (you can substitute shallots)
  • Kosher salt, to taste
Instructions
Sauce
  1. In a small bowl, combine the yogurt, chopped dates, coriander, cumin, curry powder, lemon juice, water, and a pinch of salt.
Spinach
  1. Dry the spinach leaves on a paper towel
  2. Either fill a heavy bottom pot with enough oil to roughly ½ inch depth and turn on medium high heat or fill and heat your deep frier as per instructions provided with the fryer
  3. Gently place a few leaves into the hot oil taking care to stand adequate distance from the pan or fryer to avoid splash back. Spinach leaves contain a lot of water so this WILL happen. Fry for roughly 30 seconds to 1 minute.
  4. Place fried leaves on a paper towel to drain and cool. Continue frying the remainder of leaves in small batches
Combine Sauce and Leaves
  1. Finally plate the leaves and drizzle some sauce. Add the chopped tomatoes and onion on top and enjoy!
Notes
The original recipe calls for Turmeric. I instead use Trader Joe's Curry Powder.

 

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Temple Surfing in Japan

Shōganji Zen Retreat in Oita, Japan

Sitting with Jiho, the head monk, and other guests at the Shōganji Zen Retreat in Oita, Japan

When originally planning my trip to Japan I had wanted to stay in at least one temple while there. The thought of waking up before the crack of dawn for a Buddhist sermon seemed both peaceful and poetic in some sort of way.  I had heard that you could stay at various temples across Japan for not a lot of money.

Turns out temples are no longer a popular place to stay among the Japanese themselves.  Like Europeans with Catholicism, Japanese are slowly distancing themselves from Buddhism and Shintoism.  When talking with other Japanese it seemed like it was something “grandfathers” did and definitely not “cool.”  Fortunately for us travelers Temples have recognized this decline and now welcome foreigners as usually we are their only source of income!

Ninna-Ji in Kyoto, Japan

Our dinner at Omuro Kaikan Hall, Ninna-ji Temple in Kyoto

The food at Omuro Kaikan, the dining hall of Ninna-ji, was simply amazing

Temples in Japan are an inexpensive way to experience a entirely different culture and side of Japan. In Kyoto for instance we were able to stay at a well respected temple, Ninna-ji, for less then $100/night per person which included both breakfast and dinner.

The meals at Nina-ji, for instance, was really, really good.  They offer traditional home cooking for Kyoto which incorporates both fish and vegetables (The food is not shōjin ryōri, or traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine).  The menu was pre-set for both breakfast and dinner which made choosing what to eat much easier.  I got to try things I would not know how to order on my own.  The restaurant at Nina-ji is open for lunch so even if you are not staying at the temple you can try the delicious food for yourself!

Relaxing in our room at Ninna-ji in Kyoto, Japan

The atmosphere at Ninna-ji was relaxing.  A perfect way to unwind after a few hard days of travel.

The grounds at Nina-ji were beautiful.  Because they close the gates at night staying at the temple lodge can be quite peaceful.  The accommodations are traditional, meaning you sleep on mats on the floor, but don’t let that discourage you.  It was a very restful night of sleep!

The next morning we awoke to attend the morning service with the monks in Kon-do, the main temple hall.  Originally built in 1613, Kon-do served as a hall for state ceremonies at the imperial palace in Kyoto and was relocated to the temple grounds shortly after to help with rebuilding efforts of Ninna-ji.  As the oldest building of its style still in existence today, Kon-do has been designated a national treasure of Japan.  Needless to say it was inspiring to sit and listen to the ceremony and something only visitors can experience.

The next day we were given free range to explore the grounds before they were open to the public.  In addition guests are given a free ticket to see Goten, the palace on the grounds.  I enjoyed my stat at Ninna-ji and would recommend it for anyone traveling to Kyoto.  One night was plenty for us to experience everything the temple had to offer.

(More info on Staying at Ninna-ji here)

Shōganji Zen Retreat in Oita, Japan

Statue at Shōganji Zen RetreatI arrived at the small, rural train station in the south of Japan with I no idea what to expect.  I was here to stay at the Shōganji Zen Retreat and other then some email correspondence with Pierre, the coordinator, I honestly didn’t even know who was picking me up or what my plans for my stay were.

Shortly after arriving a car comes zooming around the corner.  Noticing the driver was bald and wearing robes, I soon realized it was my ride.  After brief, informal introductions I learn that Jiho is running behind and asks if I don’t mind helping him perform an Obon ceremony for one of his temple members.  Nodding in agreement, I quickly learn that staying with Jiho was going to be a unique experience.

Shōganji Zen Retreat is led by Jiho Kongo, a graduate of the strict Rinzai Buddhist monastery Shogen-ji who has been practicing Zen Buddhism for over 30 years.  Shōgan-ji was created by Jiho to share the experience of Zen temple life to foreign visitors.  As an active temple in the small village of Ojuki (which is in the Ōita Prefecture), Jiho brings visitors on his house visits of temple members and other local excursions.  In addition to these experience we helped with chores around the temple, practiced kanji, and had time to meditate and study among ourselves.

Practicing Kanji at the Shōganji Zen Retreat

Practicing Kanji one afternoon at the Shōganji Zen Retreat

With barely enough time to unpack my bag and meet the other temple residents (an Aussie and a Canadian for those curious) we head off to the ceremony.

Odon is a yearly celebration of a persons ancestors and has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years.  We were at this persons home to celebrate her father who was a former military officer in the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII.  It’s impossible to describe the feeling I got from listening to Jiho chant and looking around the room at this families artifacts, some looking like they dated back to the days of the Samurai.

I stayed at Shōganji for several days and it gave me a chance to reflect on my Japanese experience to date.  It was the perfect amount of time to befriend my other temple mates and really take in the experience of living life as a monk.

Gardening at Shōganji Zen Retreat

The residents of Ojuki help Jiho with his garden at the temple. Because we were staying there, that meant us too.

Staying at the temple was not easy by any means.  We were woken at 5:30am each morning for prayer and meditation.  This was followed by reading and  … no breakfast!

Jiho is a strong believer in the Nishi-Shiki Health System, a health methodology created by Katsuzo Nishi in 1927.  Katsuzo created the Nishi-Shiki system to alleviate some of his own health concerns growing up and was later adopted by followers of Akido.

Among some of the beliefs of the Nishi-Shiki system are skipping breakfast and and eating raw vegetables.  Jiho’s mother was a follower of the Nishi System and well into her 90’s (and still feisty and healthy) so maybe he is on to something.

Eating izakaya with Jiho during one of our "excursions"

Eating izakaya with Jiho during one of our “excursions.”

After the morning rest we would typically clean around the temple or help in the garden and then help prepare (and eat!) lunch. Afternoons were spent studying or on “field trips” to a local hot springs or, in one instance, the grocery store.  Staying at the temple was surreal in a way.  It’s the first time in my travels where I felt I was actually living and not touring.  Jiho’s calm, zen mentality added a entirely new dynamic to the stay as well.

Because of the early mornings the evenings were for relaxing.  Finding out his mom was a rabid Osaka Tigers baseball fan (In fact the only two English words she knew were “Thank You” and “Baseball!”), I would sometimes spend my nights with his mom, a beer, and a Japanese-to-English baseball dictionary.  She strangely reminded me of my own grandmother, who is a fanatic Tennessee Volunteers fan!

Spending time with Jiho and staying at the Shōganji Zen Retreat was rewarding.  While it was not exactly what I had in mind, the experience ended up being more than worth the effort and time it took to reach his temple.  I wouldn’t hesitate visiting him again!

(More information about staying at the Shōganji Zen Retreat can be found here.)

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Sriracha, Love, and Pizza Sauce

Homemade Sriracha Pizza - mushrooms and shallots with a Sriracha tomato pizza sauce is divine!

The results of our labor – this mushroom pizza was absolutely divine!

Pizza and Sriracha Sauce are two of my favorite things.  Pizza night, where my girlfriend and I make the pizza and sauce from scratch, has become a favorite date night activity for us.  While prepping for our next pizza night foray, it struck me that adding Sriracha to our typical tomato wine sauce would spice it up a notch.  We tried it and really enjoyed the results, I hope you will too!

Kneading the pizza dough for our Sriacha Pizza!

Kneading and rolling the dough out. Getting good at tossing pizza dough is tough!

Thanks to pre-made doughs that you can find at places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, pizza from scratch is surprisingly easy.  It’s amazing how many variations of pizza you can get from trying different toppings, cheeses and dough types.  The cheese section alone of a grocery store could keep you busy for years.  Part of the fun of pizza night is just experimenting and trying new things!

For this creation we took marinated shiitake mushroom, shallots, cheese, my sriracha wine sauce, and Trader Joes garlic Herb pizza dough and created something absolutely wonderful – I think it has been our best pizza to date!

Roasted Shiitake Mushroom Pizza with a Home Made Sriracha Tomato Pizza Sauce
 
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The spiciness of the Sriracha wine sauce is a nice compliment to the marinated shiitake mushrooms and garlic herb dough. It's been our most delicious pizza to date!
Author:
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 4
Ingredients
Mushroom Marinade
  • 2 tbs of Soy Sauce
  • 2 tbs of Rice Vinegar
  • 1 tbs of Honey
  • 1 tbs of Sherry Cooking Wine
Roasted Shiitake Mushroom Pizza
  • 1 bag of Trader Joe's garlic herb dough
  • 2 cups of shiitake mushrooms, sliced and marinaded
  • 1 medium shallot, sliced
  • 1 cup of fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
  • 1 cup of Trader Joe's 1000 Day Gouda
  • 2-3 tbs of fresh basil, roughly chopped
Sriracha Tomato Pizza Sauce
  • 1 15oz can of Organic Tomato Sauce
  • 1 6oz can of Organic Tomato Paste
  • 6 oz of Dry Red Wine
  • 2 cloves of Garlic, crushed and diced
  • 4 tbs of Sweet Onion, diced
  • 2 tbs of Fresh Basil, finely chopped
  • 1 tbs of Sriracha Sauce
  • 1 tbs of Olive Oil
  • 1 tsp of Dried Oregano
  • ½ tsp of brown sugar
Instructions
Sriracha Tomato Pizza Sauce
  1. Place the olive oil in a medium-sized sauce pan over medium heat
  2. Add in the sweet onion and cook for 1 minute
  3. Add in the garlic and cook for an additional 1 minute, or until the garlic begins to brown
  4. Add in the Tomato Sauce and Paste
  5. Add in Sriracha Sauce and the rest of the ingredients and cook until the sauce begins to bubble
  6. Reduce to a simmer and cook for at least 20 minutes, the longer the better
Marinaded Shiitake Mushrooms
  1. Combine the ingredients in a small bowl and add the mushrooms
  2. Toss to coat the mushrooms with the marinade
  3. Place in the fridge until needed
Roasted Shiitake Mushroom Pizza
  1. Pre-heat your oven to 425 degrees
  2. While the sauce simmers, begins to toss your dough and form as closely as you can to a circle (this is harder then it seems!) and put the dough on a baking sheet
  3. Roll over the edges to create a crust for the pizza
  4. After the sauce has finished simmering take ½ cup of the sauce and spread it around the pizza
  5. Place the sliced mozzarella as evenly apart as possible. As the pizza cooks, the mozzarella will melt and fill in the gaps
  6. Take half of the 1000 day gouda and sprinkle it around the pizza
  7. Take the mushrooms out of the fridge and grab the sliced shallots and and place them around the pizza. Cover with the rest of the cheese. Top with the fresh basil
  8. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until the crust begins to turn golden
  9. If desired, place some more fresh basil on top of the cooked pizza
  10. Slice and enjoy!
Notes
The amount of pizza sauce in the recipe is enough for 4 pizzas. You can easily freeze the extra and save for future pizza endeavors!

While I call for 1 tbs of Sriracha Sauce in reality the sauce is not too spicy. To add more heat simply add more Sriracha. 2 Tbs would be a good starting point 🙂

I call for Shiitake mushrooms in this recipe but you can easily substitute either button or bells.

For cheeses we typically do one hard cheese and one soft cheese. Feel free to add more then two types!

 

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Pan Fried Spanish Mackerel Marinated in a Sriracha Soy Lime Sauce

Spanish Mackerel Marinated with a Sriracha Lime Sauce

I fell in love with the flavor of mackerel when traveling in Japan. This Sriracha lime marinade adds a light freshness and helps balance the otherwise strong flavors of mackerel.

When I was on my Japan trip this past summer I stayed for a few days with Jiho, a Zen Buddhist monk in Oita.  Oita is is a coastal town and I soon became spoiled with fresh seafood from the nearby market and fresh limes from Jiho’s garden.

Jiho’s favorite dish was taking a simple mixture of soy sauce, lime, green onion and garlic and then use it as a dipping sauce for mackerel sashimi.  The citrus of the lime really helped cut the strong fishiness flavor of the mackerel – it was absolutely divine and easy to make!

Since coming home I’ve missed this dish – sashimi grade mackerel is tough to come by here in D.C. so I’ve taken to using the sauce as a marinade for grilled mackerel.  I simply marinade the fish in the lime sauce for a few minutes, pan fry, and enjoy.  The principals still hold true- simple to make and the citrus from the lime really adds a fresh flavor to the fish!

Pan Fried Spanish Mackerel Marinated in a Sriracha Soy Lime Sauce
 
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The light and spicy citrus flavor of the Sriracha lime marinade is a perfect compliment to the heaviness of mackerel.
Author:
Recipe type: Main
Cuisine: Japanese
Serves: 2
Ingredients
  • 2 6oz mackerel filets, skins still on
Marinade
  • ¼ Cup of Soy Sauce
  • 1 lime, squeezed
  • 1 green onion, diced
  • 1 clove of garlic, smashed
  • 1 tbs of olive oil
  • 1 tsp of Sriracha Sauce
Instructions
  1. Combine the ingredients for the marinade into a bowl and add the mackerel filets, refrigerate for at least 5 minutes
  2. Meanwhile heat a frying pan over medium heat with 1 tbs of olive oil
  3. Place the marinaded mackerel skin side down and cook for 4 minutes
  4. Brush some additional marinade on the fish, flip and cook skin side up for an additional 1 minute
  5. Serve with your favorite side and enjoy!
Notes
While this dish calls for mackerel, you can substitute herring which is another strong-flavor oily fish.

I do not recommend marinating for too long. The flavor of the marinade can quickly overpower the fish.

I typically make this dish with white rice or sautéed spinach but any vegetable side could potentially compliment.

 

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Remember This is Your Dream

Exhausted, hurt, dazed, and confused - I don't think I've ever been happier in my life.

Exhausted, hurt, dazed, and confused – I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life.

Running a marathon was always one of those goals I’ve had in the back of my mind, but never fully executed on – things would come up that diverted my attention.  A year ago I was at a strange crossroads in my life and oddly decided running for 5+ hours would be the best use of my time, and registered for the Marine Corps Marathon. Having never run more than a half marathon and being badly out of shape, I knew I had a really long way to go.

My parents and friends pledged full support of my endeavor and my good friend Erik, a ultra marathon runner, even promised to draft up a training plan for me.  When I later found out I had won the lottery and secured a spot in the race there was no turning back.

Training was tough – not physically but mentally.  I simply had no motivation for my long runs.  I was giving up partly through my runs and not accomplishing the distances I needed.  I was beginning to question my decision to even run the Marine Corps Marathon in the first place.  My training became even more difficult because halfway through my trip to Japan came up.  Before leaving for Japan I could barely run 10 miles without stopping – how was I supposed to return from the trip and get re-motivated with less than 2 months to go?

Mile 16 - It's amazing the boost a friendly face on the sideline can do for you.

Mile 16 – It’s amazing the boost a friendly face on the sideline can do for you.

Fueled by my parents booking hotels and flights to come see my first marathon, I had new focus in my marathon training.  On one of the first weekends back, I ran 18 miles, only stopping to walk a mile roughly 13.5 miles into my run.  It was the longest run I had ever done (and I could barely walk afterwards!)  I was worried about the marathon now but Erik assured me I had broken through “the wall” and any subsequent run would be nothing.  He was partly right, the following weekend I ran 15.6 miles without stoping.  I felt great afterwards and even went to the Washington Nationals play-off game afterwards!

But trouble started again.  My right foot began to bother me with symptoms similar to plantar fasciitis. With only two weeks until the marathon I decided to lay low and just rest, because I was going to run the marathon, foot be dammed!

Reality struck when my parents flew into D.C. on Friday, the weekend of the marathon.  The reality of my foot injury and the closeness of the marathon began to set in.  There was no turning back now as all the pieces were coming into play.  The night before I could barely sleep.  They say no-one sleeps before running marathons and they couldn’t be more right.  Worried about my foot and beginning to doubt even running at all, I think I only managed about 3 hours of sleep.

Perhaps it was the energy from being anxious, and all the pre-race excitement, but the race started off without a hitch.  I decided to run with the 5 hour group – something I thought was reasonable given my injury.  The pace group I ran with through me off though.  We would run and at the mile markers we would walk for 15~30 seconds, which wasn’t how I had trained.

My foot began hurting at mile one.  While I was able to fight it off for the first thirteen miles or so (and stay with my pace group), the combination of throbbing pain and the constant start / stop of the pace group proved too much.  I began walking around mile 14 to let my foot rest some.  At mile 16 I popped some pain pills I had brought with me – but as expected didn’t do too much to kill the pain.  I still had 10 miles to go!  Mentally I began telling myself that it was just 10 miles – I could run that in my sleep.  While the mental games worked for a few miles, I had to walk the majority of mile 19 through 21 and I began doubting again my decision to run and even began to contemplate defeat.

Although my friends and family are yelling at me like crazy, I'm really smiling because the finish is just within sight.

Although my friends and family are yelling at me like crazy, I’m really smiling because the finish is just within sight.

At mile 24, I turned the corner and, not expecting to see anyone, my mom surprised me with a huge smile and hug. That spurred me on, and then I saw one sign that changed my entire outlook.  Someone, who appeared to be standing by themselves, was holding a sign that said “Remember this is your dream.”  It struck me in a way nothing else had the entire day.  After seeing countless “Worst parade ever” and “I only run if I’m being chased” signs I began to tune them out, but I noticed this one. And it became the mantra that stuck with me as I finished the race.

I had pledged to do a marathon.  It was something I always had wanted to do.  My original  goal of getting a good time was long gone – but the dream of completing the actual marathon was still alive.  As silly as it sounds, this one sign changed my entire outlook on the race.  Sometimes in the mist of chaos we loose sight of what’s important. Our set backs and doubts can overcome us, if we let them. But our dreams remain sitting on the sidelines ready to be conquered. Sometimes all we need to get back on track is a gentle reminder of what those goals are, even if it’s from a complete stranger.

 

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Fantastic Queso Fundido – Melted Cheese Dip with Spicy Chorizo

Queso Fundido with a Spicy Chorizo is easy to make at home!

Queso fundido with chorizo is the perfect appetizer to spice up any meal!

Queso Fundido, Spanish for molten cheese, is a delicious Mexican appetizer that can add a bit of flare to any meal.  My girlfriend and I always order queso fundido with added chorizo (a spicy Spanish sausage) when we are out at a Mexican restauraunt. After ordering it repeatedly at restaurants (and spending who knows how much) I decided to learn to make it on my own.

Turns out its a really easy recipe to recreate, you simply melt, then broil the cheese and top with the chorizo cooked separately.  I’m beginning to question why its so expensive at restaurants!

The recipe below is a fairly simplified version.  Feel free to add diced tomatoes, cilantro or sliced jalapeños after broiling to make it really something special!  Served with tortilla chips, use it as an appetizer for the Super Bowl or just as a way to spice up a main course.  I guarantee it will your new go-to side dish or appetizer!

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Fantastic Fundido with Chorizo
 
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Gooey and delicious - Queso fundido with chorizo is a simple way to spice up any meal!
Author:
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Mexican
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • Half Block of queso oaxacan (Monterrey Jack can substitute)
  • ¼ Pound of chorizo (see note below)
  • Olive Oil
  • ¼ onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped
Instructions
Chorizo
  1. Remove the casing from the chorizo and add to the heated pan on medium heat, cook for a few minutes until browned
  2. Remove the chorizo, drain the grease from chorizo on a paper towel and set aside
  3. Add a tsp of olive oil to the pan, heat, and then add the chopped onion and fry for 1 minute
  4. Quickly add the garlic and fry for 1 more minute, or until both the onion and garlic are soft
  5. Add back the chorizo and mix in the cooked onion and garlic, set mixture aside
Queso Fundido
  1. Shred the Cheese into a oven safe dish
  2. Set your oven to 400 degrees and cook the cheese for five minutes, or until it starts to bubble
  3. Immediately broil the cheese for a few more minutes, or until brown spots begin appearing on the cheese.
  4. Remove the cheese from the oven and add the cooked chorizo mixture
  5. Serve with fresh chips or flour tortillas and enjoy!
Notes
You can get Queso Oaxacan and Chorizo at just about any grocery store specializing in Mexican. Whole Foods also sells both items if you do not have a Mexican grocery close by.

If spicy chorizo is not available spicy Italian can be substituted. If spice is not your thing, any other sausage can be substituted. Trader Joe's Soy Chorizo is a good vegetarian alternative as well.

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