The weekend before last, Mike and I attended a cooking class with our friends Laura and Darrin. We’d been wanting to take Ranjana’s vegetarian “Basic North Indian” cooking class and back in December we signed up for the next available Saturday session in Mid-February. We didn’t realize the timing when we booked it, but it turned out to be Valentine’s Day weekend and the perfect celebratory double-date!
Ranjana teaches several classes a week out of her home-kitchen in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. I’ve never taken a class in anyone’s home before, but it felt perfectly normal and very professional, as I expected it would based off of her professional website, 5-star yelp reviews, and her prompt responses to my emails prior to the class. We arrived 10 minutes early and were greeted by her husband who took our coats and entertained us in the living room for a few minutes until, right on time, Ranjana called for us to come into the kitchen.
Classes are normally capped at 8, but since 4 of us wanted to take the class together, there were 10 in the group the day of our class – coincidentally all couples, like us. We all sat in stools around the counter as Ranjana took the stage behind the stove.
We started out with mugs of Chai Tea and a review of 24 common Indian spices, which were listed on a detailed hand-out Ranjana provided. She made sure to pass around the spices that were less familiar to us including Asafetida, which she described as “skunky” (Mike and I thought it smelled like onions). I also learned where Saffron comes from – it’s the hand-picked stamens of Crocus Flowers – each flower gives just 2 Stamens, which explains why it is the most expensive of spices (though according to Ranjana, you can get the best price at World Market!) I even learned a new tip for a spice that I use all the time – when working with Fresh Ginger – peeling & slicing is much easier if you go length-wise.
Household Gadgets & Tips
Mike and I actually found it really helpful to see someone cooking in their own house. There were so many tips, tricks and tools she used that would be practical for us at home as well.
- The spice tins above are brilliant. She has 1 tin full of 7 North-Indian spices and another tin full of 7 South-Indian spices. When she’s seasoning dishes, there is no need to open and close multiple jars – she just opens 1 tin and takes a few pinches of each spice!
- She uses a simple coffee grinder for spices. This made it so easy to have the freshly ground spices we used in class – Mike and I are seriously considering getting one now. When switching between grinding coffee and spices, she suggests grinding white rice in between uses to clean out the flavors. The spices can be roasted before grinding, or cooked in oil after.
- We loved the Cast-Iron woks she used for almost all of her cooking.
- Even great chef’s use the microwave! She uses hers to make quick yogurt and cheese by bringing the milk to a full boil, letting it cool, and then mixing in either vinegar to make paneer, or a little bit of leftover plain yogurt to start the culture for homemade yogurt.
- Her tiny rolling pin (which she had with her in her 1 suitcase when she moved to the States years ago) made rolling out roti bread and samosa dough so easy. And Mike noted that the shallow tins she used for flour and for prepping ingredients would be very useful in our kitchen.
- And I totally want her Multi-Blade Herb scissors!
Lot’s of Cooking!
After covering the basics and grinding fresh spices, it was time to get cooking! The class format was a cross between the “Demo” and “Hands-on” formats. We each took turns as Ranjana’s helpers as the various dishes were prepared, and everyone had a chance to roll and stuff their own samosa and to prepare a roti bread.
I was tasked with putting the finishing touches on the Bhel Puri which was my favorite dish of the day. It wasn’t even in the lesson plan, but Ranjana offered to make us all a snack Mike called this “Indian Chex Mix” but to me it was so much more than that. You simply take the cereals of your choice (Ranjana used Puffed Rice and Cheerios) and some peanuts and stir in Lemon Juice, Tamarind juice, fresh cilantro chutney, potatoes or beets (for color), pomegranate seeds, and fresh cilantro. I can’t put into words how amazing this tasted and I definitely want to make this again. There is also a version of this in the Vegan Eats World cookbook. We served our Bhel Puri inside of “Papadums“, crispy lentil & black-pepper crackers that can be found at any Indian Grocer. We quickly warmed the Papadums over the flame of the gas burner, then used a bowl to mold them into their shape. I loved the taste, texture, and ease of the Papadums and definitely will be looking for these at the store.
Mike was chosen to demonstrate the Samosa Dough and the Roti Dough, since he couldn’t remember the last time he made dough.
And Laura and Darrin volunteered to help with various steps of the Samosa Filling.
Everyone in the group helped out with peeling the potatoes for the Samosas. I never knew it before, but it is so easy to peel potatoes by hand after they’ve been boiled and cooled, and none of the potato’s ‘meat’ gets wasted as with a regular peeler.
We each took turns making and filling our own Samosas and cooking our Roti breads, which was really fun!
For short-cut samosas, Ranjana said that Mexican white tortillas dipped in water could be used instead of dough.
Our Samosas were served with the traditional accompaniments of a fresh Cilantro Chutney (the green sauce) and Tamarind Chutney (the brown sauce).
I definitely want to make the Cilantro Chutney at home – it was made in just a few minutes by tossing the ingredients on the tray below into a blender – and yep, that’s a banana, though it can be subbed for almost any fruit.
The Samosas kept on coming and it was an “all you can eat” feast. I lost count and am not sure whether I had 3 or 4.
Next up, the Roti Breads were so simple, healthy (the dough is purely whole wheat flour & water), and fun! After rolling out our own pieces of Roti bread, we each cooked our piece in a skillet until it was near-done. Then we’d briefly place it directly on the gas burner and watch it puff up like a balloon at which point it was ready to eat. It all happened so fast it was hard to get an action photo!
Next thing we knew, it was already time to feast on everything the group had made. The Lentil Dal and Ranjana’s Eggplant Dish were among the best of each that I’ve ever had. We also had Raita (Yogurt sauce), Spicy Okra, and homemade Paneer cheese in a delicious Masala Sauce.
For dessert, we enjoyed bowls of Halwa, a sweet grain-based porridge. Ranjana topped each bowl with a dollop of Carrot Halwa. It was SO GOOD! I liked it so much, in fact, that I decided to make my own version of Halwa for breakfast this week. My version came out great on the first try and I’ll be sharing the recipe soon!
Overall, I would highly recommend Ranjana’s cooking class to anyone who loves Indian food. In just a few hours, she covered A LOT of material with us from which I learned so much and got quite a lot of recipe inspiration. While the class was completely vegetarian, there was quite a bit of butter, milk, and cream used. I exercised the Flexi- part of my “Flexi-Vegan” lifestyle, but strict Vegans may want to inquire about the Custom classes she offers.
I’d love to hear from you!
What’s your favorite Indian food?
What are your favorite gadgets or tricks in the kitchen?