How to Dry And Preserve Neem/ Indian Lilac Flowers For Culinary Use


A major part of my lockdown period was spent at my son’s previous home. Surrounded by old trees, some more than hundred years old. Among them were the Neem or Indian Lilac trees. Delhi has a fair share of ancient aging Neem trees so full of life even now.

Azadirachta indica L is not just a scared and medicinal tree but a shelter for birds, bees, squirrels, butterflies and insects of various kinds. It is a very effective air purifier too and its root bark, stem bark, gum, flower, leaves, seeds and seed oil are used for various medicinal purposes but today we will focus on how to dry and preserve the Neem Flowers or Vepampoo as it is known in Southern India for the unique culinary uses.

While I was recovering in the Hauz Khas home of my elder son the Neem trees lining the streets were flowering gregariously. The flower laden branches from the closest tree leaned on the terrace bringing in a star shower with even a gentle breeze. I was fortunate to see the transformation of little buds to flowers and then to fruits that were devoured by hungry parakeets which descend in such large numbers that sometimes the tree becomes them. In the midst of chaos I fond the solace in quietly sitting and witnessing the life nestled between the labyrinth of dark rough ancient branches and a “sea of foliage” as Lutyens wanted Delhi to be.

Throughout Southern India these flowers are used in various food preparations. I’ve savored some but not made all of them. I’ve prepared roasted flowers crumbled on hot plain steamed rice, tossed in ghee with hing and added to rice, eaten with jaggery, Ugadi Pachadi (Bevu Bella in kannada), dry podi, raita, raw mango Neem flower pachdi, rasam, tea and neer moru /  Masale majjige / Buttermilk infused with the blossoms whose recipe I will share. Then there is kozambu and yummy sadam with Mor Milagai / Dried Green chilies and dried Neem Blossoms that’s out of the world.

If you aren’t adverse to light bitterness then you’ll find Neem blossoms very delicious. The blossoms are known to cleanse the system among other medicinal benefits.

Here is a step by step method of drying and preserving Neem blossoms. The process is pretty simple. In the flowering season which is Jan – May you may gather these fresh flowers to sun dry and if there is a scarcity of sunny secure place they can be dried under a fan too.

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  1. Collect the fresh tenderly fragrant blossoms in a clean bowl or sheet of cloth.
  2. Separate the Neem flowers from the leaf axil by holding the stem in the left hand and pulling the flowers by dragging your fingers from bottom upwards to separate the blossoms.
  3. Once you have all the tiny blossoms separated take a large clean utensil and fill it with drinking water. Dip these flowers gently in it so that all the dust and dirt gets washed. Leave them there for 1-2 minutes and then slowly scoop them into a plate.
  4. Spread kitchen towels or a clean cloth on a flat surface and spread the flowers on it. You may use a large tray if the quantity of blossoms is less.
  5. Let them dry under the sun from morning till evening and bring them in at night. Keep then under sun till they’re completely dry and there is no trace of moisture. Drying under the fan takes more time. I did that as the house cat and her new kittens were all over the terrace. It will take tat least 2-3 days minimum for them to dry completely.
  6. The sign that they are ready for storage and use is to lightly crush them. If they are crisp and crush easily then it’s ready.
  7. Bring in the dried browned flowers to the kitchen counter and let them rest for a while so that they come to the room temperature. Store them in clean and dry airtight jars and use as and when required.
  8. You can use fresh flowers too after washing them as some recipes require the use of fresh ones.

Here is a recipe for  Vepampoo Neer Moru / Spiced Buttermilk tempered with fresh Neem blossoms 

 

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Ingredients : 

Fresh Neem or Vepampoo Blossoms – 2-3 tsp full

Ghee or Clarified butter – 1 tbsp

Dry Whole Red Chili – 1 small

Green chili – 1 broken in 2-3 pieces

Cumin Seeds – 1 tsp

Grated ginger – 1 tbsp

Fresh Yogurt  (Preferably Home cultured) – 1 cup

Water – 2 cups

Salt to taste

Asafoetida – 1 pinch

( You can use fresh buttermilk too instead of making one)

Method : 

Heat an iron seasoning ladle or a small seasoning wok and add ghee to it. Once the ghee warms add cumin seeds. When they crackle add whole broken red chili, green chili pieces, asafoetida (Hing) and fresh Neem blossoms. The moment you get an aromatic fragrance remove from heat and keep on counter to cool. Remove the red chili if your heat threshold is less. You may use just one variety of chili too. Make sure

Add it to the fresh buttermilk and stir. Add salt and grated ginger and stir well.

Or

Blend the curd with water, salt, grated ginger properly and then add the prepared Vepampoo tempering.  Mix everything well and serve. You can have this Vepampoo infused neer moru at room temperature or chilled. It is extremely cooling in the heat of summer and the addition of Neem blossoms give it a beautiful aroma and taste.

 

 

 

 

Recipe – Kokum | Kokam Sharbat


The temperatures are soaring in Northern India and Delhi is sizzling at 46 degree Celsius. I am keeping myself hydrated with various sharbats and Kokum is one my favorites. It keeps the body cool and is anti inflammatory. Kokum juice has other health benefits too but I love the tangy sweet taste of this delicious sharbat and make it often. I use kokum or aamsul, also known as Malabar Tamarind,  as souring agent too. We made kokum saar too sometime. It tastes amazing and helps aid digestion too. Will share a recipe soon.

Kokum|kokam, Garcinia indica, belongs to Mangosteen family. It is native to the western coastal regions of southern India and used extensively in the cuisines of Gujarat Maharashrta and several southern states. The fruit is usually sold as a dried dark purple to black rind or as semi wet sticky curled edges. When added to food it gives the dish a pinkish purple color and a sweet/sour taste. It is slight astringent in nature too.

Dry Kokum With salt on left and With out salt wet kokum on right.

As fresh kokum is not available in Delhi I use the dry one. I have two batches of it, one is dried with salt and the other is plain semi dried fruit petals which I use to make sharbat. I avoid buying the readymade concentrate but if fresh or dry kokum is not available in your area please feel free to use the market bought concentrate. Add roasted cumin powder, crushed mint, black salt to the sharbat and sip the tangy sweet goodness on hot summer noons. Trust me there is nothing to beat this drink. Use it for Margaritas and other cocktails. It pairs well with rum and vodka. Here is an Ice Tea Recipe with Kokum.

The semi dry or dry kokum petals have a very strong sour taste so they should be used with care. The dry kokum tastes very sour and astringent but has a sweet aroma. The fresh fruit is sweeter. The very dry kokum petals will give you a muddy and reddish brown colored sharbat but the

Kokum sharbat concentrate can be stored in the fridge in an airtight glass jar for a maximum of 3-4 weeks. Use clean dry spoon to use it whenever required.

Kokum Sharbat

Ingredients :

1 cup – Kokum

1.5 cups – Sugar

1.5 cups – Water

1 tsp.  – Black salt

2 tsp. – Cumin powder

1 tbsp –  Crushed mint leaves

Method – 

Wash and soak dry / semi dry kokum petals in 2 cups of warm water for 2-3 hours.  The petals will soften and will leave a deep reddish or deep mauve wine color.

Strain  the water and keep it aside. Now Mash the kokum with hand or blend in a mixer.

Add this mixture to the reserved water and put it over medium high flame. Add the sugar and stir nicely till it dissolves completely.  Cook for another 2-3 minutes till the liquid thickens a bit and comes to a syrup like consistency then turn off the heat.

Let it come to room temperature then sieve it through the strainer. Press the crushed kokum with the back of the spoon or with fingers to extract all the juices.

Add black salt, roasted cumin powder, black pepper ( optional ) and stir. Your concentrate is ready to be bottled.

To make the sharbat, take 2-3 tsp of kokum concentrate ( as per taste) in a glass and tip in chilled water and a little of crushed mint leaves.  At this point I empty an ice cube tray and fill the slots with this sharbat instead of using ice for the drink. Ice more flavorful. dilutes the drink so ice cubes made of sharbat make it.

Once the cubes are set we are ready to make the sharbat.

In a glass pitcher add kokum concentrate depending on how many glasses you need to make. Add chilled water and crushed mint leaves and give it a nice stir.

Take the serving glasses and  salt the rims by taking some pink or black salt in a plate and inverting the wet rims on it.

Gently pour the sharbat in the glasses then add the sharbat ice cubes to it.

Serve Chilled.

 

Method – 2 

Sometime I don’t boil the Kokum and juice to make a concentrate. I just soak the kokum in just enough water to cover the fruit petals for 4-5 hours or overnight inside the fridge then rub the kokum with fingers to extract all the flavor. Then strain and add boora cheeni or jaggery powder, roasted cumin powder, black pepper powder, crushed fresh mint leaves, kokum ice cubes and more water then stir to make a quick sharbat.  It tastes equally good.

You can also put one kokum in a glass of water and soak for half an hour, add salt, cumin  powder and drink that water too as an aid to digestion.

 

Kokum Iced Tea

Do try this concentrate to make mocktails, cocktails and Ice teas. You will definitely love the delicious and flavorful taste.

Do away with market bought drinks and invest some time in our indigenous and traditional drinks.

 

 

 

Recipe – Apricot |Khubani ka Sharbat


Summers are the best time to have these excellent sherbets or sharbats made from fresh fruits. Some are chopped, pulped and boiled with sugar then strained while some others are raw. I prefer them uncooked but then do they become ras or juice rather than sharbats? Perhaps, they do. I will share both the methods here though I did not cook the apricots here. In case I was using the dried ones then soaking and cooking to make a concentrate would be a good idea.

These gorgeous sweet and juicy apricots or khubani came via Farmer Uncle straight from the Singha Farms (orchards) in Kothgarh, District Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India. The fruit is chemical residue free and one can feel the difference in taste between these and the ones I buy from local markets in Delhi. There are some more apricot recipes that you can check HERE. and HERE .

I over indulged myself  and while I was licking off the dripping juices I got reminded of the old old days when I was young and partied hard whenever I could. It reminded me of Qamar al-deen, an apricot nectar beverage from Middle East made with a specific variety of apricots, orange blossoms, and sugar. Or, I think it was called lavāshak Qamaruddin made from apricot fruit leather. The beverage in itself was heavenly but the cocktails made from it with Vodka/Gin/White or Spiced rum were killer.

This recipe is simple and brings out the flavor of the fruit. You can also turn it into a slushy or a sorbet.

Ingredients :

Fresh Apricots / Khoobani – 8-10 medium size

Lemon Zest – 1/4 teaspoon

Fresh Lemon juice – 3 -4 tablespoons

Jaggery powder / Sugar – As per taste ( depends on the sweetness of the fruit)

Rock Salt – 1/4 tsp

Water – about 3 cups

Fresh mint leaves – 3-4 muddled

Method 1:

Wash and pat dry the apricots. Pull them in half and remove the stones.

Chop them roughly and put them in a blender jar and blend.

Once the mixture is smooth and nicely blended strain it through a sieve in a pitcher. Rub the pulp with back of a spoon so that all the pulp san the tough fibers goes through the sieve.

Add a cup or two of water to dilute the concentrate and add lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and jaggery powder or boora cheeni/ sugar.

Mix it well then pour some of the sharbat in an ice cube tray and freeze.

Add fresh muddled mint leaves to the remaining sharbat and chill it.

Once the cubes are frozen, add them to the chilled sharbat and serve.

 

Method 2 – Soak the dry seedless apricots overnight and pulse the swollen fruit in the blender with a little water, lemon juice and sugar the next day to make a paste.

Strain it into a pitcher, add water and mix well. Serve chilled.

If you are in a hurry then you can soak the apricot leather or dried apricots in hot water for  3-4 hours or just boil them a little to soften them with sugar and water over stove top ( like a compote) then cool to blend. Add more water to dilute as per your liking.

You may add a little orange blossom water to it before serving. You may also add Gin / Vodka / Spiced or White Rum to make a cocktail.

You can use tamarind paste instead of lemon to make Imli Khubani ka sharbat.

To make the tamarind Apricot Sharbat you need :

Ingredients:

Dried apricots –  250 gms (soaked overnight & deseeded)

Imli ka gooda (Tamarind pulp deseeded) – 250 gm

Boora cheeni – 250 gm or as per taste

Water – 1 litre

Rock Salt –  1 tsp –

Method :

In a blender add dried soaked apricots & tamarind pulp. Blend well then strain with a sieve. Set it aside. In a heavy bottom pan add sugar and water, mix well and cook until sugar is dissolved. Now add the apricot pulp and mix well. Cook on medium low flame for 5 minutes then turn off the stove. Let the mixture cool down.

Add required concentrate to a pitcher, add salt and crushed mint leaves, add more water if needed and adjust sweetness if required. Place it in the fridge to chill.

In a serving glass, pour the sharbat, ice cubes. Stir well and serve.

Always use fully ripe juicy apricots. Ripe apricots are soft to touch. They should be firm, and orange gold in color.

Peach Lemonade & Peach Iced Tea


 

I love fruit iced teas and make a lot of variations. Any over ripe or bruised fruit goes into these delicious summer drinks. We sometimes make fruity cocktails too.

Years ago on one hot summer day after being knackered by housework and my crazy kids I just mashed one of the overripe peaches and added it to a big glass of chilled lemonade (not the usual shikanji with kala namak etc. This was sweet one). No one was willing to eat this orphaned peach and I wasn’t in mood for iced tea.

The lemonade tasted different and nice but not what I was looking for.  Many days later while making peach compote I added the warm sugary muddled peach pulp to the lemonade. It turned out absolutely divine and thus began my love for fruity lemonades. I then experimented with many fruits and till now these remain my favorite over the plain lemonade. Who said lemonades were only about lemons.

I had added sugar to that one but later I didn’t feel the need or the urge to sweeten the drink with added sugar. As I often used organic honey to make the lemonade. Adding it to the simply muddled warm peaches seemed a good idea. I evolved the recipe and made it differently many times with ginger and mint, with basil, with vodka and gin, with sugar instead of honey, blended or with chucks of peaches in it. I even froze lemonade in ice cube trays with soft peach pulp in it and added those to the pitcher. Sometimes adding the preferred alcohol to it.  Each tasted differently. My favorite is with soft muddled peach pulp along with some peach and lemon wedges. Simple and refreshing. Too many flavors mar the drink.

Here’s how I made it. There are two ways to do it and I will tell you both.

Ingredients :

2-3 large ripe juicy peaches

4 cups water

1/4 cup Fresh Lemon Juice

1/2 inch Fresh Ginger Slice (crushed)

Few Fresh mint leaves muddled

2-3 tablespoon Organic Honey

Peach slices and lemon wedges to add to lemonade and to garnish

Steps – 

Method 1 :

Wash and cut the peaches in small pieces with the skin on. Discard the stone.

In a pan add those pieces and simmer on medium flame stirring constantly. When they become soft lightly press them gently with the back of the spoon and take them out in a bowl. Once they cool add honey and mix well. Keep the mix in the fridge for chilling.

Meanwhile, make lemonade by mixing lemon juice, ginger, mint and cold water.

Add the chilled peach pulp to the lemonade and throw in some slender peach slices and lemon wedges.

Keep the lemonade in fridge so it chills well. I avoid adding ice for it dilutes the drink. Sometimes I make ice cubes from the same lemonade and add those.

You can put it in the freezer for sometime and then crush it to make the drink super chilled. Spoon in some peach pulp in the glasses when you serve. You can make it as a slushie too.

You can keep the peach pulp for a day more in case you wish to make peach iced tea like I did.

There was some cold brew iced tea remaining from day before and added some of the pulp to that. I let it seep in the fridge while enjoying my peach lemonade. The resting gave a nice flavor to the tea and we had it later in the day.

Method 2 :

In a bowl add peach pieces and sugar. Mix and let it sit for some time. Heat a thick bottom pan and add the peach sugar mix. Keep the flame medium low and stir till the mixture becomes pulpy. Remove from heat and cool. Blend it in a mixer or blender and add to the lemonade. You can also bring to boil peaches, sugar and little water then cool and blend. Add this mix to a pitcher of cold water, add lemon juice , muddled mint etc and serve chilled. Use two cups of water for the peach syrup and two cups to add later in the pitcher.

As I use honey I don’t boil the water but warming the peaches brings out some nice flavors.

For the tea I sometimes just roughly chop the peaches and tip into the cold brew tea. Sometimes I make the tea by adding hot water (not boiling) over tea leaves and then straining it to desired strength. I chill it and add the peach pulp, lemon juice, lemon wedges, peach slices to it.

See, how many different way are there to enjoy this fantastic homemade summer drink.

Do try the Peach lemonade and / or the peach Iced Tea and you’ll see how refreshing and amazing it is. You’ll never go for the synthetic one again.

Spiking 1 liter of lemonade  or Iced tea with 60-80 ml of alcohol is good way to make a tipsy version. It depends on your taste. I add a little less vodka than peach schnapps when making the alcohol version. These are my preferred choices but you can add whiskey or gin too. A good peach vodka goes well with both the iced tea and the lemonade.

Do let me know if you make any of the the two.

Bael Panna | Bel Ka Sharbat


Bel/Bael or stone apple is also known as Elephant apple and Bengal Quince. It gets its name of stone apple due to the hard cover.  It is native to India and the tree is considered sacred for Hindus. Bael fruit is used in traditional medicine. It is also found in Srilanka and Thailand.

Bael fruit is a storehouse of  good health and nutrition. Packed with protein, phosphorus, Vitamin C and B complex and tannin it strengthens the heart and mind, cures acidity, increases body resistance and improve the memory. It also cures ulcers and gastric disorders, treats acidity, burning sensation in the stomach and nausea, cleans the stomach of impurities and cures weak eyes. It is also a good cardiac tonic and energy booster. A good source of beta-carotene, Bael also cure liver problems. It also contain thiamine and riboflavin. Once a week intake of Bael fruit cures Amoebiasis .

Bael is used for making sharbat, chutney and murraba. The fruit is also eaten as medicinal remedy.

To make a healthy Bael  ( Stone apple ) sharbat we need : 

Ingredients :

  • Ripe Fragrant Wood Apple – 1 Medium
  • Sugar/Jaggery powder – To Taste (Depends on the sweetness of bael fruit)
  • Water – About 4 Glasses
  • Fresh Mint Leaves – 10-12
  • Lemon Juice – 1/2 Lemon
  • Lime Quarters – 3-4
  • Rock Salt powder – 1/4 teaspoon per glass
  • Roasted cumin powder – 1/4 teaspoon
  • Ice Cubes

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Method : 

  1. Crack open a ripe Bael fruit and scoop out all the fibrous flesh in a large glass bowl. No need to discard the seeds right now.
  2. Add 2 glasses of water to the pulp so that it submerges completely. Cover with a lid and set aside for 2-3 hours.
  3. Now mash the soaked pulp with hands and once it mixes properly sieve it through a thin mesh to collect maximum amount of juice.
  4. Add a little more water and sieve again. Throw away the seeds and insoluble fiber.
  5. Add Sugar/ jaggery powder as per the sweetness of the fruit concentrate and mix well. Refrigerate till you are ready to use.
  6. To serve panna, fill the glasses with ice cubes and pour the bael juice concentrate over it. Add Rock salt powder and the required amount of water and stir properly.
  7. Garnish with lemon wheels and fresh mint sprigs.
  8. Serve chilled.

You can muddle some fresh mint leaves and add to the fruit concentrate too. A hint of ginger also tastes good at times.

Do make the traditional summer beverages that used to be a part of our daily cuisine. They are not just refreshing but also therapeutic. Keep away from commercial, synthetic drinks.

 

Quick Recipes With Popped Amaranth Seeds


Amaranth, the royal grain, is known as Raamdana/ Ramdana, Rajgira in India. Actually it is not a grain but seeds of the Amaranth plant. These tiny seeds  pop up  when roasted to become light and fluffy and provide more protein content than the much touted quinoa. A whooping  9 gm of complete protein in one cup. Amaranth contains all the essential amino acids which makes it much better than any seed/grain.

This tiny yet power packed seed is a store house of many essential nutrients. It has a significant amount of calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, iron and Vitamin C. Another good thing is that it is gluten free so people who are celiac or gluten intolerant can easly incorporate it in their meals.

I have very fond memories of munching on raamdana ladoos as a child. Light and mildly sweetened with jaggery they are the best snacks to have at all ages as they are easy to digest too. We even used these popped seeds in porridge, both sweet and savory. Raamdana is very versatile and you just need to be innovative to include it daily in your diet one way or the other. You can use them in cutlets, frappes, ladoos, soups, muffins, breads, cakes, quiche, energy bars or use it as a breakfast cereal or baby food or sprinkle over salads etc. .

Here I made some quick sweets and a frappe using Organic popped amaranth seeds from I Say Organics. 

Dates, Mix Dry Fruit and Popped Amarath Ladoos 

This is a fantastic easy and quick recipes which can be made with or without cooking if you already have the amaranth seeds popped.

You can make bite size balls to eat as snacks. The size depends on your wish. I make them small so I can eat it often. There is no oil/ghee or added sugar so that makes these a wonderful snack.

To make these nutritious ladoos you will need :

Dates –  1 cup pitted (good quality)

Popped Amaranth / Rajgira Seeds – 1 Cup

Chopped or Powdered Mix dry fruits ( Almonds, raisins, cashews. walnuts etc. ) – 1/2 cup

Any seeds ( flax seeds sesame seeds) if you desire – 2 tablespoon

( If you have the  wet dates then no cooking is required but if the dates are dry then they need to be heated a bit. )

Method – 

Pit and chop the dates fine.

Dry roast the nuts and chop or powder them as per your taste. If using seeds then dry roast them too but take care not to over roast. Just light roasting is fine.

If  you are using dry dates then heat a non stick pan and add chopped dates to it.

Keep the flame low and stir till the dates soften.

Add the nut mixture,  seed mixture and popped ramdana, give it a nice sir and switch off the gas.

Remove the mixture in a plate and mix it thoroughly so that everything gets incorporated nicely.

Make small balls of the mixture and let them cool before putting them in an airtight container. Eat these  nutritious power packed ladoos any time of the day. I am sure kids wuld love them too. Do give it a try.

If yo uare using the soft, wet dates then just chop them and put the dates and powder/chopped dry fruit mixture in a blender and mix till a gooey mix is obtained. Take it out in a bowl and make small bite size balls from it.

Ramdana/ Popped Amaranth Brittle/ Chikki 

Our next recipe is for the brittle made of raamdana.  I have used Organic jaggery and popped amaranth seeds from I Say Organics in this recipe to get the maximum benefits from the ingredients.

Ingredients: 

Popped Amaranth Seeds / Rajgira / Ramdana – 1/2 Cup

Organic Jaggery – 1/2 Cup ( you can use Palm Jaggery too. Crumble it or cut into slivers with a sharp knife.)

Ghee/ coconut oil – 1 tbsp ( coconut oil for vegans)

Pinch of salt

Method – 

Grease a baking tray/ plate with oil and set it aside.

Put a heavy bottom pan on medium heat and add the oil or ghee to it.

Add the grated or crumbled Jaggery with a pinch of salt. I don’t use shakkar or granulated jaggery.

Stir it constantly till the jaggery melts and there are no lumps. Keep the heat low if required so the jaggery doesn’t burn. It will become more like a syrup.

Add ramdana / amaranth seeds and mix well.

Pour the mixture in the greased tin and

spread it evenly with a spatula.

Let it set for 20-30 min then remove it from the baking tray and either break into pieces or cut into squares.

Keep in an airtight container.

Note- Some people make a syrup or Paak of jaggery with water. I prefer it this way. To make it crisp you’ll need to melt the jaggery a little longer without burning. I just wait till it dissolves completely and add amaranth.  This chikki/brittle is a bit softer than the market version.

Popped Amaranth seeds Parfait with Mixed Fruit And Nuts 

I love yogurt Parfaits and this is one of my favorites. You can do so much with this basic recipe. Add any fruits, nuts, seeds to it with natural sweetness of fruits and perhaps some home made preserve or organic honey  or organic jaggery slivers/ granules if you like it sweeter. Dates/ Prunes make this frappe very delicious and naturally sweet too.

Ingredients –

Chopped Prunes or Dates

Popped Amaranth seeds

Chopped mix nuts (walnut, cashew, almonds etc and  mixed raisins ( black, gloden)

Hung yogurt

Homemade preserve/ honey/ maple or date syrup/ molasses or jaggery

Method 

Just layer these ingredients one by one to make the parfait presentable or if in a rush just toss everything together  and have it. Both ways you’re getting the goodness of this power packed recipe. Top the frappe with the Preserve or any of the other sweetening ingredient mentioned above. It is entirety up to you what to add/remove.

Make it as healthy and innovative as you desire.

Hope you liked these recipes. Do try and let me know in the comment section about your experience.