Carrot Halwa (Gajar ka halwa)

Indian Cuisine

To say that I have been doing some Indian cooking lately is like saying that I picked up a granule of sand on the beach. Indian cuisine dates back over 5000 years and each region has its own traditions, religions and culture that influence its food. Hindus tend to be vegetarian and Muslims tend to have meat dishes, although pork is forbidden. Indian food has been influenced by Mongolian, Persian and Chinese cuisine, among others. It is rich and varied and I love it.

While I have done some Indian cooking before, I had only made Kheer as a dessert. I was intrigued by what I had read about Halwa – not to be confused with the Middle Eastern halva.

Like semolina cakes in the Middle East, there is no one single recipe for making Halwa. They all share the same basic ingredients of carrots, ghee, sugar, cardamom and a dairy milk, but the quantities, cooking times and additions make each one unique. And probably each Indian family believes that their version is the best. One thing that they all have in common is patience.

This is not a difficult recipe but like Indian rice pudding (Kheer), it takes time and almost constant stirring to end up with an amazingly velvety, fragrant and utterly satisfying treat. Make this when someone is around that you want to share a nice long chat with while you stir. It is so worth it.

While I think this is a perfect dessert anytime of the year, in India, it is especially relished during Diwali and the colder, wetter months. It is the perfect comfort food.

In order to come up with this version, I read at least 4 different recipes from Indian and vegetarian cookbooks and watched over 6 YouTube videos. Some versions were made with sweetened condensed milk and others were cooked down to form almost a cake-like consistency that was cut into little diamond shapes. I’m sure that they are all wonderful and I’d be happy to eat any of them. However, this version is my amalgam of what I believe to be the best halwa and one that made my husband incredibly happy. Okay, it made ME incredibly happy too! It won’t disappoint.

Recipe

Yield: About 8 servings

Ingredients

6 cups peeled and finely shredded slim carrots (DO NOT use large, thick woody carrots. They are fine for soup and feeding horses, but will not have the sweetness and tenderness needed here.)

3-4 Tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter

3/4 cup raw or granulated sugar

About 1.25 cups of whole milk (Exact amounts are not essential. Pour in enough to almost but not quite cover the carrots. You can always cook this longer if you added a bit more than you had intended.)

1/4 cup half and half (or additional whole milk) mixed with about 1/8 teaspoon of saffron threads

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped blanched almonds

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachios

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped cashews

3 Tablespoons raisins (preferably golden/Sultanas)

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom

Directions

In a large, preferably non-stick skillet, melt 2 Tablespoons of the ghee. Add all of the carrots and mix through. Add up to an additional Tablespoon of ghee, if needed to coat the carrots.

Cook over a low heat, stirring FREQUENTLY for 40-45 minutes. This is tedious but necessary to prevent burning and to get the carrots to a velvety texture.

Now add the milk and half & half mixture and stir through. Add the 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom and mix through. Cover the pan and on low heat, cook the carrots for 20-25 minutes more. Stir OCCASIONALLY. You want to cook until the milk is just absorbed but the carrots are not dried out

While the carrots cook, melt the remaining ghee in a small skillet and lightly cook the nuts, raisins and remaining cardamom. You just want the raisins to swell and the nuts to release their oils. Set aside.

Uncover and add the sugar and mix through. Now add the nuts and raisin mixture and stir through. Continue cooking for about 5 minutes more. The resulting mixture is incredibly moist, velvety and unctuous. It can be eaten warm or at room temperature. This is quite rich and satisfying and 3-5 ounces per person is more than enough. While the halwa does not need any garnish, you can add a little lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving.

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Indian Side Dishes with Something to Please Everyone

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating. My two favorite cuisines are Mediterranean (in all of its forms) and Indian. Both share a wonderfully brilliant use of spices and are vegetarian-friendly.

I have also found that the two can often complement one another and I use the bread from one or the salad from the other when I am putting together a meal. And if you just go easy on the cayenne and other hot peppers, I have also discovered that they can be very kid-friendly.

Vegetarian vs. Vegetarian-Friendly

In my house we are all omnivores. Of course, we each have our pet peeves, but basically we eat everything and think that all food is sacred. Over the years, I have hosted many people for holidays and other dinners. I have had to deal with food allergies, kashrut, vegetarians, vegans and just plain-old picky eaters. But at least one of the side dishes presented here likely will appeal to someone on that list. And while I enjoy putting together an entire Indian meal, these sides are equally good with just about any roast meat, chicken or fish or as part of a vegetarian or vegan meal.

Recipe for Chana Dal Khichadi (Rice with Yellow Split Peas) from Flavors of India by Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff

Yield: 4 Servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup yellow split peas

3/4 cup short grain brown rice

1 Tablespoon Canola oil or butter

5 whole cloves

1 large clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 fresh green chili, seeded and chopped (If you don’t want the heat but just the color, use a sweet green or red pepper)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

3 cups of water

Directions

Look through the chana dal (Yellow Split Pea) and remove any pebbles or grains. Mix the dal with the rice and rinse well and then drain.

In a medium pot with a cover, heat the oil or butter over a low temperature. Add the whole cloves, chopped garlic and pepper. After 2 minutes the cloves will begin to swell and release a wonderful fragrance. Immediately add the washed dal and rice and stir for 5 minutes.

Add the salt and turmeric and stir through for another 3 minutes. Now add the water and bring to a boil. Partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for about 45-50 minutes until both grains are soft and the water is almost entirely absorbed. If there is still water after 50 minutes, uncover the pot, turn the heat up a bit and continue cooking. (The time may be more than this depending on the actual dal used and the kind of brown rice.)

Cucumber Salad, North Indian Style from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

3 cups Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

freshly ground cracked black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne or Aleppo pepper (Aleppo Pepper is not as hot as cayenne but lends zing.)

1-2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

10 fresh mint leaves, chopped or chiffonade

Directions

Thinly slice the cucumbers. If they are a bit thick, then cut the cucumber in half lengthwise first so that you end up with half moons.

Toss the cucumbers with the remaining ingredients. Adjust the seasonings. This salad can be made immediately before serving. The longer it sits, the more it “pickles.”

Spinach Raita (Yogurt and Spinach Dip)

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 Tablespoons Canola or EVOO plus more for drizzling

1/4 teaspoon whole brown or yellow mustard seeds

1 small clove garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

5-6 ounces fresh baby spinach

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

1 cup plain yogurt (I used a Bulgarian yogurt but almost any plain yogurt will do)

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or Aleppo pepper)

Directions

Pour the oil into a medium to large frying pan and set over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. As soon as they start to pop (it only takes about 30 seconds), add the garlic. Cook for a few seconds and then add all of the spinach. I like to use tongs for this next part. Stir the spinach around and cook for 5 minutes. Add about 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and mix it through. Turn off the heat and remove the spinach to a strainer set over a bowl.

When the spinach has fully drained, coarsely chop it up and set aside.

Put the yogurt in a serving bowl and whisk it with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and the cayenne or Aleppo pepper. Just before you are ready to sit down, mix through the drained and chopped spinach mixture. Drizzle with a little EVOO.