A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Maiden Voyage of my Slow Cooker — Rajma (Indian Kidney Beans)

Well, I've completed my first slow cooking experiment, and am going to have to call this one a "learning experience."  Unfortunately, we now have in our fridge a couple gallons of learning experience to plow through in the coming week.

To put a positive spin on the situation, the cooking process 1) taught me something about what the slow cooker is good and not so good at, and 2) filled our home all day Saturday with enticing aromas.  Sadly, though, like that of an inferior wine, the taste of my resulting dish did not live up to the promise of those aromas.

Peter preparing to sample his first bite of food from our new slow cooker

I'd decided to cook Rajma, which is just the Hindi word for Red Kidney Beans, for 3 reasons.
  1. This is the kind of thing I make a lot of, and I wanted to see how the slow cooker would alter the procedure with something I was familiar with.
  2. I had read online that most spices should be added near the end of the slow-cooking process (to prevent bitterness), and Indian dal (dried bean) dishes often have a last-minute flavoring step called chaunk (described below), in which oil and spices are added to the already-cooked dish.
  3. My reader Debbie requested an Indian dish.  (You're welcome, Debbie.  I hope the shirt you're sewing for me comes out better than my rajma. . . .)
Here's how I prepared my dish.  [Disclaimer: I am not recommending that anyone follow this recipe, as the results were not up to my finicky standards.  These instructions are shown here for educational purposes only.  PmP cannot take responsibility for any insulted taste buds resulting from the actual preparation of this dish as described.]

My inspiration was the memory of a Madhur Jaffrey recipe I'd made years ago, which combined red kidney beans with turnips, many of which I thought were languishing in our balcony "root cellar."  As it turned out, not a turnip turned up, but I did find 3 human-head-sized yams with only a little bacterial infestation:

Note: The yam is not all that foreshortened in this photo; it was HUGE.  
After peeling off the molding outer surface of these enormous yams, they were more or less still the size of the yams you normally encounter in the supermarket.  I used about half of the total for my dish and Peter put the other half in the vegetable mélange he cooked for our lunch that day.  (His talents are by no means limited to sewing and blogging.)

I chopped the yams into largish chunks.  I also sliced half a large onion and about 6 cloves of garlic.  I set these ingredients aside on a plate, with about a tsp of turmeric and a little pink salt (less than a tsp).  The advice I'd heard from readers and internet sources suggested that less salt is needed in slow-cooked food, since the long cooking times draw out more flavor from the ingredients, so I put in less than half the salt that a comparable Indian recipe would call for.

Aren't the colors appealing?
OK, I was ready to christen the slow cooker!  I rinsed 2 C of kidney beans and dumped them into the crock along with 8 C of water.

Add some goldfish for a lovely Zen water garden.  (But don't turn on the heat!)
Then I put in the yams and other ingredients on my plate, sealed up the cooker, and turned it on low.  That's it!  Boy, this slow-cooking is easy, I thought.  Too easy, I was to find out later.

I had no idea how long the beans would take to cook using this method, so I decided I'd check them throughout the day, even though I'd been warned that every peek meant adding an additional 20-30 minutes to the total cooking time.  After about 6 hours — the smells wafting from the cooker were already intoxicating by this time! — the yams and the beans were nearly cooked, but the onions still tasted a little raw, so I decided to keep cooking a little longer.  (I was pleased to see that the beans, which I hadn't pre-soaked, were not taking an inordinate amount of time to become soft.)

After another hour, the onions were still tasting raw, and there was a bit too much liquid in the dish, so I decided to turn the cooker up to high and keep cooking.  I also added a little ground dried ginger and a little cayenne pepper at this stage.

Ginger/Cayenne in the right-hand dish.  The mustard seeds in the left-hand dish will be used later in the chaunk.

Another hour and then I cracked the lid a bit so that some water would evaporate.  After 30 more minutes, I tasted again.  The ingredients had reached a very pleasing consistency and I did not want to keep cooking them into mush, but the raw-onion taste was still quite unpleasant.  (Not to mention that it kept repeating on me, though I'd sampled only 2 beans.  Blechh.)

I was hoping that my final chaunk step would attenuate or at least mask the strong, lingering taste of raw onion that was marring my otherwise delicious dish.  Chaunk involves heating some sort of oil or ghee in a small frying pan, adding a series of ingredients that may include spices, onions, garlic, and curry leaves, dumping it quickly over the cooked dish and covering the pot to seal in the flavors.  For this Rajma dish, I had decided on a simple chaunk of mustard oil and black mustard seeds.

Mustard oil is widely used for cooking in some regions of India.  Raw, it is sinus-clearingly pungent.  When cooked, its pungency recedes into more of a sweetness, albeit a rather mustardy sweetness.  It's perhaps an acquired taste.  (Peter detested it the first time I used it many years ago, but has come to crave it almost as much as I do.)  Strangely, the FDA in our country has not approved the consumption of mustard oil, so the Indian markets have to sell it labelled as a massage oil.  I love this, because it lets me feel like a real rebel when I [gasp!] actually eat the mustard oil.  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I would very much appreciate being anointed with a nose-tingling mustard fragrance during my next massage.

The warnings on my mustard oil
I heated a couple T of the mustard oil in my small cast-iron frying pan to the smoking point.  You have to let mustard oil smoke in order to create the transformation from pungent to sweet.  Then I tossed in a T of mustard seed, and let it pop — just like tiny popcorn kernels — which happened pretty much immediately because the oil was so hot.  I dumped the whole thing, oil and seeds, over top of the kidney beans, stirred once, and replaced the lid to seal in the flavors.

Sadly, although you can imagine how delicious this dish COULD have been, the mustard oil step was not able to disguise the rawness of the onion.  I realize now that I should have sauteed the onions and garlic in a little oil before adding them to the slow cooker.   This would have removed the raw taste and caramelized the onions into a delicious sweetness.  At this point, however, the convenience of the slow cooker recedes a bit.  I guess the main benefit is that it can cook my food while I am otherwise engaged, without needing to be tended.

I now have 2 big containers of not-quite-pleasing kidney beans with yams, 1 in the fridge and 1 in the freezer.  I am planning to try to rescue the dish tonight, perhaps cooking it on the stovetop in a last-ditch attempt to caramelize the onions.  We'll eat it — however it turns out — with some mustard greens cooked with lots of garlic and some plain basmati rice.  I'll let you know how it turns out. . . .

It actually turned out pretty good, if maybe a little on the bland side.  Peter was not offended by the raw-onion overtones, but I continued to find them unpleasant on the aftertaste.  The greens — which I ended up sauteing in MORE mustard oil with slices of daikon radish and finishing off w/a pinch of garam masala — were superb.  All in all, not the disaster I'd anticipated!


  1. Hilarious yam photo!

    So your rajma was only unsuccessful because of the onions? That's really not too terrible for a first go in the crock pot. Maybe you need some caramelized onions on standby in the freezer? And STOP peeking inside. ;-)

  2. I'm impressed that you would throw together a recipe for your first go with a slow cooker. Most slow cooker recipe books caution you to not deviate at all from the recipes as minor changes can make a big difference to the outcome :P

    Re: the onions. Sometimes I cook them first, sometimes not. The recipe books say to put any veggies under meat in the slow cooker, as veggies cook more slowly than meat, and for some reason (being close to the heat source? being immersed in liquid?) being at the bottom is better. But I don't know how to apply that rule to beans. Interesting.

    Sounds like your first go turned out fairly well. Certainly sounds yummy! But ditto Debbie's comment about peeking!

  3. I have a book recommendation that might help you in your slow cooker experience. It's called "The Slow Cooker Ready and Waiting Cookbook" by Rick Rodgers. It goes into detail about the many techniques you can use to adapt recipes to the slow cooker and get the most flavor from your meal. I used to hate slow cooker food until I got this book and used some of the techniques.

    Sometimes it's just as simple as sauteing your vegetables - especially onions, which I mention since you noted they tasted raw.

    This book has loads of recipes, hints and tips and tells you how to make anything from coq au vin to meatloaf (which I make in the slow cooker, and it's the juiciest most tender meatloaf I've ever had; I always get loads of compliments when I make it for guests) to vegetarian meals to breads and desserts.

    Anyway, I'm really enjoying your blog. I'm so glad Peter referred us over here. :) I'm off to make lunch for my little ones and try my hand at roasting chickpeas for a snack.

  4. You actually eat the mustard oil? You are brave...

    There was a big recall here in Canada in 1998 - Health Canada found that mustard oil was adulterated with argemone oil, which is toxic. Since I have no idea which is a reputable brand of mustard oil, and which is potentially toxic, I just avoid buying it altogether.

  5. Eeek! I think I'd better do a little research before my next meal calling for mustard oil. Thanks for the warning.

  6. And now I'm going to Google "argemone oil, " which I don't even know how to pronounce.

  7. wow! I love Indian food and had never known how to spell chaunk, b/c my much-beloved Indian cooking teacher, Manjuali, pronounced it "chaunce", but as soon as you described it, I knew what you meant. I'm not exotic on my oils for Indian dishes: I use either olive oil or ghee and I rarely add either onion or garlic. In fact I've had so little onion or garlic in Indian dishes I'm not sure if I would like it much. I probably would have just left both of those out of the beans. :) However, I will put cumin in anything. After cumin, my fav ingredient is coconut milk. My favorite Indian dish has to be green papaya and paneer in coconut milk. it's the best ever!
    I'm looking forward to seeing more adventures in Indian cooking!

  8. Hi Jacki. Do you know Yamuna Devi's Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking? It's a huge cookbook based on ayurvedic practices, and so uses no onions or garlic in any of the recipes. Is it possible your teacher was ayurvedic as well? The food comes out very different without these flavorings, but tastes cleaner somehow and more subtle. It took me a bit of getting used to, since I am pretty much a garlic fiend, but now I can enjoy food with or without!

  9. I have to honest, I do not like slow cookers, or the taste of the food. It is very bland. Well, the ones I have tasted are not very palatable.

    I do love Indian food, and my stepfamily are Burmese.
    Everything they make is browned and spices are roasted.

    I don't think they use much garlic in their cooking.

  10. Hi Josette. I'm making it my mission to figure out how to make non-bland food in a slow cooker! I would love to hear more about the Burmese cooking you've been exposed to. In my imagination, it's like a cross between Thai and Indian, but I'm not sure what I'm basing that on. You can let me know if I'm close.

  11. I know that they do not use alot coconut milk in their cooking, however they do use fish gravy, and some other really stinky stuff that smelled like rotten fish. They use alot of pickles as condiments. One I remember was cauliflower pickles, lemon pickles, mango etc. I am sure that you are right that it is a cross between Thai and Indian, with probably more Indian.
    I remember as a child that they would eat food with their hands, roll the rice in a ball. LOL.

    My stepbrother owned a restaurant in Melbourne, Australia named Burma House. Unfortunately, he died in 2007 and his wife and sons run it now.

  12. That rotten fish stuff probably comes from the Burmese version of fish sauce. Terrible smells, yes, and you don't even want to think about how it's made, but mmmmmmmm, what a good flavor!

    I'm sorry to hear about your stepbrother's death.

  13. Thank you. I thought I posted a reply. Could you make dal in a slow cooker. I am interested to know how you can make the food not so bland. I am sure you will find a way to spice up the taste.

  14. yes, Michael, my teacher, Manjuali Devi is hari krishna and practices ayruveda. Her classes were peppered (tee hee, get it?) with all kinds of health advice that I really enjoyed: I made sure to jot notes in the margins of my books. She teaches at the local hari krishna temple that has a restaurant: Kalichandji's Restaurant and Palace.
    That book sounds wonderful, thanks for suggesting it!! I'm going to hunt down a copy! mmmm, now I have to have Indian for dinner. ;)