How we learn

what's the oil for?

When I decided to do this NaBloPoMo thing, I forgot to take into account a few of my evening commitments for our preschool. Last night found me at an event put on by a local mother’s group, talking to parents of toddlers about why I love our play-based emergent curriculum and what it really means to be part of a parent-participation nursery school. It was a fun night, but it meant that I didn’t get to the computer in time to finish my post. I owe you guys one (maybe this weekend?) but I think you’ll forgive me, because if not for our preschool, I would not have this samosa recipe to share with you.

One of the best things about our school is that there is an incredibly strong community of parents. We have each other’s backs, both in the challenging moments of the parenting trenches and in the joyful ones. If I could wish this on every mom and dad out there, I would. It is our preschool community, sometimes more than anything else, that helps me to be better at this extraordinary task of parenting.

One of our preschool mamas has taught an informal samosa-making class to some other parents a few times over the last several years. I loved this class, but afterwards still felt nervous about attempting samosa in my own home. But I’ve now also gotten a chance to make samosa with Harpreet right in her own kitchen, for a party – and after spending an hour pretty literally staring over her shoulder, watching her deep-fry samosas, I finally felt ready to attempt it on my own. (Nope, I have never ever deep-fried anything before. But I can now say, it actually wasn’t scary at all.)

I’m pretty certain that cooking is something best learned through experience. Most of this experience, by necessity, takes place in our own kitchens and inside our own heads. But occasionally we get lucky; occasionally we are given the opportunity to learn something by watching, and asking questions, and seeing an expert in action. I’ve said this before, but I think there is a special kind of community that builds when we gather in a kitchen, and work together at a task, and learn something special from someone who knows how to teach us. It is best when our teacher works with confidence, and grace, and generosity, to demonstrate something she has done a thousand times, but which we are just beginning.

The fact that these are the best samosas I’ve ever had – that, my friends, is just a bonus.

Samosas (Best Made With Friends)
Adapted from Harpreet’s traditional family recipe. Thank you Harpreet!

Samosas are labor intensive, and while the rewards are many, I don’t really recommend this as a weeknight meal, unless you are much faster at it than I am. I’d suggest you do as we did; gather ingredients and a group of friends, and make a night of it. For each person, mix up one batch of dough and one batch of filling. (It’s quite alright to mix this all together, assuming you have big enough bowls.) Then set up stations, assembly-line style, so that some are rolling, some filling, some frying. As written this recipe makes ten samosas, of a big enough size that a couple feels almost like a meal. You could also make them smaller; Just remember that however many dough balls you make, you will have twice that many samosas. There are photos at the bottom (sorry, late night is not kind to my photography) that show the construction process.. (If you happen to know a samosa-making expert who can walk you through, all the better – if not, hopefully the pictures will help. It’s not easy, until you get the hang of it, and then it is.)

The dough is very simple, just water and flour and salt and oil – don’t skimp on the salt, and use the best flour you can. A neutral oil like grapeseed helps you get the cleanest tasting samosas. While it comes together easily, the dough fries up into a flaky and layered shell that shatters against your teeth and tastes just barely of the spices infusing into it from the center – it’s surprisingly lovely for being so simple.

The filling is mostly potatoes and onion, their soft texture the perfect foil to the crisp outside of the samosa; but beyond the texture there is the flavor. It is carefully layered with a little bit of spice, a little bit of freshness from cilantro, a tiny bit of heat from a chile. (If you really want them spicy, add at least one more serrano and consider keeping the seeds – a single seeded pepper adds just a whisper of heat, so subtle that my kids don’t even notice it.) There is also the delightful what-is-that sweet-sour fruitiness from the mango powder and pomegranate – it turns a generally pleasing filling into a complex one that as Jacob says “tastes like you want to take another bite!” You do. So make lots. They keep well in the freezer (notes below). Just be sure to have a group on hand to help you with the assembly; this is one recipe where helping hands make all the difference in the world.

I. Potato Filling
Boil 3/4 pound waxy potatoes. Boil until fork tender and not at all mealy, about ten minutes. Peel and dice them. In the leftover hot water, thaw 1/3 cup frozen peas. Drain them well.

Saute 1 small onion (peeled and diced) in ~ 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add 3/4 teaspoon jeera (cumin seeds) and 1 teaspoon anardana (dried, ground pomegranate seeds – if you don’t have this, see below re: pomegranate molasses). Saute it all gently together until the onions are transparent. Remove from heat.

Gently mix together the onion mixture, the peas and the potatoes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala, 3/4 teaspoon amchoor (dried green mango powder), 1-2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro leaves, and 1 serrano chile, seeded and minced. If you don’t have dried ground pomegranate seeds you can also add 2 teaspoons of a good pomegranate molasses at this point. (This is what I do in my kitchen – in Harpreet’s kitchen, we use her homemade anardana, because she hasn’t found a commercial brand that she likes.) Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more salt or spices or chile as needed.

Note: this potato mixture is so good, that I have served it as a side dish. Everyone here loves it. It makes a bangin’ samosa, obviously, but is also just really yummy.

Winter Squash Option:

Follow the directions above, substituting for the potatoes either 2 cups of roasted, peeled and diced winter squash (such as butternut or kabocha) or 2 cups of diced delicata squash that has been seeded and lightly pan-fried (no need to peel delicata unless you want to).

II. Dough
In a large mixing bowl, fork together 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Measure out 1/4 cup oil (I use grapeseed) and then slowly add the oil to the flour, drizzling it in and rubbing it together. Once it is all rubbed in, the dough should be very crumbly, but hold together in a ball when you squeeze some. (See photo below.) Add 1/4 cup warm water (100 F or so) to the mixture, and knead until it is an even consistency throughout. The dough should come together in a ball, and be firm but slightly flaky. (You can add up to 2 tablespoons more water, if needed, to get the dough to the right consistency.)

Divide the dough into five equally sized balls.

III. Letti
Mix together 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour with 1 tablespoon water, to make a paste. This is the ‘glue’ that you will use to seal the samosas shut.

IV.Putting it all together
Take one of your five balls of dough. Roll it in your hands for a minute until it softens slightly, warms slightly, and becomes flexible and fairly smooth. Flatten it gently into a circle shape, then roll with a rolling pin to get a large, thin circle of dough (about five inches across). You should not need any flour for rolling because of the oil in the dough; as long as you have warmed the ball up slightly it shouldn’t stick.

Cut the circle of dough in half, so that you have two equal half-circle pieces (see photo). Set the piece of dough so that, as it faces you, the straight edge is along the top and the curved edge is the bottom. Use your finger to run a thin layer of letti around the bottom curved edge of the dough (see photo).

Place your hand on the dough and fold one edge up and over your fingers, then make another line of letti along the edge of the folded piece (see photo). Fold the other side up and over your fingers; you should now have a cone (see photo). Gently press the dough to seal the cone along the seam.

Put the cone into your hand, with the seam centered and facing you. Fill the cone with filling to the line that should be made by the original application of letti (see photo). Gently pinch along the top edge to seal, keeping the seam front and center in your hand.

After sealing the cone along the line of letti, you can decoratively crimp the edge. Use your thumb and first finger to pinch a small piece out at the corner of the samosa, then curl it over and pinch at the forward edge. The new place where you pinched becomes the next piece that you will curl over. (See photo.) When you reach the far edge, tuck the last little bit down and pinch it to the side of the samosa.

It is important that the samosas are well sealed, so that no filling gets out into the frying oil. If you have a weak spot, patch it with dough or with letti, to make sure that none of the filling can escape. If you think that one of them will come apart despite your repair efforts, just make sure it is the last one that you put into the frying oil.

V. Frying
Fill a deep enough pan (I used an old Revere ware 8-quart pot – Harpreet uses a very large and deep non-stick skillet) with several inches of a good frying oil. (I used a mixture of grapeseed and sunflower oil because of its very high 490 F smoke point – olive oil is not a great choice.) Have ready a baking sheet lined with paper towels (need some? Because, you know, we have tons in the garage …) and a large slotted spoon or other implement that can lift and drain. (Harpreet has one of those handy frying-basket-spoon things, and if you do too – by all means, use it here!)

You should have the oil at medium to medium-high heat, hot enough so that a little ball of dough dropped in immediately starts sizzling, but not so hot that anything will burn. The oil should be deep enough that the samosas can move freely while still being submerged. If you want, here is more of a how-to on deep-frying without a deep fryer. (I had never deep fried anything before, but I have had the benefit of watching Harpreet do it, fearlessly and with infinite grace, on multiple occasions.)

Fry in batches, until each samosa is a lovely golden brown. Let them cool on the paper towel lined baking sheets.

Samosas freeze very well; just make sure that they are completely cooled and that they are stored in air-tight freezer bags, with the air pressed out of them before sealing. You can either fry them half way and then finish frying them out of the freezer, or (Harpreet’s recommended method) fry them all the way and then warm them gently on a baking sheet.

VI. Serving
Samosas are excellent with tamarind chutney, mint chutney, mango chutney, etc. I love dipping them in sweet-tart pomegranate molasses, and my kids like them either plain (Jacob) or dipped in ketchup (Lucas). We made a meal of them last week with big piles of garlicky sauteed greens and an assortment of dipping sauces; they also make an excellent party appetizer – you could even make them tinier, one-bite size instead of three-or-four. Just make sure that whatever you’re planning, you have a good group of friends on hand to turn them out. Make enough so that everyone gets to take a freezer bag home, and you’ll have made friends for life.

Please forgive the horrible lighting in these photos, they were taken well after dark on my old old iPhone. But I didn’t think it would be possible to explain the samosa wrapping process without illustrations so, here you go!

potato fillingdough pinching together with oilhalf-circle of dough with lettifirst foldsecond foldfillingpinch to sealcrimp the edgeready to fryfrying!samosa

2 thoughts on “How we learn

  1. Wow! Those look amazing! I’m a little scared of the whole deep frying thing, but these look so good I might have to get over it.

    I’m still on track for NaNoWriMo, but I’m staring into the jaws of a very busy weekend. Not sure how much catching up I’ll have to do next week, but having written about 25,000 words since the beginning of the month I’m noticing some changes in my process. I’m less precious about the words . I’m also able to switch gears more quickly – when one scene stalls out for me, I jump to something else. I’m also feeling like I’m constantly figuring things out about my characters and plot, almost like getting mental telegrams from someplace else. It’s a really interesting exercise to write this much this quickly. I feel like I’m learning a lot, but wow, could I use a day off!

    How about you? Do you feel like this exercise is changing the way you blog? Does it feel overwhelming or are you enjoying the structure?

    • Hi Tara! So interesting to hear about how your writing is going with such an intensive month. Sounds like it is working well for you. The blogging every day thing – it has been an interesting exercise. I don’t think that blogging every day is for me – everything comes out feeling too much like a rough draft. Writing every day I have long held as necessary to keep momentum, but since the blogs get ‘published’ it feels like a bit much. I’ll be curious to see how I feel at the end of the month – for now, I feel rather like I am publishing things that have no business being out there. But I do think the exercise of thinking about the blog every day has been a good one. We’ll see how the second half goes! Keep me posted on your writings …

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