Sunday, December 28, 2008

Wok-ing the Wok

I ogle at woks the same way as most women eye shoes and jewelry. Not that I don't the other two, I do. Very much so. Only that woks also happen to occupy that very special place reserved exclusively for accessories. Just so you truly understand, let me give you an example. I am one of those people who will buy the pretty curtains first, think of measuring the window, later. Much later. That's how important accessories are for me. And if said curtains can double as a table-cloth or a bed-spread, even better.

Whether it is soups, diamonds or a piece of utensil -- I look for two things. How accommodative? and the degree of versatility. Nine times out of ten, if these two pre-requisites are satisfied, I will take one. Or two. Depending, to a certain extent, on fabulous things called sales and discounts. Then, I am likely to take four. Well, you know, when I say four, I actually mean five.

So, it goes with woks. I am yet to meet a uni-tasker, and so far, one that I haven't liked. The ones in my kitchen, deep-fry, braise, stir-fry, broil, boil. Heck, I use the dome-side of my aluminum kadhai, to bake Rumali-rotis from time to time. Believe you me, if someone would let me, I wouldn't think twice before trying to pressure-cook in my go-to wonders. You would think such supreme over-confidence must mean I am not in the market, or on e-bay, actively looking for woks. Nope. Nada. Nix. Yeah, yeah I know, I all but put the words in your mouth. But, how could you presume there's such a thing as enough shoes, clothes, and bags! Or woks. The outrage!!

Not surprisingly then, after I solemnly swore to the other-half about laying off woks, for awhile anyways, I unexpectedly ran into "THE" wok at our little outlet mall, on the outskirts of town. Much to the annoyance of the husband, it made me squeal exactly like Sarah Jessica Parker, in the presence of Manolo Blahniks. I didn't care other customers and the store clerks were looking at me funny. Or the possibility that I must look like a cross between SJP and Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel in Ice Age, putting life and limb in danger for the acorn ... er wok. 

Then, began the rationalization.

"This was definitely not the same as our 14-inch cast iron one, was it?" I asked. Besides, we'd always wanted one, for you know, when there was a small bunch of spinach, or a piddling cauliflower or cabbage. And oh, oh. Imagine if we wanted to fry a small batch of French-fries. Or a mini-assortment of fritters. "The possibilities are endless, honey," I said holding it up to the light. Its strong, wood handle fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. And oh, the bottom! Again, and again I caressed its smooth, undulating form. After four years, AM now knows better than to argue logically with his wife when she says "honey."

And, so we bought our sixth "essential" piece.  I don't think I have ever expressed gratitude for my God-given gift for rationalization, as much. Today, were I to advise a novice on his/her "only" fundamental kitchen must-have. This would be it. The dimensions, its depth and the sheer feel of it. Perfection like you won't believe it. The only, how can I put this delicately, pain-in-the rear has to do with its upkeep. After use, it demands an immediate wash with luke-warm water and soap. Then, it needs to be wiped clean and tucked on to the kitchen shelf after a quick a dab of vegetable oil.

What can I say? It's so much like owning your very first piece of Cashmere.

♣ U.M.A.M.I : D.E.L.I.C.I.O.U.S
Sure, the Chinese might have given us egg rolls and General Tso's chicken. But, the gobi manchurian -- that's as Indian, as well, Amul butter and pav-bhaji. As most NRI's one of the things I miss most about India, is the Chinese food. And so, like almost every immigrant who wants to re-create home, with its flavors and unique smells, I do too.

One of the first things I wanted to try in the new wok was the following recipe for manchurian, by one Harish Amble. It had been heavily tweaked and lay idling around, pressed between the pages of Better Homes and Garden for quite awhile. Then, we bought us some Kikkoman sweet and sour sauce from a Chinese grocery store, and took the recipe for a spin. The kitchen hasn't stopped smelling like Mainland China, on Dhole-Patil Road ever since.


You need:

1 big cauliflower, broken into medium-sized florets
2 T Cornstarch
8-10 Thai chillies or Serrano peppers, julienne
3 T chopped garlic
1 T chopped ginger
2 T Soy sauce
1 bottle of Kikkoman's sweet and sour sauce
Spring onions, roughly chopped for garnishing
Peanut oil for deep-frying

Recipe:

Set the wok with enough oil to deep-fry the florets. Then, slowly add cold water to the cornstarch, we need just enough to make a relatively runny batter and one that can thinly coat the cauliflower. Dunk in the florets , a little at a time, and deep-fry until golden-brown. Remove and set aside on a wire-rack, similarly fry the remaining cauliflower and leave it be until later.

Heat another wok (you have two, don't you?) and add a couple of tablespoons of oil. Toss in the ginger, garlic and green chillies and stir-fry until they turn a chocolatey brown. Spoon in the Soy sauce and a couple of tablespoons of sweet and sour sauce, tossing and stirring constantly, so that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan.

Mix in the fried florets at this point, depending on how dry or moist you prefer your manchurian add some more sweet and sour sauce. AM and I use up almost the entire bottle for a big cauliflower. Toss and mix for about 7-10 minutes. Throw in a handful of chopped green onions, and nosh with fried or steamed rice.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Poof! Goes the Puff

There are puffs; and then there's the "veg-pattice" from Hindustan Bakery, in Pune. Elsewhere known as turnovers, calzones, hot-pockets and puffs, these have been quite the blue-eyed babies in our house, oh-I-don't-know, ever since I was two-feet-eleven inches, tall.

Sunday mornings at my grandparents' house in old-world Narayan Peth always began with the clangity-clang from the newspaper press downstairs, and the smell of hot tea and warm pattice, wrapped in brown paper. But, what I really looked forward to the most, was when Aai, my paternal grandmother, re-heated the puffs over the iron griddle in the evening. Somehow, the taste of over-done, crusty puff, combined with the spectacular filling seemed ever so sublime. And now that I am separated by a good 10,000 miles, it seems even more so.

Frequently, I wake up on Sundays with those familiar sounds and my taste-buds alive with flavors of the "pattice" (as these are known in most of India) from my beloved bakery. So, you can imagine my excitement when I discovered the Pepperidge Farm pastry-puff sheets in the freezer-section of my grocery store. Ever since, I haven't quite stopped experimenting. Mostly, that has yielded good results. At other times, the end-products have been, let's just say, interesting. So enthralled was I at one point, actually a couple of months ago, that I took it in my head to try and make puff-pastry from scratch ...

"Now for the making of puff paste of the best kind, you shall take the finest wheat flour after it hath been a little baked in a pot in the oven, and blend well with eggs, whites and yolks all together, after the paste is well kneaded, roll out a part thereof as thin as you please, and then spread cold sweet butter over the same, then upon the same butter roll another leaf of the paste as before; and spread it with butter also; and thus roll leaf upon leaf with butter between till it be as thick as you think good: and with it cover any baked meat, or make paste for venison, Florentine, tart or what dish else you please and so bake it." -- (The English Housewife, 1615, from Harold McGee's, On Food and Cooking ...) Several such recipes later, I firmly pushed the idea to the far nether of my being. Meant to be retrieved only after my daughter starts sleeping as babies ought to.

Irrespective of the degree of difficulty, though, it has to be said, whoever created this flaky masterpiece was some kind of a genius -- in all probability with an incredibly huge gut, considering all that experimentation with butter. That said, you would think, some chunky French pastry chef or a rotund Italian one (there are certainly plenty of stories out there) might have created the first recipe. But, food historian Charles Perry says, in all actuality it was most probably the Arabs and Turks who should be credited for inventing puff pastry around 1500. Turkish Borek, anyone?

The Borek, they say, is typically made with yufka or phyllo pastry. Different from puff pastry in that its dough is stretched, not rolled; and once baked, turns crisp without puffing up. So, it goes that traditional boreks are usually stuffed with meat, feta cheese or some sort of savory filling, much like the Indian pattice. Unlike it though, Boreks come in a number of shapes, depending apparently on the region, shape and an extensive diaspora of other factors, meant for another post.

Taking inspiration from the Borek, I decided to do a circular variation using my trusty old muffin pan. Over the years, I have variously stuffed Pepperidge Farm sheets with different fillings -- potatoes, cabbage, chicken, at one time a sweet cranberry version even. From the lot, I almost never err whenever I use the cabbage filling. This time too it was no different ...
... Like always, it brought with it sepia-tinted memories from my childhood, dragging along a chubby, rosy-faced Sunday morning in tow. There was the hot chai simmering away on my grandmother's ancient gas-top. The smell of the brewing tea punctuated with crisp newsprint, as it rolled off the press. And most of all there were my beloved puffs. Golden, brown and, sinfully delicious. To be tasted and savored slowly, meant to tide me over until evening. At least.

♣ "You Won't Believe it's Cabbage"

I certainly didn't when I had it for the first time. I kept asking my BFF's mother, Bansal Aunty, whether she was being completely honest. All the while taking third, fourth and fifth helpings. Years later, the recipe continued to haunt me, until I finally took it from Yasha, who I have known for almost as long as I have known my extremities.


Those were such good times, and inextricably in my mind, the cabbage is the glue that holds it all together. Yasha's mother, unfailingly made it for our group of chubby six. And she made a lot of it.
Each one of us, would keep indulging, all under the pretext to ensure it was indeed cabbage. I, for one, still haven't stopped.

You need:

For the filling
1 small cabbage head, finely shredded
A pinch of hing
2 medium-sized tomatoes, finely chopped
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp coriander powder
3 T of vegetable oil
Salt to taste
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped

For the puff
A sheet of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry
Some all-purpose flour or whole-wheat flour

Recipe:
Place a medium-sized wok over medium-high flame, and heat the oil. Sprinkle in hing, and quickly toss in the finely chopped tomatoes, stirring around, until they start losing their edges, and become slightly soft.

Spoon over the turmeric and give it two-three stirs. Now, lower the heat slightly, and add the chili and coriander powder, salt to taste and combine well. After a couple of minutes, dump in the shredded cabbage and stir to combine.

Place a lid over the wok, lower the heat further and let it cook for about 30-45 minutes at least. Frequently stir the cabbage, what we are looking for is for the filling to turn a deep, roasted reddish-brown. Sprinkle and stir in the cilantro, and turn off the heat. This filling is also fantastic with phulkas or piping rice and dal.



To assemble
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and set the puff-pastry sheets to thaw for 40 minutes. Then, lightly-flour your countertop or chopping board with all-purpose flour or whole-wheat flour. Spread the pastry-sheet and gently smoothen any creases with a floured rolling pan. Using a cookie cutter, cut circles out of the sheet and line a muffin tin. The left-over pieces of the pastry-sheet can be re-molded and rolled into a circle to fit in the tin. Now, spoon in the filling into the puff-cups, three-fourths of the way. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden-brown, and to-die-for. Make plenty, "no one can eat just one."



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Monday, December 15, 2008

Soup Summons

"To make a good soup, the pot must only simmer, or 'smile.' " -- (French Proverb)

... Even if it means dumping in chicken beaks and pigeon toes. Or leeks, potatoes, yellow squash and shellfish for that matter. Finely chopped, in lumpy squares or whole, you can add or subtract at will. That's the beauty of soup, it seldom minds a thing. I like to think of it as the non-judgmental, affable neighbor of food-ville. If the soup throws a soiree -- everyone's sure to be invited. Pig feet included.

No wonder then, it is such a hit with every civilization of the world. Whether, we are Indian, Spanish or Icelandic, there's a favorite version out there, slurped and slopped as we speak ... er ... read. The Japanese their Miso, Borscht made from beets (usually anyways) for the Russians, unrestrained and full-flavored Minestrone for the Italians, them French with their famed onion soup, fiery Goulash for the temperamental Hungarians, and us Asians with our lavish spread of noodle soups and Shorbas ...

Not surprisingly then, every one of us too, has at least one cherished soup. The one we like to have over and over again. Maybe when we are feeling low, or down with a case of the wheeze's. And then there are those weather-related days, cold, dry and as gray as it can be. All you can see is frosted glass, and sidewalks slick with ice. I am not much for winters, especially the Mid-western ones. They have this nasty habit of leaving my bones and extremities feeling like they have been chilled in the ice-trays of hell. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take my hot Indian summers with a chilled bowl of aamras, please.

Of course, if someone were to make me a piping bowl of soup, now that would make winter worth living for. Then, I might relinquish my tropical day-dreams of mangoes, aamras and the like. At least for the time being. So, what's my favorite kind, you ask? (Even, if you haven't, too bad. I can't think of a segue). As an army brat, I absolutely loved tomato soup served in the mess. That and the one we had without fail on some train or the other. Whether it was Jammu-Tavi, Jhelum or Deccan Queen, their tomato soups always seemed beyond spectacular to me.

Growing up, my mother also frequently served different versions of tomato soup depending on what was in the chill-tray. Sometimes, she would splutter mustard and cumin seeds with some fresh curry leaves in clarified butter, throw it over pureed tomatoes and call it saar. On other days, she would combine tomatoes with beets, top it with cream and name it soup. Either ways it was delicious and oh, so filling.

AM's mother too, loves inventing and renovating soups. The ingredients are almost always simple, then she adds a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and presto! There's a steaming bowl of such goodness, it's almost ridiculous to call it plain old soup. Earlier this year, when Aai visited for the birth of her fourth grandchild, she frequently made soup for me. Vegetable and lentil soups are her specialty. Give the woman these two things, and a saucepan -- she invariably creates magic. One time, she sprouted some red lentils, flavored it with whole spices, a few errand spinach leaves. That's all there was to it. But, it was so overwhelmingly delicious, every spoon a veritable explosion of varied notes and flavors. So compelled was I, that I polished off soup meant for five. Obviously, the others didn't take too kindly to "I-am-still-eating-for-two" by way of explanation.

A couple of weeks ago, I wasn't feeling too enthused about anything. It was cold, gray and freezing outside, my refrigerator's chill tray wasn't any different. A bunch of broccoli was sulking in the far corner, a dozen Jalapeno peppers lay haplessly about, coupled with a few green pea pods, that had seen better days. I stood there, contemplating numerous ways to use the ingredients -- some seemed too fancy, others more complicated than I cared for. And then out of nowhere, I got a jolt of flavor! It was Aai's broccoli-green-peas-soup. 15 minutes later as the steamed and ground florets and peas, simmered in some creamy milk, I took in the soothing green of the vegetables, the gray world outside, and the sounds of my bubbling soup. Exactly the kind of thing that always makes me want to hum and smile.

♣ Just Souper

I like pairing soups with crusty bread, usually slathered on with garlic butter. Somehow the combination of garlic and soup always seems very appetizing to me. This soup isn't any different, this time I paired the broccoli-peas soup with some Ciabatta bread. Crusty bread and soup, there couldn't be a better match. 

You need:
2 cups broccoli florets
Handful of green peas, steamed (optional)
2 cups milk
1 cup onion, finely chopped
4 garlic flakes, bruised and coarsely chopped
1 tbsp wheat flour
1 tbsp salted butter
2-3 tsp of oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Recipe:

To begin, break broccoli bunch into florets, wash and lightly steam along with green peas, if using. Set aside to cool slightly and blend to a smooth paste, with a little bit of warm water. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and quickly toss around the garlic until fragrant and golden -- we want to remove and set this aside for later. Quickly add butter, as soon as it melts, toss in the onion, stirring until it blushes pink. Spoon in the flour and milk and give it a few quick stirs to avoid any lumpy bits. Now, pour in the broccoli-green-peas paste, and stir to combine. Finish by seasoning with salt and pepper. Garnish with sauteed garlic, ladle in bowls and serve with a side of some rustic country bread.


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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

26/11

It wasn't an ordinary day. Just a terrible one. As we prepared to give thanks, others were in the process of saying good-bye to those they'd lost. Some others were surrounded by death. Perhaps being burnt alive. Women like me. With children, perhaps. 13-year-old's, their lives and dreams ahead of them. Men, who could have been my father. Or brother. Their lifeless forms caved under heavy limbs. Pools of blood intermingling freely. The Marathi Manoos' with the Bhaiya.

As I nursed my eight-month-old, I heard about the orphaned toddler. Found with his pants soaked in blood, they said. His mother was as old as I. In her late 20s. Moshe had miraculously escaped they said, his tear-streaked, frightened face said otherwise.

So the day went by. Amid news about "highly trained" killers in their early 20s. Assassins with no remorse. Perhaps without any parents or family either. Those were a dozen. The others govern still. From what I know, most have family of their own. Sons and daughters. Wives and husbands. Parents and siblings. Uncles, aunts and cousins. But contrition? That's too much to ask for. After all the ones burnt alive, cremated and buried were not their own. What's a mother or two? A police officer or three? There are million others in the  slaughter house. "Gujjus," "Bhaiyas," "Madrasis," "Bawas," and "Mussalman." And oh yes, the "Marathi Manoos" too.  Resilient as ever. 26/11s can come and go, the living can all die. But, lets keep the relentless spirit of Mumbai alive, shall we?

I watched until I couldn't anymore. My mind paralyzed and numb. As the TV sat silently and the baby slept, snuggled in her father's arms, I tried to cook. To relieve myself of the images from TV. To somehow lull my mind into a sense of calm, however false. To somehow rid myself of the guilt that all I was doing was intellectualizing. I cut open the two-pound pumpkin, truly admiring something for the first time that day. It was beautifully colored, pale orange, mixed in with some warm yellow. Almost peach, but not quite. I pulled the seeds out by the handfuls, placing a couple in the container that holds a mixture of tamarind, black-eyed peas, and coriander seeds. Then, I sliced and diced, finer than the recipe demanded. I am usually one to follow instructions precisely, but that day, dicing felt good. Therapeutic and cathartic.

I was about done with pureeing the pumpkin, when I heard my daughter cry and scream at the same time. The kind that meant she was petrified and wanted Mommy to pick her up and hold her close. As I rushed to her side, AM appeared with her from the bedroom. Her cherubic, tear-streaked face lighting up with an instant smile, when I took her in my arms. I hugged her close, inhaling her sweet baby smell. Then, as I looked into my daughter's big, brown eyes, I couldn't help but see the sweet face of two-and-a-half year old Moshe. And his mother in her late 20s. As old as I.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

A little bit of Java

School mornings always began early. Seldom was the day that started without a whiff of Gurumoorthy Aunty's filter coffee. It was heady, that aroma. And at 5 am, it seemed especially enticing. While, miserable and sleepy me had to contend with plain ol' Bournvita, an egg-sandwich and a couple of almonds, Rajesh had his mother's coffee with piping idlis, no less. On other days, he had dosai and filter coffee. All that urad dal and delicious coffee concoction was responsible for his math genius. Or so I believed. Mum of course refused to buy into this brilliant theory and continued my staple of cocoa, badams and eggs.

Several years later, I had my first cup of cappuccino at a new bookstore in Pune. It wasn't great by any means. Certainly wasn't Gurumoorthy Aunty's heavenly filter coffee. But, I had acquired a deep love for the fragrance of roasted coffee beans. That, mingled with the crisp smell of new books was like having my grandmother's fish curry for a month straight -- Simply divine. It's another thing that later I was bouncing off walls and couldn't sleep the entire night.

Funny as it is, 10 years later, every time I have a cuppa, I am pretty much the same. Hyperactive and sleepless. A decade is a long time to come to terms with the fact that mine is a system built for hot chocolates. I am supposed to only gulp in the fragrance of coffee by the nostril-fulls, but never ingest it. Every time I come across a scientific clipping citing the ill-effects of caffeine, I feel a little happy. As only someone who is denied one of life's most simple pleasures would feel.

But, but, but. This was the situation until a year ago. One afternoon, as I was browsing through one of my treasured finds from a local thrift-store, I chanced upon a recipe for cappuccino muffins. Ordinarily, I would have skipped right by, but that day I was in the mood for some experimentation. Besides, I thought to myself, it would make a nice little treat for AM's colleagues the following day. As it turned out, it has now become one of our house-favorites. So far, we've made these at least half-a-dozen times. My husband is yet to reach office with those muffins.

Given my body's resistance to all things caffeine, you would think I would be wise not to have any. For a whiff of these what's breaking a few chairs and a sleepless night or two?

♣ "Pick me up, as you go, go"

This recipe for cappuccino muffins takes espresso and bittersweet chocolate to a whole new level. When you don't have time for either breakfast or a hot cup of Joe, these muffins give you a shot of both. Filling, delicious and oh so heady -- can there be a better way to begin that rushed morning? Since I love these little ones so very much, I am marching them off to play and mingle -- hope you like these Meeta!

"For a deeper, more intense chocolate flavor," the authors, James Barrett and Wendy Smith, "cut their own chocolate chips from a bar of good quality bittersweet chocolate."


From the Metropolitan Bakery Cookbook

You need:


1/8 C instant espresso powder
1 1/8 C's milk, heated until hot
1 1/4 C's all-purpose flour
1/2 +1/8 C's granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp of baking powder
1/2 + 1/4 tsp of ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 + 1/4 C's bittersweet chocolate chunks

Recipe:

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Grease or butter 12 two-and-half-inch muffin-pan cups. Melt the butter and set aside to cool. Then heat the milk until it is just hot and dissolve in the espresso powder. I strain this mixture, but the book doesn't suggest so, skip the straining if you think it unnecessary. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool.

In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt. Once the espresso-milk mixture has cooled down, whisk into it the egg and vanilla extract. Then, whisk this espresso-milk mixture into the sifted ingredients just until blended. Stir in the melted butter, and then fold in the chocolate chunks with a rubber spatula.

Spoon the batter evenly (I pour in about 2 tablespoons) into the muffin-pan cups. Bake for 14-16 minutes, rotating the pan between the upper and lower oven racks halfway through baking. Check by inserting a wooden skewer in the center of the muffins, once it comes out clean, remove and cool the muffins in the pan for five minutes. Then, remove from pan and cool completely on wire racks.

Bite into some moist deliciousness coupled with this lovely extract from the novel Devadasi by Kasturi Sreenivasan ...

Chapter I - The Course of True Lovers (1977):

"Outside the temple, the petty vendors along the dusty street were doing a brisk trade by the light of smokey oil lamps..."


"Though Palayam was only a small town, one of its eating places started serving a new drink called coffee. It had been introduced by the British rulers and there were many stories about it. Some argued that, since it was of European origin, it must necessarily be unclean; others said it might be alcoholic. In any case, very few tried it, since a tumbler full cost as much as half an anna, while butter-milk was served free in many places and coconut water including the tender coconut meat was only a paisa. Only the most daring or the wealthy could afford the exotic brew ... "



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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Few Good Moons ...

There was a time when seeing the moon high up in the sky meant sweet dreams and a wholesome night of ZZZZs. This was when I had the luxury of eight whole hours of sleep (an hour or two thrown in like that surprise second raisin in rava ladoos), a late night movie, and that book I just had to read cover to cover all night long.

But, all that and more is a distant dream, now. Literally.

So, what's changed, you ask. Well, for one, I am significantly older (funny how a decade or so can turn you from a nocturnal creature into one of habit. By that I mean my parents, who need to turn in by 10 pm. That right there, is life playing its sadistic little joke. All my life I (privately) snickered at people who followed the early-to-bed axiom. But, what do you know? Now, that I am one of them believers, willing and ready to dim those lights by 10 pm, it's apparently too late.

As the cynically-wise would say: if you want something bad enough, chances are you won't get it. And if my six-month-old can help it, I certainly won't. Actually, if she can abet, neither will AM. This to a man, who all his life has been one of them early-to-bed people. Someone, who could well sleep at 9 pm, if he could help it, and wake up with our resident woodpecker at 4 am.

Of course, that's in the distant past too.

These days both of us clutch every second of sleep as babies do their binkies. Very tightly, indeed. In fact, I suspect, if someone were to try and pry those extra minutes from us, they would also have to contend with our digits, two pairs of flailing hands, complete with broken wrists.

Sometimes though, when we chance upon a good night, neither of us quite knows what to do with it. Take for instance last night. After almost an-hour-and-a-half of rocking and singing, the wee one was finally snoring softly. We waited with baited breath for 10 minutes. She didn't stir. So, we waited another, just in case. I was certain she was going to be up soon, and wanted to convey to the other-half to be on the alert. Under the given circumstances, as you can imagine, speaking audibly is out of question. As is speaking in hushed tones -- just coz she is snoring, in no way implies, she is asleep.

So, these days we mime.

But, apparently we need a lot more practice. At miming and at doing it without a giggle and a squeak. Between our furious miming and the muffled belly-laughs, we woke little Hitler (that's what I was trying to mime). I think we even woke up little Gracie next door.

And, we were back. With fewer ZZZs than we started, our dreams of counting sheep on a back-burner, and a childhood lullaby for company ...

"Nimbonichya zadamage chandra zopla ga bai,
Aaj mazya padsala, zop ka ga yet nahi
Gaay zopli gothyaat, ghartyaat chiu taai,
Parsaatlya velivar zoplya ga Jai-Jui
Mit papnyaa dolyanchya, gaate tula mi angaai
Aaj mazya padsala zhop ka ga yet nahi ... "

(The moon has fallen asleep behind the Neem tree,
But, why won't my little deer calf fall asleep tonight?
The cow has fallen asleep in her stable, the little sparrow in her nest,
On the trellis sleep the twin flowers, Jai-Jui,
Close your eyelids little one as I sing you this lullaby,
But, why won't my little deer calf fall asleep tonight?)

♣ A Sip of the Moon

AM and I have taken quite a shine to a White Hot Chocolate recipe that we discovered in our Better Homes and Gardens (BH&G) edition.
Every so often, as the little tyrant slumbers, we couple the hot chocolate with a couple of almond Biscotti. What can I say? After a long, long night, it's our very own heaven in a cup.

You need:

3 C half-and-half (BH&G suggests low-fat milk or evaporated skim milk to cut fat)
2/3 C white chocolate baking squares, chopped
3-inch cinnamon stick
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla essence
1//4 tsp almond extract
Ground cinnamon (optional)

Recipe:

Combine 1/4 cup of the half-and-half or low-fat milk, chopped white chocolate, cinnamon stick, and nutmeg in a saucepan. Over low heat, stir until the chocolate melts. Pour in the remaining half-and-half, and stir to a slow boil. Discard the cinnamon stick, spoon in the vanilla and almond extracts, and sprinkle some ground cinnamon over each serving.

This post is not complete without mentioning that I, in no way, want to minimize or condone Adolf Hitler's despicable actions and only mean to use his name as a hyperbole to exemplify baby tyranny.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Saying it with Pizzaz!

She was four-years-old when I first met her, the very first family member from my husband's side of the family since our big decision. Until then I was Sheetal, my parents' daughter, a grand-daughter to my grandparents. Or "Tai," an elder sister to my sister and assorted cousins. But, all of a sudden I was someone more. I was going to be a wife. A daughter-in-law. And "Kaki," her uncle's wife.

Frankly, it was scary to be "Kaki." Except, as the evening wore on I found myself less and less nervous. And more and more in love with my niece-to-be, so much so that I found myself wishing for a daughter just like her.

That's Shambhavi, she could make even an ice-cube feel warm all over. After all she is usually the one who breaks the ice first. Being quite the little Magpie helps a great deal too. Whether it is making conversation with an older grandmother, Kaki or someone her own age, Shamski does it with utmost alacrity and ease. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she started talking when she was barely eight months old. I think though, largely, it's simply because of the way she is. Really, she is such an easy-going kid, anyone would be hardpressed to be anything but charmed.

Over the last few weeks, Shamski, as AM likes to call her, has been excitedly asking us our plans for her birthday on the 12th. She'd told us a couple of weeks ago that she would like it if we made her a cake and something Italian. Pizza to be exact. Both AM and I were ecstatic that Shyamu actually asked for something. She is one of those kids who would be happy even if someone were to gift her a cordless drill.

Given her affinity to pizza, it was somewhat a no-brainer -- bake a pizza-cake! We just used a simple cake recipe (you could use the boxed variety too) and focused much of our attention on decorating it with fondant toppings.

So, Shyamu, "Buon Compleanno!"

♣ The Magpie's Cake -- It's Different!

You need:


1 recipe for an eight-inch yellow cake
1/4 of a recipe of this cream cheese frosting
Colored red sugar
Ready-to-use white fondant
Icing colors: violet, brown, green, yellow and red

Recipe:

Preferably bake the cake the day before you intend to decorate, keep covered in the refrigerator.

For the olives: Mix in violet, brown and a tiny bit of red into a portion of the white fondant. What you are looking for is a dark gun-metal color. Then mold the fondant into a thick bolster shape, cut 1/4 inch pieces, and mold it very slightly to give a gentle circular shape. Try and keep the flat edges intact. We used the end of an oil funnel to give the olives their final doughnut shape.

For the green peppers: Mix in green, some yellow and a very tiny bit of red and violet. We found that the peppers needed a lot of green color to come close to the natural emerald hue of peppers. Sprinkle some confectioner's sugar on your work surface as well as the rolling pin and roll the fondant into a thick circle. Cut thin strips with a butter-knife or a fruit-knife, gently mold the tips and give them an inward curl so that they resemble the alphabet "c." Then, with your fingertips give it just a little bit of a kink in the center -- the end result looks sort of like pillowy lips.

For the melted cheese: Roll a small ball of fondant into a circle, and cut out abstract shapes to resemble pieces of Mozzarella cheese.

Whip the cream cheese to make frosting. Then, remove cake from refrigerator, leaving the edge of the cake all around to make it seem like the pizza crust, dig out a little bit of the cake to make place for the frosting. Drop in a few dollops of the frosting in the middle and spread it out evenly inside the "crust." Now, sprinkle in the colored red sugar all over the frosting. Place two or three olives, a few peppers. Then, drape the cheese pieces to seem like it has melted and melded with the vegetables. Finish off with the final olives and green peppers. Heave a sigh of contentment.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One powerful cupcake

Saee, our little niece, is quite the power-broker in the house. This "didi" (elder sister) or that "didi" is regularly bullied by this mighty four-year-old. To be fair to her though, the didi's do try to get rid of her, so that they can play their older sister games. But, Saee sees through it nine times out of ten. And then the older ones have to pay. Very heavily, indeed.

She is a sweet-souled dictator though. Always ready with her warm hugs and ready kisses. Habitually, the non-fussy eater amongst the kids, too. By the time the other three are done gossiping, their once warm food colder than ice on the sidewalk, Saee is usually done with her first helping, and in between asking for "some more, please."

A healthy eater and an admirer of all dishes chicken. In my family, that simply translates as being a very, very, good girl. She had two simple requests of her mother for her fourth birthday this month. First, she wanted home-made chicken biryani and mutton chops. Second, she wanted two varieties of chocolates -- one to distribute among her classmates, the other to gift friends at dance class. If only, all of us had such simple things to ask of life, happiness would be so easy to find.

For this little power-ball in our lives, we wish you grow from strength to strength. May we always be blessed with your warm hugs and happy kisses for the rest of our lives.

♣ Birthday Cakes


















I decided to follow Paula Deen's recipe for Red Velvet Cupcakes with a cream cheese frosting and gave it a lottery twist for our fun little niece.


















Which one of you
wants to party?!


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Friday, September 19, 2008

An Egg-litist Toast

There are some ingredients I will cook with, special occasion or not. And then there are others I won't necessarily touch. Oh, I will eat them with glee, but wholeheartedly commit? Not so much.

Absurdly enough, eggs belong to my non-committal shelf. I love baking. And I am quite crazy with most stuff I can whip up with these. But, for reasons best known to me, I haven't warmed to dealing with eggs, yet. Give me a potato and I feel as if I am in my favorite thali haunt. There, I can eat, eat and eat. With my hands if I so want. Even let out the occasional burp or two to express my utter satisfaction. I am just so at home. With an egg on the other hand, it's like being at a fine dining restaurant. My face a few centimeters from the menu-card. Eyes in an unflattering squint, the tongue heavy and awkward around the fancy names.

In short, eggs are just too high-maintenance for the plebeian in me.

Whip 'em like this. Or stroke them like that. Soft peaks. Hard peaks. Fold them so. Cook them just so. Yada. Yada. Yada. Too many yadas if you ask me. And way too many ways to go wrong.

My struggle, in fact, starts right from breaking the darn things. As if I need more agony, along comes a recipe that demands the separation of yolks from the whites. Why we cooks cannot follow the natural order of things, I will never know. Those yolks are meant to be in the whites. Leave them be, people. It's nothing short of performing a Russian ballet, I tell you. Especially, for someone like me, who can't walk straight without stubbing my toe. Let alone balance on a couple of them.

Needless to say, I don't fry many sunny-side ups, omelets and such. My husband AM, on the other hand is quite the expert in this department. He does ...
... a mean French omelet
... a phenomenal boiled egg, sans ugly gray halo around beautiful yolk
... a perfect rendition of fried eggs, just the way I like them
... and I fall in love with him all over again, whenever he makes his house specialty -- an Indian version of the classic French Toast.

Now, if someone were to tell me to place a ring around this dream boat, I would happily do so. Bended knee and all.

♣ "Pass me some honey, Honey"

Aai, my paternal grandmother, did a wonderful version of the French toast. What I remember most is that she always added cilantro to her recipe. And she habitually cut the toast diagonally for me. That's exactly how I like my French Toast to this day. A little something to always remember my grandmother by.

What makes this particular recipe stand out
is AM's addition of honey. It not only enhances the taste but brings out the heat of the chili powder beautifully.

You need:

7-8 slices of bread, preferably a few days old
4 large eggs
A pinch of turmeric (about 1/8 tsp)
A tsp of red chili powder
A tsp of salt
1/4 tsp garlic powder (optional)
1/4 tsp ground black pepper (optional)
1/2 tsp honey
Canola oil for frying

Recipe:

To begin mix everything, but the bread and eggs, together. Then, add enough water to make a barely thin slurry, and stir well to ensure uniform seasoning. Now, break in the eggs and whisk well.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy-bottomed pan on medium heat. Before adding the fat, (any will typically do, but AM prefers canola oil) ensure the pan is nice and hot, and pour in the oil. Dip each bread slice in the beaten eggs mixture to coat thinly and evenly on both sides, and slide into the waiting pan. Cook to a beautiful golden brown on both sides, cut into pretty diagonals if you so desire, and serve piping off the pan with your favorite condiment or Maggi's hot and sweet tomato chilli sauce.

A couple of things to keep in mind:

1. Don't leave the bread to soak in the egg mixture for too long. Not only does the bread become difficult to handle, but the egg reaches too far into the bread, and sometimes remains uncooked.

2. Keep the heat to a steady medium temperature, this way the egg cooks through without burning the outside.



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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sweet September

September, is what I consider a very special month. My parents celebrate their wedding anniversary (their 32nd this year) around the time; it's the month when Lord Ganesha usually visits my maternal grandmother's house in Central Mumbai -- the previous month is spent in serious cleaning. Serious being the operative word here. All I can say is, if you walk in during one of these intense sessions, it will involve phenol. Bucket-loads of it. Whether you like it or not, you will be doused and scrubbed clean with said cleaner, and left to air-dry on her fourth-floor balcony.

But, I digress.

Other than the manic cleaning, the mere memories of celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi at my grandmother's gives me the warm fuzzies. As is with most Hindu festivals, the day begins frightfully early. What can I say -- our pantheon of gods do love their day break. So each year, our family scrambles awake to repeated warnings about the priest arriving at any given moment to perform the prayer ceremony.

As the saying goes -- "A family that ... "
... in our case, procrastinates together. Also rushes for the bathroom at the same time that the priest is spotted from the little window overlooking the street below. By this time, my grandmother is quite livid. Not to mention very high-pitched -- we have running theories (and jokes) about street dogs in her complex being partially deaf due to the whole frequency phenomenon -- it's just not what most people would call a pretty affair.

So imagine if you will. A flurry on legs. A vexed time-bomb scurrying between hall and kitchen, what with last-minute prayer paraphernalia to be placed for the ceremony next to the idol. A half-asleep, grumbling grandchild handed a toothbrush and shoved in front of the basin. And the priest -- sometimes mistaken as lazy progeny and hence yelled at -- repeatedly pacified that one of my uncles will perform the ceremony as soon as one of them can trace the singular Gandhi cap they share between themselves. Why they haven't bothered to buy its pair in the last 49 years is beyond all of us. Very warm and fuzzy indeed.

Ergo, the morning ceremony is conducted amid much chaos and an ever benevolent elephant God. Then, the women are quickly rallied in the kitchen and almost magically, the whole house is transformed. It metamorphoses into this smorgasbord of food and aroma. Intermingled with sweet vapors of incense along with the fragrance of fresh flowers adorning the Lord.

There's ...

... delicate ukadiche modak, each fold glistening and sharp. Heaps of soft polis. Vats brimming with delicious tangerine-colored vaalache birde. Piping onion bhaaji's or fritters. A flavorful green salad, by the name of khamang kakdi, made from finely diced cucumbers, flavored with powdered peanuts, sizzling mustard seeds and hot, green Indian chillies. Little mounds of steaming white rice with heart-warming kora varan, served with a generous dollop of home-made clarified butter and a small wedge of lemon. Two vegetable stir-fry sides -- one involving our beloved potatoes in a turmeric ensemble and the other with okra, a traditional preparation. Each, sprinkled generously with grated coconut and cilantro. A pungent chutney of fresh coconut, chillies and cilantro leaves. And my grandmother's mango pickle, from the farthest corner on the second kitchen shelf.

I suppose if my kids cooked such a feast to make up for some early morning madness, I would be prone to beneficence too.

It's been four years since I felt that kind of gooey all over.

But, I shouldn't complain. If I hadn't moved on from the love and comfort of my ajol (maternal grandfather's house), I would have missed out on another kind of love. One that walked into my life on September 13th, 2004. The father of my child, my best friend and soul mate from many past lives. He is way beyond what I deserve and had prayed for. For that, I will forever be grateful to my benevolent elephant God. And the month of September.


♣ Feeling the Filling

I have very distinct memories of both my grandmother and mother going quite red in the face while kneading the rice flour dough for steamed or ukadiche modak. Apparently, the dough must be kneaded immediately after it's steamed, or else there will be lumpy dough to contend with. Evidently, they are right. And obviously I had to find out the hard way.

I was elated when the coconut stuffing or saaran for the modaks turned out exceptionally well. But, the covering or the dough, that's another story.

It went thusly:

Attempt 1: I will not get into the nitty-gritty of things. All I can say is the outcome was lumpy. And I ended up with magnificently red hands.

Attempt 2: Since I didn't want to waste my beautiful stuffing, I consulted "Perfect Recipes" by one Mrs. K for a recipe of fried modak dough. I refer to this cookbook very often and it has never failed me. Turns out, there's always a first time. The recipe was pretty straight-forward -- knead a tight dough of wheat flour, semolina, piping clarified butter and water, and keep covered for a couple of hours. Then roll into small circles, stuff, gather pleats, shape into modaks and deep-fry.

So I did.

Once fried, the stuffing tasted like it was covered in a rubbery sheath and the sweetness of the jaggery refused to come through. Anything but perfect. Yeah, well. I should have known that the stuffing for fried modaks is significantly different from that of steamed ones. Had to be, Mrs. K is seldom wrong.

Attempt 3: Yes, I actually tried for the third time. My family and close friends will tell you, if I have my mind set on something, a pit-bull with a bone and I, can be astonishingly similar.
Lumpy, rubbery doughs notwithstanding, I was going to use the darn (good) filling. This time around I asked AM to help. As luck would have it, or in this case, lack of it -- we first messed up the quantity of water that needed to be boiled. Something, about me confusing him about halving the recipe. "Whateva." As a result, the rice flour kind of unnaturally coagulated around the water and then stopped doing anything.

I, of course, would have none of that. So, I quickly removed it onto a plate, set the water for boiling and followed the steps for steaming again. This time, the ingredients behaved slightly better. The rice flour came together, I screamed bloody murder while kneading it, things were soft and smooth. It was all good. We even managed to mold little modaks and steam them. Although I was mightily disappointed that they did not have the customary sharp pleats. But, I like to put that off as the after-effects of using old rice flour instead of lack of modak craftsmanship on my part.

The end result? Only a couple of blogworthy photos. I plan to now stuff parathas with my beautiful filling. Yes, I still have some remaining.

You need:

A cup of packed, freshly-grated coconut
1/3 cup of good-quality jaggery, grated
2-3 green cardamoms, peeled and ground
1/2-1 tsp of clarified butter or ghee

Recipe:

In a bowl, combine the coconut with the jaggery. Then, heat ghee in a saute pan and stir in the coconut-jaggery mixture. Combine until the jaggery melts, and beautifully mingles with the white coconut, turning it a delicious shade of light honey. As soon as the filling looks like it's losing some of its gooey-ness, remove from flame and stir in the cardamom powder.

Note: Some people add aromatics such as poppy seeds or khuskhus. In case you decide to add these, add them before you do the coconut-jaggery mixture. Once the poppy seeds crackle slightly, add in the coconut-jaggery combination.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Malgund Days

Her 70-year-old voice came crackling over the phone line, "Oh, how we celebrated the festival of Hartalika, when I was a young girl!" my grandmother laughed, as she thought back to the days when she was just a knee-high little thing of seven or eight in her coastal village of Malgund, Ratnagiri.

Even as we sat in our respective living rooms, oceans and miles apart, I could sense her memories, tangibly in our midst. I felt as if I was lounging right by her side on the divan, next to my grandfather's favorite side-table, placed below laminated childhood photographs of all their grandchildren. As she reminisced, I pictured her sitting cross-legged as she spoke, a familiar sparkle in her eyes -- the one she always gets, whenever she talks about her faraway maaher or maternal home.

"On the day that the goddess Gauri came home, my mother's married sisters, and friends. Unmarried cousins, my sisters and our other unwed friends, Usha, Shama, Lata, and Vasanti, from the neighboring houses, down the lane -- all of us women and girls -- would get together for a whole day of fasting and praying," she chuckled. Digressing quite suddenly, as she often does, about how the two statues of jyeshta and kanishta Gauri were made out of Konkan's famed red earth.

"Valucha Shivalinga, aani maathichi Gauri," she told me. It was such a profoundly poetic statement -- the god of sand, and a goddess from the humble earth. During those days, my grandmother further narrated, Haritalika was simple. Beautifully organic. Just as it must have been, she said, all those centuries ago when Sati made the Shivalinga from sand. Fasting and praying to it for 12 long years, with her sakhi in a forest, far away from her father's house. Surviving merely on the green foliage, she found all around herself. All for the perfect man.

Then, as the day wore on, she said, "the evening came alive." Women, old, young, and small would sing and dance the luminescent, lunar, Bhadrapad night away. With folk songs they'd heard, over and over again. All their lives. From mothers, grandmothers, unmarried young women, before them. The suvashinis or married women in beautiful nine-yard sarees and green glass bangles -- the verdant hue of their bracelets, symbols around their wrists of happy, long marriages. Teenagers and younger ones in silky long skirts and blouses, their plaits oiled and tied up high in bright colored ribbons, by elder sisters, mothers or grandmothers. All dancing, playing jhimma-fugadi, that ancient Marathi game where pairs of women, clasp each others hands, and swing around in circles -- shrieking as they go. As fast as their hearts can beat and the feet can dare.

"It was so much fun, all that long sleepless night of play, song and dance with family, siblings, and friends -- old and new," she said wistfully. "Before we knew it, morning would be upon us and it would be time to bid goodbye to both the Gauri's in the village river. Then, we would take a quick dip, and head home, where mother would serve us warm pithi with steamed rice, and tuck us into bed," she giggled.

At last, I asked her, what I had been meaning to all along. Had it all paid off for her? The fasting and the praying? "Of course," she replied simply. "Your grandfather was my perfect man."

♣ Sabudana Vada's for Me

I started observing Haritalika when I was barely 12 years old. It was one of the only fasts my mother reluctantly allowed me, at the behest of my maternal grandmother. Although, it is usually observed a day before Ganesh Chaturthi, at times, Hartalika is observed on the same day as Chaturthi. Whenever that happened, I would be quite sad to forgo the grand naivedya of steaming modak's, vaalachi usal, masale bhaat. Seeing this, my grandmother would always make a treat of sabudana vada's, especially for me.

After all these years, I have finally come to realize, that my will-power had nothing to do with the fact that I didn't miss a single fast.

If it hadn't been for my grandmother's sabudana vadas, perhaps, I wouldn't have found me my perfect man either.


You need:

1 cup Sago or sabudana,
1-2 medium potatoes, boiled
2 tbsp, roasted peanuts, powdered coarsely
A handful of cilantro, chopped
1 tsp chili powder
About 1-2 tsp of salt
1 tsp sugar
2 green chillies
¼ tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp of lemon juice
Peanut oil for frying

Recipe:

Begin by rinsing sago or sabudana two to three times, pour water to just cover the sabudana and soak for three to four hours, at least. The sabudana is perfect, when it swells up beautifully soft, and when pressed between forefinger and thumb, turns slightly mushy.

Once the sabudana is ready, blend together the green chilies, sugar and cumin seeds coarsely. Then, take a handful of peanuts and dry roast over medium-heat until they are lightly toasted and give off a wonderful nutty fragrance.

While you roast the peanuts, set the potatoes for boiling. After they are done, peel and grate them over the drained sabudana. Once the peanuts are roasted, gently rub off their roasted, papery skins, between your palms and toss the nuts into a grinder to blend to a coarse powder.

Using your hands, mix in all the ingredients -- the blended green-chili-sugar-cumin paste, powdered peanuts, boiled potatoes, chili powder, salt, lemon juice and chopped cilantro -- into the sabudana. Taste for seasoning, and mold into small to medium-sized spheres. While you mold the spheres, heat peanut oil for frying in a wok.

Deep-fry the spheres or vadas until they turn up flush and golden-brown. If there are any left by the time you finish frying, serve with a mixture of two to three tablespoons of coarsely ground peanuts, a green chilli blended with half-a-teaspoon of sugar and cumin seeds, each, a quarter teaspoon of salt in three to four tablespoons of whipped home-made curd.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Comfort Me with Khichuri


If my mother were to read this post, she would probably burst into peals of uncontrollable laughter. Well, knowing her it would be more like guffaws from the very pit of her stomach, moving her to the point that you would distinctly be reminded of a rather jolly English pudding. But, given my childhood distaste for khichadi, if I were my mother, I would be prone to break into a few mirthful chortles too.

The bright yellow mushy concoction, commonly known in Marathi households, as "pivali khichadi" was anything but soothing to my childhood palate. Perhaps, it had something to do with the fact that my mother doled it out in epic proportions, even if the neighbor's cat had a sneezing fit. Or maybe, it was simply because my younger sibling, a "kora varan" and spinach zealot, would happily bolt down bowls, without a single protest. And she is known to be very opinionated, especially with matters pertaining to food. I, on the other hand, wouldn't touch the stuff with a ten-foot barge pole. Or a fork for that matter. Sick or not, in my opinion, khichadi and its assorted kin were not meant to be invented, let alone consumed by living entities. Needless to say, I never understood then, what exactly was the comforting brouhaha about boiled moong dal and rice that tasted like it had a holy dip in turmeric laden water.

Some 20 years down the line, I understand. I guess, something happened between here and adolescence, a quiet revolution of sorts. Wrought about by some hyper culinary god, I suspect, working hand-in-glove with my persistent mother and that pesky sister of mine who cannot have enough of varan and such. I think it was sometime between the first and second year of college, right around Durga Puja, that I first heard hushed, exalted praises of something called khichuri that was served as bhog or an offering to the goddess.

This was a new concept for a Maharashtrian kid such as myself. I had grown up seeing my grandmother and the rest of the women in my house spend entire mornings during Ganesh Chaturthi, bent over huge vats of coconut stuffing, and rice-flour dough meant for modaks. After the main offering of 21 dumplings was placed before our favorite Elephant god, there would be a mad scramble among the women to mold perfect little modaks for our entire clan of at least 50 people.

So, when I came across the novel Bengali idea of serving something as simple as boiled dal and rice as bhog, I was fairly certain that a lazy priest or his conniving better-half must have thought this all up in order to save themselves time and energy during the festival.

Of course, it came as quite a shock when I discovered the true Bengali khichuri during a pandal visit with a friend. This was nothing similar to the yellow version, I had grown up detesting. It wasn't yellow, certainly not gloppy, and it was served with deep fried aubergines. Here was something delightfully simple and extremely delicious.

I had almost forgotten about that afternoon rendezvous with the delectable dish until this week. After an entire day of entertaining our four-and-half-month old, cooking was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed some comforting. That's when it suddenly came to me. The taste of that simple khichuri I had on a long-gone autumn afternoon. The distinct taste of hot mustard oil. Moong dal and rice cooked to perfection with whole spices and a medley of vegetables, alongside golden steaks of eggplant or begun bhaja -- such a happy blend. Indeed meant for the gods above.

Note to mother: It's khichuri. Not "pivali khichadi."

I guess I am having the last laugh after all.

♣ Bengali Khichuri

Loosely adapted from Indrani Sen's wonderful piece on lunch at her grandmother's table in the September 2006 issue of Saveur. www.indraniclips.com/files/pratichicookingtext2.doc
I absolutely love masoor dal, so when I read this recipe using one of my favorite lentils, I jumped for joy. It not only lends itself beautifully to this dish, but gives it this other dimension that truly makes it as comforting as slipping on a soft, raggedy-old t-shirt on a hot summer day.


You need:

1/2 C Basmati rice, moong dal and masoor dal, each
1/2-a-potato, diced into chunks
A handful of cauliflower florets
A large pinch of turmeric
1/2-inch of ginger, blended to a smooth paste
A couple of bay leaves
1-2 green cardamoms
2 cloves
A small stick of cinnamon
1/4th tsp of cumin
A tsp of cumin powder
1-2 tsp of chili powder
A pinch of hing
1/4th tsp of sugar
Salt to taste
1-2 tsp of vegetable oil
A tbsp of mustard oil
1-2 tsp of clarified butter or ghee

Recipe:

To begin, wash and soak Basmati rice and masoor dal together and set it aside for about five to 10 minutes. Then, wash moong dal and empty into a medium-sized pot, dry roast until the dal begins turning slightly reddish-brown, and remove onto a plate.

In the same pot, heat a couple of teaspoons of vegetable oil and stir in the bay leaves and whole spices, except for cumin seeds, for a minute or so. Now, toss in the roasted moong dal and drained masoor-dal-Basmati rice mixture and stir it for a good five to seven minutes.

Spoon in a nice-sized pinch of turmeric and the cumin powder, give it a couple of whirls, dump in the potato chunks and cauliflower florets, and stir around to coat with the spices. Spoon over salt to taste and the sugar, give it a good stir or two, and transfer to a pressure-cooker vessel. Pour in about two cups of water and pressure-cook for three whistles.

Once the dals and rice are cooked, remove again into the pot in which you did the initial cooking. In a small pan, heat mustard oil until it is just about to wisp, sprinkle in the hing and cumin seeds. Stir in the ginger paste for a couple of minutes and switch off flame. Deftly, spoon in chili powder, quickly moving it around to combine with ginger and cumin seeds, and pour over the khichuri. Give the khichuri a couple more stirs, check seasoning, top with clarified butter and relish every bite.

Note: You can add as many or as few vegetables, as you like. Either way, this Khichuri will not disappoint.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Spud, What's Not to Love?

The potato and I, we go way back. Into happy childhood days on Ma's kitchen floor, playing make-believe vegetable vendor games. During stress inducing Math exams, what with algebra, geometry and trigonometry doing a fine little number on my already befuddled brain. Through a pregnancy, when all I could think of was eating French fries -- deep-fried and golden-brown. And then some more.

Come to think of it, it was the very first vegetable I learned to handle and cook to perfection. The very one that I turned to when I stepped out of my parents' house. That still hasn't changed, actually. It remains the vegetable of choice almost all seven days, in this house. When I am happy. Or too bored to cook. Especially when I am down. And on other occasions when there's barely anything in the house.

Today, though, I am somewhere in between intense nostalgia and a celebratory mood. It's one of those days when I truly wish we were close-by to bring in the festival of Raksha Bandhan with cousins, siblings, uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents. To cook, cheer and laugh together around my maternal grandmother, Nanima's, modular table in Central Mumbai. Amid steaming plates of sweet coconut rice, a delicious medley of seasonal vegetables, alongside hot-off-the-griddle-phulkas, grandmother's lentil specialty -- ambat varan -- atop mounds of fragrant plain rice and clarified butter.

And at the heart of it all, my family's favorite. Piping batata-wada's. Or mashed potatoes that are first mushed into a verdant paste of chilies, cilantro, ginger and garlic, only to be thrown (for some more brightening) over chopped onions, seasoned with a tiny bit of sunny turmeric, lots of lemon juice and the freshest of curry leaves from the green grocer down the street. Then to be molded into little spheres of delectable goodness by an aunt or my grandmother, lightly rolled around in a comely yellow batter of chickpeas and fried in hot oil until a crispy reddish-brown.

So, to celebrate those who are with me, those who aren't, and especially for my special spud who has withstood being chopped, mashed and cored at my hands, I turn to my great grandmother's recipe for battered-fried potatoes that has been passed along quite a few generations and one that I hope my great grandchildren will celebrate as much as I do.

Nothing short of heirloom would do for the potato and I, today.

In case you see a golden beauty or two missing from this post, they are most probably having quite the "ball" with the rest of the brethren, distant cousins, uncles and aunts at http://madteaparty.wordpress.com/2008/08/15/its-all-coming-together/.

♣ Heirloom Batata Wadas

You need:
3 large potatoes, boiled and mashed
1/2 of a largish red-onion, finely chopped
A dozen very fresh curry leaves or kadipatta
1/4th tsp of turmeric powder
Salt to taste
1/4th tsp of sugar
Juice of half-a-lemon
A tiny pinch of mustard seeds
A dash of hing or asafoetida
Peanut oil for frying + 2 tablespoons
To be ground to a fine paste:
A handful of cilantro
4-5 hot green chilies
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled
3/4th inch ginger
For the batter
About two fistfuls of gram flour/besan
1/4th teaspoon of salt, chili and turmeric powder, each, for seasoning
A tight pinch of baking soda
1/3 cup of water
Recipe:

Place the potatoes in a microwave safe bowl with about a third-of a cup of water, cover with a lid or plate and microwave on high for about 9-12 minutes. Alternately, pressure cook the potatoes for a good three to four whistles until wonderfully soft.

While the spuds are getting ready for their big day in the oil cauldron, grind all the ingredients for the fine paste in the mixing-bowl of your food processor. Then chop the onion into a comely fine dice, wash the curry leaves and dab dry with tissue and set the two aside on a plate.

Once the potatoes are done, quickly peel and mush with the tines of a fork. Remove a tablespoon of the ground (chili, cilantro, garlic, ginger) paste, and then mix in the rest with the potatoes.

Now in a medium-sized saute pan, heat a couple of tablespoons of oil and into it sprinkle the hing and throw in the mustard seeds. As soon as the seeds pop, dump in the curry leaves followed by the onions in quick succession and stir around until the onions start blushing a rosy pink and turns slightly translucent on you. Spoon in turmeric, the tablespoon of ground paste you had set aside earlier, salt and sugar and give it a quick whirl or two before harmonizing with the potatoes. Quickly remove on to a waiting plate and squeeze over half-a-lemon. Once the potato mixture is near room temperature, mix in the lemon juice using your hands and also fish out the curry leaves.

Then, pluck portions and mold into equal-sized balls and set aside. My mother-in-law likes to keep the wadas overnight in the fridge before battering and deep-frying them. I find that they do hold together very well this way.
But, if you can't wait to get the dang frying done and bite into them wadas, pour peanut oil to cover a small wok a fourth of the way up. While the oil heats up, whisk in all the ingredients for the batter. Check to see if the oil is hot -- a small drop of batter should come running to the top as soon as it hits the oil -- take as many wadas as your wok will accommodate, coat them thinly
with the batter and carefully slide in the oil.

About 15 seconds in, start swishing them around deliberately with a spider or slotted spoon so that they turn evenly reddish-brown all over. Remove onto a wire rack (absolutely fantastic and essential for everything deep fried) and smuggle in some lovelies for the gullet. Two at a time. Or depending on how much your mouth can accommodate at one go.



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Monday, August 11, 2008

Once Upon a Butter Chicken

A long, long time ago, in a hole-in-the-wall kind of an eatery, there featured a very common dish known to the locals, far and wide, as Butter Chicken. But, none quite made it like this small restaurant that called itself Kabir's in the sweet, little city of Pune. A girl aged about 10 or 11, chanced upon the dish at a soiree thrown by one of her parent's friends.

And thus began a rather arduous, one-sided, love affair.

The charming shredded chicken and its silky, rubicund gravy left an imprint so deep on the lass's palate, that although she met many a handsome butter chicken in her young life, none quite compared to her first love. Once, she had, had her share of disappointments dished by restaurant after restaurant, here and yonder, the girl took it upon herself to recreate the recipe that had indelibly carved such a niche on her heart and gut. But, alas, such are the ways of specialty entrees. Unless, the chef who creates it, is your mother -- nay, mother's are untrustworthy creatures when it comes to teaching certain recipes. They are known to keep "special ingredients" and quantities to themselves -- or grandmother, such treasures can be but lost.

Yet, the colleen persevered...

...she tried elusive recipe after difficult recipe from famous chefs. Hung around (some strange) blogs. Skimmed innumerable newspapers and magazines. Even carried out a gillion experiments in her kitchen. But, to no avail. She despaired that perhaps her first love was indeed lost in an abyss, forever. Never to be retrieved in this lifetime.

Many a years later, the girl now a married woman and mother, quite by chance, happened upon an unexpected miracle. After an endlessly long day of changing diapers and feeding a very hungry wee little one, the dame came across a recipe that she thought was quite interesting.

So, armed with a very hopeful heart, she ventured into the kitchen.

Half-way through, milady realized that a very important ingredient was missing from her pantry. It was the very one which she had used up in her endeavor to make tandoori chicken. But, not one to give up so easily -- especially, after being so close in perhaps re-creating the nuances of a dish that had kept her awake for many a night -- she turned once again to her trusty laptop-on-the-wall in the hopes of finding a from-the-scratch-tandoori-masala-recipe. Lo and behold! A gazillion (or so) popped up, but she decided on the very first one she'd googled. And it did not disappoint. She hurriedly bustled, tasting and adjusting as she went along.

Finally, after a measly hour in the scullery, the dish was ready to be savored...

...The woman broke a piece of her unleavened bread and hastily dipped it in the butter chicken gravy. At last.

As was expected it lacked the special something from Kabir's. But, it was so close to the dish she had fallen in love with many-many-a-twelve-month-ago that she almost swooned and let out such a gasp of delight that she woke the sleeping babe in the crib, down the hall, much to the chagrin of its father who had rocked her relentlessly for more than hour.

Here it is, in its entirety, for you to experience and fall in love with. As she did, once upon a time, when she was 10 or 11.

♣ Restaurant-style Butter Chicken
Loosely adapted from vahrevah.com

You need:
2 sizable chicken breasts, skinned and sliced thin
2-3 cashews
2-3 almonds, blanched and peeled (optional); if you decide to skip the almonds, make-up by adding a couple more cashews
A tbsp of ginger-garlic paste (2-3 largish garlic cloves + 3/4th inch of ginger)
1-2 tbsp lime juice
1/2 of a large red-onion, roughly chopped
1/2 of a nicely-proportioned, juicy tomato
2 tbsp hung curd
A handful of finely chopped cilantro
1/2 stick of salted butter
2-3 tbsp of vegetable or peanut oil
A couple of tsp of salt or as per taste
A tablespoon or so of cream or whole milk
1/2 tsp of turmeric powder
1 tbsp + 2 tsp + some in dashes and sprinkles of chili powder
1 tsp of cumin powder
About a quarter teaspoon of garam masala
1 tbsp of from-scratch-tandoori masala (recipe follows below)

For Tandoori Masala, you need:
Adapted from indiancurryrecipes.com
8 tsp ground coriander
7 tsp ground cumin
7 tsp garlic powder (if you don't like a strong garlicky taste, make it 5-6 tsp)
7 tsp paprika (I didn't have paprika, but the overall result was good nevertheless)
5 tsp ground ginger
5 tsp mango powder
2 tsp dried mint (didn't have this either, but I didn't think it made a huge difference)
5 tsp beetroot powder (or a tsp of red food coloring powder; I added a few drops of food coloring in the chicken instead)
2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp anatto seed powder (or 1/2 tsp yellow food coloring powder; or a few drops in the gravy or over the chicken)
-- Dump all the spices in a ziplock bag and give it a good shake to combine all the spices well.

Recipe:

To begin, place the curd in a cheesecloth or worn out cotton handkerchief, twine and hang the curd until whey is drained. Consequently, slice the chicken in neat, thin pieces. Then, spoon over tandoori masala, a teaspoon of salt, cumin, a tablespoon of chili powder and the hung curd. Using your hands, massage the spices into the chicken, and set aside in the refrigerator for an hour at least. While the chicken is marinading, roughly chop the onion and keep aside.

After that, toss in the garlic and ginger in the mixing bowl of your blender and blend to a smooth paste. Remove and put to one side, and in the same bowl, grind together the tomato along with half-a-teaspoon of chili powder, cashews and (if using) almonds.

Once the chicken is appropriately marinaded, heat oil in a roomy vessel of your choice. Into it, dump the chicken pieces and toss around until the chicken is cooked. In the last couple of minutes, squeeze in two to three drops of red and yellow food color, stir about and remove to a plate. Quickly stir in the ginger-garlic paste for a minute or so, add in the chopped onion and stir until a lovely golden-brown. Spoon over turmeric, about half-a-teaspoon of chili powder and the remaining salt. Add in the tomato-cashew-almond paste and give it about five to seven minutes in the pan, then set aside to cool completely. Remove into the mixing bowl of your blender and grind to a silky paste.

Now, in the same pan that you cooked the chicken, melt the butter and stir in the onion-tomato paste for another five to seven minutes. Add about three-fourth's of a cup of water, giving it a quick little whirl. What we want is for the sauce to bubble and to thicken slightly to add some oomphy texture. Check for the seasoning, if needed, add a few dashes of chili powder and salt. Sprinkle over the garam masala powder, give the sauce a quick whirl or two and add in the cooked chicken. Add in a couple of drops of red food color, if you think the sauce needs a bit of brightening. Let the chicken stew over a medium to low flame for about five to 10 minutes. Squeeze over the lemon juice, stirring as you squeeze, add a nice little swirl of cream or whole milk, and throw in a handful of freshly chopped cilantro to bring out the lovely tangerine hues of the butter chicken.

Serve atop a mound of steamed plain rice, or alongside your favorite unleavened bread. Relish every bite. Ever so slowly. The thing with fairy tales is, they have to be savored. Slowly.

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