Thursday, August 28, 2008
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.
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
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.
Monday, August 25, 2008
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.
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
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
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.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
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
3 large potatoes, boiled and mashedTo be ground to a fine paste:
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
A handful of cilantroFor the batter
4-5 hot green chilies
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled
3/4th inch ginger
About two fistfuls of gram flour/besanRecipe:
1/4th teaspoon of salt, chili and turmeric powder, each, for seasoning
A tight pinch of baking soda
1/3 cup of water
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.
Monday, August 11, 2008
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
For Tandoori Masala, you need:
Adapted from indiancurryrecipes.com
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.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
If it hadn't been for my borderline anal retentive nature when it comes to writing, coupled with another horrendous habit – procrastination -- I guess I would have found myself on the blogosphere a lot earlier. But, well, oh well. Such are, our personal foibles. As my grandmother always says, some things just happen at the right time. Neither before they are supposed to, nor after. For me, I think, the greatest leavening agent in the right direction was giving birth to my darling. One look at that sweet face, and I knew that it was time to get off my behind, and journal family heirlooms I'd learned sitting on grandma's counter-top, some I had picked along the way and others I will chance upon as I traverse life's highways.
Since this is my first post, I think a celebratory recipe is in order. No jamboree eatable quite knows how to spell p-a-r-t-y in my family, like these specialty Gulab Jamuns. My husband AM's (the man wakes up awfully early. To be specific, at 6 am, even on weekends. Yep, you read that quite correctly. 6 am. On weekends) eight-year-old niece, Shambhavi, can easily slug down a whole bowl (and our bowl reserved for gulab jamuns is noticeably big) if her always-on-yummy-eats-watch-family would allow it.
♣ Gulab Jamuns or Heavenly Globules in Rose-scented Sugar Syrup
For the Jamuns
1 firmly-packed cup (C) of mawa or milk-powder
¼ C of maida or all-purpose flour
¼ tsp of baking soda
Milk (guesstimate, enough to make a soft dough)
1 1/2 Tablespoons of Ghee or Clarified butter/Shortening, warmed + more for deep-frying
For the syrup
2 C of water
2 C of sugar
A few long strands of beautiful saffron or Kesar
A sprinkling of powdered green-cardamom
A couple of drops of rose essence (optional)
Sieve the milk powder, flour and baking soda twice onto a respectably-sized platter. Then with a gentle hand knead in the warm clarified butter and incrementally add in as much milk to bring together a soft dough. To keep the dough from drying, keep it covered with a damp cheese-cloth or a soft piece of mulmul. Pluck small portions of the dough to mold into half-inch balls and place under the cloth. We are going to fry the jamuns to a lovely golden-brown color, for that, heat clarified butter or shortening, preferably in a wok, over a medium flame.
While the butter does its thing, get going on the sugar syrup -- on another burner place a sizable pot of your choice, over medium heat. Into it, pour water and sugar along with the saffron and rose essence and bring to a gentle boil, stirring all the while, until the sugar melts, and the syrup gets to the consistency of slightly thinned down honey. Give it some loving from the cardamom powder and switch the syrup-pot to a warmer or reduce the heat to very low.
On the other hand, keep a close watch on the fat, once it is hot (test with a minuscule piece of gulab jamun dough -- it should swim to the surface as soon as it hits the hot stuff), reduce the heat to very low and carefully drop the jamuns in. Hold the wok with a pair of tongs and very, very cautiously and deliberately, move the wok around, ever so slowly, so that the jamun's swivel around on their own. My mother-in-law, an absolute cooking maven, always specifies that slotted spoons or spiders have no place while frying delicate things like Gulab Jamuns. They are to be used only to (d-e-l-i-c-a-t-e-l-y) transfer the fried spheres from their oleaginous atmosphere into the the sticky sugar syrup. Once your beautiful, petite balls have turned a lovely golden-brown, slide them into the sugar syrup and leave them to double in size. Then, quickly swill down a couple. If your family is anything like ours, there won't be many such opportunities in your destiny.