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


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.


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

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."


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


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.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008


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.