Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Zippy Zesty Za'tar Zeanuts

Well, I had to keep up the alliteration, didn't I? I mean peanuts. At my workplace, colleagues often bring a snack called Congress Peanuts (read about the name here) from Bangalore, which I love for the combination of chilli powder, curry leaf, asafoetida and sugar that they seem to be spiced with. I usually have peanuts in stock thanks to The Spouse who thinks peanut chutney goes with anything and everything - from idlis to khichdi to biriyani.

 I swiped his stocks and set out to make them but as I am always in fridge-cleaning and pantry-cleaning mode, I remembered the stock of za'tar I had and proceeded to use that. It didn't make a dent - I used only 1.5 tsp, but it made for a snack that had my colleagues at work compete for it. One of them said it woke her up, and hence the title of this post!

 I used olive oil since it went with the za'tar, Mediterranean thing.

 What you need

 Extra-virgin olive oil: 2 tsp
Turmeric: a pinch
Za'tar: 1 tsp + some more
Salt: 3/4 tsp of iodised fine salt, to begin with

Peanuts, roasted, skinned and halved: 300 gm

 Heat the olive oil gently. Continuing to keep it on low heat, mix the spices with the oil and heat for less than a minute. Add the peanuts and mix well to ensure they are coated well with the spices. After you take them off the stove, let them cool and taste for seasoning. Add some more of the salt and za'tar if you like.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Of New Year Wishes, Surprising Yourself and Perfect Trials

Last year, I made this greeting to wish family and friends on Facebook a happy new year! The photo is mine, from my trip to Newport, Rhode Island in December 2014.

When I made it and found the words to go with it, I had no more hopes than my usual - that the year should not bring any earth-shaking changes and rock my boat, and that if there was any change, it should only be for the better. Then I forgot all about it as the year went by. (I even had a moment's trouble recently remembering the name of this place that I visited.)

When Facebook prodded me to 'See Your Memories' this New Year's Day, this greeting came up. I was surprised to see that I had actually done a few of those things it said.

I 'made some art' as the picture exhorted one to - I took to colouring late in 2015, in end-October or early November, and have been having a lot of fun. I know much has been written of its therapeutic and stress-busting value. I don't know about that, really. I'm not one to take to every new-age hobby or discipline and declare them a marvel but I enjoy it thoroughly. I have accumulated a bagful of sketch pens, pencils, a few paintbrushes, and three colouring books. I am also planning to go and buy a few paper supplies tomorrow. The pictures you see below are a mixture of the designs I've found on the Internet (search for 'adult colouring free prints') and those from my colouring books.

I've even arranged to go for a certain art class this Saturday!

I 'read and re-read some fine books' (A Spool of Blue Thread, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Painting The Darkness, I Do Not Come To You By Chance, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and quite a few more, fiction and non-fiction).

I went on a completely unexpected trip - the nice part was that it was unexpected. The trip itself, well, let me say I was glad to have taken two days off for myself after the first three days which were important - I really found the time to unwind and not feel too bad about the earlier part.

I kissed someone who thinks I'm wonderful (my 7-year-old niece, who really does, but would never admit to it) dozens of times.

And I did 'surprise myself' with handling a certain challenge which I shall not discuss as I'm superstitious about it. Another thing I surprised myself with was getting off one of my two Facebook accounts and not missing it. It was linked to this blog but it wasn't delivering what I wanted it to and I decided I would no longer waste any time on it.

It has nothing to do with how I feel about this blog, though. I'm still keen on keeping it going. I haven't had the time in the last few months to do much blog-hopping either, given the pressures of my job, but I will set time aside for it once a week at least.

At home with my parents, I watched my cook make a favourite colocasia fry and got it right when I tried it in my kitchen. Now that was a solid achievement. It also reminds me of what one of my friends says, that cooking is one area where it's possible to get instant gratification.

Before I get to the ingredients, I'll tell you what I learnt first

Boil, not pressure cook, the colocasia. Keep poking it with a fork or a knife to check for just-doneness. If you pressure cook it, it gets squishy even with just one whistle.

Do not turn the pieces immediately after you have slid them into the oil. Just de-clump them if you have to, with the ladle, but don't turn them over deliberately. They have to fry a bit before being turned over. Once you turn them over, don't disturb them again till you see the colour deepening a little more - then use your good sense and sense of sight to determine when they are golden brown and then remove them from the oil.

For the amount seen in the photo, you will need

1/2 a kilo of colocasia, arbi or taro root, boiled as above and sliced
Oil to deep fry (try deep frying in a small but deep vessel, I think we use up lesser oil that way)
Red chilli powder

Heat the oil well, lower the flame and then slide some of the colocasia pieces into the oil. Do not crowd them. Some will stick to each other. Separate them with the ladle. Let them fry for a minute and when you notice them turning brown, turn them over. Repeat the process as the colour deepens, once or twice, and remove them when they are a golden brown.

Put them on paper napkins so that the extra oil is absorbed.

Sprinkle salt and chilli powder little by little, tasting at each step, and mix lightly to coat with the spices.

I am very greedy when it comes to this dish but miraculously I managed to save some for The Spouse. So I guess the year did have some 'magic' that is mentioned in the greeting - it was magical that I wasn't so much of a glutton and he got to eat something he never would have otherwise. As for dreams and good madness - yes, there are always the dreams and the craziness in all spheres, too many examples to recount here.

How was your year? What did you do? Did you surprise yourself?

The same wishes are what I wish for you, and of course, I wish that we see more of each other this year, much more than before. Happy new year!


Monday, November 02, 2015

A Rough Guide to a Tomato Soup

We could have grown up eating/drinking something but never have had more than a vague idea, if that, about what went into its making. Despite cooking for myself ever since I set up home, there are some things that I haven't made very often with success. I usually try them, give up, don't attempt it for years, then try again, give up, don't attempt ... you see the pattern emerging. Along the way, I even forget this particular dish exists, unless I have it somewhere else, or someone asks me to make it, which is when I make another supreme effort, and end up with a decent or even winning formula. This tomato chaaru/ rasam/ soup is one such.

Earlier this year, my niece and her parents came to spend a week with me in the summer. My
sister-in-law said my niece had liked the tomato chaaru her aunt in Hyderabad had made and that she would likely relish another bout of it. How did that aunt make it? What followed was a rough guide - a little bit of this and that and that. Since the summer, I have evolved my own prescription for it and I am glad to say I have arrived at a combination of ingredients that makes a flavourful, spicy, thin soup, just the way I like it.

You will need

Tart tomatoes (I use the country/naatu varieties, you can add a few hybrid ones for their
colour)- 8-12
Shallots/onion, chopped - about 1 tbsp
Tamarind - 3-5 pieces, soaked just enough to be moistened
Green chillies - 2-3
Salt - about a teaspoon of iodised salt, to begin with
Cloves - 2-3
Garlic, smashed, without skin - 3-5
Pepper, powdered - 1/2 -1 tsp
Coriander powder - 1.5 tsp
Jeera powder - 0.75 tsp
Curry leaves
Coriander - a big handful, chopped roughly

Make a plus sign in the tomatoes and boil them in water till the skins burst and you can peel
them off easily once they cool.

Puree them smoothly.

Add all the ingredients mentioned, except the coriander, as much water to thin down the puree as you like it, and boil very, very, very well.

Keep tasting it as you go along and add more salt or the other powders if it doesn't taste
quite right. If this is the first time you're making this and wonder what you should look for,
look for a slightly sour but mostly spicy taste.

Once you decide you are done with it and take it off the stove and transfer it to a serving
dish, add the chopped coriander and cover it. You can savour it in a cup, or eat it with rice
and papads, or sauteed/fried vegetables, or even kheema (minced lamb).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Eating Out Etc in San Francisco

This blog turned nine last week. I'm glad I've kept it going, even though the number of posts is vastly diminished as compared to a few years earlier. Thanks, dear readers! What better way than to celebrate with a report of something that combines travel and food! 

In July, I went to San Francisco rather unexpectedly, for just five days. This, of course, is the Golden Gate bridge but I was put up in a hotel fairly close to the piers so I managed to walk down to them everyday and take in the sights and sounds a fair bit.

This is my second trip to San Francisco. The first one was in 2003. My cousin and I spent five days there and did quite a bit - apart from visiting the city we went to Napa Valley and Yosemite too. This time, I spent three days in the city on work and spent two more days with a friend who lives outside San Francisco, just relaxing and exploring the little town of Lafayette where she works.

This shot is from a farmers' market at Ferry Plaza. Aren't they vibrant, these macaroons?

Don't you just love going to farmers' markets? I do. I even like going to grocery stores. I visited quite a few grocery stores in Lafayette and got my first pack of farro from there. 

I didn't buy any vegetables though I bought a lot of fruit at the farmers' markets and other stalls along the piers.

Tomatoes galore! I enjoyed seeing the variety.

Our hosts took us to this Italian restaurant where we ate a lot of ravioli. This ravioli in a basil tomato sauce was filled with ricotta cheese and spinach. This dish is vegetarian.

I think this was lamb or beef. Probably the latter.

This was ravioli with chestunuts in a butter and sage sauce topped with crispy pancetta.

This snaky vegetable was at one of the stalls in the farmers' market. There wasn't anyone around for me to ask what it was.

The first time I'm seeing rhubarb in the flesh. In the original form, that is. I've had a rhubarb pudding a long time ago.

I had been looking for tamales at Mexican restaurants here in India but had never found one. I was still in a tamale mood when I found a stall at the farmers' market on Ferry Plaza. It was filling but really very bland - I went on adding chillies to it from the accompaniments that were available. I may not have it again.

This is a pharmacy. It was quite a task to spot the medicines amidst all the food that swamped the pharmacies - and there were several of them around my hotel. The food wasn't restricted to fruit and breakfast - there was chocolate, there were vegetables, deli food, quite a variety.

This was a starter at a nice but crowded restaurant our hosts took us to in Sausalito. It is made up of kale, jicama and pecorino.

I've seen too many of these blistered peppers on friends' timelines and so did not pass up the opportunity to order a plate. They were very nice and mild, and occasionally a hot one would pop up. I would have eaten everything if it weren't for the fear of a runny tummy from the hot ones.

I was surprised to find out that this was what the restaurant called salt cod fritters. I've always imagine fritters to be flat, or like pakoras.

This was the wild rucula, medjool dates and gorgonzola pizza we had there.

And this, the Black Mission Fig with goat cheese and frisee. 

It's always a lot of fun to meet a blogger friend. I think of them as old friends who I'm meeting for the first time. ET, who has also been blogging for nine years, at Evolving Tastes, and I met the day I was leaving San Francisco. We met at Ferry Plaza, my luggage in tow. She treated me to lunch at the Mexican restaurant there. I had a bean taco and a shrimp taco. 

This was a pink lemonade in a shopping complex in Lafayette. I liked how the malls in California were not multi-storeyed but spread out. I rarely consume juices or drinks in India. But the ones in CA really had me thirsting for more. They were flavourful and not weighed down by sugar. I even had a couple with lavender in them. I think I would like to go back and try some more.

This was the lunch I treated myself to as I was roaming around Lafayette's main street. Tomatoes baked in feta with olives and walnut toast. Not bad at all!

And I leave you with this. No, I didn't dare.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Plum Post

This post could have had many other headlines: I Grilled A Cake, How My California Dream Died, Holding On To A Memory - and Failing, Salvage and Redemption, etc, etc. You get the drift.

I went on a work trip to San Francisco last month and was housed in a hotel fairly close to the piers. At Ferry Plaza, I came across a farmer's market twice during my 4-day stay there. On Pier 39, there was a fruit stall that carried glorious cherries and strawberries and several other fruit.The farmer's market was full of plums and peaches and I tasted each variety and bought lots and lots of fruit. The fruit was very sweet and juicy, unlike the tart plums and peaches we get here in India.

I should have left it at that and not tried to convert a memory into a reality, however impermanent. I came back the next week and promptly bought some small plums (locally known as alubukhara, I think) and four big ones. They are sometimes called nectarines, but mostly, they go by 'plum'. What's in a name, though? They were as sour as ever. California slipped away a little more.

There was no way I was going to strip the enamel off my teeth any further. I set about looking for recipes where I could use them in a cake or a pudding and came across several. Some of them were for something called a plum buckle. Naturally, I knew that was what I would try as I had never before come across anything called a buckle. It seemed fairly easy to make too.

I combined a few recipes I found on the Internet. I marvelled at my brainwave to use Yakult as a substitute for the buttermilk the recipe demanded. I was slightly perturbed when the plum pieces sank in and didn't look like rubies studding the batter, as they did in the pictures on the Internet. They will rise when it bakes, I told myself. I was not overly worried that the sugar still helped its crystal shape. I put it in to bake.

Almost immediately I smelt it burning. I thought it might have been the sugar melting - in the pack I used, the sugar came in large crystals and I added a little extra because the plums were really, really tart. "Do not overthink everything, just do it," I told myself (channelling my friend, not Nike), and resolutely let the timer tick 25 minutes off the dial.

The burning smell did not cease to waft. I gave in at the 26th minute, switched off the oven and checked. The top was charred. I stuck a knife into the centre and it came out moist. I baked it some more and cooled it for an hour. Then I flipped it over and while it looked really pretty, like a plum upside down cake, it was all gooey and eggy as the batter had not baked all the way to the bottom or all around the cake. It was a wonder it held its shape even after being flipped.

And then I noticed that the oven was in 'Grill' mode from a previous experiment, not in 'Bake' mode. No wonder the top got charred right away! No wonder it didn't bake all the way down or around. I changed the setting on the oven and baked it for 20 minutes.

I cooled it again, cut and discarded the charred portion, scraped the rest of it into a box and took it to the Refuge of Failed Experiments (aka The Office) where my indulgent colleagues ate it, giggling, and even complimented me. Though one of them took the trouble to tell me he didn't like it, and that one had to have imagination to call it a cake. I forgave him.

After all, I had been resourceful. Earlier, such experiments would have gone straight into the dustbin. I would have been sick with guilt over the time, materials and money wasted on the effort. But now, I had made the most of a bad deal. I had managed to get it out of my house where it would serve as a reminder of my guilt and managed, instead, to create some 'colleague delight'. I had forgiven myself by doing all this. And I will not forget to check the settings on the oven in a hurry, here on. I managed to get it out of my system.

What lessons did your dessert-gone-wrong teach you?