Sunday, December 24, 2006

For the Festivities - Dum ke Laoz

This is a dressy dish that I’ve always dreamt of making but couldn’t because I would always fail to memorize the recipe – in the last few years since it’s been published, I almost always paid for this book but put it back regretfully as I felt it was too much of an indulgence.
A paperback never materialized but it so happened, though, that I had accumulated enough points on my loyalty card to be able to afford it without much guilt, so here it comes! The book is ‘A Princely Legacy – Hyderabadi Cuisine’ written by Pratibha Karan and published by Harper Collins Publishers India.
This is a really simple dish and there’s a terrific picture in the book, not a close-up, though. And the picture in the book looked typically golden brown, while my finished product is more green. But the proportions were haphazardly followed and I probably put in more coriander than necessary, giving it that green cast, but I liked it.
Today’s guinea pigs said it looked like a pastry/cake, which was good, because the book explains that’s how it gets its name - Laoz also means a sweet dish. In Hyderabad, it’s also called kheeme ki barfi, lagan ke kabab and Kashmiri laoz.
Most of the method is from the book (your forgetful cook did something wrong, as usual) but the measures are mostly mine:

500 gm minced meat (the book said 750 gm)
1-inch piece ginger, chopped
8 cloves garlic, chopped
A pinch of turmeric
A tsp of chilli powder
½ cup yoghurt/curds
1 egg, beaten
2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
3 small onions, minced
½ cup coriander leaves, chopped
2-3 green chillies, chopped
A handful of cucumber seeds/skinned & flaked almonds (you can also use watermelon or muskmelon seeds or a combination of all these)
1 tbsp oil, if you like, to toast the seeds
A little more oil, to grease the baking dish and coat the kheema mix before it goes into the oven
Salt to taste

Boil the minced meat with ginger, garlic, turmeric, chilli powder, yoghurt, and salt, till tender. Grind into a fine paste (said the book, but I ground it into a fine paste with the beaten egg, onion, coriander and green chillies, which had to be mixed in after the cooked mince was ground.) Divide into two portions.
Fry the seeds, set aside.
In a greased baking dish, spread one portion evenly. Put the egg slices on it and cover with the remaining mince. Brush this layer liberally with oil – I used about two spoons. Sprinkle the fried seeds or nuts on top. Bake till golden. It takes about 30 minutes.
My experiment resulted in a spicy, moist mince cake which was a hit with most of the guinea pigs. Bon appetit!


Friday, December 22, 2006

Pandan-Coconut Milk Jelly


For someone who doesn’t use any form of coconut even once a month, Jihva seems to have put me in overdrive. I never thought I’d submit even one dish for Jihva for Coconut, leave alone two. But my thriving pandan shrub and unused packs of coconut milk and sugar are making for some very uncharacteristic behaviour, and so here it is!
This is a Thai/Malay recipe that I arrived at after reading various versions in books as well as on the Net. You can use agar agar for a more authentic and as a vegetarian option in place of the gelatin but I’m not sure of the proportions. The pandan didn’t lend its usual fragrance to this dish but just smelt like sap, even after I put in some vanilla essence. But I guess this is a dish high on texture and looks (though my photo may not do justice to it); it has a strong smell but a delicate flavour – what attracted me was the double-layered looks of the jelly.

For the pandan layer:

Gelatin (unflavoured): 1 tbsp
Water: 1½ cups
Sugar: ½ cup
Pandan leaves: 8-10, cut into strips

For the coconut milk topping:
Coconut Milk: 1½ cups
Gelatin (unflavoured): 1 tbsp
Sugar: ¼ cup

Preparation: Bruise the pandan leaves – you can pound them in a mortar and pestle, or whiz them once in the grinder. Boil them in a cup of water and strain the liquid.
Reserve one tbsp of the pandan water.
Dissolve gelatin in the hot pandan water. Stir well over low heat. Add the sugar, let it come to a boil and allow to simmer for a couple of minutes.
Put the reserved pandan water into this and let it come to a boil again. Pour it into a small-ish container/mould and put it in the refrigerator.

For the topping, dissolve gelatin in coconut milk on low heat, add sugar and stir well. Let it come to a boil.
When it’s still hot, pour the topping over the pandan jelly.
Before serving, cut the jelly into small pieces/shapes.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jihva for Coconut - Fish Curry

This is one vegetable technology hasn’t improved. I’ve seen vacuum, hand-held, electric – but nothing as effective nor easy to use as the coconut graters of our childhood.
Sit on the floor, rest your knee against the wooden base the lever and grater are affixed to — turn the lever on the right and the rotary grater on the left scoops out the fleshy part of the coconut held over it into zillions of soft, white snowflakes. Even the kattipeeta (the traditional implement used to cut/slice vegetables – usually a curved blade attached to a piece of wood), which ends in a sharp, serrated disc of steel meant for the coconut is not as effective.
That being said, I must say that when Ashwini announced Jihva for Coconut, I had to rack my brains long and hard to come up with an entry. For me, my fascination with coconut lay, and still lies, in the grater I described, the spray of fresh white against newsprint – but apart from the coconut-red chilli-tamarind chutney and kobbari louzu (coconut-jaggery balls) that used to be made at home, I don’t remember other ways we used it, perhaps to thicken a meat gravy? I’m not sure.
When I grew up and got interested in cooking, cookbooks made using coconut an often tiresome and doubt-ridden process. When it had to thicken a curry, the grinder never seemed to do its job properly, at whatever speed, pulse, frappe, whip, beat – the ‘paste’ would end up a loose mix of water, bits of chilli, coconut that refused to grind — and imparted an overwhelmingly coconutty taste to everything it was used in. I don’t think we used coconut milk at home, ever, so which cookbook was right? Squeeze the grated coconut with bare hands, put it in hot water and whiz it in the mixer, thin milk, thick milk, second extract, first extract? So out the coconut went, out of my kitchen and now and then makes an appearance in milk carton form, whence this recipe originates.
Fish curry
Seer fish: ½ a kilo - skinned, boned and cubed
Onions: 3 small, chopped
Thick coconut milk: 1½ cups
Dry red chilli, ground: 6
Pandan leaf: 2
Basil: A little
Cinnamon: 2-inch piece
Curry leaves: A few
Turmeric: A pinch
Fenugreek: ¼ tsp
Ginger-garlic paste: 1 tsp
Limes: 1-2, juiced
Salt: To taste
Put in everything but the limes into a pan and cook till the fish is done. Once it cools, add the lime juice. That’s it, you’re done!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Meme About Them

I was inspired to start this meme when I visited Jayashree’s site My Experiments with Food. She wondered whether we gave other bloggers a face and I joked that we should start a meme on ‘how do I think they look.’ When I visited her site a few days later, Maheswari of Beyond the Usual had seconded my suggestion, and so here it is!
I’m not sure how to take this forward except to tag a few people and request them to link me ( in their responses and in turn mention my request to the people they tag – this is the first time I’m doing something like this and I’d like to see the course it takes.
So, I’m tagging Maheswari, Jayashree and Sandeepa of Bong Mom's Cookbook – all you have to do is tell us what you imagine your blogger friends look like, and maybe why you think they look so. I’m not sure if I can give my own opinions without being tagged so I’m not volunteering any :) And naturally, you'll do it only if you want to.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Prawn Pickle

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Growing up, pickles with any sort of meat were never something I had heard about, so it was a revelation tasting meat pickle brought back by friends from Kerala in our hostel.
It turned out later that that meat was beef so that effectively ended my gustatory experiments with meat and pickle but slowly, over the years, I began hearing of how so-and-so back at home had heard of somebody who made ‘chicken pachchadi’ and ‘mutton pachchadi.’ These reports would always be accompanied by an expression that said “What’s the world coming to? What will people pickle next?” I hadn’t heard of fish and prawn pickle even then, not from any part of the country, but came to discover them only much later.
The prawn pickle that I’ve tasted a few times over the last few years is made with lemon juice, garlic, fenugreek and mustard, much like the time-honoured recipes of many other pickles Andhra homes are famous for. I’ve even tasted one with the bite of cloves, which I found excellent.
These days, of course, due to the home-style stores in Andhra that specialize in making and vending traditional snacks and sweets once not usually found in sweet shops, non-vegetarian pickles seem to have become more popular and less ugh! The morsels found in them are an apology for meat and the masala is black, fried to death, probably due to the huge quantities they undertake to make.
At a book exhibition recently, I found a book that had recipes for two kinds of prawn pickle – one with tamarind and the other with lemon juice. I tried the lemon juice version today, and while I misread the instructions and messed up things midway, the end product didn’t turn out too bad.
Of course, it’s still just a couple of hours since I made it – after wrestling with the photos, I immediately stuck it in the fungus-proof interiors of my wonderful fridge, so I’m not sure how good it inherently is.
Here’s the recipe then, as it’s found in the book. I do hate it, though, when these books don’t specify the kind of salt or the measure but blandly say “Salt - to taste.” Maybe the book expects its readers to be experienced, all-knowing cooks, I don’t know. Funnily enough, the list of ingredients in this recipe totally missed mentioning the salt but all the other pickle recipes said that. It’s not as if it’s a dish you can easily adjust the salt in – pickle-making is a delicate and difficult enterprise, all the more so when it’s your first time, why don’t authors think of that? I asked around and crushed two small fistfuls of rock salt and added it to the pickle – that’s another of its inherent uncertainties!

Prawns: 1 kilo (2.2 lb) (I used only half the quantity and frozen, thawed ones as I don’t know how to handle fresh ones)
Garlic: 4 cloves (you can increase the amount)
Turmeric: 1 tbsp (increase it, it might give the pickle more staying power)
Chilli powder: 100 gm
Salt: I used two small fistfuls of crushed/ground rock salt
Mustard powder: 50 gm
Fenugreek powder: 50 gm
Lime juice: 1 cup (I ultimately had to use 2 cups for it to retain some moisture)
Oil: ½ a kilo (I forgot to measure the volume, sorry, but it’s not impossible to weigh)

Shell the prawns, wash well, drain and place them in a bowl. In a frying pan, heat half the oil to smoking point and fry till “red.” Cool.

In the same frying pan, put in the rest of the ingredients, mix with the rest of the oil, then mix with the prawns and bottle in sterilized jars. Leave it to steep for a day and check for seasoning the next. Meant to be eaten with hot, soft rice. I would recommend putting it in the fridge.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Bounty from the East

I knew it would arrive this way, not giving me time to savour receiving it and opening it immediately – smack bang in the middle of work, when I’m juggling two telephone calls and can’t open the door immediately when the bell rings. But thankfully, the postman didn’t have to ring twice; I got to the door in good time to be faced by a pleasant postman who said, “Foreign parcel, it was too big to leave in your letter box and the watchman said I should hand it over to you personally.” I thanked him at least thrice, closed the door and made a beeline for the camera, all the while looking nervously at my phones, willing them not to ring.
There, then, was my Blogging By Mail package from Kai Rui of Singapore, with many unusual ethnic foods – the most unusual had to be the chilli-tapioca-ikan bilis (a kind of fish) – I’ve never seen anything like that, neither the combination nor the brilliant red of the snack, made all the more bright by the orange of the packaging. Then there was a big packet of sultana biscuits, Kai’s childhood favourite, as she explains in a nice, neatly-written letter (how nice to receive letters on paper, such a rarity these days). There is also a pack of Singapore Hainanese Chicken Rice spice mix – Kai explains that it actually doesn’t originate from the Hainan island in China but is unique to Singapore, where it has a fervent following. In her favourite stall in Maxwell Road Market, she says, you have to wait for more than an hour to get that “plate of heavenly goodness.”
The Mee Siam is another national dish, of Malay origin. Kai describes it as having a “complex and intriguing” taste as it’s sweet and tangy at the same time. I can identify with that, Kai – we make vegetable stews with tamarind and jaggery, and they too are sweet and sour.
And I dread the sugared peanuts – if I begin eating them, I won’t be able to stop, I’m afraid. The ikan bilis and sugared peanuts are common snack foods served to guests when they visit during the Chinese New Year, Kai explains.
I’ve not opened any of these packets yet – the ikan bilis looks too beautiful to cut through! They came this morning, and I will update you when I use them. Thank you, Kai, for the gorgeous food, and thank you, Stephanie, for the pairing up and the organizing. Both of you have certainly dispensed happiness!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Jihva and Just Deserts

The life of a food blogger is a hard one. Especially when events come around, and the pressure on oneself is to innovate/exhibit rather than humbly participate.
When Kay of Towards a Better Tomorrow announced Jihva for Jaggery and requested us to send in unusual recipes, yours truly immediately lined up two ambitious ventures, only to end up with thumping failures.
The lessons (oh yes, there always have to be lessons from failures): Trying to create a dish merely on the strength of having gorged on it throughout your life does not magically bestow on the eater the recipe; and payasam can curdle at any stage!
A friend recently said she didn’t believe in second attempts with recipes. She never, ever wanted to relive the failure, she said - the dish had turned an enemy, a friend who had failed her. Thanks to Jihva, I did make a second attempt, which is now making the rounds at work because I cannot bear to have a constant reminder at home of the consequence of my hubris.
Yes folks, in the first episode, I set out to make this:

And ended up with this:

Both versions are called Jeedipappu Paakam, and in the parts I come from, the first is celebrated for its addictive, ghee-laden, cardamom-flavoured, expensive existence. The texture of the jaggery against the cashew nuts it envelops is something I can only describe as similar to icing. It comes in great big slabs, or rocks, and sometimes even a pair of brawny hands find the going tough when they have to break off smaller pieces – a firm tap with a hammer, or a sturdy knife driven into it, like the blade of an axe, and then borne down upon with all the might of your shoulders, does the trick.
But this is not to say it’s difficult to eat. On the contrary, it’s easy to get carried away. A friend in hostel used to overdose on this every time I took it back with me after vacation, and even the very real risk of a troubled stomach made only more sickening by the water scarcity in the loos couldn’t deter her from chomping on it all the time.
Well, I couldn’t find a recipe for it but it had to be simple, I thought: Just melt a cupful of jaggery in a little water to a stage where the syrup holds its shape in a bowl of water when tested, pour in a cup of cashews, a few spoons of ghee and a pinch of powdered, roasted cardamom seeds, whisk it off the fire and spread it in a plate greased with ghee, and your paakam is ready. (The rocks and slabs were, I thought, a function of volume – I was no accomplished mithaiwali after all, just a zealous, new food blogger trying to wow the world.) Alas! It was not to be - I ended up with my first chikki.
Not deterred, I stopped off at the store on my way back from work, bought a cannonball of light yellow jaggery, some more cashew and spent a good part of the night powdering the former, all the while dreaming of perfection from the second attempt, and the other dish I planned to display, a traditional, festive one that too!
My second attempt was just as bad, or as good as my first – and while my guinea pigs ate it without question and even the odd compliment, the ignominy of it all rankled – and instead of leaving well alone, I launched into my second sweet soon after I got back from work.
{Drumroll} Paalataalikalu!
My recipe for this sago-and-rice flour noodles payasam came off the Net. The sago was processed as per one of my fail-proof home cooking books, and everything was going along swimmingly fine. Even the rice flour, with which I was working for the very first time in my life, was cooperating. And what did I do? I raised the heat to boil the rice flour noodles, and met my comeuppance in the form of a heaving, creamy-brown ocean of curdle that I couldn’t salvage. I, friends, had got my just deserts!
{Curtain call, bow}

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Party Piece - Haleem Goes Vegetarian

This is a party piece even when it’s non-vegetarian. Come Ramzan, and visitors to Hyderabad would be whisked off to the Old City to try the Haleem and other dishes that would make an appearance only that month, apart from the kababs and khubani ka meetha (stewed apricots with custard) that the city is so famous for.
Now Haleem seems to be available everywhere in the city – I visited last year during Ramzan and every restaurant big and small worth its name had banners advertising its availability. I even remember Hareesh (a dish, not a guy), but am not too sure what it was or even whether I tasted it.
However, in the after-life (life after Hyderabad, that is, this is no ghost writing this piece), most of my friends are vegetarian, and pulaos, fried rice and “variety rice” (that favourite Madrasi term for various flavoured rice dishes) soon pall as they are commonly found. I had just begun collecting cookbooks then, and was thrilled to find this dish which proved to be the delight of every get-together we had since. Sadly, though, work and different schedules ensured we couldn’t meet often, but as a ‘welcome back’ dish for someone who loved it but told me not to bother with it, it’s just right.
The basic recipe is from Rotis & Naans of India by Purobi Babbar (Vakils, Feffer and Simons, 1990) but I made a few changes based on what I found in my fridge. On to the recipe, then!

1 ½ cups broken wheat (I used coarse wheat rava)
4 tbsp red gram/toor daal/kandi pappu
2 tbsp green gram/moong dal/pesara pappu (the book suggested masoor daal)
2 tbsp split Bengal gram/channa daal/senaga pappu
100 gm altogether – peas, yellow pumpkin, and carrots, cut into pieces (the book suggested peas, cauliflower and brinjals)
2 capsicum/green bell pepper, cut
3 medium onions, sliced

8 cloves garlic and 2 tbsp grated ginger, ground to a paste
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tbsp curry powder/garam masala
1 tbsp coriander/dhania powder (the book suggested 1 tbsp each of coriander and cumin seeds ground to a fine paste)
2 level tsp salt
6 cups of water
8 tbsps of ghee or oil (I used my flavoured ghee)

For garnish:
1 onion, sliced and fried crisp
Coriander leaves/hara dhania/kothimeera, chopped

Soak wheat and dals separately overnight. Wash well. Drain and keep aside for 20 minutes.

Heat half the melted ghee or oil. Fry onions until brown. Stir in garlic, ginger paste, fry for a few minutes. Add coriander powder, turmeric, chilli, salt and add wheat and dal mixture. Stir well.

Pour in the water. Cover and cook slowly over low heat for one hour till the wheat is soft and pulpy and the daals are tender. Add vegetables. Stir well. When ready, add curry powder and the remaining ghee or oil.

Keep stirring often. Despite all my heroic, conscientious efforts, it did keep sticking to the bottom of the pan between the stirs. Cook over low heat even now, but without the lid until the ghee floats to the top and the colour turns golden.

Once you’ve transferred it into a serving bowl, sprinkle the fried onions and coriander on top. Serve hot with lemon slices, mint leaves and a simple salad of cucumber, onion and tomato.

Warning: This takes at least two hours to make and a tremendous amount of patience. You also need to be alert. This stew can splutter and burn your arms and fingers. The end result is worth it, but then, make sure you serve it in limited doses to those who shouldn’t be eating all that ghee or oil!

As I was finishing it off and reached for something in my shelf, I noticed my bottle of olive oil looking down at me. Given that most of the ingredients are also used in Mediterranean cuisine, this dish would have probably tasted as good but lighter with olive oil, if any of you try, don’t forget to drop me a line.
And to borrow what many of my vegetarian friends unfamiliar with paneer/mushroom/tofu would say: “I believe it tastes just like non-veg.” It does.