Today I went to visit a friend and ended up staying for lunch.It was my kind of lunch. More accurately, it was the kind of lunch I appreciate nowadays - cooked by someone else. It was home-made, simple, and yet new and alluring because it wasn't of my own making.
There was pale green snakegourd set off with a sprinkling of grated coconut and tempered with mustard seed, a spicy cauliflower and butter bean stir-fry with garlic, tempered chickpeas garnished with coconut and sambar which reminded me of the pappucharu we make back home. My hostess pushed the ghee container towards me, I put some on the rice and though she had intended for me to eat the sambar with it, I began eating the cauliflower curry with the rice, which comes naturally to me because that is how most of us from Andhra Pradesh eat our vegetables. The vegetables are rarely a "side-dish" as they are in other parts of South India. These curries are also eaten with curds or curd rice, and usually not mixed with the sambar or pappucharu.
I try to keep the cooking simple these days but rarely succeed in feeling satisfied with the result. Definitely, I have tired of my own cooking and I have wearied of what I cook. It takes a lot for me to enjoy what I have cooked these days even though The Spouse and my friends are full of compliments for my cooking. And yes, I have made a small beginning at entertaining again - I've had two persons over for lunch already, and cooked them a traditional Andhra meal. A previous stint at entertaining a few months ago saw my pasta, bocconcini salad and other dishes being cleaned out, and earned me the title of 'best curd maker' from my friend's daughter who is a foodie and has a discerning palate. Recently, I had some guests staying with me and they approved of my cooking, but I can't get myself to like my own cooking.
What I did do differently with the entertaining was use ordinary, un-fancy vegetables that I don't see being used in many homes nowadays. At least, they are not served all that often to guests, which is probably one reason why I don't see them. I think it's a great pity. These bittergourd and pumpkin curries should not be ignored and are the exception to the tired-of-my-own-cooking syndrome that I face nowadays. I have a few theories why sometimes, some curries succeed in pleasing me.
1. They look good. (Let me be honest, their photos turn out good.)
2. I am in a good frame of mind when I cook them, which includes not feeling hurried and harried.
3. They are not something I make often - they are part of the traditional cooking that I so often defer in search of the new and unusual.
4. They taste exceptionally good.
5. I haven't spent too much time on them.
Theories 1, 3, 4 and 5 apply to these curries.
I bought a pack of cut bittergourd on my way back home from the gym (some of the prep stress is gone this way), salted the rings and waited for half an hour while I read the day's newspapers (or I might have made myself an egg and cut up fruit for my breakfast, it was so long ago, I don't remember) and only then set to work on the recipe.
Bittergourd, deseeded, cut into rings: 2
Onion, chopped: 1/2 a cup
Red chillies: 1
Chilli powder: 3/4 tsp
Salt: 1/2 tsp + 1/2 tsp
Water: To sprinkle
Mustard seed: 1/2 tsp
Cumin: 1/4 tsp
Urad dal/black gram, skinned and hulled: 1 tsp
Oil: 2 tsp
Curry leaves: 1 sprig
Jaggery: 2 tsp
As I mentioned above, sprinkle some salt on the bittergourd slices and leave them alone for 30 minutes. Then, squeeze them in batches, thoroughly, between both your palms and set aside. Drain off any remaining salt water.
(This should not be done with the pumpkin, just wash it well, cube it with the skin on and use it directly.)
Heat the oil and pop the mustard. On a medium flame, add the cumin, urad dal, red chilli and curry leaves in that order and wait till the dal turns brown.
Now add the onion and saute till it turns pink.
Add the bittergourd (or pumpkin), saute well, on and off, for about four minutes.
Sprinkle some water on it, cover with a lid and lower the heat. Let it cook till it's green and translucent.
(The pumpkin can cook till it's just soft.)
Taste the bittergourd at this stage. If it's crunchy/ yields with just a bit of resistance, it's perfect. Check if it needs more salt - it will probably retain some from the salting during the prep. Add the chilli powder and salt, if needed. Mix well. Cook for a couple of minutes more with the lid on.
Now open the lid, add the jaggery and mix till it's all coated. Simmer. The onion and the jaggery caramelise to make it a great bittersweet curry.
You can eat this plain, with rice, plain curds or curd rice. Bon appetit!