Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Random Chicken and ... Ohmigourd!

This chicken was an afterthought. It’s been ages since we summoned up the energy to buy and cook any meat at home — it involves a long, smelly, unhygienic and fly-ridden wait at the butcher’s, and the only time we have is Sunday mornings. Go a little late and you have to come back empty-handed. However, having found it in our weekly shopping expedition all nice and wrapped up sans the usual puddles and sticky splotches of bloody ooze on the shelves of the chiller (another big put-off), we bought it and turned it into one of the tastiest chicken curries we’ve ever made. Now I know how to make a South Indian ‘military’ hotel-type chicken curry – it may not be the exact recipe, I may not ever make it again, but it smelt just like it and I know how to do it, isn’t it thrilling? All those days of wondering why we never ever get that rich brown colour, that thick gravy, that flavour – well, all will be revealed soon!
(For those who don’t know what a military hotel is, it’s the term used in South India (in North too?) by a non-vegetarian hotel to distinguish itself from a meatless one – probably because of the belief that soldiers in the army eat a lot of meat everyday to gain and keep up their strength. It also serves very well to keep vegetarians from straying into its precincts!)

I’ve called it Random because I just threw in whatever I had by way of marinade, there was no recipe and the measures were slapdash:
Two ladles of fresh curds
Two fat pinches of turmeric
A tablespoon of ginger-garlic paste
Some Sambaar kaaram (a chilli powder mix with garlic, salt and coriander, NOT to be mistaken for saambaar podi/powder)
A really hefty pinch of curry powder/garam masala
Some more salt and coriander powder
I mixed in the marinade really well and sat the whole thing in the refrigerator for about three hours.

Siesta over, here’s what you need to do:
Chop two onions
Slit three green chillies (one of mine had turned a ripe red)
Fry them in three tbsps of oil
Throw in some leftover mint leaves (mine were 10 days old) and a few coriander leaves/cilantro
Add a couple of bay leaves
Fry this till all of it wilts
Then put in the chicken with the marinade, pour a little more water and cook covered on medium fire. Throw in a fistful of curry leaves, stir. (Voila, this is what gives it that military hotel taste!) Keep turning every five or seven minutes. Check the chicken for ‘doneness’, seasoning and add some more curry powder at the end. Simmer longer if you want a thicker gravy. Sprinkle with chopped coriander leaves. Soft, hot rice is a good accompaniment. Truly a lip-smacking, tasty dish which leaves your home fragrant for the rest of the day!
The other one is an old favourite which comes with its own story – read about it further down!

Funny how I forgot this dish existed and was a great favourite with me when my Grandmom was cooking! I recently saw a post on Masala Magic for Beerakaaya Pappu made with toor daal but as I said in my comment there, this was one daal that escaped our home, and the homes of others I knew. We made many others, though – with tomato, raw mango, a variety of greens, dosakaaya (cucumber/melon cucumber, as it was called in one of these blogs), vaakkaaya (sour little purple-green berries) …
Many days later, however, I suddenly remembered this dish. And I know why Beerakaya Pappu sounded unusual to me – we didn’t call our version by that name, but with an extra detail added – Beerakaaya Senagapappu, for the Bengal gram/yellow lentil that went into it. I remember Gran cooking a huge quantity of this and once even freezing it; for two or three days in a row, she would take this speckled green-and-yellow dish sparkling with ice out of the freezer, ladle a few servings into another dish, heat it and serve it.
I wasn’t interested in cooking then, and I couldn’t find the recipe in any book that I have now, but found one for ridge gourd with toor daal that promised to emulate the consistency of this old favourite. Only, it didn’t turn out as great as my Gran’s. This one used tamarind, I’m not sure hers did.

Here's how:

Ridge gourd/Beerakaya, diced – 250 gm
Bengal gram/yellow lentil/channa daal – 1 cup
Onion, chopped – 1
Tamarind – Lime-sized
Green chillies, slit – 6
Chilli powder – to taste, but half a tsp would do
Turmeric – a pinch

For the tempering:
Mustard seed – 1 tsp
Jeera/Cumin – ½ tsp
Black gram/split urad daal/minapa pappu – 1 tsp
Garlic, squished under the knife – 4-5 cloves
Dry, red chillies – a couple
Curry leaves – a few
Coriander leaves/cilantro, chopped – a fistful
Oil – 1-2 tsps

Soak the daal in water for a couple of hours, then cook with some water – it has to hold its shape. Then put in the ridge gourd, onion, green chillies, salt, turmeric and chilli powder and cook for another 5 minutes. Extract the juice from the tamarind, add it to the pot and cook some more. Or you can cook it in a pressure cooker/pan from the beginning but use the weight only at this stage. After one hiss, take it off the fire. Wait for the pressure to come down on its own. Don’t force the weight open, it’s dangerous.
In a small frying pan, heat the oil, splutter mustard, cumin and black gram, then the garlic, then the red chillies and curry leaves. Make sure it doesn’t burn and blacken. Pour this into the daal, garnish with coriander leaves. Serve with rice or even puris/chapathis. As you like it!

Monday, November 20, 2006

How Green Was My Valley

This was my weekend break ... a long boat cruise from morning to evening, punctuated by a rather rustic buffet lunch at one of the villages on the banks of the Godavari. Cooked on another boat that followed us there, the lunch was set up on rusting trestle tables and served out of steel buckets. It included pulihora (lemon rice), plain daal, cabbage with channa daal, fish, mutton and chicken. Nope, there was no dessert. Middling in taste, but a good experience. Here are some pictures from the rest of the trip!

Sri Ramagiri, the hillock we passed as we set out on the cruise. The temple is dedicated to Lord Rama. The boatman asked, but we didn't break journey.

A slice of the landscape so typical of the early part of the journey. Our destination was Papi Kondalu, an area known for its mountains, vegetation and scenic beauty.

The mountains we wanted to see. We don't actually get off in that area but cruise along and then turn back.

Journey's end. Isn't it just like a scene from a painting? These are Dad's pictures.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

No Cowardy Custard!

Nope, this is no cowardy custard! It looks like the usual crème caramel but is flavoured with saffron and pepper, and omits the vanilla totally! This is my entry for November’s The Spice is Right hosted by Habeas Brulee.
You need to use a hefty dose of saffron and freshly ground pepper for the flavours to come through. It did smell eggy when it came out of the oven but not later. I once made caramel custard with orange zest and saw a recipe for one that included ginger — have to try that out when it’s binge time next!

The rules for the event demand that I mention a few facts about saffron and pepper – I’m sure most of you know but here’s my spoke anyway — Saffron is the dried stigma of the crocus flower (crocus sativus) and is used to colour and flavour food including biriyanis, pulavs and desserts. It’s very aromatic and combines well with milk-based desserts. Apart from its medicinal qualities, in Ayurveda, it’s believed to lighten skin so many fairness creams and soaps in India use saffron! It’s one of the most expensive spices, and that makes this an expensive dessert to make and eat – talk about hurting one’s own interests!
Pepper has a host of therapeutic applications as well, apart from culinary. It is supposed to act as an appetizer, and a drink using pepper and hot milk is used as a remedy for cough. As for why I chose them this month, I'm not sure - probably because I came to know about this event only this month and thought the spices would be a nice variation.

The recipe for the custard is a synthesis of various recipes that I’ve followed over time but the spices were my own idea. My experiment resulted in a mildly flavoured, set-just-right custard that tasted great after chilling for 3-4 hours. So, on with the show!

What you need:
1.5 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
2 egg yolks (the whites can go into an omelette)
A tsp or more of saffron (soak in 2 tsp of hot milk)
1-2 tsp of pepper powder, freshly ground
A pinch of salt
Around 1/2 cup sugar for the caramel
Oven temperature: 180 degrees C

Here’s how: Scald the cream and milk in a saucepan (until you see tiny bubbles on the sides of the pan). Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, slowly beat the 3/4 cup of sugar into the eggs and yolks. Even more slowly, whisk the cream-milk mixture into this egg-sugar mixture. Strain it through a double-lined/fine sieve. Stir in the salt. Add the saffron and pepper at this stage.
In a baking dish with deep sides, arrange some ramekins. (I used six because I had six, and found that I had some custard left over.) Put sugar for the caramel in a saucepan. Add just enough water to cover the sugar and put it on high heat. Very soon, it will come to a roiling boil, then thicken, and turn colour. Watch it very carefully at this stage, it can easily burn – when it is an even golden brown, carefully pour it into the ramekins. (It’s a good idea to wear oven mitts during this process as the saucepan will be very, very hot.) Make sure each ramekin has a thin layer of caramel.
Pour the custard into the ramekins, fill the baking dish with water enough to come halfway up to the sides of the ramekins. Bake until just set – it took me an hour but keep checking. Once it’s done, cool, cover with cling film and refrigerate.

To serve, run a knife around the edges and invert on to a plate. If you want to impress your diners, and yourself, float some strands of saffron and a few peppercorns in the caramel sauce around the custard, or sprinkle some saffron on top. I’d even go a step further and recommend you use only yellow lighting, not white, as long as this feasting is going on :) so that the glossy creams and browns of the custard are intensified! Ridiculous suggestion? Going too far? Who cares?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Paatoli (Veggie-Lentil Crumble)

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It sat in its box at the grocer’s, tossed along with the other heads. As soon as I saw it, I knew what my next post was about – paatoli with broccoli, carrot for colour and dill for flavour. It’s a versatile dish I first tasted only a few years ago, but seem to have achieved an approximation of perfection with only in the last few weeks.
Paatoli (paruppu usili in Tamil - that's the only other name I know) looks very pretty with green and red capsicum (peppers) bits, nice and green with the traditional French beans or cluster beans and I even made a slightly magenta version once with beetroot and carrot! The broccoli version is a serendipitous find – made years ago to see whether an “English vegetable” goes with a very traditional Indian dish.
Here’s my recipe:

1 small head of broccoli, cleaned, separated into small florets
1 big carrot, diced small
1 bunch of dill, washed thoroughly, chopped
Turmeric powder – ¼ tsp
Oil – 3-4 tbsp
Mustard seeds – 1 tsp
Green Chilli – 1, slit
Red chilli – 1, halved

½ a cup red gram
¼ cup black masoor daal
¼ cup green gram
All three lentils are to be washed and soaked in warm water half an hour in advance

3-4 green chillies, slit
Cumin – 1 tsp
Peppercorns – 1 tsp
Ginger – chopped, a tbsp
Coriander leaves – ½ a cup

1. Boil/microwave the broccoli and carrot with the turmeric and salt till just tender. They should not lose their crunch.
2. For the crumble:
Drain water from the soaked lentils, grind them in the mixer with some salt, slit green chillies, cumin, pepper, ginger and coriander leaves. Try not to use water – it should have the consistency of a coarse mixture - see centre picture, first row.
3. Put this mixture in a dish and steam it in a pressure cooker for about 12 minutes without the weight on – if you use the weight, you’re in for a watery paste and an irredeemable dish.
Make sure that the water at the base of the pressure cooker does not boil over into the dish containing the crumble. Keep an eye on the pressure cooker – it will emit steam only as long as there's water in it – as soon as it stops steaming, turn off the heat and put it in more water if the mix inside isn’t done yet.
4. Once it’s done, cool, crumble and set aside.
5. In a pan, heat the oil, put in the mustard, wait for it to pop, lower flame and then put in the green and red chillies. Add the dill, sauté for a minute or two.
6. Now add the broccoli, carrot and crumble. Fry for a while, check for seasoning and add salt if required.
7. The perfect paatoli will be powdery, light and not stick to the pan – but I find that this comes with practice. I also find that the veggies and lentils are disproportionate sometimes, but I don't see it as a failing unless the crumble obscures the veggies. You can always refrigerate extra crumble or extra veggies for another day!
8. This goes well with chaaru/rasam and rice, and is good to eat with a bowl of curds/yoghurt as well.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Daal with Greens

One of the distinctive features of Andhra cuisine, I think, is its daals with greens. Be it spinach, sorrel, amaranth and other varieties I don’t know the English names of, they can all be combined with lentils to make greeny-yellow affairs that go well with rice, pickles and appadams and even breads such as chapatti and puri. And if you soak the daal for a while and use a pressure cooker, it’s done in a jiffy! For today’s recipe, I’ve chosen what is known as chukkakoora in Telugu. Madhuli of My FoodCourt has a picture of these greens on her blog – I didn’t decide to put this in mine till I chopped up the greens and assembled everything in my spanking new stainless steel pressure pan and decided it made a pretty picture. This recipe works well for most greens and most daals, though I’ve never used channa daal, I must say. Chukkakoora (and gongura) is naturally sour, but for the other greens, you can use a little tamarind extract and one or two country tomatoes for added flavour. You can also go with just one of these or try a combination to see if the proportions work well — I confess I’ve never got the formula standardized so each daal is a discovery everyday, but rarely a tragedy! Now that I’ve made one confession, here’s another – I’ve never bothered with quantities, just rough measures so here’s what you need:
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1 bunch of greens – 100-150 gm – thoroughly washed and then chopped - if the stalks are big and tough, you can discard them
A cup or so of daal, preferably red or green, usually hulled – soaked well in advance
1 small onion, chopped
A pinch of turmeric
2 or 3 green chillies

2 tsps thick tamarind extract
A tomato or two, chopped

Tempering: Some cloves of garlic, crushed
Mustard seeds, cumin, black gram daal – all approx half a tsp
Red chillies – a couple, torn into three or four bits
Some curry leaves
A tsp or two of oil

1. Put everything in the pressure pan, check that there’s enough water to just cover the daal, and once the steam builds up and comes through, put the weight on the vent. Let it hiss a couple of times, turn the heat down to the lowest, wait a couple of minutes and turn it off.
Don’t force the pressure cooker open, wait for the steam to escape on its own – if you absolutely have to, sit the cooker in a plate or dish of cold water, that will hasten the process, and gingerly flick the weight to see if it’s ready to come off – if it hisses, it isn’t, if it’s a slow sigh, you’re almost there! If you don’t use pressure cookers, you’ll just have to boil the daal in a pan – I haven’t attempted that with success, so I won’t pretend I know about it, but something tells me it’s simpler to boil it without the other stuff first.
2. Now, once you open it, mash the contents into as homogeneous a mass as you can, season with salt and red chilly powder. (I don’t usually put in the salt till the daal is cooked as it might interfere with the cooking.) I also don’t put in the tamarind until after the daal's cooked but I’ve seen others successfully throw it in with the rest of the ingredients.
3. Now heat the oil in another pan, put in the black gram, let it brown, then the mustard seeds, let them splutter, now the cumin, then the garlic and red chillies and curry leaves – let them soak in the oil as much as they can. Make sure the pan isn’t burning, though. Now turn off the heat, tip the tempering into the daal, stir. Or alternatively, you can put the daal into the tempering, add the tamarind extract and salt and chilli powder at this stage, let it boil a bit and take it off the fire. I prefer the first method as the tempering doesn’t lose its crunch, relatively speaking. Posted by Picasa