Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Magnetic Attractions

One of my blogger friends, during the course of an online chat, said she found herself in danger of becoming an "event blogger". (That phrase struck me as so funny I had to use it somewhere.) I, on the other hand, would love to be an "event blogger" but often find I have little to contribute, either due to the stuff I don't eat or due to the lethargy that sometimes envelops me even if the event suits my pantry. Also, I told the friend, if I cook for every event that's on, I'll have to sit outside and let all that food occupy the house, which, as many of you already know, is the sad story of my fridge and pantry. So my way of overcoming this is to do a post and hunt for an event to send it to, which I'm sure many of you do too!

It's quite refreshing to participate in an event where you don't have to cook anything - in fact, sometimes those events are the most attractive - no need to think, rouse yourself, get hold of ingredients that aren't already there, stumble into the kitchen ... So when I saw the link to the Fridge Magnets event on Taste of India, I knew it was right up my alley.

I've grown up with fridge magnets, we've always had several at home. So when I got my own fridge, I got some of the folks to get me a couple and they obliged. Then I got lucky and my travel streak started, about five years ago. I got a magnet for every city I visited, maybe even every attraction, and now the first of my two fridge doors is rather well covered with memoirs of my trips. Please wish me luck for the other door too ;)

Yeah, that's the top door of my fridge. Of course, some of them are from friends' travels too, not entirely my own. I don't have too many foodie magnets but I don't miss them either - I do have the kohl rabi (I think it's kohl rabi), and the lemons and chillies hanging on to the magnetic peg, on the left, are quite lifelike. I know there's a Magic Lamp going around the blogosphere promising our blogs good health and good luck. Well, let's hope these lemons and chillies ward off the evil eye to our blogs! ;)

These are my favourites. The ones on the extreme right and left in the top row are the most recent acquisitions, bought in Singapore on a layover en route to India from Japan. The Spouse often complains that I rarely listen to what he says and just say "Hmm ... Hmm ... " so it was only natural that I picked up that one, and the other, about the dust, the humour and self-directed sarcasm struck me as very funny. The others are from a trip to the US five years ago.

I don't remember where I bought this but once in a blue moon, I do refer to this.

I love this magnet for the scene it evokes: company, sunny, vacation, travel and a host of other things I'm not listing here. I also like that the words reflect the things I enjoy the most.

And this! The minute I spied it on the shelf I knew this pithy statement is what frequently defined my feelings and attitude to life. I was about to give it to a friend but suddenly diffident and superstitious, wondered about the appropriateness of gifting black humour, so I kept it for myself. Many of my friends have the same doubts, I know, about life, and the three girls/women there remind me of us. Sig, I just figured out what that grey thing on the right is - it's a grill and they are grilling sausages on it - I've a good mind to send it to the event you're hosting! LOL!

These magnets are off to Veda for her event.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mind Your Pounds And Quarts!

Glug glug glug glug glug glu... can you hear that? What do you think that is? Not me imbibing anything, but the cook on the TV show pouring out "just a bit of oil" into the pan! The "just a bit", which resembles a torrent rather than a trickle, is variously referred to as "a couple of teaspoons/tablespoons", "a splash and that's it" and I don't remember what else.

This rant has been on my mind for many weeks, and it's not limited to oil. Just now, I saw a star chef recommend "just a bit" of flour and proceed to empty about a quarter of the pack into the bowl! Star chefs or home cooks, they seem to lose their sense of proportion when it comes to presenting a recipe. I often wonder whether I should cut the home cook some slack - it's probably her/his first time on TV, and as most home cooks are wont, they go by feel/rough/personal measures rather than tablespoons and cups and ounces, but then they shouldn't use those terms, should they? What's wrong with the star chefs then? Give up on weights and measures because, training all done, they've discovered what they really learnt after all those years in catering college is to cook with the senses, have discovered a healthy disregard for the stifling confines of measuring bowls and decided recipe be damned, viewers be confounded, it's the free spirit that matters!!! And makes for great showmanship.

Just this morning, I followed a recipe from a book to the letter, didn't even stint on the three tablespoons of oil it mentioned. That's a lot of vegetables, I told myself in justification, and consolation - a small head of cauliflower, two medium potatoes and 100 gms of peas, not to mention two tablespoons of coriander powder and one teaspoon of cumin powder and some other whole spices. What did I end up with - a scorched and singed pan, oil that got absorbed in the 2+1 spoons of powdered spices, charred vegetables and an inedible dish that I have not the heart to throw out because, let's face it, the potatoes and peas at least are somewhat edible, if not redeemable. Don't you writers try the recipes before you put them in print? Don't the publishers? Oh yeah, and pinches of this and that - now, those are tablespoons and teaspoons and even cups, in reality; not pinches or smidgeons or soupcons. The only pinch there is the one I give myself, hard, to make sure I'm not seeing double!

And what of those recipes which call for just 50 gm of cheese but positively ooze the stuff in the end result? I do not claim much knowledge of cheese. Where I live, I don't get much variety beyond cheddar and mozzarella unless I travel a considerable distance and pay obscene amounts for packs that are dangerously close to their expiry date, but how far can cheese crawl? I mean, the melty, spreading variety exists, but 50 gm can't cover an entire pizza, can it? I WANT MY CHEESE TO FLUFF! I WANT IT TO OOZE, I WANT TO BE ABLE TO DIGGGG INTO THE BAKE AND COME UP WITH OOEY GOOEY LAYERS, I WANT THE DISH TO LOOK CHEESY, AND I WANT IT ALL IN 50 GM!

And what's with all these TV cooks? Why are they so lax when it comes to using fuel judiciously, and using their cookware wisely? Why oh why do they put an empty pan on the fire, turn away and start talking to us? Because the "tad" of oil they're putting in the pan won't make a difference anyway?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sunday humour, Bengal hangover

Once in a while, we visit an Uncle and Aunt who live at one end of town. Uncle is always exhorting us to bring a spare set of clothes, stay over and go to work right from his home but we've managed that just once. Aunty whips up a feast of home-made stuff typical of the cuisine we grew up with but yesterday, they both felt five home-made dishes weren't enough, so supplemented that with four Chinese dishes that they ordered in!

In any case, this was a problem of plenty, compounded by the fact that I'd carried along one of my dishes for them to sample. I'm still on a high from my Calcutta trip and the last couple of days have seen me trying my hand again at Bengali food, which I used to experiment with earlier. Funnily enough, I found parwal in my vegetable store the day after I came back from Calcutta, and bought a few other vegetables to make the shukto and charchari that are so typical of Bengali cuisine. While most of those vegetables are waiting in the fridge, I put to use the one coconut that I retained from a bounty of about 10 that were presented to me last month. It had dried neatly inside its shell and I finally cut it up into pieces and put it in the fridge. I had planned on buying some chicken to make a Kerala-style chicken curry with coconut chips that my friend S introduced me to, but the bird proved elusive, so I made this dal instead.

I had made it for a potluck years ago, when some of us still had the schedules for one without much planning - and it had been much appreciated. Now all I needed to do was buy some raisins, brush up on the recipe and my chholar dal would be ready! I couldn't make out which of my two Bengali cookery books I'd referred to all those years ago, but one book didn't mention the coconut and raisins and neither mentioned whether the dal had to be cooked to a mash or to soft but grainy - I went for the latter as that's what I remembered.

I did away with the 2 tsp of sugar that was mentioned in the recipe and added more raisins than prescribed. I didn't powder the spices as was required. Amidst hoots of laughter over a funny anecdote narrated by Uncle, we savoured this mild and mellow dal. Aunty said it was "variety ga undi", a famous Telugu-English expression for anything unusual, the Spouse said it tasted like prasadam (food made for rituals, as offerings to the deity and worshippers) and Uncle picked out the pieces of coconut and ate the rest.

And the funny anecdote: Well, a visiting nephew of Uncle's was about to reach for a cup of coffee which was on the table when Aunty said, "Oh, God! Chee Chee! That's for your Uncle, don't take that! We'll make other coffee for ourselves!" "You do exaggerate, Mama!" I said, giggling. But Aunty piped up honestly, saying, "No, I DID say that, I think," and also giggled herself, setting us off on another round of laughter. It must have been the sugarless/diet nature of the coffee that provoked that outburst, but it was so funny listening to my Uncle who narrated this with a mixture of amusement and indignation.

On to the recipe now!

Channa dal/Bengal gram: 100 gm/1 cup
Green chillies: 2, slit
Coconut pieces: 1/2 a cup
Raisins: Half a handful
Water: 2-3 cups (and more if you need later)

Salt, to taste

Turmeric: 1/2 a tsp
Bay leaf: 1
Red chillies: 1-2, broken
Cumin seed/Jeera: 1 tsp
Whole clove, cardamom: 2 each
Cinnamon: 1/2-inch stick
Oil: 1-2 tsp

Wash the lentils thoroughly. You can soak them ahead to cut down on cooking time.

In a pan/saucepan, boil the water.

Once it comes to a boil, add the dal. Cook till half-done, then add the salt, turmeric, green chillies.

Cover and cook till done on a medium fire. Add some more water if the lentils are not done. As seen in the picture, they should maintain their shape but should crumble when prodded with a finger. Stir the dal now and then so that it doesn't stick to the pan.

In another frying pan, heat the oil to smoking. Lower the heat and add the bay leaf, cardamom and cloves. Once they sizzle, add the coconut. Let the coconut brown slightly. Add the raisins. Add the cumin and red chillies and wait just until they begin to turn colour, a couple of seconds. Switch off the fire and pour it over the dal.

Cover and simmer the dal for five minutes.

I am sending this to Mansi's Healthy Cooking event. I think it qualifies because I've done away with the sugar (though I do realise some is present in the raisins), the coconut can be omitted if necessary or left uneaten and the oil can be limited to one tsp.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Oh Calcutta!

We didn't go for a holiday, we went for an experience! And the city lived up to every letter of that word!

On the conducted tour of the city, we were taken for lunch to a smelly, hole in the wall South Indian, yes, South Indian restaurant somewhere in the Esplanade area. Unable to bear the fact that our first day started off with less than authentic food, we sought comfort in kulfi in the restaurant next door. It was the first time we were having kulfi with semiya (vermicelli) and some red sherbet poured all over it. I held back till I tasted a bit of my friend's, and then ordered one for myself.

Street food in Calcutta. En route to the Kali temple in Kalighat, we settled on this restaurant for our lunch. Several parcels of good-looking biriyani were being dispatched in cars as we waited for our lunch to be prepared.

Why, when you order a mutton tikia, is it served all scrambled? And how did our chicken kabab turn into mutton? The paneer is a concession to vegetarians, but processed on the same tawa that the meat is cooked on!!! And the lacha paratha was glorious and well done.

Back from the Kalighat temple, after two hours of waiting that culminated in a mighty stampede that succeeded in crushing us but not our spirit, we treated ourselves to some food at a wayside cafe - thick, substantial rossogulla at Rs 3 a piece and some samosas. This man was making ... kachoris, I think.

Fishing in the Hooghly. Aboard the ferry to Haldia and back. The clayey soil at the back brought back to mind geography lessons of Gangetic West Bengal, alluvial soil and silt deposits.

A glimpse of rural Bengal. En route to Raichak, a day trip from the city. The villages are full of trees, of which I could only recognise the jackfruit tree, banyan and bamboo. There were some rice fields too, along the way.

A Kolkata evening in the monsoon

Kolkata and its cabs, near the now crumbling Great Eastern Hotel

On Howrah Bridge, shot from our car.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Guess What Happened At Dinner?

It’s extremely rare these days that we invite anyone over for a meal. The reasons are many - busy schedules, a small kitchen, the lack of time, will, energy and adequate help to prepare a decent spread, the fear that I won’t be able to keep the conversation going, the mess in the living room …

When I do get down to it, I try not to stint on the spread. I am not comparing myself to the older generations who could whip up an immense feast “with the mere swish of a spoon” (they slaved and slogged, mostly unsung and unwept) but I do believe that when I invite someone to a proper meal (if it isn’t, I WILL warn them) I shouldn’t present them with a bare table citing the excuses I made above. And thereby hangs a tale.

Once, I was invited by X to lunch at her home. She would always tell me her mother was an excellent cook and that I should come sample her food. When the lunch invitation came, it came with the most delicious preamble - the list of some 20-odd delicacies her mother had whipped up recently for a lunch. Well, even if the good lady made a third of that, it would be too much, I thought, and generously told this friend her mum needn’t go to that much trouble. “In fact, why don’t you just make your traditional stuff - it will be easy on your mum and I’ll have experienced a new cuisine,” I said, and she agreed.

Come Lunch Day, and I arrived at their home on the dot, to find that everyone, including my friend, had finished eating! Er … Well, anyway, I was soon seated at the table that had only two or three vessels on it and asked to help myself. The ladle made contact with bare metal when I tried to. Peering into those vessels revealed very little. Literally, the dregs of the day’s lunch. Suffice it to say that there were less than 10 pieces of a vegetable, about a cup of soup and about three tablespoons of chutney. And some rice.

“You wanted traditional, no? You got it,” said X, almost as if she was daring me to object, complain, ask for more? “Yes, yes, it’s very nice,” I said rapidly. Meal ended, X said, “We didn’t make any dessert, it’s not as if we’ve invited you formally, so we didn’t bother.” Er … of course???

“Hush,” says The Spouse, whenever I narrate this story to anyone. “It’s not nice.” Maybe it isn’t but the entire experience seemed so bizarre, all the more so in the light of the build-up that preceded it.

The point of this story is that guests expect something substantial and fulfilling, if nothing special, when you promise them “an experience”. I, of course, take the easy way out and seldom invite anyone, but when I do get around to it, I aim for something that is easy on me, satisfies my guests and eases my conscience.

Here’s one such dish, I think, that will fit the bill. A mixed vegetable curry. It is a bit of hard work if you have to cut the vegetables yourself, but I loved the result.

Potatoes - 4 (small), diced
Carrot - 1, cut into long pieces
French Beans - a big handful, cut into 1-½-inch pieces
Tomatoes - 2, chopped
Onions - 2, chopped
Coriander - a little, for garnish
Lime juice - 2 tsp
Oil - 2-3 tsp
Salt - to taste
Water - 2 cups

Grind to a paste
3 green chillies
1 tsp of red chilli powder
½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp dry ginger powder (sonthi)
4-5 flakes garlic
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp coriander powder

Heat the oil in a pan and saute the onion till your patience runs out.

Add the tomatoes and keep swishing them around till they get mushy. Or turn down the heat and let them get mushy at their own pace - do stir now and then.

Add the paste, the vegetables (you can use other combinations of veggies), salt and fry till the vegetables are well coated with the spices.

Add the water. Cook till the vegetables are done and dry. If you want it thicker, don’t let much of the water evaporate.

Turn off the heat, wait a while and mix lime juice gently into the vegetables. Garnish with coriander.

Put it in a nice dish and make it the centrepiece of your meal! (Actually, this dish is a pretty recent discovery and I’ve never served it to guests, but I will, henceforth, since I’ve done this post.)

Oh, and it works the other way too - do remark on the meal to the host. A friend told me how they invited someone to a meal and went to great pains to make it interesting - and the guests ate it in stark silence. Not a word said, not a single indication that they liked it or disliked it. Everything was tasted, eaten and remained unmentioned. That was one of the strangest meals she had ever experienced, she said. We could only commiserate over each other’s experiences.

This is off to Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging hosted this week by Pam of Sidewalk Shoes.