Thursday, March 25, 2010

In An Instant, Pickle & Fiction Both

Aunty and her friend were chatting in the back garden, the long lines of drying clothes ensuring they couldn’t be observed very well from inside the house. The niece came out and called to them. Aunty’s brow furrowed in irritation but when she separated a skirt and a sari and peered through them, her gaze softened - her niece had come bearing a plate of green mangoes along with a knife for them to enjoy.

The mangoes had been downed from the tree just a couple of hours earlier with a tall stick to which a hook was attached. The backyard was home to several trees - mango, gooseberry, coconut, sapota/chikoo and banana. Ammamma would get the mangoes and gooseberry plucked and pickle them, pickling day being an event to remember. And even though the pickle would mature only after a few days, a little bowl of it, pungent and somewhat bitter with unmellowed mustard and fenugreek, would always be scooped out into a gleaming steel dish and set on the table with some homemade butter to be enjoyed with some soft and steaming hot rice.

“Oh, why did you bring the knife? You could have hurt yourself!” said Aunty.

“No, Aunty, Ammamma said it wouldn’t hurt because the knife is on the plate and I’m holding it properly. Eat the mangoes.”

“But she forgot the chilli powder and the salt, go, get us some, will you?”

“Ok, Aunty!” said Niece and bounded back into the house.

Aunty began cutting and slicing the mangoes. Funny, she and her friend are wearing saris with a paisley motif. Nice coincidence, that!

Friend and Aunty continued to converse, about History classes, exams and the merits of an MA versus a B. Ed. What could be taking Niece so long? “Sra …!” she called. There was no answer, but she could see her mother moving about in the bedroom facing the backyard. After a while, she called again, exasperated. Ten minutes had passed, and no sign of Niece. What on earth could she have got up to? Resigned, she prepared to walk inside and look for Niece, and get the salt and chilli powder herself, when Niece came out.

“Aunty, here’s the chilli powder and salt.”

“Why did you take so long?”

“Ammamma went in for a bath, and she told me where to look for them in the storeroom.”

“Oh, ok! No, don’t go away, sit and chat with us …”

Aunty smeared the chilli powder and salt on to three slices of mango, handed her friend one and took another herself. Niece refused.

The next moment, an odd look crossed the faces of the adults, and they yelped. And spit out the precious, homegrown mango. Because what the beloved niece had fetched was not red chilli powder, but kumkum.

I knew what my next post was about, but not how it would be written. When Bong Mom mailed me this evening suggesting I also try my hand at Food Fiction, I responded enthusiastically, little knowing inspiration would be in low supply. But determination overtook that weakness and I’ve dipped my toe in the water. Like Sandeepa’s, only a part of this is fiction. The mangoes, red chilli powder and salt are not.

Here’s a recipe for an instant mango pickle. It’s an old, old favourite, one I've tried my hand at, but better guidance came from here, and happily, tasted just like the one made by grandmoms and great aunts.

Raw mango, chopped unpeeled: 4 cups
Red chilli powder: 4 tsp
Salt: 4 tsp
Roasted fenugreek powder: 1 ½ tbsp
Gingelly oil: 8 tsp
Mustard seeds: 2 tsp
Garlic: 5-6 cloves, peeled, bruised

Marinate the mango pieces with a tsp of oil, the chilli powder and salt for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, add the fenugreek powder to the marinated mango and mix again.

Heat the rest of the oil and pop the mustard. Add the garlic and let fry till it’s sated with oil. Cool a little and add it to the mango. Mix well and cover.

I know it’s supposed to keep for a few days but I’d rather store it in the fridge as I’m no expert in pickling. I just know enough to tell you that everything used during preparation, mangoes, hands, vessels all, should be squeaky clean and squeaky dry.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Egg & Spinach Baked With Nut Crust

I'm the Pacman!

Laziness got the better of the scrambled eggs and leeks you wanted to make for lunch.

Later in the evening, you remember a handful of grated cheese resting in the refrigerator for the past few days.

There are over a dozen eggs waiting to be used as well.

Your resolve to eat less, if not lighter, in the nights would be well exercised with a simple combination of the two, you think, the mere thought making you float.

Come home, whip out the cheese and four eggs.

There is three-fourths of a cup of chopped leeks in the refrigerator.

Mince three chillies and two cloves of garlic.

You notice a bunch of spinach as well, so wash it well and chop it, it makes about two cups of spinach.

In about a tablespoon of olive oil, saute the garlic.

Once it's all nice and smelly, add the spinach. Let it wilt well, hurry this along by stirring it. Make sure there's no water left from the spinach.

Now add the leeks and the chillies. Add a little salt. Saute a few seconds. Let cool.

{{Idea!!! There are flaked pistachios and almonds in the pantry, and some broken cashewnuts as well!}}

Meanwhile, beat the eggs with a pinch of salt and half of the cheese.

Mix it with the greens and pour into a greased baking bowl.

Mix the rest of the cheese with the nuts and spread over the eggy mix. Both ingredients should be dry.

Bake at 200 C till a knife inserted in the centre comes out dry.

This eggy delight goes off to Yasmeen of Health Nut who's hosting Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging, now managed by Haalo.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Not Going By The Book

Two months ago, Jayashree tagged me in a meme, asking some of us to show off our favourite books/cookbooks. Very honestly, I can't home in on just one and say it's my favourite because I approach different books for different cuisines.

Very often, though, I find myself turning to Aharam which is a nice combination of the traditional cuisines of Tamil Nadu. It also makes an effort to highlight the non-Brahmin vegetarian cuisine of the State, unlike many books on vegetarian South Indian cuisine, known and little known, which seem to say vegetarian and Brahmin cuisine is one and the same thing.

"Indeed, the non-Brahmin vegetarian cuisine from Tamil Nadu is totally different from the delicious sambhars, kootus and poriyals that are part and parcel of Brahmin diets. Most of the curries with green masala, red masala and pepper masala double as vegetarian curries, potatoes being added instead of meat, accompanied by any other vegetable of your choice, like knolkhol, carrots, beans, cabbage or peas."

There are some interesting recipes in this book. Snake gourd cutlets, for instance. Radish-chickpea curry, another. I've never made those. I've tried out some non-vegetarian recipes but not too many, because many of them call for coconut. Which I do not have on call. And I am lazy. Unless I find it ready-shredded. Then I am just a little less lazy about grinding it to a paste. Aside over, yesterday, I made this Kaikari Pulav (Vegetable Pulav) with my own twists and departures - it brought back my rice-eating days to me and made me feel accomplished, if not tired, because I slaved over it for 90 minutes.

That is nothing to do with the recipe, but everything to do with my small kitchen. Have you ever felt hampered by the lack of space in your kitchen? I have to shift things around everyday to be able to find space for the chopping board, the various bowls, water bottles, the spice jars ... ugh!

Anyway, here's my version of the original recipe.

Rice (I used a mixture of Basmati and ordinary): 1.5 cups
Potatoes, cubed: 2 cups
Peas: 1 cup
Shallots, chopped: 10
Big onion, chopped: 1

Grind to a paste
Cloves: 4
Cinnamon stick: 1.5-inch
Cardamom seed: from 4 pods
Green chillies: 4
Ginger-garlic paste: 1 tbsp
Fennel seed: 1 tsp
Poppy seed: 2 tsp

Ghee: 2 tsp
Bay leaf: 1 big or 2-3 small
Oil: 2 tsp
Mint: 2 tbsp (I used the spicy mint chutney that I had)
Chopped coriander leaves: 3 tbsp
Salt to taste

Clean and wash the rice. Soak it in water.

Heat the oil and ghee in a pressure cooker and season with bay leaves.

Add onions and shallots and fry till they are a light brown.

Add the ground masala and fry for a few minutes on low heat. Add the mint chutney and coriander leaves.

Add 3 cups of water, mix well and add the salt. Add drained rice and vegetables. Close the cooker and after the first couple of whistles, turn down the heat and let cook for 4-5 minutes.

The author suggests a garnish of boiled and halved eggs and fried cashew nuts and coriander leaves, and to serve it with a raita and egg curry. She also prescribes some chilli powder, turmeric and coriander powder in the 'grind to a paste' list which completely skipped my eye. We enjoyed the outcome though, and it was spicy without being hot, spicy without causing heartburn.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What's Your Tradition?

This is something that has been on my mind for a while but reading Indo's and Sandeepa's latest posts, I decided it's time I did some musing too, though my post is not directly related to theirs.

As bloggers, and those who write mostly about food, there's a lot we write about 'the tradition in my family'. We romanticise (me included) how our mothers and grandmothers made this or that, how a recipe is traditional, peculiar to our homes, or twisted (you know what I mean - with a twist in it), etcetera etcetera. In my case, it's not only the loss of these treats that makes me nostalgic, it's also that I sometimes cannot bear to face what I've cooked myself that makes me miss them, the people and the dishes, all the more.

I would even go so far as to say that I really don't know much about my community's special culinary tradition, if it has one, or that in the home I grew up, we just didn't discuss food much (unless it was to tell me to eat less of it). It was there, it was tasty and varied enough to make us look forward to it and we ate it. Of course, if there was some new-fangled dish, like cauliflower pickle, it would be discussed and perhaps forgotten promptly, I really don't know.

My mother works, and so doesn't have any time to spend in the kitchen unless the cook takes a day off. My grandmother cooked for us as long as she could, and then a cook took over. Excited about a new cook, who came from a canteen, we asked him to make something special, and he was handed the vanilla essence when he asked for something that sounded like essence. We had chilli chicken flavoured with vanilla essence that day.

None of the women on either side of my family were taught to cook. It was always 'Study, study, knowledge and career aren't as easily achieved as cooking'. In fact, an aunt says she would often wish her mother had taught her how to cook - when she migrated to a new country, she found herself at a loss, not knowing what to make or how to make it. Perhaps my grandmothers' unfulfilled dreams for their own lives made them decide their children shouldn't end up just cooking and planning meals day after day. Some of my aunts are great cooks but I think it was their own interest and circumstances that helped, but no one, not even my great-grandmothers, as far as I know, said anything about it.

It's a life skill, of course, but to women who were immersed in housekeeping, probably not one of great consequence. One of my great grandmothers, who passed away just 12 years ago, would always ask me if I'd got a raise, but never a traditional question. At the most, she would tell me to spend well and eat well, but that's it. And some of the aunts were so uninvolved with food that after a hard day's work, they would heat up cold rice, mix it with salt and chilli powder and make a meal of it.

I don't know what I'm trying to achieve through this post, probably trying to say how 'traditional' isn't always traditional. And that perhaps, 'no tradition' is a tradition all its own. I'm no authority on anything but it is generally agreed that the 'masala box' is quintessentially Indian. But in fact, we never had one at home. I do, but not my parents. Even if they do, it's probably tucked away somewhere in the storeroom. My grandmother, and the cook after her, mix up the mustard, cumin and the urad dal in a jar and just throw in a bit of it when they need to temper something. The cardamom and cloves are in the storeroom as they aren't used as much as the other spices, and the salt, turmeric and chilli powder are in their own containers. So strange, and novel, was the discovery of a masala box to me - everything in one place, in plastic, steel and even Tupperware (not that I possess the very latter).

Then there's the spice level. Just as Sandeepa gets "Rosshogulla" each time she tells someone she's a Bengali, I get "Oh, spy-sssee! (spicy)" or "I love the avakai pickle you guys make!" I have to confess we are a great avakai family, with vats of it being made every year for our own consumption as well as that of aunts and uncles living overseas, but the funny thing is, we don't call it avakai. We just call it 'mamidikaya pachchadi', avakai coming from the mustard powder that goes into the pickle.

And I don't ever remember eating food so spyzee (spicy) that it would have you burn and bleed over the toilet the next day - that was more or less the odd case, it's not as if we Telugus uniformly make that kind of spicy food. And I hate it when 'Andhra restaurants' paint their food in red (chilli powder) just so that they can keep up with the popular image of the mouthwatering, and yes, eyes-watering food the State is supposed to produce!

Am I giving you the idea of a very practical, even boring, family kitchen? Practical, maybe, but not boring. The cooks themselves (grannies) did not go into raptures over this recipe or that, they must have had enough for a lifetime, or perhaps believed in the 'eat-to-live' principle. (Two generations later, younger now than they were then, and on a bad day, I feel the same way.) But parties always saw cocktail sausages and French fries on toothpicks, pressure cooker caramel custard; festivals saw the traditional pulihora and payasam. And to me tradition and habit were as much those as rice and curd and pickle as well as ootappam with tomato ketchup, milk without sugar, and tiffin with anything but coconut chutney.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

An Education From Stalks

We all know that a cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with education, right?

"Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education."

So here's a lot of education for you, about four cups of the stalks.

Waste not, want not, we say. Waste I didn't, but would I want it?

As it turned out, (a resounding) YES!

The recipe is from here. The measurements are mine.

Cauliflower stalks, chopped up: 4-5 cups
Jeera/Cumin seed: 1 tsp
Asafoetida, a pinch
Salt to taste
Turmeric powder: 3/4 tsp
Red chilli powder: 1 tsp
Coriander powder: 1 tsp
Amchoor/dried mango powder: 1 tsp
Garam masala powder: 1 tsp
Oil: 2 tbsp
Coriander leaves: To garnish

Heat the oil in a pan and add cumin seeds. When they change color, add the asafoetida.

Now add the chopped up stalk, salt and all the spices except the amchoor and garam masala. Mix well.

Cook covered on low heat till stalk turns tender.
(When it felt like this was taking ages, I transferred it to a pressure cooker and pressure cooked it for three whistles with half a cup of water.)

When the pressure falls, open the pressure cooker and add the amchoor and the garam masala. Mix well and simmer till any residual water evaporates. Garnish with the coriander.

This cauliflower fed us for three days. Call it kima (mince) or upma, here's another thing I made with it.

The stalks are off to Susan who's hosting Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging this week, now administered by Haalo.