Take the mountains’ word for it

We took a weekend trip to Darjeeling. A work thing. Mixed with tons of sleep. And food.

Well, I mean, look. Just look.

Fish Au Gratin, Glenary's - The Subjectivist

The last Friday night was spent swaying in a train, as we made our way to Darjeeling. At one point, the time when my folks honeymooned there, Darjeeling was quaint, cold and romantic. It is still cold. It is no more quaint. And the romance is stale and fragrant-less.

Now it smells of horse-shit, from the ponies that carry children around the market square. It also smells of smoke from the Read More »

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A chicken roll that won’t let you forget

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“Isn’t it to die for?” My friend gushed breathlessly between bites of Kati Roll.

I was meeting her after 10 long years smack dab in the middle of rain-infested New York City, and she’d dragged me to Greenwich Village to taste a popular Bengali import (or export? Import, if you’re anywhere out of West Bengal).

The chicken roll.

Except that the Kati Roll Company is calling it the Kati Roll.

Versions — diluted, exaggerated and almost always awful — of the quintessential roll in various parts of India, do actually go by that name, so I can’t blame them.

Gujarat (and the Indian West Coast in general) has a version, inexplicably known as a Frankie, where the chicken is tomato red in color and amount of spice will produce a hole in your chest. Delhi’s back alleys produce “rolls” that are made of succulent kebabs wrapped in flimsy rumaali roti. Note how the word “roll” is within quotes.

I once also had a Bengali cook at an Indian food stall on Portobello Street make me chicken roll that had a white yogurt-based sauce that brought forth the same kind of emotions that underwear stuck in your butt-crack brings.

“Isn’t this the best chicken roll you’ve had outside of Kolkata?” She gushed again, this time looking directly at me. I nodded vigorously, making sure my mouth was too full to speak and hoped she couldn’t make out how much I wanted to dump that roll on her head.

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not your normal everyday snack

Two words. Lamb fritters.

They’re new to me but I can assure you that I will be keeping them around for a long time.

I have so far been slavishly devoted, as much as one can be, to lamb. Especially lamb curry. They conjure up memories of my childhood and of my grandmother who could easily make your toes curl with her version of lamb curry. And after a spell in the kitchen she used to smell of talcum powder, books and turmeric. She was a bespectacled professor of Organic Chemistry, a lover of all things chocolate and she used to cook lamb curry for me.

I never really learnt to regret anything. Blame it on my laziness. Unfortunately for me, my grandmother passed away only a couple of years before I even wanted to learn how to cook. I would have liked to learn about lamb curry from her. I think she would have liked that too.

But far from despair, I’m pleased to tell you that she taught it to my mother sometime after my parents got married. And that curry has shown up on my mother’s dining table every holiday and special occasion since. I feel silly saying this, but along with a priceless gold neck-piece and  a silver powder case, the recipe is almost an heirloom. It would be brutal of me not to share it would you.

Not today though. Don’t look at me like that…I promise to do so very soon in the near future. But I have here with me these fritters, which with a little effort could easily give lamb curry a run for its money.

I’m writing to you after recovering from a colour-soaked Holi, one of India’s many festivals in which the goal is to end up looking like the entire PANTONE colour library threw up on you. But it always ends with a feast, which, I don’t think you’d deny, is the best part. We showered and tried to scrub ourselves back to normal. And then we sat down to peas pilaf, a South Indian egg curry and crispy golden-on-the-outside-meaty-on-the-inside lamb fritters. They’re like nuggets really, that are shallow fried till golden. And they do very well when dunked in a sweet mint sauce.

Ideally they make fantastic starters, just something your friends can nibble on over swigs of beer and I discovered yesterday that they never actually last on the platter for more than 15 minutes. But these fritters are not normal everyday snacks. They display special powers one day later when you can just add them to a dal or a chana masala and they quickly turn into a gorgeous lunch. Their crispy coats soak up all the gravy and gives away under your teeth to reveal soft moist centres. It’s the kind of lunch you want to have after an especially tedious morning of chores that leave you hot and bothered. Be warned though, when mixed with curried lentils in gravy and an ever-rising humidity, the fritters can become potent sleep-inducers. You might just want to spent the rest of the afternoon lying spread-eagle on your back.

And while I was doing exactly that on the floor of my bedroom, I had visions of my grandmother – of both of us – pottering about in the kitchen exchanging notes on perfect lamb curry and shallow-frying skills. I’m pretty sure she would have downed a large portion of these nuggets and asked for more.

Lamb Fritters

You might be tempted, but I would strongly advise you against using cooked/canned chickpeas for this one. Using cooked chickpeas would only make the fritters soggy. Sunflower, canola, peanut/groundnut oil have higher smoking points than olive oil, and hence ideal for shallow or deep-frying. When heating the oil make sure it doesn’t start smoking though. If it does, then turn off the heat, wait till the smoke clears from the top of the skillet and turn the heat on again. Start frying immediately.

300 gm of chickpeas (about 10 oz), soaked in water overnight
500 gm of minced lamb or mutton (about 1/2 lb)
2 medium-sized green chilies
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 onion, chopped finely
Sunflower oil, to fry
Salt, to taste

Drain the chickpeas and discard the water. Blitz the chickpeas along with the lamb and chilies in a food processor till you have a coarse mixture that clumps together. You don’t want the chickpeas to turn into a paste. Put the ginger paste in a strainer and squeeze the juices out into the chickpea-lamb mixture. Discard the ginger pulp. Add garlic, onion and salt to the mixture. Use your hands to knead the mixture till everything is well-combined. Form into balls or nuggets. Heat oil in a non-stick skillet. The oil should come 2-inches up the walls of the skillet. To check if the oil is hot enough drop a pinch of the lamb mixture in and if it sizzles with a lot of noise then the oil is ready. Drop in the patties in batches and fry till golden brown. This takes about 6-8 minutes. Fish them out of the oil and onto a plate lined with paper napkins. Serve piping hot with dip. Dips with coriander or mint in them would go well with these fritters.

  

bring it on, beef

This may come across as weird but here goes. I have always been intimidated by beef.

I still eat it though. I love the way a beef stew smells wholesome and robust. I enjoy the way a rare steak gives away under the pressure of my teeth. Having been brought up in a liberal Hindu family, eating beef is not really uncommon on this  side of the Chowdhury legacy. But eating it somehow makes me feel reckless. Just ordering a New York strip makes me feel as if I dare to defy all the pundits, gurus and holy men who’ve made it blasphemous for us to murder cows and then, just to rub their noses in it, I brazenly pop a humongous cheeseburger patty into my mouth and chew hungrily while frowning comically at them.

In spite of all this noisy beef-eating I’m still in awe of it. Mostly because I never know what to do with it.

Beef, asparagus, meringues and raspberries. These are just a few things that I’ve felt this way about. I’ve read through a hundred recipes involving at least one of these and I’ve never had the will-power (I’m deliberately not using the word ‘courage’ here) to make any of them. I’d eat any of those in a heartbeat though.

Now if I had to try out some clueless psychiatry, I would blame it on my childhood. I didn’t ‘grow up’ eating any of those things mentioned above, and that is probably why I feel uncomfortable whenever I’m presented with the prospect of using any one of them in a dish. Though I must say at this point, that I have spent the last three summers with my head in vats of raspberries, and last year I willed myself to learn how to make a mean pavlova.

But beef?

Beef, is still slumped in his high-backed winged armchair, the corners of his lips drooping downwards, silently staring at me with his heavy-lidded eyes.

Getting to be a pro at handling beef is definitely going to take some time and if I’m asked to cook a steak soon, I’d probably spent the rest of day whining and flailing about in the kitchen without achieving any damn thing. So, as soon as I got some time away from all the sweetness, I was up for a challenge. Sort of. I knew I had to bite the bullet and take a chance with something huge…not wimpy hamburgers made out of mince beef. But something more refined and complicated. And then it came forth — a boeuf bourgignon recipe…from a couple of French women, naturally.

First it was Julia Child warbling instructions at me. And then there was Clotilde Dusoulier, with her wide-eyed smile waving at me with a copy of Chocolate & Zucchini. I also consulted Robert Carrier and then set off to chart my own route.

This Burgundian beef stew cloaked in light amber is only slightly less relaxing that a quick chicken soup. I pleasantly stand corrected for thinking that the process would be complicated. The result was rich in texture and deep in flavour, that was induced by the cognac I used instead of red wine, even while my stock was running out. The bacon plays a huge role, even considering that I used just a couple of strips of it. But the cake is taken away by the chocolate. My hand slipped (*wink*) as I was adding the cocoa powder and I added a teaspoon more than was required. Heavenly. I would suggest you to allow your hand to slip as well. Served with a side of steamed rice the meaty stew is perfect to warm the cockles of your heart.

Well then. Bring it on, beef.

Boeuf Bourgignon
From a variety of sources including Julia Child, Clotilde Dusoulier and Robert Carrier

NOTE: The wine used can be a good Burgundy, a young Chianti or even Pinot Noir. I’ve used Renault cognac here. Different recipes use different amounts of wine and beef stock, and then there are recipes which don’t use stock at all. Ideally use equal amounts of red wine and beef stock (about 2-3 cups each). However, since I ran out of cognac, the recipe below uses only about 1 cup of it.
The beef chunks need to be dried in paper towels; any dampness will prevent them from browning. The consistency of the stew depends on your taste really. i wanted something runny instead of thick and gravy-like so I added about 1 tablespoon of flour. If you require the gravy to be thick, increase the amount of flour to 2 tablespoons and for the last 20 minutes of cooking time in the oven, remove the lid and turn up the oven temperature.
Boeuf Bourgignon is best with steamed rice or crusty bread. Can be served with buttered noodles as well.

1 pound button mushrooms, quartered
2 tbsp butter
2 strips of un-smoked bacon, chopped
1 tbsp olive oil or vegetable oil
3 pounds well-trimmed boneless beef chuck, cut into 2″ cubes
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tbsp flour (see head note)
1 cup cognac, (see head note)
3 cups beef stock (see head note)
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 bay leaf

Preheat oven to 160 °C (325 °F).
In a pan sauté the mushrooms in butter till brown and soft. Keep aside.
In a deep-bottomed pot/cesserole, sauté the bacon in 1 tbsp oil over moderate heat for 2 to 3 minutes to brown lightly. Remove to a side dish with a slotted spoon. Reheat the pan until fat is almost smoking before you sauté the beef. Sauté the beef in the bacon fat in batches making sure not to crowd the pieces (the pieces need to brown on all sides, not sweat). Add the browned pieces of beef to the bacon. Lower the heat to medium. In the same fat, add the onions, shallots and carrots. Cook till the carrots soften. Add the cooked veggies to the beef and bacon. Pour out the sautéing fat.
Return beef to the casserole. Then sprinkle on the flour and toss to coat the beef lightly with the flour. Stir everything around till the flour is cooked and no white traces of it remain. Add the bacon and veggies and season with salt and pepper.  Stir in the cognac and enough stock so that the meat is barely covered. Add the garlic, thyme, parsley, tomato paste and bay leaf. Bring to simmer on top of the stove. Cover the casserole and set it in the oven. Cook for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. About 1 hour into the cooking add the mushrooms and stir in the cocoa powder. Return to the oven. The stew is done when the meat is fork-soft.

 

turning out to be a food blog

1st January 2012 started with a lot of booze and bowls full of Chinese food. A very promising start to the new year already.Between the last time that I had my cozy breakfast and now, I’ve been bombarded with lamb kebabs, yogurt cakes and a session of brazen drink-mixing that only 21 year-old co-eds excel in. And then New year’s Day started with Chinese food. Home-cooked versions of takeout favourites, but a shameless indulgence no doubt, considering the fact the most of us are — or were — planning to eat healthy in the New Year. There go our resolutions, flying out the window.

I’ve been reading Mark Kurlansky’s Choice Cuts and I have to say that the book has more than enough gems of food accounts. Right now he’s talking about one of Anton Chekhov’s pieces on an eight-course menu for journalists:

(1) a glass of vodka
(2) daily shchi [cabbage soup] and yesterday’s kasha
(3)  two glasses of vodka
(4) suckling pig with horseradish
(5) 3 glasses of vodka
(6) horse radish, cayenne pepper and soy sauce
(7) 4 glasses of vodka
(8) 7 bottles of beer

Sounds like my kind of people.

I will talk to you about Chinese food of course. Sooner or later we need to have that conversation. Mostly because there is no sun up or sun down in my house without a thought to Chinese cuisine. We’re true blue Indians, who’ve taken traditional Chinese cooking under our wings, molded and melded it to our liking. Stretched, flattened and twisted it according to our taste buds and made it our own. Ever since the first Chinese family cooked in Kolkata’s historical Chinatown, our noses caught the whiff of soy sauce, and we dragged our grumbling tummies to their home for a taste of their food. And then there was no looking back. I promise to tell you in detail how Chinese food fits into our mostly-Indian kitchen, but for now, this recipe for pork with Bok Choy should keep you full.

This is very quickly turning out to be a food blog.

Braised Pork with Bok Choy

The recipe sits close to my heart. Late nights, or early mornings, in Nottingham, were spent drooping over the pit of doom that was my thesis, while I wrestled with job applications at the same time. Sleep was almost non-existent. Ladytron dominated my playlist and whenever despair loomed, I would trudge down to the kitchen and stir some pork up with soy sauce. And pretty soon while shopping for more pork, I chanced upon a couple of bok choy bulbs sitting vibrantly green and pretty in the produce section. Didn’t take long for me to put the two together.
The recipe calls for Xiaoxing wine and rice wine vinegar. But honestly, I’m not a stickler and you can easily improvise. You can easily use good quality white wine and plain fruit vinegar if you have those on hand. Also, even though I haven’t used spring onions in this version, you could easily use 2-3, chopped. Add them along with the garlic and ginger. To fry, any tasteless vegetable oil will do. I use peanut oil. Lastly, I do not usually add salt at all because of all the soy sauce in it.

1kg pork shoulder, cut into chunks
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour, sifted
3-4 tbsp of vegetable oil, to fry
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 red chili, chopped
1/2 cup of light soy sauce
1/4 cup of dark soy sauce
3 tbsp of rice wine vinegar
3 tbsp of Xiaoxing wine
1 Tbsp of granulated white sugar
1 medium sized bok choy
Salt, to taste (optional, if you like it too salty, which I doubt you do)

Gently pull apart the leaves of the the bok choy. Wash and dry them. In a big bowl, sift in the flour and add in the pork chunks. Tumble them in the flour till all the chunks are coated evenly with flour. Lay out the chunks on a baking sheet after shaking off excess flour. Heat oil in a non-stick skillet. Test the oil by dropping a little flour into it. If it sizzles, its ready. Add the pork and quickly stir-fry for 4-5 minutes till the pieces have browned. Lower the heat to medium. Add the garlic, ginger and chili and cook for another minute just to take the rawness out of them. Add the the two soy sauces, wine, vinegar and sugar and stir to combine. Lower the heat. Cover and braise for about 20 minutes. Remove the cover and add the bok choy leaves in a layer on top. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Stir the wilted leaves into the sauce. Taste and adjust, adding sugar or vinegar, if necessary. Serve piping hot over steamed white rice.

on eating and Christmas Day dinner

We are definitely eaters. No no, I don’t mean people who have three or four regular meals with almonds and fruits in between. We are eaters who don’t stop till we’ve polished off every cocktail sausage on the platter. We’re a mixed bag family. Some are engineers, others are doctors with a few pilots and teachers thrown in. Some stoically use public transport and the rest prefer the luxury (or lack thereof) of driving their own cars through the murderous city traffic. Barring two or three of us, none can can actually cook. But, by the love of God, we   can   sure  eat.

In college, I was surrounded by picky vegetarians, and for a long time I believed that I had to be exactly the same. After downing a skimpy salad, I would drown my grumbling tummy by loudly announcing how full I was. That led to a lot of late-night binges, hungry tantrums and bag after bag of potato crisps.

You know how families grow up and grow close together in kitchens? Its the heart of the household. Its where you learn to cook at your grandmother’s knees. Its where you remember playing in as a kid, while your mother made soup. Its where a family gathers to go through joys, through loss, a meal or Christmas. The family kitchen is a special place for a lot of people I’ve met over the years.

In our house, however, its the dining table that wears that special crown. It’s this welcoming flat surface on which food appears magically only to disappear amidst a lot of slurping and lip-smacking noises. We converge upon it during times that we need comforting, reassurance, company or a slice of joy, and the dining table has never disappointed us so far. You can not only always find something to eat at the table, it seems as if every important event in our lives have happened around that table. I regularly spent my study-time with my head resting on that table trying to sneak in a few winks before my exams. The mailman brought us my post-graduation acceptance letter from the University, while we were at that table, having breakfast one rainy August morning. After my grandfather passed away last year, I remember coming home and sitting at the table with my mother, while our relatives swarmed around us, some with their hands on my mother’s shoulders, others not really knowing what to do. My brother Rio, after spending a whole year in Atlanta training to be a commercial pilot, arrived back in India on a late September night. The first thing we did on getting back home from the airport was sit at the dining table and nibble on a bar of Toblerone while exchanging stories. And day before yesterday, the table was host to a formidable amount of food for our homemade Christmas Day dinner (as Indians and more importantly, non-Christians, we are allowed this oxymoron).

When it comes to feeding families and friends, we hardly ever stick to one kind of cuisine. It is never Italian or Chinese or any other country for us, start to end. Its always a whole lot of food from all over the place. And this dinner was not an exception.

It started with a round of prawn cocktails and chicken & cheese balls. Then we moved on to chicks in blankets, chicken sausages wrapped in turkey bacon, processed and proud. The table was flecked with small plates of grilled pineapple kebabs on toothpicks and wine glasses filled to the brim with mulled wine and port. Lamb stuffed tomatoes came next, with potato & leek crostinis following close by. The mains were two of these humongous trays of pasta bake and four large roasted chickens. The night ended well with a session of Minute To Win It inspired games, more port, a lot of cursing and laughter and tiramisu shots. I discovered talents that I did not know I had – that I could cook and bake for 30 people if I was given 8 hours prep-time and two very worthy helpers (Ma and Cook). I also started aching in spots I did not know existed on my body. And more importantly, I realized that it would be a long time before I would go near a sausage.

Lamb Stuffed Tomatoes

1kg of minced lamb (or beef, alternatively)
1 pumpkin (alternatively a butternut squash), cut into 1 inch cubes
2 Spanish (or red) onions, thinly sliced
1 cup of frozen peas
1 tbsp garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1/2 cup of tomato paste
2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp cumin powder
Medium-sized whole tomatoes, to stuff (we used up about 15)
Salt, to taste
Olive oil
Lemon wedges and chopped coriander, to garnish

Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Grease a baking sheet. Arrange the cubed pumpkin or squash, drizzle with 3-4 tbsp of olive oil and sprinkle over with salt. Roast till the cubes start to come apart. Take out the pan from the oven and cool.

Chop the whole tomatoes in half, and scoop out all the pulp. Strain the pulp and discard the liquid. Arrange the hollowed-out tomatoes on a tray and chill in the refrigerator for an hour.

Meanwhile, brown the minced meat in a non-stick pan/skillet and keep aside. In another skillet, saute the onions in 2 tbsp of hot oil. When the onions start turning golden brown, add the cumin, turmeric, garlic and ginger and stir to mix well, for 2-3 minutes, on medium heat. Add the browned meat, tomato paste, tomato pulp and the roasted squash. Add 1 cup of water and stir everything together. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Check the mixture after 30 minutes for moisture content. If its too dry and seems to stick to the bottom of the skillet, add 3-4 tablespoons of water. Add the peas and cover and cook for another 20-25 minutes. Remove the cover, turn up the heat to high, and cook till most of the moisture has evaporated. Add salt to taste and mix well. Take the stuffing off heat and keep aside to cool.

Finally, pre-heat the oven to 200 deg C. Stuff the cut tomatoes with the lamb mixture. With a pastry brush, brush the tomatoes with olive oil and arrange on a prepared baking sheet. I usually line the sheet with grease-proof paper or aluminum foil coated with a super thin layer of oil. Roast for about 20-30 minutes or till the skin of the tomatoes start crinkling up. Serve hot with a wedge of lemon and some freshly chopped coriander.