when real life catches up

Well…so far this is what’s been happening.

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Rain, silent offices, green and mac-n-cheese for dinner. Hope you’re having a great weekend.

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nosy neighbours and hot pasta sauce

Somewhere in the middle of 2005 I moved into what was “my first apartment”.

Roasted Tomatoes

A double-bedroom apartment that had a balcony overlooking one of Baroda’s busiest crossings. It was an open plan with a kitchen-cum-dining-cum-living and the kitchen was anything but. It was lined with pink granite counter-tops on two sides and the sole appliance it housed was a double gas-burner. The rest of the space was used for storing mounds of sheets and rolls of paper. The roles piled one on top of the other formed a mountain that almost reached the ceiling, short of a feet or two. They threatened to topple down on our heads at any moment, but their threats fell on deaf ears.

My half of the apartment included a single bedroom that was airy in summer and warm in the winter. It had an attached bath that was approximately the size of a small bento box and a large window that occupied an entire wall. The window overlooked a large courtyard and a common corridor that was always drenched in rainwater during the heavy monsoon months.

The corridor was also my nosy neighbour’s favourite hangout apparently.

She would take a stroll through it, up and down, every hour or so, pausing near my window every time she crossed it and then extend her long neck to take a peek inside. It was her regular routine. For the first year that I lived in that apartment, this habit of hers was torture. I would look up from my work and jump in panic as I’d spot her face floating on one corner of my window. After working long hours through the night, I’d take a long nap. And as I would open my droopy eyelids and turn my head, there’d be her face. Floating at my window. Again.

I spent that entire year arguing with her, starting with politeness and ending in sharp words, as I would try to make her see how she was invading my private space. I tried sarcasm. Then I moved on to anger. I resorted to contorting my face into ugliness as I spoke to her, hoping that my expressions would scare her off. I even tried threatening her with letters to the building management. And I also started to keep my curtains drawn at all times blocking out all the daylight, which, was not fun. But in my entire comparatively short-life I have never met any woman with such great will power as hers.

By the second year, I was used to her nosiness and too tired and busy to complain. But silently kept looking for a solution to the problem. The solution arrived sooner than I expected. In the shape and form of a man – a half-Goan-half-Portuguese curly-haired student of commerce. We had met over a roadside chai stall frequented by students of the University and an episode of puppy-love had followed. And besides all the drama and petting-rituals this relationship demanded, it also kept me watered and fed. We used to share our evening over episodes of How I Met Your Mother, bowls of spaghetti in watery tomato sauce, pressure-cooked chicken and tuna sandwiches from Subway. There was also the incident where we were too busy exchanging affections to notice that the apartment had started to flood due to a leaky faucet. Um…I’ve grown since.

I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this. In fact, I’m positive that you’ve already guessed how I scared off my neighbour. Oh well. Let’s just say, her floating head disappeared permanently from my window since that fateful evening when my friend showed up.

He did show up with another packet of supermarket spaghetti and another jar of watery tomato sauce and we never really got to eat much, but in retrospect that was a price I was willing to pay for revenge on a nosy neighbour.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Indianised salsa di pomodoro
inspired by Gordon Ramsey’s tomato soup in Chef’s Secrets

Any kind if tomatoes will do for this one, but try it with tomatoes on the vine as well. In that case, don’t remove the vine before roasting them. We like it hot and spicy over here, and if you do too, notch up the heat to two chillies instead of one. As an alternative, try roasting the tomatoes for 1 1/2 hours at 150 deg C. To turn this into a lovely tomato soup, just heat the sauce along with 1 1/2 cups of chicken/vegetable stock. The soup can be served with a dollop of crème fraiche and a toasted baguette. The recipe doubles easily if you require a larger batch.

5 medium tomatoes, in thick slices
2 medium red onions [or Spanish onions], sliced
1/2 head of garlic, skin on
1 red chilli [we keep the seeds intact, but remove the seeds if you prefer]
1 tsp of dried basil
1 tsp of dried thyme [or 2 tsp of fresh thyme leaves]
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1 tsp of ground coriander
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil, as needed
Juice of 1 lime [or half a lemon]
2 tbsp of honey
2 tbsp of barbecue sauce [store-bought is just fine]

Pre-heat oven to 170 deg C. Scatter tomatoes, onions and garlic on a baking tray. Sprinkle basil, thyme, turmeric, coriander over and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle a generous amount of olive oil, about 4-5 tablespoons, all over the ingredients. Roast for 45-50 minutes till the tomatoes start to fall apart. Let everything cool in the tray for 15 minutes before squeezing the garlic out of its skin. Blitz everything in a blender or food processor till smooth. Add lime juice, honey and barbecue sauce and stir well.
The sauce will keep for a week in an air-tight jar kept in the refrigerator. Use it as a dip or as a pasta sauce. To use with pasta, heat it up in a pan before adding cooked pasta along with fresh basil leaves and a handful of grated parmesan.

Tuesday

There is nothing special about Tuesdays. They’re not like Mondays that get grumbled about. They’re not like Fridays that get looked forward to, and they most definitely cannot compare up to the weekends. Even Wednesdays have their chance at being referred to as midweek. And Thursdays too have their significance when we’re all at work in full swing. Tuesdays are sandwiched somewhere in between all this mayhem like an extra in an action movie.

This Tuesday and the last however have been quite momentous. Last Tuesday we made impromptu dinner plans to eat out, always the best kind, after an especially trying day that included work and a half-hearted evening walk that ended in semi-pulled hamstrings. The weather made it worse by being indecisive and twitchy, irritatingly a la Bella Swan. So naturally, the only thing to provide a stiff remedy to that kind of horror, is food. We headed to Flame & Grill, only another one of Anjan Chakraborty’s culinary babies.

spitting grille sits pretty at the center of each table nestling white hot pieces of charcoal. Pretty soon the waiter dawdles over politely to arrange 5 or 6 hot iron rods with knobby wooden handles, or sheeks, that’s wrapped with either meat, chicken or fish. The smoke from the grill keeps the sheeks hot till we fork the food onto our plates, dunk each morsel into a tongue-clucking coriander sauce and we bite into them risking burning the roofs of our mouths.

The empty rods are soon replenished with more tandoorean glory and the process repeats itself, till we’re too full to even go and peruse the contents of the buffet. We’ve rarely ever made it to the buffet table. Though the length of their kebab menu isn’t long or innovative enough, it is hard to complain about shortcomings when we’re busy stuffing our faces with succulent yogurt-softened pieces of chicken reshmi kebabs. All of that leads to appeased stomachs, satiated minds and a very good night of sleep.

Today’s Tuesday however, has left me gobsmacked with a discovery. My mother, my own flesh and blood has declared that she is not too fond of pesto. And THAT my dear friends is nothing short of sacrilege! I did not think that such heresy could be hidden deep in the all-consuming appetite of my family.

The first thing I did in the morning was to pull out a batch of mini cakes topped with spoonfuls of cream cheese. A request from Arpi and also something for my single friends to look forward to. We singletons don’t really mind Valentine’s Day. But then how could anyone mind it if there was a whole lot of booze, kilos of chocolate and some dirty hip-gyration involved. It would definitely be a significant improvement from at least two V-Day celebrations I’ve experienced in the past. The first included a classmate in college in our first year coming up to me a declaring his friendship to me. When I pointed out that the red rose he had handed to me signified love, he quickly explained that the nearest florist was all out of yellow roses (yellow roses being the true signs of friendship). The second V-Day was three years later, when I spent all of five hours on the phone with a charming Naval Officer that I was in love with, cooing sweet nothings. In retrospect, they were nothing, as I would come to realize the very next year.

But I digress. Hours after I had poked and prodded the cheese knobs atop the cakelets, I came home lugging groceries, that included a jar of pesto and wholewheat spaghetti, my mother said something from her room that sounded a lot like too pungent and oily. She could have been referring to a number of things but she wasn’t. Gasp! I pacified myself by remembering the fact that all the Italian food she’s ever had included spag-bol and wood-oven baked thin-crust pizzas…which she seemed to have enjoyed immensely. Anything pasta that’s ever been made in our house has always been served robed heavily with cheese or saline tomato sauce. I briefly had visions of me making a garlic-scented spaghetti dish speckled with pink cubes of salmon that my Vietnamese housemate had taught me when we were living in Nottingham. I imagined my mother sniffing softly at it, putting a small forkful into her mouth, chewing tentatively and then…magic. Her skepticism would melt away, an expression of pleasure would take over her face and she would declare that Italian cuisine was worth living and dying for.

Then I quickly snapped out of it when she came out of her room. I blamed this punch-to-the-plexus on her limited experience of Italian cuisine and was greeted by a nonchalant shrug.  She only needs to taste some really good pasta, I told myself and silently frowned at Tuesday for being unpredictable.

Chocolate and Fennel Seed Cakelets

The recipe doubles easily to make two rich and moist layers for a layer cake. You could also multiply the quantities specified for every ingredient by 1.5 to make a single-layered cake. The baking time increase for about 15 minutes if baked as a single-layered cake. The ground fennel seeds are obviously optional and can easily be done away with. I generally use whole fennel seeds, dry-roast them in a non-stick pan on medium heat till they give of a woody smell and cool them immediately, before grinding them into fine powder. The oil used is sunflower oil, but any odourless, taste-less vegetable oil will do.

1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
1/4 cup of ground almonds
1/4 cup of cocoa powder
1 tbsp of ground fennel seeds
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 tsp of baking powder
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup of caster sugar
80ml of vegetable oil
80ml of sour cream or well-stirred yogurt
Softened cream cheese, to garnish

Pre-heat oven to 180 deg C and grease four medium-sized ramekins. Combine flour, ground almonds, cocoa powder, fennel powder (if using any), salt and baking powder, in a bowl with a fork. Whisk eggs, vanilla, sugar, oil and sour curd (or yogurt) in a bigger bowl till the sugar dissolves. Pour the flour mixture into this egg mixture and mix till just combined. Do not overwork the mixture. Pour into prepped ramekins and bake for about 15-20 minutes or till the center is set. Cool on racks and top with cream cheese before serving.