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 cr√®me 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.

Advertisements

eggplants, for happily ever after

Well, good news. Spring is here. Officially. And about time too.

This calls for serious gearing-up for us food obsessed troglodytes. But before I start planning and promising anything, I must tackle eggplants. They’ve sat quietly on the couch watching – and waiting – as I batted my eyelashes at¬†frivolous cakes and dallied with some serious potatoes. But there’s no denying that no matter who I’ve been with, I go home to eggplants every night.

I spent a good part of 2008 swooning over a certain Naval officer – a lot of which had to do with his crisp uniform – and devoting a large amount of time to vegetables.¬†He was a staunch vegetarian and I wanted to impress. At the time I was a novice in the kitchen and had only recently graduated from burning water to under-cooking rice. My meals included leathery¬†omelettes¬†and whole tomatoes boiled in water with salt and garlic that was supposedly toh-mah-toh soup [cue eye-rolling]. And all this just so I could ask him about his mother’s South Indian fares, his squadron’s daily menu-plans and in general talk his ears off about food. We didn’t have much in common except for our affinity to Bollywood music and cringe-worthy wit, so I guess devoting more of my time and my all-consuming appetite to vegetarian food was my way of impressing him. And that’s the closest I got to making deep sacrifices for love.

But in all honesty, it wasn’t as bad as I’m trying to make it sound. Because I had eggplants.

My first memory of eggplants is obscure and I have decided not to bore you much today. ¬†I’ve only ever heard my relatives tell me stories of how on being asked what I wanted for lunch I used to reply solemnly, “begun bhaja aar maachh bhaja.”
In English: fried eggplant and fried fish.

My priorities were pretty sorted back then.

Today I may snort and tear and chew meat off the bones like a blood-thirsty carnivore – I’m trying to make up for that whole year’s worth of meat that I missed out on – but a special place in my heart is reserved for eggplants. And okra too, but that’s for another day. I think it has a lot to do with the eggplant’s silky disposition and how they graciously host other flavours – whatever you may choose to marry them to. But their miracle is that they don’t get lost in all the chaos and can perfectly hold their body against your tongue.

My favourite way to consume an [almost]¬†daily dose of eggplant is to pan-fry thick slices of them Bengali-style — on low heat, in a smidgen of oil, coated lightly with ground turmeric, salt and a thin¬†thin film of flour — till they’re ¬†soft and falling off their crispy skins. There are few things in life that can make you slam the table hard with your palm out of pleasure and a slice of eggplant prepared that way is one of those things.

But my latest discovery has been this sort of melange of eggplant cubes, tomatoes, garlic and onions. It’s a sabji basically, pretty quick to prepare and has a hint of dried mango powder and chili powder in it. The twang of the mango powder lifts the eggplant’s umami and the sabji goes well with a host of breads, flat-breads and rice. It’s a cross between my kind of comfort food, something you would whip up for Curry Night with the other couples and something you want to share with your significant other over a quiet romantic dinner.

Its a great start to spring and lately it also served me well when I had to feed a heartbroken friend. My adventures with men in uniforms may not have gone as smoothly as I had expected but when all else fails, there will always be eggplant.

Eggplant Sabji with Dried Mango Powder

Dried mango powder is easily available in any big supermarket or Indian food shops. So are turmeric, coriander and chili powder. Chili powder can also be substituted with 2 teaspoons of chili flakes.

2 tbsp of vegetable oil, either sunflower or olive
2 medium onions, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 large eggplants, cut into 1-inch cubes
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of dried mango powder
2  tsp of ground coriander
1 tsp of red chili powder
1/4 tsp pinch of turmeric powder
2 tsp granulated sugar
Water, as needed
1/2 cup of coriander leaves, chopped
Salt, to taste

Heat oil in a skillet. Saute the onions on high heat till they’re soft and starting to slightly brown at the edges. Add in the garlic and saute for a minute. Add in the tomatoes, eggplant cubes, spices and sugar. Combine everything well. Lower to heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Cook for 10-12 minutes. Check for moisture content. If the sabji looks too dry, add a tablespoon of water. Add more if needed but be miserly because you don’t want the mixture to be soupy. Cover and cook for another 8-10 minutes till the eggplants have softened. Check the biggest of the cubes and if it’s cooked all the way to the middle then the sabji’s ready. Season with salt, stir in the coriander and let them wilt in the heat for a minute.

Serve with rotis, on toasted baguette slices or bread. Or with rice. Or stuffed between the layers of a pita. The options are limitless really.

  

heat, mushroom, weekend

Looking forward to lying low this weekend. Its only just March and the heat is already numbing my oral skills.¬†I know I should say something like “no pun intended” right here, but I’m feeling slow.

It’s hard to concentrate on anything with constantly having to wipe your sweat-drenched brow and I’d rather starve than spend time in the kitchen right now which has recently turned into a life-size walk-in oven. Every time Cook comes out of the kitchen I glance at her to check if her skin’s turned golden brown and crackly.

Spring, is it?¬†My foot, that’s what.

But I haven’t come here today completely empty-handed. Rio¬†(my banana-crazy brother…and yes, he is named after the city) has helped me plug in our portable mini-oven on the multipurpose counter, halfway between the dining table and the kitchen. And I’ve been happily chomping on roasted oyster mushrooms since.

To be honest, you won’t even need to bother with a proper recipe. Trust me. My brain is too fried to be making up lies.

All you need to do is pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Mix together 4-5 tablespoons of tomato ketchup with a dash of Worcestershire sauce and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar. Coat the mushrooms in this sauce and lay out on a greased/parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle sea salt, a teaspoon of dried thyme and a generous amount of black pepper over. Drizzle some olive oil on top and roast for 15 minutes. And at this point relax, have a popsicle if you can and try not to think too much.¬†At least that’s what I did.

Ciao and have a happy weekend you lot.

today, and for tomorrow

Yesterday was all about this store-bought chocolate butter-cream cake for a birthday.

Most of the time most of us here suffer from impatience to wait around for an hour for a cake to bake and cool. Store-bought cake at this point of time is heaven sent, a deliciously comforting treat that helps us to be lazy asses. It has been quite a lot about cake lately.

Today it is going to be about some shopping. Mostly food-shopping…..my favourite kind, unless there are shoes involved. December has always been a month when our social calenders start bordering on psychotic.

Ma has decided to host a Christmas Day lunch. Naturally, debate (read: argument)¬†ensued over the menu as we put our heads together to come up with food that’s going to appeal to both her friends and mine. My mother and I get along well in most areas of daily-living including chocolate and scarves. ¬†But its a labour of love when it comes to food. Compared to the whimsical eater that I am, my mother can be described as conservative. And when it comes to cooking….well, I cook and she doesn’t. The only exception would be a mouth-watering lamb curry that she learnt from my grandmother and buttery chicken sandwiches she used to pack for picnic lunches when we were kids.

But after quite a few hours of heated discussion over the merits of boozy tiramisu for dessert against melt-in-your-mouth french chocolate cakes, we’ve finally converged on something that sits well with both of us. She tried to convince me that most her friends, as also a majority of Indian, prefer no skin on the chicken – I brought on a mini Cold War, if we can call it that, when I mentioned that chicken roasted without its skin is not in any way authentic or will, in any way, come out tender.¬†We also spent a considerable amount of time figuring out who would prefer pork and who chicken when it came to choosing sausages four our¬†hors¬†d’oeuvres. I do pride myself on knowing more about food than Ma does, but as a seasoned hostess and an unbeaten domestic goddess, my mother somehow always manages to get things done exactly the way she wants.

After we dragged our shopping back home and lay most of it out on the dining table. As we surveyed the spread, I knew it was not going to be another lazy Saturday. And as I got to work on the tiramisu, Cook was kind enough to hand me a small dish full of nadu, to make the sweet ordeal even sweeter. Soy sauce bottles waiting on the counter-top. Chinese roast chicken next on list.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Nadu (Coconut & jaggery balls)

The nadu ¬†is quintessentially Bengali. It turns up mostly during the fall/end of monsoon, when the Bengals rev up for our religious festivities. But in our household, its a recurrence, especially if there’s any amount of leftover dessicated coconut available. Apart from the cardamom in it, different families go with different spices. On¬†occasions, I have had nadu¬†with ginger added to the mixture and I myself, out of wholesome loony-ness, had added a couple of tablespoons of dried red chili powder which produced a note of heat right at the end. The jaggery adds a smoky treacle-like sweetness to the coconut balls, apart from of course, making our house smell like toddlers’ playhouse.

200gm jaggery
Flesh of 2 medium-sized coconuts, scooped out and finely grated (alternatively use 100gm of dessicated coconut)
Seeds of 6 green cardamom pods, ground
2 tsp dried red chili powder, optional

On medium heat, in a heavy bottomed pan, break the jaggery into pieces and let it melt. As soon as it turns into a thick liquid bubbling at the sides, add the coconut, cardamom and chili. Stir to combine well. Reduce heat and keep stirring steadily, till the mixture turns a deep reddish-brown and just starts to come together. Take it off heat and cool. Wet your palms with water and make small balls out of the ‘dough’.

Note: If the mixture doesn’t hold together when you try and form it into balls, you would need to pop the mixture back on heat and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Cool and then try again. Also, wetting your hands with water after forming 2-3 balls, keeps the mixture from sticking to your palms. Try substituting water with edible rose water, for fragrant¬†nadus.