best eaten cold.

It’s the middle of May and I’m here today to talk about Christmas.
Yes, I’m 5 months and a whole season too late, but this is how we roll over here. So, here’s a picture.

BREADPUD1

If you’ve guessed bread pudding, then you’re right. A large vat of messy, melt-y, boozy chocolate bread pudding with crusty bits at the edges.I made my first last Christmas and this one a couple of days back. We’ve been high on alcohol and carbohydrates (and episodes of Game of Thrones) for the last 36 hours.

My mother, though not much of an enthusiast in the kitchen, is a hostess to her bones. She doesn’t even need a reason to call up a handful of people in a moment’s notice for an impromptu dinner party and have them show up for a guaranteed good time. Continue reading best eaten cold.

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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.

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.

truffled hot chocolate

I’m sitting on the futon in my persian print socks sipping on a cup of cocoa mocha, still lazed out by a full on English breakfast. Winter’s finally in Calcutta. Have I mentioned that I’ve been in India for the last month…only part of my Christmas break.

But Christmas, although celebrated with a roast chicken, plum cake and plenty of wine here in India….which is invariably followed by a workout at some discotheque with friends on the Eve…..it still does not have a festive quietness to it, that a London-ish Christmas might. The air doesn’t have a chilly bite. The shops are lightly dressed instead of heaving under tinsel. No shiny Xmas trees around…and most importantly, no hot chocolate.

Of course, that does not mean that Indians don’t enjoy hot chocolate…we just prefer nursing a cup of steaming Darjeeling  tea or some very milky coffee. But here goes. I like my hot chocolate, dark, luscious and sprinkled with chilly powder.

Truffled Hot Chocolate

1/2 cup dark chocolate, chopped or dark chocolate chips

1 cup whole milk

1/4 cup sour cream

1tbsp of sugar

Pinch of cayenne pepper or dried red chili powder

Heat the milk and sour cream and sugar together till its starts to bubble up, but take care that the mixture doesn’t boil over. Pour the hot mixture into the serving mug and add the chocolate chips. Stand the mixture for a minute and then stir to combine well. Sprinkle the top with the pepper/chili powder and serve.