quintessential. tomato. date. sultanas. sugar.

Today is Monday and it’s Election Day here in Kolkata.

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India’s voting for her CEO and we’re all busy holding our breaths. Yes, me too, considering that I’m not allowed to vote in this country. But all the excitement is more than merely contagious. You might find it difficult to pass a tea shanty without overhearing retired sixty-year-old men sitting around drinking their morning cuppa and bad mouthing the candidates. Even the ladies get into heated debates on occasions. Their’s aren’t as animated or vigorous as that of the men, but the debates are most definitely punctuated with a lot of eye-rolling and pursing of lips.

Continue reading quintessential. tomato. date. sultanas. sugar.

one for mango chutney

I have a problem. Well, actually more like quite a few problems.

They either sit rather silently on my bookshelf, or stretch themselves lazily all over the center table in the living room. They have also, from time to time, made home on the window sill in my bathroom.

They’re cookbooks. And I’m pretty sure most of you would understand why they are, not small, but rather big problems.

I love them, yes. But they also irritate me a great deal. Mostly because their production rate is higher than that of rabbits. A free weekend now means three new cookbooks on my shelf and a considerably lighter wallet. Let me assure you that in retrospect, this is in no way fun. I take them to bed, yes. But I’m likely to fall asleep before they’re done. They tempt me, entertain me, flex their muscles at me and make me fall in love them in the most cruel-est sort of way.

The biggest monster of them all is a cloth-covered jumbo-sized journal. That journal is a screamer. It makes itself heard, even if I don’t want to pay attention to it. Over the last year, that journal has gained plenty of weight, as I keep stuffing it with recipes – some handwritten, some printed off the internet, some that were once newspapers. And the journal keeps growing. It keeps eating, keeps gulping. It opens its mouth and a poor recipe disappears down its bottomless pit.

If we take a harder look, and if I was to be completely honest, then the problem actually lie not with the cookbooks or the journal itself. The problem lies with me. It’s my own inability to get over being intimidated by the recipes. It’s my very own disability – my laziness, that stops me from trying a recipe from any of my cookbooks. And its my impatience that clouds my thinking, the moment it comes to following instructions to a tee. And that, dear readers, is not healthy.

I gawk at the photographs. I read the ingredients list over and over again. I play out the techniques in my head. I imagine the situations that each dish demand. And yet, the naked truth is that I’ve never really tried a recipe word-to-word from any of the cookbooks.

I happily thought it was going to be different when I tried Alice Medrich’s chocolate wafers. I set out my pots and pans exactly the way she recommended. But I was sadly mistaken. I had to adjust something and do something else to get something slightly different. Whatever I make that’s out of a book, is never really out of a book, is it? Its always adapted from here and inspired from there. As I expect cooking should be.

Cooking to me has actually become a lot like that. I’m comfortable not having a cookbook in front of me while I cook. I’ve got into the habit of reading them and tucking the ideas and flavour profiles safely away in my mind until they make themselves heard suddenly while I’m on my way to the kitchen. I like having my mother’s recipe for mango chutney for these rotten hot summer afternoons written down safely in the journal and not have to look at it again. I like having a beer and blue cheese sauce recipe on my mind and then not have to follow exact quantities.

I don’t have a beer recipe here with me today. But I do have the one for mango chutney.

It’s been in the family for a long time, much before I was on the way. It’s tart with wedges of green mangoes, earthy with nigella seeds and spiked with red chili. And it’s a perfect companion if you want one, while you go through your cookbooks.

Bengali Green Mango Chutney

Bengalis like to use green-fleshed, super-tart mangoes for this chutney the kind that makes you pucker up and suck in your cheeks. But you could use other varieties, sweet or otherwise, if you want. In that case the amount of sugar obviously needs to be adjusted. This is traditionally a loose chutney, not the thick condiment-like versions you’re sure to find in restaurants, so try not to reduce the mixture too much. Also, it is highly advised that you leave in the seeds of the chili – the heat balances out the tartness beautifully.

1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 tsp nigella seeds [kalonji]
2 tsp of mustard seeds
1 dried red chili, split through the center
4-5 green mangoes
A pinch of turmeric powder
1/2 tsp of salt
2 cups water
1/2 cup of granulated sugar or as needed

Remove the mangoes from their skins and cut the flesh into wedges. Heat oil in a deep-bottomed pan. Add the nigella seeds, mustard seeds and red chili [ seeds and all]. Wait till the mustard seeds stop popping. Gently add in the mango wedges and saute them gently over low heat for 2-3 minutes. Don’t stir too much. Sprinkle turmeric and salt over the mangoes, and stir gently to coat the wedges. Add in water and half the sugar. Keep the pan uncovered and cook over low heat till the water is about to boil. Don’t let it boil though. Taste and add more sugar if needed and give the mixture a couple of stirs. Take it off heat and serve hot alongside steamed rice.  Or serve cold, just as it is.

store bought without apologies

Not a very good way to start this post would be by saying that I’m not fond of puff pastry. Just something about the flakes that scatter when I bite into it and then proceed to stick to my lips when I pull away. Ultimately, I keep wiping myself after every bite.

And this has kept me away from freshly-made croissants and cream puffs. I only eat the stale ones. Less flakes.

And all this hostility towards puff pastry, till I made it myself last week.

Well, being the lazy big-buttocks that I am, I had never imagined having the patience to roll, pat and fold over and over again. But I did. And yes, I could go on about how I achieved a sense of accomplishment and yada yada yada. But I didn’t. To say that the pastry I made went on to become lovely flaky chutney tarts, would be a lie.

After all the hard work, sweat and toil and unlimited glances at the recipe did not result in success. The first batch did not rise and came out half-cooked and soggy…sort of like sad deflated bread slices. It can’t get any worse, I thought foolishly as I raised the temperature hoping the even hotter air would make it rise. Then the second batch came out. Brown and burnt to a crisp with an even under-cooked center.

So I gave up. I went to the store and bought ready-rolled puff-pastry sheets. And no, I’m not ashamed of it. All you with your noses turned up can stick it really, because, the next time I’m trying my hand at puff pastry would be if I’m in either one of the following situations:

1) my children, off-springs of my own flesh and blood, request me to make some, or

2) someone has a gun pointed at my head.

That’s it for now. If you want a really good puff-pastry making guide try Keiko’s recipe.

Tomato & Pineapple Chutney

500 gm of tomatoes, diced
1 pineapple, diced
1/2 cup muscovado sugar
1/2 cup of honey
Pinch of salt
5 cloves
5 crushed cardamom pods
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup of sultanas

Combine everything in a deep-bottomed pan and put on low heat. Cover and cook for 15 minutes till the fruits have started breaking down. Add 1 cup of water. Raise the heat to medium. Cover and cook till the mixtures starts resembling a chutney, i.e., all the fruit has turned into mush and a thick syrup has formed. Take the cover off, and boil on high heat till most of the moisture boils off. Cool and serve with or after meals, especially Indian ones. Great on toast or cream-crackers as a snack…or just by itself, straight from the fridge. Keeps in the fridge for 3-4 days covered with cling film.

For the tarts:

Store-bought puff-pastry sheet, either ready-rolled or in a block
1 egg, lightly beaten
Tomato & Pineapple Chutney
Strawberries
Peanuts or Toasted Almonds or Pistachios, slivered or roughly chopped, to garnish
Lightly whipped double cream , to garnish

Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Line a tray with baking parchment or greased aluminum foil. Cut the sheets into rectangular tart-sizes. I can get about 8 pieces out of one sheet. Make a grooved border all around, about 1/2 an inch away from the edges. Use a pastry brush to brush the borders with the beaten egg. Lay the tarts on the tray. Arrange the chutney, or strawberries on the inside of the egg-washed edges and bake in the oven till the pastry is all puffed-up and the edges are a crispy golden colour. It takes about 18-20 minutes. Serve immediately topped with the nuts or with lightly whipped cream.