she made us cocktails and i made clouds

I’m writing to you in the wake of dirty dishes and all I have to say right now is that my mother, in one word, is amazing.

Back in April of 2003, when she and my father dropped me off for my first day of college in Gujarat, she was understandably emotional but bravely supportive, exactly what is expected from all mothers I suppose. That evening they took the train back to Bengal. A 2000 mile journey that spans over 24 hours. I wasn’t told what happened on that train.

A couple of years later, when I came home for another term-break loaded with unlaundered clothes that smelled of plaster, my dad revealed that she had cried like a baby on the train. She’d been so loud and broken down that women from other seats and sleepers had come over to soothe her. Yes, well. That’s how she rolls, people.

You would love her really. All my friends do. She happens to be ten times cooler than I am. Always was and always will be.

She loves milk chocolate, tiger prawns in coconut curry, entertaining [she’s a champion at it], white wine and slow dancing with my father. When it comes to personalities, she’s my brother’s mother while I’m my dad’s daughter. She fed me rice pudding for breakfast every day for the first ten years of my life. She packed chicken sandwiches for my entire class for every school picnic that I attended. She had to wake up at 4 in the morning to do it, but she didn’t mind. She routinely forgets to save receipts and bills, a habit she hasn’t been able to kick in spite of my fathers angry huffing and puffing. This has been going on for years so we’ve sort of given up hope. She has a great eye for design, firmly believes that all pasta should be buried under white or red sauce and last Tuesday, for the first time in her life, she made us cocktails.

Tuesday’s dinner was a potluck. It was 1st May and a bank-cum-national holiday. And where I come from, we go mad when a holiday falls in the middle of a busy week. One of us runs down to the local eatery and places and order for 50 pieces of deep-fried scotch eggs. Another one would dally over to the neighbourhood sweet shop and return a few minutes later heaving under three boxes of rosogollas. One of my mother’s friends would pull a fish number out of her kitchen. The men would nod and grunt over what alcohol to choose. I am asked how many of my friends are coming over. And will they be bringing any food? If so, then what exactly will they bring? Can anyone of them pick up some bread on the way over? And will I be making something for dessert? These are the days I’m going to miss when my bosses send me back to London.

My father, being the resourceful man that he is, pulled out a bottle of Rémy Martin that was hidden way behind in the drinks cabinet. He wasn’t extremely happy about it – I think he was secretly saving it to serve to the Queen someday – but he thought it wise not to dampen everyone’s holiday moods. And while we were debating on how much ice we’d need or how many bottles of soda, I suggested making cocktails out of it. If you’ve ever visited the Rémy Martin website, you’ll know why. And to everyone’s surprise Ma offered to make them. That woman is full of surprises half the time. And for the other half she never knows what she gets into.

I’m more than ecstatic to report that she was awesome at it. AWESOME in italics and bold and caps.

We decided on French Mojitos and for the first half of the evening she dealt out icy glass after icy glass like she’d been doing it for years. It was totally worthy of documentation. Cuban barmaids, you better step it up.

And for my part, this is what I brought to the party.

There’s nothing ground-breaking about meringues. We all make them. Eat them and crumble them into wherever they’ll fit. These come from a pavlova recipe by Flo Braker which was adapted by Shuna Fish Lydon who featured it on Elise Bauer’s site. They’ve traveled a long way.

These meringues go in cloud-white and come out cloud-white on the verge of tanning, as if their day on the beach was cut short. They’re good with anything, from molten chocolate to jams to lightly whipped cream to summer berries. A word of advice – these meringues are not the kind you would want to crumble into desserts like Eton Mess. These are crackly on the outside and marshmallow-y inside. So keep them safe from unwise use.

Lime-scented meringues with chocolate
adapted from Shuna Fish Lydon via Simply Recipes

The recipe doubles easily. You can replace vinegar and lime juice together with 1/2 tsp of cream of tartar. If the eggs are straight out of the refrigerator, soak them in warm water for 10 minutes before cracking the shells.

1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp lime juice [see head note]
2 tsp cornstarch
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Egg whites from 3 large eggs, at room temperature [see head note]
Pinch of salt
100 gms [4 oz] of dark chocolate [or any kind really], optional
Berries, compotes, syrups, whipped cream to garnish, optional

Place rack in the middle of the oven and pre-heat the oven to 160 °C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Pour the vanilla and vinegar (if using) into a small cup. Stir the cornstarch into the sugar in a small bowl. In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites, [cream of tartar, if using] and salt. Using a stand mixer or electric beaters would be ideal. Start on low and slowly increase the speed till the soft peaks appear. This takes about a 2-3 minutes.

Increase speed to medium-high, slowly and gradually add in sugar-cornstarch mixture. A few minutes after these dry ingredients are added, slowly pour in vanilla and vinegar [if using]. Increase speed a bit and whip until meringue is glossy, and stiff peaks form when the whisk is lifted. This takes about 5-6 minutes. Spoon – I used 2 dinner spoons – the meringue onto the parchment in small portions that stick out at points, like in the photo. You could pipe them on if you want, but I prefer mine to be irregular.

Place baking sheet in the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 135 °C. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the meringues are crisp, dry to the touch on the outside and white. It should not be tanned. The insides should be marshmallow-y. Check on meringues when they’ve been in the oven for 30 minutes. If they appear to be taking on color or cracking, reduce temperature 25 degrees, and turn pan around. Gently lift from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack. Serve with chocolate drizzled on top or with berries and cream and so on. Goes well with a generous dose of cognac!

The meringues will keep in a tightly sealed container at room temperature, or individually wrapped, for up to a week if your house is not humid.

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chili-crusted chicken or how to juice up a breast

Alright. Grab your coffee and pull up a chair because we need to talk about this chicken.

This chicken is hot property. In fact, I can still hear the two leftover pieces sizzling in the baking dish in the kitchen. And its been at least three hours since I’ve had dinner.

Every time I roast whole chickens, I whip up a concoction of ginger-garlic paste, soya sauce, white sugar and Xiaoxing wine and pour it over the chicken and under its skin. And I’ve always served it with roasted red peppers and cucumber salad.

I’ve always felt that as an Indian I should automatically tip towards khichdi or daal as comfort food. But as much as I hate to admit it, it is true — roast chicken calms me down.

If my mother’s reading this, then we’ll have a lot to talk about very soon.

And yes, coming to the subject of breasts and thighs; I’m a thigh-person through and through. I go straight for the dark meat. No apologies. Besides, what is it with all the oohing over chicken breasts? Unless cooked sous vide or doused in sauce, those breasts usually have a tough time staying plump and juicy. I worry about that.

And that is exactly the reason I winced when I read a recipe of black-pepper crusted chicken breasts. I wanted to try making something “crusted” and the recipe seemed appropriate. Except those breasts. They loomed before me with a sneer in their faces.

In the end I settled for smoky chili and garlic instead of black pepper. And to keep the breasts moist, some orange juice. That’s right. You heard me. Orange juice.

Kind of a botched very-weak poulet version of duck a l’orange.

P.S. – If you’re wondering about the strawberries swimming in cream….well, as an homage to my grandmothers who moved to England 70 years back at the tender age of 16 or 17, I decided to have their favourite dessert for breakfast. And also, I had a ton of strawberries lying lonely in the fridge.

Chili-garlic crusted chicken

4 chicken breasts
1-2 tsp of unsalted butter
1-2 tbsp of olive sauce
2 tbsp of minced red chili (leave the seeds in, if like me you like it hot. For a milder taste, remove the seeds)
1 tbsp of dried chili flakes
2 tbsp of minced garlic
1 cup of orange juice (with pulp)
Salt and pepper, to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 160 deg C. Prepare a baking tray by greasing it.
Make diagonal cuts on the skin-side of the breasts; each cut just about quarter of an inch deep. Rub in the garlic, chili flakes, minced chili and butter into the cuts. Drizzle orange juice and olive oil over the breasts after placing them in the tray. Add salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast for about 30-40 minutes, or till the juices run clear.

In the picture I’ve served it alongside a watercress and arugula salad dressed in a mint-pecorino dressing.