how light and turmeric-y the curry is

Some days require plain curry and warm rice. And that’s it. You don’t need jewelled bread or cream-crowned cakes.

You turn on the air conditioning, look out at the setting sun and wait for your brother to finish laying the table.

You know it’s going to be good when you see you father making his way towards the table with the TV Guide tucked under his arm. He is excited about tonight’s cricket match. He has already set up the living room for his friends. He sits at the table and immediately he and my brother start having an animated discussion about the best batting lineup in the league.

My mother draws the curtains. Its hot and way too sunny for anyone’s comfort.

And then you dig into lunch.

Its a lunch of steamed rice and yellow chicken curry. It makes you forget about weekend cupcakes and makes you wonder why you ever needed a multi-layered birthday cake.

I chat a little with my family. We talk about summer fruits. My mum says she needs a smoothie a little while later. My brother says he needs fried chicken. Who on earth needs fried chicken when its a 100 degrees outside, I chuckle out loud. But mostly we concentrate on how light and turmeric-y the curry is.

The curry in question is your typical Indian chicken curry, except that it’s softened with yogurt and doesn’t have the resonant smokiness of garam masala. It also has one of my favourite ingredients – fenugreek. I cannot tell you enough about the magic of fenugreek, seeds or leaves or ground or anything.

You know how one of the best things in the world is the sound of bacon sizzling in the pan? The sound when it hits the hot pan? And then the second best thing is the smell of sizzling bacon reaching your nostrils?

Well, cooking with fenugreek is like one of those things. It looks unassuming. Not homely like spinach or surly like kale. It’s not as sharp as rocket or versatile like basil. But it’s a small piece of heaven alright. It hits your curry and then after a few seconds you get this really strong urge to dunk your head into the boiling curry just so you can take in all of its aroma.

Instead, you raise our nose, take a loooong breath and wait for lunch.

Yellow Chicken Curry with Fenugreek

500gm chicken breast pieces, or 4 chicken breast cut up in 1-inch cubes
3/4 cup of natural yogurt
1 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
2 small onions
1 tbsp of garlic paste
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1/2 tsp of red chili powder [more, if like us, you can handle the heat]
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 tsp dried fenugreek leaves
Salt, to taste
Chopped coriander leaves or parsley leaves, to garnish

In a large bowl, mix the chicken well with the yogurt. Make sure all the pieces are coated well with yogurt. Cover with cling film and rest in the refrigerator for 2-12 hours. Quarter the onions and blitz them in a blender along with a tablespoon of water, till it turns into a paste. You might need more water than a tablespoon.

Heat ghee/oil in a skillet. Add the onion, garlic and ginger in and stir on high-heat for about 3-4 minutes or till the mixture starts to turn colour. Add in the turmeric and chili and stir for a couple of minutes more. Lower the heat to medium. Add the chicken along with its yogurt-marinade and tomato puree. Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes or till you cut open the biggest piece of chicken and it’s all white in the center. If the curry looks too dry, add a few tablespoons of water to i and let it cook for 2 minutes more. Add the fenugreek leaves and season with salt. Stir for a minute and take it off heat. Garnish with leafage and serve with steamed rice.

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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.

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.