turning out to be a food blog

1st January 2012 started with a lot of booze and bowls full of Chinese food. A very promising start to the new year already.Between the last time that I had my cozy breakfast and now, I’ve been bombarded with lamb kebabs, yogurt cakes and a session of brazen drink-mixing that only 21 year-old co-eds excel in. And then New year’s Day started with Chinese food. Home-cooked versions of takeout favourites, but a shameless indulgence no doubt, considering the fact the most of us are — or were — planning to eat healthy in the New Year. There go our resolutions, flying out the window.

I’ve been reading Mark Kurlansky’s Choice Cuts and I have to say that the book has more than enough gems of food accounts. Right now he’s talking about one of Anton Chekhov’s pieces on an eight-course menu for journalists:

(1) a glass of vodka
(2) daily shchi [cabbage soup] and yesterday’s kasha
(3)  two glasses of vodka
(4) suckling pig with horseradish
(5) 3 glasses of vodka
(6) horse radish, cayenne pepper and soy sauce
(7) 4 glasses of vodka
(8) 7 bottles of beer

Sounds like my kind of people.

I will talk to you about Chinese food of course. Sooner or later we need to have that conversation. Mostly because there is no sun up or sun down in my house without a thought to Chinese cuisine. We’re true blue Indians, who’ve taken traditional Chinese cooking under our wings, molded and melded it to our liking. Stretched, flattened and twisted it according to our taste buds and made it our own. Ever since the first Chinese family cooked in Kolkata’s historical Chinatown, our noses caught the whiff of soy sauce, and we dragged our grumbling tummies to their home for a taste of their food. And then there was no looking back. I promise to tell you in detail how Chinese food fits into our mostly-Indian kitchen, but for now, this recipe for pork with Bok Choy should keep you full.

This is very quickly turning out to be a food blog.

Braised Pork with Bok Choy

The recipe sits close to my heart. Late nights, or early mornings, in Nottingham, were spent drooping over the pit of doom that was my thesis, while I wrestled with job applications at the same time. Sleep was almost non-existent. Ladytron dominated my playlist and whenever despair loomed, I would trudge down to the kitchen and stir some pork up with soy sauce. And pretty soon while shopping for more pork, I chanced upon a couple of bok choy bulbs sitting vibrantly green and pretty in the produce section. Didn’t take long for me to put the two together.
The recipe calls for Xiaoxing wine and rice wine vinegar. But honestly, I’m not a stickler and you can easily improvise. You can easily use good quality white wine and plain fruit vinegar if you have those on hand. Also, even though I haven’t used spring onions in this version, you could easily use 2-3, chopped. Add them along with the garlic and ginger. To fry, any tasteless vegetable oil will do. I use peanut oil. Lastly, I do not usually add salt at all because of all the soy sauce in it.

1kg pork shoulder, cut into chunks
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour, sifted
3-4 tbsp of vegetable oil, to fry
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 red chili, chopped
1/2 cup of light soy sauce
1/4 cup of dark soy sauce
3 tbsp of rice wine vinegar
3 tbsp of Xiaoxing wine
1 Tbsp of granulated white sugar
1 medium sized bok choy
Salt, to taste (optional, if you like it too salty, which I doubt you do)

Gently pull apart the leaves of the the bok choy. Wash and dry them. In a big bowl, sift in the flour and add in the pork chunks. Tumble them in the flour till all the chunks are coated evenly with flour. Lay out the chunks on a baking sheet after shaking off excess flour. Heat oil in a non-stick skillet. Test the oil by dropping a little flour into it. If it sizzles, its ready. Add the pork and quickly stir-fry for 4-5 minutes till the pieces have browned. Lower the heat to medium. Add the garlic, ginger and chili and cook for another minute just to take the rawness out of them. Add the the two soy sauces, wine, vinegar and sugar and stir to combine. Lower the heat. Cover and braise for about 20 minutes. Remove the cover and add the bok choy leaves in a layer on top. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Stir the wilted leaves into the sauce. Taste and adjust, adding sugar or vinegar, if necessary. Serve piping hot over steamed white rice.

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.

on growing up at 27

I’m trying to get away from turning 27.

Yes, it was my birthday on the 6th, Tuesday. And like last year, it was a quiet one.

Now, in my circle, birthdays usually come with a butter-loaded cake, waves of tequila and lots of arse-to-arse dancing. But after my quarter-life crisis drama a couple of years back, I’ve tuned it down, choosing to hang out with my family for the whole day (much preferable, I might add). The craziness is reserved for the next day, when my friends take me out.

Note: the quarter-life crisis drama included freaking out on meeting this 22-yr old co-ed dating a 29-yr old doctor for whom I had the proverbial “hots”.

Yesterday started off with a breakfast-almost-brunch with family and family friends, at Flury’s — an eternal favourite and a classic symbol for Calcutta. A must-visit for anybody who steps foot in the city.

That led to a shopping spree with my folks. Now has always the perfect time to glam up for Christmas.

And against my better judgement, I went for flat shoes. Flat, sequined, ankle tie-backs from Metro. And that was a shocker for my mother, considering the fact that she has never seen me without high heeled shoes in the last 4-5 years. I may not wear the shortest skirts, my face may not be made up 24/7, I may not have the shoulders to carry off a sleek halter-neck, but I would literally sleep & run for errands, in my heels. And I have.

But, I saw these flats on the window and fell in love…more so with the half-suede half-satin ribbon ties than the sequined panels. I guess, I’m going to consider this as my ‘something different’ for this year. The other ‘something different’ would be my departure from red and wine coloured nail varnishes, that I have been faithful to all these years. I got myself some gold luxe.

This is suddenly starting to seem like the more older I grow, the more bling-iness I crave. Yeow.

Anyways, I think I can work these two as my Christmas pieces. For now, just have some sinfully dark brownies I made to start the day.

Under normal circumstances I would go for a rich Fondant Au Chocolat…but these brownies have been a keeper ever since the first gorgeous batch I made during a Slovenia vs England FIFA match last year. Their dense, overpowered with cocoa, with a shot of coffee, addictive and almost a comfort to an ageing 27-yr old.

Sinful Chocolate Brownies

160gm 70% cocoa powder
120gm all-purpose flour
240gm caster sugar
120gm unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs
2 tsp instant coffee powder
A big fat pinch of salt

Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C. Prepare a 9″ x 9″ tin by greasing the bottom and sides with some butter. Sift the dry ingredients in a bowl. Beat in the butter and eggs, till the lumps disappear and the mixture is thick and spreadable. Pour batter in the prepared tin and level the surface. Bake for 18-20 minutes or till the center is slightly greasy. Cool and cut into pieces.