on crispy wings and pillowy breasts

You may want to run out and grab a freshly baked baguette from the bakery before we start. You’ll need it later, I promise.

Go on, I’ll wait.

Done? OK then. It might be foolish and much too late at this point to stand up and declare that life is full of surprising twists and turns. That cliche is done and done, smoked and overcooked.

But it’s a wispy summer’s evening here and I couldn’t find a better way to start with you.

Others may sing odes to their love stories when it comes to the unpredictability of life. My friend met her Mr. Right on a 9-hour plane journey. Sigh. My flatmate realized that her childhood friend was The One, when she left to work in a different country. My other flatmate met her match when he moved in to the apartment they ended up sharing. All that changed their lives. Then there are some who may dedicate the twists of life to career. We are surrounded here by people whose lives took turns for the best when they changed careers. High-flying banker to music producer. Corporate lawyer to bakery owner. Science post-grad to wedding planner. Brave men and women who step out of what they know and restart life in a new direction. Many of you may be thinking of doing the same thing right now. So you get the picture.

I have an almost similar life story. Almost.

At least as far as roast chicken is involved.

I had plans for my life when I moved to Nottingham, and awfully good ones too. I was going to get a Masters degree in Architecture and finally learn how to bake a proper chocolate cake instead of the college-version – in a mug and fresh out of the microwave. I looked forward to snow-laden winters, tweed overcoats and Boxing Day sales.

But you can nary do a thing when fate’s already made other plans for you. Plans that include you sweating through an oversized T-shirt while running around barefeet in a wintry kitchen, mitten-handed and struggling with a hot-as-hell roasting tin. It was Christmas of 2009 and I was helping Hana, my Vietnamese flatmate, make a proper honest-to-goodness  roast chicken. With all the traditional trimmings.

In our excitement, we ‘d almost forgotten to dress appropriately considering the kitchen was at a bone-chilling 36 °F at the time. We burnt the potatoes, grossly under-cooked the chicken, pulled out deflated Yorkie puds and poured out glasses of strong sherry to rejoice in our achievements.

That was the first twist.

Since then there have been twelve more twists and turns, wherein I’ve roasted chickens like I was born to do it.

I’ve gone Chinese on them. I’ve stuffed them with all-Mexican themed ingredients. I’ve taken them down the classic butter-n-thyme road. And I’ve also dragged the poor chickens through the dusty footpaths of India.

You’ll excuse my obliviousness to the magic of a simply roasted chicken prior to that Christmas. Till that point I was happily sauntering through my life, down roads lined with curries and pav bhajis and occasional grease-laden burgers.

But along came a simple bird. And after coat of butter and a spell of hight heat it transformed itself into what I now call my “go-to”. My parlor trick when called for. It really is. Just the smell of it when you pull out a half-done roast to slather it with honey. [Refer to above photograph for similar visual pleasure of a half-done chicken roast] Or the feel of it when your teeth sinks into the dark of the thighs and you hear the squelch of the juices. Who needs soul-mates when you feel like taking a roast chicken on a 9-hour flight, I say.

I came into my own with roast chicken and I plan to stay nestled between its crispy wings and pillowy breasts till eternity. And the roasted bird shows up everywhere as far as I’m concerned. I roasted chicken for Christmas last year. I did it for the last birthday party I attended. I’ll probably do it when the Queen of England finally decides to come down to my place for lunch. If that ever happens, you’ll be the first to know. I roasted a chicken on my first weekend after moving to London. And I also roasted this one last week, for you.

First step towards the journey to Roast Chicken Heaven is procuring the bird. I take my birds seriously and I like them hefty. Heftier birds such as organic ‘roasters’ roast way better than any other kind. They can take the heat and go crispy-skinned while not shrivelling up. I do however, use ‘broiler’ birds too, like in this case, and they roast up just as well considering that you keep an eye on the temperature and have a piece of aluminium foil at the ready.

The second step to a great roast chicken is, for obvious reasons, flavour. And trust me, when it comes to roasting anything, a purist I am not. So if you are one, I suggest you turn away right now before your nose starts crinkling up. I’ve tried a plethora of combinations on roast chicken and let me tell you how well the bird has done under the pressure of all my experimentation. One of my favourites is a super-quick Chinese sauce of sorts slurried together out of light and dark soy sauces, brown sugar and rice wine vinegar. Pour that over the chicken, bung in garlic and ginger and roast till the skin is caramelized with the sugar and the juices run clear. That paired with steamed sticky rice and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds is again, dear readers, life-changing.

For today, I have a broiler chicken snug with a layer of butter, aromatic with garlic cloves and lemon, musky with spices and fruity pomegranate seeds. It may sound like a whole lot of flavours, completely opposite to what thoughts of roast chicken provoke. But go with me on this one and you’ll know what I mean. And don’t forget the baguette that you bought.

And I don’t actually need to mention this, but squeezing the soft roasted garlic out of their skins and on to a warm baguette is a culinary orgasm by itself.

Spice Roasted Chicken

Note on roasting times: I usually allow 20 minutes of roasting time for every pound of chicken. SO basically for 1.2 kilos  I appointed a roasting time of 55-60 minutes. Here’s a fantastic guide to roasting chicken.

Note on pomegranate: Dried pomegranate seeds are readily available in Indian food stores. If you don’t find any you can use about 3 tbsps of pomegranate syrup (like POM) or pomegranate molasses in place of honey.

Note on adding veggies: The veggies are optional. But if you do add any, add 15 minutes more to the roasting time.

1 broiler chicken – mine was about 1.2 kg
100gm of butter, softened at room temperature
2 tsps olive oil + more as needed
2 tsps of ground turmeric
2 tsps of ground coriander
1 tsps of dried fenugreek
2-3 tbsp of dried pomegranate seeds [see head note]
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 whole garlic heads, separate the cloves but do not peel off the skins
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsps of runny honey or 3-4 tbsps of pomegranate molasses [see head note]
New potatoes and carrots, optional [see head note]

Pre-heat the oven to 200 °C. Prepare a large roasting tin by coating it with a thin layer of olive oil. Plop the chicken in the centre of the tin. Use half the butter to coat the entire chicken evenly. Divide the rest of the butter equally and stuff each half between the skin and flesh of the chicken breasts. Try and pry the skin apart from the flesh with your index finger.

Mix 2 tsp of olive oil along with turmeric, coriander and fenugreek to make a paste. Apply this mixture evenly all over the chicken. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds [if using any] on top. Add the veggies [if using any] around the chicken and drizzle a generous glug of olive oil over them.

Sprinkle the zest of lemon on top of chicken. Cut the lemon in half and juice both halves out over the the chicken and veggies. Tuck one of the halves into the cavity of the chicken. Scatter the garlic cloves over and around the chicken. Sprinkle everything with salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.

For a roaster: Pop the tin into the oven and roast at 200 °C for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 180 °C and roast for 30 minutes. Pull out the tin and with a pastry brush, brush the honey [or pomegranate syrup/molasses] generously all over the chicken breasts, thighs and wings. Put the tin back into the oven and roast at 180 °C for 15 minutes or till the juices run clear when you pierce a thigh with a skewer.

For a broiler: Wrap the chicken up butter, spices, lemon and all with aluminium foil and pop it back in the centre of the tin. Roast for 15 minutes at 200 °C. Remove foil and lower the oven temperature to 180 °C and roast for 30 minutes. To pat on the honey or pom-juice just continue as mentioned above.

If you’ve got veggies in the tin, I would suggest checking if the potatoes are cooked after the total roasting time. If they’re not, simply take a piece of aluminium foil cover the chicken with it, tucking in the edges as much as you can without burning your fingers. And pop the tin back into the oven for a further 10-15 minutes or till the veggies are done.

Rest the chicken for at least 20 minutes covered loosely with a piece of aluminium foil before serving.

Although I don’t prefer it, you could easily whip up a quick sauce from the pan juices to go with the chicken. Heat the juices in a separate pan. Add a tablespoon of flour and stir it in vigorously to get rid of lumps. Add a few drops of Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the sauce by half and serve.

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nosy neighbours and hot pasta sauce

Somewhere in the middle of 2005 I moved into what was “my first apartment”.

Roasted Tomatoes

A double-bedroom apartment that had a balcony overlooking one of Baroda’s busiest crossings. It was an open plan with a kitchen-cum-dining-cum-living and the kitchen was anything but. It was lined with pink granite counter-tops on two sides and the sole appliance it housed was a double gas-burner. The rest of the space was used for storing mounds of sheets and rolls of paper. The roles piled one on top of the other formed a mountain that almost reached the ceiling, short of a feet or two. They threatened to topple down on our heads at any moment, but their threats fell on deaf ears.

My half of the apartment included a single bedroom that was airy in summer and warm in the winter. It had an attached bath that was approximately the size of a small bento box and a large window that occupied an entire wall. The window overlooked a large courtyard and a common corridor that was always drenched in rainwater during the heavy monsoon months.

The corridor was also my nosy neighbour’s favourite hangout apparently.

She would take a stroll through it, up and down, every hour or so, pausing near my window every time she crossed it and then extend her long neck to take a peek inside. It was her regular routine. For the first year that I lived in that apartment, this habit of hers was torture. I would look up from my work and jump in panic as I’d spot her face floating on one corner of my window. After working long hours through the night, I’d take a long nap. And as I would open my droopy eyelids and turn my head, there’d be her face. Floating at my window. Again.

I spent that entire year arguing with her, starting with politeness and ending in sharp words, as I would try to make her see how she was invading my private space. I tried sarcasm. Then I moved on to anger. I resorted to contorting my face into ugliness as I spoke to her, hoping that my expressions would scare her off. I even tried threatening her with letters to the building management. And I also started to keep my curtains drawn at all times blocking out all the daylight, which, was not fun. But in my entire comparatively short-life I have never met any woman with such great will power as hers.

By the second year, I was used to her nosiness and too tired and busy to complain. But silently kept looking for a solution to the problem. The solution arrived sooner than I expected. In the shape and form of a man – a half-Goan-half-Portuguese curly-haired student of commerce. We had met over a roadside chai stall frequented by students of the University and an episode of puppy-love had followed. And besides all the drama and petting-rituals this relationship demanded, it also kept me watered and fed. We used to share our evening over episodes of How I Met Your Mother, bowls of spaghetti in watery tomato sauce, pressure-cooked chicken and tuna sandwiches from Subway. There was also the incident where we were too busy exchanging affections to notice that the apartment had started to flood due to a leaky faucet. Um…I’ve grown since.

I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this. In fact, I’m positive that you’ve already guessed how I scared off my neighbour. Oh well. Let’s just say, her floating head disappeared permanently from my window since that fateful evening when my friend showed up.

He did show up with another packet of supermarket spaghetti and another jar of watery tomato sauce and we never really got to eat much, but in retrospect that was a price I was willing to pay for revenge on a nosy neighbour.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

Indianised salsa di pomodoro
inspired by Gordon Ramsey’s tomato soup in Chef’s Secrets

Any kind if tomatoes will do for this one, but try it with tomatoes on the vine as well. In that case, don’t remove the vine before roasting them. We like it hot and spicy over here, and if you do too, notch up the heat to two chillies instead of one. As an alternative, try roasting the tomatoes for 1 1/2 hours at 150 deg C. To turn this into a lovely tomato soup, just heat the sauce along with 1 1/2 cups of chicken/vegetable stock. The soup can be served with a dollop of crème fraiche and a toasted baguette. The recipe doubles easily if you require a larger batch.

5 medium tomatoes, in thick slices
2 medium red onions [or Spanish onions], sliced
1/2 head of garlic, skin on
1 red chilli [we keep the seeds intact, but remove the seeds if you prefer]
1 tsp of dried basil
1 tsp of dried thyme [or 2 tsp of fresh thyme leaves]
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1 tsp of ground coriander
Salt and pepper, to taste
Olive oil, as needed
Juice of 1 lime [or half a lemon]
2 tbsp of honey
2 tbsp of barbecue sauce [store-bought is just fine]

Pre-heat oven to 170 deg C. Scatter tomatoes, onions and garlic on a baking tray. Sprinkle basil, thyme, turmeric, coriander over and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle a generous amount of olive oil, about 4-5 tablespoons, all over the ingredients. Roast for 45-50 minutes till the tomatoes start to fall apart. Let everything cool in the tray for 15 minutes before squeezing the garlic out of its skin. Blitz everything in a blender or food processor till smooth. Add lime juice, honey and barbecue sauce and stir well.
The sauce will keep for a week in an air-tight jar kept in the refrigerator. Use it as a dip or as a pasta sauce. To use with pasta, heat it up in a pan before adding cooked pasta along with fresh basil leaves and a handful of grated parmesan.

eggplants, for happily ever after

Well, good news. Spring is here. Officially. And about time too.

This calls for serious gearing-up for us food obsessed troglodytes. But before I start planning and promising anything, I must tackle eggplants. They’ve sat quietly on the couch watching – and waiting – as I batted my eyelashes at frivolous cakes and dallied with some serious potatoes. But there’s no denying that no matter who I’ve been with, I go home to eggplants every night.

I spent a good part of 2008 swooning over a certain Naval officer – a lot of which had to do with his crisp uniform – and devoting a large amount of time to vegetables. He was a staunch vegetarian and I wanted to impress. At the time I was a novice in the kitchen and had only recently graduated from burning water to under-cooking rice. My meals included leathery omelettes and whole tomatoes boiled in water with salt and garlic that was supposedly toh-mah-toh soup [cue eye-rolling]. And all this just so I could ask him about his mother’s South Indian fares, his squadron’s daily menu-plans and in general talk his ears off about food. We didn’t have much in common except for our affinity to Bollywood music and cringe-worthy wit, so I guess devoting more of my time and my all-consuming appetite to vegetarian food was my way of impressing him. And that’s the closest I got to making deep sacrifices for love.

But in all honesty, it wasn’t as bad as I’m trying to make it sound. Because I had eggplants.

My first memory of eggplants is obscure and I have decided not to bore you much today.  I’ve only ever heard my relatives tell me stories of how on being asked what I wanted for lunch I used to reply solemnly, “begun bhaja aar maachh bhaja.”
In English: fried eggplant and fried fish.

My priorities were pretty sorted back then.

Today I may snort and tear and chew meat off the bones like a blood-thirsty carnivore – I’m trying to make up for that whole year’s worth of meat that I missed out on – but a special place in my heart is reserved for eggplants. And okra too, but that’s for another day. I think it has a lot to do with the eggplant’s silky disposition and how they graciously host other flavours – whatever you may choose to marry them to. But their miracle is that they don’t get lost in all the chaos and can perfectly hold their body against your tongue.

My favourite way to consume an [almost] daily dose of eggplant is to pan-fry thick slices of them Bengali-style — on low heat, in a smidgen of oil, coated lightly with ground turmeric, salt and a thin thin film of flour — till they’re  soft and falling off their crispy skins. There are few things in life that can make you slam the table hard with your palm out of pleasure and a slice of eggplant prepared that way is one of those things.

But my latest discovery has been this sort of melange of eggplant cubes, tomatoes, garlic and onions. It’s a sabji basically, pretty quick to prepare and has a hint of dried mango powder and chili powder in it. The twang of the mango powder lifts the eggplant’s umami and the sabji goes well with a host of breads, flat-breads and rice. It’s a cross between my kind of comfort food, something you would whip up for Curry Night with the other couples and something you want to share with your significant other over a quiet romantic dinner.

Its a great start to spring and lately it also served me well when I had to feed a heartbroken friend. My adventures with men in uniforms may not have gone as smoothly as I had expected but when all else fails, there will always be eggplant.

Eggplant Sabji with Dried Mango Powder

Dried mango powder is easily available in any big supermarket or Indian food shops. So are turmeric, coriander and chili powder. Chili powder can also be substituted with 2 teaspoons of chili flakes.

2 tbsp of vegetable oil, either sunflower or olive
2 medium onions, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 large eggplants, cut into 1-inch cubes
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of dried mango powder
2  tsp of ground coriander
1 tsp of red chili powder
1/4 tsp pinch of turmeric powder
2 tsp granulated sugar
Water, as needed
1/2 cup of coriander leaves, chopped
Salt, to taste

Heat oil in a skillet. Saute the onions on high heat till they’re soft and starting to slightly brown at the edges. Add in the garlic and saute for a minute. Add in the tomatoes, eggplant cubes, spices and sugar. Combine everything well. Lower to heat to medium-low and cover the skillet. Cook for 10-12 minutes. Check for moisture content. If the sabji looks too dry, add a tablespoon of water. Add more if needed but be miserly because you don’t want the mixture to be soupy. Cover and cook for another 8-10 minutes till the eggplants have softened. Check the biggest of the cubes and if it’s cooked all the way to the middle then the sabji’s ready. Season with salt, stir in the coriander and let them wilt in the heat for a minute.

Serve with rotis, on toasted baguette slices or bread. Or with rice. Or stuffed between the layers of a pita. The options are limitless really.