Saturday, May 27, 2017

Made in Punjab

The Kalras are the first family of the food industry. Where people find even one success story hard to achieve, Zorawar Kalra has managed win after win with Masala Library, Farzi Cafe, Papaya and most recently, MasalaBar. But much before they hit the stride with molecular gastronomy, there was Jiggs Kalra and solid Punjabi cooking. Made In Punjab, set inside Mumbai's Inorbit Mall, continues that legacy.



We settled in with a watermelon shikanji, a delightful combination of watermelon and lime. If that's not your style, there are drinks aplenty to pick from, including a thick Amritsari lassi, complete with malai or cream pedas. To go with the drinks, Made in Punjab brought out a selection of starters for us to review. Now I'm gonna point out that I only tried the vegetarian food but their chicken is apparently legendary.

The starters you see above are the usual combination of mushrooms, paneer and tandoori potatoes. But there was also a yam kebab. These four were spicy and each came with their own set of dips. Yet, given my penchant for subtle flavours, it should be no surprise that my favourite appetiser was the creamy almond broccoli.



On to the mains then, with the trademark Jiggs Kalra dal. That and the paneer lababdar make an appearance on most north Indian menus. But I want you to pay special attention to the bottom right quadrant where sits lasooni palak with chenna. If you grew up thinking greens are boring, this garlicky, creamy spinach combined with fresh curd cheese will change your opinion forever. Little touches apply to most everything at the restaurant and I refer not just to the edible flower garnishes but the added layer of texture in lasooni palak with some crisp, fried spinach.

Made in Punjab also makes an excellent morel biryani, with authentic Kashmiri morels and a burrani raita (yogurt with fried garlic) to die for.



We were really full up by then but the restaurant suggested we try their not-too-sweet rasmalai and it did make a great end to the meal. I've tried their warm desserts on previous visits and both the rabdi-jalebi and the chocolate stuffed gulab jamun should be on your lists of foods to try.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Spaghetti. Mushrooms. Oregano.



Often times, when brands approach me for a review, it's a process of discovery. But not when Borges asked if I will like to create some recipes with their pasta. Olive oil may seem like a very Indian thing now with hundreds of brands dotting supermarket shelves but there was a time, only a few years ago, when using olive instead of refined oil was a rarity. I recall I started buying this Spanish olive oil back then and pretty much stuck to the brand. And since I had Borges olives and olive oil already in my pantry, this seemed like a good time to give their pasta a try as well.

Borges' pastas are made in Italy with durum wheat, the traditional hard wheat for pastas. I'm starting you off with a cheesy spaghetti but expect a summery penne coming your way soon. Now pastas have become super common on restaurant menus. But often times, they come fully smothered in a heavy white or red or god forbid, pink sauce. They are stodgy and spicy and you may as well be eating curry.

Not this one. For my spaghetti, I made a light yet cheesy bechamel sauce. The creamy pasta is complemented with sauteed mushrooms. And to add another layer of texture, I added some crisp fried oregano leaves at the end. It's all very simple really, just like good pasta should be. The recipe that follows is for one person because I was cooking for myself, so multiply by the number of people you are cooking this for.

Ingredients
50 grams dry Borges spaghetti
4 tbsp Borges olive oil
1 tbsp cornflour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
100 grams mushrooms
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp white wine vinegar
salt
black pepper
handful of fresh oregano leaves

We will start with the mushrooms that you should thoroughly wash and slice thinly. Also peel and finely mince the garlic. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a nonstick pan. Add the garlic and let it brown, then add the mushrooms, spreading them out in a single layer if possible. Add vinegar, salt and black pepper. Keep stirring constantly - at some point, the mushrooms will give out a lot of water but it will all evaporate eventually and you will be left with sauteed mushrooms.

While the mushrooms are cooking, fill the largest pot you own halfway with water and set to boil. Once the water comes to a roaring boil, add about a tsp of salt and drop in the spaghetti. Cook for the time indicated on your package, until it's what Italians call al dente i.e. cooked but with a bite. Drain and set aside for a moment.

For the cheese sauce, heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan. Add the cornflour and stir until the raw flour smell goes away but don't let the flour get brown. Reduce the heat to minimum possible and slowly add the milk, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let thicken a bit to the consistency of cream. Add cheese and stir until it all melts into the sauce. Add plenty of black pepper. The cheese will probably give the sauce enough salt but taste and add more if you like.

Finally, heat the remaining 2 tbsp oil in a small pan. Add the oregano leaves. They will splutter and in about 5 seconds, will be crunchy. Turn off the heat and remove the fried leaves with a slotted spoon. Leave on a paper towel to drain off the excess oil.

To serve, add spaghetti to your simmering cheese sauce and let it heat through for about a minute. Pop onto a plate - you can try twirling with a fork but as you can see, I didn't do too neat a job of that. Top with mushrooms and fried oregano.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Upgrading Aloo Posto



There was a time when north Indian food formed bulk of my food experiences and barring an occasional dosa, I had very little understanding of how other regions of India eat. I gradually picked up dishes and ideas but this expansion of palette happened in no particular order and was often influenced by people I met and stories I heard. Sometime I would hear the name of a dish and find it fascinating. Aloo posto was one such dish. We don't use poppyseeds in our curries and using a new spice as the base for a potato curry sounded exciting.

Hence, the first time I found myself in a restaurant that had aloo posto on the menu, I eagerly ordered it. I was never more disappointed. What I expected was some form of spicy, crunchy potatoes. What I got instead was a bland, blah dish. I never got to like aloo posto but I continued to believe that poppyseeds and potatoes will make for a good flavour combination.

In my mind, there are two basic flaws with aloo posto. By soaking poppyseeds and making them into a paste, you take away the essential benefit of using them - the crunch they add to a dish. And then the color - except for a rare black nigella seed, the dish is a boring beige all over. Both these flaws are fixed in this new and updated version of aloo posto, using blue poppyseeds both for crunch and color. Here's the recipe for a comforting dinner dish.

Ingredients
3 medium sized potatoes
1 tbsp mustard oil
2 tbsp blue poppy seeds
1 tsp nigella seeds
10-12 curry leaves
1/2 tsp asafoetida
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp dry mango (amchur) powder
salt, to taste
coriander leaves, to garnish

Wash the potatoes, wipe them dry and cut into medium thick rounds. Heat oil in a nonstick pan. Add asafoetida and curry leaves. After 10-15 seconds, add poppy seeds and nigella seeds. Wait until the seeds start to splutter, then add the potatoes and salt. Add just enough water to cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Keep checking every few minutes. By the time the water evaporates, the potatoes should be cooked through. Increase the heat and let the potatoes cook for another 1-2 minutes until they get a bit of a color. It's essential you use a nonstick pan to prevent potatoes sticking and getting difficult to remove.

Move the potatoes to a serving platter. Sprinkle red chilli powder and amchur and garnish with coriander.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Dulce de leche Brownies



David Lebovitz is my favourite blogger. He's witty and charming; he lives in Paris and goes travelling for food around the world and he runs chocolate tours and writes ice cream books. David's list of places to visit in Paris was my travel guide when I visited and I wasn't disappointed at a single place that he recommended. His blog is also chockful of some brilliant recipes and I've made a few of them my favourites over the years. So when I found myself with a jar of dulce de leche, courtesy my friend Rachana, I immediately thought of David's recipe for dulce de leche brownies.

Dulce de leche is caramalised condensed milk. You cook the tin of condensed milk slowly, until it changes flavour and colour to become a jar of candy you can scoop out with a spoon and eat. Which is what I did with most of my tin of dulce. Added flavour bonus if you also sprinkle some sea salt before digging it. But I still have half a tin left after a few days and that's what went into these brownies.

The brownies themselves are intensely chocolatey and dense, with pockets of caramel running through them. You can look up David's recipe for the full batch of 12 brownies. I made 1/3rd the recipe and got myself 4 incredibly decadent brownie cupcakes.

Ingredients
35 grams salted butter
55 grams dark chocolate (I used Callebaut 72%)
1/2 tbsp cocoa powder
1 egg
1/3 cup caster sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup dulce de leche

All ingredients should be at room temperature so bring out anything that's in the fridge a couple of hours early. I use callets but if you have bars of chocolate, chop that too. Line four cupcake tins with paper liners.

Melt butter in a saucepan. Add chocolate and stir constantly over very low heat until the chocolate is melted. Remove from heat and whisk in the cocoa powder until smooth. Add the egg and whisk to combine, then stir in the sugar, vanilla and the flour. Finally mix in the nuts.

Fill each of your cupcake moulds halfway with the batter. Drop a spoonful of dulce de leche into each and stir with a knife to swirl it. Top with the remaining batter, then drop dollops of dulce de leche on top of the cupcakes and use a knife to swirl the batter again.

Bake for around 30 minutes, until the brownie/cupcakes look firm and cooked through.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

What's in a spoon



A few months back, I was invited to a bloggers event by Kishco. This is a cutlery and cookware brand set up in the 1950s. But only in the last couple of years has the brand image been revamped by the second generation of founder family; in this case the fitness expert Namita Jain. Namita's launched a beautiful range of stainless steel cutlery and at the time of our event, they had also added a whole lot of 'healthy cooking' pots and pans that are being sold out of Kishco's flagship stores and a bunch of online and offline retail channels. We spent a pleasant enough afternoon drinking tea and admiring kitchenware and talking table etiquette. But in the end, I wasn't sure how to tell you all about the event or the brand. After all, a spoon's a spoon right?

Not quite so, as it turns out. Namita gifted us all half a dozen soup spoons. I don't drink much soup so at first I thought I will have no use for these. But over time, I've found that these spoons - both prettier and sturdier than what I had before - have become my defacto choice in many situations. Like scooping out curry into a bowl, or stirring custard, or a few other things that have nothing to do with soup whatsoever.

Now I couldn't really show you just the empty spoons right. So I have for you instead a spoon-sized, cute little appetizer. I call it 'textures of fig'. I started with kind of a fig chutney; in fact, a jam made with dried figs called lekvar. And because fig chutney is such a cheese board classic, this spoon has both cheese (feta) and crackers to give you the feel of a mini cheese course. To round off other textures of figs, there are both caramalised and fresh figs.

Here's how you put the whole shebang together:
1. Start with a dollop, about a tsp, of fig lekvar. Use this recipe, replacing apricots with figs.
2. Cut one fig into small chunks and arrange in a line midway through the lekvar layer.
3. Cut a fig into 1/8ths to give you thin slivers. Roll both sides of the slice in brown sugar, and pop onto a hot nonstick pan. Sear on one side for 15-20 seconds, then turn and cook the other side. Remove and arrange to one side of the spoon on top of the lekvar.
4. Cut feta cheese into small cubes and arrange on top of the spoon
5. Finally, add a small piece of lavash or cracker of your choice to round out the flavours.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Latin American Feast



Mumbai is the place to be when you want to try food from farflung corners of the world. If there aren't specialty restaurants catering to your tastebuds, there will be one of the countless popups serving your cuisine of choice. Except there are blatant misses. There is hardly anything from Africa. And while Mexico is well represented, there is almost nothing else from rest of South America. Rachana, over at second helping, is tackling this gap with the launch of her Latin American popup - Tan Bueno. It's a particularly brave venture given that her menu is completely and fully vegetarian. Rachana invited me over to taste her new menu and I can't help but tell you about this fabulous feast.

At Tan Bueno, Rachana welcomes you with that refreshing Mexican summer drink, an agua fresca. Her version has pineapple and mint in it and we sipped on this delicious drink all through our meal. A meal that starts off with three brilliant appetizers. There are empanadas filled with minced vegetables and carrying heat from ancho chillies. I particularly liked the pink guava and chipotle sauce that came with the empanadas.

Next we had corn arepas, crisp on the outside but pleasantly plump and full of beans. Rachana serves these Columbian street favourites with sour cream and a side of home made plantain chips. Rounding up the starter season were crisp tacos, left flat and stacked with beans, lettuce, cheese and dollops of guacamole and salsa. We were feeling pretty full by then so it helped to be in company of fellow food and travel enthusiasts so we could talk for a while before Rachana brought out her mains.



The mains have two very different and unique dishes. From Peru, Rachana brings in a potato bake in a cheese and walnut sauce that she serves with tortillas. And there is a spicier curry from Jamaica, of vegetables in peanut and chilli sauce, served with a Columbian coconut rice.

We skimped on the mains because we suspected the desserts will be worth looking forward to. And they surely were - a creamy Jamaican trifle served with fresh fruits and my personal favourite, the tres leches cake.

At Tan Bueno's popups, they play beautiful Latin American music to match the food. And they even sent us home with a bottle of salsa and a jar of home made dulce de leche to carry over the experience for the next few days. If you haven't experienced Latin American food beyond nachos and tacos, this is the perfect place to make acquaintance with some brilliant dishes. Or if you are looking to bring back memories of that last vacation you took there, as one of my fellow diners did, Rachana's food is sure to transport you.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

An Ode to Plain Rice



I grew up in Punjab. Which means only one thing rice-wise - we eat basmati. We don't eat a lot of it since Punjab is largely a wheat eating state but when we do - be it with curry or the lentil porridge (khichdi) or the rice pudding (kheer), the choice of rice is always the long grained, fragrant basmati. Now basmati is a great rice for things like biryani but it's not a cure all and over the years, I've found several new favourites to match the recipe I have in mind. After trying everything from black rice to the nutty wild rice, here is my pick of the top 5 varieties to always have in stock.

1. For Plain Rice: The kind of rice you eat with a curry. You need the grains to be soft and short, and it doesn't hurt for rice to be smushy. This is one category with multiple contenders but my favourite at the moment is the Bengali Govindobhog rice. I first discovered it at Lavaash in Delhi and it took a fair bit of hunting but Govindobhog is now available in my local hypercity as well as online. To cook govindobhog or pretty much any plain rice, you wash and soak it in plenty of water for an hour, then cook it in 2x the volume of water to rice until the water is all absorbed and the rice is cooked through. At this point, you add a tsp of ghee and that's when govindobhog goes from ordinary to brilliantly flavourful.

2. For Biryani: Nothing does the job better than the aforementioned basmati rice. Look for varieties that have been aged at least a year. Like fine wine, basmati gets better as it gets older.

3. For Khichdi: I've found that the frangrant indrayani rice, native to my adopted home state of Maharashtra, gives the most bang for the buck when making this lentil porridge. It also does a passable job in rice puddings but I've got you a better option for that.

4. For rice puddings: Yes, arborio rice is mainly meant for risottos and then frying those risottos as arancinis. But try cooking it in milk for a decadent rice pudding. Add some chopped chocolate at the end and you have a spectacular dessert at hand.

5. For fancy dinners: Nothing beats the short, sticky sushi rice. Roll yourself a sushi to impress your guests or if it's your lazy day, make yourself a grain bowl with sushi rice.

I just peeked into my fridge and apart from these five, I also seem to have stocky red rice and a purple variety. But wild colored rices are a story for another time.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Zucchini Fritters



Have you noticed how large zucchinis grow to be. I like adding them to the mix when making stir fries but there is only as much squash you can add to mushrooms and peppers and babycorn. Which means I usually have half a zucchini leftover after a stir fry meal. Most days, the half zucchini is left to languish in the fridge but I think I have finally found the perfect recipe for it.

It's zucchini fritters, made on a pan without much fuss at all. Now most recipes for such fritters call for eggs as binding agent but because even one egg will be way too much for my half zucchini, this recipe also features a secret ingredient - mayonnaise. Think about it - mayonnaise is really just egg and oil and flavour so you can't go wrong with this replacement.

Ingredients1 cup grated zucchini
2 tbsp cornflour
1 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp grated cheddar
salt and black pepper, to taste
olive oil to fry, about a tbsp

Put grated zucchini in a colander. Add 1/2 tsp salt, mix and leave over a bowl or a sink for 10 minutes. Squeeze zucchini between both hands to drain off as much moisture as you can.

In a bowl, combine zucchini with cornflour, cheese and mayonnaise. Add as much fresh ground pepper as you like but because most of the ingredients have salt already, you may not need to add any more salt. Add more cornflour if the batter feels too wet; more mayo if it feels too dry.

Heat a non stick pan and brush with olive oil. Scoop out about a tbsp of zucchini batter and flatten to make a thin patty. Pop onto the pan and cook for 1-2 minutes until it's nicely golden. Brush the top of the fritter with olive oil, flip and cook on the other side for 1-2 minutes.

These fritters don't keep so eat immediately.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Lakshadweep Diaries



When someone asks me why I chose to go to Lakshadweep, the only answer I have is “because no one ever goes there”. It really was on a whim. I’m not an adventurous traveller; I started off traveling for business, with a friendly secretary booking flights and nondescript hotels and I have pretty much stuck to the “nice hotel-good restaurants-catch a show-go to museums” theme for my leisure travel.

Lakshadweep is none of these. Set hundreds of miles off the Indian mainland, this tiny group of 36 islands doesn’t register on any tourist map. Almost no information is available on these coral islands online and because they are ecologically sensitive, visitors need a permit to enter. There are no hotels or restaurants on the islands, only government run cottages set right on the beach. I discovered during one of my internet searches that only one of the six islands offer ‘AC cottages’ so I booked myself into Kadmat Island, got a permit and set out to fly from Kochi to the airport at Agatti Island.

You will never forget the fight landing at Agatti. The island is a narrow strip of land, with beach and greenery on either side and just enough space to build a runway in the middle. It’s a four hour boat ride from Agatti to Kadmat but first, you get into a tiny dinghy that takes you to the bigger speedboat parked in the sea. As we lined up to get onto the boat, I looked askance at the lady standing next to me, looking equally scared at getting into something so fragile amidst such choppy waters. My hiking shoes held their ground, I didn’t slip on either of the boat transfers and landed safely on the jetty in Kadmat.

I spent the first four hours of boat ride and the next four days marvelling at how turquoise the waters were and how white and pristine the sands. The cottages are set right on the beach and by the time we landed, I’d figured that the friendly Scandinavian lady, the loud Australian family and the newly wed Gujarati couple were all headed the same way. You make friends quickly when you run into each other multiple times on your way to the boating jetty and meet the same folks thrice a day in the same dining hall.



But first things first, we landed onto a scattering of beach chairs and someone immediately started sending fresh coconuts our way. You will notice right away how friendly the entire resort staff is; a feeling that will keep reinforcing itself over the next few days. While we were sipping on refreshing coconut water, the general manager of the resort came out and started allotting cottages. It was almost like you’ve come to someone’s house as a guest; not as a tourist to a resort.

I’d been warned that there is limited phone connectivity on Kadmat but there was absolutely zero phone signal here. So even before I headed to my cottage, I asked where wifi was available. Alas, they had an outage and no internet was to be had during my entire stay at Kadmat. But the general manager very graciously offered the use of his landline so I could call home and give them an emergency number.

The cottage, when I finally got to it, was neat without being luxurious. With not much else to do, I headed out to figure out what the island had to offer. There are plenty of water sports – scuba diving, snorkelling, jet skiing, fishing – and the staff will expertly guide me into the water and to see beautiful corals and the sea life over the next three days. But on that first day, I didn’t quite want to go back into the sea. You will understand how non-touristy the place is when I tell you that at this point, one of the staffers offered me their bike to go explore the village. For a princely rental of 500 rupees (about $8), fuel included.



Kadmat is one of the larger islands and has a bustling village outside the resort (others, like Bangaram have resorts built on uninhabited islands). The 11 km drive to the other end of the island took me through a forgotten idyllic time – cottages by the sea, children back from school actually out playing and not glued in front of the TV, small shops with their limited selection and consumerism still far at bay. I saw a grand total of two cars on the entire island and they seem to be largely for show than have any practical utility. You don’t need any directions because there is only one road that stretches the length of the island.

It was getting to be early evening by the time we turned back towards the resort. Because Kadmat is so narrow an island, you see the beach at every point on the road. And there were moments so tranquil, like when I saw the sun getting low in the sky, lighting up a group of children playing football on the beach.



I got back to the resort just as the sun was about to set. For the next hour, the sky and the sea were painted in colours so vivid, it almost didn’t feel real. As I hung about in the hammock outside my cottage watching the dusk turn to night, the resort staff started setting up tables by the beach. Soon, the tiny lights were lit up and all the residents came out to eat dinner by the sea. No alcohol is permitted on Lakshadweep, so we bought cans of chilled coke from the tiny tuckshop in the resort and ate the meal of lentils and rice and vegetables like locals do. The menu remains pretty much the same for lunch and dinner each day, and there is always whatever fresh fish they caught that day.



The next three days at Kadmat were more of the same, with a smattering of water sports and another trip to the village. By day 3, I knew all the diving instructors by name and could even persuade the cook to make something other than dal and rice for lunch.

I couldn’t live the slow life forever and I missed the internet like crazy but for all that you lose at Lakshadweep, you gain the memories of pristine, untouched beaches and the friendliest people you will ever meet. It’s not the easiest place to get to but go now before it becomes yet another tourist trap. Go now because you will always remember that sunset, those fireflies dancing by the dinner table and yes, the frantic search for wifi amidst the tranquil island life.

Some Practical Tips:
1. You can choose to fly into Lakshdweep from either Bengaluru or Kochi or take a cruise ship.

2. Book directly through Sports. The prices are all on their website and they promptly reply to emails. They are also the ones who issue permits so it’s a one stop shop.

3. Your booking includes transfers to and from Agatti so don’t worry about boat bookings etc.

4. You have to pay extra for water sports but it’s way cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been.

5. Only a couple of islands – Kadmat and Minicoy - have the option of AC cottages. It’s a big deal in 40 degree heat.

6. On the other hand, Bangaram and Thinnakara have phone and internet. Choices, choices!

7. Book early. Each island has a limited number of cottages and they sell out quickly. I booked three months in advance and just about got in.

8. You will be tempted to visit more than one island. Don’t, especially if it’s a 3-4 day trip. You will spend a lot of time travelling between islands. The beaches are all pretty and there really isn’t much difference in the dive/snorkelling experience.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Blueberry Yoghurt Cheesecake



India is a country that lives on carbs and dairy. We love our milky chais and eat dahi with meals. But yoghurt is traditionally a savoury accompaniment to rice and curries. Misti doi and mango shrikhand apart, the fruity, sweet yoghurts are a relatively new phenomenon, brought to the Indian markets by the likes of Danone a few years back.

Last week, Danone added greek yoghurt to their product mix. Thicker and creamier than regular yoghurt, greek yoghurt makes for a great snack right out of the pack. Specially when it comes in blueberry and mango variants that Danone has launched. I got invited to the launch party last week, which is a great way to meet all the blogger friends in the city. This one has an added bonus - they had a chef friend of mine, Varun, showcase recipes with yoghurt. And he came up with some interesting ones, including flapjacks and an instantly frozen mango parfait.

Danone sent us home with a hamper full of yoghurt and newly inspired by the cooking I'd seen, I decided to create my own dessert. I made blueberry cheesecake. It's a simple enough recipe and super delicious to boot. My recipe fits a small 3 inch tart pan so multiply everything x3 if you are looking to make a regular 8-9 inch cheesecake

Ingredients
6 Butter Cookies (I used Good Day Cashew)
20 grams butter
1 package blueberry Greek yoghurt (80 grams)
60 grams cream cheese
1 tbsp caster sugar
Fruit of your choice for topping

Break the cookies into 3-4 pieces each. Drop in a plastic bag and use your rolling pin to turn them into crumbs. Heat butter until just melted and pour on the crumbs. Mix well, then spread in a 3 inch tart tin to make your biscuit base. Put this in the fridge for at least an hour to harden. At the same time, take cream cheese out of the fridge to soften.

After an hour, mix the cream cheese with caster sugar and whisk until well blended. Add the blueberry yoghurt and keep whisking until you have a smooth mixture. Spread on the biscuit base, making it as even as you can and leave to set it the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

Top with a colourful mixture of fruits just before serving. I was just back from a shopping trip so mine got topped with everything tropical - figs, pomegranate, strawberries, grapes and cape gooseberries.