Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Chestnut Story



I first discovered chestnuts as they were roasting in a British christmas market on a cold, snowy day. The warm bag of chestnuts went all over with me over the next hour; a comforting feeling as we walked across aisles of Christmas trinkets, games arena and a meeting with Santa. It occurred to me then how strange it was that we never ate chestnuts back in India. Didn't we have all the chestnuts trees up in the Himalayas.

Back home, when Big Basket put chestnuts on their menu a couple of years back, I naturally assumed these were an imported variety. Turns out I was wrong. Chestnuts arrived early on Big Basket this year and they have clarified that these are the homegrown Himalayan chestnuts. The first time I bought them, I spent hours figuring out the right way to oven roast my stash. For this season's purchase though, I reckoned I will try a completely Indian manner of cooking and put them in a pressure cooker. Turns out it makes the chestnuts a pleasure to cook.

First off, wash your chestnuts and score each with an X on the flat side. Make sure you pierce the outer skin or you will have these bursting in the cook. Put the chestnuts in a pressure cooker and add enough water to cover. Bring the water up to boil (that's one whistle on the pressure cooker), then reduce the heat and cook for 7-8 minutes. Once the chestnuts cool down enough to handle but are still warmish, peel them. This is the hardest part of cooking with and eating chestnuts - you have a hard outer layer and an inner skin. If you scored them right and they are cooked through, putting some pressure on the X will make the skin pop and you can peel it off. Not all of them worked well for me though and depending on how each one behaved, I got a few intact and several that broke into tiny pieces as I peeled them. A couple still had the inner skin attached and rather than try to win them all, I gave these up as lost causes. Overall, out of my 250 grams of chestnuts, I ended up with about a cup of peeled, edible fruit.



You can now just eat them while warm, which is what I did with about half my batch. But the remaining half cup I then turned into this sublime chestnut butter. This is a shortcut and not much of a recipe but it was so good I figured I may as well tell you about it. So in went the 1/2 cup chestnuts into a blender. I had a jar of salted caramel sauce lying around and I put 2 tbsp of that in the blender, then whizzed the two together until the consistency was that of chunky peanut butter. That's it folks - a non recipe really but it's so good you may as well make it today.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Smoky Almonds



Every time I fly Indigo Airlines, I make it a point to buy a tin of their smoked almonds. Salted, roasted and with an intense smoky flavour, these are some of the best almonds I've tasted. Now, it does seem kinda silly to pick which flight to book based on what snacks they sell onboard, so I felt this was high time I made my own smoked almonds.

Smoking, if you haven't looked at it before, is a cool way to add charred flavour to everything from tea to meats. You do it by exposing food to smoke from burning wood, a technique favoured in most of US, Europe and Australia. India has its own smoking tradition - the whole school of dum cooking based on exposing food to smoke from red hot pieces of charcoal.

If getting access to wood and charcoal and burning stuff in a typical Bombay flat sounds complicated, fear not. This smoked almonds recipe is based not on any of the traditional smoking techniques but on smoke you can buy in a bottle. I use liquid smoke to give smoky flavour to everything from grilled mushrooms to kebabs so that's what makes for these smoky almonds. Armed with a spray can, this recipe is a breeze.

Heat your oven to 180C. Put 1 cup almonds in a bowl. Add 1 tsp salt and to up the ante on smokiness, 1/2 tsp chipotle powder. Add a tbsp of liquid smoke or if you have a spray can, enough to coat the almonds. Toss to mix; because of the liquid, the salt and chilli powders will stick to the almonds. Spread the almonds in a single layer on a nonstick baking tray and pop into the oven.

After 10 minutes, take out the tray and give the almonds a stir. Add another spray of smoke for good measure and pop the tray back into the oven until the nuts are roasted, another 10-15 minutes. Let cool, then store in an airtight jar.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Family Secrets



Garam Masala is the cornerstone of Punjabi cooking. It's a mixed spice that gets tossed into every curry, every lentil dish, pretty much every thing we cook at home. My family even tosses some on top of a toast. Not surprising then, that every Punjabi household has their own garam masala recipe. I still use my mum's - not her recipe but the actual spice mix. I bring a batch back with me every time I go home to use until the next trip.

Part of the reason I don't venture into making my own garam masala is because it was so hard to get my mum's recipe. But finally, after much guesswork and prodding to measure things just one time, we have the official Sareen family garam masala recipe.

Ingredients
100 grams cumin seeds (jeera)
50 grams coriander seeds (dhania)
20-25 nos. black peppercorns
8-10 nos. cloves
5 nos. black cardamom

Heat a pan. Switch the heat to medium, pop in the cumin seeds and roast, stirring continuously, until toasty and fragrant. You are only looking to lightly heat the seeds so take them off before they change color. Remove the cumin seeds from the pan and repeat the process with coriander seeds and then with the remaining three ingredients.

Wait 15-20 minutes for the spices to cool. Grind cloves and cardamom to a powder; then grind cumin, coriander and peppercorns separately. We aren't doing it at the same time because cloves and cardamom take longer to get to a fine powder and you don't want to grind the other three for that long.

Mix up both set of spices and that's it folks, the garam masala for every curry you ever need to make. A final word on how to use this. Never, ever add garam masala when you are cooking a dish. It's always sprinkled at the end, just before serving, to maximise the flavour impact.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Study in Mango



Inspired by a dessert that's currently being served in Indian Accent in New York, and featuring my three favourite mango varieties, here comes a study in mango:

- Aamras (made with Dashehri mangoes)
- Mango slices (langda and chausa)
- Aam papad; sweet and sour
- Basil shrikhand
- Basil meringue
- Basil leaves to garnish

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Thai Brown Curry



For the longest time, I debated on whether to share this recipe. After all, this is not your good looking Thai Red Curry or Green Curry. It's in fact, a very boring shade of brown. But then, this is brown for a reason. The red color in the traditional curry comes from a mix of dried red and fresh bird eye chillis. If you are a chilli wimp like me, the brown curry is the one for you. It's got all the flavour of the red curry but much, much less heat. This version's also adapted for my vegetarian tastes, and has no fish sauce or shrimp paste. So go ahead, make this piping hot bowl of comfort for a rainy day lunch.

Ingredients
For spice paste
1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted on a dry pan
1lemongrass stalk, without the woody end - finely chopped
1/2 tsp whole peppercorns
1 inch piece of galangal, peeled and roughly chopped
2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
2 kaffir lime leaves
2-3 cilantro stems, roughly chopped (don't use the leaves)
2 bird eye chillis
1 tsp non-spicy chilli powder (called kashmiri lal mirch in India) - can substitute with chipotle
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
For the curry
1 tbsp sesame oil
100 ml coconut milk
1/2 cup vegetables of your choice, chopped into bite sized pieces. I used a mix of zucchini, babycorn, thai brinjal and mushroom



Now the list above looks daunting but once you have prepped everything as mentioned, this is super easy. Pop everything for the spice paste in a grinder and blend to as fine a paste as you can get. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan and fry the spice paste until completely dry. Add the chopped vegetables and stir for 2-3 minutes until the spice paste coats the veggies well. Add the coconut milk and 1/2 cup water. Mix, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and let cook until the curry is of a consistency you like. I keep it quite soupy but really, make it as thick as you want. At this point, check for seasoning - we haven't added any salt so far because there is usually enough in soy sauce but add more if you need it.

Serve the curry with steamed rice. To add an extra texture, you can top your curry with something crispy. I used fried shallots but crushed peanuts work equally well. A dash of lime is also a very good idea to balance out the flavours.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

One Potato, Two Potato



I've often wondered about the benefits of peeling teeny tiny potatoes to make dum aloo. Apart from the cuteness factor, there didn't seem to be much taste uptick versus a regular potato curry. Or so I thought. But then, a couple of weeks back, I went to this cooking competition where I was to cook a Bengali menu and got handed the recipe for aloor dum. Punchy and totally full of flavour, it's a dish I've been thinking of ever since. But I didn't bring back the recipe and I sort of forgot what all went in there so this is my own version. Think of it as the Punjabi curry counterpart of the aloor dum I made the other day. It's delicious nevertheless.

Ingredients
15-20 baby potatoes
3 tbsp ghee
1 bay leaf
2 whole red chillies
2 tbsp ginger paste
1/2 tsp hing powder
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 small onion, pureed
2 small tomatoes, chopped finely
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp yogurt
salt to taste

Boil the baby potatoes until almost cooked but with a bit of a bite left to them. At this time, take the yogurt out of the fridge and give it a stir. Peel the potatoes and prick all over with a fork. Heat 2 tbsp ghee in a nonstick pan and pop the potatoes in. Cook until the potatoes are lightly browned. Remove to a bowl and mix with 1 tbsp ginger paste, salt and 1/2 tsp chilli powder.

Add the remaining 1 tbsp ghee to the same pan and add the bay leaf and the whole red chillies. Also add in hing, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and coriander seeds. Stir until the spices start to pop, then add the onion and ginger pastes. Saute, stirring often, until the onion paste is completely dry and you see ghee oozing out at the sides. Add the turmeric powder, mix and saute for another 30 seconds. Now add the tomatoes and the tomato puree and saute until the tomatoes are all mushy. Add the reserved potatoes and stir well to mix the spices in.

Now add 1 cup water and bring the whole thing to a boil. Reduce the heat and let simmer for 5-7 minutes. Stir in the yogurt. Mix well, then let the pan simmer until most of the water has dried up and you have a nice spice coating on the potatoes. Check for seasoning, add more salt if required and remove to a serving dish. At this point, tradition dictates that you sprinkle the whole thing with chopped coriander leaves and garam masala. I went rogue though and used a sprinkle of dried mint, a punchy flavour addition to the mix.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Peachy Salsa



May is my favourite month of the year for fresh produce. That's when all my favourite fruits - cherries, lychees, peaches, apricots and green almonds - come into season at the same time. Which means that every time I make a trip out to the fruit store, I come back with way too much. I love eating these fruits as is, often times instead of meals. But today we are going to do something different and make a salsa out of peaches. It's pretty much like a tomato salsa except it's sweeter, which makes it a great combination for salted nacho chips. Plus, it's a breeze to put together, something I really appreciate in dinner ideas in summer.

Ingredients
1 large peach
1 small tomato
1 small onion
handful of cilantro leaves
1 lime
salt
smoked chipotle powder (or a fresh jalepeno)

Halve the peach and remove the pit. Peel each halve - if your peach is ripe enough, you can just pull the peel from one corner and it will come right out. You can also leave it unpeeled if it feels like too much trouble. Chop into small cubes. Also cut the tomato into similar sized cubes. Peel and chop the onion finely. Wash and finely chop the cilantro leaves as well. If you are using a fresh jalepeno, now would also be a good time to deseed and finely chop it.

Pop everything into a bowl. Add salt, chipotle powder and juice of a lime. Taste and adjust the seasoning and then, if you have any self control at all, put the whole thing in the fridge for a couple of hours for the flavours to mingle. Serve with nacho chips.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Misal on the Way



I discovered the joys of misal pao way too late in life. Maybe I didn't move in the right circles when I first came to Bombay, or I didn't have the right friends but it took me several years to find this little snack food delight that's native to Maharashtra. So what's misal, you ask? It's a curry made with sprouted lentils, which is then topped with fried savoury snacks called farsan and garnished with raw onions and cilantro. Pretty much always served with a dash of lemon juice and a side of soft buns native to Mumbai - the pao. It's a race against time eating your misal once it is assembled because you want to gobble it all down before the crispy farsan melts into the gravy and gets all soggy.

On a recent trip down the Konkan coast, I ordered misal at every stop on the way and discovered a range of flavours. Some misal paos were spicy, the others delightfully sour. I would caution though against ordering misal if you are headed to Kohlapur - I'm told they make it incredibly spicy out there. If you want to adjust the flavours just as you want it though, do what I did on my return and make the misal yourself. It's a really easy one to make too.

Ingredients
1 cup mixed lentil sprouts
2 tbsp peanut oil (can replace with olive oil)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp hing powder (asafoetida)
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
2 tbsp fresh grated coconut
1 tsp tamarind paste
salt to taste
1/2 cup fried savouries (farsan or bombay namkeen)
1 small onion, chopped finely
handful of cilantro leaves
1 lime

Steam the lentils until cooked (you can also boil them in plenty of water but I find they retain their flavour better when steamed). In a pan, heat the oil and add cumin and mustard seeds. Wait a minute until they start to splutter than add the hing and turmeric powder. Stir to mix and wait another 30 seconds, then add the steamed lentils, salt and the red chilli powder. Stir to combine everything for about 2-3 minutes, then add the coconut. Cook on a medium heat, stirring all the while, for another minute.

Mix the tamarind paste with 1 cup water and add to the pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook for 5 minutes for the flavours to mingle. Taste, then add more salt/chilli/tamarind according to your taste. Pour into two bowls, top with farsan, chopped onion and cilantro and serve immediately with a slice of lime and pao (or toasted bread/burger buns if you can't find pao)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Jackfruit Sheera



A few years back, I went on a Matunga food trail organised by the now shut MumbaiBoss. Among the flurry of dosas and filter coffee we had that day, the standout dish for me was Jackfruit Sheera at Ramashraya. Sheera, for the uninitiated, is a thick porridge like dessert made with semolina. It's one of the easiest Indian desserts to make, and a classic comfort food. At Ramashraya, they excel in making different variations each day. Their most popular variety seems to be pineapple sheera but on the day we visited, they had a jackfruit sheera on offer.

Now jackfruit, specially the sweet, ripe, variety used in the sheera, can be quite an acquired taste. I only tasted it for the first time a few years back and it took me a while getting used to its rather overwhelming smell. I enjoy it now and with jackfruit now in season, I decided to try making the sheera at home.

The first step in making the sheera is, of course, getting jackfruit pieces. It's a difficult fruit to handle and cut through but thankfully, Mumbai vendors sell it to you nicely cut and cleaned. If you can't find jackfruit, just go without or replace with pineapple. The recipe still works.

Ingredients
1/2 cup semolina
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup jackfruit, finely chopped
2 cups water
4 tbsp ghee
5-6 saffron strands or 2-3 drops yellow food coloring
almonds or cashews to garnish, optional

Heat the water in a saucepan. Add the sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Boil for another 2-3 minutes to get your mixture all syrupy. At this point, add the saffron strands, turn off the heat and leave to infuse.

Pour the semolina in a dry nonstick pan and cook, stirring constantly, until it is lightly browned and toasty. Remove to a plate. Put the pan back on the heat and add ghee. Now the thing about ghee in sheera is, you can use a lot more than the 4 tbsp. Some people would even use the same quantity as the semolina, so a 1/2 cup in this case. I personally find the 4 tbsp quantity to be optimum.

Okay, back to heating the ghee now. Once it melts, add jackfruit pieces and stir on a medium heat for a couple of minutes until they are coated with ghee and heated through. Add the semolina, give a stir to mix and immediately pour in the sugar syrup. Make sure to add the syrup slowly, stirring as you go, to avoid lumps. Keep the heat low, and keep stirring until the sheera is thick like a porridge and you can't see individual grains of semolina. Garnish with almond or cashew slivers, if you like.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Konkan Trail



A few weeks back, I got a call from JW Marriott in Mumbai Sahar. Their chefs were planning to go on an exploratory trip to the Konkan coast to discover the Konkanastha Brahmin cuisine, they said, and they wanted to take a few bloggers along. Was I interested? That is hardly a question, is it! I'd enjoyed my trip to Dapoli a few years back and the Marriott crew was now headed to nearby beach towns of Diveagar and Guhagar. Plus the Konkan Brahmin cuisine, with its completely vegetarian teetotaller bent so close to the coast, has always intrigued me.

The thing about driving down the Konkan coast is - you spend an awful amount of time on the road. Which is why it is important to have likeminded companions. We were all foodies on this trip so the food talk never really stopped. Once we got off the road, we spent a night at Guhagar and another at Diveagar, both times at homestays and within walking distance of some gorgeous beaches. And all three days, womenfolk who run dining halls in the town taught us how to cook traditional Konkanastha Brahmin dishes. There were some dishes I'd heard of and eaten before and others that were a revelation. There were modaks made with a skill that takes years to build and a vermicelli dish that an old lady came out specially to teach us (since she's the only one who knew how!). Overall, between sol kadhi and misal at rest stops and home cooked meals, we ate really, really well.

Of all the dishes we ate and cooked during the trip, I'm sharing with you my top 5. Keep an eye out for these if you make the trip or ask me nicely and I will share recipes.

1. Panchamrut: Hands down the best dish of our trip. This super flavourful coconut soup derives its name from the five flavours (savoury, spicy, sweet, sour, bitter) that go into its making. Think of this one as khowsuey on steroids.



2. Raw Jackfruit Stir Fry: Jackfruit, specially the fragrant ripe version, is an acquired taste. But cooking this raw stir fry in Mr. Bapat's kitchen was a revelation. Made with only 3-4 dry spices, coconut and tons of peanut oil, the jackfruit was subtly flavoursome without any of the ginger, garlic et al that goes in our curries.



3. Rice Flour Vermicelli: The special part of the vermicelli was the 'milk' they were served in. A combination of coconut milk, jaggery and cardamom, I can see this as a drink on its own.



4. Kaju Usal: With fresh green cashews in season, our Guhagar hosts made us a cashew usal (with usal being a generic name for lentil curries). The Konkan food is sweet and I would have liked it with a bit less jaggery but the curry was super nice and versatile enough to adapt for any legumes you want.



5. Misal Pao: My standard order every time we stopped for tea or lunch on the way. Misal is basically your mixed sprout usal, but it comes topped with fried savouries called farsan. Every misal I had was different, some spicy, some sour, but topped with crunchy onions and accompanied with the local bread (pao), it hit the right note every single time.



Tempting, isn't it! If you don't have a trip to Konkan coast planned yourself, you might get a chance to taste most of these dishes at JW Marriott Sahar itself. The chefs have taken the learnings from the trip and are putting up a Konkan Food Festival from 6-15 May. I'm surely going to head out there to check out how the village food fares in a 5-star hotel.