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.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fabelle: A Willy Wonka Story



There is a new Willy Wonka in town and her name is Bhumika. Just like Mr. Wonka of yore, Bhumika and the team at ITC Maratha have created a chocolate wonderland called Fabelle. Luxury chocolates, made with pure cocoa and devoid of additives and chemicals, are rare in India which is why ITC's initiative to create chocolate boutiques is such a fantastic idea. There are two kinds of chocolates you can buy at Fabelle - the boxed variety that is manufactured in the ITC factory in Bangalore or the brilliant creations the chefs come up with inside the boutique. No matter which of the two you go for, this is chocolate at par with the likes of Valrhona.

Fabelle invited me yesterday for a chocolate tasting experience. We kicked off with their square ganaches - these are essentially your cocoa and cream squares coated in cocoa powder - what others called truffles.



The ganache squares come in three variants - milk chocolate from ivory coast, dark chocolate from Ghana and an apple and cinnamon variety. The last one was my instant favourite; chocolate is the star here but apple and cinnamon flavours shine through. You can buy these truffles in boxes of 20. Or you can buy the next set I tasted, called the elements.




The elements are pralines - hard shells filled with a variety of flavours. I loved the earth, coated with a crunchy textured chocolate. But the star of this box and the whole afternoon of tasting for me was Fire - white chocolate, candied mango, ancho chilli - this is a flavour bomb. Apart from these two, you can also get single origin bars and hazelnut and milk chocolate pralines suited for folks looking for something sweeter. You can buy these gorgeous looking boxes as is, or tell them to create a variety of hampers for you. They are nice that way!

Throughout the tasting, Bhumika and I chatted away about the origin of these chocolates and the process of chocolate making. For someone as young as her, she seems to have mastered the art of chocolate really well. Which is why, when we moved to the next part of our tasting, I left it all in the chocolatier's hand. At Fabelle, they let you create cups of your choice. So you can pick empty chocolate shells and fill them with a variety of toppings and flavours. Bhumika made mine in dark chocolate and filled it with berries, white creme, almonds and a hearty sprinkle of salt. It was layers upon layers of flavour.



Fabelle has also created a whole range of desserts made out of their chocolate, including cheesecakes and eclairs and a gorgeous black forest cake. But I had had my fill of sweets by then so I settled instead, for a final cup of hot chocolate. Mark my words, if you have been looking for good hot chocolate in Mumbai, this is it! Pure milk whipped with two kinds of chocolate and topped not with marshmallows, but with house made pistachio nougat, there isn't a better chocolate drink in town. There is a camera right above Bhumika's workstation so you can even see her making your chocolate or plating your dessert on the TV inside the cafe.



India is a country that grew up on Dairy Milk. Luxury chocolates have always been something you bring back from trips abroad. But if dutyfree Lindt truffles are your primary reason to travel, Fabelle may just be all the cheer you need. Of course, the hot chocolate is my reason to make Fabelle a constant favourite.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

TAG-away

I've been eating out and reviewing restaurants in Mumbai for close to nine years now. New restaurants open here all the time but over the years, the dining out options have come to form a rather off-putting level of predictability. Maybe it's because diners look for something familiar but for a while, every new place to open was a 'deli' or a cafe with the same old set of sandwiches, pastas and the lone chocolate fondant on the menu. New trends also come in waves. For a while, you couldn't go anywhere without spotting a new frozen yogurt place. And last couple of years, modern/molecular Indian has become a fad, no matter how terribly executed.

In this mediocrity that has come to define dining out in Mumbai, Ranveer Brar's newly opened TAG is a revelation. This pure vegetarian restaurant puts its faith on tapas, the one trend that never caught on in Mumbai. I am a huge fan of eating lots of small flavorful dishes rather than go the starter-main course-dessert route but not many chefs think that's the way to go in Mumbai. Ranveer clearly thinks my way if the small plates menu at his newly opened restaurant in Kamala Mills is to go by.

We ordered five small plates between the two of us and four of these were brilliant.



We opened our meal with watermelon sashimi sitting atop a yam guacamole. I kept thinking throughout the eating of this dish how delicious this yam was, and how much money I would save from buying avocados if I could replicate this. The lime ice that sits on top is brilliant and you will only wish there was a whole lot more of it.



Next came a creamy burrata, dusted with miso and served with a green tomato chunda and salad greens. This was the dish of the day for me; the burrata simply the best I've eaten in the city.



A kale papdi chaat followed and you will notice at this point how each dish is unique, with flavours and spices perfectly balance. The fried kale on this one sits atop a potato mash and the sweet yogurt foam is a beautiful complement to the crispy bits.



We felt it was the time to order something heartier so our next dish was mushroom galouti. The kebabs were nice enough but the bread that comes alongside is simply spectacular.



We ended the meal with a beet and rhubarb risotto. It's actually an arancini - the risotto shaped into round patties and fried. This was also my least favourite dish. It was kinda sweet and the flavours didn't all add up. But it could also be because we were pretty full by then.

TAG for me is a place worth a revisit. I didn't order any dessert and there are enough interesting savoury dishes left for me to try the next time. But as brilliant as the food is, I wish TAG had an ambience to match. The open kitchen and the kitschy chairs belong to a food that's far less refined than what TAG serves. The service is well-intentioned but servers lack in-depth knowledge on the dishes beyond the catchphrases that seem rehearsed. But the place seemed full even for late lunch and I hope it's a trend that catches on; dining out in Lower Parel is competitive and I would hate to lose out on the option of eating that burrata anytime soon.