Saturday, December 26, 2009

A book, A quest, A recipe


Ladies Coupe was the book our book club - This Book Makes Me Cook - chose to read for December. Anita Nair's story is about journeys - a train journey for Akhila, our middle-aged heroine who's on a quest to discover some answers for her life. But also a journey through her past, and through the lives of her other co-travelers. Through the life stories of the women in her Ladies Coupe, Akhila seeks to find answers to her dilemmas.

The book's well written, and even though I don't agree with most of Akhila's (and by extension, Anita Nair's) view of life the book never got boring. It moves at an even pace, the train journey happily coinciding with the life stories of these six women.

Picking a recipe from the book was easy. For when the train stops at a station midway, Akhila and one of her travelling companions venture out to have the soft, lacy appams.

If you have been following the wishlists I create every year, appams have been on my to-do list for a really long time. I love eating them every chance I get but I knew I had to learn to make them because, for some strange reasons, all restaurants pair them with stew and I love them with sambar. They looked so tough to make though.

So a few months back, I asked Srivalli and she pointed me to her ever-green appam recipe. I immediately realized I was ill-equipped to deal with this one for (i) They are way too soft and delicate and I was scared I'd never make them; (ii) I had no idea where to find coconut water (the water from brown not green coconut, and not coconut milk! and (iii) I did not own an appam pan. But for Srivalli's encouragement, I would have given up with idea altogether. But she would remind me every once in a while. And finally, I got my vegetable guy to break open a coconut and pack me the water to take home, bought an appam pan and get set to make this delicious pancake.

Srivalli's recipe works like a dream. The appams were so nice even I can't believe it was my first time making them. End of a quest for me too, just like Akhila!

Want to know where other members' quests led them?
Sweatha made cutlets, one food that always reminds me of train journeys.
Bhagyashri made aubergine fritters.
Also, don't forget to stop by at Sheba's for a lovely review.

Next month, the club is reading it's first non-fiction ever. The book we picked is Madhur Jaffrey's "Climbing the Mango Tree". Please leave a comment here if you would like to join us and I'd get back to you with details.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best of Bombay

This post has been a long time coming. What I have tried to do is create a ready reckoner of my favorite restaurants. Not a list of all restaurants I like, mind you! Instead, this is the list of the best for each genre. It's classified the way I get my eating out cravings. And I've also typecast restaurants by how pricey they are - the prices are for meals for two, minus the drinks (and very general ranges that vary considerably for me).

I hope this points you in the right direction if you find yourself in Bombay.


Monday, December 21, 2009

When life hands you lemons...


Or, in this case, I was given brownies too fudgy for their own good. See, I wasn't too happy with the brownies I made last week. Then, when browsing the archives of Min, my taste & create partner this month, I came across Moosewood Fudge Brownies. Min said they were the best of brownies, so I went ahead and made her recipe.

Trust me, I followed the recipe exactly as Min wrote it. The only change I made was to scale it down to a 2 egg recipe from Min's 5. But at the end of 25 minutes, the recommended baking time, my brownies were not set. And they were too soft at the end of 30, even 35 minutes. But the toothpick came out clean and I took the brownie pan out of the oven thinking they will harden as they cool.

But they didn't. Not at all, not even when they had cooled for around half an hour. That's when I decided to cut them into squares and disaster struck. The brownies fell into a heap, more of a brownie halwa than a fudge.

But were they delicious! What's a girl to do when faced with something that tastes great but is nowhere close to what you wanted. What I did was call my icecream store for 2 scoops of vanilla icrecream. I spread the icrcream in a freezer container and plonked my brownie goo on top of it. Mixed it well, then let it freeze for a few hours.

Best decision I ever made!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Desi Lima


I live next to the biggest grocery store in Mumbai. And because "Hypercity" has pretty much every hard to find exotic ingredient you can buy in India, I rarely venture elsewhere. Except I was out shopping and landed up in Food Bazaar last weekend. What a shock it was! There was this whole section of stuff I never thought you could buy - Tamilian style chillies dried in yogurt, idli podi, garlic chutney powder, dried lemon pickle and lots of other stuff I can't name.

And then, the vegetable section was another shocker. I found green wheat, folks! Another excellent addition to my salads was ragi sprouts, something I never knew existed. But my proudest buy that day was a pack of green lima beans. I love beans and this is one kind I have never tasted before, fresh or dried. Clearly, I was in awe of my shopping.

Except my cook had one look at my fresh lima beans and told me bluntly that it's something I could have bought very easily if I'd been looking at the grocery shelves more carefully. She then proceeded to tell me not to bother with a recipe as this is something she makes at home all the time. And off she went to make her very desi lima bean masala. Here's her very delicious recipe if you find some green lima beans wherever you are.

Peel and coarsely chop a large onion, then grind to a paste. Blanch, peel and puree two tomatoes. In a pan, heat a tbsp of ghee. Add 1/2 tsp cumin seeds and wait for them to splutter. Add the onion paste and stir fry on a medium heat until the onions are lightly browned, very fragrant and the ghee starts to separate. Add 1/2 tsp turmeric and after a few seconds, add the tomato puree. Stir fry until the mixture is almost dry, then add green lima beans (i had about a cup of those), salt and 1/4 tsp red chilli powder. Add enough water to cover the beans, bring to a boil and let simmer until the beans are tender. It takes about 20-30 minutes this way, but you can always speed up the process with a pressure cooker.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chegodilu Who?


Ignorant as I am in all things in fried snacks, this was my first reaction to this month's Indian Cooking Challenge. Srivalli picked this apparently very popular "ring murukku" as the December challenge. Since I rarely buy any fried snacks, this was a totally new world to me.

I picked the simpler of the two recipes we were given to choose from. It involved making a dough from rice flour, plain flour and hot water with some spices added in. Then you pinch lemon sized balls, pull them into ropes and bring the ends together to form the rings. The chegodilu rings are then fried in hot oil to what should be a crunchy snack.

Mine never got too crisp though. But even with the crunch missing, it was delicious and gone in a few minutes. I just made one-third the recipe, all right. And of course, I ate it all myself. Wouldn't you?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fudgy, Sticky, Gooey Brownies



I've never baked brownies before. No, really! I've eaten tons of them. Most of the time, cafes and restaurants seem to have brownie with icecream as the only half-decent choice for dessert. But I don't think I've given too much thought to brownies per se. Except last week when I was browsing Shaheen's beautiful blog and came across her recipe for Baked brownies. I know all brownies are baked, but these were made with a recipe from Baked, the famous New York bakery.

They are quite simple to make too. Melt 90 grams butter and 130 grams chocolate in a microwave. Let cool to room temperature, then add 3/4 cup sugar and mix. Beat in two eggs, one at a time. Add 1/2 tsp vanilla essence, then fold in 1/2 cup flour that you have mixed with 1/2 tbsp cocoa powder. Pour everything in a foil lined 7 x 5 baking dish, top with walnuts and bake for 20-25 minutes. Let cool, then cut into squares.

Are they good brownies? Sure. I liked them, and so did my friends. Are they the best brownies I've eaten? Surely not. Some blogs I read said they would get better after 24 hours, but the brownies didn't last long enough for me to test that. But now that I've made my first good brownie, I am on a lookout for the "best" brownie recipe. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I made the best bread of my life

But you don't get to see it. Sometimes I can't believe how incredibly stupid I can be. See, I set to make Ciabatta, the Italian flat-ish bread used to make sandwiches. I picked the best recipe there is, from the fine folks at King Arthur's Flour. And it was a lot of work. You make a sponge overnight. Then you knead this dough with a processor. It's so soft, almost batter like, that my favorite kneading by hand method is impossible.

The first rise was impressive, but the dough was still too soft. Which should have told me to use parchment. But stupid me went ahead and plonked the ciabattas on a greased baking sheet. It rose, it browned, it smelled wonderful. But it stuck! I could not get the bread off the baking sheet.

Now that it's cooled and mellowed a bit, I've been able to take it off in parts. It's not the prettiest bread there is, but it's surely the tastiest I've ever eaten. I think I've discovered the secret of light, holey bread - use a lot less flour than I do when I knead by hand. And you should go make this too. Just remember to use parchment.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pankis, Chilas and All Things Nice

That's Swati Snacks in Mumbai's Tardeo for you. When you first look at their menu, full of homely comfort foods, you can't really understand the crowds in this small-ish eatery. Neither did I first get the long queues waiting patiently outside.

But a meal is all it takes to convince you to make long, arduous treks (at least for me!) to eat a meal that gets over too quickly. First, there's Panki, A thin rice flour crepe cooked between two banana leaves. This method steams rather than fries the batter, leaving you with super soft pankis. Every panki comes with a pickled chilli, the high point of the dish if you ask me. But there's also a coriander chutney and a sweet mango sauce if you are interested.

Then, there's khickdi. It's really the basic mung dal and rice you cook at home. But Swati takes it to another level with the right level of spice and tons of ghee. Khichdi comes up a spicy kadhi and a uniformly excellent side of potatoes. Because I would have also had Swati's fresh juice or buttermilk by now, I haven't ventured outside these two menu items often.

But my friends today ordered moong dal chila, a lentil pancake studded with garlic and peanut sauce that just might become a regular order too.

Service isn't a high point at Swati. They always smile and they won't rush you, but they'd rather you finish your meal soon and make way for the next guest. With food this good, I don't really care!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In A Pickle


Pickles are serious business in India. Because quantities are huge and the room for error high, only the eldest women in the household take on pickle making. When my mother took on pickle making many years ago, it was with the combined consent of her mother and her mother-in-law. Recipes from both my grandmothers, closely guarded and never written down, were enhanced with experience and tips from friends over the year.

In my home, we make only two kinds of pickles. Mango pickle in summers and now, with the onset of winter, the gobhi gajar achaar - spicy, sour, sweet cauliflower and carrot pickle. I'd try and get you my favorite mango pickle recipe sometime. But even this one was hard to pin down, requiring translation from best guesses to measurements. But here it is:

Separate 1 kg cauliflower into florets. Cut 1/2 kg carrots into long fingers. Wash the vegetables, then dunk them in boiling water for 10 seconds. Drain, then spread out on a tray and let dry in the sun for an hour or so. If you live in a place where the whole sun-drying business is not possible, you can try leaving them in a very low oven for a bit.

Grind 100 grams fresh ginger to a paste. Separately, grind 10-12 cloves to garlic to a paste. Combine 5-6 black cardamom pods, 5-6 cloves, a tbsp of cumin seeds and a tbsp of peppercorns. Grind all these spices to a powder.

In a separate, preferably stainless steel pan, mix a cup of white vinegar (the industrial quality is fine here) and 2 tbsp of jaggery or your darkest brown sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook just until the sugar melts completely.

Just to complete your mise en place and because you will need these in a rush later, measure out a tsp of rai (black wholegrain mustard), 3 tbsp of salt and a tbsp of red chilli powder.

Heat 1/2 cup oil in a really large pan and add garlic paste. Stir until it starts to brown slightly, then add the ginger paste and stir fry until it's browned. Reduce the heat and add the powdered spices, rai, salt and chilli powder. Turn off the heat and mix in the vegetables until they are completed coated with the spices. Pour over the vinegar-jaggery mixture. Let cool, then store in a glass jar.

Keeps for a month or so just like this, but I prefer to keep it in the fridge.