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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cold comfort: From Sicily, via Sri Lanka

The cold snap shows no sign of abating. Not until the weekend at any rate (over which we are promised grey skies and rain — brrr!).

As compelling a reason as can be to seek comfort amidst a cocoon of quilts. With cups of hot chocolate, mugs of tea with tulsi (Indian holy basil) and honey, tumblers of rum or brandy toddies lining up along the dresser as the shadows lengthen. All of which might slake the thirst (these room heaters are notoriously dehydrating), but leave me with a craving for a starch-induced stupor come six in the evening.

Having grabbed a hurried bowl of soup and a sandwich or salad at lunch, by this time I am ravenous. No discourtesy intended to either soup or salad, both of which are amongst my favourite meals. Just that I now need a carbohydrate fix — a bone marrow-deep sensation not unlike the chocolate craving of 3-pip-emma. Or the caffeine cold turkeyhood of 6-ack-emma.

By the time this compulsive urge has brought me to my knees, it's too late to patiently roll out parathas or proof a loaf of dough (or even knead soda bread). Fast and furious it has to be. For the Boy, the fix could have been fried potatoes or (alas for my Mauviel that it must bear this dishonour!) a pan of Maggi 2-minute noodles. For me, it's usually a non-instant pasta, wholewheat (because I like the bite — and it helps assuage the guilt from not filling up on phytonutrients first).

Last week, when some work-weary friends joined me at this critical hour, I found a fair flower to bedeck the pasta pot with. And a darker, more exotic blossom too.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Dessert worth a long drive

I spoke, it would appear, too soon.

Not that there's a fresh crop of baby beets invading the cabbage patches in the countryside here in north India. But Old Man Winter has decided to pause, do a quick about-turn in honour — or so it seems — of the Republic Day parades on the 26th. And he's brandishing his gnarled, frost-rimed stick, which has got us all snuggling under the razai (the Indian quilts, famously of Jaipur in Rajasthan).

Yes, there's a cold wave on. Which also means too little power in our electricity grids all too often. In turn, fewer opportunities to blog, and cooking's not so fun either when the water out of the tap is icy and the kitchen criss-crossed by shivery draughts.

So we insisted on celebrating with ice cream.

And unlike many a midnight mouthful of cold that we've driven out for, this was one time I can safely say the journey was not the point. It was dessert that made our day, and made the long 2-hour drive down past Gurgaon and across rutted country roads worth the while, the bumps, the dust.

'Homemade' at the new Westin, Sohna-Gurgaon (India's first Westin in fact). But it wasn't quite the dessert we ordered. What I requested in fact — and you can see as much in the picture — was comfort food at its Sunday best: waffles, after much waffling over the rather unusually brave choices on the menu (for a 5-star city hotel).

Nor were we disappointed. Ah, but they were perfect waffles for a mint-new Sunday brunch — crunchy edges crumbling crisply against the fork, the pillowy honeycomb centres soaking up the maple-tinged smoky compote it came with. But it was the ice cream, its sidekick, that stole the show — and the attention of our tastebuds.

White chocolate and dripping honeycomb. Toffee sauce and macadamia on top. Frilled with a ruff of extra whte chocolate. Just one of a dozen-odd flavours they serve at the Living Room, the Westin's all-day eatery. (Next on my to-try list is the yoghurt ice.)

It inspired a baked bite soon enough. But that's a story for another day... For now, I'd rather close my eyes and savour that unexpectedly complex bittersweet (mostly sweet, but not too sweet, underlaid by the edge of the honey). And the sunshine through the glass, glinting on that melting white snowball of a scoop, warming our fingertips and cheering our hearts as it peeked through the ruby glassware.

Nope, Winter's no scary old grouch! He's the taciturn grand-dad who comes home from the fairgrounds to settle in his planters' chair with a grunt, whom no one dares approach until he's taken out his little silver snuffbox and had his tip. (Or smoked his chillum of sweet-scented tobacco, drawn burbling through the hubble-bubble.) And then he turns out his pockets, to heap on the floor and in outstretched palms treasures both mandatory for the season and unexpected until this very year.

For that, we salute him with our thick green glasses of masala chai and mulled wine.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bye-bye beets

Sigh! The baby beets are all grown up, and ready to leave their nest.

And just like that, spring — never too far beneath the surface, so close to the tropics — is on its way. Yes, this despite the current cold wave conditions blanketing the northern belt, hunkered in the shadow of the Himalayas — as it does every year.

But Old Man Winter's last stride forth, his deepest step into the low plains, has been taken. And now he's turned on his heel again, and begun his trudge uphill, retreating back up into the mountains that we call the 'Abode of Frost' (that's himalaya in Sanskrit).

In our northern capital of Delhi, where I write, January's popularly acknowledged to be The Cruellest Month — at least until June's scorching sun comes hammering down, 'negotiating' for the title with its searing heat waves. Just now, though, you'd be hard put to convince the shivering schoolchildren waiting for the bus on the street corner outside my door. Impossible that Basant, lord of spring, is about to warm their pinched fingers, soothe the reddened Rudolph noses peeking out of swathes of shawls and scarves. Nope, they'll wait for the colours of Holi to convince them, thanks very much, Ma'am!

But the market stalls know better, as do the trees in the park. The colours are already changing in the greengrocers' carts cycling door to door. And for those of us who like to cook by the season, it's the last few weeks to celebrate the cornucopia of the cold season. (No, those gorgeous salads won't last in our tropical heat either...)

And so it's bye-bye beets. We saw, I suspect, the last of this season's babies last week. If we see the bleeding purple hearts of beetroot again in the vegetable tray again, those will have more mature heads — the tough old biddies that are good for pickling in spears, staining the white daikon radish alongside. The perfect crunch-along with a flatter of khubz, hummous and slices of chicken doner off the rotisserie. But no, they're not the sweet bulbs that jostle together in my roasting tin in winter, brightening up the dark cave of the oven. Or plop into a pot of meaty stock to melt into a ruby-red bowl of borscht to warm our insides.

Which is exactly what I did to that last lot I bought. 

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ireland: Travel treat! (part 3: Back in Dublin)

Continued from previous post: "If Cork is a crock of preserved traditions with a layer of butter on top, Dublin’s dish seems to be the proverbial melting pot.

Take for instance the iconic cabbie’s late-night pub dinner — the Dublin coddle, a stew of sausages, bacon, potatoes (but of course!), perhaps cabbage in hearty broth. It’s legendary, it’s everywhere, but everywhere it’s different and at the small local pubs, it’s hardly found!

What you can find in this early-to-rise city is breakfast.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Ireland: Travel treat (part 2: Cork)

Continued from previous post:

"If Ballymaloe Cookery School is one of its kind, Ballymaloe House is a pioneer that has spawned many a follower. And Cork has since reinvented itself as the cuisine county for all the traditional foods that aren’t available elsewhere.

The extent of this is nowhere more apparent than at the venerable English Market, in Cork city, the nation’s ‘second city’ after Dublin. Cork has all the chain eateries and supermarkets, the brands and designer labels that Dublin does — it is, in that sense, quite as cosmopolitan. But duck into the wrought-iron arches of the English Market’s many gates, and suddenly you are in the stronghold of farm foods.

First up on the left from the Grand Parade entrance, the famous O’Reilly’s — astoundingly, this stall subsists on just two products: tripe and drisheen.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Ireland: Travel treat! (part 1: Ballymaloe)

In my last post, I mentioned owing the editors at the Outlook Traveller magazine for the trip of a lifetime.

Today, I give you details of that trip — by way of the (page-shatteringly) long version of an article published in the December 2007 of the magazine, reproduced here with kind permission from Traveller editor Kai Friese, garnished with links that print readers were denied (sorry, limitations of the medium):

"It’s the best breakfast of the year. Beats the pork bao in Singapore, the hoppers at Kovalam, the Dublin coddle and the choices of Paranthewali Gali. What convinces me is a single mushroom — the meatiest field produce I’ve ever ingested, grilled dark and juicy.

It grew in Shannagarry, where I’m staying in one of the 34 sought-after rooms in Ballymaloe House. Lady of the house Myrtle Allen made hospitality history here when, in a time of French food being the only fare worth serving commercially or socially, she went ahead and opened up the country seat her farmer husband was left by a local Quaker as a bed-and-breakfast — serving up the produce of her own yards, orchards, woods, fields and garden, cooked in the best traditions of a farmhouse family kitchen.

Today, it is a special stay for people from the world over — far from city lights and bustle, the nearest pub (in this nation of microbreweries and the world’s first distillery) over in Ballycotton, the few who value peace and excellence come to recede into an old-world idyll.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Lavender hearts for tea

Continuing with the roll call of thankfulness, here was a gift from one of the small bookshops that went out of business in Delhi last year. (Alas, there have been too many of those in 2007 — not least the venerable The Bookshop of Khan Market.)

This Conran Octopus publication was something they had by the crateful, stacked along the pavements of Green Park. And given I have entirely too many tomes on 'how to tie this radiant ribbon bow', it was only pity that urged my purse out. However, this book has since paid for itself at least 70 times over!

This Christmas, though, it found an unlikely partner in an Irish import. This was a bag of dried flowers of lavender, from the venerable English Market of Cork. For which another huge debt of gratitude is owed to the Outlook Traveller magazine (which you shouldn't judge by its website, alas, as the latter is cluelessly beyond the editors' curb!). More on the trip of a lifetime later; today, it is time to thank 2007 for one of those rare moments of surprised joy that meet you full on — which you don't, however, see coming!

I had one of those aromatic epiphanies in the kitchen, when I took this recipe on page 114 of The Art of Giving and steeled my heart to part with a precious few grains from that lavender stash in the closet. This has to be one of the easiest treats I have ever baked or mixed. One of the fastest and prettiest too.

Even the wooden spoon seemed to swoon under the wafting fragrance that drifted out of the oven within moments.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Pesticide-free plates

A fresh new year.

A day to give thanks for all the lovely things that have hopped into our larders, our ovens, our pots and thence on to our plates... and also those popped into our inboxes! A
nd oh, dear me, yes! A lot of lovely people too!
To begin with, thanks for all the enthusiastic eaters who have been kicking my procrastinating butt these many months to 'Get the blog up and going, already!' And thanks for the adventurous amigos who've helped me test-drive what's been gathering steam in the kitchen all last year. Oh, but thanks, above all, to good friendships found and cemented over plates of produce!

Foremost among those produce pals has to be Kanu Soman
y. This enterprising young lady sits on her family farm just outside Delhi, trailing her green fingers through the earth and coming up with handfuls of the most beautiful vegetable babies you ever saw.
Or never saw, for that matter. Because Kanu also loves a challenge — such as coaxing exotics out of our rich Indian soil. Little red currant tomatoes that bead on the vine as though waiting to be threaded into some ancient earth goddess' garland. Giant striped heirloom beefsteak tomatoes. Handfuls of spicy-sharp mizuna and tatsoi, red giant and green wave mustard, wild arugula and bull's blood, crisp chicory and flushed lollo rosso — for a salad bowl that plays prima donna at any dinner party.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating, take a dekko at this blossom-studded bagful (below) that she sent me for Christmas. My guests begged seconds, despite the heat shimmer rising from old favourites fish pie and roast pepper tart in the oven, despite the citrusy polenta cake waiting on the sideboard. Yes, those leaves were that delectable!

Kanu likes to have expatriate friends think of her farm as their kitchen garden once-removed. Though it was husband Sharad who first got her digging deeper among the seed sacks, when he deplored the absence of anything more exciting than limp 'saalaad pattaa' (aka, limp, browning iceberg lettuce) at Indian farmer's markets. (Which is not to badmouth the old-fashioned sabzi mandi — more about the virtues of which another day...)

And that's not to say she neglects the homegrown goodness. An earlier autumnal harvest got my doorbell ringing for — and my appreciative family ooh-ing and aah-ing over — the most delicate drumstick leaves (Moringa) and moonlight-pale mooli (white radish, or daikon). Note bene that their sprightly tops were lopped off my the pater for a stir-fry so quickly that my camera durst not follow. The roots were befriended, however, by these shy fronds of fenugreek (methi) so soft that a friend washing them for the pan remarked it was like having her fingers gently caressed. Just look at them (at the top of this post)!

I have to confess that while my Bengali culinary legacy is big on the boon of drumsticks — the mastication of the juicy, fleshy pods is elevated to an art in the gourmand's adda — I had never heretofore been tempted to throw the leaves into the pot after them. But how can you say nay to something that looks so fresh, so friendly, so utterly adorable?

We bestowed the blessing of methi on some fish, cooked to a recipe from my Andhra friend Renuka, whose home no one ever leaves without a full belly (and a shiny, licked-clean thali left in their wake).

The drumstick leaves partnered the humble split pea in a soupy sambar inspired by Paati over at en veetu samayal.

The radish themselves were grated and simply stir-fried with a tempering of a dried red chilli and a teaspoon of nigella seeds (kalonji) in mustard oil, with just a pinch of salt for seasoning.

And this tasty trio got served with rice for a satisfying, fingerlicking silence at the table.

As for Kanu, long and lush may her garden grow. Those living in the capital city can ask to be put on her mailing list for weekly updates on what's ripe for the picking.

Write to her at kanu_somany@yahoo.com and grow in good health all year round.