Wednesday, January 30, 2008

JFI - Onions

Onions are amongst my all-time favourite veggies. I can't imagine a meal without onions in some form, and the ten days of Dussehra when mom used to cook sans onions and garlic were a form of purgatory. I bung them into almost anything except dessert and who knows, someday I might be tempted to create some form of dessert using onions.

What is interesting is the variants that abound, from chives to spring onions to leeks to half a dozen variants of onions that I know of, including plain white ones which I use to make this soup or red onions for the famous French Onion Soup or Hyderabadi Dahi Vadas which stars another favourite root veg - garlic. Each variant has a special use - from spring onions which we use for Jhunka to roast or baked leeks which taste fabulous with a cheesy sauce and a bread-crumb topping to sambar onions used for (you guessed it) sambar which taste fabulous with idlis. There are also some yummy onion chutneys around, notably the one served by Sagar Ratna, the South Indian fast-food chain in Delhi.

So when faced with the JFI theme for February, I was in a quandary as to what I could make that would be special enough, and then I remembered our winter special of Rajasthani Parathas. These are delicious parathas with onions as one of the key ingredients. You can make the stuffing and store it ahead of time and just pull it out whenever the mood strikes. We usually have these parathas with plain old dahi or Tzatziki, and that's more than enough to complement them.

Rajasthani Parathas
1-2 cups besan (chickpea flour)
3-4 onions, chopped really fine
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander powder
2-3 tsp chilli powder ( to taste)
Salt to taste
1 tbsp veg oil
Wheat flour
1 tbsp oil
Pinch of salt
Water for kneading

Oil for cooking the parathas

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a wok. Add the cumin and coriander. When toasted, add in the onions and slowly fry them on mid-high heat until they are crisp. Keep aside. in the same wok, put in the besan and roast until it gives off that nice, warm smell. Mix the besan with the onions, chilli powder and salt and store it in a dry jar until you are making the parathas.

Knead the Paratha dough - it should be smooth and not stick to the fingers. Roll out a roughly 6-7 inch diameter paratha and put a heaped tbsp or two of the filling. Fold the paratha over the filling and roll it out again. The parathas should be about 2 mm thick.

Cook on a tawa/ cast iron griddle with a bit of oil until the parathas are a warm beige colour with brown spots on both sides. They will be crisp, like papad. Enjoy hot with dahi and retire for a well-earned nap!

(Photos will follow)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Beans/ legumes

I love the bean family. I love the idea of cooking or experimenting with beans and am always looking for new ways to cook and enjoy them, so I was inspired to do some creative cooking over the weekend by the theme A Legume Love Affair. It has been really, really cold here for the past week ( about 2 degrees C at minimum, and probably lower with the wind-chill), so I wanted to brew up a hearty broth of a soup with beans.

I flipped through a couple of recipe books but nothing there appealed to me so I decided to whip up my own concoction. I wanted something with the essence of Thai flavour to it, but not necessarily a traditional Thai recipe, and wanted to use beans. We had bought these intriguing white beans from a trip last year to Himachal Pradesh, so I soaked a cupful overnight and then pressure-cooked them until soft the next morning.

I luckily had lemon-grass on hand, and have several flourishing basil plants in my roof garden as well as a lime tree so the basil and kaffir-lime flavours were taken care of. I didn't have galangal do decided to go ginger-free for the soup. I always like having lots of veggies in the soup, so I used whatever came to hand - a handful of podded peas, some broccoli, a carrot, one green pepper...The soup turned out brilliantly. It's one that I will definitely be repeating or ringing changes on. It was flavourful and aromatic, brothy yet light and a complete win with both A and my mom and the kids.

Thai-inspired Bean Soup
1 cup White beans, soaked overnight and pressure cooked until soft
2 red onions, chopped
3-4 pods garlic, peeled and chopped
Handful fresh basil leaves
4-5 kaffir lime leaves
1 stalk lemon grass, chopped into 1 inch pieces
Handful fresh grated coconut
2 cups mixed vegetables, diced and boiled
1 tbsp oil
Salt to taste
1-2 tsp chilli powder
1 tbsp sugar
Handful coriander leaves, chopped finely
Lime juice to taste
1/2 tbsp vegetable oil ( peanut)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 liter veg stock/ water

Heat the oil and put in the cumin seeds. When they get toasty, add the basil and lemon grass. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until brown. Puree the beans and the onion-garlic-lemon grass mixture together with the coconut.
In a saucepan, pour in the bean puree, the mixed vegetables and half a litre of water/ veg stock. add the salt, chilli powder and sugar and bring to a boil, storring occasionally. Blend with the whisk to ensure the bean puree hasn't clumped onto the bottom of the pan.
Serve hot, topped with coriander leaves and lime juice.

This was a simple recipe and fast to cook, which I always enjoy. The chilli powder, salt and sugar can all be adjusted to individual taste and the final dash of coriander and lime juice adds an amazing freshness to the taste.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rocking Rocket

Rocket is one of my favourite salad greens. The minute I see it on a menu, I'm all over it, but it's a little hard to find at local vegetable markets. Last weekend, I was lucky enough to find a big bunch of fresh rocket which I immediately grabbed, and then wondered what I could do with it.

I have a favourite salad at Diva with Rocket and Parmesan so I decided to try and re-create that. I decided to keep the salad simple and pared down so I could truly savour the wondefrul taste of the rocket leaves. All I wanted to accompany the greens were a few cherry tomatoes, halved, and some sliced red onions. I was all out of Parmesan so settled for Edam shavings.

I mixed up a standard vinaigrette - olive oil, white wine vinegar, a dash of mustard and some powdered sugar and poured it over the salad leaves and vegetables. I topped that with thin shavings of the Edam - I still think Parmesan would have worked better because it's harder and saltier, but Edam was pretty good too. And then I thought the salad was missing a little something so I halved a few walnuts and added those to the mix.

The salad was - Rocking! The textures complimented each other beautifully, and the vinaigrette helped bring out the taste of the peppery, astringent rocket leaves even better. Definitely a salad I will be making any time I find rocket...

Monday, January 21, 2008

Proud Mama

I do get the proud mama feeling very often when I'm watching either of my kids do something, but I never expected to feel this way about my better one-third. Yet here I am, simply bursting with pride, and all because of a simple thing - A cooked a delicious mutton curry this weekend ( going by reports since I'm veg), that too all by himself with no help from moi since I was out of town on work. Some of you may have read my earlier post on men in the kitchen and decided that A was not one of those men cut out to do the cheffing, of a weekend.

It all started when I bought Ismail Merchant's cookbook which had A salivating over the non-veg recipes. And A made a resolution this year that he would try and cook something. The thing is, his office has a tradition of one of the people bringing in a special dish on fridays. A being a muslim, they expected his lunch to be a lot more enticing to non-veg diners, with kebabs, biryanis and meat curries being ferried regularly. They turned their noses up in disgust when faced with day after day of tori, tinda and lauki, and his reputation ( and mine) were severely challenged until the day he took this and this with him. But that still didn't spare him from the stigma of being a muslim who never brought meat dishes to the office. Which is what eventually sparked off this burning chefly desire.

So on Sunday, with a little help from our cook in terms of chopping the onions etc, A embarked on his culinary adventure. It took a long time for the mutton to be cooked to his liking, and he made it according to a recipe I had made up. Thankfully, he didn't scorch either himself or the kitchen. And as he was finishing up, our picky-eater son came running into the kitchen to indignantly demand why he hadn't been offered whatever it was that was smelling so good along with his dinner. On getting a piece, Chubbocks's hand went up in the index-finger-meets-thumb universal sign of appreciation. Which is about the best compliment going, in our house.

A and colleagues had it for lunch yesterday and A received many compliments. So, hats off to the new chef in the house! ( pictures will follow).

Mutton Curry
1/2 kg mutton, cut into chunks
2 onions, chopped finely
1 inch ginger and 3 pods of garlic, minced together
15 gms almond paste
1 cup home made curds( yoghurt)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp aamchur( dry mango powder)
1 tsp cinnamon powder
4-5 cloves
3-4 whole black peppers
1-2 tsp chilli powder
Salt to taste
2 cups hot water
1 tbsp coconut powder
Pinch turmeric
2 tbsp oil

Heat the oil in a thick-bottomed wok. Put in the turmeric, then the cumin and wait for it to turn toasty. Add the coriander powder and stir for 1-2 minutes. Pop in the cloves and peppers, add the onions and cook, stirring periodically until they turn brown. Then add the ginger-garlic paste and cook until it loses the raw smell. Add the almond paste, coconut powder, cinnamon powder, yoghurt and mutton and stir to mix well. Cook for a few minutes on low, then add the hot water, chilli powder and aamchur and salt and cover the dish. Let it cook covered for half hour and then remove the lid. Cook on a low flame until the mutton is tender - about 45 minutes or so. Serve hot with rotis or crusty bread, or with rice and a lentil dish.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Comfort Food

Comfort food was the theme for two food-blog events this month - Meeta's Monthly Mingle and The Garden of Eating. Comfort food almost always implies a simplicity, an ease of preparation and of the act of eating. No fiddly bits, no last minute need to watch the dish as it hatches, no need to fool around with the sophisticated kitchen equipment which you have spent half your life and life savings to put together. It’s all about retreating to the quiet place deep inside where the world appears comforting and cozy…in many ways, comfort food is about recreating childhood.

I think that’s one of the reasons that on days when we are stressed or the world becomes too cacophonous, most of us reach into that cupboard where we store the recipes of the food our parents fed us. It reminds us of a time free from all responsibility, when we knew that someone else would be around to feed us and look after us, hurt could be healed by a simple kiss and hug and someone knew all the answers. No matter how sophisticated a palate we develop as adults, or how accomplished we become as cooks, we reproduce the food that our mothers put on the table, and for a few minutes, in the act of eating the familiar tastes of childhood, we can forget the ambiguity of life as an adult.

For me, as a South Indian, comfort food has to include rice. I grew up on it, and we ate rice everyday, at a time when no one thought carbs were the enemy. We did have rotis occasionally – the unleavened bread of India. Dad made the most exquisite rotis I have ever eaten, thin, soft and multilayered, a lovely caramel colour, with darker spots of brown which were crisp. The rotis were so delicious that we didn’t need much else by way of accompaniment, a cucumber kosambri( salad) or even just a piece of homemade lime pickle and a bowl of homemade yoghurt – curds, as we call it – was enough. There is something about food that is made with love and dedication that elevates it into balm not only for the body but the soul.

But every day food for us was rice, and a variety of lentil preparations – saaru, huli, kootu, a south-indian style salad of finely chopped or grated vegetables with a splash of lime juice, finely chopped chillies and coriander leaves and the oil seasoning – hot oil with exploded black mustard seeds and curry leaves, and a vegetable made with the same seasoning but topped with grated fresh coconut. We would occasionally have something North Indian – chholey or rajma – but this was very much the exception, indulged in only when dad was out of town, because like most South Indian men, dad is a creature of habit. A meal means rice with the lentil dish, followed by mosaru-anna – rice topped with yoghurt, had plain or with a dash of salt, with a spicy pickle on the side.

Whenever I am feeling stressed out, I reach for my repertoire of rice dishes, accompanied by a lentil gravy. That and potatoes, which are the great comfort food cutting across cultures. The potato dish that comforts me most is a crisp potato sabzi, made from chopped, boiled potatoes. In a 1 tbsp quantity of hot oil seasoning of cumin seeds, you pop in the potato pieces and cook them slowly until they turn brown and crisp on the outside. You then flavour them with salt and chilli powder, and that’s it. I find it interesting that comfort food in many cultures is about bland and soothing food – for us Indians, whatever be the emotion, food has to be spicy!

My favourite lentil gravy dish for comfort is saaru.
Saaru is made out of tamarind water, flavoured with a special mix of spices and the addition of a tomato, some jaggery and salt, and if made with a smaller quantity of lentils can even be had as soup. The taste is sweet, sour, salty and spicy all at once. You might think that such a concatenation of flavours would be confusing to the tongue and far from comforting but one sip of it and I feel all content. Saaru is a particularly fragrant dish and while making it, the whole house is redolent with the smells of that hot, spicy mixture. As a saaru aficionado, you can tell just by smelling its fragrance in different homes what it is going to taste like – will it be on the sour side, will it have the right balance of sweet and sour, will it be too thin, is the masala spicy enough…

Saaru is topped with a seasoning made by heating fresh ghee ( clarified butter) – I always use homemade ghee which tastes and smells much better. You wait for the ghee to turn hot and then drop in a teaspoon of mustard seeds. Once they are done exploding, you pop in a pinch of asafetida-which I love the smell of – and curry leaves. The saaru is garnished with this and chopped coriander leaves which make a bright green contrast to the rust-red colour of the saaru. It is had with hot rice and in my opinion, best eaten by hand. You pour the hot saaru onto the rice which you have mashed slightly in your plate so it mixes better with the liquid. You quickly mix the two together, take a small quantity and make a ball of it, using just the tips of your fingers. You scoop up a morsel of the crisp potato vegetable ( or papad which is what is in the picture) alongside and pop the mouthful into your eager mouth. Aaah...bliss!

1 - 2 tbsp saarina pudi
1 lime-size ball of tamarind, soaked in hot water
1 lime-sized ball of jaggery ( use 1 tbsp brown sugar of jaggery is unavailable)
1 tsp chilli powder ( use kashmiri chilli powder to make it less spicy)
1/2 cup pigeon peas( toovar dal) and a tomato
Pinch turmeric
Salt to taste
Handful curry leaves, washed and dried
1 tbsp home made ghee
Pinch asafoetida
1 tsp mustard seeds

Cook the pigeon peas along with a tomato in a pressure cooker or in a sauce pan with water until well cooked and mushy.
Squeeze the tamarind into the hot water and strain the brown liquid into a deep saucepan. Put it on to heat, with the pinch of turmeric, and heat for 3-4 minutes until the raw smell of the tamarind wears off. Then add the saarina pudi, chilli powder, salt, jaggery and half a cup of water and let it boil away for some time. Meanwhile, blend the cooked lentils and tomato together in a blender until mashed into a fine broth.
The fragrance of the saaru should be emanating from the tamarind-masala liquid by now. add the lentil-tomato broth and a cup and a half of water and let it come to a boil. Keep it boiling for 4-5 minutes before turning the heat off.

In a small pan, heat the ghee. Add the mustard seeds. Once they finish exploding, add the asafoetida and the curry leaves and turn off the heat. After a minute, add this to the saaru in the saucepan and top with coriander leaves.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


In winter, A and I have an annual tradition of visiting one of Delhi's finest stand-alone continental cuisine restaurants, Diva, at least twice. Diva has an amazing menu with periodic additions of new dishes discovered or adapted by chef and restaurateur Ritu Dalmia, and one of the best and most moderately ptriced wine lists in the country. But for us, the main attraction is the Fondue. It is rare to find it on the menu in India unless a restaurant is having a food festival or a special event, and it's a dish we love but know we can only take in winter when copious amounts of an eau de vie can be had alongside to help digest the dish.

There are several funny stories associated with Fondue for me. Years ago, in 1995, Ritu had opened her first restaurant, Mezza Luna in picturesque Hauz Khas village. The restaurant had an imaginative menu with unusual dishes like Basler Mehlsuppe, a lovely soup made of flour - which I didn't even find on the menu in Basle, by the way, as it's a highly seasonal dish - Roesti etc. I, A and BFF headed to Mezza Luna for dinner one Friday night, and the minute I saw Fondue on the menu, I begged them to order it, since I had read about it and was wildly curious. The salad came and then the Fondue. I dug into it eagerly, thoroughly enjoying my first encounter with it. A and BFF were approaching it somewhat gingerly, taking time over the salad and hesitantly dipping a few pieces of bread in. Then Ritu bustled up to us and asked how the meal was, especially the Fondue. A and BFF exchanged incredulous looks before turning to me - "This is it? Our main course? We thought it was some kind of dip, and were saving our appetites for the main course!" Anytime I ever mentioned Fondue after that - or made a menu selection, the two of them would start chortling.

Years later, when A and I were in France, our Swiss friend Roger invited a bunch of us to a Fondue dinner at his house. He has stirred up a large pot of it, complete with the garlic rubbed around the pot, the wine and the two kinds of Swiss cheese. Cubes of bread, cooked baby potatoes, tomato juliennes and pickled onions gleamed on the table alongside the bubbling cauldron of melting cheese. Roger served an eau de vie as well as some good Bordeaux and told us that we should have large quantities of the eau de vie to ensure the cheese stayed melted after we'd scoffed it down, as otherwise it was liable to form an indigestible lump in our stomachs and lay us out with a stomach ache the next day. Also, the penalty for losing your bit of bread or potato/ whatever in the fondue was to do a bottoms up of your eau de vie glass. The Fondue was delicious, and we were all pretty clutzy so a lot of EDV was washed down. The next morning, classes began at 8:30 am as usual, and there was a pallidly green and woozy group sitting at the fringes of the room, wishing the teachers wouldn't speak so loud.

Diva is a modern looking restaurant in GK II, which has come up as a market full of places to eat at various price ranges, from a Bengali Sweets type of place to Chinese to Nu Deli which is a new entrant. It has a vast fireplace on the ground floor and a pleasingly vibrant decor with white walls, coloured niches, dark wood accents and flooring and abstract paintings and prints. Ritu Dalmia, the owner, has earned her spurs first with Mezza Luna, then a restauirant in London before moving back and starting Diva several years ago. She has done a lot of research in Italian cuisine, and always has interesting dishes on the menu, apart from a small selection of Swiss-style food.

Diva used to have Fondue on the menu as either an appetizer or a main course. The quantity of the dish and the heavy, rich nature of it means that unless you're dining there in a large group, there's no way you can even treat the appetizer as anything but a main course. We usually order her Rocket salad with a deliciously zesty vinaigrette, but it was off the menu so we ordered Crostini topped with Gorgonzola and figs for starters. It was a rather small portion ( only 2 pieces) and therefore pretty expensive, though delicious.

The Fondue was heavenly as usual. It's not mentioned on the menu now, so while they do serve it, you have to know about it in advance. They serve it with cubed potatoes and bread, pickled onions and gherkins. We usually ask for cherry tomatoes which are not a traditional accompaniment, simply because they make such a fresh, tart contrast to the blandly rich cheese. Chubbocks got a Margherita pizza which was delicious too - the sauce was a fresh, young concoction of ripe tomatoes bursting with flavour. Though Tonino is my current favourite pizza place, this ran it a close second purely because of the sauce.

While we've been taking Chubbocks along with us for the past two years, we've never really thought of the restaurant as a child-friendly place. It's usually full of the chatterati and there's a cantilevered staircase and so on. This time, we had to take Puddi along as well, and just hoped it wouldn't mean that we had to take turns having our meal, because the pleasure of a Fondue is from its communalness.

We were seated upstairs, rather than downstairs, because we had the two kiddos with us. The restaurant did have a high-chair though it was rather light and therefore carries a risk of tipping over backwards. We placed the chair flush against a wall to prevent it from doing so. As soon as we were seated, the maitre d' bustled up and said hi to both the kids, and told them that is they didn't make noise, they would be rewarded with chocolate cake. Five minutes later, the chocolate tortes arrived at the table! We of course asked the serving staff to hold off and serve it later after the main course, but were bowled over by the gesture. Puddi had immediately spotted the dessert and plaintively kept calling for 'choccat' even as they were carting it away.

Chubbocks enjoyed his share of the Fondue and the pizza which he manfully struggled to finish. Puddi on the other hand didn't much care for the fondue or even the bread or potatoes by themselves - she's a home food kinda gal as of now, and created a fine pastiche of bread crumbs, mashed cherry tomato and potato and gherkins all over the floor surrounding her chair. She did enjoy her torte though, and finished most of it. The tortes, when we had the remnants after the kids were through, were delicious, with a crackly chocolate top, a crisp crust and a richly moist center with the taste of high quality dark chocolate.

When the bill came, we were pleasantly surprised and to find that the tortes had been complimentary. The meal came to about Rs. 2500 for three and was well worth the money as well as the hour-long drive from home.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


I have always enjoyed the French passion for food, in particular their insistence on terroir which is what distinguishes Bordeaux from Bourgogne, Champagne from Asti Spumante. It’s a little difficult to find a single word in English that could stand in for the equivalent of terroir which is an amalgam of the soil, the climactic conditions, the water and a host of other situation and location-specific factors that give each piece of agricultural produce its distinctive taste from region to region. The French are almost fanatical about it and the way a Frenchman or woman uses the words ‘quality’ or terroir is like hearing a high priest at the temple of Ra chanting the sacred word.

It was interesting to start thinking about terroir in the context of other cuisines, thanks to Anna's cool finds blog event, A Taste of Terroir. If any other country can lay claim to the concept of terroir, I should imagine it would be India. It is popularly said that every 100 kilometres in India, the language, customs and the food changes. The concept of terroir comes into place in countries in which agricultural production is large and uses mostly traditional methods, seeds and manure. In fact, in present-day France which employs barely 2% of the population in agriculture and has among the most industrialized and modern agricultural methods in use, it may be a throwback to the past to still hold by the concept of terroir, whereas in India it would hold true. Even now, the average Indian farm is a small-holding whose farmer works using the methods he has imbibed into his very veins over generations of working the land, and plants his crop seasonally and uses the manure that he knows has always worked on his land. The Indian farmer still relies on climactic conditions to decide his bounty for the year and the quality of the rain or sun play a huge role in turning out his crop the way that it does both in taste as well as quantity.

Each Indian state has multiple types of regional cuisine, based on centuries of understanding of the people, their way of life, the work they do and the agricultural produce available to them. The type of fish eaten in a Calcutta, for example, may be very different from that eaten by the West Bengal coast, and certainly from that enjoyed by the Malabar coast. Chef Ananda Solomon of the Taj finds that coconuts grown in Orissa do not work as well for Goan cuisine as those that grow in the West. My parents, who are from South India but settled in the north claim that certain native fruit and vegetables of the South, including curry leaves, smell and taste infinitely better in their native place. What is that, if not terroir?

In urban India, pockets of terroir still live on in the city-specific speciality cuisine or ingredients. Whether it is the rich, cow’s-milk based pedas from Mathura or the foamy, light-as-air dessert made by combining sugar, saffron and milk foam in Benaras, the Shrewsbury biscuits of a Pune, the MTR of a Bangalore versus the Ghantewala Mithai and Karim’s of a Delhi.

In the North of India, dairy food is almost a religion. Milk is widely considered food of the Gods across India but nowhere is it as worshipped as complete food as in the North. All kinds of milk products, from ‘desi ghee’ (clarified butter) to pure butter made from buffalo milk to paneer to lassi, thick and foaming and sweet, are had in vaster quantities than anywhere else in India. Paneer – a cottage cheese made by curdling plain milk and pressing it down into a solid form – is given a place of honour in Punjabi homes. Paneer per se has no taste of its own and looks a little like Styrofoam - and sometimes tastes like it too. It takes on the taste of whatever mélange of gravies and spices it is cooked with, and is variously mixed with peas and onions, a creamy tomato gravy or pureed spinach and spices to form a vegetable accompaniment to rotis, the unleavened bread of India. It is also served cooked in a clay oven or tandoor after being marinated with a spicy yoghurt-based marinade which gives the paneer a wonderfully smoky-spicy taste.

Delhi has a reputation for being a foodie, if conservative city. From ancient days, Delhi has been a capital city to a number of different types of rulers from different dynasties and cultures, and therefore offers a wide mix of cuisines and has what I call a large stomach – Delhi lives for its food. From Old Delhi, which has a whole street devoted to parathas – the stuffed unleavened breads fried in butter – to the varieties of chaat that it has, to Karim’s which is famous for Mughlai cuisine, every nook of the city has a food speciality. City natives know that there is a specific samose-wala who makes the best samosas, and one bhelpuri wala who makes the best bhel, one dahi wada seller who has the best and creamiest dahi wadas…

In keeping with its foodie tradition, Delhi also has a special shop selling paneer, which exemplifies the concept of terroir. While ordinary white paneer is available just about anywhere, this shopkeeper serves a unique type of paneer. He mixes finely chopped ginger, fenugreek laves, coriander seeds and leaves and other spices right into the curdled milk to produce an interestingly spicy and fragrant variety of paneer. He is famous for this one product and Delhi-ites in the know line up at the shop to take it away.
I had not heard of this until recently when BFF was visiting Delhi. I promptly sent off my driver and factotum to procure some of this paneer for us, while I pondered what to do with it. It would be a travesty to let this paneer hide its light under a bushel, so to speak, in a traditional gravy. Then inspiration struck, and I decided to serve it simply grilled in the oven, with a sprinkling of salt, along with Muhammara of which I had just whipped up a batch.

We raced through 250 grams of this in minutes, so tasty was it, and didn’t even end up using the Muhammara which otherwise is wolfed down with almost anything. I grilled this paneer lightly, so that it didn’t get that squeaky-rubbery taste which over-cooked paneer invariably gets, and the salt helped bring out the flavours of the embedded spices. It worked wonderfully as a starter and I can see myself regularly serving it when we entertain.

While still contemplating the concept of terroir some time ago, we visited my aunt-in-law for lunch and she fed us an unusual Halwa. Halwa is a dessert made using milk, sugar and the main ingredient which ranges from semolina to vermicelli to various vegetables. The halwa we had was made of black carrots and was a speciality of Allahabad. Now red carrot halwa is a seasonal dessert that is made quite regularly during winter when the red carrot crop comes into its own, but I had never seen this dish made of black carrots.

Black carrots are a winter vegetable only typically grown in North India, particularly Punjab and UP, and drunk, not eaten. That is, their juice is made into Kanji or carrot juice, topped with a sprinkling of rock salt and a spritz of lime juice, and considered both delicious and good for health. I have never enjoyed Kanji and therefore never bought black carrots for use at home. But this halwa sounded intriguing and I couldn’t wait to try it on my own. One thing that struck me was that this was much richer in taste than the typical carrot halwa. I usually make carrot halwa using barely ½ tbsp of ghee, which is only used to fry cashews for garnishing the dish, since I feel the fat from the fullcream milk is quite enough. But this recipe needed some tweaking and I thought about it during the week as I went about my official job. I figured that the black carrots needed to be sautéed in home made ghee first and only then cooked with milk and sugar. That would make them less likely to mush down and lose texture and add the rich, lush taste of the Halwa we had had.

The grated black carrots look more like a deep, deep purple – almost black but the purple shows through in the sunlight. Just looking at them gets me all excited. I drop the matt black mass of finely grated carrots into a wok and slowly cook them in the ghee. The wonderfully nutty, enticing aroma of ghee fills the house and I take in a deep breath. The grated carrots are glistening in the fat of the ghee and I figure it’s time to add in the full cream milk. I pour it into the wok and pause to marvel at the lovely lilac-mauve colour in the pan.
Red carrots turn the milk a pale, uninteresting red but this colour has promise and exoticity. I struggle to capture its beauty in the photographs, taking the pan off the stove and into the sun, but remain by and large defeated – not using the flash means the mixture just looks dark brown while using it means the richness of the ghee glitters into the lens and prevents the colour from coming through. Well, you’ll just have to take my word for it – it looks like something that should be served to royalty.

I add in sugar and watch the tiny crystal cubes shine on the surface of the violet liquid like diamonds on a crown and then slowly dissolve and lose themselves in the mad swirl of the inky mass. It is a slow-cooking process, and you can become completely tranquillized in the repetitive yet occasional movements of stirring the halwa and returning to a contemplative state. I wonder who the primal man was who discovered that these things were good to eat. Fruit one can well imagine attracted attention by their colour and because they were hitting people walking under the trees in their faces, but vegetables, especially those that grow below the ground like carrots? Black coloured vegetables?

It takes a long time for the simmering liquid to slowly evaporate, permeating its richness into the carrots. At long last it is finished, and I stare down at the black mass that promises a lush sensation for the senses. I roast some cashews in ghee and pour them on top of the caviar-ey halwa. They are a nice rust-red contrast to the dark colour which remains a rather inky violet even in the sunlight. The halwa colour reminds me of the tropical night, that magical, mysterious interplay of black and blue.
I have my usual struggle to take pictures that do justice to the dish and finally, finally, we pop some into our mouths. I have waited for this dish the way one waits for a treat – impatiently and yet, when the treat arrives, you approach hesitantly so you can savour the anticipation of its enjoyment for a few moments more. It doesn’t disappoint – the halwa is rich, with a full-bodied flavour that matches the intensity of its colour. I lose myself in the intense dark taste that lingers on my tongue long after the morsel has disappeared down my throat. The texture of the grated carrot which has softened but not melted jostles against the crunchy hardness cashews, and their cheesy sweetness offsets the fruity flavour of the carrots. The unctuous mellowness of the milk solids coats the mouth silkily. The sensation of the halwa on the tongue is luxurious…if Cabernet Sauvignon could be made into a dish, this would be it, I think and reach for another mouthful.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Veggie dinners

I have never understood the aversion to Brussels Sprouts that many people profess. Maybe if you eat them boiled, I suppose they wouldn't taste like anything much, but sauteed or baked in a creamy, cheesy sauce, this vegetable is delicious. We only get access to BS in the winter here, so whenever I see packets of this small, delicate looking cabbagey vegetable, I instantly pick it up. I've had it cooked many different ways, but when I have to leave it to my cook, I just get her to rustle up a simple, Indian style sabzi - slice the brussels sprouts finely and cook in a seasoning of oil with roast cumin seeds, then add some chilli powder and salt. If cooked until slightly soft but still crunchy, this makes a great accompaniment to rotis or rice and dal. The bitter-sweet taste of the vegetable really shines through in this simple dressing. It also tastes good in an open sandwich - just top a slice of lightly buttered bread with this, some cheese and grill until the cheese turns melty. The crunchy brussels sprouts taste adds a nice texture.

One type of vegetable that I typically don't enjoy is the ones that are sweetish. That includes sweet potatoes, over-ripe pumpkins and chayote. In fact, we typically don't buy sweet potatoes very often, because I'm always stumped as to what to do to them.

Well, yesterday we had a food disaster at home. The gas cylinder was finished, and there was some problem with the spare one, so the nozzle just didn't fit properly. We borrowed a cylinder from the neighbours but the nozzle seemed to be the problem. So there we were, with no rotis or rice for dinner, and the ground masala for chholia ke kebab just sitting there helplessly. I didn't feel like making do with bread, and then my eye fell upon the sweet potatoes which had been sitting in the kitchen since my last sabzi mandi expedition a week ago. "I'll try baking them", I thought, and promptly wrapped them up in foil, carefully pricking them over with a fork because I do not want things exploding all over the kitchen. I also washed and wrapped up a potato to keep in reserve, and popped the veggies into the oven at 250 degrees for about 50 minutes.

Meanwhile, I put a lump of home made plain yoghurt into a muslin cloth, tied that tightly and left it hanging over the washbasin to let the liquid drip away. I had some chives which I snipped into 1 cm segments - I love doing that. When the yoghurt had stopped dripping, I unfolded the cloth and turned the yoghurt over into a wide bowl. I added the snipped chives and a dash of salt and stirred it up nicely and parked the dip into the refrigerator to cool while the potatoes cooked.

The sweet potatoes were a tiny bit overcooked, and probably need less time - say 35 minutes - in the oven. The sweet potato juice had oozed out and coated parts of the skin which had turned caramelized. The potato was nicely done, with its skin nice and crunchy. I quickly brushed a bit of salted butter over the split halves of the sweet and plain potatoes and served them up with a dollop of yoghurt dip on the side. The yoghurt dip is a great low-cal substitute for sour cream with chives, by the way.

I really enjoyed the sweet potatoes this way, with the sweetness brought up to a smoky point, and the hard caramelized skin to crunch into as if it were candy - if you look at the picture above, you can see the caramelized bits. I'm already pondering over the possibilities of whipping up some honey mustard or hot-sweet chinese or Thai style sauce to serve with it next time. And the roast potato of course tasted delicious with the fake sour cream dip. It turned out to be a pretty satisfying dinner, despite the lack of bread and multiple things to eat - simple, wholesome and surprising. What more can one ask for?


Garlic is one of the ingredients proscribed by yoga, because it is considered to be rajsik, or heat and emotion-inducing. Well, I dunno if it's the garlic I eat but I'm a pretty volatile person. I love garlic on almost anything except desserts - garlic soup, garlic mashed potatoes, garlic aloo tikkis and what not. My favourite way to spice up a simple and bland dal - which my cook sometimes turns out - is to quickly fry a little bit of garlic slivers in oil and garnish the dal. It instantly perks it up and breathes life and savour into it.

Garlic is also often used as a curative. When I had brochitis attacks as a kid in Mysore, ajji used to get roasted garlic pods and make me eat them. It's also used in masala or pepper rasam sometimes to keep cough and cold at bay ( or maybe just to get through to the palate despite the stuffy nose :))And if I needed any excuse to overuse garlic, it's also considered to be good for cholesterol and for anti-ageing. And of course, it keeps away vampires too!

I rounded up a whole list of dishes I made recently in which garlic was a star contributor to the taste, including my secret sauce, muhammara and soup. But what I made specially for Sunita's event was the sagu. Sagu is a typical Karnataka dish made with mixed vegetables cooked in a juicy sauce. It's had served hot with fresh puris, but also tastes great with rice or rotis or even with a baguette dunked into it. In France, since frozen mixed veggies were easily available and a breeze to cook, sagu often found its way on the menu, though perforce I had to use dessicated coconut instead of fresh since we couldn't find a way to break the fresh coconuts we got there - they were too hard, even when hit with a hammer!

I also made my winter staple of saaru with dill and garlic. This is a variant of the traditional rasam and works equally well as a soup or served with hot rice. I had earlier given the recipe for saarina pudi or rasam powder on my blog - you can link to it from the garlic soup link above.

I cup each each of beans, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, peas and broccoli if you like, and 1 onion. The beans, carrots and potatoes to be cut into 2 inch long pieces, about 1 cm thick. Onion diced large.
1/2 coconut, grated ( use fresh, else soak dessicated coconut - 1 cup - in hot water)
4-5 garlic pods, peeled
2 inch stick of cinnamon
4-5 cloves
3-4 black peppers
2-3 green chillies
1 large handful coriander leaves
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 handful roasted chana dal - roast peeled bengal gram, available at Indian grocery stores( bhuna hua chana)

Grind the coconut, garlic, chana, coriander, chillies, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and cumin seeds together until finely ground.
Meanwhile, cook the cut vegetables in a litre of salted water, starting with the slowest cooking and moving onto the faster ones, e.g. start with potatoes. When they're slightly done, add the carrots, then the beans, then the cauliflower, then the peas and broccoli and lastly the onions.
When all the vegetables are cooked till soft but not mushy, add the ground mixture into this, stir to mix and bring to the boil.
Turn off the heat and garnish with a traditional south indian tadka - heat 1 tbsp oil and add black mustard seeds into it. When they are done popping, put in a dried red chilli and handful of curry leaves and turn off the heat.

Dill-Garlic Rasam
Handful of dill leaves, chopped into 1 cm segments
3-4 pods of garlic, peeled
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp rasam powder
1 lime sized ball of tamarind, soaked in 1 cup hot water for 15 minutes
1 cup cooked toovar dal ( pigeon peas)
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste

Pound the dill, garlic and cumin seeds together in a mortar until they are well cruched and mixed up.
Squeeze the tamarind ball in the hot water to get all the juice out and strain the tamarind water. put it on to boil, until the raw smell of the tamarind goes away.
Then add the rasam powder, turmeric powder and the garlic-dill leaves-cumin seeds mixture and let it boil for a few minutes.
When the kitchen turns spicily fragrant, add the toovar dal and 1/2 litre of water. You can add a little more or less water to thin out the dal to your liking.
Bring to the boil and then turn off the heat.
Garnish with the tadka - 1 tbsp home made ghee, melted on the stove; then add mustard seeds into it and wait for the pop, and lastly add curry leaves and wait till they turn crisp.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Veggie Twists

Sometimes I get a bit tired and bored of having my veggies the typical desi way - tadka and all. Last weekend while shopping for veggies, I spotted a selection of orange baby carrots. Now baby carrots is something you'll find at fine dining places in Delhi but rarely in markets, so I bagged some immediately, of course. I'm an onion freak too - onions in any form, red, white, spring, leeks, when I spotted a bunch of really tender onion stalks, with the onion flowers still on them, I bagged those too.

Then came the quandary - how to cook these? I didn't want to make a standard sabzi with the baby carrots - what would be the point - and didn't just want to use the onion stalks in a salad - same reason. So I pondered and racked my brain and at last hit upon it. I decided to make glazed carrots - having never had them before. It sounded different, at least, and would work for these small carrots. The onions, I decided to leave up to whatever inspiration hit me when I started my cooking.

So, having a vague idea that glazing involved cooking with sugar, I chopped the baby carrots into thirds (they weren't infant carrots that I could have cooked whole - more like toddler carrots) and dug out my trusty Amul butter. I love recipes that ask for cooking with butter.

Having coated all the carrots with melted butter, I put a lid on the frying pan to let the carrots steam while I chopped the onion stalks into 3 inch pieces. Since the butter was already out, it seemed like a good idea to cook the onion stalks with it too, so I popped a blob of butter in the frying pan and parked the onions in it and stirred them around.

Meanwhile, the carrots had been stewing in their own juices for a while so having checked to see if they were somewhat tender, I sprinkled a tablespoon or two of sugar over them and stirred them to mix up the sugar on all sides. The sugar started caramelizing and I stirred up the carrots some more to ensure they were nicely coated with melted sugar. When the carrots started browning, I added half a cup of water to the pan and popped the lid back on to let them simmer.
I turned back to the onion stalks to find that they had cooked nicely, still crisp with little browned bits here and there. I have had balsamic reductions at various restaurants so decided to try making it but without the bother of hunting for a formal recipe. So I pulled out my modena balsamic vinegar and poured a shot of it into the frying pan. that was fun but I wasn't satisfied, so I also added a glug of Shiraz which was sitting out on the counter, along with a sprinkling of freshly and coarsely ground black pepper. I stirred it around for a while until the wine and vinegar boiled away, leaving the onion stalks bright green and shiny with brown beads of moisture here and there.
Meanwhile, I opened the lid off the carrots and let the water evaporate. The carrots were nice and tender at this point, so I sprinkled a handful of chopped dill over them and brought the carrots and onion stalks to the table with a flourish. The carrots were juicy and sweet, with a caramelized-carrot flavour which was interesting, while the onion stalks were tender, and an interesting mixture of the sharp onion taste and crunchy texture combined with the sweet sourness of the balsamic vinegar and wine and the slow fire of the ground pepper. That, along with a mild cauliflower soup made for an interesting dinner, a composition of contrasting flavours and textures that played off each other really well.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Deeply Dippy

I don't know if you've seen a trend through my blogs. I noticed that the categories that pop up most frequently are soups and dips. Well, soup is one of my favourite things to cook and to eat, and I simply love having a collection of dips on hand, to accompany anything, from idlis and vadas to paneer, bread, crackers, crudites, chips, mini-blinis and so on.

In the winter, when the prices of bell peppers falls to about Rs. 100 a kilo, I run amock buying them up for all manner of uses, from eating them grilled to julienning them for salads or making them into soups, adding them to pasta...Red bell pepper has two special uses for me. One is in a roasted red pepper soup which is one of the most divine soups I have ever had. The other is to make Muhammara ( the third, which I recently discovered, is to make the secret sauce of the Marais restaurant).

Muhammara is a lebanese sauce, meant to be had with fattoush or pita bread. But frankly, it is such a lush thing that I can have it with almost anything, or even spend a messy half hour dipping my finger into a cup full and licking it off. In fact, I've just had a brainwave that suggests that I try it as a pasta sauce. The taste is tongue-tingling and yet gentle so it's a very inviting dip. And it requires roast bell peppers, than which what could be more delicious?

Red bell pepper - 200 grams
1/3rd cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
3-4 garlic cloves
1 tsp pomegranate molasses ( not having any, I usually use plain old anardana - pomegranata seeds, available at any indian grocery store)
1/2-1 tbsp sugar (to taste)
1 tsp chilli powder
Juice of half lemon
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

Roast the bell pepper until the skin is charred. Cool, peel and deseed and chop into chunks.
Run all the ingredients except the olive oil in the blender until finely pureed together.
Add the olive oil little by little into the running blender until well-blended with the sauce.
Remove and enjoy with anything!

Over the weekend, I served this with a grilled masala paneer which is a Delhi specialty. Mmm!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

JFI Chocolate

Chocolate…the elixir of the gods…I wonder who was the intrepid south American explorer who first discovered the cacao bean, who thought of curing it and how someone thought of adding some sweetness to it…Whoever came up with each of these should be awarded the Nobel prize for science – or gastronomy if there is such a thing. A simple bite of chocolate is enough to make you forget the tiff you had with your better one-third, the argument with the boss, your weight loss struggles…a whiff of that warm chocolatey smell, which somehow exudes decadence and luxury, and you’re in another world altogether.

All the more reason for welcoming Jihva for ingredients’s January theme of chocolate. I thought I was in heaven!

I have tons of chocolate recipes but for a blogging challenge, I always like to try out something new. Last month when my BFF was in town, she visited the re-opened Olive in Delhi, and came back raving about their chocolate cakes with melting chocolate inside. Now this is one dish which I had always wanted to make, it seemed like such an interesting challenge. I have to admit, I don’t exactly shine as a baker, because I often get either the timing or the temperature setting wrong – or, even more infuriating, my temperamental oven decides to screw up one of the two things for me. Give me a bog-standard cake or muffin and it’s easy-peasy but the more complex cakes are always a little like Russian Roulette. But, since I was feeling like taking a gamble, I thought I could try out a melting chocolate dessert.

I remembered having drooled over a recipe for something like this in Nigella Lawson’s Domestic Goddess, so I pulled the book out, and the minute I read the title of the cakes, I was hooked. How can anyone resist any dessert which has the words molten and chocolate entwined? So I gathered all my gumption and said, ok, this is one I’m not going to screw up. The photographs of it, perhaps, possibly and probably ( I did, as you will see), but the actual dish, no. And the best is that the dish seems so complex everyone stares at you as if you have a cordon blue halo when you produce it.

This has to be, honestly, one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. Because, like the best chocolate desserts, it’s meant to be eaten hot, fresh from the oven. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take a chocolate mousse if that’s the only chocolate dessert on the menu, but frankly chocolate mousses are all wrong. Mousses are light, airy, flirty little things, not meant to be weighted down with the serious elegance or sensuous decadence of chocolate. They are meant to have a little tango with fruit – a mango, perhaps, or strawberries. Mousses are like chiffon, summery and floaty.

Chocolate, on the other hand, is inherently sinful, like silk and brocade and velvet. It’s meant to be serious and rich and to induce reverence. You can’t play with chocolate, at least, not the best quality chocolate. You have to luxuriate in it, to soak in the heady lushness of the experience. Chocolate desserts have to be melt-in-the-mouth, and to do justice to the food of the gods, to be warm and gooey and aromatic…

My in-laws were visiting for the first time since the New Year began, so I decided to serve this after dinner on Saturday. Of course, my temperamental oven kicked in right away by switching itself off 2 minutes into the 12 minute baking time, which meant I had raw batter right when everyone was waiting, bouche béant, for the treat I had been promising all evening. I have probably not watched my new-born children with as much anxiety as I did the oven the second time I set it on to bake my little baby cakes. And of course, being me, I couldn’t resist foozling around with the recipe so I added a teaspoon of chilli powder which added a nice kick and back of the throat heat to the molten-ness of the cakes. Thankfully, I made up some extra batter, so tomorrow I get to relish this all over again, only without the added stress of having to get it right in front of my in-laws – and I’m already mulling over the possibility of adding some Frangelico to take the wicked up a notch! Mmm…PS. Have I thanked you for picking chocolate for the theme?

Molten Chocolate Babycakes
350 grams best quality dark chocolate, softened
150 gms caster sugar
50 gms good butter ( try and get French butter if possible), softened
1 tsp vanilla - or Frangelico/ Godiva, maybe even Tia Maria - or Cointreau...Drambuie...ok, now I'm drooling all over again!
50 gms flour ( Nigella recommends Italian 00 which I don’t know what it is – I just used plain maida)
4 eggs
Pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C ( if baking right away).
Grease 6 pudding cups ( I used aluminum muffin cups, not having any other kind to hand, but am immediately inspired to invest in ceramic ramekins, since I think the possibility of making these on a regular basis is quite high) and line the bottoms with baking sheet.
Cream the butter and sugar together.
Add the eggs and the salt and beat together.
Add the vanilla and the flour and blend together well.
Scrape in the softened chocolate ( try not to be greedy enough to leave lots behind in the bowl so you can lick it off all by yourself!) and blend the batter well together.
Pour into the pudding pans and pop into the oven for 10 minutes.
If not baking these immediately, you can make the batter ahead of time and keep it in the fridge. In that case, keep the timer at 12 minutes for the baking process.
As soon as it’s done – the tops will look done, but don’t pop in a knife to check, the inside will be wet unlike a conventional cake – take out of the oven and invert onto individual dessert plates or shallow bowls.

Nigella recommends serving this with whipped cream, crème fraiche or icecream. Even a garnish of fresh strawberries would go well with the dessert. But I personally felt nothing – but nothing – at all was needed with this dessert, it was perfect all by itself. Maybe I could have decorated the plate a bit, and I might do, if serving at a party, but this was my first time and I was too anxious to photograph them ( as usual the photos do not do justice to the yum-ness - they are crap!), and then to dive into the delectation before it cooled down.
Also, NB – asbestos hands – or double layer of oven mitts – will help, because you have to serve this fast, while the pudding cups are still burning hot.

Note to self, and readers - if you invest in nice looking and good quality ramekins, you can forget all about the fiddling around inverting the babycakes onto a plate business and simply serve it right out of the ramekins you baked in. This is a double blessing - first because no ouchies burning your fingers while inverting cakes and so on, and second, because the cake can turn out more molten than you thought or planned on ( they did for me), and so when you're inverting, the molten chocolate goops out all over the plate.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Basil and Thyme

Long years ago, when Delhi was a forgotten culinary outpost with butter chicken and paneer the sole 'haute cuisine' that the city could aspire to, along came General Maneckshaw's daughter-in-law Bhikoo to coax our jaded tastebuds into life again. To do this, she opened a little continental restaurant in a charming little marketplace set aside for servicemen's wives/ widows, known as Santhusthi, near the Ashoka hotel in Delhi - and a stone's throw away from the PM's residence on Safdarjung Road.

Continental, yet, in a city which thought continental meant over-cooking an ill-matched assortment of vegetables in a bland white sauce and then baking the dish to death. Basil and Thyme served quiche - think of that! - and salad which had julienned purple cabbage and sprouts, iced tea and filo parcels, leek tarts and omelettes with fines herbes, risottos and cheesecakes and plum-ginger juice. Naturally, then, the early visitors were only the diplomats who abound in this city and the well-heeled and travelled. At any lunch in this place, you could spot the glitterati and the chatterati, cheek by cheek, mwah-mwah-ing over the largely French menu which changed every 90 days.

Eventually, along came the not-so-well-heeled but somewhat travelled and adventurous folks like us. Santhusthi was a favourite hang-out for my BFF and I, a bare 15 minute distance from our respective offices and therefore a pretty good lunch destination if we didn't hurry back. Plus add the fun of browsing through the tiny little swiss-cottage-like shops with their large picture windows full of unique little objects.

Way back in the late '80s' before the complex came up the way it did, I remember my friend Rohit had his 21st birthday party here. The complex has lush grass which looks like they flew it in from Switzerland, so soft and thick is it. The party was held exactly where Basil and Thyme now stands, and you had to cross a tiny little raised bridge over a conduit to get to the party area, which looked like a fairy-tale place with all the trees decked in tiny little sparkling lights.

So Santhusthi must have come up as the shopping plaza in the early 90s. Good Earth had one of its first Delhi stores here, and I remember each time we lunched at B&T we'd pause at Good Earth and gaze longingly at their crockery. A store called Ananya, which still exists, sold clothes by Bangalore designers we'd never heard of, and Ensemble still has a beautiful store in here, as do Anokhi, Christina and Shyam Ahuja.

The restaurant itself has a minimalist ( if not minimal) decor - large picture windows looking onto lush greenery, white linen covered tables, simple chairs. Sometimes a potted palm in the corner, and in summer a noisy pedestal fan every few tables. The restaurant is still as packed as always, though on our last venture there in December when BFF was visiting from Bombay, we didn't spot any chatterati/ glitterati - not even a politician on the wane. But we still had to book a table in advance - and you have to be a regular to know which table to book, otherwise you'll be stuck in a corner without windows.

We entered the world of French food sportingly, if somewhat hesitantly, starting with the somewhat better known and then moving on to the more exotic items in the menu - exotic for us that is, including Asparagus in Hollandaise sauce. Now being old faithfuls ( though less frequent due to living in a far flung suburb), we are familiar with the style of food and therefore order at ease. The food is simply prepared and beautifully presented, though again in a minimalist manner. It is delicious, whether you have the soup (BFF had the carrot soup) or the salads ( we had a wonderful tomato salad with bocconcini - amongst the best bocconcini I've ever tasted, and another with rocket which is my favourite green leafy) or the quiches. A had a chicken main course which he declared superb. For dessert, we stuck to old favourite Gateau Zara which is a meltingly rich chocolate gateau. Lunch for three would have come to about Rs. 2000.

A meal at B&T is about more than the food. Somehow the unpretentious ambience and the excellence of the food combined with the verdure you see out of the windows make it an experience in which you are lifted out of the traffic-heavy neighbourhood of Delhi into a quieter, calmer, more civilized place where people don't need to bark into their cellphones every half second or honk their car horns incessantly. Maybe it's the discreet hush that follows genuine money?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The secret is out!

Years ago, when we lived in France, during one break at college, a friend who had lived and travelled through Paris and knew it intimately offered to take us on a personalised tour. For dinner, she tooks us to a wonderful, tiny little restaurant in the Marais - the jewish and gay district of Paris. The Marais has a mysterious air redolent with atmosphere, with tiny, jewel-like little shops selling unexpected fashions, flickering candles in store windows, narrow cobbled streets and the feeling that around each blind street corner, you'll discover something unique.

There are tiny little restaurants, some in the middle of pocket-handkerchief sized squares, with tables set under green umbrellas, and some holes in the wall, with tantalizing aromas wafting into the crowded streets. The one we went to was run by a jewish couple in their sixties, bursting at the seams with diners. We crowded around one of the few empty tables left and ordered from the selection of lebanese cuisine - felafel, stuffed into pita pockets with Turkish salad of grilled eggplant with onions and lettuce and roasted tomatoes, drizzled with the most incredible sauce, which had a secret recipe known only to the owners of the restaurant...

The food was terrific, and the restaurant had photos of the owners with several Hollywood stars who apparently always make a beeline for this place - Uma Thurman, Johnny Depp, Richard Gere, among others...But what made the place a must-visit time after time was the sauce. It would have made soggy cabbage taste good, so amazingly flavourful was it. You could buy some, if you whinged in front of the owner, and I promptly did so. Even at home, with none of the fixings available to me, this sauce was wonderful drizzled over a baguette with cheese on top or with crackers, tangy, spicy, pungent with garlic in the best way...

I had to find a way to make the sauce, I thought. I experimented over the years but nothing quite tasted or even smelled the same. I had a tiny amount of the original sauce frozen and put away so I could take it out to compare with the ones I experimented with at home. No go...and so I eventually gave up, while hanging on to the frozen cube and moved on to other food experiments. Until last week, when, quite suddenly, inspiration hit me while reading a recipe for harissa. No, the sauce wasn't harissa nor Ranjaka but some elements seemed familiar and I decided to give it one more bash...

And this time I have succeeded. Eureka! Eureka! ( No, I am not running around the city naked from my bath!) How did I do it?

First, I roasted a good, ripe avocado-sized red bell pepper and two tomatoes.
While the vegetables were roasting, I got out my brass mortar and pestle and ground half a tablespoon of cumin seeds into smithereens, with a rollicking dash and smash.
I minced up a handful of coriander leaves.
We pulled out 5 garlic cloves and peeled them and smashed them down with the flat of the knife.
When the pepper and tomatoes were nicely browned, I popped them into a ziplock bag to cool down. They peel easily that way and you don't waste any of the juice.
Once they were peeled and the peppers de-seeded, I blended everything together in my small blender ( yes, we lost half the sauce because it dribbled, at first, and then frankly flew out of the blender to plaster itself all over the kitchen), with a dash of chilli flakes ( from the many packets generously handed out with home delivered pizza from pizza hut and carefully preserved for such uses by me) and salt. I added a drizzle of lime juice from half a lime, and 1/4th cup of good virgin olive oil.

It smells just like the oroginal, and if my tastebuds haven't lost their memory ( okay, I'm not going to dip into the frozen cube of sauce - it's five years old), it taste just like that one too.

Funny eh? I thought the recipe was going to be much more complicated and arcane, and I bet when you're reading the recipe you're thinking -gee, that's an easy one. Wonder why it took her five years to figure it out. Well, I did say on one of my blogs that I was a late bloomer!

So here is the secret, decoded for you. Enjoy. I will post pictures as soon as I get our slightly temperamental camera to work! PS. Go easy on the lime juice if the tomatoes are on the sour side.

Potage st. germain

In complete contrast to what the weather-man forecast - or perhaps just to spite him - Delhi has been crystal clear for the past few days, with not a hint of fog. Obviously the wrong day for pea soup, given that's what fog is typically described as, eh?

But, having lost my voice ( yes, literally and not literarily. I've been reduced to a hoarse whisper which makes anything I say sound either menacing or sexy, take your pick!), I thought a bit of throat relief in the form of a nice, hot bowl of soup wouldn't go amiss. Plus with all the eating out I had been indulging in over the past few days, I decided a veggie-supreme type dinner was called for.

In the summer, all you get in Delhi are frozen peas. Peas which just about qualify because of being green, spherical objects, but nowhere close to the essence of pea-ness - that soft scrunchiness and the sweet, sweet flavour that only young, fresh peas can have. In summer, peas are used to round out meals or make them more filling - add them liberally to provencale soups, uppittu or a paneer sabzi where the dry leatheriness they acquire in the process of being frozen gets masked by the spices. But in winter, fresh, tender young peas call for recipes in which they can shine in the spotlight. Last week at the sabzi mandi, while buying our vegetables, my son and I also sneaked and ate up dozens of young peas from the stack, freshly podded and popped in, and sweeter than any candy.

Yesterday when I held the bowl of green gems, I wanted to make a soup that wouldn't hide their sweet and innocent flavour but bring that out further. I decided to try a simple French soup, known as Potage St. Germain, apparently because it used to be served at that marketplace, according to my handy dandy soup cookbook. It's also simple to make, which automatically gives it extra points. A nice, soothing bowlful on a cold day...

3 cups fresh young peas ( this is not a recipe that works with frozen leather peas)
1 large red onion, cut into chunks
I had to innovate so I added fresh green garlic, which - I have to be honest - just faded into the pea taste and so was not required
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 litre water or stock
Knob butter
1/3 cup cream ( or non-sour plain yoghurt if trying to be healthy)

I love recipes which call for knobs of butter, don't you? One feels all decadent and French while it slowly melts on a low flame.
Melt said knob of butter. Add the onion - and garlic if using - and cook, stirring, until translucent. Add the peas and 1/3rd of the stock if lazy and blender-ally challenged a la moi. Turn the heat up and allow the stock to come to a boil. Cook until the peas are soft but not mushy and haven't lost their bright green colour.
Cool and mush up in the blender. Remove and pour back in the saucepan. Add the rest of the stock/ water and salt and papper. Add the cream and heat until hot but before boiling point ( that curdles the cream). Serve with croutons or by itself. Try and undersalt it a bit if the peas are really sweet, so you can savour their natural taste.

If the peas aren't as sweet as you thought or if you've been careless like me and oversalted the soup, add toned milk until the salt flavour goes down, and a dash of sugar ( 1/2 tbsp).