Thursday, October 29, 2009

Baked Vegetables

Back in the '80s in India, whenever people had parties, it was time for them to display culinary chops by way of serving unusual dishes from other cuisines. Those were the years characterized by menus which would have rajma chawal and paneer side by side with a Chinese Chop Suey, a dessert of agar-agar-laced China Grass or the ubiquitous baked vegetables, amongst the few households that owned such an esoteric piece of equipment as the oven. The baked vegetables would typically be a mix of potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and peas in white sauce topped with Amul processed cheese. I personally never liked the dish as I found it limp and the mix unappetizing.

Today's menus take in a much larger territory and typically try and serve everything from one type of cuisine, unless it's a buffet or a multi-cuisine banquet. So it's far more done to find a meal of Chinese, Thai or regional Indian cuisines at dinner parties, and baked vegetables, if served are in a context of similar dishes. In fact it's quite rare to find baked vegetables on any menu because they are passe. But done well, they can be delicious and interesting.

At the vegetable market over the weekend I found onion flowers and leeks which were reasonably priced, as well as Brussels sprouts which I love served baked with cheese. So last night when we had guests over for dinner, I thought it might be fun to try a combination of all three vegetables in a baked dish. The mixture turned out really well, though if I made it again I'd increase the quantity of Brussels sprouts, as otherwise they can tend to get lost in the mix. The sweet, meltingly soft roast onions are a wonderful contrast to the slight bitterness and chewiness of Brussels sprouts. This is definitely something to try again.


1 pound onion flowers, cut into inch-long sticks

1 pound Brussels sprouts (I used about 100 gms yesterday and found it less than I wanted), cut into half cm rounds

500 gms leeks, cut into 1 cm thick rounds

1 tsp vegetable oil

200 gms light cream

½ cup milk

1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 150 degrees C. Mix the milk, cheese, cream, salt and pepper well. Roast the onion flowers in 1 tsp vegetable oil until wilted and soft but still vibrant green. Layer an oven-proof dish with the onion flowers, followed with the Brussels sprouts and then the leeks. Pour over a quarter of the cream-cheese mixture. Continue layering until all the vegetables are used up and end with a top layer of the cheese-milk-cream mixture.

Bake for 50 minutes – 1 hour, checking from time to time, until the top layer is lightly browned. Serve hot

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nature’s feast

It seems to me as we grow older, that there are two ways we can evolve. One way is to eschew everything about the natural state, and run screaming in the direction of Botox, facelifts and steroids, hoping to stave off the process of ageing itself. The other way is to go in the direction of vintage wine, ageing gracefully and allowing the bounty of nature given by God to mature and ripen and offer its deepest and most complex flavours. Of course, making sure that one is not corked!

In the same way, as I grow older, I seem to appreciate the beauty and bounty of nature more and more. Be it the contrast between the dark green, old-looking and rough-edged leaves of the Har-shingar tree juxtaposed with the fragility of its star-shaped white flowers laden with perfume, standing proudly on their bold-coloured orange stems or the abundance of fruit and vegetables that grace our markets in every season. On Saturday, I visited my favourite vegetable mandi in Munirka, near the Malai Mandir and was almost transfixed by the sheer variety of vegetables and fruit available. As usual, I was greedy and bought more than I think we can eat within a week, as the market is a little out of my way. But the luxury of being able to choose so many fresh, naturally ripened vegetables and fruit is one that I never cease to appreciate.

There were all kinds of exotic and mundane things available – from the kannadiga favourite seeme badnekaayi or Chayote, to onion flowers, looking like frailer versions of asparagus, to tender young asparagus itself. Leeks, white onions, sambar onions, spring onions and red ones. Sweet potatoes, new potatoes and ordinary ones. Five kinds of eggplant or brinjal, from the big, round one used for bhurtas to long purple Japanese ones, tiny green ones prized by the Thais, small purple ones perfect for Bagaare Baingan to slim, delicate looking white ones. Fresh greens, from Bibb and iceberg to lollo rosso, a big bunch of spinach, a bunch of methi or fenugreek greens, rocket, dill, coriander and some red leaves that I don't know the name of. All kinds of squashes and root vegetables, from sweet potatoes to yams to taro…The fruit stalls too were full, for once, with fruit ranging from Indian green pears to yellow Bartletts which I promptly bought for the purpose of poaching in red wine, pomegranates from Afghanistan, large and bursting with juice, red-cheeked apples and star-shaped disco papayas, oranges and custard apples, Maltas or navel oranges and persimmons, and of course, the humble yet much-loved banana…

I came home laden with bags full of farm-fresh produce and I can only hope that we manage to eat everything we bought before it goes bad. But the experience of buying and being able to select from such abundance, and more, cooking the produce in such a way as to bring its flavours alive without killing it in an overdose of oil or spices, and then enjoying every mouthful…Ahhhh, there is nothing that produces a greater sense of well-being.

For the past few days, I have been indulging in a guilty pleasure once the kids are on their way to the park. I shut the door behind them, revel in the momentary blessed silence, then head for the kitchen to rootle out a Malta and a sharp knife. I quarter the fruit and settle into my favourite armchair. Then I greedily stuff a piece of the fruit into my mouth, sucking the sharp, sweet-sour juices and enjoying every last drop as it dribbles into my throat and think, "Gar Firdaus bar rue zameen ast, hameen ast, wa hameen ast", Babar to the contrary!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

First Birthday Food

My youngest, Bojjandi, turned one yesterday. It was bitter-sweet - on the one hand I was happy I had managed to keep him alive given two siblings under six with a habit of strewing tiny toys around the house and not knowing their own strength. on the other hand, my littlest baby was also getting ready to move into toddler-hood, baby no more. I almost thought it was time for baby # 4 but the prospect of divorce and/ or working until the age of 95 made me decide 3 was enough to be going on with.

For his first birthday party, the food had to be something that he could eat. Moreover, I had had pest control done just two days before and the kitchen was lying strewn all over the dining room, so it had to be an easy menu. Finally I decided simplicity was going to be key and fixed the menu: Idlis with huli and coconut chutney, rice flavoured with vegetables and menthedittu, and carrot cake.

The Carrot Cake was a new one on me but I had been wanting to make one for quite a while, and when I saw the recipe in one of my favourite recipe books, I found it was healthy too - wholewheat flour, carrots, orange juice and vegetable oil. It turned out really well, though it was flatter than I expected, as I had baked it in a wide cake pan. I frosted it simply with cream cheese flavoured with honey and orange juice - something which didn't tax my cake-decorating skills of which, to say they are meagre would be high praise. And proof of the deliciousness of the said cake was Bojji gobbling it up and wailing loudly for seconds :)

Carrot Cake recipe


2 cups wholemeal self-raising flour, or with 2.5 tsps of baking powder added

3-4 carrots, grated and squeezed dry

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup caster sugar

1 tsp nutmeg powder

1 tsp cinnamon powder

3 eggs

1 cup walnuts, powdered (optional)

Zest of 1 orange and its juice

Beat together the orange zest, OJ, sugar and eggs until light and frothy. Add the vegetable oil, flour and spices and mix well. Add in the carrots and walnuts and mix together. Pour the cake batter into a greased and lined 8" baking pan and bake at 180 degrees for 1 hour - decide n baking time and temperature based on your oven's idiosyncrasies. Mine required baking at 160 for 35 minutes and the crust was close to burnt.

For the frosting, beat together 225 gms cream cheese with 2-3 tbsp honey and 1 tbsp OJ. You can also use this to sandwich the cake together and then top with Royal or Marzipan icing. Decorate as wished...