Friday, December 2, 2016

Black as Midnight Cake

When we lived in Singapore, mom once bought a desserts cookbook, mostly about cakes and so on. It had really interesting recipes, a few photographs of the finished dishes and in between were interwoven poems, anecdotes and the like, all to do with cooking. It was a delight to leaf through it, and the one recipe I was attracted to at once was for a Black as midnight cake. Over the years, we have made it several times. I think I've made it at least once for a bakesale at school. Mom once baked it for a New Year's Eve party but forgot the sugar. Thankfully the Cadbury's chocolate powder we had used was pre-sweetened so we had a somewhat grown-up tasting but still sweet cake. Another time one of us left out either the eggs or the baking powder so we had a dense cake, though it was still delicious.

I had forgotten about this and then recently when Bojji pestered me to bake a cake for his birthday, hit upon this as a pretty special and new-to-the-kids recipe, since what Bojji actually wanted was a cheesecake, but we didn't have Philadelphia Cream Cheese at home. Turns out it is as easy to make as I remembered, and turns out a delicious cake - light, yet moist, and large enough to feed the unnaturally large appetites of several children and grown-ups. Layered with a salted caramel sauce and icecream on the side, it is one of the few things getting us through The Great Cash Crunch of 2016!

2 cups regular flour
1 cup sugar ( if large crystals); 1.5 cups if smaller size crystals
3/4 cup cocoa ( I prefer regular Hershey's but you can go all swank and try dark chocolate powder)
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 pinch salt

2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup milk
1 cup brewed black coffee ( no sugar)
3/4 cup vegetable oil

Sift the dry ingredients together in the order given. Then add the wet ingredients in the order given. Mix well. Pour into 1 or 2 9 inch diameter lined or greased and floured baking pans. Pop into a pre-heated oven at 150 centigrade for 35 minutes, then crank up to 175 centigrade for another 15 minutes. If baking in 2 pans, do remember to interchange the pans halfway through the baking so they both get equal amounts of heat.

Top with a sift of icing sugar, black frosting, dark chocolate ganache, salted caramel...well you get the picture, I hope. We barely did, since it was eaten up so quickly!!!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Iran/ Persia

Iran has always seemed like a magical land to me. The very names of places infused it with a glamour, a sense of a place that was beautiful beyond imagination. Isfahan, Samarkand, Persepolis and Tabriz could evoke a mystical fascination for me. In college, my best friend's family had lived there for several years and her father and brother were still there, so I got firsthand glimpses of this beautiful land through memories of others.

Later on when food became a passion, one of my aims was to be able to cook food from around the world. Before the kids were born we used to have world food week at home, wherein each day the menu was composed of food from one particular country. I experimented with a couple of Iranian dishes then and then for years forgot about them.

Then last week a friend who was hosting a Friday night bacchanalia said she would cook Iranian-style mutton. I was inspired to volunteer a Persian Pulow with herbs. It turned out so well that Sunday saw me turning out a Potato and Green Beans Pulow with Persian-style red lentils. Both delicious!

Both Pulow recipes from Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian cookbook - my favourite!

Herbed Pulow

I large bunch each - chives, dill, parsley, coriander and the green part of spring onions; chopped very fine
1 tbsp yogurt; 3 tbsp water
2 garlic cloves
2 cups basmati rice
1 pinch saffron, dissolved in 1 tbsp hot water
1 tbsp oil; 1 tbsp melted ghee
Salt to taste

Non stick pan with tight lid
Wide flat plate/ tray for serving

Put ten cups of salted water to boil. When it reaches a rolling boil, add the rice and cook for 5-6 minutes until parboiled but still chalky. Remove and strain, put aside.

Meanwhile, mix the chopped herbs together with the garlic and season to taste with salt.

In a non-stick pan on a low flame, put in the tbsp of oil. Add the yogurt and the water and mix well. Layer one third of the herbs at the bottom of the pan, followed by a third of the rice. Continue this way, building 3 layers each of herbs and rice.

On the top layer of rice, spread the melted ghee and the saffron water. Cover and cook on medium low for 4 minutes, medium high for 5.

Then remove the lid and wrap it in a towel. Replace the lid on the pan, flipping the ends of the towel on top of the lid to prevent it catching fire. Cook on low for 25-30 minutes.

To serve:
Remove the lid. Place the serving plate/ tray upside down on the rice - i.e. the serving side should face the rice. The plate should be as large as the circumference of the rice.

Loosen the edges of the rice with a rubber knife/ sharp-edged wooden spoon. Flip the pan over so the plate is on the bottom and tap the pan a couple of times to ensure the rice comes out from the pan ( like extracting a cake from the cake tin.

When done properly, the rice looks like a cake, with a thick, brownish crust. Very important - do not discard this crust, it is amazingly delicious.

Serve with mutton/ vegetable stew and a boorani ( yogurt raita) on the side.

Potato Pulow with green beans
2 cups basmati rice
2 cloves garlic
2 onions, finely chopped
1 cup green beans, chopped into 1 inch pieces
3 small tomatoes chopped small
1-2 large potatoes cut into 1/8th inch slices
1 tbsp tomato paste/ ketchup
1 stick cinnamon
1 tbsp salt
1.5 tsp turmeric
2 tsp oil
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp water
Salt to taste
Green chilly if desired

Parboil the rice as in the Herbed Pulow recipe.

Meanwhile, put some oil in a pan and saute the onions until translucent. Add the cinnamon, garlic, onions and fry till the onions are translucent. Add tomatoes, chillies, ketchup, salt and beans and a splash of water and cook, tightly covered, until the beans are tender but still have a bit of bite.

Put the non-stick pan on low heat and add the butter and turmeric, and 2 tbsp water. Layer the potatoes around the base of the pan in overlapping layers to cover the bottom of the pan. Add a layer of rice. Add 1/2 the green beans mixture, cover with another 3rd of the rice. Repeat the green beans and rice, ending with a top layer of rice.

Cover and cook in the same way as the Herbed Pulow; use the same method of eviction from the pan.

Serve hot with a boorani and the red lentils

Persian Red Lentils

1 cup red lentils ( masoor dal)
2 onions, chopped fine
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 bay leaf
2-3 pieces garlic
1 stick cinnamon
1/2 tbsp oil + 1/2 tbsp oil
3 cups water
1/2 cup tomato paste (I used ketchup)
Sour cream
1 tsp cumin powder
Salt to taste

Put the oil on to heat and fry the onions on low flame until they brown. Once well browned, add the tbsp of oil and tsp of salt and cook for 5 more minutes on medium high. Set aside.

Put 1/2 tbsp of oil on to heat. Add the bay leaf, cinnamon and garlic. Add the lentils, ketchup and water and cover and cook until the lentils are well cooked and mushy.

Meanwhile add the cumin powder and salt to taste to the sour cream ( I used hung yogurt, and also added chopped chives).

Serve hot topped with the caramelized onion and the sour cream/ yogurt mix.

With a typical Shirazi salad, it makes for a wonderfully light and delicious meal which is also healthy!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Ole once more

We have been big fans of Mexican food since way back. In fact, if I remember correctly, back when I was a student in Calcutta, I had gone out for a date with my then boyfriend and through some strange serendipity, found a tiny new restaurant that served Mexican food on the terrace of a building - quite ahead of its time. Then many years later, Rodeo opened in CP and became our hang out place for the yummy large baskets of nachos and salsa as well as their food - the Sopa de Queso was a winter favourite. I remember after they started karaoke nights, we went with a couple of friends and took over the karaoke, singing so loudly and so off-key that everyone else pretty much left. Unfortunately, Rodeo has not aged well and the last time we visited it, out of sheer nostalgia, it proved to be a major let down.

Meanwhile, on my many travels to the US, I discovered several different restaurants that served Mexican food that I hadn't eaten before. In California, I went to Baja Fresh with my sister and her family - QSR food but fresh and tasty, like Californians love. Then in Seattle, dad and I discovered a restaurant near the Pike's Place market that served fabulous vegetarian chili. You can argue that chili is more Tex than Mex, but hey, it's all good! In Minneapolis which used to be a regular haunt, I went to Masa with a friend and we gorged on fabulous food including a salsa made of tomatillos that I can still recall loving.

My youngest is a big fan and when younger, used to constantly fold his roti bites over the vegetables, calling it a 'Tayco'. A year back, we made a foiled trip to Casa Lota and when we didn't get a table, beat it to La Bodega, a very fancy Mexican restaurant in Khan Market - don't remember the food being that great but the kids loved the churros.

However in all these years, the one thing I haven't found as good as the Rodeo nachos is the nacho chips. You still get good guacamole or salsa and sour cream but the actual nacho chips are mostly never crisp enough and I frankly don't enjoy the taste of corn chips. So when setting out to make a Mexican meal at home, I decided to go for broke with nacho chips as well.

Turns out, they're really easy to make. Not that healthy, but then deep-fried...who are you trying to kid?

Basically you take a couple cups of refined flour ( good old maida), add a tablespoon of (gasp!) butter and enough water to make it into a puri-type dough. Not too stiff, nor too sticky. Remember to add salt - it needs to taste salty.

Roll out into really really thin rotis/ circles and prick holes in it using a fork. Cook on a tawa/ pan on both sides until cooked and a few brown spots appear. Set aside to cool down.

When cool, cut each roti into 8-10 pizza-slide-shaped pieces. Deep fry until brown and place to drain on paper.

Serve with salsa, guacamole and sour cream. Tequila on the side, yo!!!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


Mexican food has been a favourite at home for many years, with Bojjandi constantly trying to make a 'Tayco' our of every roti he eats, with mixed results. Having had a smorgasbord at Junkyard cafe on Thursday, I was eager to have a foodie weekend. In Bangalore on a recent vacation, I and the kids had eaten at a place called California Burrito, where the food was super-enjoyable. Since A had missed out on it, I decided to recreate the fun at home. The best part is, it's customisable, really easy, delicious and healthy and would be great fun for a party.

I replaced the soft shell tacos with rice, mainly because the neighbourhood grocery store was our of maize flour ( makai ka atta).

Burrito Bowl

Rice/ soft shell tacos
Refried beans
Salsa - any number and kind you like
Sour cream

For adult fun, serve with tequila or margaritas on the side!

Cook approximately 1/4th white rice per person, as the refried beans make it a filling meal. Keep aside for use, hot, just before eating.

Refried beans recipe
Rajma - uncooked and soaked for 6-7 hours, 1 cup
1 medium onion ( about an egg size), chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
Cumin seeds - 1 tsp
Chilli powder/ 1-2 green chillies ( hotness level adjusted to what you can handle)
1/2 tbsp oil
Water - approx 1.25 cups
Salt to taste

Put the oil on to heat. When hot ( 30 seconds), add the cumin seeds. Once they puff up, add the garlic and onion and saute until translucent. Then add the tomatoes and cook until soft. Add the bean, water, salt and chillies and let it simmer until the beans are soft and tender - you may need to add a touch more water but the overall consistency should not be watery. It could take about 30-45 minutes. You can also do this in a pressure cooker, cook for 2 whistles.
Once the beans are cooked through, mash them using a masher or a heavy ladle. Ideally don't put them through a mixie as it becomes glutinous in texture. You should have a chunky puree at the end of it; add a tad more water if you like is slightly flowy. Should be the consistency of chunky peanut butter but not as immobile. Check seasoning.

While the beans are soaking, you can make your sour cream and refrigerate. I made a cheat version, inspired by Tarla Dalal.
Fresh cream packet from Amul - 2
Juice of 1/2 - 1 lime
Touch of salt

Mix the three well in a bowl and put away to refrigerate till needed.

While the beans are cooking, get on with your salsas.
Corn salsa
Frozen corn - 2 cups...or you can get 4 roasted bhuttas and slice the pods off
Tomato - 1 large, chopped fine
Juice of 1/2-1 lemon, depending on tartness
Coriander leaves, chopped fine
2 spring onions, chopped fine
Dash of cumin powder
Salt to taste

Mix everything and refrigerate, letting the flavours develop.

Pico de Gallo
2-3 large tomatoes, chopped superfine
1 tomato, pulped/ grated
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2-3 chillies chopped fine, or chilli powder
1/2 tsp cumin powder
Handful of coriander leaves, chopped fine
1/2 tbsp tomato ketchup - any brand
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon, depending on the tartness
Salt to taste

Mix everything, taste for balance and refrigerate till needed

Mango salsa
1 mango, finely cubed
1 mango, pulped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped fine
1 medium onion, chopped fine
Handful coriander leaves, minced
2-3 green chillies, chopped fine
Salt to taste

Mix everything, taste for balance and refrigerate

Guacamole, our favourite
1-2 large avocados, mashed
1 medium tomato, chopped fine
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2-3 green chillies, chopped fine
Handful of coriander leaves, chopped fine
Juice of 1/2 - 1 lemon
Salt to taste

Mix everything together and refrigerate till the flavours develop. Tip - mash the avocados last and then mix quickly so they don't discolour.

Layer a large bowl with hot rice at the bottom, followed by warm refried beans. Top with a handful of lettuce leaves  - cut into ribbons, for once, for ease of maneuverability. Add whichever salsas take your fancy. Top with a dollop of salsa and enjoy!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Mexican Rice Salad

Our regular helper is away on vacation for a month. In her absence, she had appointed a temporary cook, who came in confidently stating that she knew her way around a kitchen. Well, that's about all she knew. In a day or two, we realised we were eating the most unmitigated, tasteless swill we had ever eaten in our entire lives, including the time before I learnt how to cook! Despite my instructions and keeping ingredients measured out, she managed to get proportions wrong, coming up with ginormous bowls full of, with barely enough rice for two people to go with it! Vegetables would either be overcooked into mush or undercooked. In the 15 days she worked for us, we had maybe one meal that was edible.

But with the exigencies of daily living - A at a new job involving a hair-raising commute of 120 km per day ( the hair-raising may be the only part of the commute he's excited about ;) ), the odd-even misery leading to daily need to borrow cars from friends or wait on uber and ola, Puddi's annual kuchipudi performance necessitating daily evening commutes to Saket and back at odd hours, and the quantum of housework that we're having to pitch in at, we decided we'd just put up with swill. It was only a month, after all. We'd lose weight.

And then, the previous Friday she didn't turn up, leaving mum to do the cooking - aah, the underrated delight of having a well-cooked meal at home. Saturday I was busy turning out and cleaning up a horde of clutter when I suddenly realised the cook hadn't made an appearance past noon. Upon enquiry, her daughter informed me that she had fallen sick and was at the doctor's. The whole week went by in an unplanned pattern, with orders from homecooks or my parents pitching in. One day, I managed to make the pasta with 'invented sauce' that the kids had been clamouring for. Finally, yesterday when the errant cook did turn up, I realised I didn't want to eat slop any more, even for a day. Even if the process were to be painful, I preferred turning my hand to it and making something edible that provided a little cocoon of comfort and coziness for the family.

Yesterday morning was good old curd rice, followed by homemade banana icecream. On the way back from swimming in the evening, I began ruminating on what would be the perfect dinner to preserve that delicious sense of coolness imparted by the swim. Something light and fresh. Then I remembered a can of 4 bean mix that I had excavated from the pantry and the meal took shape. The rice from the morning and the previous day's Foxtail Millet ( bajra seeds, to you!) were refrigerated in preparation. The fresh scent of coriander and lime pervaded the kitchen, combined with garlicky juices. Umm...Sunday evening bliss!

Ingredients: (Serves 4-5)
2 garlic pods, crushed and minced
1 onion, chopped fine
2 firm tomatoes, deseeded and chopped fine
2-3 green chillies, chopped
1 cucumber, peeled and diced
1 green pepper, diced
Half cup corn, boiled and cooled
1 can 4 bean mix - or 1.5 cups of boiled kidney beans, black-eyes peas etc ( rajma, lobhia...)
1 cup rice, cooked, cooled
Half cup bajra - steam cooked ( optional, only if you're trying extra hard to use these in your diet)
Juice of 1-2 limes ( depending on size of lime)
Handful of coriander leaves, chopped fine
1-2 teaspoons of chilli powder
1.5 teaspoons roasted cumin powder
Salt to taste

Mix everything in a large bowl till well combined. Taste for balance of tart, salt and spicy. Place in the fridge for an hour or so, so the taste develop and mellow.

Enjoy with a chilled chardonnay! Or if you really want to, go ahead, have that Margarita :)