Friday, December 31, 2010

Old favorites from Ma's kitchen

Almost everybody claims that their mothers are great cooks. I know with certainty that my own mother is truly a natural and I can claim( with false modesty) that I have inherited her taste buds and instincts in the kitchen.Every time I return to India for a visit I am met with a long list of dishes that my brother, niece and nephew want me to cook for them during my stay and I am happy to oblige. I rarely eat what I cook and forage for leftovers ( of Ma’ s cooking) if something is not readily available. The truth is I miss my mother’s cooking and present her with my own list of things to eat. She, of course is more than happy to feed me, so we have a great arrangement and everybody ends up happy.

A long time favorite of mine is her Fish in Mustard Sauce ( Patot Dia Mas) wrapped in banana leaves and oven roasted. Incredibly simple and rustic, it is a comfort food for our family and try as I might- have been unsuccessful in creating the same flavors with aluminum foil (in the absence of banana leaves).This dish is indigenous to my native state of Assam in the North East of India and was traditionally slow roasted over hot embers.

Ma's recipe for Fish in Mustard sauce:
4 pieces Carp
4 tsp yellow mustard seeds made into a paste
2 green chilies
salt to taste
handful of cilantro leaves chopped
1 tbsp mustard oil
1 large banana leaf

1. Place the banana leaf flat and slice off the central vein of the banana leaf to form a string and set aside. Roast the leaf over a low flame till it is flexible. ( it will shrink a little)
2. Rub the fish with the rest of the ingredients and place in the center of the leaf. Tie it with the twine and bake in a hot oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes approximately.
3. Serve hot with rice.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Hot on the Food trail in Pondicherry

Pondicherry fondly known as Pondy lies on the Western coastline of India along the Bay of Bengal. Previously a French colony, it is not unlike New Orleans with its Rues, Avenues and shuttered colonial architecture. Vestiges of a grand French colony are evident even though time has taken its toll and the façade is crumbling. I was keen to do a short trip into Pondy although it meant a three hour drive from Chennai -just to get a taste of the French influence which remains interlaced with the local cuisine. I was not disappointed. After a brief recce of the restaurants and local watering holes we settled for the Garden Restaurant at the Hotel Dupleix. Our table was situated in an open courtyard but was cool in the shade and after a pint each of chilled Kingfisher Ultra beer, India’s largest selling beer, we were in high spirits ( no pun intended). The menu consisted of a section dedicated to French dishes, another to a medley of dishes from Southern India and a third to what is Pondicherry cuisine. A strange complimentary platter of crusty bread, maitre d'hotel butter, hummus and what looked like salsa was presented and was ignored for the most part. I hoped fervently that this was not a sign of what was to come.
Thankfully the meal which comprised of a Kari Melagu Varuval , lamb stir fried with curry leaves and spices, Chefs special chicken and Vindaya Prawn curry, redolent with coconut milk and warm spices each had its own distinct flavor.
Paired with freshly baked Tandoori Paratha it proved to be a satisfying experience. It was a worthwhile venture overall; panoramic vistas, great food and good company made my trip to South India an unforgettable one. Armed with a plethora of spices and cookbooks I hope to replicate some of the flavors in the comfort of my kitchen, once I'm back in Jersey.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Taste of Home cooking in Chennai- Chicken Biryani

Much as I enjoy cooking, it is a luxury when someone else cooks me a meal, especially if that somebody has a flair for it. Bonnie, my cousin and hostess in Chennai has a family who love to eat. Jai Ram their cook is a godsend- catering to all of us; cooking up all their favorites with great enthusiasm for me to taste. He made several delicious meals but his Chicken Biryani is top notch. Moist and aromatic layers of rice and chicken can be the perfect antidote to a long hot day(Chennai was in the 90’s even in December).After I tasted the Biryani, it was only expected that I would extort the recipe out of Jai Ram. I explained my blog as best as I could and even took pictures for which he posed coyly.

Jai Ram's Recipe for Chicken Biryani:

2 ½ lbs chicken cut into sections

3-4 tbsp mustard oil

2 large onions sliced thinly

2 tomatoes diced

1 tbsp ginger paste 1 tbsp garlic paste

1 ½ tsp coriander powder

1 tsp chili powder

1 tsp garam masala powder

Salt to taste

Mint leaves

3 cups rice

Heat the oil and sauté the onion until golden brown and add in the ginger and garlic pastes.

Add in the tomato, spice powders and the salt and continue frying till the oil separates.

Add in the chicken and sauté it in the spices till tender, adding a little water if the mixture gets too dry.

Mix in the rice and fry it till all the moisture evaporates. Add in 6 cups of water and the mint and simmer on low till the rice is cooked and the chicken is tender.

Foot note: I met Jill on the flight into Brusells. Jill and I swapped life stories, recipes and an 8 hour flight went by very quickly. She was intrigued by my blog and asked me to post a recipe for her favorite dish- Chicken Biryani - so here it is!

Hot on the Food Trail in Chennai

My trips to India are always fraught with exhaustion, stress and jet lag but once the worst is over I bounce back with enthusiasm and a voluptuous appetite. This time was no different but I was fortunate enough to be in a city that had the ability to satiate my cravings. Chennai, capital of the state of TamilNadu is a sprawling metropolis in the South West of India. Home to diverse cuisines ranging from the strict vegetarian diet of the Tamil Brahmins to seafood and beef, (the cow is considered a sacred animal in the rest of India) it’s fairly large Christian and Muslim population create a demand for beef which is commonly found at restaurants and butcher shops unlike anywhere else in India.

My cousin Bonnie was a generous hostess and being a fellow foodie did not need much prompting to give me a taste of the local cuisines at every meal, starting with breakfast. Her cook, Jai Ram conjured up crisp Dosas (South Indian crepes) complete with a spicy Sambar (lentils) chutney and potatoes. It was a refreshing change from my usual repertoire of bagel/cream cheese or oatmeal. Chennai, like every other major city has more than its fair share of street foods, but my trip was a short one and so I save my appetite for the restaurants favored by the locals. During my four day visit I got a taste of Andhra,Tamil (vegetarian), Tamil (non-vegetarian) and Pondicherry cuisines.

I got my first taste of Andhra cuisine at the Amravati restaurant known for its signature dish of – you guessed it- Amravati chicken. Dry roasted with an unusual combination of spices and lots of heat, it was succulent and fragrant, definitely something I would try to re-create at home. It inspired me to go and buy about 8 cookbooks –unfortunately none of them have the recipe. The main meal consisted of a Thali which is a large platter, or in this case, a Banana leaf with an assortment of vegetarian dishes served over coconut rice. Every dish was unique and strange and even the names were alien to me. The Andramgals as these dishes are referred to as, were Poriyal( Yam), Sambhar( lentils with drumsticks and mango), Beerakai ( lentils), Gherkin chutney ( or as the locals say – jerkin!) and Keerai ( Spinach). Carnivorous to boot, we decided to up the ante with the Amravati Chicken, Fried Mutton and Mango Shrimp Masala. We were not disappointed and staggered out of there licking our chops.

On the flight into Chennai I struck up a conversation with a young girl who happened to be a local. As the conversation turned to food, she insisted that I had to eat at the Saravana Bhawan reputed for its vegetarian thali and dosas, to get a true taste of Tamil food. So we headed out the next afternoon after a serious shopping spree only to find out that the Thali is served only up until 2:30 P.M. So we opted for the next best thing – the Ghee Roasted Dosa, a giant conical dosa, fried to a crisp, perched over a bowl of potato stuffing.

On the eve of my departure, Bonnie treated me to some surprisingly flavorful non- vegetarian Tamil food. I had always been under the delusion that South India is primarily vegetarian and was amazed by the flavors of each dish. A dry fried mutton in curry leaves and a Chicken Chettinad cooked in coconut milk were different and yet equally memorable.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I can't believe it's custard!

The French have the ability to create the most amazing things one can find on a plate. Their Terrines, Fois gras and Pates are incredible without a doubt, but it is their desserts that appeal to me greatly. French Pastry chefs are unbelievable at creating the perfect texture, sweetness and combination of flavors that make the world go "Ooh la la". A well made Crème Brulee is old fashioned and under stated but it tops my list of uncomplicated and simply delightful desserts.

A Crème Brulee is nothing but good old custard but there's something dramatic about whipping out a torch and caramelizing it to a crunch. It's the ultimate move if you are attempting to create an impression or even if you are indulging and making one just for yourself. The creamy custard topped with the crunchy caramelized sugar is likely to appeal to all age groups and is a definite crowd pleaser - all you need is the blowtorch! ( Available at cookware stores )

My recipe for Crème Brulee :

4 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups heavy cream or half and half
1 tsp vanilla extract
Raw or Cane sugar

Preheat the oven to 300°F
Heat the cream or half and half till hot ( do not boil)
In an electric mixer whip together the eggs and 1/4 cup of sugar until combined.
With the mixer on low, add the cream to the eggs along with the vanilla.
Pour into ramekins and place in an oven tray filled halfway up with boiling water.
Bake for 35- 40 minutes until the custard is firm . Refrigerate until serving time.
To serve- sprinkle the top of each ramekin with raw or cane sugar and shake it to spread the sugar over the surface evenly.
Torch the sugar gently until it hardens and serve.

On this happy note I am on my way... I am off to India for about a month. There'll be lots of stories, pictures and recipes from my experiences -so keep checking in and I will do my best to keep you entertained.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Real Men should eat Quiche!

I have never understood the saying " real men don't eat Quiche"- Even kids love Quiche- what's not to love? A quiche is ostensibly a pastry shell filled with bacon, cheese, eggs and cream. A few days ago my friend Mimi called to ask me the best way to bake the pastry shell for a quiche. Her recipe directed her to dock the shell( poke holes in the base ) prior to baking. I don't think that is a good idea as the filling is likely to leak out through the holes leaving the shell dry and empty. I like to "bake blind" when I am working with pastry. It is a fairly easy process - start by laying the pastry in a shallow baking dish or pie dish. Make sure the sides are raised all the way up the side of the dish . Put it in the freezer while you prepare the filling. Spray a piece of aluminum foil with cooking spray and place it on the pastry. Fill the top of it with black eyed peas or baking beans and bake in an oven preheated to 350°F until the edges are golden brown. Remove the aluminum foil and store the beans in a Ziploc bag until the next time.

Recipe for Spinach Quiche:
Store bought Puff pastry
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1 package frozen spinach (thawed)
1/2 yellow onion sliced thinly
6 rashers bacon diced
1 tsp olive oil

Heat the oil in a pan and render the bacon till crisp. Remove the bacon and add in the onion and saute it till it's caramelized. At this point add in the spinach and saute briefly. Pour it into the base of the pie shell. Whisk the eggs, cream, milk, salt and pepper together and pour into the shell. Top with grated cheese and bake for 30- 35 minutes in a hot oven at 350°F for 30-35 minutes or until the cheese is melted and the filling is firm. Slice into wedges and serve hot.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sinfully decadent and British....

I have never been a fan of English food - the oddly named Toad in a Hole gives me the creeps, Bubble and Squeak brings to mind pesky rodents, and as for Spotted Dick - let's not go there...... but English Teas are the ultimate act of contrition on their part as far as I'm concerned. The English have captured the essence of drinking the finest teas from India and combined it perfectly with an array of tasty morsels and tidbits that are capable of sending me on a binge at the mention of an English Tea.
There's something wonderful about the way the thin fragile finger sandwich appeal to the girl in me. It makes me want to pick up my cup with the pinkie pointing out! The little tea cakes and the scones laden with Devon shire clotted cream and strawberry jam- I'd eat that any day over a sundae! The Brits have it right when it comes to the art of baking sponge rolls, shortbread and tea cakes. I have not been to England in recent years and felt compelled to bake up several batches of scones to quench the yearning to sink my teeth into a hot scone with a bit of crunch on the outside yet moist and fragrant on the inside.
My recipe for Scones:
3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp. baking powder
3/4 cup cold butter
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup dried fruit( raisins/ cranberries/ cherries )
1/2 cup sliced almonds
2 tbsp raw sugar
1 tbsp cream
Start by combining the flour, baking powder and the sugar. Cut the butter into little cubes and add it in with a fork or pastry cutter. Mix in the cream, almonds and fruit and bring the dough together briefly until just combined. Do not knead. Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap and chill.
This dough can be kept overnight and baked fresh the next day.
Brush with the remaining tbsp of cream and sprinkle with the sugar before baking in a oven preheated to 350°F for about 20 -25 minutes or until the scones turn a light golden color. Slather with butter and jam and enjoy!