Monday, 23 January 2012

An English Breakfast

Hot Chocolate with a Kick

On some weekends, I am out and about, exploring a new restaurant or an old favourite, going shopping or catching up with friends. On others, though, I simply hibernate and stay indoors enveloped in the warmth of my duvet. I spend all day browsing the net (usually food blogs), watching a movie on youtube or catching up on some reading. On those hibernatory days, I need a really good excuse to get out of bed and move my joints. Usually, it is when hunger pangs strike that I spring into action and venture straight in the direction of my kitchen to put together a hurried meal so I can go back to my state of duvet induced inertia as soon as I possibly can.

I have recently discovered a great companion for those lazy evenings when you just want to vegetate. Hot chocolate with a kick. Hot chocolate by itself is good enough, but hot chocolate with a kick is even better. I came up with the idea because I had a bottle of particularly good chocolate liqueur lying around at home, a thoughtful gift from a dear friend.

I wanted a nice hot drink to keep me company on a quiet winter evening. I was putting together a glass of the old hot chocolate when I happened to spot the liqueur. Eureka! In went the liqueur and a dash of instant coffee, which really brings out the flavour of chocolate (I tend to use a little in all my chocolate cake recipes) and results in a more mature tasting hot chocolate than one would otherwise end up with.

I didn't actually jot down the ingredients for this one - it was one of those hibernatory days after all! But I will be sure to try the recipe again and will certainly make a note of how much of what went into my drink. In any case, this is one of those recipes in which a little tweaking will get you the best results, so exact measures are probably not necessary for you to put it together. If you are a coffee lover, perhaps you could be generous with the coffee. If you dislike it intensely, maybe leave it out entirely. You get the drift.

I tried this another time with a little double cream in the drink, just to make it a little richer but that was a bad idea I thought. The cream melts into the drink and you end up with little fat globules in the drink, the sight of which makes me a little queasy. The calories are only good if you can't see them in your food! 

So this recipe really calls for just a handful of ingredients, all of which would be likely inhabitants of a fairly well stocked kitchen - milk, cocoa powder, sugar and instant coffee. Of course, the star of the show is without doubt, a generous splash of chocolate liqueur, which I would recommend that you get hold of as soon as possible so that you can try this delicious winter warmer. If you have chocolate on hand, I am sure that some of it grated into your drink will only make for even more of a treat.

Happy hibernating.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Pork Vindaloo

I love sour-spicy flavours. One of the reasons why I am a pickle addict. So if you combine vinegar and  chilli in one dish, it is sure to be a winner with me. And that brings me to the subject of this post - pork vindaloo.

Pork is not a very popular meat in India. It certainly ranks several notches below its rivals, chicken and mutton. Growing up in a Syrian Christian family, we definitely liked our pork curry, especially with kappa - a tuber that is cooked with coconut, cumin and turmeric. I'd call kappa the Malayali equivalent of mashed potatoes! My mother has her own signature pork curry recipe. She makes the curry with just a little gravy, but the gravy has great flavour and depth  because of the assorted spices that go into it.

From memory, I think she made a half-hearted attempt at a pork vindaloo once but it didn't manage to upstage her classic Malayali pork curry that she had perfected over the years.

When it comes to choosing my meats, I often tend to go for chicken. No fuss, easy to cook and ready to eat fairly quickly. Whilst I much prefer the flavour that lamb brings to a curry (chicken is so much more tasteless in comparison), it is so much heavier on  the stomach and takes so much longer to cook, that I often opt for the chicken instead. When I went grocery shopping last weekend though, I decided to ditch both chicken and mutton and go for the pork instead. Thought I'd be a little experimental and put together a pork vindaloo.

Have you ever wondered what "vindaloo" means? Apparently, it comes from the Portuguese Vinho d' Ahlos which is a dish of meat cooked with vinho (wine) and garlic (ahlos). This is not a surprise given the Portuguese influence in Goa, which was a Portuguese colony all the way up till 1960.

Pork vindaloo is a spicy curry with the unmistakable zing that comes from vinegar. I didn't have vinegar on hand and so decided to substitute with fresh lemon juice instead. The dish was tangy, just as I like it, but I think the use of vinegar might have yielded a curry with a slightly different flavour.

I got my recipe online, as usual, from this charming food blog that dedicated to Goan cuisine. So refreshing to see such an unusual blog in a sea of paeans to the predictable dal makhanis and paneer butter masalas of the world.

The cumin flavour was a tad too strong for me so I may cut down on that next time round. Also, I used too generous a hand with the pepper which meant that my curry was really spicy, so that too will be used sparingly the next time I try the recipe. In all though, I was happy with the results and will definitely return to the recipe the next time I pick the pork over its rivals at the butcher's.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Matar Paneer Tandoori

Please don't be taken in by my blog post and expect a tandoori twist to that old classic, matar paneer. It's a looong story which starts with the homemade paneer of my childhood. (For the uninitiated, paneer is a very popular Indian cheese, also known as cottage cheese).

I loved paneer as a child. Still do. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that my mother always made paneer at home, instead of opting for the easy way out and resorting to hard blocks of store bought paneer. Homemade paneer is an entirely different species from the store bought version. It is melt-in-the-mouth tender and far more porous than store bought paneer, which helps it absorb the flavours of the gravy that it is cooked in far more easily.

Texture is not just homemade paneer's biggest selling point, it may also be its biggest weakness. Unless you have the time and patience to leave a block of something really heavy on your paneer and let most of the moisture slink away bit by bit, it is likely that your paneer will end up a little crumbly and therefore, tougher to handle than the store bought version which you can neatly chop into any mathematically precise geometrical shape that catches your fancy. Rustic looking or not, my vote is  certainly for the homemade variety.

Here's an excellent video on how to make paneer. great link to step by step pictures on how to make paneer. This is exactly how we did at home. If you're facing a time crunch and don't mind your paneer being extra crumbly, once you have curdled the milk, you can simply pass the whole mixture, whey and all, though a fine sieve. Leave this undisturbed for around 30 minutes or so and you will be left paneer in the strainer, with all the whey having drained away. Make sure you use a fine sieve, otherwise the paneer bits will also pass through the sieve along with the whey!

Anyway, coming on now to the point of this post, since paneer is the Indian vegetarian's meat, there are few dinner parties that I have organised without a paneer dish on the menu. It was no different at my last dinner party, what with at least half the guests being vegetarian. Given the size of my guest list, my plan was to betray my idealistic principled stand on homemade paneer and go for the store bought version instead. And so it was, that on the day of my party, I was wandering in and out of supermarkets in my part of town trying to find an elusive block of Clawsons' paneer (that's the brand that seems to rule the roost here in London). I had no success. And so I was left with no option but to go for Plan B (which really should have been Plan A but for my laziness and the time crunch) - make paneer at home.

Armed with lemons and a gigantic can of milk, I set to work. I got the milk started in a large pan while I started on the rest of my cooking. I did keep an eye on the milk to make sure it doesn't boil and bubble over but there seemed to be no risk of that happening. It was all calm and placid. On the surface anyway. Around 30 minutes later when bubbles formed, I mixed the lemon juice in, curdled the milk successfully and got my sieve out to reap the paneer of my labour. As I titled the pan, I smelt a faintly smoky smell and saw that I had managed to get the milk stuck to the bottom of the pan. There goes my matar paneer, I thought.

I made a quick SOS call to my mother in Delhi. She seemed unperturbed by the whole thing. But worry I did. I fretted and fussed over the gravy. Added in a little extra garam masala, thinking that might mask the smoky flavour. Added in lots of freshly chopped coriander leaves. They have such a lovely aroma. Surely that would help. Added in a little more cream than I originally had in mind. Still no luck. I could still get that faint but sure smokiness through the gravy. I wrung my hands for a little longer and then gave up. Too late to try anything else.

At dinner, surprisingly, the matar paneer seemed to be getting attacked at an astonishing rate. I had had a few drinks by then. Maybe I was imagining it, I thought.

At the end of the meal, there was hardly any matar paneer left over. I just couldn't get it. As my guests were leaving, one of them came up to me asking me exactly how I managed to concoct the paneer dish with such a deep tandoori flavour. The rest chimed in, agreeing on how delicious the tandoori paneer was. I had a really strong urge to laugh, but I didn't want to burst anyone's bubble. So I nodded very humbly, smiled a small smile and said, oh it's really very easy.

PS: If you happen to read this M, sorry!! Just didn't have the heart to tell you the truth about the tandoori paneer.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Idiot Proof Date Cake

In my wild days as a young, enthusiastic and accident prone baker, there were very few recipes that stood by my side and refused to let me down, despite my best efforts. One of them is this classic date cake recipe. And what a winner of a recipe it is. The cake relies on very few ingredients (except the dates of course) which you'd expect to find in any respectable kitchen cupboard and yields excellent, idiot proof (trust me, I have tried it) results every single time.

This recipe calls for oil rather than butter, thus cutting down on the calorie quotient, earning it even more brownie points with me. You'd never guess that the cake doesn't use butter though. It turns out with a a very rich and deep flavour. I'd place it broadly in the fruit cake category in terms of look and texture. The flavour of course is completely different. Interestingly, the cake doesn't really taste strongly of dates. In fact, had I been handed a slice and asked to guess the ingredients, I probably would have failed. It is something I should try with the next set of guests who get treated to a slice of warm date cake with vanilla ice-cream as dessert.

The quality of the dates you use for the cake will influence the outcome. Dark coloured dates will yield a richer, more attractive end product. However, if the dates you have on hand happen to be a shade plainer than you'd like, I wouldn't advise a visit to the supermarket down the road in your dressing gown. I'd suggest you rely on a little trick instead. Simply heat some sugar in a pan to make some caramel (note: this is not a trick to be relied on by the faint hearted) and prepare some caramel. I will not attempt to reinvent the wheel, which has already been elegantly manufactured by the talented Mr Lebovitz in his blog post which is accurately and confidently titled "How to Make the Perfect Caramel". For our purposes, the caramel that I am referring to is "dry caramel" as David refers to it in his post.

Once the caramel has cooled down slightly, add in just a few drops of water so that you get a consistency that will mix evenly into the cake batter (otherwise the hot caramel will just solidify into little solid chunks when you mix into the cooler cake batter). Then just swirl the caramel syrup into the batter to yield a more dark and handsome cake (no guarantee that it will be taller) than you otherwise would have ended up with. Be sparing in your use of the syrup though (use no more than a teaspoon or two) to avoid ending up with a batter that has too much liquid, which would just ruin the cake entirely - and I don't mean just the looks!

I cannot possibly end this post without saying a little bit about where I got the recipe from. It is from a very popular and successful Indian blog "Aayi's Recipes" written by Shilpa. The reason I sat up and took note of this recipe was because a humongous number of people had commented on her post saying that they had tried the recipe and loved it. When I checked the link again today, I see that there are a whopping 680 comments! Wow. That's a lot of date cake!

My two cents having tried the recipe many times: you can reduce the sugar to 1/2 cup instead of 3/4 cup and still end up with a sweet enough cake because dates tend to be quite sweet as it is. I also tend to add in one lightly beaten egg and 1/4 tsp salt. This helps the cake rise more than it otherwise would have and yields a softer crumb. Of course, if want to cut down on the cholesterol, feel free to use the original egg less version of the recipe.

For an ego boost like none other, serve this cake warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream to a large party of guests post-dinner. Prepare yourself. There will be compliments.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Chicken Pepper Roast

There are some days when my stomach has a genuine craving. On most days, I tell it to shut up and go straight to my canteen at work because there is a share purchase agreement to review. On good days though, like today, which happens to be a Saturday, my stomach gets its way.

So this evening, when I was craving a nice spicy chicken pepper roast, I went straight to the kitchen and got to work. Chicken roast in Indian terminology is not just roast chicken in the West in inverse. They are different planets in the world of food. Chicken roast is chicken served in a spicy masala that clings to the meat. Much like a figure hugging dress. Slightly uncouth analogy perhaps, but very accurate, I assure you.

The point of the dish is the masala, rather than the meat itself. This is an interesting point of contrast when you compare Indian (home) cooking and Western cooking. In Western cooking, (especially of the pretentious variety), there seems to be a lot of emphasis on good "produce" and on letting that do the talking rather than the spices.

In Indian cooking, the highlight of a dish is often the gravy or the masala. My brother and I would often fight over who gets more gravy in a curry or more of the masala. My father would often reach the last bit of masala in the bowl and turn to my mother to poignantly ask, "Is there more gravy?" Not unlike Oilver Twist's "Please Sir, I want some more." Except "Sir" for some reason never did make enough gravy in her dishes.

Anyway, this dish is derived from my mother's accumulated kitchen wisdom. The recipe relies on the generous use of sliced onions; ubiquitous in Indian cooking. Except the onions aren't added to chicken and cooked together with it. It is added to the pot after the meat has cooked through. That is the trick to getting a thick dry masala with the onion slices retaining their shape and texture. Cooking it all together reduces the onions to a pulpy homogenous mess which is very far from what this dish is meant to look and taste like. I threw this recipe together relying on my "cooking instinct" (which has grown to become more and more reliable with experience) rather than on a recipe. I have tried to reproduce it below as accurately as possible. 

Chicken (on the bone) - I used 4 large pieces of chicken thigh
Finely sliced onions - 2
Pureed tomatoes - 2 (small)
Oil - 2 tbsp

Lemon juice- 1 tbsp
Salt to taste
Red chilli powder- 1 tsp
Turmeric powder - 1/2 tsp

Curry leaves - as many as you like
Saunf - 2 tsp
Ginger garlic paste - 3 tsp
Garam masala powder - 2 tsp (reduce if you aren't a spice fan)
Coriander powder - 2 tbsp
Pepper powder (coarsely ground) - 2 tsp

Make cuts on the meat so that the marinade seeps in as much as possible. Marinate the chicken pieces and set aside.

Heat oil and add the saunf. When it emits an aroma, add in the curry leaves, ginger garlic paste and onions. Keep stirring until the onion turns golden. Add in the garam masala and coriander powder and stir for a few more minutes. Take off the heat and set aside in a separate bowl.

In the same pan, add the chicken pieces and cook with the tomato puree (if using). The meat will release lots of water as will the pureed tomatoes. Keep stirring from time to time and cook until the chicken has cooked through and the water has evaporated. Now add in the onion masala and cook for another 10 minutes or so to let the flavours combine and for the dish to come together. Best enjoyed with hot rotis fresh off the griddle.

Clean up.


When Life Gives You Tomatoes, Make Thokku

I am not a particularly wise shopper. Whether it be food or clothes. I have often bought things that look great in the shop window and in the clever lighting of the trial room, but look terrible in my brutally honest mirror at home.

It is not very different when I go grocery shopping. Taken in by shiny vegetables or fruit, I often forget that on an average day, there is only one person I need to cook for - me. A few weeks ago, I went shopping in preparation for a new year's eve dinner at my place for a few friends. Heaven knows what I was thinking when I was jostling with crowds inside my neighbourhood supermarket. I realised after my (rather successful, if I may say so myself) dinner party, that I had over a kilo of tomatoes left over in my fridge. And that is where the title of this post comes from. I decided to make myself some tomato thokku. I must qualify that by saying that this is my version of thokku and I cannot claim that it is authentic in any way. Malayalis cannot stake any claim to thokku - we only make piggles (ha ha ha!) and achchar (stressing the "chch" with as much stress as it is humanly possible to place on one syllable).

I love my pickles and chutneys. The spicier and the tangier, the better. I still have vivid memories of the fiery tomato pickle that we sampled at a Telugu family friend's place in Goa many, many years ago. I must have been around 12 years old. I made my love for it so obvious that the hostess packed a little bottle for me to take back home!

One of the ingredients that this recipe calls for is asafeotida or hing as it is called in Hindi. I wonder whose idea it was to come up with the convoluted "asafoetida" as the English equivalent of the simple hing.

It is an ingredient that I have only ever come across in Indian cooking. I am assured by that reliable, modern fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia that it hing is indeed now "generally forgotten" in Europe although still used extensively in Indian cooking. 

Hing was a staple in my mother's kitchen and it made an appearance in several traditional south Indian dishes including sambhar, rasam etc. It has a distinctive aroma that I find a little difficult to describe but adds a new dimension to spicy South Indian food.  You could call it the Indian equivalent of ajinomoto, but without any negative effects. In fact, if my constant companion Wikipedia is to be believed, it is a cure for everything from epilepsy to indigestion.

In all these years, I have only seen one brand of hing in Indian homes, including my own. I forget the name now (cannot be bothered to hobble back into my kitchen and check!) but vividly remember the packaging. A tiny white plastic jar with the image of a particularly voluptuous woman with cascading hair. Sexy spices.


6-8 tomatoes
1 tsp kashmiri red chilli powder
1/2 tsp asafoetida
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
salt, jaggery and tamarind paste to taste
as many curry leaves as you like.

Puree the tomatoes and keep aside. Heat oil. Once hot, add in the mustard seeds. When they sputter, reduce the heat and add the fenugreek seeds (they burn quickly, in my experience anyway). Now add the curry leaves. When they emit their delicious aroma, add the red chilli powder and turmeric powder and asafoetida. Before they burn, add the tomato puree and just a little salt. Now let it simmer until the whole lot reduces to a jam like consistency. Add jaggery and tamarind paste alongwith more salt, adjusting quantities depending on your taste. Cool, store in a jar and serve with whatever you like!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Retsina, Belsize Park - Restaurant Review

Last Sunday evening, as I was struggling to pull myself out of bed and into the kitchen to fix a quick and lazy meal, I was interrupted by a call from a friend. It was another one of those impromptu dinner plans that tend to come together when a couple of my friends from University bump into each other (we go back a long way - eight years and counting (sigh that makes me feel old!)). On most ocassions, I play the role of party pooper by choosing my warm duvet over warm company. This time, I decided the other way round and ended up at a family run Greek restaurant, Retsina, later that evening.

We chose Retsina at the recommendation of a friend, who swore that it was the "best Greek restaurant" he had been to in London. I wouldn't go quite as far as that, but the food was certainly of a good quality. What really struck me though, was the excellent service that we enjoyed during our meal at Retsina, such a rarity in London. The place had the warm and friendly air that I have often experienced at good family run restaurants. A smiling silver haired plump lady appeared to be the commander-in-charge of the waiters. She was certainly good at her job.

Enough said about the food. Here are a few pictures of the food, all of which was appetisingly presented. 

Feta cheese

Chicken souvla
I am not a huge fan of feta cheese - I find it overpoweringly salty, especially when eaten by itself, so let me move swiftly on to what I thought was the star of the show, for the non-vegetarians anyway: the chicken souvla. I am familiar with chicken/lamb "souvlaki", which is basically a Greek dish of grilled meat. "Souvla" is new to me. Wise wiki tells me that "souvlaki" is simply a diminutive of "souvla" which means "skewer" in Greek. Just had an "aaah, now I get it" moment.

My experiences with souvlaki have been hit and miss. Many restaurants use chicken breast for their souvlaki leading to a tough and far from enjoyable outcome. Retsina made no such rookie mistake. Their souvla was tender, moist and absolutely delicious. It came with tzatziki and a "tamouli" salad, both of which were exemplary.

The vegetarians also seemed happy with their main courses, although the few quick bites that I sampled did not leave me particularly satisfied, mainly because the flavours seemed too bland for my liking. I must add though that the moussaka was quite impressive. Unlike other moussakas that I have tried in the past, the cheese only played a supporting role in Retsina's version with the aubergine and potato really shining through in lead roles.

Vegetarian gemitsa - stuffed roast vegetable


 In all, I'd give Retsina 7 on 10 for the food (with an extra 0.5 for stellar service). If you happen to be in Belsize Park and have a craving for Greek food, try Retsina. If you do, say hello to the silver haired smiling lady and the friendly waiters from me.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Chor Bizarre - Review

Feels good to start typing out this new post on my laptop - it is a baby step towards sticking to my new year resolution of trying to keep this blog alive in 2012. This resolution is one that I don't find too daunting. You will agree that it is quite difficult to do worse than I have so far - less than 10 posts in 2 years!

Without much ado, let me get to the meat of this post which is a review of Chor Bizarre, which has earned its place as one of my favourite Indian restaurants in London. The place is centrally located in the heart of London, just a short walk from Green Park station. The food is authentic, unpretentious and simply delicious. This was my second visit to Chor Bizarre. Everything we ordered was as delicious as I remembered our last meal at the restaurant to be. We started out with lamb shikampuri kebabs which were meltingly soft. The star among the starters though was a grilled mushroom dish, meant for the vegetarians but because I can't keep my hands off food of any sort, I had to sample the mushroom. As I remarked to one of my friends, I have never eaten a more delicious mushroom. As main course, we ordered a range of breads, a paneer dish (which I can't comment on despite my affliction as I didn't get around to tasting it given the amount of food we had on the table!) a couple of dals (the ever popular maa ki daal and chana dal), the shehnai gosht and the methi murg. 

As part of the non-vegetarian contingent of the party, I can say that the chicken and lamb were delicious. The lamb was exactly what the menu promised it would be: "tender lamb shank, on the bone, pot roasted with cardamom and mace - finished in a fragrant herb flavoured sauce". The curry was very fragrant but not overpoweringly so. In all, a very elegant dish. The methi murg, whilst equally tasty, was a bit of a disappointment because we couldn't really taste the methi (fenugreek in English). In fact, it was quite close to a good quality butter chicken, which is fine, but that was not quite what we ordered. It was a button popper of a meal and we just didn't have space for dessert.

If you happen to be in London and are a fan of Indian food or simply want to experiment, I would not hesitate to recommend Chor Bizarre. You will not regret it, except perhaps on the weighing scale.  

Photo credit: Atreya Bhattacharya
PS: No photos of the food because I was too excited when I saw the food and forgot about taking photos! These photos that appear here were taken after the meal by a very talented friend and do justice to Chor Bizarre's beautiful decor.