Wednesday, 21 March 2012


Of the things that I remember about my first job (before this makes me sound like a pensioner reliving old memories, let me clarify that I am currently in my second job), the chicken quesadilla that they served in the office canteen would definitely feature in the top ten. Having just moved from India, quesadillas were new to me. Not the concept of course. A tortilla with a filling is not entirely different from say, an Indian stuffed paratha. The packaging and presentation is different yes, but in essence, both involve breads with a devilishly delicious filling. The name "quesadilla" comes from "queso" which means cheese in Spanish. 

Quesadillas were a weekly affair in my office canteen. Served every Thursday I think. Promptly at 12 noon, I would dash off in the direction of the canteen to beat the inevitably long queue at the quesadilla counter. What a small price to pay for a delicious meal. On a few manically busy Thursdays, I had to skip the quesadilla queue in favour of less tasty but more accessible lunch options. Those were sad days indeed.

This weekend, I had a friend over for brunch. Because I am so familiar with Indian cooking, I usually rustle up an Indian meal if I have company at home. On this ocassion, I decided to be a little adventurous and go with a Mexican theme. I did serve a couple of starters, but let's cut to the chase shall we, and talk about the quesadilla main course.

I didn't refer to any particular recipe, but relied on my trusty guide to Mexican food, Mexican Food Made Simple by Thomasina Miers for inspiration. The book has simple but delicious recipes, with easy-to-follow instructions and droolworthy photographs. Thomasina Miers is the owner of Wahaca, a chain of Mexican restaurants in London, where I have enjoyed many a delicious meal with friends. Of the many recipes in the book, Chicken and Chorizo in an Almond Mole caught my attention for the chicken-chorizo combination. I am a chorizo addict, thanks to my weakness for sour-spicy flavours. That provided the inspiration for my quesadilla filling - chicken-chorizo it was.

Chicken chorizo quesadilla

Here's the recipe for the filling. I cannot claim that this is authentic in any way (erm, especially because it involves Nando's hot peri peri sauce) but the results will not disappoint.

Chicken-Chorizo Quesadillas
(My own recipe)

500 grams cubed baby chicken fillets
100 grams chorizo (slices)
5-6 cloves garlic (crushed)
1 medium onion finely sliced
2 tsp dried mixed herbs
2 tbsp Nando's hot peri peri sauce (I am sure any other spicy sauce will work equally well)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp oil
finely chopped coriander

Heat the oil and fry the onion slices until golden brown. Set aside. Into the same pan, add in the sliced chorizo, which will gradually release oil. Now add the chopped garlic and stir the mix until the garlic turns golden brown. Now add the chicken, mixed herbs, the peri peri sauce, tomato paste and salt and pepper to taste. Cook till the chicken is cooked through (it should turn to white in colour from pink) and the moisture has evaporated. It should be a fairly dry mixture. Now add the sliced onions and stire together for a few minutes to let the whole mixture come together. Add in the coriander and mix. Done.

Tomato salsa

4 medium tomatoes chopped
1 medium red onion finely chopped
finely chopped coriander - a handful
2-3 green chillis finely chopped (de-seed if you are not fond of spicy food or omit altogether, although I would not recommend the latter option unless you are a complete sissy when it comes to spice)
lime juice to taste
sea salt to taste
powdered sugar - 1/2 tsp

For the salsa, simply throw in the onion and tomatoes into a large bowl. Add the coriander and chillis, and mix in the sugar. Next comes the lime juice and the salt. I would just advise that you add a little lemon juice and salt at a time and keep tasting the mix from time to time until you get exactly the right mix of salty-sour that you want.  

Corn Salsa

As a variation, I threw in a small tin of canned sweet corn (drained) to make a corn salsa. The crunch of the sweet corn was definitely a good addition to the salsa.

To assemble the quesadillas

A bunch of spring onions (finely chopped)
Grated cheddar cheese (as much as you please)
Guacamole (optional - I used store bought)

Heat a non-stick pan and spread the tortilla - once warmed on both sides, spread some of the spring onions, then a little salsa, guacamole (if using) the chicken chorizo filling, and finally a layer of grated cheese on one half of the tortilla. The other half should be left plain so you can fold this over the half with the filling. Once you have folded the plain half over the other, leave for a couple of minutes on medium or low heat (to prevent the tortilla from burning). Once the cheese starts melting, flip the quesadilla and cook the other side until brown spots appear. Flip out of the pan with a flourish onto a serving dish. Serve with extra salsa on the side.

Tortilla chips with corn salsa

For the health concious, I can say with some authority that you can safely avoid the cheese with pretty good results, having tried this myself. This would of course, take away the "queso" out of quesadilla, which is probably an unforgivable distortion. But better to try quesadilla without the queso, than not try it out at all! Happy chomping.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Keeping it Simple

Every day on my way to work and back, I am surrounded by office going women in my train compartment. Some already have a thick layer of make-up layered onto their faces. Behind the artificial shine (which is actually meant to be a healthy glow), I can imagine the many layers of foundation and blusher that they would have patted on in quick and impatient strokes in the morning. There are also the stragglers who haven't quite managed to find the time in the morning rush to do the layering. They make up (oh yes, pun intended) for lost time in the crowded compartment as they stare fixatedly into their little hand mirrors and pat on the lipstick, mascara and what have you with a vengeance whilst jostling with fellow passengers.

I have nothing against make-up. But a little goes a long way I think. I am sure my thinking has something to do with my background and upbringing. When I was little, I rarely saw my mother use make-up. In fact, she hardly owned any. Her make-up consisted of moisturizer and lipstick, which she'd dab on hurriedly before self-consciously dabbing some off with tissue, lest it seem that she had overdone the lipstick!

There is, I think, something to be said about keeping things simple. That applies not just to make-up, but also, in my limited experience, to life and also food.

There are the ominous rumblings of a gigantic new M&A transaction at work, which is likely to consume my days once it kicks off. That prompted me to ensure that I make the most of my current quiet phase at work. So today, when I had the chance to escape work before six (I can assure you that it is a rare chance in the life of a lawyer), I took it with both hands and scooted from the office on my two little feet. And so I was home remarkably early today. I was also remarkably hungry. I stuffed my face with an entire pack of strawberries and also a handful of doritos, but clearly I was craving something a little more substantial than that. So I decided to make myself a quick meal: a dal and a side. It didn't take very long to put together, certainly no more than 45 minutes. So, within the hour, I sat down with a steaming meal of dal, a spinach side dish with some thick set yoghurt to go with it and a little pickle on the side. I haven't had a more satisfying meal in a long time. And this in a week where I have sampled everything from a high society grilled salmon with greens and pork vindaloo in the office canteen.


Here are the recipes:

Spinach and garlic stir fry

1 cup chopped spinach (I used frozen)
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 medium onion finely chopped
1/2 tsp Kashmiri red chilli powder
1 tbsp oil
1/4 tsp olive oil (or more, as per taste)

Heat the oil and add in the garlic, red chilli powder and chopped onions. Once the onions have turned golden brown, add the chopped spinach and cook till the spinach has cooked through and most of the moisture has evaporated - else, you will end up with a really goopy and slimey mass. Once you are happy with the consistency of the dish, switch off the flame, add in the olive oil, which adds a lovely flavour to this dish.

I didn't actually note down the measurements as I was getting the dal together, but in a nutshell, all it took was boiled dal and a tempering, which is where all the flavour comes from. For the tempering, I used a generous measure of cumin seeds, some red chilli and turmeric powder, a pinch of asafoetida, and around 6 cloves of garlic (crushed) and 1/2 small onion finely chopped. The tempering is done once the onions are golden brown. Once you have added enough water and salt to the boiled dal to make sure it is as soupy and salty as you want it to be, let it simmer gently for a couple of minutes and then add in the tempering. That's it - done. Not much make-up, but delicious nonethless.

Friday, 2 March 2012

A Post About Brinjals

When I was a kid, I kept a safe distance from most vegetables. Especially the spineless variety. I like some spine, both in people and in my vegetables. So brinjal/aubergine/baingan, as it is variously called, rarely made its way into my plate (in Malayalam, the name is vazhuthananga. If you can think of a scarier name for a vegetable, I will eat my shoe!). So, on the whole, meetings between me and brinjals were rare.

There was just one exception: brinjal fry. This preparation involves slicing brinjals into thin slices (size zero slices - as thin as you can humanly slice them basically), marinating the slices with some salt and red chilli powder, squeezing the hell out the slices to get rid of all the moisture (including all the goodness!) and then frying them in generous quantities of oil. As you can tell, there wasn't very much brinjal in brinjal fry, which is why I took a fancy to it. It was much later in life that I encountered the joys of a good vazhuthananga theeyal. For the uninitiated, there is an entry here on theeyals (after the Gelf, the Malayalis of the world are clearly taking over Wikipedia too). In essence, a theeyal is a dish that comes with gravy that has lots of character. The base for the gravy is roasted coconut, tamarind, and a distinctive set of spices. It is interesting how vivid some of my food memories are. I cannot claim to have the sharpest memory, but rarely forget people, names and good food. My acquaintance with vazhuthananga theeyal was made at the home of a distant relative. It was love at first bite. My mother's kitchen didn't quite specialise in theeyal production. Getting a theeyal together is no cakewalk. If you are using fresh coconut, which is what we use at home, you need to grate it into little shreds which involves plenty of exercise for your arms, roast it until it is just the right shade of golden brown and then grind it with a host of assorted spices.

Last weekend, I came across a pack of shiny purple brinjals in my neighbourhood supermarket. I had a little flashback moment there, just like in the movies, and the image of a mouthwateringly delicious theeyal popped up in my head. And that was how a pack of hopelessly beautiful brinjals found their way into my kitchen.

It doesn't happen very often that I am in an inspired mood on a weekday. But this was one of those rare exceptions. I decided I didn't want any coconut in my curry, but wanted a tangy preparation, just like vazhuthananga theeyal. I didn't really refer to any particular recipe and just threw together the ingredients that I thought would make for a delicious, tangy brinjal curry. The trick is to grind the ingredients for the gravy into a smooth paste - that is the secret to a silky gravy without annoying little bits of onion, ginger and garlic to spoil the fun. This dish is best paired with steaming fluffy rice with a little pickle and a crunchy papad/pappadam on the side. Unfortunately, I have no photographic evidence because the curry was so good that I polished it off in no time. Photos promised when I next whip up this brinjal curry - something tells me it won't be too long before that happens.

Brinjal Curry
(My own recipe)

2 medium sized brinjal/1 large brinjal, cubed
lime sized ball of tamarind

1 tsp mustard seeds
10-12 curry leaves.
1 tsp cumin seeds/jeera
1 tsp methi/fenugreek seeds
1 tsp red chilli
1/4 tsp turmeric

Grind to a paste
1 onion
5-6 cloves of garlic
1 inch piece of ginger

Oil- 1 or 2 tbsp
salt to taste

Prepare the tamarind extract using this procedure. Although the link refers to tamarind paste as the base ingredient, the procedure is exactly the same for whole tamarind, which is what I used.

Next, heat the oil in a pan. Add the mustard seeds and when they start jumping around in the pan and going off like fireworks, add the curry leaves, reduce the heat, and add the rest of the tempering ingredients. Once sauteed, add the ground paste and keep stirring like you've never stirred before. Once the oil separates from the mix, add the tamarind, just a little water (around 1/4 of a cup roughly), add salt to taste and let it simmer gently for around 5-10 minutes. Finally, add the brinjal and another 1/4 of a cup of water. Cover and let it simmer gently until the brinjal is cooked (yes, it will be spineless, but this gravy is so delicious that it makes up for the lack of spine). Add more water if you want to thin down the gravy a little. Finally, add around a level teaspoon of jaggery and let that melt into the gravy. Taste, adjust for salt and enjoy with rice.