Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A Malayali Tongue Twister

I have posted plenty of Malayali recipes on this blog over the last few months, but haven't inflicted one tongue twister of a name on you, o reader. This is a shame, given that Malayalam, as the name itself suggests, is a tongue twister of a language. In an effort to make this blog a little more authentic, let me make amends for past wrongs and present to you Chicken Olarthiyathu.

In any average restaurant in India, the waiter will quite happily distinguish for you the "dry" dishes on the menu from the rest. Translated into English, this refers to curries in which the gravy clings to the meat or vegetables that form the core of the dish. Chicken Olarthiyathu is meant to be a "dry" curry - simply put, it is chicken in a spicy masala, with the strong flavour of curry leaves (an all-time favourite with me) ringing through.

I concocted my version of chicken olarthiyathu for my brother, who is currently visiting me from India. To put it mildly, he is sparing with his praise of cooking, and fairly liberal with his criticism. Not a particularly even handed approach if you ask me, but of course, life isn't fair.

At dinner, I plonked the chicken olarthiyathu on the dining table and bullied him into taking photos of it so I could post them on the blog. He looked distinctly unhappy with this pre-dinner ritual, but  decided not to complain. I have to say that having a resident photographer is quite a luxury. This blog is beginning to look so much prettier than it usually does. When we finally proceeded to eat, there wasn't much verbal communication about the food other than an appreciative nod from him. But the chicken olarthiyathu disappeared at a very rapid rate before my eyes. I take that as a big compliment from my brother who is fighting a losing battle against his love handles.

Sadly, I didn't note down the recipe when I was putting this together, so that will have to wait for another time. Chicken olarthiyathu will be making another appearance in my kitchen fairly soon, so I promise it will not be a long wait.   

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Butter Chicken for the Brave/Stupid

There is a fine line, they say, between bravery and stupidity. I am not sure which side of the line I fall on, having just cooked and indulged in this butter chicken at the end of what has been a weekend of culinary excess.

It started with dinner on Friday evening at a lovely Thai restaurant. I am not a big fan of chain restaurants. Typically, they lack character and there tends to be undue emphasis in the kitchen and decor on uniformity, rather than on distinctiveness and personality.

Busaba though is an exception I think, and as usual, we had a delightful meal. The pandan chicken and morning glory starters were highlights as was the Southern fish curry, which my brother, the seafood hater, cannot stop raving about.

That was followed by the streetfood of Portobello Market yesterday for lunch and dinner at Cantina Lerado, neither of which disappointed. Of course, Portfobello Market was cheap and cheerful, whereas we left with lighter wallets at the end of our meal at Cantina Lerado. Given all of this context, I am not sure if Butter Chicken for dinner on a Sunday evening was brave or stupid. In any case, it was delicious, if on the heavy side of the spectrum. This is a really easy recipe, and my go-to recipe when I can't think of anything more innovative for a dinner party. We mopped it up with some naan, but I am sure it would go equally well with some hot rotis.

The first ever homemade version of butter chicken that I tried was at the home of a good friend, Aditi. In an impressive menu, the particularly impressive butter chicken really stood out, and it is her recipe that I extracted from her soon after over a meal in our office canteen, that this recipe is derived from. Do try it out!

Butter Chicken

500 gms chicken on the bone (skinned)
for the marinade
2 tbsp yoghurt
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp salt
a few drops of lemon juice

for the gravy
1 + 1  tbsp butter (see below)
3-4 cloves
1 inch stick of cinnamon
2-3 cardamon pods
400 grams tomato puree
3 heaped tbsp kasuri methi
4 tbsp ginger paste
4 tbsp garlic paste
250 ml double cream

Marinate the chicken overnight ideally, but as I was short of time, I fast forwarded to just an hour and it turned out alright. In a pan, heat 1 tbsp butter and add the chicken. Cover and cook on low heat for around 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, for the gravy, heat 1 tbsp butter and add the whole spices. Stir for a minute or two till fragrant. Next add the ginger garlic pastes and cook till done. Now add the tomato puree and kasuri methi. Turn up the heat a little and cook, stirring continuously, until the moisture evaporates. This should take around 10 minutes or so. Now add the chicken, and let it combine with the gravy. Simmer for around 5 minutes. Switch off the heat and finally, add the cream. Add salt to taste. If the gravy feels too thick or rich, add a little water to taste and adjust the salt accordingly.

Finish with chopped corainder, and if you are feeling brave or stupid, depending on how you look at it, a small (or large) pat of butter. Serve with hot rotis or naan.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Appam and Stew

Some twosomes are just perfect for each other. Laurel and Hardy. Tom and Jerry. Rajma-chawal. You can't think of one without the other. And for the Malayalis, appam and stew. When I was growing up, appam and stew was the traditional breakfast at home for Easter and Christmas. How we rushed back from mass at church in the morning so we could get home as quickly as possible and stuff our faces with appam and stew.

My mother is an appam expert. She makes them just right, lacy thin and crispy on the sides and soft in the centre. Making the perfect appam takes practice and skill. The batter needs to be fermented just right, you need to be able to twirl it around to make the right sort of appam shape in the appachatti, which is the distinctive pan that we use in Kerala to make appams. My mother has it all perfected to a fine art. I wish I could say the same about myself! I haven't been able to find the energy or inclination to make appams from scratch, as it involves grinding rice with a whole host of other ingredients. When I see the word "grind" in a recipe, a little light goes off in my head. I associate grinding ingredients with pain and suffering in the kitchen (think of all the preparation that needs to be done before something needs to be fed into a mixer/food processor and all the itsy bitsy machine parts that need to be cleaned up after!) and steer as far as possible from recipes that call for it.

So my experience in appam production is limited to the sort that relies on a mix out of a packet. No grinding, but you still need to use yeast and coconut milk and get the mixture to ferment overnight to prepare the appam batter. In cold and dry London, fermenting appam batter is an uphill task. This time, I had my brother around for Easter. I wasn't going to take any chances and risk Easter breakfast. I left all the heating on overnight in the living room, and left the bowl with the appam mix in a vat of hot water. I did everything short of tucking the appam batter into bed under a warm duvet with a hot water bottle. I wonder if anyone in history has ever shown appam batter so much love. Anyway, it worked. More or less. The appams were better than those that I have ever managed before, but still not quite the perfect texture. They were a bit powdery as opposed to soft and shiny, which is how I remember the appams of my childhood. Oh well. I will blame my tools and say that it is the readymade appam powder's fault.  At least, they turned out nice and pretty because I have the twirling figured out.

The best thing about the stew that goes with appam is the gravy. It is an elegant dish. Not many ingredients, simple flavours, but delicious nonetheless. While the appams could have been better, the stew was a resounding success. This is such an easy recipe that you must try it at home. Traditionally, we use mutton for the stew. Mutton is tough to find in London though. What comes closest is lamb, and I have never liked the tough texture of cooked lamb. Instead of risking it, I played safe and decided to go with chicken instead. If you do have access to mutton though, I'd strongly recommend that you try the recipe with it. And if you are a vegetarian, you can whip up this dish in no time (as you can eliminate the additional time that it would take to cook the stew if any meat were to be used) - all you need to do is substitute the meat in the recipe with cubed potatoes, carrots and peas. I have no doubt that it will be an enjoyable meal.

Chicken Stew (recipe sourced from my mother)

800 grams chicken on the bone (marinated in the juice of half a lemon and some salt for a few hours - I find that this tenderises the meat, but you can omit this step if short of time or lemon juice)
2 small potatoes cubed
1 cup shelled peas
2 small carrots cubed
2-3 sprigs of curry leaves
1 can of coconut milk
salt to taste
5-6 cloves
1 inch piece of cinnamon
1 small piece star anise
1 tsp pepper corns (whole)
2 tbsp saunf/fennel seeds
2 tbsp ginger paste
2 tbsp garlic paste
2 medium onions finely sliced

Heat the oil. Add the saunf and when it emits an aroma, add in the rest of the whole spices. Once these have been roasted through, add the curry leaves. Stir for 20 seconds or so, and then add the ginger garlic paste. Once this turns a light golden brown and releases oil, add the sliced onion. To preserve the light colour of the gravy, do not overcook the onions. Add a little salt to aid the cooking process. Once they turn pink (as opposed to a darker golden-brown), add the chicken. Cover and cook for 20-30 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the juices run clear.

In the meantime, put the peas in a microwave safe bowl with a couple of tablespoons of water. Cover with clingfilm and cook till cooked but not mushy - they should retain their shape in the gravy. Cook the potatoes and carrots in the same way. Cook the vegetables separately as cooking time will vary for each of them. Note that the potatoes will take longer to cook. Once done, add to the chicken after it has cooked through. Finally, lower the heat and add the coconut milk. Let it simmer on low heat for a couple of minutes. Add salt to taste. Serve with appam or failing that, white bread. Rotis should be a last resort.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Strawberry Cheesecake

If you ask me, I'd say that strawberries are overrated. Sure, they're pretty but that's about it. They're usually too tart for my liking, and even when sweet, not sweet enough for my sweet tooth. Given a choice, I'd go for a juicy watermelon or a wickedly sweet mango any day. Strawberry flavour though is a different matter. I can't say I love strawberry ice cream, but I do like strawberry flavoured desserts and drinks. I will leave the drinks for another post and focus my energies instead on strawberry cheesecake, which is what I rustled up in my kitchen last weekend.

If you believe in the smart alecky "work smart, not hard" philosophy, this is a recipe that you must test. No matter how hard you try, the end result is likely to be very pretty, and very cleverly (and dishonestly) conveys the idea that many hours of toil in the kitchen were involved. This was my maiden attempt at cheesecake. As usual, that simply gave me an excuse to spend a couple of hours browsing online for a good cheesecake recipe, and ogle at ridiculously beautiful pictures of cheesecakes on the internet. I have to say that the recipe that I did zero in on the end is a winner. Fail-safe, with delicious results. The only downside though is that it involves vast measures of tasty things that are really bad for your heart and figure/physique. Including butter, condensed milk, soft cheese. Yes, this is a truly evil dessert. There couldn't have been a more sinful way to end my Lenten abstinence from sweets.

I happened to have a fantastic bunch of friends over for a party at home this weekend. Of all the things on the menu (some of which involved post midnight cooking - my area of expertise, and a fair bit of blood and sweat in the kitchen), the cheesecake got the most applause. Enough said.

Here's the recipe (adapted from here)
Photo credit: My talented brother (and his talented DSLR)
Ingredients 20-22 digestive biscuits (reduced to fine crumbs in a food processor) (I used McVities)
40g butter, melted
2 x 200 gram packs Philadelphia cream cheese
397g can condensed milk
juice of approx 1.5 lemons.
sliced strawberries to decorate
Strawberry layer
1 cup strawberries
sugar to taste

  1. Combine the biscuit crumbs and melted butter and press into the base of a cake tin and chill whilst preparing the filling.
  2. Whisk together the cream cheese and condensed milk till well combined. Then stir in the lemon juice until mixed. You will see the mix starting to coagulate gradually with the addition of the lemon juice. Pour over the prepared base and chill overnight. 
  3. Next, puree the strawberries in a food processor. Add sugar to taste. Now heat this mixture in a saucepan over medium heat until it reduces and coats the back of a spoon. Take a few drops on to a plate to check the consistency, which should be very close to that of jam, but need not be as solid - the idea is that when spread it on the cheesecake, the strawberry layer should stay and not drip all over your kitchen floor.
  4. Remove cheesecake from the fridge, spread the strawberry layer evenly on top and decorate with the sliced strawberries.