Saturday, 26 May 2012

Evil Brownies

Coincidentally, it happens to be the birthday of a dear classmate and friend, the dashing Mr Wadhwa of Oxfordshire. Happy birthday Wadhwa!

You know what the downside to baking is? You realise precisely how evil your favourite goodies are. I have just put together some brownie batter, which my oven is trying to convert into brownies, as I type this post. I measured into my batter 10 tbsp of butter, over a cup of sugar and a couple of eggs, each of which stared smugly back at me as they made their way into my mixing bowl. Should I have just chosen not to bake brownies? Only those who have been at the receiving end of a brownie craving can appreciate that it must always be urgently addressed. For my latest craving, I will blame a recent brownie post on one of the many blogs that I follow. It may have been the tasteful pictures or the fact that I have not seen the face of a good brownie in a long time, but I was suddenly seized by the idea of baking some. And so it is that at 10 am on an unusually sunny Saturday morning, I am baking brownies. It helps that I have a friend and significant other stopping by at home later in the day, so I will have someone to share the brownies with.

Putting the brownie batter together reminded me of my mother's baking expeditions when my brother and I were little. We had predictably childish tastes and favoured chocolate cakes over all others. My mother would sometimes wistfully voice the idea of a plain vanilla cake for a change, but we would both shout her down every time. I am not sure she ever did get around to baking one!

There were a number of tasks associated with cake baking that we kids were allowed to help with at home. These ranged from the mundane sifting the flour and raising agents (which my mother always saddled me with - with the benefit of hindsight, I am absolutely certain that she hated doing it herself, and was only too happy to delegate it to me), to the tedious beating the egg whites until stiff (both the egg whites and your right arm would be stiff by the end of it) to the incredibly competitive licking the mixing bowl clean. There was always a battle between my brother and me over this last task. The trick to hoodwinking my brother was to help with the boring initial tasks and then hover around strategically around the mixing bowl before the cake batter went into the oven, to get a first shot at it. Often it worked like a charm. He'd be too busy following the antics of Tom and Jerry or Dexter and Dee Dee on Cartoon Network to intervene. I was such an evil sister. Sometimes, I feel a little bad for all the cake batter that poor D lost out on because of my evil ways. But then I am quickly reminded of all the times he wolfed down my share of Nirula's pastries left by a thoughtful parent in the fridge for me. I'd come back to a few pastry crumbs in an empty red and white Nirula's pastry box. That coupled with his nonchalant, unrepentant grin would make me want to box his ears. So maybe we were even by the end of our respective childhoods. I imagine D might have a different take on this.

For those of who haven't had the pleasure of living in Delhi, Nirula's was THE pastry shop in the city pre-liberalisation times. Mainly because there were hardly any others! Of course, there was Sugar and Spice in Khan Market and Wenger's in Connaught Place, but both were ridiculously overpriced, which meant that their clientele was restricted to the swish set. So Nirula's was the pastry shop of our childhood in Delhi. Nearly twenty years since, they still operate in Delhi. Last I heard, they had been bought over by some large corporate entity. It shows. I walked into a Nirula's a few years ago when I was interning in Delhi, and I remember thinking it had degenerated into something of an Indian McDonald's. How saddening.

On that sombre note, let me take you to the sombre recipe for these delightful brownies. This is a very easy recipe, so no excuses for not trying it out. Happy eating.

Alice Medrich's Cocoa Brownies (verbatim from this link)

  • 10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cold large eggs
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)
  • Special equipment: An 8-inch square baking pan
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of the baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.
Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot.
Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or a rubber spatula. Stir in the nuts, if using. Spread evenly in the lined pan.
Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack.
Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Honey and Ginger Mushroom

To anyone who has been kind (and unwise) enough to subscribe to my posts, let me apologise in advance for the almost non-stop, steady stream of words that has been flowing straight from my desktop to your inbox over the last couple of days. What to do? I am going through a creative phase. :)

It helps that I am currently serving out my notice period at my firm, and the powers that be have magnanimously decided to keep my final days a little light. I can assure you though, that the drivel will stop soon enough. I am looking at a summer of multivariable calculus in preparation for my masters program later this year, followed by a semester dominated by microeconomics, macroeconomics and advanced statistical methods. I reckon that the chances of being able to write at leisure about issues of gastronomic significance will therefore become considerably dimmer in the near future. Ah, but what’s the point of worrying about what is to come. Keep calm and carry on, as the Brits say. Jo hoga dekha jayega as we say in Delhi, que sera sera, as Doris Day says.  

What is your view on fungus? Not the mouldy green stuff that grows overnight on bread if you leave it out carelessly on your kitchen counter on a muggy afternoon. I’m talking about the edible variety. Mushrooms.

My earliest memory of mushrooms is not of the fungus, but of the “mushroom cut”. For the benefit of the less well informed, the mushroom cut was an aesthetically challenged hairstyle which became quite the rage among parents of pre-teens in Delhi in the early 1990s. Credit must be given where it is due. What an accurate name! The victim of the mushroom cut did in fact closely resemble a mushroom by the time the hairdresser was done with him/her. If you’re having difficulty imagining this, picture having your hairdresser cut your hair neatly around the edges of an upturned bowl placed strategically over your head so that it goes no further than your ears.The mushroom cut is what you would end up with.

If you are completely lacking in imagination, let me make it easier for you. Here’s a Wiki link on the subject, which helpfully takes you to an image of the mushroom cut. My extensive online research for this post has been a learning experience. I had no idea that the mushroom cut is in currency beyond Delhi’s borders. Or that the Amish and Delhi-ites have similar views on punishing children with disastrous haircuts (see Wiki link above). Did you know that there's a Facebook group for child victims of the mushroom cut?

In case you were wondering, I write with such passion about the subject because I write from personal suffering. I was at the receiving end of a girlie version of the mushroom cut at some point during my childhood years. When I look back at my childhood photographs, there are more than a few in which I look much like a chestnut mushroom, if you can imagine a chestnut mushroom with buck teeth and a pointy nose.

Although my early memories of mushrooms are not happy ones, I do have a fondness for them. I like their texture. I also like the fact that they gladly take on the flavour of whatever they are paired with. If only more people were like mushrooms – willing to take on the best from those around them, and soft and cuddly (I mean that in a metaphorical sense).

The recipe that I am posting today involves mushrooms in a soy-honey-ginger sauce, based loosely on this recipe which I stumbled across online. I first made it for a very large dinner party for friends, and have since turned to it a few more times. It is an incredibly easy recipe, taking no more than 15 minutes to put together if you have all ingredients on hand. Although mushrooms take centre stage in this recipe, the spring onions are critical too, both for their crunchy texture which contrasts with the soft fleshiness of the mushrooms, and for their bright green colour that livens up an otherwise dull finished product. I am pretty sure that you can substitute the mushrooms with other vegetables or with chicken, prawn etc.

Honey and Ginger Mushroom

1/8 cup each of honey and soy sauce
1 tsbp + 1 tsp sesame oil
1.5 tbsp cornflour dissolved in 2-3  tbsp water
250 gms sliced mshroom
1/4 cup sliced green onion
2 tbsp grated ginger
Salt to taste
1 tsp crushed black pepper
2 whole green chillies
Around 1/4 cup water (to be adjusted - see recipe)

In a bowl, combine the honey, soy source and 1 tbsp sesame oil until evenly mixed. Heat a pan, add 1 tsp oil sesame oil followed the ginger and green chillies. Stir until the ginger is golden brown. Next add the mushrooms and a few pinches of salt. Let this cook on medium heat until the mushroom is done. Now add the crushed black pepper and the honey mixture. After a few minutes, add the cornflour paste, while stirring continuously. As soon as the cornflour is added, the mixture will become glutinous. Gradually add a little water, bit by bit. I'd say use half the water first and see if you are happy with the consistency and the intensity of the flavours used in the sauce, and then add more water depending on your preferences. Adjust the seasoning. Finally switch off the heat and add the sliced green onion. Serve piping hot with rice. Enjoy :)

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Search and Seize Missions of my Childhood

My last post about my pickle mania reminded me of my brother’s childhood food fantasies. D took a broader approach than I did, and had a weakness for anything that could be eaten straight out a packet outside of mealtimes. This broad test gave him a very wide catchment area, and captured everything from sweets, biscuits, chocolates, chips and Indian snacks of the “mixture” or “namkeen” variety (as they are variously known in India). It was easy enough for my mother to emerge triumphant in my debate with her over pickle. She simply decided not to buy any more of it. With D, it was different. There was The Problem of the Unexpected Guest, which all Indians reading this will fully empathise with. You had to have a reserve of some snack or the other for The Unexpected Guest, who could come waltzing in through the front door at any time of day. To rush out at that time to the nearest grocery store for some tidbit to serve Him or Her or Them would be embarrassing, and so it was crucial to have a reserve of such goodies at home. D’s view on this was slightly different; he was the sovereign arbiter of the destiny of all goodies at home. The Unexpected Guest did not even feature in his scheme of things.

My brother spent most of his childhood playing a complicated game of hide and seek with our mother. If this evokes a cute image of a mother and son pair playing hide and seek on a sunny Indian afternoon, please banish it from your mind immediately. The subject of the hide and seek game was all the assorted items that fell within his food catchment area.

It started with Mummy returning from grocery shopping with one or more treats meant to be reserved for The Unexpected Guest. She would then proceed to hide them in various obscure corners of her kitchen. On an afternoon when D had nothing else to occupy him (and there were many, many such afternoons. In fact, now that I look back, my childhood seems like an endless series of such afternoons), he would strategically wait for my mother’s afternoon snooze, stealthily pull out a chair from the dining room and perch himself on it to inspect the kitchen for any hidden treats. Much as I enjoyed treats, especially of the "stolen" variety, I did not share his zeal for search and seize missions. I'd throw a few ideas his way, but would invariably get bored and give up after a few minutes. He, on the other hand, would happily spend the better part of an hour carefully inspecting the kitchen, sniffing out goodies.

I have a vivid memory of a particularly successful search and seize mission. We had a very large rice container that innocently occupied a spot under the kitchen table. It may have been desperation or a strong sixth sense developed over hundreds of similar search and seize missions that drove D to dig through it. I remember him squatting next to the rice container, aged around 7 or 8, shiny eyed and victorious, with one arm deep in a mountain of rice, and another one holding up some hidden goodie that he had just unearthed from the container. Mummy of course, looked distinctly displeased after her snooze that day. She was a bit of a sore loser. We never did congratulate her, but I think my brother and I both secretly admired her for this brainwave. We realised that the enemy was a lot more formidable than we had initially thought. Our innocent little steel rice container as a weapon of war. Who would have thought?

Monday, 7 May 2012

In a Pickle

I have long been fascinated by pickles. As a child, if my mother made the mistake of buying pickle, I would tiptoe into the kitchen every now and then and snack on whole spoonfuls of the stuff. It's a mercy that my intestines haven't corroded into nothingness yet with all of that heat, salt and oil. My mother wisened up of course, and pickle become something of a contraband commodity in our household. Pickles reappeared in our home only on the rare occasion that some thoughtful relative from "the motherland" dropped off a bottle. I would then spend the next few days tiptoeing in and out of the kitchen. In my time, I have overseen the end of many a young pickle's life.

My mother's only sister was, and still is, a kitchen diva. She churned out everything from homemade jams to squashes, and pickles of course. I still remember her homemade kadumanga pickle, which looks like this. (Apparently the word kadumanga comes from kadugu (mustard) and manga (mango), translating into mustard-mango. I am not sure I agree with the christening of that pickle - the recipe does call for the use of mustard seeds, but it is not the most prominent flavour in the finished product.) She would carefully wrap bottles of the stuff in plenty of newspaper, tie a rubber band around the contraption to be doubly careful and pack it off with us when we returned from visits to her home.

We Malayalis are such meat lovers that it wasn't long into the history of Kerala before someone came up with the idea of pickling meat. And fish. You'll find everything from chicken pickle to fish pickle to prawn pickle in Kerala. All delicious, without exception. All dangerously addictive. Like my ancestors, and their ancestors before them, given a choice, I tend to go with meat and fish over food of the green leafy variety. So as far as I'm concerned, meat/fish pickle = pickle heaven.

Now, older and (wiser?), a vague sense of the significance of good health compels me to maintain a safe distance from pickles. Life is healthier. But happier? I wonder about that one at a deep philosophical level. Let me spare you my thoughts on that for now.

Coming back to the central theme, my love of pickles prompts me to cook up dishes that are a little sour and a little spicy. They tend not to be as hardcore as your average pickle, but close enough to satisfy stubborn pickle cravings. Here's one that I concocted some time ago using brinjals, a vegetable that I am steadily developing a fondness for. The pictures have been languishing on my desktop for several weeks now, so it feels good to finally upload one of them (even though slightly unfortunate looking).

Brinjal dish-that-has-not-yet-been-christened
(My own recipe)

1 large brinjal (chopped into bite size pieces)
1 tsp methi seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp hing
1/2 red onion (paste)
6-7 cloves garlic (ground)
1 inch piece ginger (ground)
1/2 tsp garam masala powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp kashmiri red chilli powder
1 tbsp peri peri sauce
2 medium tomatoes (pureed)

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a nonstick pan. When hot, add the mustard seeds. When they pop, reduce the heat, add the methi seeds, hing, ginger, garlic and onion paste and fry till the oil separates. Now add the spice powders. Mix and add the pureed tomatoes and the peri peri sauce. Cook for a few minutes till the mixture dries up a little and finally add the chopped brinjal. Cover and cook till done. Serve with rotis. Only if you want to bridge the national north-south divide at a symbolic level must you pair with rice (and then, only at your own risk). 

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

A River Runs Through It

In the autumn of 2008, I packed my (rather voluminous) bags and left Indian shores for London to start work at a law firm here.

I was 22, excited about starting my first job and in retrospect, naïve and entirely clueless! I bumbled along fine though, largely because of the grace of an overactive guardian angel. In what feels like the blink of an eye, four summers have now passed. In a few months from now, I will pack my bags (made even more voluminous in the last few years) once again and move to the other side of the Atlantic to return to student life in chilly Boston.

I have heard great things about Boston from everyone who has ever been - they speak of the city's beautiful fall colours, its delightful restaurants and cafes, and of how charming it can be in the summer. 

The idea of moving on and starting a new life in a new place surrounded by new faces and accents is an exciting one.

Deep down though, I am a mushy sentimentalist, and even with several weeks to go for my move, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the thought that my time in London will soon come to an end.

There are many things that I have come to love about the city. For the foodie in me, it has been my window to the world. It introduced me to food  from places I have yet to travel to - faraway Cuba, Korea, and Vietnam to name a few.  

Comfortingly though, Indian food was never too far away. I found everything from curry leaves to kasuri methi, and even classic Malayali ingredients that are elusive in many Indian cities stashed away in London’s corner stores. London has a fantastic range of Indian restaurants catering to a variety of wallet sizes, and I fully intend to cover the best of these in a later post. Food-wise, I couldn’t have asked for better.

But there are so many other things that I find attractive about London.  I will miss the Covent Garden piazza with its carousel of weekend performers, the hustle and bustle of Borough Market and my hastily snatched office lunches on Whitecross Street. 

I will miss the distinctive blue and red London underground tube sign, which was something of a modern lighthouse for me on the many occasions that I managed to lose my way in a city that I call home.

I will remember jostling with fellow shoppers for groceries at Sainsbury’s, coming to terms with the full extent of my relative poverty at Selfridges and endless exchanges about British weather with friends, colleagues and even strangers. I will remember fondly British wit, and the chivalry and politeness of British men. The places, people, smells and sounds of London that are dear to me are too many to mention here. But I will carry happy memories of them all in a small corner of my heart. I leave you with some images of London that my brother clicked on a recent visit.