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Sunday, 6 December 2015

Easy Sesame Noodles


These days, even noodles are not free from controversy. The 1990s were a simpler time. As I recall, there were only two varieties of packaged noodles available in Delhi back then - regular Tops noodles that came, straight and thick, spaghetti like, in a rectangular box, and instant noodles, a category led by Maggi noodles, the original "2 minute noodles". As they still do, Maggi came in shiny yellow packets, with two crucial sachets of masala that was tasty enough to make me want to lick the packets clean. 

My mother experimented with Tops on a few unhappy occasions. Spiced up with only the few sort-of-Chinese condiments she had on hand - black pepper, and a bottled chili sauce, the noodles came nowhere close to the Maggi meals of my dreams. For all her genius and perseverance, she never did manage to crack open the secret code to the Maggi masala mix. 

Maggi remained close to heart even as I left Delhi, and ventured to Bangalore for college. It was there that my Maggi consumption really took off. In our second year at college, a couple of generous graduating seniors bequeathed an old hotplate to my room mates and I. Like boxy rotary dial telephones and film cameras, hotplates are one of those contraptions that I never run into these days. A hot plate is literally just that - a coil, atop a metallic base, that heats up with electricity, allowing you to cook a simple meal if you're not in the vicinity of a gas range. 

Strapped for space in our shared room, we stored our hot plate in a cubbyhole next to the door, on top of a lopsided pile of old, discarded copies of The Hindu. That hot plate served us well. It made Maggi more accessible to us than ever before. With no maternal figures around to object to our frequent Maggi consumption, we went all out. Maggi kept us company on the dreariest nights, before dreaded exams and unforgiving project deadlines. 

On days when we didn't have a packet of Maggi in the room, we'd walk down to our favored local hangout - a bakery-cum-snack shop a couple of blocks from campus that sold Maggi by the plate. They sold regular Maggi, vegetable-less, unlike my mother's version which was saddled with chopped vegetables I wanted nothing to do with. They also sold Cheese Maggi - an ingenious variation in which a couple of melting slices of Amul cheese were thrown onto a steaming plate of hot Maggi. 

With all of those childhood and teenage associations, it was disappointing to see Maggi in the news in India earlier this year for all the wrong reasons. At my local Indian store here in the U.S., they're still selling Maggi packets, but I steer clear. 

Luckily, my taste in noodles has evolved substantially since my Maggi days. Here's a recipe that I tried recently. Simple but tasty. 

Easy Sesame Noodles (inspired by this recipe)

1 12 oz pack of egg noodles, cooked in salted water, and drained fully
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
4 green onions, green parts only, finely chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, finely minced (optional)


Method:
Mix all sauce ingredients in a bowl large enough to hold the noodles. If using garlic, I would suggest sautéing in oil in a small pan before adding to the sauce. The version I tried with raw minced garlic, per the original recipe, was too pungent. Add the noodles, bit by bit into the bowl containing the sauce, and combine with the sauce until well mixed. Garnish with the chopped green onions.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Honey Cake



On the East Coast, where I survived a couple of miserable winters, the signs of a new season are hard to miss: foliage in a mess of colors in the early fall, tentative signs of green as spring rolls by, and the first frosty nip in the air on October evenings telling us that winter is near.

Things are different in the Bay Area. The weather throws us no hints. We live under a blanket of fog that rises every now and then, letting some sunlight peek through. It is no wonder that I hardly noticed November creep up on us.

It was the pumpkins, ghoulish expressions and all, outside our neighbors' doors, and the sight of shoppers wearing Halloween costumes and bored expressions as they waited in line at our neighborhood supermarket, that reminded me that the end of the year is near.

Back home in India, out of necessity, my family followed a set of rituals as winter drew nearer. Because our cupboards had no room for bulky winter wear, they were stuffed into a large steel trunk that lay abandoned for much of the year. As winter inched closer, we'd remember our forgotten woolens, and dredge them them up, piece by scratchy piece. One of our shields from the cold was a giant, lumpy, patterned quilt that was consigned to the very bottom of the steel trunk in warmer weather. I cannot remember a time in our lives before the lumpy quilt. In my memory, it has always been around. Over time, bits of its stuffing threatened to come loose from its ends, making for a tragicomic sight. Even so, it stayed true to its purpose, keeping us warm till the end of its days.

There were other rituals, including the cooking of a giant batch of gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa). Winter time in Delhi brings a deluge of sweet red carrots, for which there can be no better use than homemade gajar ka halwa. Every winter, my brother and I pestered my mother endlessly for our gajar ka halwa fix. She'd oblige on the condition that we pitch in on the grunt work of grating a few kilos of carrots. This was before the days of the food processor, and so, it was on our box grater that we relied.

My brother and I would gather in the balcony with a large stock of washed and peeled carrots between us, and start grating furiously. This was hardly our definition of fun. But already, we knew. No pain, no gain. Every now and then, we'd get too excited and grate more than just the carrot. Retiring injured was no fun - it meant that the halwa would remain elusive for just a little longer.

In the kitchen, my mother would dust off the largest and heaviest of her pans, reserved for ambitious, industrial scale cooking projects of this sort. Into it, she'd empty our giant mound of grated carrots, add milk, sugar and ghee, and stir, stir, stir, till everything came together into a rich, red halwa. For the next few days, we'd compete with each other, sneaking to the refrigerator as often as we could for yet another bite.

I did make some gajar ka halwa earlier this year, but that's not the recipe I want to write about. Instead, here's a recipe for a honey cake, rich with the flavors of cinnamon, cloves, allspice and orange. What better way to remind ourselves that the end of this year, and the beginning of yet another one, is just round the corner.

Honey Cake (based on this recipe - I halved the recipe)

INGREDIENTS

1.75 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup honey
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup warm coffee (1 tsp instant coffee dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water)
1/4 cup fresh orange juice (I used store bought)
1/8 cup whisky

PREPARATION

This cake (using the original recipe) can be baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in a 10-inch tube or bundt cake pan, a 9 by 13-inch sheetpan, or three 8 by 4 1/2-inch loaf pans. Having halved the recipe, I used one regular loaf pan and a 9 inch square dish. In retrospect, there wasn't enough batter for both - I would use just a regular loaf pan if I try the (halved) recipe again.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease the pan(s). For tube and angel food pans, line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Make a well in the center and add the oil, honey, sugar, eggs, vanilla, coffee, orange juice, and whisky.
Using a strong wire whisk or an electric mixer on slow speed, combine the ingredients well to make a thick batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan(s). Place the cake pan(s) on 2 baking sheets stacked together and bake until the cake springs back when you touch it gently in the center. For angel and tube cake pans, bake for 60 to 70 minutes; loaf cakes, 45 to 55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, the baking time is 40 to 45 minutes. This is a liquidy batter and, depending on your oven, it may need extra time. Cake should spring back when gently pressed.

Let the cake stand for 15 minutes before removing it from the pan. Then invert it onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Notes: Next time, I might reduce the sugar by 1/4 cup. This cake was a little too sweet for my liking. I'd also add some grated ginger for extra spice. Finally, I couldn't really taste the orange juice, maybe because I used store bought rather than freshly squeezed. Leaving it out and doubling the quantity of whiskey might be one option. This cake is easy to make. Once you assemble the ingredients, it is just a matter of mixing everything up. It does tend to the stick to the bottom of the pan - more so than other cakes, so greasing the pans thoroughly is especially important. 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Homemade Hummus



It took me a while to realize that I've done my pressure cooker a grave injustice by waxing eloquent on the merits of meen chatties in my earlier post. It was only when a dear friend - to whom I introduced the pressure cooker some years ago - sent me a photograph announcing the acquisition of a shiny new pressure cooker, that the need for a more even-handed approach became obvious.

If I had to pick the most versatile piece of cookware in my kitchen, it would be my pressure cooker. Like turmeric powder and Parachute coconut oil, pressure cookers are native to Indian households. In the Delhi apartment complex in which I grew up, a cacophony of pressure cooker whistles at mealtimes was routine. "Prestige" and "Hawkins" may mean nothing to you if you grew up outside India. But I still remember the words, held within red logos, visible despite fading labels on my mother's well-worn pressure cookers.

In many other cultures, though, a pressure cooker is an abomination too loud and risky. Often, I come across bean recipes that call for a long soak followed by a steady simmer in a heavy bottomed pot for 4 or 5 hours. I read these recipes saying "tch tch" in my head, knowing that a pressure cooker can make short shrift of the matter, reducing even the hardiest bean to mush in well under an hour.

Admittedly, the high decibel level makes pressure cookers somewhat unattractive. I've been at the receiving end, having had phone calls interrupted by the mixie whirring at full speed in preparation of dosa batter, accompanied by a whistling pressure cooker, signaling that the potatoes for the masala filling are ready to go. I'd yell "I'm on the phoooone" in protest, hoping my voice would reach my mother in the kitchen, but that rarely worked. I am a good yeller, but it is hard to beat a pressure cooker working in tandem with an equally noisy mixie.

Over the years though, I've come to see the pressure cooker as more than a needlessly noisy piece of cookware. It brings so many comfortingly familiar Indian flavors - spicy chhole, everyday dal, and mutton curries - within easy reach that it is hard not to see it as a bridge between my mother's noisy Indian kitchen and the odd stillness of life in the U.S.

Hummus

1 cup cooked and drained chickpeas (I soaked chickpeas overnight, and then cooked them in a pressure cooker with salt. I once read somewhere that the water in which you cook beans should be as salty as the sea - that is the test I use.)
2 tbsp tahini
juice of half a lemon (or to taste)
salt to taste
1 clove garlic, minced (or two cloves, but I found that to be too garlicky for my taste)

paprika, to garnish
black sesame seeds, to garnish (optional)
best quality olive oil you can find, to drizzle

In a food processor, combine the cooked chickpeas, garlic and tahini. Process until smooth. Add lemon juice and salt, tasting as you go. I added 2-3 tbsp of water at this stage to get to the appropriate consistency.

Now transfer to a bowl. With the back end of a spoon, make a swirl in the hummus, and drizzle olive oil (see picture). Dust with paprika (I used a sieve to prevent lumpy bits of paprika in the hummus) and garnish with black sesame seeds, if using.

I can think of a number of variations, including using some cooked chickpeas for garnish, which will give the hummus some texture. Or you could add herbs e.g. parsley, cilantro etc. along with the chickpeas to the food processor, for instance. 

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Thai Style Fish Curry



Some pieces of kitchen gear are very dear to me. At the top of the list is my trusted pressure cooker, in which thick-skinned lentils, the toughest red meat, and vegetable medleys, all soften under the heavy weight of compressed steam. 

Seafood, however, demands a gentler touch. My grandmother only ever cooked fish curries in a meen chatti, an earthen pot designed specifically for fiery Kerala style fish curries (in Malayalam, fish= meen, pot = chatti). Having learnt from the best, so did my mother. 

So convinced is my family that the best fish curries are cooked in meen chatties that when I first moved abroad, it was with a meen chatti wrapped tenderly in layers of newspaper before being swathed in my heaviest winterwear and packed into my suitcase. My very first experiments in cooking fish were conducted with the aid of that pot. Home seemed so much closer with a meal of steamed rice and fish curry at hand.  

A few years later, however, when I moved to the US, in the rush of preparing for a return to student life, I failed to check-in a meen chatti, with the result that it has been a few years since one has graced my kitchen cabinets. 

New meen chattis are the colour of rust. But that fades over time. My grandmother's chattis, having weathered decades of cooking for a large family, were all different shades of deep brown and black. They're easy to break of course, but will stay loyal for years with a little loving care. My only grouse against their kind is their one crucial design flaw - no lids. This means that one has to make do with lids that come with other assorted pots and pans. This is neither aesthetically nor practically optimal. Some lids are too small, and sloppily slide into the pot at the slightest provocation, dipping into the red gravy. Others are too big, and hang down the sides of the pot, which does not make a happy picture either. The women in my family, being largely unconcerned with the aesthetics of cooking, somehow made do. 

Lid or no lid, one of the things that I have resolved to purchase on my next visit to India is a traditional Kerala meen chatti. In the meantime, in the spirit of those before me who made peace with mismatched lids and pots, I am also making do. In fact, given the frequency with which seafood features in our grocery bags, I use every opportunity to experiment with fish curry recipes. Some don't work out so well. Others do. This Thai-style fish curry was a resounding success. You do need a couple of obscure ingredients, but once you get hold of those, this fish curry is very much within reach, whether you own a meen chatti or not. 




Thai Style Fish Curry (serves two)

Roughly 1 pound fish, around two medium size fillets (I used tilapia) 
3 stalks lemon grass stalks (discard outer most stalks, and use the fragrant inner ones)
1 inch piece ginger, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp chili bean paste
1/3 cup canned coconut milk
2 tsp rice vinegar (or substitute with fresh lime juice)
2-3 tsp fish sauce
1/4-1/2 tsp jaggery (to taste)
1-2 kaffir lime leaves, cut into strips, for garnish (optional)
oil

Rinse fish and cut into pieces of desired size. Set aside.
Chop lemon grass stalks into medium size pieces. Grind with ginger, garlic, chili bean paste, rice vinegar, and fish sauce to as smooth a paste as possible. I used a mortar and pestle.

Heat oil in a pan until it shimmers. Add ground paste and stir for 2-3 minutes till the ginger and garlic are cooked. Now add the fish pieces, jaggery and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Cover and cook for a few minutes until fish is cooked. Finally add the coconut milk. Test for taste, and add more salt or jaggery or rice vinegar/lime juice if needed. Garnish with kaffir lime leaves, if using. Serve hot with steamed rice.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Roasted Red Pepper Tomato and Garlic Pasta Sauce



Today was my favorite kind of Sunday - a day with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The sort of day that generously allows you to dabble in many pursuits. There was a little bit of tennis (which I lost, by more than a little), a little bit of time in the public library, a little bit of time with family on the phone, a little bit of TV watching on the couch and a little bit of cooking. 

In fact, there was hardly any cooking. This pasta sauce practically cooked itself. All I did was quarter a few tomatoes, rinse and dry a shiny red pepper, and drizzle some olive oil on a whole head of garlic. Then, I dumped them all on a sheet pan, cranked up the oven, and went about my business. 

In under an hour, the tomatoes had shriveled to a fraction of their original size, and the bell pepper had turned glossy and slightly charred. Best of all, the pungent head of garlic I started with turned soft and jammy, ready to surrender at the gentlest of pokes with a fork. I popped a clove in my mouth to see what the fuss about roasted garlic on the internet is all about. While I cannot claim that it was "sweet", as some reviewers have gushingly said online, I was pleasantly surprised at the mellow, nutty flavor of the garlic, brought out by nothing more than a splash of good olive oil and some time in the oven. 

The final step is to add some salt and basil leaves, and blitz all the ingredients in a blender. Then the sauce is ready to be tossed with some cooked pasta, parmesan, and if you like some heat, chili flakes. Before you know it, you'll have a generous enough portion of comfort food to dull the pain that comes with the end of good things. 

Roasted Red Pepper Tomato and Garlic Pasta Sauce (serves two)
Adapted from this recipe
Ingredients

4 medium sized tomatoes, quartered
1 medium sized head of garlic
1-2 tsp olive oil
1 red bell pepper
handful of basil leaves 
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degree F. Cut off and discard top quarter of garlic head and wrap remainder in foil. Arrange tomatoes, cut sides up, in a foil-lined 13- by 9- by 2-inch baking pan and sprinkle lightly with salt. Add whole bell pepper and garlic (in foil) to pan and roast vegetables in middle of oven for 45 mins to an 1 hour.

Transfer bell pepper to a bowl. When cool enough to handle, peel pepper, discarding stem and seeds, and transfer to a food processor or blender along with tomatoes.

Unwrap garlic and squeeze roasted cloves from skin into food processor. Add salt and pepper to taste, then blend until smooth.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Spicy Herby Potatoes, Indian Style


The other day, I was flipping through recent recipes on this blog, and realized that the pattern looked something like this: cake, cake, cake, pudding, cake, and cake. Anyone who reads this blog (and I believe there are no more than 5 such individuals, counting myself - my parents, and a couple of dear friends and family who in a moment of misplaced enthusiasm, decided to hit the subscribe button) may justifiably conclude that in our home, dessert makes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. While that would be a dream come true, I can assure you that this is not the case. 

I also realized that while I have waxed eloquent on cakes with some regularity, there is nary a post on the humble spud.

This is a disgrace.

I'll admit that potatoes are full of starch, and cannot a weightwatcher's diet dominate (just like, ahem, cakes). And that with zillions of potato recipes lurking on the world wide web, we hardly need another one. I'll also concede that I cannot claim to be an expert on potatoes, given that we rarely ate them, growing up. Back in Kerala, which is where my family is from, other forms of starch - rice, whole mountains of it, and tapioca - are preferred. Even so, given their versatility, potatoes cooked in a few different ways wound their way into our meals every now and then.

And therein lies the universal appeal of the knobbly tuber, captured better than I ever can in this charming song.

My mother's repertoire of potato recipes is narrow. There is of course, the South Indian potato curry, smothered in mustard seeds and curry leaves, that is an accompaniment to fried puris in South Indian restaurants and homes, including ours. Even though I much prefer chhole, a spicy chickpea curry with my puris, over time, I have come to accept the potato curry as an acceptable substitute. There is also a potato bell pepper side, which was one of a handful of dishes my finicky teenage self would tolerate in my lunch tiffin box.

My favorite potato recipes, however, are those in which it plays a supporting role, true to its humble origins below the depths of the earth - my father's mutton curry in which cubed potatoes melt into the rich onion and tomato gravy, absorbing the flavor and richness of the meat; samosas, in which the flaky crust is at least as much of a star as the potato; and Kerala meat puffs, the mere mention of which is releasing endorphins in my brain.

Today, however, in the potato's debut on this blog, I think it deserves to be cast in more than a supporting role, given how long I have overlooked it. Here's a recipe that uses fingerling potatoes, a blend of herbs, and panch phoron - a Bengali mixture of whole spices. The list of ingredients is modest, there is no technique involved, but as with all things potato, we were not disappointed.



Spicy Herby Potatoes, Indian Style (serves 4)

1.5 pounds potatoes
3 tbsp oil (divided)
salt to taste
2 tbsp panch phoron
2 tbsp ginger garlic paste
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 medium sized onion, chopped
1 tsp red chili flakes
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp chat masala
1 cup mint leaves and 1 cup coriander leaves, ground into a coarse paste
1 heaped tbsp canned tomato paste

Preheat oven to 350 degree C. Scrub potatoes if cooking unpeeled (which is what I did). 
In a large bowl, combine quartered potatoes with salt and 2 tbsp oil. Mix well, and spread in a single layer on a greased baking tray. Bake till cooked through, and the edges are brown, around 20-30 minutes. Set aside. 

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a wide pan. When oil heats, add panch phoron. Stir for a minute or so, till the spices release their aroma. Next add ginger garlic paste and stir for a couple of minutes till the garlic and ginger turn a light golden. Next add tomato paste, coriander powder, chat masala, turmeric powder, red chili flakes, and chopped onion. Stir for 2-3 minutes, until onion is translucent. Add the ground herbs. Taste to check seasoning. Finally add cooked potatoes and stir for an additional 3-5 minutes, until the herbs and spices have coated the potatoes well, and any moisture has dried. Serve with rice or chapatis. 

Note: If you want to avoid baking, you may add the uncooked quartered potatoes at the final stage of cooking to the cooked spice mix. In that case, you may want to cover the lid and cook the raw potatoes in the spice mix for 10-15 minutes, adding water as necessary, until the potatoes are fork tender. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Coconut Basbousa


When I was growing up, a leisurely pre-dinner walk in the early evening, through tree-lined streets criss-crossing the heart of Delhi, was something of a ritual for my parents. With his love of long walks, my father was always the enthusiastic initiator; my mother, the somewhat reluctant tag-along. If I were home with nothing else to occupy myself, I'd end up joining them.  

Sometimes, we ventured in the direction of India Gate, which is magical by night-time, with its lights twinkling against the night sky. In the summer, we'd pass by Kwality ice-cream carts and jamun sellers sat on the road with wicker baskets overflowing with the dark berry. In the winter, they were replaced by hawkers selling freshly roasted groundnuts in their shells. 

Other times, we ventured in the direction of Bengali Market, with its cluster of chaat and sweet shops. Even though it has been years since I've visited Bengali Market, the aroma of frying jalebis wafting through the market is still fresh in my mind. 

Because of my parents' deep distrust of street food, I remained ignorant of the delights of Bengali Market's fabled chaat shops throughout my childhood. Over time, however, they came to allow occasional visits to sweet shops.  

And so, every now and then, on our way home from our evening walk to Bengali Market, we'd stop by the crowded Bengali Sweet House. I'd be called upon to make excruciatingly painful choices from a vast array of sweets displayed behind glass shelves. Decisions made, one of the men behind the counter would disinterestedly weigh the sweets, arrange them haphazardly in a cardboard box, and pass them down to the billing counter, where cash and sweets exchanged hands. Sweets in hand, the journey home always felt longer than it should have. Once home, it took every ounce of self-control I had to resist polishing the entire box off before dinnertime.

My favorite Indian sweets have always been of the juicy, drenched-in-sugar-syrup variety. Rasgullas, jalebis, gulab jamuns - I adore them all equally. When I came across the recipe for coconut basbousa, a syrupy, Middle-Eastern sweet cake made from semolina, accompanied by images of basbousa sitting in a pool of syrup, my mind rewound instantly to memories of Bengali Market and its sweet shops. 

I made a batch of basbousa this weekend. I enjoyed the bits of coconut in every bite, and plan to increase the coconut-semolina ratio the next time I venture to make this. Basbousa makes a good accompaniment to a cup of afternoon chai or coffee. But I certainly wouldn't put it in the same league as my favorite, syrup laden Indian sweets - with all the childhood memories attached to them, they'll always remain in a special league of their own.

Coconut Basbousa (serves 6-8) (recipe from here)

1 tablespoon tahina
½ cup ghee or 100 g, softened 
1 tin sweetened condensed milk   
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups semolina 
1 cup desiccated coconut  
1 cup water  

For the syrup:
1½ cups sugar  
1 cup water  
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon orange blossom water

Method
Grease a 9 inch baking tin with the tahina.
Combine ghee, condensed milk and baking powder and stir well. Add semolina, desiccated coconut and water and stir until well combined.
Pour and level mixture into the prepared baking tin. Bake in a 190°C preheated oven for 35 minutes or until the top becomes golden in color.
Remove from oven and pour all over the cooled syrup. Set aside to cool into a room temperature, cut into diamond shape and serve.

To prepare the syrup: Add sugar and water to a saucepan. Bring to boil and simmer for 6-8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and rosewater.

Notes: Instead of the ghee, I used 1 stick of butter, melted to make brown butter/homemade ghee, which lent the basbousa a nutty flavor. 



Friday, 31 July 2015

Caramelized Pear Upside Down Cake



One of my favorite spots in San Francisco is the Ferry Building. It is hard not to fall in love with the Ferry Building, with its waterfront view, the eclectic range of stores inside, and the opportunities for people watching. For a foodie, the Ferry Building is a veritable gem. It is home to several specialty food stores, including a charcuterie that sells cured meat of all manner, a store that specializes in fine cheese, a bakery that confines itself to gluten free treats, and a couple of stellar grocery stores that stock obscure ingredients I have encountered in few other parts of the Bay Area. 

There's also the mysteriously named ice-cream store, Humphrey Slocombe, with a penchant for bold flavors, including salt and pepper, strawberry black olive, banana chai, and toast and jam. Being outrageously risk averse, I have yet to venture in the direction of flavors that far removed from trusty vanilla. Still, I have to admit that the somewhat unusual flavors that I have sampled at Humphrey Slocombe, including the lemon basil sorbet and the brown butter ice cream, have never disappointed. This might explain why a long line of customers stretching several feet from the counter is a permanent fixture at the store. 

Humphrey Slocombe is only one of many iconic Bay Area stores that revolve around. Another favorite of mine is Berkeley Bowl, where we religiously shopped for groceries every weekend during the few short months that we lived in Berkeley. Berkeley Bowl transforms grocery shopping into an adventure. If it weren't for a fidgety shopping partner in tow, I would have spend hours in its aisles, marveling at the exotic fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and condiments for sale.

But there is at least one San Francisco store, much loved by fellow foodies, that I have yet to visit: Bi-Rite Market. Having heard high praise being lavished on Bi-Rite, when I came across a recipe for Bi-Rite's Upside Down Pear Cake, I knew I had to try it out. 


The idea of an upside down cake has been brewing in my head for some time now. What I enjoy most about baking is the excitement of transforming a pan full of dull batter into something extraordinarily different (and delicious) in a hot oven. Doubling the fun by having a bottom layer of raw fruit melt into a gooey caramelized topping felt like an irresistible idea. 

My original mission was to use juicy peaches or nectarines - among my favorite summer fruit - for the fruit layer. But fully ripe stone fruit can be hard to find in grocery stores. They are sold half-ripe, so you need plenty of patience and a few days, before they are ready to be eaten, raw or baked. 

And so, I settled on using a few deliciously ripe pears as prescribed by the original recipe. For aesthetic reasons, I used thin slices of pears rather than quarters as suggested by the original recipe. I also browned the butter used for the topping, which lent a nutty tone to the pear topping. Next time, I might use chunkier pieces of pear to increase the fruit to cake ratio, because the topping was the best part, and also reduce the amount of butter used in the topping. This is a recipe I will turn to again.  

Bi Rite Caramelized Pear Cake (serves 6-8) (with minor modifications)

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter
3/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
2 1/4 pounds Bosc pears, peeled, sliced, cored 
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup grated peeled Bosc pears (about 2 medium)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Melt butter in skillet over low heat. I used salted butter, and browned and strained it to remove the salty residue. This gave me a delicious nutty flavored clarified butter, akin to ghee. Remove from heat. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Arrange sliced pears in a design atop sugar.

Whisk flour, 2/3 cup sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, ground ginger and salt in medium bowl to blend. Whisk eggs, oil, and vanilla in large bowl to blend. Mix in grated pears. Mix dry ingredients into egg mixture.

Carefully pour batter over pears in baking pan. I used a 9 inch square pan. Per original recipe, 10 inch diameter round pan will also work. Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40-50 minutes. Cool cake in skillet on rack 20 minutes. Run knife around skillet sides to loosen. Place plate on skillet over cake. Invert cake onto plate. When I inverted the cake, there was syrup that I had pooled at the bottom of the cake. This is fine. Let the syrup soak into the cake. Serve warm. 





Saturday, 27 June 2015

Hummingbird Cake


The weekend is here. This means there will soon be friends to meet, long lie-ins to savor, lazy breakfasts to eat, restaurants to dine at, and of course, new recipes to play with. On the less sunny side, there's a long to-do list that demands attention - there are forms to fill, a refrigerator to replenish, plenty of cleaning to be done, an overflowing laundry basket to attend to, and long-pending, much dreaded driving lessons to sign up for.

But on Friday evenings, the to-do list is among the very last things on my mind. The nicest thing about Friday evening is that it is it is strategically positioned at the cusp of the working week and the weekend to come. It is a time to bask in the happy anticipation of the leisure that lies ahead without having to worry immediately about how quickly it'll all pass. It is also a time to look back at the week past, with the realization that things weren't quite as bleak as they looked on Monday. Saturdays are nice too, but they usually come with such a flurry of activity that I am left grasping at the tails of the moments that pass by too quickly.

Looking back at my childhood, though, it is not the Fridays or Saturdays that stand out, but the Sundays, because they were largely all the same. We packed ourselves into our car, headed to Sunday mass, listened (not always very well) to the priest's sermon, before making our way to Gole Market next door for our weekly visit to the Kerala store, where my mother stocked up on Malayali ingredients, and the butcher's, where my father procured a few kilos of chicken for the week. It was on Sunday evenings that I usually remembered things I should have remembered on Friday - like the chart paper we needed for art class, an eraser to replace the one I'd lost, or homework I'd forgotten all about. This, along with a dull feeling of dread about the long week in school that lay ahead invariably made Sunday evenings a miserable time. My father - being an exceptionally patient man - would, without complaint, make a trip to the closest stationery shop to make sure that my poor memory didn't land me in trouble at school on Monday. On some days, even his best intentions could not save me, because it was only at the moment of truth - that is, at the beginning of art class, that I remembered precisely what it was that we were required to bring to class that day. On those days, I'd get an earful from our art teacher (not one of my favorite people, as you're slowly beginning to realize), and be banished to a seat on the cold classroom floor as punishment.


But let's not spoil a good Friday with memories of bad art teachers. In the spirit of happy Friday, here's a recipe for Hummingbird Cake. Only after I'd served the cake did I sense that the measurements for sugar in the recipe were off - the cake was too sweet for my liking. When I went back to my source, super chef Jamie Oliver's book "Comfort Food", I realized that someone on his team had blundered the conversion of measurements from metric to U.S. standard, incorrectly calling for 3 cups of sugar instead of the correct amount, which is around half as much. Luckily, some of the intended recipients of the cake turned out to possess a solid sweet tooth - or considerable tact - and silently munched their way through the cake. Even through all the extra sugar, I could tell that the recipe is a good one. The cake is moist, the crumb is tender, and the cream cheese frosting is exceptional. Next time I try the recipe - with a tad less sugar - I plan to use more pineapple in place of the banana that the recipe calls for. Bananas are good, but pineapples, I think, are even better.

Jamie Oliver's Hummingbird Cake (serves 14) (adapted)

1 cup olive oil (I used vegetable oil)
2 1/4 cups self rising flour
1 level tsp ground cinnamon
1.5 cups caster sugar
4 medium very ripe bananas
15 oz can pineapple chunks (I used a 20 oz can of pineapple rings, reserving 2 rings to top cake)
2 large eggs
2 oz pecans (I used a handful of roughly chopped almonds)

Icing
1/2 cup butter
8 oz packet of cream cheese
splash of lime juice
splash of pineapple juice
2 cups confectioners' sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4. Grease and line two 9 inch round cake tins. Sift the flour and cinnamon into a mixing bowl, then add the sugar and a large pinch of sea salt. Peel the bananas and mash them up with a fork in another bowl. Drain and finely chop the pineapple and add to the bananas with the oil, eggs and vanilla extract. Mix until combined, then fold into the dry mixture until smooth. Finely chop the pecans/almonds and gently fold in, then divide the batter evenly between your prepared tins. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until risen (mine took close to 50 mins), golden and the sponges spring back when touched lightly in the centre. Run a knife around the edge of the tins, then leave to cool for 10 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

Meanwhile, to make the icing, sift the icing sugar into a free-standing electric mixer, add the butter and beat until pale and creamy. Add the cream cheese, finely grate in the zest of 1 lime and add a squeeze of juice, then beat until just smooth – it's really important not to over-mix it. Keep in the fridge until needed. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

In Defense of Puddings

Bread pudding in the making
Puddings, if you ask me, have never received their fair share of acclaim. Rarely have I seen puddings on the dessert menus of snooty restaurants. You'll find a classic chocolate cake perhaps, maybe even a gigantic slice of cheesecake, thumbing its nose at your weighing scale. Ice-cream you'll rarely escape. But puddings? Always neglected. The middle child, when it comes to dessert. As in the world of dessert, so too in the world of language. You may have heard a large person being unkindly referred to as a "pudding", but have you heard of "cake" being used as a slur? Oh no. A "piece of cake" is an easy piece of work, quickly accomplished. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too. Nothing's better than icing on the cake, of course. If it sells easy, it sells like hot... you guessed it... cake.

But when it comes to pudding, the proof is in the eating. Why do we save our skepticism for good ole' pudding?

I, however, have been a lifelong fan of puddings. My mother had two puddings in her dessert repertoire - creme caramel, which we nicknamed, inelegantly but accurately, "egg pudding", and bread pudding. Creme caramel, in all its jiggly glory, remains one of my favorite desserts. I love the custard base of course, and the meltingly soft texture, but most of all I love the caramel at the base of the pan that pools into a delicious, rich caramel sauce at the end of the cooking process. Once my mother had deposited the cooked pudding in the freezer for it to cool down to a tolerable temperature, my brother and I would take turns to open the freezer door every few minutes to check for progress, not realizing that we were hurting, not helping, the pudding with our loving attention. We'd be ordered out of the kitchen, only to return as soon as we could, until the pudding made its way to our tummies, with a brief layover on our dessert plates. 

Bread pudding, which is a firmer type of pudding is also a firm favorite of mine. My mother's recipe is an easy one. Just like we had clever ways to remember the colours of the rainbow (remember VIBGYOR?) and the names of the planets ("My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets"), she had smart ways to remember her pudding recipes. As the mother of perennially hungry children in the pre-Internet era, she had, after all, only her memory to rely on for the list of ingredients. The other day, when I decided to make a batch of bread pudding for friends who were visiting, I found myself scratching my head trying to remember the recipe. I could have sworn it was "1, 2, 3, 4", as in 1 cup of ingredient A, 2 cups of ingredient B, and so on. The trouble was I couldn't remember which ingredient was which. Was it 4 cups of cubed bread, and 2 eggs or was it 4 eggs and 2 cups of cubed bread? With the 13.5 time difference between India and San Francisco, calling my mother to decipher this cryptic code was not a viable option. 

With the luxury of high speed internet, I wasn't left scratching my head for long. I adapted a recipe for bread pudding from The Pioneer Woman's website, and got to work. Overall, the experiment was a success. 

This is a recipe that I will turn to every now and then, not only for the sake of my sweet tooth, but also to rekindle childhood memories, honor`my mother's inventive (but not always helpful) recipe memorization techniques, and to advance the movement for the equal treatment of puddings and cakes. 

Sourdough Bread Pudding (serves 8)

2 eggs
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons vanilla
2 cups half and half (original recipe calls for 2.5 cups of milk) 
2 cups sugar (I used brown sugar, next time I will try cutting down to 1.75 cups)
4 cups sourdough bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
sliced almonds and raisins to garnish (or pecans as per original recipe) 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Beat together eggs, butter, vanilla, and milk. Add sugar and mix until sugar is dissolved. Arrange bread cubes tightly in a nine-inch baking dish. Original recipe asks that the bread be arranged crust facing up around the edges, I did the reverse to make sure the bread pieces absorb as much liquid as possible. Pour liquid over the bread. Sprinkle almonds and raisins (or other nuts) all over and bake for 55 to 70 minutes, or until crust is golden brown all over the top. In my oven, baking time was approximately 60-65 mins. 

This dish was rich enough to not require the whiskey sauce suggested in the original recipe. 

Notes: I reduced the quantity of milk in response to comments from certain readers who had a soggy mess on their hands at the end of the cooking process. Next time, I plan to use the original quantity, 2.5 cups, as I felt the top of the pudding was a little dry, and could have been more moist.  

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Mango and Cardamom Bread

Mango and Cardamom Bread
Every other week or so, we make a detour on our way home from our weekly grocery store run, and turn into a narrow lane with a string of ethnic stores. There's one that exclusively stocks Middle-Eastern products, another one that sells Chinese groceries, and there's an Indian store, which is where we always make a stop. Like others of its kind, this Indian store too, is housed in a modest neighborhood, many streets away from posher addresses in the area. The shop front is small. The only parking for customers is in a small lot next to the back entrance. The owners are Indian immigrants from Fiji, a family of four - middle aged parents and their two grown sons - who've come to recognize me over many visits.  

It is always a quest for an elusive Indian ingredient that takes me to the Indian store. Most recently, I was in search of a mild chilli powder, what we in India call Kashmiri red chilli powder - the sort that adds a rich red hue to curries while sparing us the heat. Red chilli powder, I admit, isn't the most exotic of ingredients. But in the American supermarket that we rely on for our everyday grocery needs, red chilli powder is sold in unsatisfyingly small and expensive mini jars, no taller than my index finger. With the quantities of chilli powder that go into my cooking, I can hardly hope for one of those to last me longer than a few days. At the Indian store, on the other hand, they sell chilli powders by the pound in giant plastic pouches, just the way I like it. 

Another time, I was there in search of kokum, a souring agent used in Indian seafood curries, particularly in Maharashtra and Goa. Growing up, I'd never come across kokum. At home, my mother used tamarind in the sambar that made our masala dosa breakfasts a celebratory affair. The tart edge in her fish curries came from kodumpuli, a pot shaped, mouth puckeringly sour fruit. My first tryst with kokum happened, of all places, in Massachusetts, where my Maharashtrian room mate handed me a generous packet of the stuff that her mother had shipped all the way from Mumbai. I was so thankful for the introduction. To that packet of kokum, we owed several tangy fish curries that we silently devoured with steamed rice at the rickety second-hand dining table in our shared student apartment. 

Several months later, having moved to San Francisco, I searched for kokum at our local Indian store. The husband and wife, joined by the sons, searched the aisles crowded with Indian spices, oils, and ready-to-eat food mixes, for the kokum. They pushed past the asafoetida, searched behind the dried pomegranate seeds, and even hunted a while in their store room. Ultimately, they gave up. They were out of stock.

But a visit to the Indian store never ends in defeat. Surrounded by favorites from my childhood - Roohafza, the rose flavored syrup that made Delhi summers somewhat bearable, Parle-G biscuits that are dunked into 4'o clock chai everywhere in India, fresh bhindi/okra, the only vegetable that I tolerated on my plate as a child, and curry leaves which bring an irreplaceable edge to Malayali food - seconds turn to minutes before I realize it. 

Even though the hunt for kokum ended in defeat that day, I returned home a winner with a large can of mango pulp, which I spotted while aimlessly ambling through the store. I decided to try my hand at an invitingly simple and relatively light recipe for mango and cardamom bread that I found on Vaishali Honawar's website. I added a few tweaks here and there, but stuck to the plot for the most part. We loved the bread. It was like eating mango lassi by the slice. Because the mango pulp was already sweetened, I realized that the bread would have been as delicious with a touch less sugar. That's a note for next time. 

Oh, and the good news doesn't end there. The next time I visited the Indian store, the owner cheerily greeted me as I walked in, announcing that a new stock of kokum had just arrived.

Mango and Cardamom Bread (based on this recipe)

Ingredients

Dry ingredients
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 level tsp powdered cardamom seeds (freshly powdered is best)
¼ tsp salt
Wet ingredients
4 tbsp vegetable oil
¾ cup brown sugar
2 well beaten eggs
2 cups canned, sweetened mango pulp 

To top the bread
¼ cup slivered/roughly chopped almonds

Method
Whisk together the dry ingredients.
In a bowl, mix together wet ingredients until well blended
Fold dry ingredients into the wet, being careful not to overmix.
Pour the batter into a standard 9X5 inch greased loaf pan, add slivered almonds on top, and bake in a 350-degree oven around 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean, or with a few crumbs stuck to it. In my oven, the bread took close to an hour.
Cool on a rack before unmoulding and cutting into slices.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Fish Curry

When it comes to fish, I am unabashedly parochial in my tastes. I have flirted with chowder, seafood pasta of all manner, and steamed fish, Thai style. Every now and then, I will enjoy a meal of fish and chips. But as far as my taste buds are concerned, none of these measure up to a good Kerala fish fry, or a mild fish molee paired with lacy appams. And if I happen to have the good fortune of choosing my last supper, there is no doubt in my mind that it will be the rustic Malayali kappa and meen (fish) curry, which is what my grandparents, and before them, their parents and grandparents would have favored, long before comfort food became fashionable.

Many of my childhood summers were spent vacationing in my grandparents' home in Trivandrum. One especially vivid memory from those holidays is of the weekly shopping ritual in their home. My grandfather, the patriarch, in his half-sleeved shirt and mundu, would round up all of us - those of his children and grandchildren who were visiting at the time. We'd climb into his Fiat and make our way to Palayam market to buy the meat, vegetables, fruits and fish that we would devour over many meals. Once we got to the market, we split up into twos and threes, and headed in different directions to execute this weekly ritual as efficiently as possible.

Given my precocious taste for fish, I'd often accompany my grandfather as he made his way to the crowded fish market. The fisherwomen, with their checkered lungis hitched up, would screechily announce their catch of the day through betel skinned teeth, straining to be heard over the market's everyday din. We stared at the fish. The fish stared back at us out of wicker baskets with their bulbous, unblinking eyes, mouths agape, scaly skins shining in the sunlight. I can't say I enjoyed shopping for fish. The smell of fish was everywhere, and there were too many bodies crammed into too small a space. Inevitably, pools of dirty rainwater, seemingly positioned at strategic spots, would catch us off guard and seep into our Bata sandals. Avoiding the slush involved a veritable game of hopscotch that even the adults joined in, although unwillingly.

My grandfather's responsibilities ended with procurement. It was my grandmother's job to clean, gut and descale the fish. If she was averse to this gory game, she did not make it known. Perched, bird-like, on a wooden seat, she'd attack the fish with a large knife, releasing a spray of fish scales, and proceed to pull out its muddy brown insides before slicing it up into generously large pieces that she'd drop into a clay pot, blackened with age. I watched her, but from a distance. The sight of blood at close quarters made me queasy, but with the benefit of distance, there a delicious thrill in seeing my grandmother - a slight woman - reduce an intimidatingly large fish to pieces.

Job done, she'd work her magic to create a curry, with the sweetness of freshly and painfully extracted coconut milk, the sourness of raw mango, and the aroma of curry leaves.

I'd dive into her fish curry with gusto, and in my zeal, often got tiny pieces of fish bone stuck in my gums. I was rarely fazed by these skirmishes with the food on my plate, and tended to gamely proceed with the battle until the enemy had been comprehensively decimated. My brother and some of my cousins tended to be more practical when it came to their meals. They preferred the more docile chicken dish that would invariably be served alongside the fish, voting for their gums over their tastebuds.

Like many others of their generation, my grandparents weren't a particularly expressive lot. Certainly, they never put into words their fondness for their grandchildren. But the depth of their feelings shone brightly through the food - it was evident in the elaborate meals that my grandmother slaved over in her kitchen, and in the haggling that my grandfather endured to ensure that my vacations always started with a delicious fish curry.

I wish I could say that I have my grandmother's finest recipes noted down in a journal somewhere. Instead, here's a recipe for a fish curry (by no means authentic) that I've concocted, improvising to make up for ingredients that aren't readily available in the grocery store where I pick up my pre-cleaned fish, without any haggling, Palayam market style.


Fish curry 

1.3 pounds of tilapia fillets cut into medium size pieces
coconut oil
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
tamarind pulp, extracted from 1 lime sized ball of tamarind
1 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 small red onion, finely sliced
1 cup canned coconut milk (or more, depending on taste)

To Mince
7-8 cloves garlic
1 inch piece of ginger
1 serrano chilli (deseeded, if you want a mild curry)

Powders
2 tsp turmeric powder
1.5 tsp kashmiri red chilli powder
2 tsp sambar powder

Heat oil. Add mustard seeds. When they splutter, add the fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. Once the fenugreek seeds turn a shade darker, add the minced ingredients. Stir for a few minutes until the garlic and ginger turn golden. Next add the powders and the sliced red onion. Add salt. Cook until the onions turn limp, this should take no more than 2-3 minutes on medium heat. Now add the tamarind extract (and the water used to extract the tamarind pulp - around 1-1.5 cups). Let the mixture come to a rolling boil and simmer for around 5 minutes further. Now add the fish pieces. Cover and cook for a few minutes until the fish is just cooked. Do not overcook the fish. Finally add the coconut milk. Serve hot, preferably with rice. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Because It Is A Log

On good days, random ideas - each a potential hook for a blog post - will float into my head uninvited. I may be watching trees go by outside the window on a crowded BART train. Or scrolling through the daily New York Times cooking newsletter on my phone as I sleepily shovel cereal into my mouth first thing in the morning. Or grocery shopping at Safeway, scanning the aisles for things to drop into an unnecessarily large shopping trolley. Whatever my more immediate pursuit, on good days, the ideas will fly in, thick and fast.

If only things were always like that.
On a "good" day in the Ferry Building, San Francisco
On not so good days, no amount of prodding will coax an idea into my head, let alone from my head to the screen.

One of the things that I have missed most about blogging is recalling the recipes I've experimented with in my kitchen, and remembering that special ingredient, added on a whim to a staple recipe, which had the unexpected result of elevating the end product from "good" to "so much better".

And so, when a friend told me the other day that the word blog comes from the words "because it is a log", it made so much intuitive sense to me, that I fell for that made-up theory hook, line and sinker. In fact - and I can say this with some authority, having looked this up on Wikipedia - the word blog is a shortened version of "weblog". I like the made-up version better. "Because it is a log" has so much more personality than "weblog", which signals, unambiguously, that an internet geek was in charge of christening the invention.

And so, because it is a log, I am delighted to return to this corner on the internet, which gives me the space to succumb to nostalgia every now and then, and to reclaim my (admittedly infrequent) writing habit.

I may have suffered a prolonged bout of writer's block for the last several months, but my kitchen experiments have continued all this while.


In my baking experience, plain ole' yellow cakes are the most fiddly. There's something about the alchemy of ingredients that goes into a plain vanilla cake that makes them tricker than other types of cakes. Having burnt my fingers on a few occasions early on in my baking adventures, I've tended to mostly steer away from the temptation of trying out yet another recipe. But when I got a request for a good ole "bakery style" yellow cake with chocolate frosting, I had the perfect excuse to throw caution to the winds and test yet another recipe.

I finally settled on a recipe from Cook's Illustrated, which came with largely positive reviews from online reviewers and very precise instructions that got me interested. Overall, I can say confidently that this is the most success I have had with a yellow cake recipe. I frosted the cake using the Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate frosting recipe from Hershey's website. The frosting recipe called for such copious amounts of sugar that I chickened out, eventually deciding to halve the recipe. 

Bad call. As with friends, the more the merrier when it comes to frosting. Depending on the cake, icing can be so much more than the cake itself, as in this case. 


One other recent experiment comes to mind. This one has been a runaway success in our home. Have you heard of shakshuka? Simply put, it is a dish of eggs sunny side up on a bed of spiced tomatoes. The bright yellow of the yolks contrasted with the fiery red of the tomato base and patches of egg white make this a natural eye-pleaser.

I remember reading on a blog (I've helpfully forgotten which one) that "shakshuka" sounds like someone sneezing. Isn't that a great description? Not long after, I came across Melissa Clark's version accompanied by a good-enough-to-eat picture of the dish on the New York Times' Food page. So I attempted the recipe in my own kitchen. There were requests for seconds, and soon, every Sunday morning, I was hearing requests for shakshuka before anything else. And that is how shakshuka, which I believe was born in a faraway part of North Africa, became a regular Sunday morning breakfast feature in our home.

Shakshuka in a pan too small for the yolks to reveal their colors
(Moral of the story: make a little well in the sauce for each egg;
 use a bigger pan)
Shakshuka could not be more different than Cook's Illustrated's fluffy yellow cake recipe in that it is more a concept than a precise recipe. As Clark herself acknowledges, there are as many versions of shakshuka as there are cooks who embrace it. In her version, the tomato sauce is a vehicle not only for the eggs but also for salty feta cheese. Much as I love cheese, we tend not to consume very much dairy, and so I typically leave it out, although I can see that adding the feta to the dish is a genius idea. I always use fresh tomatoes, not the canned ones that Clark recommends. Sometimes, I add chopped green chillies for a touch of heat. Sometimes, I substitute the pungent red onions in her version with sweet white onions, if I have them on hand. I use a generous hand with the garlic, often adding twice as much as her recipe calls for. I also sprinkle on some zaatar, a ground spice powder, which I picked up at a Middle Eastern store at Berkeley. And most importantly, I skip the last step of baking the whole thing (although I suspect this final touch significantly improves the results), but only because I do not have in my cookware repertoire a cast iron skillet that will double up as an oven-proof dish. My point is, shakshuka is as forgiving a recipe as they come. And with the basic ingredients for the recipe being pantry staples -  eggs, tomatoes, onions, garlic and oil - there really is no excuse to deny yourself the pleasure of a shakshuka breakfast any longer.

While shakshuka and the fluffy yellow cake were relative successes, there were also some tragic failures. I experimented with a recipe for a delicious sounding syrup soaked Lebanese semolina cake, Basboussa. I boldly substituted the semolina flour that the recipe calls for with coarse semolina, which is what I had on hand. How I wish there were a happy ending to this story. I ended up with a tray of gritty squares. I wound up getting rid of most of it, but not before I vowed to try this recipe another time, with the deference that it deserves. 

On the bright side, now that I have an online record of my irreverence for the subtleties of semolina, I am a little less likely to forget the bitter fruits of my cockiness and suffer a second round of gritty squares. 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A Holiday in Hawaii


Have you watched the movie, Roman Holiday? I have been fascinated by Audrey Hepburn and her movies for as long as I can remember, and of course, it does not hurt to have the dashing Gregory Peck in the frame. It has been a while since I last saw the movie. With a somewhat unreliable long term memory, I am sure watching it again will be like it watching it for the very first time. 

But some particularly memorable shots from the movie are still vividly clear in mind. There's that shot of a Vespa driving Audrey Hepburn through the city (rather than the other way round) to the sound of her delightful squeals. I also remember a scene of her smelling the summer air and languidly enjoying an ice cream cone, and her monologue on the many things that she wants to do on a day off - enjoy coffee in a cafe, look at shop windows, walk in the rain. Of course, those things held special meaning for the princess that she played in the movie. But it truly is the little things that make any holiday special. 


We were in Maui, Hawaii recently on vacation. We did all of the things that Audrey Hepburn wanted to do on her Roman holiday. Except walking in the rain, that is. Inviting a cold which could take a whole week to sneeze off in exchange for a few minutes in the rain has always sounded like a  a bad bargain to my inner pragmatist.

We spent a few quiet hours, as often as we could, in a delightful, if somewhat overpriced, French cafe, Chez Meme Baguette Bistro. They serve up the check inside a book, which I thought was a nice touch. We spent as long leafing through the books as we did demolishing our brunch orders.  

There were other great finds, chiefly the charming 808 Bistro that is decked up in fairy lights at dinner time, making for a magical, twinkling setting in which to enjoy a great meal.  I've had banana bread for breakfast and I have always loved french toast but have never thought of combining the two to make one spectacular meal. Well, 808 Bistro did. They serve up a decadent banana bread french toast that I have resolved to attempt in my own kitchen some day. We couldn't help returning for dinner one night. I had a deliciously creamy (and I could tell, calorie-laden) pasta dish with sun-dried tomatoes which my thoughts continued to obsessively return to every now and then for the rest of the vacation.

We gave local Hawaiian cuisine a shot, but found it somewhat underwhelming.We did enjoy some of the local food trucks though. In fact, our very first meal in Maui, as we made the long journey from the airport to our hotel, was a plate of spicy shrimp and rice at the Geste Shrimp food truck. We enjoyed our shrimp and rice by the water, in the heat of the afternoon sun, with the wind threatening to overturn our flimsy styrofoam plates. It was a messy introduction to Hawaii's food trucks, but every bit worth a war with the elements.

We looked into shop windows, and inevitably stepped into some, parting with more dollars than we would have liked. We did a spot of snorkeling, and discovered a multicolored world that silently chugs on under water. We stepped tentatively into the sea only to have the waves rush out and pull us in entirely. We climbed up a crater, and got as close to the clouds as we ever have.  
Halakalea Crater
We watched the sun go down by the beach. Before we knew it, it was time to head home, but not before we gathered many reasons, each one as beautiful as the next, to return.