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

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

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.