Yes He Can!

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The elections are upon us – the elections back home in India, that is. And the people have spoken…or are in the process of speaking. Speaking up against the corruption and the utter lassitude that has engulfed us over the last 8 years. Corruption and inaction are steadily eroding away the gains of the last 2 decades, corroding away the shine of the India story.

It’s a shame – especially when I meet smart, hard working and talented young men and women, people with big dreams and a fire in the belly, a determination to succeed…often stopped in their tracks by the very system that should be facilitating their success.

But there is hope  - one hopes. And there are stories that give me joy…even the smallest simplest story sometimes offers a heartening glimpse into what could be the future of our country, a set of attitudes that could take us to where we want to go.

So here’s a little story then….

Last month I was back home in India, attending a close family wedding. Now a Punjabi wedding is an all out 360 degree experience with non stop revelry for almost a week preceding and following the main event. The bride and groom are only an excuse for the clan to get together and catch up on the happenings in the lives of those bound by blood or marriage.

My family and I stayed at a nice hotel close to the groom’s house – we’d party till 5 am everyday, roll out of bed at noon, eat brunch (because we slept through the buffet breakfast), get dressed, and  step out again for the next round of festivities.  One `morning’ I called room service and asked for pancakes. They arrived in due course, on a nice trolley with beautifully starched napkins..but when I looked at the plates I was aghast! They had the look and texture of discs of raw dough! There’s no way we could have eaten them. Oh dear – I had to call room service again and re-order…and when they arrived…horror of horrors! The dough discs were a shade more cooked than the previous batch, but still inedible. Sigh…if that’s the best they can do, well that’s the best they can do…I don’t like to make a fuss, and we were pretty much starving by then, so we just had some tea and biscuits  from the in-room hospitality tray and decided to forget about breakfast/brunch/whatever.

Phone rings;

SS (me): Hello

CS – Madam this is Chef Sumit. I’m told there was a problem with the pancakes. What was the problem ? Are they okay now?

SS (thinking..oh no. This is embarrassing) – Um yes. They were completely raw, and cold, like they were uncooked.  Even now these are only a shade better but we can’t eat them.  No worries – but tell me as a matter of interest, do you cook them from frozen or from a batter?

CS – We absolutely make these from fresh batter. Please – let me send you another batch.

SS – No no. We’re okay. We’re going out now. No problem.

CS – Are you here tomorrow? I’ll see you at the buffet breakfast – please, please do come. And I’ll make you the best pancakes you have ever eaten in your life. Please let me prove it you. I have to show you I can make pancakes.

Well, wow! I’m usually grouchy when I haven’t eaten breakfast but this guy’s enthusiasm made me smile.

Next morning, 9 am, phone rings.

SS (sleepy and hung over) – Hello

CS (bright and cheerful) – Good morning Madam. This is Chef Sumit. Just to let you know I’m in the breakfast room and will be waiting, so whenever you are ready. And believe me, these will be the best pancakes you have ever eaten.

Oh dear. Have to get dressed quickly and go down. Now I’m stuck.

And there he was  - caught my eye the minute I walked into the breakfast room. A personable young man who quickly took charge of the pancake station and whipped up a batch for the family. And wow – they were good. And yes, almost the best I have ever eaten. The man kept his promise. And we had a lovely chat. And I came away with a great tip for my home pancakes.

The pancakes were super, no doubt – but what really impressed me and stayed with me was Chef Sumit’s dedication to his craft, his desire to get it right, his quest for perfection…these are the the hallmarks of a person destined to go places. And guys like him are the `aam aadmi’ who keep the wheels of the country moving…the men and women who do good work and take pride in what they do. And they deserve better. Better leadership, better opportunities, and hope for a better future.

Almost forgot – this blog always ends with a recipe or a foodie thing right? So here we are, with a wholewheat pancake recipe. You’ll find they’re a bit denser than those made with plain flour, but that’s the way  it is for wholewheat anything, and it’s a compromise I’m willing to make. And  a breakfast food that used to be a sinful treat has actually become a weekend staple!

HEALTHY WHOLEWHEAT PANCAKES

* 2 cups whole wheat flour (I’m guessing this would work with atta also). I often use self raising wholewheat flour, in which, you’ll need to eliminate the next ingredient which is baking powder.

* 4 1/2 tsp baking powder

* 1/2 tsp salt

* 2 tsp cinnamon

* 2 tsp sugar (Don’t be tempted to add more. I’ve done it, and the pancakes caramelize too quickly, even before they are fully cooked).

* 2 egg whites, whipped until soft peaks form. This was Chef Sumit’s special tip. And it really makes a difference in the fluffiness of the end product. What to do with the 2 leftover yolks? Why, make mayonnaise of course!

* 2 cups + 2 Tbsp skimmed milk

* 2 tsp vanilla essence

* A good quality non stick or cast iron griddle/tava

* Butter – if your griddle/tava is good (as in non stick or well seasoned iron) you don’t need more than a small pat per pancake.

* Lots of lovely toppings  your family can choose from – marmalade, jam, maple syrup, Nutella, condensed milk, cinnamon+brown sugar…

Not the prettiest picture, but I had to show you this. If you use more butter, you get a characteristic traditional `lacy’ pattern on the pancakes as on the left and top. Less butter and you get a more even brown surface, as in the one on the right. You choose.

- Using a whisk, mix the dry ingredients in a bowl.

- Add in the wet ingredients and gently mix. Needless to say the egg whites are prepared right before you  actually need them. Let them sit around and you’ll lose all the lovely air bubbles you’ve incorporated into them.

Just whisk the batter a few times until it comes together and you can’t really see the lumps. Over-whisk, and your pancakes will be hard and tough. I still need to figure out the science behind that, but yes, it does. I know. I’ve done it.

- Heat griddle to medium-high. Pop a bit of butter on it and grease the sections you are going to drop the batter onto.

- Ladle out 1 (or multiple) dollops of batter onto the pan. No need to spread – the batter will spread as much as it needs to.

- In half a minute or so, you should see holes on the surface of the pancakes, and the edges drying out. This is the time to flip them over. I don’t try any fancy chef’s tricks here and flip the pan- I just use a spatula. With my h-e-a-v-y iron griddle, I might crack some wrist bones if I tried flipping it.

- In about 15 seconds, the pancakes are ready. Take them off the pan, pop them onto a plate.

They’re really versatile – if you’re pampering someone, serve it right onto the plate, nice and hot. If everyone wants to eat together, put them onto a serving dish, cover with a lid  to keep them warm while you prepare all the rest. If you have too many leftovers, freeze them – thaw and microwave for a delicious encore.

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I like my pancakes quite brown. I think it’s a cultural thing – if it’s white it’s probably raw…not necessarily correct, but there you are

A slave to good taste

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I’m not easily shocked. But today I was – when I read that Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, has admitted that everyday, every single day, it throws away 66% of its salads and 48% of it’s bread. I’m pretty sure Tesco is not unique in this respect – all supermarkets do it, restaurants do it and certainly people do it at home. And it’ s not limited to the rich world where there’s supposed to be enough to go around and one can `afford’ to be wasteful. In developing countries like India 30-50% of fresh produce and foodgrains go to waste because of the lack of infrastructure – roads, cold chain transportation, warehousing facilities. It’s a crime. Against humanity.

It was not always like this. Long ago (and not so long ago in some parts of the world), humans were close to the source of their food – growing it, killing it or buying it from close by. Food was grown, traded and eaten (perforce) according to climate, geography, trade, society and history. In a good year, each of these elements worked in beautiful harmony to provide people with sustenance. In a bad year…well, things could get really bad.

One superb example of this harmony at work is a very interesting food product – Lardo di Colonnata. Translated from Italian – Lard from Colonnata. Si – you read right – lard. Also known as pork fat. I can almost see some of you grimacing – lard?!!  Yuck!!  I know – that’s a typical reaction.  But we’ll get to the taste…first, there’s a story to be told.

Colonnata is a very small village high in the Tuscan hills in Italy. It lies within the Carrara area which is best known for its marble. It is a well documented fact that Michaelangelo sourced most of his marble for  his exquisite sculptures from around here.  In fact the town’s piazza or main (and only) square, the one in the pic below, is actually fully paved in marble! In most parts of the world, Carrara marble flooring  is synonymous with luxury….

It was pouring cats and dogs the day we visited Colonnata...we were literally the only people there...and a cafe owner wanted to know how we had gotten there because the town had been cut off from the outside world for 5 days because of landslides

It was pouring cats and dogs the day we visited Colonnata…we were literally the only visitors there…the owner of the trattoria where we ate lunch wanted to know how we had gotten there because the town had been cut off from the outside world for the last 5 days because of landslides

The hillsides of Colonnata are very rocky, the soil is poor and not much grows there except for chestnut trees. Because of this, the land cannot feed cows or goats. Pigs love chestnuts however, and can live on them.

So where is this leading? Well the ancient Romans were interested in Colonnata only for its marble – all of which went into constructing their beautiful villas and sculptures.  And guess who mined the marble? Slaves – of course. It was brutal and harsh work and slaves lived short and nasty lives. But of course they had to be kept alive so they could work, right? And voila! That’s where lardo comes in.

The land grows only chestnuts. Pigs eat the chestnuts, The delicious meat of the pigs goes to the masters and the slaves are left with the fat. So what do they do? They get  inventive. Huge vats are carved out of marble, and are filled with brine. Into it are added garlic, rosemary and salt. And in go blocks of pig fat. Steeped in that mixture, left in a cool and dark cave, reacting with the calcium carbonate of the vat, the fat is cured and flavoured slowly and emerges a couple of months later as a delicious slab of Lardo. It’s perfect for the era and the situation – cheap to produce, never spoils, eaten with simple bread, and is high in calories – just the kind of food you need to work long unpaid hours in underground caves, hacking at and hauling stone. To see how it typically  looks in situ, before it reaches the table, click here

A close up look - wafer-thin slices of Lardo do Colonnata

A close up look – wafer-thin slices of Lardo do Colonnata

Typically, lardo is served in the simplest way possible – with bread and wine. Usually as a starter or as part of an antipasti platter with other cold cuts of meat. I’ve heard it is also a very swish pizza topping in some restaurants in the US and London, but I haven’t been to one of those yet.

And the taste? I have to say the only barrier is in the mind. Not like what you’d expect fat, pork fat to be. It’s refined, not raw. Silky, not unctuous. Fragrant, not bland.  Musky and intense, almost melting on the tongue. Like the best butter you never had. It’s a treat, and a very satisfying one at that. Twice or thrice a year for me, tops. Beautiful.

How does slave food become gourmet?

Bet the slaves never had it so good…

A Taste of Home…or atleast what feels like it

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Existential question – what is home? I am of course, not the first, the only or the last to ask this question. Mostly, home is a place, at other times it is also a geographical space. Home is most definitely people. Often home is sensorial, a feeling that transcends time and space – a song, a smell, a taste.

Sometimes again, home is all of these, or none of these at all. Often, it is more than one place – when I’m There, I feel like I never left, and when I’m Here, it feels like I always belonged. Each one of us carries our own definition inside us and even that changes over time and situation.

Much has happened over the last few weeks – most important in this context, I’ve had a housewarming party; after 6 moves, that is a ritual that tells me “This new place is my home, and I need to build my life here”. School has been a mad rush of parent meetings and moms’ coffee mornings and when I meet a whole load of new people one of the  inevitable questions I get asked is `So which was your favourite country to live in?’

Quite honestly, I don’t know how to answer that. I leave a little bit of my heart everywhere. Myanmar gave me magical moments to spend with my new baby, Vietnam introduced me to a whole new world of culinary delights, India offered me fresh perspectives on my own country, Belgium was a totally new way of life, and Italy was well, just Italy. How does one even choose…I lost myself and found myself in each of them.

In contrast to those places, England feels almost like home. And it’s not just the language. Social mores, manners, rituals, houses and architecture have a familiar look and feel to them. Of course there’s going to be a lot to discover, and that is a journey I’m looking forward to, but we Indians and English did not live together for 200 years without rubbing off on each other a great deal. I can even see why we got on so well…but that is another story, for another time.

For the moment, it is Italy that inspires a touch of homesickness. I miss the food, the coffee bars, the Prosecco, the Spritz on the Rinascente terrace, and the Tiramisu. Oh yes the Tiramisu, that very Italian dessert, the one that is impossible to make in small quantities (or eat in small quantities for that matter!). Surprisingly, even in Milan, the quality of tiramisu can vary greatly – from sickly sweet to blandly lukewarm cream.

The perfect tiramisu needs to be (in my non-Italian, non-professional opinion!) `balanced’ – creamy without being unctuous, chilled without being semi-frozen, coffee-ish without being bitter, moist without being soggy, fluffy without being frothy. Too much to ask?

My search for the elusive `perfect’ tiramisu came to an end when I tasted one prepared by my friend Gemma, who is Korean, married to an Italian and has lived in Italy for a couple of decades. It was love at first spoonful – me and the tiramisu that is. Gemma is a kind and lovely person and she was generous enough to share her recipe and her tips with me. I always thought a dessert as exquisite as tiramisu was difficult to make and normally I’d be terrified to attempt something that seems so complex – but it turned out to be so simple. Really simple. And perfect each time. Never as good as Gemma’s but still pretty decent.

So here is the recipe, to share with you. The proportions are for 8-10 portions but I think it can easily be halved, although I have not tried it.

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GEMMA’S PERFECT TIRAMISU

  • 500g Mascarpone cheese
  • 3 large eggs
  • 500 ml fresh strong coffee (I’m guessing you could use instant coffee also…though it will be less flavoursome)
  • 2 tbsps rum (NOT if you are planning to serve it to kids : ))
  • 9 tbsps white sugar (or 8 or 10 depending on your taste buds. Remember it will taste less sweet once it is chilled)
  • Bitter/unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Savoiardi cookies / ladyfinger biscuits (approx 2 packs). Basically enough to make 2-3 layers, depending on the dish you will use to prepare it in. I know someone who uses fingers of lightly sweetened sponge cake as a substitute but I have not tried it.

Quite important – a dish in which the dessert will be layered. Think lasagna, and choose a large square or rectangular dish in which you can prepare 2-3 layers. I like to make 2 layers because 3 makes each serving quite `tall’ and therefore a little fiddly to serve out. But some people are more dextrous than others, so you can choose what works for you.

  • In a food processor beat whole eggs with sugar until the mixture is light and creamy and smooth.
  • If you have a whisk attachment, whisk it for a few minutes so it is even more light and airy. My new toy, my xxx brand kitchen machine does this wonderfully but my marketing savvy teen has prohibited me from endorsing brands unless I am paid for it…
  • Then add Mascarpone cheese, beat again until there are no lumps.
  • Mix the coffee and rum  (if using) in a glass or small jug that is atleast as deep as the Savoiardi biscuits are long. That’s important because at the next step, speed is critical.
  • Quickly dip the Savoiardi biscuits in the coffee one by one and layer the bottom of your dish, keeping the biscuits close to each other to form a seamless layer (break /cut some of the biscuits if needed to get a tight fit. If you dawdle, the biscuits become soggy in an instant and fall back into the coffee! You know like when you dip your biscuit into your tea and it falls in? Yuck!
  • Cover the biscuits with a layer of the mascarpone mixture (Not too thick or thin – eyeball the mixture to see that you have enough to make the 2 or 3 layers that you plan). Don’t worry if the mascarpone looks slightly runny at this point – it will thicken and set  as it sits in the fridge.
  • Lay out another layer of the savoiardi biscuits, working quickly and carefully to cover the mascarpone.
  • End with a layer of mascarpone, and voila! You are done.
  • Chill uncovered in the refrigerator for 8-24 hours. Before serving, sprinkle the cocoa powder liberally over the top.
  • Cut  or spoon into generous servings, and sit back and enjoy the luscious flavours of an Italian classic.

The Joys of Minimalism

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A new space, a new place, a new time in my life – I’ve moved. Again. That is why this blog has not seen much action lately.

Relocating is fun. And stress. Stepping out of your comfort zone, leaving behind all that is known and understood, discovering the new and strange, starting to form relationships all over again…it’s familiar and new, all at the same time.

But until I start my new life, there’s an intervening step – transit. Living in a small 2 bedroom serviced apartment until the house is ready for us. It’s got all the essentials – but just. 4 plates, 4 sets of cutlery, 2 cook pots…you get the drift.

My cooking nowadays therefore, is minimalistic. A little bit like playing `house’ . I don’t want to run out and buy a whole bunch of ingredients, spices and sauces …and when your kitchen is multi-cuisine, you need loads of those! So I make do with the basics. Simple ingredients that deliver fresh, healthy yet enjoyable ( I think!) meals that satisfy my family as they return `home’ each evening, having spent the day dealing with the strangeness of their office/school and looking forward to the wafting aromas that make them believe, if only for a while, that life is normal again.

`Friendless’ in the city,  thinking of good friends and good times spent together is food for the soul. Here then, is a quick n easy  fish recipe – something I learned from a dear friend of mine, Marian. It’s a favourite in my house and I cook it often, especially when I have a busy day and only a little time to spend in the kitchen. Try it, enjoy it and savour the joys of simplicity.

FISH A LA MARIAN (Serves 4. Cooking time 30 mins, of  which kitchen time is 5 mins)

* Salmon fillets – approx 800 gms (or any fish, I’m guessing. If you try it with another variety, do let me know how it turned out)

* Stock cubes – 2 (I used chicken stock, but I think vegetable or fish would also work well)

* Olive oil – 1 tbsp

* Lemon – 1, juiced

* Black pepper powder – to taste

* Fresh parsley (or coriander) – 1 big bunch, chopped roughly

* Water – 2 tbsps

* Salt – optional (the stock cubes would usually provide all the salt you need, and you can always add salt at the table)

Getting all the ingredients together...

Getting all the ingredients together…

- Crush the stock cubes and mix all the ingredients together, except the fish (save some of the parsley for later – that’s one thing I forgot to do)

- Arrange the fish in an oven dish, pour the marinade over, and cover tightly with foil. Let it marinate in the fridge for 30 mins upwards (as much time as you have…).

Easy peasy. Don't worry if your stock cubes look a bit grainy...they'll be okay in the end

Easy peasy. Don’t worry if your stock cubes look a bit grainy…they’ll be okay in the end

-  Take the fish out of the fridge for atleast 30 mins before you pop it in the oven – otherwise you might crack your baking dish (Cold dish, hot oven…Apologies if you know this already -I am sure you do. This is for the benefit of some of my young readers who are just starting off  on their culinary experiements).

- Heat the oven to 200 degrees centigrade. Pop the fish (with the foil cover on) in the oven and bake for 25-30 mins.

- Scatter over the fresh parsley,  and serve hot with some warm bread, cous cous or rice. Enjoy!

Ok - this would have looked a lot prettier if I'd  a. Kept some fresh parsley aside for the garnish b. Had better lighting in the apartment c. Not been so hungry as to not take take the time to wipe out the baking splashes before photographing and serving

Ok – this would have looked a lot prettier if I’d
a. Kept some fresh parsley aside for the garnish
b. Had better lighting in the apartment
c. Not been so hungry as to not take take the time to wipe out the baking splashes before photographing and serving. But I know you’ll forgive me…

A Wordy Accomplishment

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Oh – there was a new one last week. A new word that is. Teo’ing – the art of posing with an imaginary friend. Named for a footballer called Manti Teo who cooked up a Bollywood-style sob story about a dead girlfriend and a dead grandmother …funny that.

I’m not a linguist but I’ll wager the number of new words that have come up in the last 10 years possibly outnumber those of the last 50 years. The rise and accessibility of new technologies is a major driver – `google it‘, `whatsapped you‘ and `unfriended‘ are  common parlance. Another stimulant of new words is the  general loosening of what used to be called `conventions’ in every area of life – clothing, relationships and even language as we used to know it. So here we have jeggings, mankinis (ewwwww!), metrosexuals, frenemies, LOL and `sup?.

But of course you know all of that already.

In my home, my fount of knowledge is of course the kids. Mom has something new to learn everyday, keeping her young, foolish and full of wide eyed wonder. I can proudly claim that I know what a doofus is, I can laugh at a fail that happened in class, can intelligently pwn someone and OMG is so like totally…I mean just so totally…

But I have to admit I struggle with emo and I took quite some time to figure out BFF (we used to have a BF or a GF, life was that simple) and absolutely forbade my teen from going planking once I understood what it was (or maybe I just didn’t `get’ it).

What I cannot understand is `meme‘ – I have been seeing this word here and there for a year or so, and tried to kind of ignore it for a while. But when I saw it on the Facebook page of a 12 year old, I knew I had to swing into action. My wise teen tried to explain it to me in two different ways but seeing my dim expression, gave up with a shrug. So off I went, googling it. Ah – so here’s what it is – an Internet trend in which people add their own captions onto photos, giving it their own interpretations, and …then… well…that’s all…huh? Bad Luck Brian is a pretty well known example of it…you savvy? Ashamed to say I still don’t.

But I am mom! And I always have a few tricks up my sleeve. I can do a meme in the real world! It came to me when we visited a new restaurant that opened up in my little corner of the world. My village has some 2 1/2 shops so the opening of a very typical Italian pizzeria / trattoria was very welcome indeed.

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A medieval farmhouse stands in the centre of my village

I had a most wonderful fish there one night and decided I was going to do my own interpretation of it – my very own meme! It was light and delicious and cooked with round sliced potatoes and I really enjoyed it. It was only a few weeks later on a trip to the wonderful city of Bologna that I figured out it had been cooked in the Bolognaise style – they serve potatoes with everything! It’s a city with many nicknames-  La Dotta (the Educated – for its ancient universities), La Rossa (the Red – for its red rooftops) and La Grassa (the Fat – for its fantastic food). All true.

But I digress. Sharing with you, my super easy and super delicious Fish Meme.

FISH MEME (Prep time 15 mins, cooking time 30-45 mins, hands-free)

* Fish fillets (any white fish would do) – 1-2  fillets per person

* Potatoes – a few, peeled (or not) and sliced into thin roundels. Not as thin as potato wafers, but not enough to qualify as medium thick…

* Olive oil – 2-3 tbsps (or more, or less if you like)

* Salt, pepper and paprika

* Lemon wedges to serve

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My veggie friends…this is a good time to look away ; )

- Preheat the oven to 190 degrees centigrade.

- Lay out the fillets in an oiled oven dish, sprinkle with salt and pepper.

- Cover with the potato slices, overlapping the edges. Drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and pop into the oven for 30-45 minutes.

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- Check occasionally to see how the dish is doing. I suspect cooking times would vary quite a bit depending on the potatoes, the thickness, the quantity of oil used and of course the oven itself.

- When the potatoes are done (they’ll be soft in the centre and crispy about the edges), bring it out of the oven, sprinkle some paprika onto it, add on some lemon wedges, and enjoy! Low fat, delicious and easy – how ah-some is that?

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Strengthening my resolve?

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I’m not a great one for New Year Resolutions. I have All Year Round Resolutions instead…little goals that keep me motivated and on my toes…writing a blog was one of them!  Apparently the tradition has roots that are old and deep in the Christian world. The ancient Babylonians made promises to their Gods, as did the Romans and the others that followed. It also links strongly to a tradition of Lenten fasting and sacrifice. A new year is a time to reflect, to cleanse, and work on the inner self (and often on the outer one as well…sigh)

`Statistics’ shows that 88% of New Year Resolutions fail – so I’m not taking any chances. Instead of the ever-popular `lose weight’ I decided to start my new year with an indulgent treat, something I’ve only ever seen in Italy and have never tried before – an ice cream sandwich.

Brings to mind a vanilla rectangle encased in 2 biscuits does it? Aha – in Sicily it does not! It is exactly what it says on the tin – a brioche con gelato IS a sandwich filled with gelato. Italians love to indulge their sweet tooth at breakfast and this really takes the cake..er..sandwich. A bun filled with generous dollops of gelato – eaten at breakfast, or any time of the day. What a mad idea! Wow. Only in the land of the dolce vita.

Typically, this is what it would look like (Pic: http://www.newyork.seriouseats.com)

I tried a hoity toity version of the same – this is Milan remember? We Milanese need to be stylish about everything we do. So a simple brioche con gelato becomes a pannetone con gelato – a mini-pannetone gelato sandwich. You remember my blog about Pannetone, the Italian Christmas bread? No? Ok – here it is.

So – here it was. A mini-pannetone, with a cone artfully scooped out of it, and filled with two flavours of your choice of gelato. In Italy they `look’ at you if you order just one flavour…honest! I am an out-and-out  dark chocolate girl but was in a mood to pander to L&M’s whims that day, so we chose  two fruity-nutty  flavours – clementine and sweet almond gelatos as the filling.

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Divine? Right.

How did it taste? Just absolutely completely divine. Really, a cone does not even come close. It was all about texture and mouthfeel. Cold gelato, room temp pannetone. Melting gelato countered by chewy bread. I have to admit, I’m totally craving it. I don’t know how I’m going to keep myself away from that gelateria the next time I pass by…hmm…now THAT is a New Year’s Resolution worth making and keeping.

From Russia with love

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I was walking along the supermarket aisle a couple of weeks ago when I saw it. I stopped dead in my tracks, looked at it, read the label carefully, looked again, and burst out laughing. I did draw quite a few stares, I can tell you! `Pazzo’ I heard someone whisper. So what did I see?

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Russian salad! That staple of dinner parties of the 70′s! I don’t think I’ve seen it in over 2 decades (or maybe I’m living in a cave). Why was I astonished and why did I laugh? Because it brought back a whole lot of memories, and a big fat realization (yes-pun intended) of how our lives and eating habits have changed.

When I was a child, Russian salad was very much `party food’ – mom and the cook spent hours dicing and boiling vegetables and whipping up a rich mayonnaise dressing. The veggies and mayo were then combined, chunks of tinned pineapple added, chilled for a couple of hours and voila! Magic! An accompanying dish might be hot dogs – 70′s style, with the sausage and the buns deep fried, wrapped in a napkin and dunked in ketchup! Oh heaven would taste like this.

Russian salad brings back all this and more – two little girls in cool cotton nightdresses peeping from behind the curtains as Abba and Status Quo play at full blast, while the adults dance and drink and eat, the air thick with fragrant cigarette smoke. One raised eyebrow from mom sends the girls scurrying off into their room, collapsing on the bed in peals of  giggles. The little girls yearn to grow up quickly and be a part of this glamorous adult world …that they did, but times changed. A lot of information came their way. They danced and drank and had many friends, but lived in horror of fat and cholesterol and smoking in the house … was it good? Or did they miss out on the innocent and decadent pleasure of eating without having to think? Don’t know.

Snap back to 2011. Girl becomes woman, defines herself as wife and mother, and makes lunch sandwiches for L&M (for those who came in late – that’s Lord and Master). Thinks about how she could make it healthier and hey – why not home made mayonnaise? No preservatives, healthy ingredients and loads of flavor! And so starts a journey of experimentation, which results in a formula that works perfectly – each time. For her. And that, for a delicate food product like mayonnaise, is good.

Trust me, once you have made your own mayonnaise you will not enjoy the store-bought one.Commercial brands of mayo are great, make no mistake, but it’s not the same. I do not dare make or eat Russian salad, but mayo is quite often my choice of sandwich spread. It often (unfairly) gets the rap for being unhealthy and fattening.  I will just say 2 things in it’s defence -

1. As with all good things, portion control is essential. If you spread a thin layer (about 1 Tbsp) on your bread and then load up with veggies/chicken/whatever,it should be okay. Coddle your fillings in it, and you’re getting more than you should eat.

2. With  home made mayo, you know what you are putting in. In this recipe, it is olive oil. Not saturated fats like in commercial products. Not saturated fats as in butter. And loads of flavor so a little bit goes a long way. And if you think home made sandwiches are better than commercial ones anyway, we’re speaking the same language!

So without further ado, let’s jump right in!

SHRUTI’S HOMEY MAYO (Prep time 5 mins, cooking time 10 mins + some patience and a steady pair of hands)

* Egg yolks – 2 (I use an egg separator but it’s also easy to do if you just crack open the eggs and transfer the yolk from one half of the shell to the other a few times. I use the whites for a delicious and healthy omelette). It is absolutely essential that the eggs be at room temperature. As anyone who bakes knows, eggs that are cold tend to curdle as soon as they are beaten.

* Olive oil – 200 ml (Just good quality olive oil, NOT extra virgin. It tends to be bitter and your mayo will not taste good)

* Vinegar/white wine vinegar – 1.5 tbsps (if your vinegar is really strong maybe 1 tbsp would be enough. Mine is pretty mild)

* Mustard powder – 2 tsps (This is optional – I like strong mustardy mayo. But if you don’t just leave it out or reduce the quantity)

* Salt – 1/2 tsp

* A very tiny pinch of sugar (to balance the tartness of the vinegar)

* An electric whisk / egg beater. I suspect a blender would also work, but I’ve never tried it. In the old days they used a manual egg whisk – respect to all those cooks! What strong arms, what oodles of patience and what a love of the craft they must have had.

* A jug or a small teapot – basically a utensil that would allow you to control the flow of oil and you could pour it out drop by drop

So what’s next?

- Put egg yolks into a deep bowl and add the salt. Using the electric whisk , best the egg yolks for about 2 mins. This is going to form the base of your mayonnaise.

- Now comes the critical part – while running the electric whisk, pour in the oil DROP by DROP into the egg yolk. In scientific terms, what you are doing is emulsifying the mixture. i.e., breaking up the oil into microscopic droplets and integrating it into the yolk. You will see a rich yellow mixture in the bowl now.

Sorry people - there's now way to make this look appetizing and non-gooey

Sorry people – there’s no way to make this look appetizing and non-gooey

- At this stage it’s really tempting to let go and start pouring the oil in. Don’t !! The mayo will curdle, leaving you with long oily streaks instead of a homogenous mixture. If you are using a hand held beater (as I do) and are getting tired, stop and rest … nothing drastic will happen to the mayo.

- Continue pouring it drop by drop until the gets to a stage when it starts looking like scrambled eggs. Normally you should be through with about 1/4th of your oil by now.

Better now? Like scrambled eggs

Better now? Like scrambled eggs

- This is when you can start pouring it out in a thin stream.

- You will see that it starts thickening and coming together. When you have just 2-3 tbsps of oil left, add in the vinegar and mustard and sugar (you can just dump it in all at once) and beat well.

- Add in the remaining oil …and voila!! Your mayonnaise is ready. Taste it, spoon it into a glass jar and pop it into the fridge. It will last for about 2 weeks…but I can promise you it will be polished off before that!

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OK – I have recently got an AMAZING tip and it works. If your mayo curdles, just keep going with it. Once you are done, take a clean bowl, add in a tbsp of water, add the curdled mayo bit by bit, beating all the while – and like magic, it comes together again! Bless the cook who discovered this and thought to share.

Oh  - and a little nugget of information. Russian salad was originally called (and still is) Olivier Salad. It was invented in the 1860s by a Belgian chef called Lucien Olivier who was the chief chef at the grand Hermitage restaurant in Moscow. It quickly became very popular and was the restaurant’s signature dish. Then of course an underling got hold of the jealously guarded recipe and started his own restaurant…and the rest as they say …you know what they say. How food travels! From Russia to Britain to a far away colony called India. Good taste truly knows no boundaries.