Monthly Archives: January 2012

Making haste…and taste

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Sometimes, only just sometimes, I miss Mary. Mary was my cook and housekeeper in India. Domestic help is the norm back home, and I was exceptionally lucky to have  good staff. When I moved to Europe, my domestic life was turned on it’s head! Suddenly I was cook, nanny and driver all in one! Apart from being mom and the Mrs. of course. One learns, one learns…

Having domestic staff is (as are most things in life), a mixed blessing. It is a huge comfort and convenience, but can also be quite a pain – apart from tantrums, variable quality  of work and unannounced days off, it is yet another relationship to be managed. Long and short is, jaisa desh, waisa bhesh (dress according to the country you live in) – essentially, go with the flow… the philosophy that helps me maintain my sanity in my peripatetic existence. So, I manage, and quite happily at that.

Last Sunday we were spending some quality family time watching a movie. Even as I was drooling over the Clooney , I had one eye on the clock  (HOW sad is my life?!!) – by the time the movie finished, the family would be ready for dinner. I had 2 choices – ruin the moment by getting up and getting dinner ready, or ruin the opportunity for a special meal and dish up some sandwiches (on a Sunday evening? Nooooooo!) Mary!! Where are you when I need you?!

Aha – I had a simple and special trick up my sleeve. Fish, steamed in its own juices and sauces, served with fragrant coconut rice. 20 mins, minimum hard work, and a delicious, nutritious, special Sunday dinner was ready! The recipe is mine, the inspiration is Asian. The ingredients were all just pulled out of my store cupboard.

SHRUTI’S HASTY TASTY ASIAN FISH (the fragrant coconut rice  that accompanied it is another story ; )) (Prep time 5 mins, cooking time 20 mins)

* White fish fillets – 750 gms

* Fresh ginger – 2 inch piece, julienned

* Soy sauce – 2 tbsp

* Thai sweet chili sauce – 1 tbsp

* Lime/lemon juice – 2 tsps

* Sesame oil – 2 tsps (or use any vegetable oil as a substitute. There is some loss of flavor, but it would still work well)

* Sesame seeds – 2 tsps

* Peanuts – 1 tbsp (crushed)

* Coriander/mint/Scallions (green leaves) – chopped up. I wish I had some, but didn’t. That’s why you don’t see them in the picture!

– Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Centrigrade.

– Cut up the fish filets into desired serving-sized portions.

– Bring out an oven-proof dish (I was in a rush, so rather than get into the hassle of oiling a serving dish, I just used a non-stick pan, the handle covered with foil) and set out the pieces of fish- try to arrange them in a single layer, but it does not matter even if there are some overlaps. It will still cook and taste good!).

– Pour over the soy sauce, sweet chili sauce and sesame oil. Scatter the ginger over the fish.

– Cover tightly with foil and cook in the oven for 20 mins.

– Remove from the oven, uncover, scatter the peanuts and green leaves over, squeeze the lime juice and there you are! Sweet, salt, sour and crunchy. Healthy, low fat and delicious. What else? Perfect with rice or noodles. Enjoy!

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You can’t hurry love

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Some time ago, we were at dinner in someone’s house – someone we knew slightly and were hoping to get to know better. As we were eating, the lady commented ” I just hate to cook. I hate to go in the kitchen and I enter the kitchen only when I really need to”. Ouch. I almost choked on the morsel I was eating. Not because she hated cooking…to each her own; but because to me, what you put in your cook pot is not just ingredients – you put a bit of yourself, your moods, and your feelings towards the person you are cooking for. Food laced with irritation and annoyance was not what I wanted to eat! I guess not what anyone wants to eat.

I’ve noticed that when I’m in a bad mood or stressed out, my food does not turn out well. Even the simplest of dishes, things I’ve cooked heaps of times  tend to lack that little something, that `something’ that takes food from the stage of `eating’ to `savoring’. Sometimes, bad-mood dishes turn out just plain awful – burned, undercooked or stringy (or whatever is described as `bad’ for that ingredient). Does it happen with you? I’m guessing the answer is `yes’.

So what’s with the emotional me today? I was thinking about all of this as I was cooking a special sweet treat for a dear friend, someone who has just been through a great deal and is in need of a little pampering. KHEER, an Indian-style rice pudding is wholesome, fragrant and slow cooked. It needs stirring every 5 minutes or so for an hour (!!). Like love, like relationships, it needs constant care, and a whole load of sweetness. As I was stirring the kheer (while dashing around in all the usual hurly burly of a family evening), I was adding to it not just the rice, milk and sugar but also positive feelings and (almost) an incantation – “may this kheer nourish your body and enliven your spirit, and may you find peace and tranquility in your bruised soul.”

`You can’t hurry love’ chimed the Supremes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQ7uXX9K7Sk (enjoy!) And that is true for this dish as well – it takes an hour to cook, it needs to be stirred every 5 minutes, but stick around, do it, be patient, sing and think happy thoughts while you are at it, and I can promise you the results will be well worth every bit (and every bite) of the effort!

KHEER / INDIAN RICE PUDDING – MADE WITH LOVE

* Whole milk – 1.5 litres

* Long grain rice – 4 fistfuls (a traditional way of measuring out rice)

* White sugar – 8 soup spoons or 4 tablespoons (Kheer is a special treat … treat it a such!)

* Green cardamom – 2 pods, smashed open. As an aside I will mention that it is interesting that in India, we never (at least not as far as I know) use cinnamon in desserts…while it is a staple in milk-based desserts/rice puddings in many other parts of the world.

* Saffron (optional) – a few threads

* Rose water/orange flower water  – keora (optional) – 2 tsps.

* Almonds – 10 (roasted or blanched) – sliced or chopped

* Pistachios – 10 (roasted or blanched) – sliced or chopped

* Edible silver or gold sheets (entirely and totally optional!)

– In a saucepan, heat milk, rice and cardamoms to boiling point, stirring all the while.

– Reduce to low heat and cook, stirring every 5 minutes, until the rice is cooked.

– Add sugar and saffron, and cook until the milk is thickened and creamy and takes on the consistency of thick yogurt (don’t forget to stir!). Add in the rose water/orange flower water.

– The rice pudding is now ready – with the addition of the almonds and pistachios, it can be served either hot or cold. If you are going to serve it hot, you might want to reduce the sugar measurement slightly. For some reason (there’s got to be a scientific explanation) it tastes sweeter when hot than cold!.

It tastes pretty good without the nuts also but they add a crunch and texture that work as a great counterfoil to the creamy smoothness of the rice-n-milk combo. Personally, I usually like to chill it in the fridge for a couple of hours, top it with the chopped almonds and pistachios, layer on some edible silver or gold sheets (vark) for a touch of glamour, and I’m set!

Easy does it

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I’m back! The Muses have been on vacation, and after the festive season (and the the gluttony it inspires), it’s time for the tummy to take a break. Recent research (as of Jan 2012) states there is no benefit in what we call a detox.  Oh dear. http://www.newsguardian.co.uk/news/national-news/new_year_liver_detox_is_futile_1_4106066  Oh well – research or not, our bodies and minds tell us there’s pleasure  to be had (perhaps of a perverse kind!) in abstinence after sin…So here’s something light and easy –  a zucchini soup/stew.

Back home we call it `ghia’, the scourge of many a childhood meal (my Indian readers, NOW might be a good time to exit this post in case it bring on traumatic memories ; )). Traditionally this is considered a light and somewhat boring dish. I don’t really know why. Is it because it’s less spicy than most Indian foods? Is it because it has a soft texture and therefore very little `bite’? Is it because moms cook it too frequently in summers when the variety of vegetables available wilts and dwindles with the heat? The other day I was chatting with mom on the phone and she asked me what’s cooking (ah the joys of  cheap telephony from www.rebtel.com  that allow for mundane conversations!). When I said `ghia’ she asked me ” Why are you boring the kids?!!”

Hahaha. Something’s strange about me and my kids – we love it. Whatever be the reason for others finding it boring, for me it has been and remains a  simple yet satisfying dish, best enjoyed when you want to take it easy – both in the kitchen and in the tummy.

EASY PEASY ZUCCHINI SOUP/GHIA (Serves4-6. Prep time 15 mins. Cooking time 40 mins, of which you have to stand around for 15)

* Ghia/Zucchini lungo (1) or tondo (3). I think the regular zucchini should work as well, but I have never tried it. I suspect one might need to peel it because the skin is thick and might spoil the dish. Chop into medium sized cubes, discarding top and tail.

* Tomatoes – 1 can (400 gms) or  tomato puree 400 gms or 4 fresh tomatoes, chopped. Choose your tomatoes depending on what you have and what texture you like. I prefer a chunkier sauce, so I usually use canned tomatoes or a combination of canned and fresh. If using fresh tomatoes, you might need to add a squeeze of tomato paste at the end in case the final dish does not taste `tomatoey’ enough to you

* Tomato paste (optional) – a squeeze

* Fresh ginger – 2 inch piece, peeled and chopped finely

* Fresh chillies (optional) – 1-2, slit. Slitting chillies is better than chopping them – the seeds release their flavor, but you never have nasty hot bits that burn your mouth off. Also, because they are visible, it is easy to remove them from the serving dish if you wish to (or crunch into them, if that’s more to your taste)

* Garam masala (a very typical spice mix available at an Indian store) – 2 tsps.

* Cumin seeds – 1/2 tsp

* Turmeric – 1/2 tsp

* Bay leaf / laurel/foglia d’alloro – 1-2 (if you don’t have it, it’s ok. It will not significantly alter the taste of your dish but bay leaves do help pull together the various flavors of a dish)

* Cooking oil – 1 tbsp

* Sugar – 1 tsp

* Salt to taste

The chilly looks more scary than it is hot!

– Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan, ideally one with a well fitting lid. When the oil is hot (not smoking), add the cumin seeds.

– When they pop, add the bay leaf and fry for a few seconds.

– Add the zucchini and salt, reduce to medium heat and fry for 5-7 mins until the zucchini is slightly soft (do not brown it – it will spoil the vibrant color of your final dish).

– Add turmeric and fry another minute – not more, or the turmeric will start to burn.

– Add water, just enough to cover the zucchini. Add a lid on the pan, bring to boil and then simmer for about 20 minutes, until the zucchini is tender but still holding its shape.

– Add the tomatoes , the ginger and the sugar and cover and cook for 10 more minutes. I always add a spoon of sugar when cooking with tomatoes – it balances out the tartness and helps bring out the flavor of the tomatoes.

– At this point, add the garam masala and the slit chillies and your soup/stew is ready! Adjust the seasoning and check if you really need that squeeze of tomato paste.

– The longer it `sits’, the better it gets. So this is a great dish to cook ahead or cook and freeze. Serve with rice or crusty bread, and enjoy! Have a healthy and wonderful 2012.