Monthly Archives: May 2012

Melon and Prosciutto

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There’s a new section in the C&K blog (refer `Categories’ on the right) – and it is dedicated to strange and new foods – strange and new for me that is! Crickets, escargots and haggis aside, even foods that are usually quite `normal’ in one culture or region can be considered pretty strange in another. Interesting examples are how cinnamon is never used in sweet dishes in India (the home of cinnamon) while it is very common in European cookery. Have you ever had a beer with ice in it? It’s very common in South Vietnam….and so on.

For me, until I came to live in Italy, fruit was fruit and meat was meat and never did the two come together (very tempted to quote Kipling here but shall desist). Never did the two come together except for a Moroccan style tagine in which prunes or apricots were cooked with meat, or a biryani in which raisins lend a delicious surprise to a mouthful. But even here, the fruit is only a sidekick to the  to the star which  really is the meat.

In the glorious Italian summer, a delicious and refreshing starter is Melon & Proscuitto – a superb combination of meat and fruit, sweet and salt, mushy and chewy. Paper-thin slices of cured raw ham (crudo as opposed to the cooked ham- cotto) wrapped around juicy wedges of melon. I ate it at a restaurant, at a friend’s home and decided to make it myself. Mamma mia! Bonissimo!

I wish the next level of technology would be something that would allow smell to be captured in a photograph. The freshness of the melon and the freshly picked rosemary and sage made this photo shoot a treat! I enjoyed smelling this dish almost as much as  I enjoyed eating it.

Across the generations, with love

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At my book club meeting last week, we were  reading a book that is based in the Balkans, in which superstitions, magic and myths form an important part of the narrative. That was our cue to discussing superstitions and how they work across different cultures.

It was a fascinating topic because there was such a range of practices and reactions. The Scandinavian ladies found it faintly amusing because superstitions have more or less disappeared from their culture. The American lady was similarly bemused, and stated that superstitions worked in her culture only at a very superficial level – a black cat crossing the path meant bad luck, for example, but not that one would do anything about it.

It was the Libyan, the Greek and the Indian lady who had a lot to say! In some cultures superstitions are recognized for what they are – we know there is no logic to them, but hey – what’s the harm?. So using Vaastu to design your house (Indian) and reading the coffee grounds (Greek) are just tools in your kit to draw good luck towards you and your family, and push away the bad things that might happen.

The concept of Nazar (the Evil Eye) is something that is common to many Asian/Middle Eastern cultures, and a lot is done to keep it at bay – black kohl marks on a child’s forehead to make him `ugly’ , hanging up Evil Eye charms, mumbling ancient incantations while burning red chillies or adding oil to wine to check the level of nazar…all these are quaint leftovers from a time when a lot of the material world was still `unknown’ (from a scientific point of view), and life was hard and unpredictable (alas, still is for masses of  humanity…)

Leftovers they might be, but superstitions tend to seep into our collective DNA and many of us practice them still, at one level or another, in one form or another, religious or social. Every time  we say `touch wood /knock on wood’ we hark back to a time of `pagan’ religions when evil spirits were said to reside in trees and woods so knocking on wood meant they could not hear your hopes. For many, Friday the 13th still evokes a mild form of dread or an expectation of strange events. At a deeper level superstitions are also a way of connecting to our culture and our roots, and can even be something that makes us feel special or loved and protected.

A charm of lime and chilles hung up at the doorway of a house to keep away evil influences

Superstitions crossed my path in the form of my late grandmother-in-law who left us 3 years ago, at the blessed age of 101. When I married, I moved into my husband’s house as the third generation – us, my mother-in-law and my grandmother-in-law! In India, that’s absolutely not unusual. My first pregnancy was a difficult one – and , my How To Survive A Difficult Pregnancy kit included doctors, bed rest, home remedies, good food (too much of it), and…superstitions  and magic charms! Nary a week went past without her `removing’ the nazar that had been cast on me, or tying up some seeds / herbs into handkerchiefs and spiriting them under my pillow for the safety of my little one or tying various threads and charms onto my arms to keep me healthy. What could I say? To logical, educated, independent  me, it was just a game, something I would tolerate just to please her. Now when I look back, I know what love, what caring and what hopes went into all those charms. As a mother, I am  now often tempted to perform some protective magic rituals on my kids!

She was quite an amazing person, and the  extended family misses her still. Without getting into a teary-eyed exaltation, I will say that through her persona I discovered that it is not necessary to be very educated to be intelligent, well informed or have a load of common sense. Just about literate, she had an amazing ability to grasp new concepts and a was blessed with a fantastic memory. She never ever used a calendar and knew in her head, all the birthdays and anniversaries of her 7 children and their wives, her 20 grandchildren and their spouses, and her 6 great-grandchildren, apart from those of sundry friends and relatives. She would do quick-as-lightning sums in her head, whether it was calculating the exact change from the cook’s vegetable shopping trip or the ironing man’s complicated pricing at 90 /55 paise per garment depending on size.

She was a superb cook, and what people recall about her still is that no one left her house hungry, no matter what time of the day or night they visited (in the old days, in the absence of telephones, having a group of 10 people descend on your house at lunchtime was common…just thinking of it makes me shudder!!). With limited resources and a abundance of patience, she could dish up a simple meal in no time at all, all the while keeping up a very social, warm chatter.

One of these time-tested dishes was tamatar-pyaz ki chutney (Tomato-Onion Chutney). It is something that can be cooked with up ingredients that are always present in an (Indian) kitchen, takes no time to put together, and served with fresh hot rotis (flatbreads) and yogurt, is a delicious, nutritious and comforting meal. In Italy I would recommend it with freshly grilled piadinas…yum!

TAMATAR-PYAZ KI CHUTNEY (TOMATO-ONION CHUTNEY) (Prep time 10 mins, cooking time 5 mins)

* Ripe tomatoes – 4 (sliced)

* Red onions – 1 or 2 (sliced)

* Garlic cloves – 6 (sliced)

* Fresh green or red chillies (optional)  – 1 or 2 (chopped)

* Spices (use as many of these as you have – a big pinch of each) – whole black peppercorns, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, nigella (kalonji) and sesame seeds

* Vegetable oil (not olive – I feel it’s flavor is not very compatible with Indian food) – 1-2 tbsps (the more the better it tastes!)

* Salt – to taste

* Sugar – 1/2 tsp

* Ideally, fresh green coriander and mint leaves (I had neither, the day I cooked this)

– Heat oil in a pan until it’s smoking

– Lower the heat and add the spices, except for the sesame seeds

– After 10 seconds, add the onions and garlic (yes – 10 seconds…so the spices do not burn and make your dish bitter)

– Fry for 3-4 mins until the onions are translucent

– Add the tomatoes and fry another 3-4 mins until tomatoes are soft but still retain their shape

– Add the salt, sugar, and chillies, switch off the heat, and cover

– Let it sit around for 5 mins so the residual heat brings all the flavors togeher

– Uncover, scatter sesame seeds and fresh coriander and mint over the dish, and serve warm or at room temperature

So did you learn anything special from your grandmother? I’d love to hear from you!

Just Chilling

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And I’m back!! April has been a mad mad month – from the point of view of a struggling blog writer that is. Easter vacations, piles of laundry after holidays, house guests and to add to all of that, the kids were off school for 3 consecutive Wednesdays of the month! Coincidentally we had Report Day and 2 national holidays all on Wednesdays.

A day a week did not seem like a lot until I analyzed it – the day was typically Wednesday – just when everyone has warmed up to the work week, there’s a break. A day off for the kids means 3 days off my relaxed housewifely schedule – On Tuesday I  shop for munchies and fix up playdates (oh sorry – my teen does not do play dates any more. He `hangs out’ with friends. Playdates are for wusses). On Wednesday, drive them around or entertain their friends. On Thursday, pick up assorted books and things lying around, generally clear the clutter and take a breather. On Friday, get set for the weekend…you get the drift ; ) Or as L&M puts it ” All these are just excuses, you’re just getting lazy about your blog” . If you’re a mom, I know you’ll understand. And if you’re not, well I’ll beg your indulgence.

Busy bugs in my garden

I’m only just starting to discover the joys of being a teen mum (a mum of a teen that is!!). The constant interactions with friends, the music that fills the house when his pals bring their guitars over and they jam all afternoon, the sudden and exciting appearance of a gang of classmates who were wandering in the neighbourhood and decided to ring our doorbell, a friend who suddenly decides to stay to dinner  and puts me in a panic over whether he’ll be happy to eat the typically Punjabi chane-chaval (1-black-garbanzo-curry-500×500-kalynskitchen.jpg_) I’ve cooked.

On one of those Wednesdays off, A’s gang of 7 decided to land up. It was a hot hot day and I know how these kids love a cool cool drink. Fizzy drinks are always in demand but for the last few years my kids have been fans of bottled ice tea. WHAT do they put in it? My boys would drink gallons of it if I’d let them! To my mind its a sugary drink perhaps a shade better-for-you than fizzy drink, but that’s it.

Legend has it (and many of us are familiar with this) that iced tea in its modern format was the `invention’ of Richard Belchynde, a merchant and tea plantation owner. At the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, he was giving away samples of his (hot) tea but found very few takers because it was a blisteringly hot day. Tired and frustrated, he bought a whole load of ice and dumped it into his stock of tea, and voila! A refreshing new drink was born. That’s the legend and a nice one it is. My kids love this story.

Historical evidence  however shows that iced tea made with green tea was being consumed in America at least a hundred years before this incident.Cookbooks dating back to the early 1800s refer to recipes  for iced tea. Heavily spiked with alcohol, ice tea punch was a refreshing  beverage. One popular version was called Regent’s Punch, named for George IV, the English Prince Regent at the time. Regent’s Punch even today is an elegant and stylish party beverage, quite different in tone and tenor from the bog standard punch of my college days.

So it kind of feels like the natural descendant of Regent’s Punch should  be Long Island Iced Tea right? Nope – the potent cocktail has NO tea in it! So let’s not even go there…

But I digress – this blog was about kids and their love of iced tea. One afternoon when a thirsty horde of just-teens descended upon my house, all smiles and hugs and whassups, I decided to mix up a big jug of their ambrosia, fresh.

The essential ingredient – tea!

Do I have to tell you they loved it? Do I have to tell you the lapped up every last drop and asked for more? But I must tell you I was asked to bottle it and sell it at school…and they would ensure it was  properly marketed, pricing strategies were discussed as were advertising campaigns…all those budding young entrepreneurs!

Just add water!

It’s not  a unique or earth shattering method, it’s a simple recipe, full of good ingredients, refreshing and fun. Celebrating the joy of friendship (from my son’s perspective) and of motherhood (from my perspective), in these last few hours of Mother’s Day 2012, I share with you, my recipe for iced tea.

FRESH ICED TEA (prep time 5 mins, makes 6 large servings)

* Black tea bags – 4

* Sugar (brown or white. I use brown) or honey, or a mix of both (or you can make a sugar-free version, tastes great) – 6 tbsps approx (yeah, I know, that’s a lot of sugar…)

* Lemon – a large squeeze, to taste

* Fresh mint (optional)

* Ice, cold water

– Pop the tea bags and  sugar in a large jug and add boiling hot water, enough to cover the tea bags. Steep for 5 mins,

– Add a whole bunch of ice and cold water, and stir. Remove the tea bags.

– Add fresh mint and a squeeze of lime. (It’s still early to pick my mint, I want to let it grow a bit, so there’s none in this jug)

– Taste, adjust sugar and lemons according to how you like it. Serve right away or pop in the fridge for a couple of hours – it gets better as it sits around.

– Hug your kids, enjoy!