Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Ides of summer

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It’s only now, after living in Europe for over five years that I can truly appreciate the Europeans’ love of the sun and summer. After the dark wet days of winter and the moody greys of spring and autumn, summer in Europe is a delight for the soul and the senses.

Summer  in the plains of North India where I come from, is loooong, HOT, dusty and brutish. Wake up and the sun is high in the sky already;  at its zenith, it forces you to stay indoors, shades drawn, houses dark and cool. Even after sundown, when you step out for a late night  ice lolly, the summer wind, the infamous Loo still blows hot, bringing with it particles of fine desert sand that layer the surface of just-shined furniture in a few hours.

But we humans are ingenious and  resilient creatures, and we’ve evolved various mechanisms to cope with our climate. Cool white chikan cottons, khus-perfumed air coolers, tall glasses of Rooh Afza (rose sherbet), bamboo chiks (blinds)…all of which carry for me, the nostalgia of summers past.

Mother Nature is also generous in offering us compensation for our sufferings – watermelons, musk melons, and litchis flood the markets and the taste buds. But the king of all fruits, undisputedly, is the mango.  In my culture, its  not just a fruit – it’s a fruit laden with significance and meaning. A symbol of abundance and fertility, garlands of mango leaves are strung across doorways in welcome and celebration. The mango blossom is symbol of beauty and innocence, and is celebrated in the famous Paisley design, our contribution to the world of fashion. (Just check out the design on the masthead of this blog – are you surprised that it is what it is?!)

And the fruit itself?  Well what can I say? Just that there is nothing like the sweet, juicy mango-ey taste of Indian mangoes. Once you’ve tasted Indian (and I concede, Pakistani) mangoes you will never eat any other (Here I will beg the indulgence of my South American friends with whom I have a long running debate on the topic …). The months of May-Aug are marked by the arrivals of different varieties of mangoes, each distinct from the other, and each with its band of ardent followers, many of whom would happily challenge you to a duel to prove the superiority of their favourite mangoes over yours!

Here in Italy we do get imported mangoes in the supermarket – I’m sure you’d have understood by now that in my eyes they are well…how do I say this? Yes they are mangoes but…

But hey! I’m not one to give up so easily! If I see it, I figure out a use for it! It’s not so great to eat, but with its sweet-sour taste and firm texture, it works fantastically well as a salad ingredient. That’s what I use it for when I get nostalgic around this time of year  – the flavors and senses transport me back to an Indian  summer, and it  is a delicious, healthy and refreshing addition to a meal or a barbecue.

COOL SUMMERY  MANGO SALAD

* Mango (firm, not fully ripe)  – 1

* Cucumber – 1 or 2

* Fresh mint leaves – a few

* Juice of 1 lemon or lime

* Peanut oil (or any vegetable oil)

* Sesame seeds (optional)

* Red chili flakes – 1 pinch (optional)

* Crushed salted peanuts – 1 tbsp (optional)

* Sugar – 1 big pinch

* Salt to taste

– Peel the mango, Slice and cut into thin slivers

– Peel and de-seed the cucumber. I’ve worked out an easy method here. Cut the cucumber into cylinders, then use an apple corer to deseed. Slice into slivers like the mango. Shredding or grating it would make it too watery, which would give you a soggy, not crunchy salad

– Toss in all of the remaining ingredients (except the mint and peanuts), and chill well (if its going to be many hours before you eat, it might be better to leave out the salt at this point and add it just before serving)

– Before serving, mix again, scatter over the peanuts and the mint and serve

Enjoy the summer holidays!

Getting fresh !

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I’m quite a gadget gal. Give me a job and I’ll look for the perfect tool for it. Give me a tool and I’ll find myself seeking out a job for it. In the kitchen of course gadgets and tools are very handy dandy. Everything from slicing to crushing to peeling, I’ve  got to get a tool or a  gadget for it. I scour shops for THAT perfect peeler, or THAT perfect strainer. Even come home with things that I use only in my Martha Stewart fantasies (Bundt tin) or at best once in 3 or 4 years (turkey carving set). Sometimes, I just have to bin them because they don’t work (perfect hamburger mould). I’ll admit there’s gotta be a name for this condition. But I have a logic – which is? Even if it gets used only once in a while, the job gets done perfectly!!  So then – apple slicer? Check. Cucumber corer? Check. Bottle top pressure releaser? Check. Icing spreader? Check. Olive pitter? Check.

Oh yes my olive pitter. Last used 2 years ago when I first arrived in Italy, picked up some gorgeous olives for an aperitivo and discovered they had seeds..not what I wanted to serve. My limited Italian did not let me read the label and check if they were `senza semi’. So voila – off I go and buy an olive pitter!  My guests enjoyed the olives, I learned some Italian and the pitter stayed where it was – at the bottom of a basket full of kitchen geegaws.

Until today – when the kids and I harvested our cherry tree for the second time this season, and landed up again with about 4 kgs of cherries. We’ve been enjoying the  plump sweet-sour cherries – not as perfectly unblemished and shiny as the supermarket stuff, but still delicious and so very fresh! The thought of it is as much fun as eating the fruit  – fresh, natural, pesticide-free cherries from your own garden.

But there’s only so many cherries you can eat – after all it is summer and there’s a lot of fruit eating to get done! So today I decided to do something mad – make cherry jam. Me? Jamming? Good Lord. When did I get to be this domesticated?! But if life hands you cherries….you get creative! So I thought back to Mom’s occasional jamming sessions, added on my logic and concepts of what a process for jam might be like, and finally, checked out Google (which, along with time zone differences, is rapidly putting mothers and aunties out of business in the recipe sharing department).

Long story short, I loved every bit of the process. It was pretty easy, very creative and wonderfully satisfying. At the end of this post. I’ll share with you my net-net take on it. For the moment, let me share with you the process. I did not follow a recipe, just read up a few of them and followed my instinct. Turned out well, so here it is.

FRESH AS FRESH GETS CHERRY JAM (Prep time 30 mins, cooking time 25 mins)

* Cherries – about 1/2 kg (Pitted ! This is where my olive pitter came in handy. Would have been a crazy job without it). Once pitted, chop roughly – I did this directly in the pan, slashing away with a pair of kitchen scissors.

* White sugar – approx 3/4th of volume of cherries (I just eyeballed it, no measurements). Yes – that’s a lot of sugar, and yes, that’s why regrettably, for me, jam has to be a weekend treat only!

* Juice and zest of 1 lemon. To set, jam needs a gelling agent (otherwise cooked fruit would stay as juice or pulp). Typically they use a substance called pectin which is found in the rind of citrus fruits. I wanted to make a simple jam without getting into the hassle of buying pectin (don’t ever remember Mom using any) so using lemons would give me the gelling quality I sought

In the pan! Meet Mr. Zester…one of my successful tools, used at least once a week for various jobs, not just zesting

– In a deep pan, put in cherries, lemon juice and rind and cook over medium heat for about 10 mins until the fruit has softened.

– Add the sugar and cook on medium-high heat until the mixtures boils and then reduces.It is important to stir frequently at this stage.  Once the foam settles and the bubbles disappear, the mixture will come together and  start to lightly coat the back of a spoon. Take it off the heat and let it cool even though it does not look very jammy at this stage – it tends to thicken as it cools. If it is already jammy when you take it off  the heat , it will become plasticky, like gummy bear candies!

The surface of Mars? Naah – just the just-complete jam in the pan

– If you can resist, wait for it to cool before enjoying it on bread or toast.

– Once it is cool, scoop it into a clean and dry glass jar with a tight lid, and it should last for a couple of weeks.

Would I do it again? Yep – if there was something special enough (like a glut of fruit) that would justify it. It is not much effort but it is easy to think about how much easier it is to jump out and buy a jar of top quality jam. It’s a recreational thing – and was fun for me because I was feeling creative. My kids loved it – again, the concept plays an important part here. Tiny sweet-sour cherry jam sandwiches made for  a fabulous summer dessert!

A spoonful of summer