Category Archives: Food stories

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.

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Faith, family and fursat

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Heigh ho and I’m back! After 4 months…4 whole months of vacations, distractions and (it has to be said) a loss of creative energies, C&K is back! Those who reminded me, those who asked about my blog, those who wrote in and those who told me they miss it – I humbly give thanks. You kept the Faith and I’m grateful you did.

Summer happened a lifetime ago, but its experiences sustain us through the year. A large part of the summer holidays were spent in India – as always it was a full on experience of sights, sounds and smells, with a great deal of eating, meeting and talking happening. This year a bereavement brought the whole family together. And when I say `brought together’ it literally means that. For many days, close relatives literally camp out at the home of the bereaved, offering love, support, food and togetherness. Being the inveterate observer of people that I am, I would often sit in a quiet corner and marvel at the Great Indian Family. I would watch various relatives bustling about, and think about how the connections of blood and marriage bring disparate people together and bind us in an unspoken bond.

During those long days together, after lunch, as is necessitated by the tropical heat, it would be nap time. That was typically the time people would break off into groups by age and gender and find a room each to occupy and find some quiet time. My 4 sisters-in-law and I would all huddle together on one bed, chatting, gossiping, sharing our grief and occasionally catching 40 winks.

And of course when people are together for extended periods of time, there has to be food – even during a time of sorrow, food nourishes and sustains the body and the mind and reminds us of the essence of being alive. So there was food and there was Fursat food. Literally, fursat is an Urdu word that means leisure. But like many words, it has a meaning beyond the literal. It evokes a mood – languor, relaxation and a feeling of revelling in the quietude of the moment.

There are some foods that you can eat only when you `have the time’ – little munchies that do not really satisfy hunger pangs but are what you can call `time pass’. Jamuns are one such.

The jamun is a lovely little fruit that grows mostly in the Indian subcontinent – vividly purple-black, with a large seed at the centre, and a sweet-sour-astringent taste, the jamun is definitely a fruit to be eaten to `time-pass’. Because the berries are small, they are not particularly filling, and because the fruit stains your tongue and fingers purple, it cannot be eaten in a very `civilized’ setting or when wearing really nice clothes!

Purple n plump!

I have wonderful memories of a childhood spent with a large jamun tree in the backyard of our house. My sister and I would whack at the branches with a long bamboo stick and then scuttle around to pick up all the fruit that would fall to the ground. A good wash, and the fun part would begin. The jamuns are dumped in a steel bowl, sprinkled with salt, covered with a lid, and …shake, rattle and roll!! The whacking would bruise the skins, the purple juice would ooze out, blend with the salt…and make magic. Grabbing the bowl and arguing about `my turn now!’ was part of the ritual.

Some salt, a steel bowl, a lid and a good whacking is all it takes

It still works the same way. There’s something so unchanging about the way jamuns are sold and eaten – the jamunwala (jamun seller) balances a basket on the back of his cycle and rides slowly along the street, yelling `Jamuuunnnn walllllaaaaa’. All you have to do is run out into the verandah and yell for him. He cycles right up to your doorstep while you organise the money.  How’s that for service? Interestingly Italy also retains some elements of it’s older, more traditional society. On Thursdays we have a fish seller that visits my village. He parks his van on the main square and yells out `Pesche!!’ at regular intervals…I did a double take when I first saw him. So much like it is back home!

Back to the jamun then. Unchanging but much changed. Just like my country, the ancient Hindu name of which is Jambudwipa (the land where jamuns grow). The winds of market forces blow. From a humble wild fruit it is now an exotic and pricey one sold in the best fruit shops, not just by the jamunwala. Is it because it is now recognized for its fantastic antioxidant properties (like all purple fruit and veg)? Or is it because it is in demand for the therapeutic effect it has on diabetes? Or is it just that the large backyards have disappeared and so have the trees, exposing this homey little fruit to the vagaries of consumer demand?

Whatever be the reason, it still reminds me of childhood, of change and also of changelessness – like love, like food and like fursat.

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

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!

Christmas Redux

Standard

Ah – spring! And about time too! Winter is super foggy in my corner of Milan. From November onwards there are days and weeks when the rice fields are completely blanketed by a dense fog. Lovely and mysterious though it seems, I soon tire of it and long for days of sunshine when I can actually see beyond the garden hedge to the glorious views that lie yonder. Happily, spring comes early to Italy…and stays…

One of the things that I miss about winter though, is Pannetone, the glorious Christmas bread of Milan. For those who came in late, you might want to scroll down through my previous posts and read A Touch of Milanese Luxury. So it was with utter delight that I discovered that there is an Easter bread, very similar to pannetone that is available at this time of year.

When I brought it home, my kids wanted to know what was in that `cake suitcase'! Typically it is available only in a 1 kg size

Colomba is a traditional dove shaped Ester bread. The word `colomba’ means `dove’. Why is it  dove shaped? Well there’s a complicated legend about it. According to Denverpost.com, “Colomba’s history can be traced to Milan and the victory of Legnano, in 1176, when cities of the Lombard League defeated Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who was intent on capturing Italy for the Holy Roman Empire. It is said that two doves, symbolizing the Holy Ghost, appeared on the altar of the chariot carrying the battle standards and that the colomba commemorates that event and victory – an example of the role of food in history and food as history.

A very shapely bread

A more prosaic version has it that in the 1930s, the enterprising bakers at Motta, who were already famous for the Christmas Pannetone cooked up the idea of an Easter bread using the same ingredients and machines – talk about extending the business cycle!

Like Pannetone, Colomba is light and airy and made of luxurious ingredients – eggs, flour, sugar and candied citrus fruit. It’s topped with crunchy sugar bits and whole, unpeeled almonds.

I found the Colomba less `airy’ and more sweet than Pannetone – perhaps it’s an attempt to make up for all the abstinent eating at Lent! It is typically served with a glass of prosecco or dessert wine as a delicious after-dinner treat at Easter. Since I’m home alone at the moment, I’ll just be a good girl and drink a glass of water with it. Salute! Buon Pasqua!