Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

We’ve had liquid dinners since last March. Stop smiling. It’s not that. A large bowl of soup has been our dinner on most nights for a year. But a couple of days ago I asked The Family, “Why not some roasted veggies instead?” I’d not done something like this for a few decades. So, like the newbie that I now was, I looked up cooking times. If you set the oven at the usual 200 Celsius, then there is a group of veggies that takes 30 to 45 minutes: squash, carrots, onions and potatoes. Probably all roots. (Also corn. I don’t consider corn a vegetable; I think of it as a grain.) Then there is the other group that takes 20 to 30 minutes: Shimla mirch (bell peppers), cauliflower and broccoli, pumpkins and squashes, green beans and tomato. Basically most other things. I suppose the reasonable thing would have been to put the first group in the oven, and then after ten minutes bung in the rest. But I refuse to be reasonable in the kitchen. I decided that the roots will be cut smaller than the rest, and everything will go in and come out together.

While in uffish thought I stood, The Family with eyes of flame had found the herbs. “Not that song again”, I muttered. “No peas” she ordered. I fussed with the oven as she tossed the veggies with rice bran oil (her current favourite) and the herbs. I arranged them in the baking tray with the stipulated care to keep the pieces separate from each other. In twenty minutes everything was done. The Family had exhumed two pavs from the fridge, and heated them on a tava; nice to have some bread with roasted veggies. The onions and carrots were nicely caramelised. The beetroot and tomatoes were passable, but could have improved in another five minutes. The beans and bell peppers were wonderful. We have to do something different with the baingan; it was a little bitter. “Not bad for a first attempt”, The Family told me patronisingly. “Just you wait,” I thought, “I’ll have my response ready when you do the fish next week.”

But the thought of a liquid with dinner wouldn’t leave me. So I dug up a bottle of Smirnoff vodka so old that if it had been a wine it would have soured by now. There was about one shot remaining. Chill a beer mug. Drop a spoonful of honey from mustard flowers (same vintage as the vodka) into the glass. Watch as if hypnotized by the sight of the honey oozing to the bottom. Recover. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Add the vodka, give it a good stir. There was no ice in the fridge, so fill the mug with chilled water. Bung in a bag of Earl Grey. Nice aromatic drink, which gets more flavourful as you slowly sip it and the water warms. The Family said that some crushed mint leaves would be a good addition. I agreed, but was too lazy to pick them from the balcony, and clean and crush them. Still, a nice pairing with the roasted veggies.

Snacking after a workout

At two poles of the country, Mumbai and Kolkata, the same thing is known by two different names: masala bhel and jhal muri. I replaced the bhel/muri by roasted chana and peanuts. Kept the chopped veggies: cucumber, tomato, carrots, Shimla mirch (bell pepper). Dropped in a bit of chopped green chili, and ginger. This is the season for fresh turmeric root, so a little of that also went in. I didn’t want any chutneys in it, so I squeezed in half a lime, added a sprinkle of black salt. It was ready before you could say “full toss.” The tea was a bag; I’m too hungry after the weights to wait to steep leaves. A tasty bowlful of protein, fiber, and fats; and rather filling. Just right for after a workout.

I suppose it is not hard to figure out that part of the photo is in black and white. I must snap out of this. Monochrome has its place, but not front and center of modern life.

Food only for the thought

With this horrendous pandemic, there are books I should avoid. By mistake I opened an absolute page turner with a description of a meal in almost every chapter. Just the kind of book which makes you want to jump into a passing ship and make your way to Sicily. Unfortunately, there is no way I’ll be able to do that in the near future. So, please eat a cannoli or torroncini for me if you are in Sicily or nearby. If you are not, you can read the quotes below.

Next to his right hand was a bottle of Corvo white, still corked and sealed.

For the main course, I’ve prepared alalonga all’agrodolce, and hake in a sauce of anchovies.

‘Bring me a generous serving of the hake. Ah, and, while I’m waiting, make me a nice plate of seafood antipasto.’ … One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.

[He] returned with a platter on which there was a bread roll, a sizable slice of caciocavallo cheese, five slices of salami, and a glass of wine.

‘For today she’s made pasta alla Norma, you know, with fried aubergine and ricotta salata.’ … ‘And braised beed for the second course.’

[The] old woman immediately ate two cannoli as an appetizer. [He] wasn’t too thrilled with the kubba, but the kebabs had a tart, herbal flavour that made them a little more sprightly, or so, at least, he defined them according to his imperfect use of adjectives.

He sat back down at his table, where a pound of mullet awaited him, fried to a delicate crisp.

Inside were some ham sandwiches, bananas, cookies and two cans of Coca-Cola.

On the desk was a parcel wrapped in the paper of the Pipitone pastry shop. He opened it: cannoli, cream puffs, torroncini.

‘Excellent, this brusciulini.’

‘Got fresh-roasted peanuts here, nice and hot,’ the shopkeeper informed him. [He] had him add twenty or so to his coppo, the paper cornet already half-full of chickpeas and pumpkin seeds.

He drew up a rapid, unhappy inventory: as a first course, he could make a little pasta with garlic and oil; as a second course, he could throw something together using sardines in brine, olives, caciocavallo cheese and canned tuna. … The pasta came out overcooked, practically inedible.

While waiting for them to bring him a digestivo of anisette (the double helping of bass was beginning to weight on his stomach) …

In the oven he found a casserole of mullet and potatoes that smelled inviting. He sat down and tasted his first bite: exquisite.

… saute of clams in breadcrumbs, a heaped dish of spaghetti with white clam sauce, a roast turbot with oregano and caramelized lemon, and he topped it all off with a bitter chocolate timbale in orange sauce.

‘So, exactly how do you prepare your striped mullet?’

[He] took a good half hour to eat his mullets. … [Afterwards, he] downed a demi-tasse of espresso. … [He] returned with a plate on which was a huge, hard piece of Sicilian cassata ice cream.

The pasta with crab was as graceful as a first-rate ballerina, but the stuffed bass in saffron sauce left him breathless, almost frightened.

So: fish, and, no question, onion, hot pepper, whisked eggs, salt, pepper, breadcrumbs. But two other flavours, hiding under the taste of the butter used in the frying, hadn’t yet answered the call. At the second mouthful, he recognized what had escaped him in the first: cumin and coriander. ‘Koftas!’ he shouted in amazement.

In the fridge he found ten or so olives, three sardines and a bit of Lampsedusan tuna in a small glass jar. On the kitchen table there was some bread wrapped in paper …

They are all quotes from a single small mystery novel: The Snack Thief (Il ladro di merendine in Italian) by Andrea Camilleri (1925-2017), the third book in his Inspector Montalbano series. I hope I haven’t missed any of the meals in this book.

Baked Samosa

The Family has been concerned about overdoing the fried food for a while now. When the lockdown started and our physical activity fell another notch, we became non-frying fetishists. As part of that year-long effort, last week we decided to bake samosas. We’d been freezing samosas to be fried later for some time now, and we took out six of the flat-folded ones which had a nice kheema filling and brushed on a touch of oil. A touch, after all, is the absolute maximum that you want if you are trying to cut down the extra calories that the oil would provide.

I was all for setting the thermostat at 200 Celsius and baking for about 7 to 8 minutes a side. I was trumped by a recipe that The Family found on the net which claimed 180 Celsius and baking for 5 minutes a side. I was skeptical. Baking times depend on many factors. The starting temperature of the thing being baked changes times quite a bit. Since the room temperature was lower than usual, and we’d not let the filled samosas sit out for too long, I thought it was going to take longer than what the recipe states. The time also depends on the size of the oven you use, since it seems to determine how close to or far from the source of heat you can place your tray (ideally it should not). It turned out that these took inordinately long, almost 10 minutes a side.

The next time we will turn up the thermostat a little further, perhaps place the tray closer to the bottom of the oven, and remember to take the samosas out of the freezer as early in the morning as possible. I’m looking for that sweet spot when the whole process takes about 15 minutes. And perhaps we will try a whiff of oil instead of the touch.

Break an egg

You can’t break an egg without making an omelette. This lesson learnt peeping over a table at an impressionable young age has stayed with me. So when I put the brown paper bag with half a dozen eggs down too hard on the kitchen counter, it was time to scoop out the cracked egg, chop the onions, tomatoes, chili, and coriander leaves, beat the egg to an absurd frothiness, fuss over whether to use butter or a vegetable oil in the pan, and then fry the omelette. I’ve lost the skill of flipping it neatly, which tells me that I need to break more eggs.

A good omelette takes panache

Harold McGee, “On Food and Cooking”

I’d jumped when I read about an omelette in Pantagruel. “That old, is it?” I thought, and then realized that it must be older. It has to have been discovered over and over again every time an egg fell into fat. Although the home-cooked Indian version is absolute comfort food for me, I also love the one egg version available across the country as street food, usually bundled between two slices of bread heated on the same pan. And, of course, it doesn’t stop me from liking the French version. Although French cookbooks make a great fuss about omelettes, these delights are not to be tamed. The version right next door, in Italy, is a little different, and when it travels across the Atlantic, it can mutate even more. But the ultimate in omelettes have to be the Japanese versions, layered and fluffy, little pieces of which I first found in sushi, and then at breakfast, and finally even as a full meal. “Are there new worlds to conquer?” I hear the sigh of eggs, words which surely must have inspired Alexander of Macedonia.

Kolkata style Hakka noodles

“Didn’t you want to take a photo?” The Family asked after we’d nearly finished eating our plates of the Kolkata style Hakka noodles which I’d whipped together. Indeed I did. So I dug up the smallest plate I could find, and scraped the last remaining bits off the dish into it for the featured photo. After all, a blog about food is no good without a photo of the food. But then, does a photo with three strands of broken noodles make a good introduction to a blog about noodles? Or is it a little like introducing Hakka people and their culture with a dish that many Indians now associate with Kolkata?

The recipe is simple and quick, as any street food should be. Boil and cool the egg noodles. In a kadhai fry some onions and garlic, and drop the prawns into it. When the prawns are nearly done, add the finely chopped green and red capsicum into it, tomatoes if you like, green beans if you are fond of them, and, finally, a green chili slit lengthwise. All this is done quickly and at high heat, as a stir fry. Now, into the sizzling hot kadhai drop a generous splash of dark soya sauce and, immediately, the noodles. Toss them around, making sure that they smoke and burn just that little bit to add the authentic taste of Kolkata’s eclectic street food tradition. Top it off with a garnish of chopped spring onion. Street food is best if it is served immediately.

The addition of green chili, generous amounts of fried onions and garlic, are Indianization of the cuisine. The Hakka settlers, possibly from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China, arrived in the late 18th century CE as traders and labourers to the then-thriving entrepot of Kolkata. They were followed by waves of other Chinese immigrants, whose traces you can find in the Cantonese and Szechuan additions to Indian-Chinese food. I haven’t had Hakka food in China, so I have no idea how closely the Indian Hakka noodles hew to the original. In my student days, weekend trips to Kolkata wouldn’t be complete without visits to the Chinatown in Tangra. Those gave me the impression that the food could be reasonably authentic. I did not realize then that the bustling Chinatown was already a shadow of what it was in the days before the Indo-China war of 1962, and would be largely a memory by the 21st century.

I see the last of the Kolkata and Mumbai Chinese when I visit my favourite Chinese restaurants. Young members of the family have no connection with China; they speak English and Bengali. Now and then you see a visiting Chinese businessman or tourist who would like authentic home style food. An old matriarch will then appear and try to communicate with the customer in her broken Hakka or Cantonese. If you continue to pay attention to such a table, you will notice the eventual appearance of whole steamed fish, stir fried greens, and bowls of rice, not at all what we Indians love to eat in a Chinese restaurant.

Strawberry fields

Large mugs of strawberries with cream were a la mode in Mahabaleshwar this season. I managed not to exceed two a day, but sometimes one of these mugs could be a little larger than your garden variety. I wasn’t really looking for the strawberry fields. But when The Family and Leafless decided to set off for one, I could not leave them to it. That is how we chanced on a high density farm: the farm of our future. It was set in the inner courtyard of a typical semi-urban two storey family house, the front given over to a little restaurant and shop. When The Family asked for boxes of strawberries, the woman in charge asked, “Anything else?” A look of indecision on our faces opened the door to a little wonderland.

She led us to the courtyard and its dense farms: drip irrigation, natural light, organic manure, hand control of pests. She offered a herbal smoothie. We tried one. Then we tried another. Wonderful combination of sweet and peppery herbs, with bits of leaves we could identify, others that seemed familiar but elusive. We took a guided walk between the rows, looking at the wide variety of things that were growing there.

Strawberries were in flower and fruit, pak choi and Swiss chard were looking great. I saw the leaves and plant of wasabi for the first time (we later found that the leaves make a great addition to our daily salad). Iceberg lettuce. Chinese cabbage. Kale. A whole corner full of microgreens. The ladies said they regularly fulfill orders from Mumbai. The two women were really chuffed to have The Family and Leafless ask how to make this or that, and we were given samples of cooked exotic greens, Indian style, from their kitchen. They also had jars of jams: strawberry and blackberry. We left with several kilos of leaves, with their assurances that they will stay fresh for a week. They did.

Easing back into a changed world

Chef Floyd Cardoz was the first person in my world who died after a COVID-19 infection. We’d been to his restaurant in Mumbai the day before it closed to the pandemic. We stilled the small panic in our hearts and visited it again the day after it opened. There are major changes now. Chef Thomas Zacharias, who had introduced me to the farm-to-table philosophy, and taken the time to demonstrate ways of retaining fresh flavours in food, has decided to move away. Chef Hussain Shahazad is now designing the menu. I was not very comfortable in a closed dining space, even though the staff was masked and tables well separated. The pandemic has not finished with Mumbai; people we know are still falling ill, and eating in a restaurant is not the safest thing to do right now. But we were tired of eating at home. We’ve had fancy food delivered, but even that requires us to assemble each dish. And, no matter what, there is always cleaning up afterwards. So we gambled, as we do sometimes.

There were many changes to the menu, now much smaller. A wonderful invention is the dish called Paya with Momo. I had encountered tangbao, soup filled dumplings, decades ago in a long-vanished Chinese restaurant called Nanking in Colaba, and encountered them again in our travels in Shanghai and Nanjing. Chef Shahazad has reimagined them as momos filled with paya. A momo covering is thicker than the tangbao that I’ve had, and Chef Shahzad goes with the momo. The paya (soup of trotters) was wonderful, quite comparable to the local slow-cooked version that The Family and I enjoy so much. The topping, a tangy and spicy chutney, is a lovely complement.

Chef Heena Punwani has added a very small selection to the menu; that day we saw only two of her creations listed. We decided to try what she calls Strawberries and Cream. A simple description would be a chhana poda doughnut sliced through to hold a lime infused cream, roasted pistachios and slices of strawberries, topped with a strawberry sorbet. Chhana poda, or baked paneer, is heavy, frying it into a doughnut would make it heavier. The Family was a little reluctant, but went along because of the strawberries. The whole thing was surprisingly light and delightfully fresh. Well-roasted nuts are almost a signature with her, and the sorbet was wonderful. I’m looking forward to more from Chef Punwani.

I will miss Chef Cardoz and his singular focus on exploring and popularizing India’s culinary heritage. I look forward to seeing Chef Zacharias doing something new. But I’m glad that a place that we have haunted for years continues to reinvent and showcase the immense variety of Indian food.

Al fresco

I wonder where the phrase dining al fresco comes from. But that is what we did on our little workation. The first time was a shock. The Family ordered up chai with pakoras, and we sat out in the little garden waiting for it. When a man walked up to us with a full tray, I had a moment of confusion. Both of us were without our masks with a stranger near us. This had not happened in more than nine months. I curbed my instinct to dash in to get my mask. We were outdoor, with a nice breeze coming down from the hills behind us, and the server was wearing a mask and a shield. It was reasonably safe. A little chit chat as he set up the table stabilized my heart, and I was able to concentrate on the food. The perfect sweet and milky chai and a plate of hot pakodas with a spicy hot coriander and mint chutney, things we haven’t had for months! Time to take a photo of a world renormalizing, and dig in.

We were even more adventurous for dinner. The Family said we should go down to the restaurant. I’m still unsure about meeting more than two strangers at a time; when I go in to work I don’t take a lift if it has more than two people in it. I was a little reluctant. Our compromise was that we would sit outdoor. We need not have worried, the resort had set up its dining entirely in a garden, with tables distinctly more than two meters from each other. In the lovely glow of stars overhead, trees lit up, we relaxed into a mood where we could begin to come to terms with a changed world.

In the light of the little oil lamp on our table I began to put into practice the intellectual understanding that I had reached earlier, as we planned how to reopen during the pandemic. Similar thought had gone into the adaptation of this space. Guests, like us, were isolated islands in a large open space with a nice breeze coming through it. The weather was colder than I’m used to Mumbai, but everyone was prepared for it. People were put into tables according to the size of their bubbles; we were escorted to a two person table, larger family groups had tables of up to eight people. The service personnel wore masks and shields; they were more at risk than us, since they were forced to meet strangers. There was a singer on a little podium placed away on one side, about four meters from the nearest table. There was only a low bush between her and the edge of the cliff, so there was always a breeze around her. It was all very well thought out, and I could dismiss my concerns once I’d looked around and taken it all in. The rest of our time there was very relaxed. As we walked back to our cottage I looked up at the clear sky. We were not yet passing through the Geminid meteor shower. Perhaps next week, I remarked to The Family.