Sunday, 31 October 2010

Pea Polau (or Pulao or Pilau)

This is a quick overview of the Nabami dinner The Parents and I hosted for a tiny number of people. Four, to end potential speculation. Again, since the camera is considered superfluous by all parties concerned except me, the pictures were all sneaked in while people were busy elsewhere, and much caustic commentary was digested along the way.

How I suffer for my Purpose in Life.

Okay, a quick word on menu composition. As cosmopolite, gourmet, and my favourite author Syyed Mujtaba Ali said aeons ago, Bengalis don't know the first thing about composing menus. Take the average Bengali wedding feast, he said. Consider it for a moment. People are herded in lines onto poky wooden chairs behind rickety tables arranged in crowded rows. Men in greasy stained clothes zoom past their rows, tossing food on their [organic, decompasable] plates like so many newspapers on so many wet lawns. There is no room for complaint or special requests or plain old choice, unless one vaults over said rickety tables in all of one's wedding finery, and chases after said men in said greasy outfits through said crowded rows, demanding gastronomic justice, and creating comic relief for all.

But since life isn't a Priyadarshan film, one sits quietly next to myriad strangers from one's super-extended family, positions oneself cautiosly away from the table to protect pwetty clothes from the sudden splat! of gravy courtesy aggressive servers, and dutifully eats cold, elastic luchis with rock-hard barely-cooked potatoes, two kinds of daal, both equally watery, an indifferent slice of fish, a boney, sinewy piece of mutton in cold gravy, a limp, soggy dish-rag of a papar, a roshogolla that lands smack in the middle of the leftover daal, and a plate of ice-cream so warm it melts into a gooey puddle right before your eyes. 

Our aim was to NOT re-create this harrowing hospitality experience.

So our menu was, while otherwise quientessentially 20th century Bengali, brief and coordinated. We ate: pea polau (pulao), fish-fry made with bhetki (bass), mustard-baked bass (sort of like this, but with bass), kosha mangsho (mutton in a rich, spicy gravy), and tomato-amshotto-kaju-kishmisher chutney. All of these, amazingly enough, are really rather easy to make. The fish fry is simplest of all, and the recipe is exactly the same as the prawn cutlets. So let's skip ahead to pea-polau. This is the easier, healthier version my parents prefer. I cook it slightly differently.

Lobongo, chhoto aelach, daarchini (cloves, small green cardamoms, cinnamon).
Peas, fresh or frozen (not out of a tin).
Basmati or other long-grained rice.
Bay leaf--2.
Sugar, salt.
Garam masala, powdered at home.
Kaju kishmish (unsalted cashews and sultanas)

How to:

Dry-roast the cloves, cardamom and cinnamon for a couple to five minutes, tossing so it doesn't char. This is called tele newa (hard 't') at home, but I've heard the phrase "shukno khole bhaja" for it too. When you can smell the roasting spices, take them off the flame. Using the back of your big knife, crush the cardamoms so the seeds break out of the pod and are half-broken. Also lightly crush the cloves and cinnamon.
NOTE: To make garam masala at home, extract the cardamom seeds and dry-grind it with the cloves and cinnamon.

Wash the rice under a cold tap. Boil water in a hNaari or a large, deep pan with the dry-roasted spices. After five to seven minutes, when the water has been flavoured by the spices, add rice and peas. Cook till almost-done, with half a teaspoon of salt and two bay leaves. The un-metric rule of thumb is that the level of water should be an inch above the level of rice.

Tie a net/cloth drainer around the hNaari, pot and drain ALL excess water. This can be done without the net, but the chances of burning one's fingers and retaining unwanted water is quite high. Sprinkle sugar on the rice according to your tastes, and mix it in thoroughly. Cover and keep aside (the sugar will be cooked in the heat, like eggs in a carbonara). 


Heat about five or six tablesppons of ghee in a wok or skillet. If you're heart-conscious, you can use one heaped teaspoon of ghee for flavouring, and use sunflower/canola oil for the rest. When hot, turn the heat down and add the unsalted cashews and sultanas. Stir thoroughly on medium till the white sultanas turn ivory and even slightly golden. The sultanas should swell a little with the absorption of ghee. This should take a couple of minutes.

Now pour this seasoning on the drained and kept-aside rice, and mix thoroughly. If the rice looks dry after this, heat more ghee and add, folding it in again.

 Add garam masala powder, and fold that in as well.

Serve with kosha mangsho and baked fish  (recipes to follow :-)

Friday, 29 October 2010

Mocha r Ghonto

This post has some truly awful pictures, because I had to snap them while Shobhadi was cooking, and she doesn't encourage cameras in the kitchen. She thinks taking pictures of "our ordinary home cooking" is damn funny business undertaken only by those of unsound mind, and doesn't care who knows it. So these are sneak-shots, taken under her arm or while she wasn't looking. If I ever manage the will, I will cook the mocha (cha as in cha-cha) myself next time. But don't wait for it. Being home with a maid, cook and mummy-daddy has made be very, very lazy :-)

Okay, so, mochar ghonto. I'm not sure what mocha is in English, but I have heard arguments that botanically, this is more a flower than a vegetable. Whatever. Don't let scientific nitpickery bother you. The point is, this is yet another Bengali classic, and when served for lunch nicely offsets all the richly seasoned animal protein copiously consumed during sumptuous pujo dinners.

Now then, ingredients:
Mocha, 1.
Potatoes--a couple, peeled and diced.
Coconut--a small half or quarter, diced into really small pieces.
Bay leaf -- 2.
Cumin/jeera--1 tsp.
Garam masala powder.
Salt, sugar.
Cumin:coriander powder 1 : 2.
Mustard oil.

How to:
It's really the preparing of the mocha that is tricky. It's a vegetable -- available in almost all Bangladeshi shops abroad -- that is made up of large, wrap-like petals in dark liac. Two parts of it are edible, at least traditionally. Maybe the petals are edible too, I don't know, but I've always seen them being discarded in my middle-class home.

Begin my rubbing mustard oil over you palms, because some mochas will have a dry sticky secretion holding the yellow-tipped stalks together and you don't want to get sticky yourself.

This, to your left, is what a mochal looks like once you've taken the first protective layer of petal off (which can be seen to your right). Those yellow-tipped white stalks are edible, so they're collected while the petals are discarded.

But not all of the yellow-tipped stalks are edible. There's a hard thin cylinder of tissue which runs through the centre of each stalk, which must be discarded. Usually one can just pull it out from the base of the stalk, or slice the stalk halfway through the middle, grasp the cylinder, and pull it out. Frequently, ripping this cylinder off also rips off the yellow tip. Which is fine.

These are the discards as you peel through the layers. The central cylinder and the petals, which are lilac on the outside and yellow at the base on the inside.

As you get closer to the core, the layers will yield not just the yellow-tipped stalks, but also little white or ivory fleshy parts, firmer than the rest of the mocha. These should be dutifully chopped and put in a bowl of room-temperature water. As you peel off the very last layer, the largest of these fleshy parts reveals itself. It's the central... thing, around which the mocha grows.

Shobhadi peels off the thin top layer of this with the cutting blade, but that isn't strictly necessary. The thing as it is can be chopped directly and eaten.

Hereafter, I have just two pictures to show, thanks to having been chased off for getting underfoot. But the majority of the work being done already, this is no tragedy. From here on, the thing is as simple as boiling water.


First, wash the mocha under a cold tap. Then, boil it in salted water till al-dente. Drain well. This is what it looks like:

  1. Rub the diced potatoes with turmeric and salt and lightly sauté them. You can skip this step if you like, but it gives them a better flavour.
  2. Heat mustard oil in a wok or a skillet. Spread it around. Wait till it loses most of it's golden colour on high heat, then turn down the flame completely for about a minute to let it cool. Anything added right after it loses the golden colour will char immediately.
  3. Now raise heat to medium. Add half a teaspoon of jeera. Swirl it around for half a minute before adding the bay leaves. Let fry on medium for a minute or so, unless it begins to smoke/turn black, in which case turn flame down and proceed.
  4. Add chopped coconut. Fry till light brown.
  5. Add potatoes. Cook for about two minutes (a little less if already sautéd). Add the well-drained mocha and attack the lot with your spatula, stirring constantly on high so that they take on a well-fried look without charring. Add more oil if necessary, but never add raw mustard oil in the middle of cooking. Either add pre-heated mustard oil or sunflower/canol/vegetable oil.
  6. Turn flame down. Mix the cumin coriander mixture with a quarter teaspoon turmeric and make a thick paste with tap water. Add it to the wok. Add salt and sugar, according to your tastes. Mix thoroughly. Cook for a couple of minutes on medium, with occasional turning-over.
  7. Add water and cover, letting the vegetables soften in the steam. Check after ten minutes. Keep as much gravy as you like, although this is eaten fairly dry.
  8. Sprinkle garam masala on top for extra flavouring (and maybe a teaspoon of ghee), and mix it in.
  Stage 6

Serve with rice, and maybe plain mushur daal.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Chingrir Cutlet (Prawn Cutlets)

It was pujo-time in Calcutta, tralalalala. This means incredibly dressed up streets, rows of complicated designs made up of tiny coloured bulbs, incredibly beautiful marquees everywhere hosting utterly gorgeous idols of the mother goddess--pride and glory to architecture and artistry everywhere, magnets to millions of people, and nightmares to the traffic police.

However, a certain kind of artistry transpires indoors, in heat-hazy kitchens, with zero to none audience density. Even were someone to wander in by mistake, they'd probably be knocked out by the right hook of odours, combining raw fresh fish, frying cardamom and cloves, ground cinnamon, steaming vegetables, marinating meat, boiling milk, chilli-pasted mustard, and melting ghee. Plus there's the constant loud chatter of too many people exchanging cross-connected gossip, interspered with panicked cries and sudden dives towards the stoves or the spice-rack.

All in all, not an oasis of peace.

Still, once one gets used to it--and once people stop interrupting the festive cooking with annoying demands for unending pots of tea and snacks, chaayer shaathe ta--the family kitchen is rather a fun place to be during these four days. Apart from the aromas, which really does rather grow on one, there's inevitably old stories one never gets to hear otherwise, and juicy titbits from people one doesn't see the rest of the year. And the glorious misunderstands of aforementioned cross-connected gossip. Had it not been for a shocked gasp from the sister of the man, for example, an aunt would have gone home thinking Adityo's fiancée's prim mother had eloped with Adityo, when the actual story was about Adityo meshomoshai threatening to elope with his son's finacée's mother if the 'unsuitable' match was not called off forthwith.

Gossip is complicated like that.

Anyway, having spent time in the kitchen amidst all this, I had inherited the opinion that those that haven't suffered do not deserve knowledge. However, since I am nothing but sweetness and light, kindness personified and grace itself, I shall post some of the very regional recipes that seldom find their way outside Bengali kitchens, and are beginning to fade even within. Sometimes, food is worth the effort.

We'll start with an easy one. Chingrir cutlet.

It's trés simple. Grind garlic, ginger, one small onion, a handful of green chilies, black pepper and one or half teaspoon of sugar, depending on taste. Wash, peel and de-vein large prawns (I used tiger prawns, but anything goes). Cut them along the vein so that they open up sideways like a butterfly's wings.

Marinate these prawns in the mixture above, with a dash of (flavoured) salt and the juice of half a lemon/lime (usually, half a lemon to three prawns is the ratio, but never add more than 1.5). I also use chopped or minced coriander leaves/cilantro, giving the mixture a greenish tinge.

Thereafter, follow the pictures:

Serve with a cucumber, onion, tomato salad with a salty lime juice dressing, a garlic-cheese dip, a chutney, or even with rice and daal, which is how I ate it at my grandparent's place when I was young :-)

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Veggie Pizza That Wasn't

OR, When Idiots Invade Your Kitchen.

This recipe is a fable. The moral of which is, spit-roast fools on a beach. Or, lock your heart against charity.

Two young people I have considerable personal objection to have been making a racket all evening close by protesting the constant flow of festive Bengali meals this pujo, till their mother convinced my mother to send me over to lend a hand with them and her in-laws so she could get the big Nobomi dinner prepared in a faint imitation of peace. So off I went, sacrificed at the altar of the Milk of Human Kindness. Again.

The Veggie Monster

Since the kitchen was occupied and the children pretty much holding a two-people protest rally against the food in it anyway, their grandfather suggested "we" use the smaller kitchen upstairs to make them "something interesting" to eat. A do-it-yourself dinner, only of course I would be doing the actual doing. Very well. Taking stock of the small fridge and the single-shelf-pantry and keeping "interesting" in mind, I suggested we make pizza. A general cheer went up. All we needed was cheese, which was fetched forthwith. Then, trouble began.

"You're going to make begoon pizza!" screeched The Younger, appalled, seeing me take a lovely purple brinjal out of the fridge (that's aubergine/eggplant for those that don't follow 'brinjal').
"Yes!", I said, with the 1000-watt fake cheer one puts on when dealing with children one particularly dislikes.
"You're so stupid," said Younger, while Older screamed, "Dadooooo! She's feeding us begoon pizza!" Like I was shoving it down his screechy throat.

Enter stage right, grandfather known as Dadu. "You're going to feed baked begoon to children?" he accused.
"No," I said, irritated and showing, "I will slice these thinly, rub them with a little salt, turmeric and sugar, fry them, and then put them on the pizza".
"Why?" demanded Older.
"Will you make daal-bhaat pizza next?" Asked Younger slyly. Daal, rice and begoonbhaja is something of an everyday Bengali delicacy.
Sensing rising tempers, Dadu re-assumed strike "Begoon is fine, fine" he began in a pacifying tone, "But you see, the reason we're making them dinner upstairs is because they specifically don't want any more of the usual fare from downstairs..."

I gave up. After all, it wasn't MY grandchildren I was trying to feed. Although if you're going to make veggie pizza at home, I strongly advice one try with the brinjal. Just fry it like I say above and use instead of meat. I filched the idea from my Sicilian classmate who used to make the most divine parmigiana. Really, all we're doing is adding a flour crust. And some other delicious things :-)

"Okay!" I said with furious cheer, "no begoon! We'll have a lovely tomato-garlic-onion pizza!" To soothe myself, I started making an artistic pile on the kitchen slab.

Two stony faces met my faux-smile. They were good stony faces. Too bad I'm not a softie, or a grandparent. I gave them a happy smile--a real one.
"Well, I'm going to make a lovely tomato-onion pizza! And then, I will go downstairs and eat the wonderful prawns Ma is making. Mmm!"
"Can we have the ham Baba brought last week?" ventured Older, always the first to fold.
"Your baba bought ham into the house?" asked Dadu sharply.
"Whatever", said I, ending the conversation.
Older sped off.

The 'ham' turned out to be 'smoked meat' cut from the animal's belly.

That's right. We were going to have bacon pizza.

The crust: I mixed a teaspoon of dried yeast in a cup of warm water. People watched googly-eyed and tried to taste the yeast behind my back. Then, I poured some sunflower oil (in absence of olive) in about four or five fistfuls of flour+half teaspoon salt, kneaded well till the flour was crumbly, then poured the yeasty-water in to make a stretchy dough. I thought I'd dissolve a spoonful of sugar in the warm water before adding it to the yeast for more flavour to the crust, but what with cooking with only quarter of my mind, I forgot.

Once done, put the dough in a container with a tight lid and let it rise overnight. Or at least an hour or so :-) Please don't use plastic wraps if you can avoid it. I hate the casual use of plastic when something renewable, multipurpose and more eco-friendly like lidded containers are so easily available.

Toppings: Slice or dice tomatoes. Crush garlic with the back of the knife. Peel and slice onions. Chop fresh coriander leaves/cilantro. Toss the onions and garlic in a teaspoon of hot oil. If you really mind missing out on the sugar earlier, compensate by adding some now and frying the onion till they turn a lovely shade of lilac-brown.

Now, on a greased baking dish--they only had square ones (and so do I, actually) so these are square pizzas--stretch the dough out till it forms a thin, unbroken layer all over it. If the dough tears, just pull it back together, no harm done. But make sure it isn't too thick, or it'll have underdone patches. Now just arrange the layers--sliced mozzarella, tomatoes, fried onions.

 Had I been cooking for myself, I would have rubbed the tomatoes with oil and baked them by themselves for a few minutes, to dry the cores out while preserving the taste, but I just wanted to be done with this act of charity as soon as possible. Because, forget not, I was being nudged and shoved and knives were being played with as I made dinner.

We were doing fine till the fresh-from-the-smoked-carcass bacon. "It won't take a minute to fry", I said, putting a frying pan on the stove. "It can cook in the oven", said Younger with authority, "I'm hungry!". "Please don't waste any unnecessary time", chirped Dadu. "They're so hungry". So I rolled up the square pieces of bacon, chopped them up, and made a layer of meat. Of course, it was going to release a lot of liquid fat upon baking, and the liquid was going to make the dough soggy. But, it wasn't my funeral.

 Now garnish with the chopped coriander leaves, salt, pepper, and if you like, a dash of paprika. Put another layer of cheese on top. The ovens here come with very specific settings, so I preheated at 100C and baked for 20 minutes (give or take) at 150C, and then grilled just the top at 200C for about 3-5 minutes. Melted cheese below, and grilled cheese above. Mmmmm!

 This story could have had a happy ending right here, but alas, it was not to be. The bacon fat and water from the tomato did make the dough soggy. See bottom-right corner of pic above. So... after all that effort, I had to then cut up the pizza into slices, and fry it on a goddamned tawa to make the crust edible.

 And thus ended my misadventure of feeding recalcitrant children by trying to teach them how to cook. Never again. And I advise you most strongly against it too.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Daal er Bora (Lentil Puffs)

Your daily source of delicious protien, sans blood and sinews :-)

Mushur daal, split red lentils.
Red onions--peeled and chopped.
Green chilies.
Salt, sugar.
Other optional spices (roasted cinnamon, dry-ground; corinader+cumin; allspice)

How to:
Wash the lentils thoroughly under a running tap. Soak the daal in room-temp water for at least 30 minutes, preferably a hour. Drain after, and put the daal in a food processor/mixie. Top with with chopped red onions and chilies, a teaspoon of salt and about two tablespoons of sugar (unless you don't want the sweet undertone, in which case moderate, but use at least half a teaspoon for flavouring). Make a fairly smooth paste.

Scoop the paste out into a bowl. Mix the optional spices in. Some people add more chopped green chilies and diced red onions at this stage, for the crunchy in-my-mouth feeling. Heat oil in a wok. Deep fry the batter in batches of large teardrops on a medium to high flame.

Drain with a chhyanta or on kitchen towels/tissues. Serve with pickles or chutney. We also eat it with rice and daal, or with rice and mustard oil, with a green chilli on the side. But it can also be served as an accompaniment to tea, or stored for a week or so to just to munch on. If at any time you think the crispness is waning, put it in the oven/toaster-oven for a minute, and it'll be crisp again :-)

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Khichuri II, OR, Once Upon A Rainy Day

The weather has been bloody awful in terms of going out, although in terms of staying in it has been purrrfect! It's cloudy and rainy and chilly and generally whiny like a baby with a cold, but given books and cups of cocoa alternated with strong tea, I have NO problems at all with weather like this. Of course, everyone from the parents to the help has been complaining about it no end, and then my mother made our cook go home because she was ignoring her swollen knees, which is apparently also the weather's fault. At which point I marched to the kitchen and produced this, and stopped all whining temporarily.

Any or all of the these: potato, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, peas. My favourites: potatoes+cauliflower+peas.
Jeera--1 tsp.
Ginger--an inch, freshly minced.
Small cardamoms--a couple or five.
Cinnamon sticks--a couple of long ones.
Cloves--three or four.
Bay leaf--1 (but I dislike bay leaves and cook without).
Coriander+cumin--freshly ground or at least, ground at home and stored.
Salt, sugar.
Ghee (clarified butter)
Mustard OR sunflower oil (or similar).
Kaljeera/Gobindobhog/Krishnobhog rice in Bengal. Basmati elsewhere. NO parboiled rice.
Moog daal (split yellow moong).

First, take rice and daal in a 1:2 ratio. That is, twice the daal for a given amount of rice. Now put a skillet/griddle/tawa on a high flame. After a minute, when the tawa is hot, turn the flame down completely. Let cool for a few seconds. Pour the sunshine-yellow daal and spread it around. Keep stirring it gently or it will char and smell smokey. After a while the daal will turn a richer shade of yellow and smell mildly of roasted lentils and look like it's all done.

Don't be fooled! Keep stirring.

Slowly, the richer sunshine yellow will turn golden--some will even turn golden-brown and brown--and the relaxing smell of roasted lentils will curl all around you like a fluffy blanket. Now you're done. Take it off the flame AND tawa immediately. If you leave it on the tawa, it will char because it's delicate and the tawa holds heat for a looong time. Keep aside.

Cut the cauliflowers into florets, potatoes into halves (or if monstrous, into quarters), and chop carrots, beans, what-have-yous. Rub the potatoes and florets with a little salt and turmeric and lightly toss them in a tablespoon of hot oil. Again, wait till they not only change colour but take on a nice golden-brown/golden-yellow fried texture. Throw in the other vegetables when the florets and potatoes begin to change colour, 'cause they need maybe 1/4 the frying the other two do. Drain and also keep aside.

To mince the ginger, chop it up and then mash the chopped bits with the flat end of your knife. Similarly smash open the cardamoms and then go ahead and pound the little black seeds inside. Lightly pound the cloves while you're at it. Now, in a pressure cooker (or a large, deep wok, or a large, deep iron skillet), heat a tablespoon and a half of sunflower oil with half a tablespoon of ghee (or use all ghee :-). Keep on high for about thirty seconds and then turn the flame down. Throw in the jeera and stir, till it turns... yes, a lovely golden brown. Now toss in the whole cardamom, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Turn up the flame a little. Fry fry fry! You'll be able to smell the heavenly smell of fried garam masala. Finally, toss in the minced ginger and fry it till light brown. All of this should take about a minute, or the jeera will char by the time the ginger goes in.

OPTION 2: throw in diced tomatoes. Attack them with your spatula/khunti till they're a hapless mass of pulp. Mix the pulp well with the spices. Then either add the fried vegetables and mix everything together for a minute on a high flame, followed by the daal and rice (this is what I did) or start with the daal+rice and add the vegetables after.

OR: go the normal way and skip tomatoes altogether at this stage. To the flavoured oil, add the rice and daal, stir consistently for a minute and then add vegetables. Add chopped or minced tomatoes after adding water, before the chilies go in.

After the above have been well-mixed, add cumin:coriander in 1:2, salt, sugar. Give one final folding-in. Add enough water to stand an inch above the solid stuff. Break a few green chilies in. Cover and cook on low till everything is done, or put the pressure-cooker's lid on and cook on medium for two whistles.

Add a tablespoon of garam masala powder (cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, dry roasted and ground) with a dollop of ghee. Mix this thoroughly with sweeping swirls of the spatula. Serve with crisply fried vegetables or fish, or even thin slices of chicken, batter optional in all cases. People also serve this with curries and sweet chutney, but I was too tired after this to bother.