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Monday, 26 September 2011

Roast Chicken, à la Didima

Didima, my grandmother, is way too old to cook anymore. She’s almost too old even to eat.  But when I close my eyes, I don’t think of her like this. I think of her as she was when I was growing up – slim and elegant in her red and white saris, long black hair cascading down her back, large hazel-green eyes. And the best cook in the world.

Indeed, she had this tremendous knack for taking a bunch of disparate ingredients, bunging them together and creating the most remarkably tasty dishes you can imagine.  They say the best chefs are born out of the perfect balance between inherent creative talent and unequivocal commitment – and my grandmother certainly had both.  The best part of it all was the effortless ease with which she managed her culinary prowess; she would breeze in and out of the kitchen, cool as a cucumber, and before you knew it, there would appear – just like magic – a veritable feast laid out in front of you.

I have so many memories – such profoundly fond ones – of the numerous delicious meals that came out of Didima’s kitchen and onto the rectangular wooden dining table in that sun drenched room in Calcutta.

“Didima!!” the rest of us would remark in awe, “when did you make all that?”

“Just now dear”, she would reply modestly, her cheeks dimpling as she smiled, “it’s all so simple.”

Yeah right.

And we would gather around the table and eat and eat and eat. Till we could eat no more. While the afternoon sun came streaming in, casting shadows on the white-washed walls. And the ceiling fan whirred noisily above us, cooling the sticky Calcutta air. And the koel birds sang koo-oo on the branches of the Mulberry tree outside. And Didima smiled to herself as we all literally licked our plates clean. What higher praise can a chef ask for? Especially when it was "all so simple!" to make.

As I said before -Yeah right.

But perhaps it really is “all so simple.” Perhaps we just make it more difficult than it is. Or should be.

So, today I tried Roast Chicken, one of my Didima’s many specialties. And it was simple. And delicious. Which really is the best combination of all.

Now, I must warn you, the thing about Didima’s cooking is that there are no measurements at all. It’s all andaaz – a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

So, I telephone her this morning to ask her just how much of this and how much of that I would need.

“I’ll tell your mother to write it down, dear,” she tells me, “and she can send it to you in a letter. You know, through the computer.”

Ha!

And surely enough, when I checked my email an hour later, this is what I got:

Dear Nickname-that-shall-not-be-revealed,

Didima asked me to send you the following: Take a whole chicken, some potatoes and onion. And salt and pepper. And some garlic if you like. And put it in the oven.

Love,
Mama

Well. That’s just swell, isn’t it? Couldja be a bit more vague if you tried?

But, just because no one can cook as effortlessly as Didima doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t give it a go, now, should it?

So, in the spirit of aspiring to be even half as good as she is, I took her general instructions, attempted to guesstimate the correct quantities of everything, added my own twist, and immersed myself in the pursuit of making the perfect roast chicken, à la Didima.

And I’m happy to declare that it all worked out like a charm.

So, here’s what you need (demystified to the best of my ability):

- 1 whole chicken. The chicken is really your protagonist, so the fresher and better quality it is, the greater your chances of a perfect roast.  And if you can get your hands on free-range, please go for it! In any case, buy a smallish whole chicken – it cooks easier, faster and is actually much tastier when done.  
- 6 medium sized potatoes
- 4 large onions
- 1 garlic bulb
- 1 lemon
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- A sprinkling of rosemary and thyme (my little creative input)

Here’s how you do it:

First, foil over a large oven safe tray and preheat the oven to 200C/400F.  Use a knife to make small slits in the chicken so the insides cook evenly, and place bang in the centre of the tray (right where the protagonist should be!) Peel the onions and cut into eighths (cut into quarters first and then divide each quarter into two). Spread the onion pieces out evenly all around the sides of the chicken. Do the same with the potatoes, but leave the skin on. If the potatoes are too small to cut into eighths, quarters will work just as well (it’s all andaaz, remember?).  Try and crush the potatoes a little by pressing down on them with a spatula or spoon. Truth be told, the only purpose of the onions and the potatoes is to mingle with the juices that are released from the chicken as it cooks – this eventually becomes your gravy. Now, break the garlic bulb into cloves, and scatter around the tray as well – don’t bother peeling them, they’ll cook beautifully in their skins.  Next, prick the lemon liberally so the juices will release when hot and place, along with the rosemary and thyme, inside the cavity of the chicken.  Finally, season the whole thing with salt and pepper.

Leave to cook for about 1 hour. Halfway through cooking, you will start to hear this fantastic “sputter-crackle-sizzle” from your tray, as well as get wafts of the yummy aroma of roasting chicken infused with garlic, zesty lemon and fragrant herbs!  Baste the chicken at this point, and if the onions and garlic begin to look dried out, add a splash of water to the tray and let it continue cooking.

You know you are done, when visually, your chicken looks golden brown and crisp on the outside. If it has cooked correctly, the meat will be so tender and juicy on the inside that it will literally fall off the bone when you carve.  Ladle on some gravy from the sides of the tray and serve hot!

Simple + Delicious = Didima’s Home Cooking

A combination that can’t be beat.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Smooth(ie) Operator...

Just the other day, on a balmy autumn afternoon (yes folks, ready or not, it’s autumn already), I was taking a leisurely stroll through the park with my banker-turned-fitness-instructor, friend Romy. (Bat not an eyelid, please, people - stranger things have been known to happen...)

Anyway, so my BTFI friend Romy, flushed and rejuvenated (whether from a run earlier that afternoon, her emancipation from the shackles of investment banking, or from my glorious and thoroughly enchanting company, I don’t know), turns to look at me, a bemused expression on her pretty face, and asks, “Soooo Ami. You can cook and all. Why does the world charge £6 for a smoothie? Does the world think a smoothie deserves £6? What do YOU think?

Hmm...

I’m foxed. Admittedly.

Because, while I generally laud the wisdom and good judgment of the world, and like to keep the flag of worldliness flying high, this question presents a grave conundrum. What do I think, she asks.

Well, here’s what I think (in my head):

I think that £6 for a smoothie is an outrage. Given that I can get a sushi roll for £4.80 and that, involves not only scarce resources (i.e. sashimi grade fish), but also an insane amount of skill. Like, really, have ya ever seen sushi chefs at work?? Cause if cooking is an art, then they are the indisputable Lord and Masters.

So – then, my friends, we return once more to the problematic matter of the £6 smoothie.  I mean, don’t get me wrong – I love a chilled, refreshing, smoothie as much as the next guy (or gal, in my case), and they’re awfully, awfully good for you.  And they are classified quite dramatically as a “Superfood” - the buzzword to end all buzzwords.  And we’re all suckers for buzzwords, aren’t we? “Superfood.” What a word. Think about it. Superfoods make us feel virtuous. Atone for past sins. Superfoods are the food(ie)quivalent of 5 Hail Mary’s.

i.e.

“I’m having a smoothie today”
“Oh, how come?”
“I had a cupcake yesterday”

And so on and so forth.

But no, seriously. The Superfoods in a smoothie are the antioxidants. Now, I’m sure you've all heard how good antioxidants are for you – they improve your skin, your health, fight cancer and extend your life expectancy. And while several fruits (prunes, plums, apples, sweet cherry, cranberries etc) are excellent sources of antioxidants, berries (the ubiquitous smoothie ingredient) pack the biggest punch of antioxidants, per serving size, of them all.

But all that notwithstanding – what on God’s earth are they charging for?

Because, here’s what you need (for 1 generously big glass of Very-Berry Smoothie):

- 1 banana (about 6 oz.), peeled and cut into chunks
- 1 cup orange juice (or 1 fresh orange, peeled and de-seeded)
- 1/2 cup nonfat yogurt
- 1/4 cup fresh raspberries
-1/4 cup fresh blackberries
- 5 cubes of ice

So, tell me please - what on God’s earth are they charging for?  Ice??

Now mind you, all this is me thinking (in my head).

I inhale deeply. The autumn air is crisp and cool and clean. Around me, the leaves have just begun to change colour. Golden brown and red. And russet.

And I look at Romy. She looks expectantly back at me.

“No. I tell her. £6 for a smoothie is highway robbery. Let’s prove it”

I barely wait for a response, grab her arm and start running through the park with great gusto.

“We’re going to Sainsbury’s,” I exclaim excitedly, “to buy stuff. And then to my flat. I am making a smoothie, and you’re going to do the Maths!”

So, arm in arm, me and my somewhat dazed BTFI friend Romy run across the length of Regent’s Park and arrive, somewhat breathless, at the fruit aisle of Sainsbury’s.

Here’s what we buy:

-  8 bananas for £0.87
-  8 oranges for £1.60
-  170g (2 cups) raspberries for £1.50
-  170g (2 cups) blackberries for £1.50
-  500g (4 cups) Non-Fat Yogurt for £0.90

Now, my friends, Managing Expenses entail Maths and Accounting. And Maths and Accounting are not my forte.

(You see, that’s why in my household, we have a system in place when it comes to Managing Expenses. Pure and Simple Division of Labour – Sid earns, I spend and Ranbir saves. It woks beautifully.)

Anyway, I digress. So, as you all know, Maths and Accounting are not my forte. But according to Romy who can do perfect Maths – (now, who says Bankers have no useful skills other than causing the world’s biggest recession?) – this all adds up to £6.37. And is enough material to make 8 smoothies. So, if we made the smoothies, and sold them at the retail price of £6 each, we would make £48. Having spent £6.37. Making our profit margin £41.63 or – (take a deep breath now) - a whopping 654%

Highway Robbery or what??? I mean - even my mathematically defunct brain can work out that much.

AND – smoothies are dead simple to make. Except for peeling the oranges. Which I must admit has to be the single most tedious household task that exists. But when you’re over that part, the rest is dead simple. So much so that I am not even going to bother to tell you. I mean, what’s there to tell? You just chuck the whole lot into the blender and blitz. Until it all becomes smooth as a smoothie, of course.

So as Romy takes a big gulp of antioxidant goodness from her large, chilled glass of Very-Berry Smoothie that I’ve just made for £0.80, she exclaims:

 “oooooh my! Ami! This is soooo good! And just look at the economics! Instead of a Fitness Instructor, I should have opened a smoothie stand in Regent’s Park! Is it too late?? What do YOU think?”

Uh oh. Once a banker, always a banker...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Cheese Naan for Ebony

Right.
I’ve had a number of recipe requests (yay!) but I am horribly behind schedule (boo!) so I’m going to charge through the next few posts like a woman on a mission (woo-hoo!) and hopefully live up to your expectations of my superb culinary prowess (not!)

So, here is the recipe for my first request. It's cheese naan. For Ebony.
Who is my friend from Trini and Tobago. (Honorary Indian.) (But without the drama.)
Who is beautiful, clever, sexy, funny, opinionated, humble, classy, and one hell of a woman! (Lucky Miro!)
Who was my section-mate at HBS (Go D!)
Who has a cute little boy called William (whose clothes she irons). I don’t. (Ranbir’s I mean.)
Who just had a birthday. (Happy Birthday Ebony!)
Who hates people who mix up your and you’re (Hey, your not alone). (Oops.)
Who worries about growing older (Don’t. We are always only as old as we think.)
Who has the widest and whitest smile of anyone I know. (Keep smiling my friend.)
Who wanted the recipe for cheese naan. (So, here you go.)

Get your hands on:

- 2 cups of plain flour
- 1 sachet yeast (yeast makes the end product light and fluffy, not hard and crispy)
- Pinch each of salt and sugar
- Water to combine
- 1 tbsp crushed garlic, per naan
- 1 cup grated cheese (any kind you like), per naan

Here’s how to make it:

Pre-heat your oven to 200 c and place a greased baking tray in the oven.

Meanwhile, mix flour, yeast, salt, and sugar, and add warm water to this mixture, slowly kneading until you can make a soft but firm dough ball with your hands. To get it firmer, add more flour; to get it softer, add more water. Now, sprinkle some flour on a baking tray, add the dough to the tray and knead for about 5 minutes. Set the dough mixture aside for 20-30 minutes.

Next, divide the dough into 4 pieces and roll or press each into a flat pancake, around 1/2 cm each in thickness.  Add a tablespoon of crushed garlic and a sprinkling of grated cheese in the middle of each pancake. Close the dough by folding it over, pressing the edges together, and rolling it out again. Repeat this process with each dough circle. Sprinkle the top of your naans with dhania (dhania = coriander = magic, remember?) or whatever else you like (mustard seeds, cumin seeds, kalonji/onion seeds, fennel seeds all work really well.)

Finally, pop the naana into the oven on the preheated baking sheets for 5 minutes or until golden brown. Brush with melted butter or ghee as it comes from the oven if you like. (You like.)

Let me know how it goes! It's a bit tedious, but I think it beats ironing...
:)

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A Sip of Past Times


It is the end of an era.

My High Street coffee shop has closed for good. Gone, finished, kaput. Never to return.
RIP, Louis Hungarian.

Sob.

This isn’t the first mom-and-pop joint to close down around here. In fact, of late, the lot of them have been falling like bricks with disheartening frequency. Every time I take a walk (which, by the way, is every day, and sometimes several times a day), it seems like there’s another boarded up shop with a sad little sign that says “We are closing down and we thank you for your patronage.” Or words to that nature.

It’s terrible to say the least.
Because these small, charming, local, family-run places are what used to define London’s High Streets not that long ago. You walked into a quaint little space where you were promptly greeted with a smile (a genuine one), and while there were no big banners and labels and you actually had to look around for what you wanted (but that’s part of the joy of shopping, no?), someone was always around to help you find it. Or answer questions. Or exchange pleasantries.

That elusive human touch. Fast vanishing.

These were the places, where you’d often see, way at the back of the store, a grandfatherly person, hunched down, still working away at something or the other as industriously as he did when he was behind the till instead of his grandson (or great grandson!) He’d look up at you and tip his hat proudly. It would be like stepping back in time. 

So, when I see these places closing down, one by one, I feel terrible. And what makes it all even more morose is the fact that their space is always re-occupied by large, impersonal, chain stores with their flashy lights and identical decor and clone-like uniformed salespeople with plastic smiles. All boring and dull. Indistinguishably so. But with more rent money than their delightful predecessors. And so, sadly, my High Street pharmacy has become a Superdrug, my High Street bookstore has become a Waterstones, and now my beloved High Street coffee shop has become – horror of all horrors – a Costa.

Sob.

Louis Hungarian Cafe was run by a father and two-daughter team who knew their clients so well that you only had to walk through the door and the preparations for your “usual” were already underway. If they knew your name, they’d greet you by name, and if they didn’t, they’d made sure they did if you ever came back. Consider this, for instance: The old man once said to me “How nice to see you Ami, your smiling face brightens up my day!”
I mean, really.
Who says things like that anymore?

So, call it clichéd, but if there was ever such a thing as, ‘service with a smile’ they knew how to do it.

And here’s the clincher – not only was the service friendly and personal, the coffee and cakes were excellent; every cup freshly brewed and piping hot, every pastry a scrumptious little homemade treat, crisp and flaky and just how it should be. The inside was bright and cheerful with  comfortable upholstered couches, side tables with curvy, carved legs, pictures on the walls, Hungarian rugs...(and if I’m making it all sound far nicer than the humble furnishings at my own flat – it’s because it was!)

And if that is not enough, get this: How rare is it to hear live music nowadays? Anywhere? Without paying a small fortune, that is? But this little coffee place had it. Every now and then, there'd be a lovely gentleman on his keyboard – an uncle? A brother? A nephew? A willing friend? Who knows? But I’m telling you, it was brilliant! There is no treat quite like a real piano performance accompanied by a steaming cup of coffee on a cold, misty London afternoon.

I’ve lost count of the many quiet hours I spent in Louis cavernous interiors with a perfectly made Joe-Joe and a book, listening to the music, watching the world go by. 

But alas!

Those days are no more and all I have are the memories.
Louis is gone. And in place of this quaint little haven of solitude, there now stands, a Costa.

Sob. Sob. And Sob again.

So just to make myself feel better and for the sake of 1) loyalty and 2) old times and 3) memories (wonderous things, those) I swear to myself that I will Never. Ever. Ever. buy a single cup of “coffee” from that Louis-usurping Costa down the street.

Never. Ever. Ever.

No more of my money (actually it’s Sid’s money, but whatever). No more of my money is going to feed the coffers of the cruel and callous Costas of the world and propagate the demise of the Louis Hungarians.

So there. Three fingers up and read between those lines.

Soooo…all that being said, please fast forward if you will to this morning…

Now, this morning, here I am, walking back from the gym, pleased that I’ve at least attempted to work off some of that irresistible Hummingbird Bakery red velvet cake that my sweet Hungarian friend Nora (no relation to Louis) ordered for her boyfriend’s birthday and insisted that we take home in large quantities. And of course, if there’s cake in the house, guess who eats it. Sigh. Temptation will be the death of me, I tell you.

Anyway, I digress.

So here I am, walking back from the gym, the cool wind blowing on my face, the rare London sun shining down on me in all its splendour, and suddenly I think to myself – hmmmm...a coffee would be nice...

And as the thought creeps into my brain, and slowly (but surely) starts to take control of my senses, the first sneaky signs of a craving begin and before you know it, I can almost taste that coffee – hot, strong, rich, oily… I can’t wait to hold that mug, both my hands around it, the warmth from it radiating lovingly into my cold fingers, while the smell of freshly ground beans waft over me. I take my first sip (in my head, I mean), and lose myself in caffeine heaven. Mmmm.

And then.
Just as my craving has graduated into a full-blown coffee invasion and all I have on my mind is “Coffee, Coffee, Coffee,” – I come face-to-face with IT.

IT is a gigantic maroon board, placed strategically on the side-walk, so I literally have to swerve to keep from walking straight into IT. Either IT is very tall or I am very short, because IT is bigger than me. And IT has – front and center, magnified to human-height, and impossible to miss – an image of? Yeah, you guessed it: An earth-shatteringly-great-looking cup of espresso loveliness!!!

For a person with coffee on their brain, you have no idea how this image messes with you: A sparkling-toothpaste-white mug filled to the brim with coffee lusciousness. All frothy and creamy. Chocolate powder sprinkled on top. They even have steam coming out of it. Little life-size smoke rings.
How on earth do they photograph these things with such perfection?
I mean, I can smell it.
So, of course, now I’ve got to have it.

Except for a small snag.

The owner of IT – the gigantic maroon board (and the picture) (and for that matter, the coffee) is none other than Costa.
Ha.
Life is a bi$$h.

And as I stand there debating what to do, I hear the shrill, metallic, voice of Mr. Costa. In my imagination, he looks 007’s Jaws.

“Mess with her. Suck her in. We’ve GOT HER!” he screams through metal-mantled teeth.

Ahhh. See my dilemma? Give in or get out? This is a problem. A major problem. Because you see, with food (or drink) (especially drink), I always give in. Always.  But this? This is a question of Principle.

And so – most reluctantly, and mostly for the sake of Louis Hungarian (May you Rest in Peace) – I make my decision:

Mr. Jaws Costa  - You shall not: Mess with me. Suck me in. GET ME.

Never. Ever. Ever. Remember?

I’m going home.  To make my very own boutique style coffee experience. With (sob) Illy.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have live music, and I don’t have velvet couches and I don’t have Dobosh Torte.

And it’s not Louis.

But at least it’s coffee.