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Thursday, 31 May 2012

Bastardised Eggs Florentine. For Unmarried People Only.


Now if you’re married, I don't really know why you're here.

Didn’t u read the title?
Or did you not pay attention?

Well. Obviously not, and obviously not.

Sigh.

Anyway, now that you're here, you might as well stay. No problem.

But don't blame me if reading this makes you bemoan the choices you've made in life.

Because, since you're clearly not very smart (only joking), I'm willing to bet that the lot of you have gotten married for a whole host of irrelevant factors, such as love and compatibility.
Right?

Oh, don't think I don't see you...nodding into the computer screen at this very instant!!

Aaah… but if you're single...
If you are single, I welcome you with open arms (and tea and biscuits if you're nice to me). You've come to absolutely the right place.  Because I'm just about to save your life.
(You can thank me later.)

And so, I thought the most effective way to show you exactly how I’m going to save your life, would be to share a real, personal and deeply moving experience. It’s true, by the way, all true. I hold no secrets. I bare my soul to you…

Etc.

Read on…

So, one of the things I’ve grown up eating (pretty much since I started eating), is what we’ve always called paalak waala toast. Now, after putting considerable thought into the matter, I have concluded that paalak waala toast is best described in English, as Bastardised Eggs Florentine.

Well. Sorry. But it is.

It’s literally a piece of buttered toast, layered with spinach and topped with a poached egg. Without the hollandaise. But with the obligatory garam masala.

See what I mean?
Bastardised Eggs Florentine.
How else could one possibly describe it?

So anyhow, I adore paalak waala toast
Adore it with every fibre of my being.

Give me paalak waala toast:
And my heart beats faster – thump, thump, thump, thump.
My pulse quickens.
And the many butterflies inside my stomach flutter their multi-coloured wings.

And so, quite naturally, every time I go home to India, I demand it for breakfast. Once a day, every day. Sometimes more. It’s shameful I know.  What can I say? I’m a brazen-faced glutton. But you knew that already.

I don’t even need to ask for it, really. I sit down to breakfast, and it appears like magic, fresh and hot and straight off the pan. Oh, the many joys of the India-trip…I’m telling you, having rellies in “developing nations” has it’s very distinct advantages.

Anyhow: Not so long ago, I was on one such (joyful) India-trip. But it was no ordinary jaunt, this one. Oh no.  In fact, it was a rather momentous occasion: it was the first time I was taking Sid home with me.

Now, we weren’t married or even engaged but I knew (deep inside my love-stricken, deluded little heart) that this was the man I was going to marry. And yes, in case you’re wondering mum insisted we sleep in separate bedrooms.

Boo.

Anyhow, the following morning, Sid and I wake (in our separate bedrooms), wash up and come down for breakfast.

Sid is asked if he wants tea or coffee, by my Tamil-speaking, Jesus-loving, fabulous and trusty cook, Maryam.

(There is only one right answer, by the way. Coffee, coffee, always coffee. In South India, you’d be a fool not to drink the coffee)

“Coffee,” he chooses correctly, as I breathe a sigh of relief. Cannot abide fools. Simply can’t.

Anyway, the coffee is promptly delivered …along with two steaming hot plates of paalak waala toast. One for me, one for “paiyan” (which roughly translated from Tamil, means – “fellow.”)

So far, so good.
And then it all starts to go rapidly downhill.

Barely a spoon into my beloved paalak waala toast, Sid makes, (under his breath, but loud enough for me to hear) the following blasphemous observation:

“The eggs are a curious shade of green.”

I gasp, audibly.

“Excuse me,” I say. “What did you just say?”

He doesn't take the lifeline I've so generously offered. Instead, and rather annoyingly, he gets louder.

“Well, the eggs are green,” he says, “and the whole thing has a strange taste of masala to it”

Uh oh.

What’s all that about getting out of the frying pan and into the fire?
Since, we’re talking eggs and all.

I’m so horrified I’m at a loss for words. In fact I don’t think I’ve heard right. I couldn’t have. Need to get my ears cleaned. And I’m in India too, they’ll do it for cheap.

“Say that again please?” I ask politely.

He obligingly repeats himself. “I can’t eat this,” he says. And then, proceeds to set down his knife and fork and declare quite firmly – “I don’t like it.”

The room goes deathly silent.

I am looking pale and stricken.
My father is trying not to laugh.
My mother recovers fastest.

“No problem,” she says patronisingly. “We can make you something else.”

I give her the Look.

"Whose side are you on" I want to ask her.

But I can barely get the words out of my mouth.

At this point my father strategically claims that he simply must watch the morning news and leaves the room. My mother follows, most reluctantly.

I, on the other hand, sit on my chair, my half-eaten paalak waala toast before me.  And feel faint.

This is a travesty to trump all travesties.

Somehow and with great difficulty, I manage to pull myself together. And remark, in complete and utter disbelief – “What do you mean, you don’t like it? You can’t not like it. That’s impossible.

It turns out, it wasn’t impossible.

“I’m sorry,” he says looking all puppy-eyed,  “I really don’t like it. But I love you…”

Well. Hmph. Fat good that does.

Honestly, folks – I came this close to not marrying him.  But my heart (the love stricken, deluded one) just melted at the “I love you.”
And against my better judgement, I went for it.

And we all know how that’s turned out.

The jokes on me, people.
And on all of you married folk reading this, who like me, listened to your hearts and left your brains at home.

Shame on us. The whole collective foolish lot of us. Shame, Shame, Puppy Shame

But for all you single people?

You still have HOPE!

Please listen to me. I am trying to save YOU.

(oh and by the way, this is only applicable to those single people who think you’ve found someone you want to marry. If you’re still engaging in rife and rampant dating (you lucky buggers you) then doing this repeatedly might be too cumbersome a task.

Then again, If you’re a very lovely creature with a long list of besotted admirers vying for your attention, this might help prune the list. Trim the fat, skim the milk, strain out the tea leaves. If u know what I mean.)

So here’s the little experiment I want you to perform:

Think of that one person you want to marry. Then think of that one dish you’ve grown up with. Your personal equivalent of paalak waala toast.  Come one, you know you all have that one something – fish fingers or posto bata or makhan paratha or peanut butter and jelly – that stands out in every childhood food memory. That one something that you think longingly about when you’re supposed to be working. That one something that you would give an arm and a leg (or whatever personal choice of appendage) to taste again.

Yup! That one. Got it?

Now – this is very important – put the two together. i.e. Take said boy (or girl) home with you and serve them said dish.

It’s all very simple. Elementary, really.
An easy two-outcome situation.
And the results will determine the course of your life.

Outcome 1: If they LIKE it…

Congratulations. Fantastic news. But you must think smart and act fast.

Spare not a single second. Declare your undying love - loudly, passionately and with all your heart.

And then quickly – and with feeling – get down on a knee (yes, yes even if you're a girl - this is not the time nor place for gender roles.)
And pop the question.

Just do it!

Look deep into their beady eyes and say: "Will you, darling whatever-their-name-is (very irrelevant right now), marry me?"

Go for it! Seize the moment!

Nothing will feel more right, I'm telling you.

This is IT.

This creature before you, who shares your love for paalak waala toast (or posto bata et al) has descended from heaven, only for you.

He (or she) is your heart’s desire, your soul mate, your true love...

Your kindred spirit, your reason for being, your turtledove….

The yin to your yang.
The Juliet to your inner Romeo (or vv).
The ONE.

You may not know it, but I do: He (or she) completes you.

So promise me you'll do it.
And I promise you, that this is the true litmus test upon which every matrimonial decision should be based.

(my Chemistry teacher would just be so proud of me right now…I told her I wouldn't fail her forever...)

No really, trust me: you will live happily ever after. And one day when you have hundreds of beautiful grandchildren, you will thank me.

But.

On a less cheerful note.

Outcome 2: If they DON’T like it...

(I don’t need to spell it out, now, do I)

?

Here’s Bastardised Eggs Florentine - (1 portion) (since I married someone who won't eat it because "the eggs are a curious shade of green”) (sigh).

Here’s what you need:

-     1 toast, buttered
-     Handful of baby spinach
-     1 poached egg
-     Pinch garam masala
-     Pinch whole cumin
-     Salt and pepper, to taste
-     Tsp of butter or olive oil

Here's how you do it: 

Add spinach to a pan and place over high heat. When it has wilted, lower the heat, cover and cook for a minute. Tip into a colander and press out the liquid. Melt some butter (or olive oil) in the same pan, add in some cumin and garam masala, remove from heat, add in the spinach and mix well.

Spoon onto the buttered toast and top with the poached egg. That’s all, folks!
(And - in case you're wondering - this post is green for a reason)


Monday, 28 May 2012

Bold and Daring....(Who Me?)


So summer is here and I’m craving cucumbers and oranges.

No. Not together.

That would be too much even for my strange and woodsie mind.

But you know what I mean. Summer fare. Cool, breezy, refreshing stuff. Which is, like I said, cucumbers and oranges. And tomatoes. And watermelon and mint and carrots and iceberg. And so on.

I’m thinking of each of these individually, but you can totally combine them if you like.

In fact some of the said items go swimmingly well together.

Because good food, after all, is about intelligent combinations.

Of course, combining two foods which don’t sound like they should go together, but which, in fact do go together, is hardly peculiar anymore. Indeed, the art of seemingly unpairable food pairing has become, of late, less the juxtaposition and more the rave.

Think hard enough, and I’m sure you’ve all experienced it, somewhere or the other.

Ice-cream is a particularly good candidate for experimenting with eccentric combos. For example, Freggo in Mayfair does a scrummy Malbec and Berries ice cream, while Geluopo in Soho does a mean Ricotta and Sour Cherry. San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe is the ultimate authority in bizarre mixes. I’ve had (and loved) their Bourbon and Cornflakes (or what they call “Secret Breakfast”) as well as the Strawberry and Jalapeno, and Beetroot and Saffron. I have to admit, they were all fantastic.

It works with savouries too. Yottam Ottolenghi  (who in my mind should be sainted) has managed to come up with a long and lip smacking list of creative combination fare such as shakshuka peppers with cumin, saffron and eggs or halibut and harissa stew with lemon ricotta. Both of which I must make for you. You will be laughing, it’ll be so good.

Closer to home, my local pub serves a rare Tuna steak with a cool, refreshing and first-time-pairing for me – papaya and tomato salsa.

And of course, culinary master, Heston Blumenthal’s panache for dreaming up daring flavour combinations (white chocolate and caviar, salmon poached in liquorice et al) is probably at the heart of the Fat Duck’s runaway success.

Sometimes it’s about perception. Seemingly odd combinations don’t seem so odd anymore if you hear of them often enough. Think eel and avocado. Bizarre, very bizarre, if it wasn’t a staple on sushi menus. But since it is, you don’t even think about it twice.

So, for obsessive food geeks such as myself, I’ve discovered a book called The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. It’s not new (it was published in 2010) – I’m just behind. But better late, as they say.

Anyhow, in the book, Signet takes 99 normal kitchen ingredients and combines them into 900 pairings (out of a possible 4,851) (impressed by my Maths?) (Don’t be. I asked Sid) and then explains why she thinks they work. She separates, quite distinctly, flavour from taste – the former being much broader, encompassing sight and smell and sound and memory and touch – and then creates a “flavour wheel,” which looks like a multi-coloured wheel of fortune, in which she groups common foods into flavour categories such as grassy or earthy or meaty or marine.

It’s all pretty scientific (and therefore aptly called a thesaurus) but there’s enough lyrical language, personal anecdotes and humour in her writing to make it all quite compelling as a book.

You might think it’s geeky. But since I love books almost as much as I love food, I think it’s rather brilliant.

BUT, BUT, BUT

Here’s where I lose the plot. And begin to confuse the heck out of you.

I don’t know which camp I’m in.

I’m torn between tradition and innovation.

It’s a hard nut to crack, this. And I’m as confused as a baby in a Meissen shop.

See, here’s the problem.

As a foodie, I feel my desire for new tastes is bottomless.

It’s an addictive little game, food – the more radical you get, the more radical you need.  Like diving, I suppose, or surfing or any adventure or endurance sport. You try something at first – it’s tentative, all nerves and self-doubt. And then, if it works for you, you get bolder. And then (if you’re like me) you get unstoppable.

You start looking for that incrementally greater excitement each time. Deeper, darker, more dangerous. Let’s see how far I can go, you think.

It becomes about discovery. And anticipation. And pushing boundaries.

And so it is with food and me.

My palette is always hungry for fresh flavours.

I’m constantly searching for that something new, for that something unexpected.
I’m constantly looking to be surprised.

That’s on the one hand.
On the other – and this is huge – in my own kitchen, I like tradition.

I am hesitant to get too experimental in my own kitchen.

And so I have double standards.

I like to cook the stuff I grew up with. I love recreating childhood tastes, reliving the memories that come with it.

And I feel the need – the obligation almost – to carry forward my grandmothers cooking, and then my mum’s after her. That is, after all, my food. It’s part of me.

So, I like vanilla yogurt. I like rice and daal. I like grilled fish.

And discounting my silly sentimentality, I think there is actually some real logic in cooking what I know best, isn’t it? Wouldn’t this – the culinary equivalent of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – make the world a better place?

Then there’s the little matter of professionalism. I do love to cook, but I don’t think I’m professional enough. I don’t know if I have the confidence.

I mean, it’s not that I don’t add my own little quirky twists to things when I cook. I mess with enough stuff – some successes, some utter disasters – but it is predictable messing. I’ll add sharp cheese to a Nimki recipe, because in my mind, I’m thinking – cheese and crackers, how wrong can it go? Or I’ll substitute yogurt for sour cream in a cucumber salad...after all both yogurt and sour cream have the same cool, creamy, acidity that I’m after. Or I’ll top my cumin roasted potatoes with pomegranate seeds for that burst of colour, for the contrast in the texture, for the balance between spice and sweet. And with this and other things, it’s worked for me.

But I’m too amateur to dream up the truly unpairable.

Prosciutto with passion fruit? Courgette with goat cheese? Green apple with balsamic vinegar? (all of which are sublime, by the way)

I appreciate them (very, very much) but never in a million years could I think those up.

It’s the difference between the scientist who created laughing gas, and the one clever boy in class who could always identify what it was, right way.

Heston’s the scientist. I’m the boy. (Metaphorically speaking that is. Non-metaphorically speaking, I’m very much a girl.)

And I mean with food, not Chemistry.

With Chemistry, I was hopeless. I couldn’t tell one thing from another. Everything smelled and tasted exactly the same to me.  And I never ever got those flame-colour experiments right. You know the ones where you grab a piece of “substance” in tongs and hold it in a flame and you’re supposed to identify what the substance is from the colour of the flame?

So, the flame should turn brick red with calcium and golden yellow with sodium. Or vice versa, I don’t know. Either way, mine never did.

That one clever boy in class would get it right away. And he’d go “ooh” loudly or grin widely or something.  And furiously scribble away at his note pad.  While I would just stand there and stare at my flame and think – Hmmm...golden yellow or brick red? Or lilac? Lilac, I think. No. Most definitely, lilac.

And I’d be wrong of course. I was always wrong. I was rubbish at Chemistry.

But thankfully I’m slightly better with food.

When I interned at the Dum Pukht Kitchens, Senior Master Chef, K.M Srinivasu would make me taste everything before it left the kitchen. “What’s in this?” He’d quiz me, literally shoving a piece of kakori kabab into my mouth. “You need to be able to identify everything that went into it. Quickly, quickly, we don’t have all day – it needs to get plated!”

And I’d rattle off – cumin, coriander, minced garlic, ginger, raw papaya...

He wouldn’t say a word – he was sparing with his praise, but his look would say everything I needed to know. I was a slip of a girl. But I knew my food.

Sigh. Everyone’s good at something.

So, after much back and forth and many sleepless nights mulling over this weighty matter, and assessing my own risk appetite (excuse the pun) on how open I am to the possibility of things going terribly, terribly wrong – it is my considered opinion that I should get a little bolder in my kitchen.

It might just be SO worth it.

And even if I like tradition (and I do), there’s no harm in a bit of playfulness, is there? After all, my grandmother’s genius lay in her ability to take the rules out of cooking, and just rely purely on her senses. She’d throw cardamom into Shepherd’s pie (for aroma, dear) and scatter turmeric onto poached fish (it’s healthy, dear) and stir fry ginger with green peas (for flavour, dear)

Shall I give it a go? What do you think?

I think I just might.  So, as a warm welcome to summer, and in the spirit of being bold and daring (by my standards) I give you:

Chargrilled watermelon salad with spinach, broad beans, cucumber, mint and pine nuts

And before you tell me that this sounds like a mighty strange cast of characters, just think about how brilliantly it plays with colours and textures and tastes. Just trust me – the result is utterly fantastic.

Here’ what you need:

- 1/4 (about 1.2kg) sweet, ripe watermelon, rind & seeds removed, cut into 1cm-thick wedges

- 125g Baby Spinach leaves, washed
- 1 Cucumber, cubed (I like the peel on)
- 200g Broad Beans, cooked & cooled
- 2 tbsp Mint, chopped
- 3 Tbsp Olive Oil
- 2 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
- Freshly Ground Black Pepper


Here's how you do it:

Preheat a chargrill or barbecue grill on high. Put the watermelon on and cook for 1 minute each side or until charred.

Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a small pan until golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside until ready to serve. At this point, resist the urge, if you will, to go through the whole blessed lot...

Now, toss the spinach, broad beans, cucumber and mint in a large bowl with pepper, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Lay the watermelon pieces on top and toss gently using your hands, enough so that the watermelon chunks get coated with the dressing, but not enough to break the pieces. Top with roasted pine nuts.

Aaah!
I do enjoy a good surprise.
Especially, when I end up surprising myself.