Surprisingly Vegetarian

okra

My mother never had to make my brother and me, eat our vegetables. She just had one simple rule when it came to food — if it doesn’t go down to your stomach, it goes straight down the garbage.

She only had to enforce that rule once, and only once, in our lifetime. And we grew up fussing over everything but food.

As far as I remember, the first time I pushed away a plate of veggies, I was well into my second semester of college. Well, because Gujarat, being the only “vegetarian” state of the country, had served up vegetables, plate after plate, sweet, savory and prepared in a thousand ways, for the entire time throughout my first semester. And I finally cracked.

I would refuse to eat lunch and dinner the Mess served up. I would seek out places that served non-vegetarian fare and eat-out almost everyday. The rest of the time, I survived on fruits. I figured it would balance out all the greasy chicken biryanis that I’d stuff myself with every other day. That routine for a whole month and my friends got tired of my constant hankering for chicken or fish or mutton (I even by-passed eggs). Their irritation was fair considering the fact that they had spent one entire month cringing and wrinkling up their noses every time a waiter placed my order on the table. They got used to it (I made sure of that), after a few heated debates on the age-old issue of herbivore vs. carnivore, and once they realized that I wouldn’t eat at any place labeled “100% Veg” in bright green.

But I’ve never been off vegetables officially, especially okra and aubergines and especially when I’m at home.

Okra and aubergines are exceptions. Shallow fried okra smeared with a pinch of turmeric, salt and dry mango powder would win lunch with me hands down over any version of chicken tandoori. Okra was all I used to eat, all throughout my last year of college. And every time any relative extends and invitation to his/her place, I know they’ll have aubergines dipped in chickpea batter, deep-fried and sitting pretty in tissue-lined baskets for me.

Most of India being vegetarian by religion, it is difficult to constantly establish what a raging carnivore I can be. It’s just easier to shut up and stuff yourself with everything on your plate. Especially if Mom’s watching.

Saying that, I have included below, the recipe for a mixed vegetable prep quite popular in Bengali households— simple and easy even for complete novices.

Indian Mixed Veg

Mixed Veg

What You Need:

  • 1 cup of chopped cauliflower
  • 1 cup of pumpkin cut into cubes
  • 1 cup of long green beans
  • 1 up of chopped cabbage leaves
  • 1 green banana, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 medium-sized potatoes, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons of mustard oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon whole mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1 dry red chili
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons black sesame seeds
  • 2 cups of water
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

How-To:

  • Make a spice mix with 1 tablespoon of water, turmeric powder, coriander powder, cayenne pepper and sesame seeds. Stir well to remove lumps.
  • Heat oil in a wok or skillet.
  • Add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dry red chili and bay leaves and stir till the seeds start crackling.
  • Quickly add in all the vegetables and coat them well with the hot oil.
  • Pour in the spice mix along with 1 cup of water. Mix well and turn down the heat to low. Cover and cook for 15-20 minutes on low heat or till the veggies are soft and boiled through. Add more water if and cook for another 10 minutes if necessary.
  • Season with salt and pepper and juice of half a lemon (optional), according to taste.
  • Boil off the excess liquid on high heat.
  • Serve with steamed rice or flatbreads.

veg

Quick with curry

fish_curry

I have a problem really.

I literally despise jotting down recipes (for myself or family and friends) for curries.

No curry cuts it. Writing recipes for a curry makes me want to bonk my head silly against the wall next to the computer console, or stick my foot into the toilet bowl, or poke my eyes with a fork. I keep telling myself, “Its a curry for f***’s sake! Why is any recipe necessary at all? Who doesn’t know how to cook curry?!”

The answers are, “not necessary” and “many”, respectively.

Before you read any further, this is going to be one long post. Its going to make me sleepy I’m sure, so do pardon any spelling mistakes that may appear as this goes on.

Many, hordes of people I come across are somehow or the other confused with curries or just plain pissed at them. The biggest reason being that they’re just lazy to go out and carefully get every ingredient on that goes-on-forever list. It scares them. But, they haven’t stopped loving curries or any other form of Indian food, and they never will.

Can curry be that lovable and yet irritatingly painful to cook?

You already know the answer to that one.

Curries, whether North or South Indian, are not tediously complex, they don’t always have to be spicy enough to make your crack burn, you don’t need to follow recipes strictly to produce a good curry, they don’t need a whole era of cooking time and they will always turn out tasty. Unless you forget to season them or manage to burn the whole thing altogether. Really.

My grandmother(s) advised me well, “Good spices maketh a good curry.” Nothing new there. Not exactly in those words, but a direct translation of it in Bengali. And the advise wasn’t even her own considering how hoarse her ancestors went yelling the same piece of wisdom from the rooftops while pots of curry bubbled away in their kitchens below.

Here’s what you need to know to have a pot of it bubbling in your own kitchen:

  1. Curries need a spice base. Spice-bases can be dry or wet. It can be added to the oil and cooked or used as a marinade. (Scroll below for more on spices.)
  2. Almost all curries start with oil and aromatics (onions, garlic, ginger, etc.) either whole, chopped or made into a paste.
  3. Curries are always a tad overcooked. Simmering or bubbling off a third of its water content, makes a curry richer.
marinated fish
Bhetki fillets marinated with turmeric and salt, to be sauteed

Basic components of a simple curry:

The oil- This can be anything really, but sunflower, groundnut or mustard oil works best, for the distinct taste they impart to any Indian dish. Ghee (clarified butter) and plain unsalted butter are also used extensively instead of oil.

The aromatics- which include onions, ginger and garlic, chopped or minced. Ginger or garlic powder is not usually preferred. These are fried in oil to release their aromas, or in some cases can be roasted dry before oil is added.

The spices-

turmeric

– red chili powder

– coriander powder

– cinnamon (whole or ground)

– cloves

– cardamoms (green or black or both, split open)

– dried bay leaves

– cumin (whole or ground)

– peppercorns (whole or ground, black or white)

– mustard seeds

– fenugreek seeds

– nigella seeds

– nutmeg (and mace)

– carom seeds

– aniseed

(There’s an extensive list right here!)

A basic spice mix for fish, poultry or meat, contains turmeric, chilli powder, coriander powder, cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, bay leaves, cumin seeds and ground pepper. The rest of the spices can be used in any combination depending on the specific curry to be cooked, or the taste to be achieved.

The spice base along with the onion-garlic-ginger is cooked well in oil. The pieces of fish, poultry, meat or vegetables for that matter, are added and coated well with this mixture before adding water.

* Garam Masala – is a mixture of black and white peppercorns, cumin seeds, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander seeds, star anise, mace and nutmeg, in equal proportions. These are dry-roasted and ground into a powder. Garam masala’s available at any Indian food store or you could easily try making your own. There are a hundred variations according to regional cuisine of course, the details of which I’m not even trying to go into!

The “gravy” – Water makes the curry. The consistency obviously depends on the preference — thickening agents like cornflour or plain all-purpose flour mixed in cold water can be added. A paste made out of shallots and tomatoes combined with a little water may also form the gravy. Coconut milk, heavy cream and yogurt are very frequently used in Indian curries instead of water.

The last step is, of course, seasoning the curry with salt and pepper. Oh, and I have two recipes for you!

fish curry

The first one is a variation of fish curry with tomato puree with a subtle sweetness.

Fish Curry with Tomatoes

Ingredients:

  • 6 medium-sized Bhetki fish pieces (or any freshwater fish)
  • 4 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 medium-sized onion, pureed
  • 2 tomatoes, pureed
  • 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp ginger paste
  • 1 tbsp ketchup
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp red chili powder
  • 1 tsp coriander powder
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp white granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp aamchoor (dried mango powder)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chopped coriander leaves, to garnish

How-to:

  • Marinate the fish in a teaspoon of salt and turmeric powder. Wrap the bowl with clingfilm and cool in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet. Fry the fish pieces till golden brown, crispy patches appear on the surface, turning them once. Each side would take about 2 minutes. Remove the fish from the skillet and scrape the bottom to dislodge the bits stuck to it. Let them remain in the oil.
  • Pour in the rest of the oil and heat. Add the garlic and fry till they start browning.
  • Add the onion puree and ginger paste and saute on high heat, till most of the moisture is lost.
  • Add red chili powder, coriander powder, garam masala, sugar and aamchoor and stir well till well-combined. Cook for a minute on medium heat.
  • Put the the pieces of fish back in the skillet and gently coat them with the onion-spice mixture.
  • Turn down the heat to low, pour in the tomato puree and ketchup, along with half a cup of water and stir well.
  • Cover and cook for ten minutes. Season according to taste and if necessary, boil off some of the moisture on high heat, to thicken the gravy.
  • Serve with steamed white rice or pilaf, garnished with coriander and sprinkle the juice of a lemon on top.

The second curry is that of chicken, and is a classic family number!

chicken curry

Chicken Curry:

Ingredients:

  • 750gms of chicken, on the bone
  • 2 small potatoes, halved
  • 2 tbsp of sunflower oil
  • 2 medium sized onions, sliced
  • 1 tbsp of ginger-garlic paste
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 4 cloves
  • 4 green cardamoms, crushed
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp of garam masala
  • A pinch of red chili powder (this may vary according to taste)
  • Salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp of cornflour, dissolved in cold water (optional)
  • Chopped coriander to garnish

How-to:

  • Heat oil in a skillet. Add the sliced onions and saute till they’re soft and golden-brown.
  • Add the ginger-garlic paste, bay leaf, cloves and cardamoms,  and coat the onion well and cook on medium for a minute.
  • Add turmeric powder, chili powder and garam masala and stir well. Cook for another minute. At this point, if the mixture seems dry and sticks a little to the bottom of the skillet, lower the heat and add 2 tablespoons of water.
  • Add the potatoes and pieces of chicken. Add 2 cups of water or enough till all the pieces of potatoes and chicken are submerged. Stir well and reduce heat to low.
  • Cover and cook till the potatoes are done. Add seasoning of salt and pepper according to taste. Uncover and boil off the water on high heat, to thicken the mixture or optionally stir in a teaspoon of cornflour mixed in cold water.
  • Take the curry off the heat, garnish with coriander and serve with steamed white rice or rotis.

Fritters, and then Crab-Fritters

Sometimes you just feel like eating fritters all day.

And every time, I  promise myself not to have more than a couple of those deep-fried delights, and before I know it I’ve already downed eight and when someone makes the mistake of pointing that out, I immediately blame it on the delicious dip. Fritters come with a side of guilt. They grab you by the back of your collar with their crispy coating and then shake you with pleasure with the soft, creamy, hot and steaming fillings, and then they make your head hang in guilt and shame.

The best thing is that you can hardly go wrong with them. That is, unless you’re me and still going through that stage of life where you’re learning to keep the temperature of boiling oil steady.

They’re perfect on a rainy monsoon evening, for fancy finger-food at a party, its always easy to fry up a batch if you don’t mind getting a little messy and a most essential necessity when you have girlfriends over. In my case this time, it was one stormy evening.

rone stormy afternoon

They’re just plain good for you. For your soul, at least, if you’re OK with stretching your tube top out of shape.

And now I have to admit, I’m slightly prejudiced against deep-frying. But only slightly, considering the fact that I’m the last person to watch what I’m eating really. It’s not the fat content of deep-fried food that bothers me, it’s the heaviness of all that oil. A lot depends on the coating no doubt. An egg-n-flour batter or a heavily breaded coating is always mealier than buttermilk and crushed biscuits.

I’ve seriously gotten good at batters and coating food for frying, ever since I assisted my Mom for the first time in dredging 4-inch long fish fillets through egg and biscuit crumbs. That was about 14 years back and the ritual stuck and has remained in me as one of my favorite childhood memories. The coated fillets would be packed in cling film and stored for about 12 hours in the refrigerator, before she’d fry it for dinner or guests. It would serve as an appetizing first course for guests and would be accompanied by a simple concoction of steamed rice and dal for dinner at home. I would deliberately remove one or two fries from my plate, transfer them on a separate dish and pop them in the refrigerator. Why? So I could have them cold and smothered in mayonnaise, for breakfast the next morning!

Bengalis simply love their deep-fried goodies. They prefer it with their evening tea or coffee, between games of chess with their neighbors, over heated conversations about Central Government politics or football and even at posh wedding receptions. A Bengali evening is almost incomplete without vegetables wrapped lovingly in golden crispy coats and dripping with oil. And most often than not it’s a chickpea batter they use as “breading” and good old mustard oil with its distinct flavor, to fry the fritters in. Wafer thin slices of aubergine (eggplant), balls of boiled potato studded with chopped scallions and a heady spice mix, halved and de-seeded green or yellow bell peppers, salted slices of onions (the Indian version of “onion rings”) would be dipped and twisted in a semi-thick and light batter of chickpea flour, salt, pepper and water. Bengali evenings consist of these, either made at home, or bought from street-side vendors who’d wrap the fritters in flimsy bags made out of old newspapers along with a soggy cucumber-onion-beetroot salad. And our obsession with fried foods continue.

Crab-cakes or crab-fritters are not something you would generally expect to be served at any Indian household, if you’re looking for purely Indian cuisine, although crab meat does feature frequently on our seafood menu. Its just that, we were so busy grinding up spices to make curry paste for a delicious crab curry, that it didn’t even occur to any of us that maybe we could drag the crab meat through batter and fry them up.

The recipe I have here is a little bit Indian and a little bit borrowed. And I can’t tell you how well cumin goes with Worcestershire sauce!

crab_fritters

Easy Crab Fritters

What you need:

  • 150gms crab meat
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 2 green chilies, de-seeded and chopped (leave the sees in for more heat)
  • ½ tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil to shallow fry (I used groundnut oil)
  • 10-12 digestive biscuits
  • 1 egg, beaten lightly

How-to:

  • Mix the crab meat, onion, chilies, Worcestershire sauce, salt, cumin powder and coriander powder together.
  • Put the biscuits in a plastic bag and bash them with a rolling pin (or something heavy) into powder.
  • Add as much amount of the egg you need to form the mixture into small patties. I needed only about half the amount of the lightly beaten egg. If the mixture gets dry and difficult to work with, add some more.
  • Roll and coat the patties in the biscuit.
  • Heat oil in a shallow pan, reduce the heat to medium and fry the patties for about 3 minutes, turning them over once, or until they’re nicely golden with bits of brown.
  • Serve with a mayo dip and cucumber or tomato salad.

Hi, with something sweet

sugar donuts with coffee glaze

I know I know….you can hear a pin drop here. That’s how silent I’ve been for the last month and a half.

But, to justify, I wasn’t well really and until last week it was taking me five minutes flat to walk from one room to the other.

A bad tummy, sky-high fever and heavy doses of antibiotics for fifteen days can do that to me. The good thing that came out of it is that I’m back home to recover and rest…prescribed by the Doctor! Anyway, I’m not allowed street-food (imagine that!) and now I’m strong enough to stand, long enough to deep-fry donuts. Oh, and I’m ready to bite someone…anyone, considering the fact that I’ve been cooped up in the house for the last three weeks!

And Kolkata is currently drowning in its own monsoon. As is Mumbai. Gray mornings, chilly evenings, the steady sound of rain and the occasional thunder rumbling by. Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous! No wonder monsoon’s my favorite season. I’m trying not to think of muddy puddles, damp clothes and traffic jam.

It almost feels like winter in a way….I could curl up in a blanket with a mug of hot chocolate. Although winter doesn’t come with the uncontrollable urge to make paper boats and watch them sail away on the larger water puddles, wobbling from one side to the other!

Donuts seemed like nice and sweet things to say “hi” with after all this time. I’ve always found them to be a mood-lifter somehow. I spent 1st January this year munching on one (after rounds of “new year” hugs) smothered in chocolate, from Barista. But then, I have to admit, it never actually crossed my mind to whip up a batch. And even though I’ve been craving them for the last 3-4 weeks…yes, that long…I was a little apprehensive, mostly because the prospect of deep-frying anything makes me nervous. Yes, I’m one of those women who blow up an inch, every time they look at something deep-fried…nothing new there.

The sugar sprinkles make all the difference really

I also whipped up a creamy coffee-glaze to go along with the donuts which, to my mild surprise, turned out nicely crisp on the outside and light and airy inside.

Mild surprise, because I’m famous for not following recipes. Or twisting them somehow or the other. And then end up in a mess most of the time, but that’s another story.

This one I grabbed from Gourmet Magazine. The first batch turned out slightly deflated, so I increase the amount of baking soda and baking powder in the dough for the second batch. And magic. There was none left to photograph. You’ll have to be satisfied with the photos of the “deflated” ones.

The garam masala adds a very earthy tone to the otherwise vanilla-flavored donuts. But too much of it may bitter out and turn too strong. Use with caution and discard if you prefer using just cinnamon and nutmeg.

Donuts

Recipe adapted (and tweaked) from Gourmet magazine

Ingredients:

  • 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala (if garam masala’s too strong for your taste, use a teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg)
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 6 tablespoons yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 cups vegetable oil, to deep-fry (I used groundnut)
How-to:
  • Cream the butter with sugar till soft and fluffy. Add the egg and beat in well. Stir in the vanilla extract.
  • Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, garam masala (or cinnamon and nutmeg) together.
  • Add the flour mixture and yogurt alternatively, into the butter-sugar mixture to form the dough. A sticky, but workable dough.
  • Take the dough out on a well-floured work surface and knead it till it just comes together. Roll it out to a 1/3 inch thickness.
  • Cut the donut shapes out with either a donut cutter or just a sharp-edged bowl and a bottlecap.
  • Heat the oil in a deep-bottomed pan or skillet till it reaches a temperature of 375 degree F.
  • Fry the donuts in batches of 6 or 7, flipping them once, till golden brown. The first side takes about a minute and the second about 30-45 seconds. Be careful to maintain the temperature. Too hot and the donuts will come out well-browned!
  • Take them out and drain the excess oil.
  • Dredge them through icing sugar or add any glaze/icing of your choice. Chocolate, coffee-glaze, jam works well.
The doughnuts (unglazed/un-dredged) can be reheated on a baking sheet in a preheated 250°F oven 10 to 15 minutes.
The coffee glaze was a no-brainer really. Just a 30 ml espresso shot stirred well into 200 ml of sweetened condensed milk.