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.

Sweet and Sour

feet

Our garden terrace is the prettiest part of our top-floor apartment. It has a tiled floor lined with marble seats (to sit with your legs propped up…as Fauri’s demonstrating above…) and beautiful potted plants.

And it never seems like a waste of time when I do absolutely no work (on my day off) and just laze around the terrace, instead of catching up with non-work related stuff. You can’t really blame me.

Sunday swung by quietly once more, with both me and Fauri wishing that we were with our Mothers to celebrate Mothers’ Day. The day didn’t show any signs of improving since an outing in the sun seemed scary literally. Instead, I cooked up a sweet and sour prawn concoction, considering that my mother absolutely adores prawns.

And oh, Happy Mothers’ Day to all!!

prawns2

Sweet-n-Sour Prawns

What You Need:

– 1 tablespoon of olive oil

250gms prawns, peeled and cleaned (and the black vein removed!)

– Half a cup of cherry tomatoes, halved

– 3 big garlic cloves, finely chopped

– 1 large spring onions, chopped

– Half a teaspoon of coriander powder (per 250gms)

– 1 teaspoon of ginger paste (or better yet, grab a medium-ish ginger and slice it finely into ultra-thin strips)

– 2 teaspoons of rice wine vinegar

– 2 tablespoons of dark soy

– 2 tablespoons of honey

– Half a teaspoon of freshly ground pepper (if you like it hot, use more)

– Salt to taste

– Chopped coriander leaves to garnish with

tomatoes

How-To:

– Heat oil in a wok (yes, please invest in a good wok…its a kitchen essential)

– Saute the onions, garlic and ginger till they soften and start browning.

– Add the cherry tomatoes and cook on medium heat till soft.

– Pat dry the prawns with a clean piece of cloth and add them to the wok. Toss with the onions and tomatoes.

– Mix the vinegar, soy, coriander powder and honey in a small bowl. Add to the wok. Toss well again.

– Reduce the heat to low and cook for about 4-5 minutes.

– Season with salt and pepper.

– Serve hot along with steamed rice, topped with fresh cilantro leaves.

Tip: Adding julienned carrots makes the dish more colorful (and no doubt, more healthy)….just soften them along with the tomatoes.

prawns3

Mom, this one’s for you!

Almost Lazy Sunday

Saturday afternoon proudly declared that Sunday was going to be even more sleepy and droopy-woozy-gloopy. It was almost six in the evening and I just couldn’t wait to wrap-up all the drawings and samples and rush home to sleep through the weekend. Two feet away from me, Kunsh slept snoring softly and clutching his stick (constructed painfully out of straws) and I was surprised to find myself envying a little child.

Saturday evening went by softly, with a quick visit to one of our favorite coffee hangouts, Mocha. Fauri and I went back home excited about all the lazying around that we were sure was awaiting us.

Don’t know what went wrong, but we woke up to the doorbell. The maid.

The gardener followed in an hour. The neighbor came up for help another hour later. The watchman. The newspaper guy’s assistant. The cable guy.

So much for sleeping through Sunday.

Finally, I decided that chopping mushrooms would let out some of the irritation. And I was right.

Just the color, texture and simplicity of them got me excited and ambitious enough to cook up a complicated gourmet something…ah, well…

In the end though, I made a simple, super-easy lunch of pan-seared chicken (for me) and aloo ke parathe (for Fauri), before we headed out to catch Monsters vs. Aliens at Fun Cinemas. Very grown-up, I know.

Earlier last week, we got a mound of button mushrooms and had used up most of them in two very high-calorie batches of pasta and a mushroom risotto. And we’re still left with a small box. Well, not anymore.

Ultra-simple Chicken in Mushroom Sauce

What You Need:

– 400gms boneless chicken pieces

– three tablespoons of vegetable oil to fry

– 150gms button mushrooms , sliced or chopped (I prefer, sliced)

– 3 medium-sized scallions, chopped finely or pureed (pureed scallions obviously make the sauce smoother)

– 8-9 cloves of garlic, smashed with a side of your knife

– 1 tablespoon of whole peppercorns

– Half a teaspoon of dry basil

– Half a teaspoon of chili flakes (depends on how hot you like it)

– 1 bay leaf

– Quarter cup of white wine

– Half a cup of fresh cream

– Salt, pepper and sugar, to taste

– Half a cup of chicken stock or water, this is optional, depending on the kind of consistency you want your sauce to have.

– Chopped cilantro leaves to garnish

How-To:

Heat oil and sear the chicken till brown. Do this in batches, depending on the size of your pan/skillet.

– Remove from the pan. In the remaining oil, add the chopped scallions, garlic, bay leaf and peppercorns and saute till soft and translucent. Alternatively, if you’ve pureed the scallions, saute the garlic, bay leaf and peppercorns for about a minute on high heat and then add the puree and cook till the mixture turns slightly golden brown.

– Add the mushroom. Lower the heat, cover and cook till the mushrooms become spongy.

– Add the white wine and basil.

– Wait till the alcohol evaporates. Then add the cream and ultimately season with salt, sugar and pepper to taste.

– Cover and cook till the mixture comes to a boil.

– Add this point, is the sauce seems too thick, add half a cup of chicken stock or just plain water,or more till you get the consistency you like. Cook for another 5-10 minutes.

– Add in the seared chicken pieces and toss lightly.

– Take it off the heat. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve with steamed rice.

Foram’s parathas were a little more spicy than I would have liked them to be….but yummy all the same!

The Potato filling:

Peel and boil a couple of big potatoes. Mash them when cool. Heat a little oil in a skillet. Fry chopped red onions with ginger-garlic paste. Add in the potatoes and season.

Meanwhile mix water and flour together to form a soft and springy dough. Divide in equal-sized balls. Roll out in circles. Place a handful of potato filling in the middle. Wrap the edges of the rolled out dough on top of the filling. And carefully roll out the stuffed ball again.

Heat a little oil in a flat pan (tava) and place one of the stuffed parathas on it. Turn about a minute later till both sides are golden brown and the flour is cooked thtough. Serve hot with mint chutney or chilled cucumber raita.

Blogoversary

I finally got to celebrate my Blog’s birthday!!

A whole year of not much fat-freeness!! Yahoo.

Like I mentioned earlier, the first anniversary went by in February, and I had been too swamped to even whip up a simple something.

Fat-Free Brainwaves had humble beginnings.

My first post was dated February 1st, 2008. It was about fried hotdogs. That’s right. Of all the things I’ve ever made or learnt, one of the first things I tried to cook for my very own party was chopped chicken hot dogs in a flour-egg-oregano batter.

My friends had actually looked at me in disbelief when I had announce the blog’s web address to them.

“A blog?” asked Udit.

“What? You’re gonna write your secrets in it or something…?”

A big burst of laughter followed….

Honestly, I didn’t know. All I knew was that I wanted one. What would I put in it? I hadn’t asked myself this question.

Back in February 2008, we were in the middle of Final Year Thesis, just recovering from the battering that we undergone from our Thesis Guides and Professors on the presentations of our poorly thought-out design concepts. We had little time to think of anything else, let alone blog, websites and magazines. The only typing we were doing at the time was meant exclusively for our Thesis Books and briefs.

And in the middle of all that, setting up a blog seemed like a waste of time and maintaining would have been quite impossible. But I just had to have a place to put up all the photography and design work that I’d done.

And then food happened.

I had learnt too cook basic meals from Mom…on the phone. So, I decided to add all the my mishaps and haps in the kitchen to the blog, along with design and photography. Its been a whole year (a couple of months more) and I can’t wait to hit the 30,000 visitors mark!

Yesterday, me and Fauri, like true Indians, cooked up a whole deep-bottomed-pot full of phirni.
Chocolate phirni, at that!!

Phirni (firni) is technically a custard made out of reduced milk with sugar and rice flour, stuffed and garnished with dry fruits.

Its heavy, sweet oh-so-sweet and you can try out a ton of flavors, if you’re willing to experiment.
Phirni, is usually flavored with mava (dry milk), which is something most Indian sweets are made out of.
Our version is flavored generously with bittersweet chocolate…..wat else?

Ingredients:

– 1 litre of full cream milk
– 4 tablespoons of rice flour
– 2 tablespoons of ground almond
– Good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped into 1/2′ pieces
– 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
– 4 tablespoons of brown sugar
– half a cup of almonds, slivered
– half a cup of walnuts, chopped
– a pinch of saffron
– whole cashews, almonds and raisins to garnish
– 1 tablespoon of rose water

How To:

– Add the rice flour to 1 cup of cold milk and stir well to dissolve, remove all lumps. Keep aside for about 15-30 minutes.
– Heat the rest of the milk on low heat. Add the sugar, ground almond, saffron and the rice flour-milk mixture. Stir well. Make sure no lumps exist.
– Heat the milk till the mixture thickens into a custard. Coat the back of a spoon with the custard. Run a finger across the back. The custard is done when your finger leaves a clean line across the back.
– Stir in the almonds and walnuts.
– While the milk is reducing, melt the chocolate pieces with butter in a bain marie.
– Stir the chocolate into the custard. Mix well.
– Spoon out the custard into ramekins or bowls.
– Garnish with slivered almonds, raisins, cashews, etc.
– Sprinkle the rose water on the surface of the mixture in each ramekin/bowl. this is best done by dipping your fingers into the rose water and flicking the droplets on the surface. Rose water here is not for flavor, just for aromatic purposes.
– Chill in the refrigerator for 3-4 hours, before serving.