Monday, March 18, 2013

The First Time Happiness Bubbled Over - The Fifty-2 Weeks of 2013

Let's call it The First Time I Remember Experiencing Total Happiness. Many people say it's the day they had their child or the day they got married or the day they got a job, a carat(s) (or carrot(s), but not a stick), or the day that was marked by similar achievements, but for me it's nothing big like this.

This is something I persevered with and accomplished. Many times since, I've thought to myself that this was one of my happiest moments. Some of you might remember reading of my foray into cooking. You can read about it here.

I was waiting to join the University and needed to do something with all the free time I had, so I took up baking. Without knowing the ABC of anything culinary, of course. There were no blogs then to tell us how fulfilling baking bread was, and the few recipe books that we had at home didn't have much in them.

So I bought a book and would sometimes try out the cakes and desserts. Apple and ginger souffle. Caramel pudding. Devil's food cake. Pumpkin halwa. One of them was something multicoloured, and involved creating a dent(s) in the pudding by weighing it down with another vessel(s) - the hollow(s) that formed after it set was filled with other colours. Something like that.

 There were other confections that needed yeast. The bakery we patronised stored dry yeast and I bought a packet. I would religiously soak it in hot water, count out the sugar grains (yes, I've been watching my weight forever), slip them into the cup and wait for it to rise. Twenty, thirty, forty minutes would go by and nothing would happen. It would stink a bit but that was it, there were no bubbles, nothing to indicate it was working. It would lie there muddy and despondent, and it mirrored my mood.

I even have a recipe that involves yeast on the blog, you can find a recipe for Qatayef, stuffed pancakes here.

 After a few tries, I asked the owner of the bakery why it wasn't working. He said, "You have to use warm water, not hot water. You're probably using hot water. If you use hot water, the power of the yeast will go away," he said in his Malayalam-accented Telugu, his hands mimicking a running-far-away action.

He was right. I had been using boiling hot water and it was killing off the yeast. I went back all recharged and followed his instructions. The yeast worked beautifully. I still remember gingerly going back into the kitchen and peeping into the dish with great trepidation. There it was, tiny bubbles on the surface, a little bit of white foam, and a smell so yeasty it seemed nothing less than fragrant in that flush of triumph. I could see some movement too! I must have used a steel katori or a cup but it was nothing less than a petri-dish that day!

I don't remember what I made with the yeast but I do remember a savarin that was a great success, it could have been that same day or later.

Now tell me, what was the first time you felt total, total happiness?

This is my entry this week to The Fifty-2 Weeks of 2013 Project.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Of Failures, Going Back to My Roots and All That

Over the last one week, I had a spate of culinary misadventures that took me back to ordinary, everyday stuff. As I'm always trying out something new, and I cook only every other day or once in three days, I don't make too many dishes traditional to where I grew up, except dal with some vegetable or greens in it. The nice part about that is that they always remain special that way.

Last Sunday, I plonked myself down in front of the TV and patiently cut up half a cabbage and two onions for "Zunaka", from a cookbook of the West Coast. The Indian West Coast, that is. I tended to it patiently, trying not to shudder when it turned a sludgy green-brown after 2 tsp of chilli powder and 'jaggery to taste'  went into it. Then I added the asafoetida.

Now, I have some 'pure' asafoetida from my trips to Delhi and Dubai which I powdered - I stumbled on to a blog post for that and it was useful, though my house stank for the better part of the day and my eyes burned  - and The Spouse swore that it wasn't him but the hing (asafoetida) that turned the sambar bitter. I was determined to prove it wasn't the hing so I used it in the cabbage. I can be cussed sometimes, so I used a large pinch as the recipe dictated knowing rather well I should have used just a smidgen because this was 'pure' (not cut with wheat and turmeric).

Bitter defeat.

That's not the end of the recipe or the cabbage dish. The recipe also said to add about 1.5 or two cups of gram flour/besan in small lots and keep frying it till it turned dry. By the time I finished adding about a cup, I knew the dish was going into the bin. Neither had the besan masked the bitter taste of the dish nor had the besan itself cooked. The Spouse smirked, I scowled and we dumped it after it cooled down.

Only as I write, it strikes me that my next set of misadventures too involved besan. Half a kilo of it was consigned to the flames in two days. I set about making something called paat vadi, a Maharashtrian dish which seemed easy enough. The first time, I got the instructions wrong, involving nothing less than an entire cup of oil, so the recipe went wrong. I tried persevering but it didn't taste right. The next time, which was just a few minutes later, it just didn't work out  - is it supposed to remain slightly under-cooked, or how should I test for doneness? I don't know because in both attempts the finished product tasted raw. I don't see how I could have cooked it further. I dumped all that too.

My friend V berated me in both instances that I should not follow any recipe to the T. I should use my brain, instead, she said. You should read through it and then decide, she said. I told you so, she said. Well, I don't know about brain but  I'm a much humbler person now. My confidence in even simple things such as cooking has taken a beating and I decided any culinary effort for the next few days must be tame, ordinary.

So I ended up making this

At the back is dal with greens, a cabbage and peas stir-fry and on the left is the dosakaya (lemon cucumber) chutney.

I have made dosakaya chutney only rarely and decided to refresh my memory about the method before I launched into it. So I Googled and my search led me to this recipe which was most interesting because it had a tip which I hadn't known of earlier: grind the 'seed jelly' along with the chillies and toss the raw pieces of cucumber in it.

In a nutshell, how you make it is: Peel and dice two cucumbers into thin pieces. Test seeds and pieces for bitterness. Scoop out the seeds and reserve them. In some oil, fry urad dal, mustard seed, a little bit of fenugreek, salt and many green chillies and a few red chillies. Add some tamarind to this, the seed jelly and grind it. I stayed away from the asafoetida and used garlic instead. Mix this with the cucumbers. Fry some more urad dal and top the chutney with this for some crunch.

It was great, and very much like what I am used to at home.

Then I made a dondakaya (tindora/ivy gourd/coccinea) chutney. Fry some jeera/cumin, tamarind, green chillies and lots of garlic in about 4 tsp of oil. Add sliced tindora to this (about 350 gm) and saute until brown spots appear. (I wouldn't cook it completely as it needs to be slightly resistant even after it's ground, for texture - traditionally, the entire mix is tossed into a grinding stone, given a few thumps with a heavy pestle and that's it - the chutney is thus ready.) Grind it all. Temper with some red chillies and urad dal.

And then, there's the tomato chutney we make.

Fry lots of tomatoes and garlic and green chillies in oil, grind with salt, and tamarind if the tomatoes aren't sour enough, and temper with mustard, curry leaf, cumin and urad dal in a teaspoon or two of oil. That's it!

We eat these chutneys with rice. The tomato chutney has other applications too - idli, dosa, and such absorbent snacks.

Truly, these past few days I've been feasting on the chutneys, like never before, well, at least in a long time. And if you're mulling over this post, will you please tell me what went wrong with my zunaka and my paat vadi?