Monday, November 02, 2015

A Rough Guide to a Tomato Soup

We could have grown up eating/drinking something but never have had more than a vague idea, if that, about what went into its making. Despite cooking for myself ever since I set up home, there are some things that I haven't made very often with success. I usually try them, give up, don't attempt it for years, then try again, give up, don't attempt ... you see the pattern emerging. Along the way, I even forget this particular dish exists, unless I have it somewhere else, or someone asks me to make it, which is when I make another supreme effort, and end up with a decent or even winning formula. This tomato chaaru/ rasam/ soup is one such.

Earlier this year, my niece and her parents came to spend a week with me in the summer. My
sister-in-law said my niece had liked the tomato chaaru her aunt in Hyderabad had made and that she would likely relish another bout of it. How did that aunt make it? What followed was a rough guide - a little bit of this and that and that. Since the summer, I have evolved my own prescription for it and I am glad to say I have arrived at a combination of ingredients that makes a flavourful, spicy, thin soup, just the way I like it.

You will need

Tart tomatoes (I use the country/naatu varieties, you can add a few hybrid ones for their
colour)- 8-12
Shallots/onion, chopped - about 1 tbsp
Tamarind - 3-5 pieces, soaked just enough to be moistened
Green chillies - 2-3
Salt - about a teaspoon of iodised salt, to begin with
Cloves - 2-3
Garlic, smashed, without skin - 3-5
Pepper, powdered - 1/2 -1 tsp
Coriander powder - 1.5 tsp
Jeera powder - 0.75 tsp
Curry leaves
Coriander - a big handful, chopped roughly

Make a plus sign in the tomatoes and boil them in water till the skins burst and you can peel
them off easily once they cool.

Puree them smoothly.

Add all the ingredients mentioned, except the coriander, as much water to thin down the puree as you like it, and boil very, very, very well.

Keep tasting it as you go along and add more salt or the other powders if it doesn't taste
quite right. If this is the first time you're making this and wonder what you should look for,
look for a slightly sour but mostly spicy taste.

Once you decide you are done with it and take it off the stove and transfer it to a serving
dish, add the chopped coriander and cover it. You can savour it in a cup, or eat it with rice
and papads, or sauteed/fried vegetables, or even kheema (minced lamb).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Eating Out Etc in San Francisco

This blog turned nine last week. I'm glad I've kept it going, even though the number of posts is vastly diminished as compared to a few years earlier. Thanks, dear readers! What better way than to celebrate with a report of something that combines travel and food! 

In July, I went to San Francisco rather unexpectedly, for just five days. This, of course, is the Golden Gate bridge but I was put up in a hotel fairly close to the piers so I managed to walk down to them everyday and take in the sights and sounds a fair bit.

This is my second trip to San Francisco. The first one was in 2003. My cousin and I spent five days there and did quite a bit - apart from visiting the city we went to Napa Valley and Yosemite too. This time, I spent three days in the city on work and spent two more days with a friend who lives outside San Francisco, just relaxing and exploring the little town of Lafayette where she works.

This shot is from a farmers' market at Ferry Plaza. Aren't they vibrant, these macaroons?

Don't you just love going to farmers' markets? I do. I even like going to grocery stores. I visited quite a few grocery stores in Lafayette and got my first pack of farro from there. 

I didn't buy any vegetables though I bought a lot of fruit at the farmers' markets and other stalls along the piers.

Tomatoes galore! I enjoyed seeing the variety.

Our hosts took us to this Italian restaurant where we ate a lot of ravioli. This ravioli in a basil tomato sauce was filled with ricotta cheese and spinach. This dish is vegetarian.

I think this was lamb or beef. Probably the latter.

This was ravioli with chestunuts in a butter and sage sauce topped with crispy pancetta.

This snaky vegetable was at one of the stalls in the farmers' market. There wasn't anyone around for me to ask what it was.

The first time I'm seeing rhubarb in the flesh. In the original form, that is. I've had a rhubarb pudding a long time ago.

I had been looking for tamales at Mexican restaurants here in India but had never found one. I was still in a tamale mood when I found a stall at the farmers' market on Ferry Plaza. It was filling but really very bland - I went on adding chillies to it from the accompaniments that were available. I may not have it again.

This is a pharmacy. It was quite a task to spot the medicines amidst all the food that swamped the pharmacies - and there were several of them around my hotel. The food wasn't restricted to fruit and breakfast - there was chocolate, there were vegetables, deli food, quite a variety.

This was a starter at a nice but crowded restaurant our hosts took us to in Sausalito. It is made up of kale, jicama and pecorino.

I've seen too many of these blistered peppers on friends' timelines and so did not pass up the opportunity to order a plate. They were very nice and mild, and occasionally a hot one would pop up. I would have eaten everything if it weren't for the fear of a runny tummy from the hot ones.

I was surprised to find out that this was what the restaurant called salt cod fritters. I've always imagine fritters to be flat, or like pakoras.

This was the wild rucula, medjool dates and gorgonzola pizza we had there.

And this, the Black Mission Fig with goat cheese and frisee. 

It's always a lot of fun to meet a blogger friend. I think of them as old friends who I'm meeting for the first time. ET, who has also been blogging for nine years, at Evolving Tastes, and I met the day I was leaving San Francisco. We met at Ferry Plaza, my luggage in tow. She treated me to lunch at the Mexican restaurant there. I had a bean taco and a shrimp taco. 

This was a pink lemonade in a shopping complex in Lafayette. I liked how the malls in California were not multi-storeyed but spread out. I rarely consume juices or drinks in India. But the ones in CA really had me thirsting for more. They were flavourful and not weighed down by sugar. I even had a couple with lavender in them. I think I would like to go back and try some more.

This was the lunch I treated myself to as I was roaming around Lafayette's main street. Tomatoes baked in feta with olives and walnut toast. Not bad at all!

And I leave you with this. No, I didn't dare.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Plum Post

This post could have had many other headlines: I Grilled A Cake, How My California Dream Died, Holding On To A Memory - and Failing, Salvage and Redemption, etc, etc. You get the drift.

I went on a work trip to San Francisco last month and was housed in a hotel fairly close to the piers. At Ferry Plaza, I came across a farmer's market twice during my 4-day stay there. On Pier 39, there was a fruit stall that carried glorious cherries and strawberries and several other fruit.The farmer's market was full of plums and peaches and I tasted each variety and bought lots and lots of fruit. The fruit was very sweet and juicy, unlike the tart plums and peaches we get here in India.

I should have left it at that and not tried to convert a memory into a reality, however impermanent. I came back the next week and promptly bought some small plums (locally known as alubukhara, I think) and four big ones. They are sometimes called nectarines, but mostly, they go by 'plum'. What's in a name, though? They were as sour as ever. California slipped away a little more.

There was no way I was going to strip the enamel off my teeth any further. I set about looking for recipes where I could use them in a cake or a pudding and came across several. Some of them were for something called a plum buckle. Naturally, I knew that was what I would try as I had never before come across anything called a buckle. It seemed fairly easy to make too.

I combined a few recipes I found on the Internet. I marvelled at my brainwave to use Yakult as a substitute for the buttermilk the recipe demanded. I was slightly perturbed when the plum pieces sank in and didn't look like rubies studding the batter, as they did in the pictures on the Internet. They will rise when it bakes, I told myself. I was not overly worried that the sugar still helped its crystal shape. I put it in to bake.

Almost immediately I smelt it burning. I thought it might have been the sugar melting - in the pack I used, the sugar came in large crystals and I added a little extra because the plums were really, really tart. "Do not overthink everything, just do it," I told myself (channelling my friend, not Nike), and resolutely let the timer tick 25 minutes off the dial.

The burning smell did not cease to waft. I gave in at the 26th minute, switched off the oven and checked. The top was charred. I stuck a knife into the centre and it came out moist. I baked it some more and cooled it for an hour. Then I flipped it over and while it looked really pretty, like a plum upside down cake, it was all gooey and eggy as the batter had not baked all the way to the bottom or all around the cake. It was a wonder it held its shape even after being flipped.

And then I noticed that the oven was in 'Grill' mode from a previous experiment, not in 'Bake' mode. No wonder the top got charred right away! No wonder it didn't bake all the way down or around. I changed the setting on the oven and baked it for 20 minutes.

I cooled it again, cut and discarded the charred portion, scraped the rest of it into a box and took it to the Refuge of Failed Experiments (aka The Office) where my indulgent colleagues ate it, giggling, and even complimented me. Though one of them took the trouble to tell me he didn't like it, and that one had to have imagination to call it a cake. I forgave him.

After all, I had been resourceful. Earlier, such experiments would have gone straight into the dustbin. I would have been sick with guilt over the time, materials and money wasted on the effort. But now, I had made the most of a bad deal. I had managed to get it out of my house where it would serve as a reminder of my guilt and managed, instead, to create some 'colleague delight'. I had forgiven myself by doing all this. And I will not forget to check the settings on the oven in a hurry, here on. I managed to get it out of my system.

What lessons did your dessert-gone-wrong teach you?

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Just Peachy, This French Toast!

Oh yikes! I can’t remember which of these pictures is the pre-baking and which the post-baking one. But I shall begin my post nevertheless.

I have mentioned my grandmother quite a few times in this blog. Her breakfasts were quite surprising, I now realize. Growing up, I thought they were normal. Crisp ootappams with tomato sauce, thick, well-browned chapattis served with a jaggery-sweet and tamarind-sour onion gravy,  and dosa with lime pickle, not chutney, and especially not coconut chutney. Toast was another regular item on the breakfast menu. By toast, I mean French Toast, but back then, we just called it toast. I am pretty sure it was called Bombay Toast in my other grandmother’s house. Only much later, I learnt it was called French Toast across the world.

Now I learn French Toast is not just French, though it got the name ‘pain perdu’ (lost bread, literally) from French bread, in whose nature it was to go stale quite quickly. Lots of nations had thought of this sweet, puddingy mixture earlier, and ‘retrieved’ or ‘recovered the loss’ by soaking this bread in a mixture of milk and eggs and then frying it.

When my grandmother made this, it was quite a treat even though it was a regular. When I was a kid, freshly baked bread wrapped in butter paper would be brought around homes from the bakery. A man called Rahman from Hanuman Bakery would come on his cycle, box attached to its rear. There would be fruit bread too, with tutti-frutti in it. And bun. If the bread hadn’t been sliced that day, we would slice it with a red-handled bread knife. Bakery or us, we would slice it pretty thick, and it wouldn’t disintegrate like today’s does on being immersed for just a few moments in the eggs and milk. It would come off the skillet moist and hot and sugary, patches of brown adorning it where it got a little too roasted, and transport me to heaven.

Neither our cook back home nor I have been able to recreate that taste, but I keep trying when the mood strikes me, and am often disappointed. It is flimsy, and no amount of sugar can make it sweet enough. I rarely eat bread, and the loaves are too big for my liking so when I am not giving away the majority of it to the person who works for me, I try to make some French Toast. Bread upma, too, but maybe I’ll have a story about it another day.

Last week, it seemed as if the stars were in alignment for me to use up some bread which had seemed ‘perdu’ the moment I opened the pack, just an hour after I had purchased it from the departmental store. It was rough and dry. I masticated my way through four slices over two days and could take it no more, when the local newspaper carried a recipe for French Toast casserole.

Of course, I did my own thing with a few substitutions. To begin with, it was a slow cooker recipe; I only had an oven. I had opened a pack of tinned peaches to make dessert for a potluck a few days earlier. I had bought the peaches (and pineapple and cherries) in May to make something for guests but never did. I used up quite a few things that were lying unused around the house. The recipe below contains my substitutions, while the rest is from the newspaper. (No credit was given, probably because it was no one person’s invention. The Internet is awash with recipes for French Toast casserole.)

Whole eggs - 2
Egg whites - 2
Milk – 1.5 cups
Honey - 2 tbsp
Cinnamon – ½ tsp
Plain white bread – 10 slices
Salt - a teensy weensy pinch

For the filling:
Tinned peaches, chopped roughly – 3 cups
Honey – 3 tbsp
Lime juice - 1 tsp
Almonds and cashews, chopped – 1/3 cup
Raisins – a handful
Cinnamon – ½ tsp

Put the first six ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Lightly spray the inside of a slow cooker with non-stick cooking spray or grease lightly with oil.

Combine the ingredients for filling in a small mixing bowl and stir to coat peaches; set aside.

Cut bread slices into triangles. Layer a greased dish with some slices, add some of the filling and repeat until there are three layers of bread. End with a layer of filling.

Pour the egg mixture over bread. Bake for about 30-35 minutes at 160 C

It was nice enough and I had it for breakfast for a few days. It tasted good both cold and warm. You can have it for dessert too. Bon app├ętit!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Things I Am Learning, Making, Doing From the Internet - 2

So I've figured out that this is a nice way to break what seems to me like interminable silences on my blog - put out a record of stuff that you've learned from the Internet. Barbecued poha, fantastic chicken curry, a discovery of ramen, there's quite a bit on the menu.

The most recent was this poha mixture, which I thought started off well, but in reality absorbed too much of the smoke from the ingredients that I fried ahead of mixing them into the poha. It tasted downright barbecued by evening. Repairing it by adding some more plain poha helped but I had wearied of the project by then and I gave it away.

Then, very unlike myself these days, I craved some spicy chicken curry that would remind me of homely flavours. I looked for 'Andhra Chicken Curry'  and came across this recipe. At first, I thought I would use the commercial garam masala that I had stocked in the kitchen, but found a lot of comments in that post saying the masala recipe given there was just right so I went ahead and made it, with good results. This is never how chicken curry looked in my home but it always looked like this at many others'. I followed the recipe to the T, didn't even stint on the amount of oil as I usually do.

I got very fascinated by ramen noodles (instant noodles) just before the controversy about many two-minute noodle brands being contaminated in India broke out. One recipe I read suggested not using the tastemaker in the noodles, but cooking them up with vegetables et al. I had also finally bought a bottle of Sriracha after hearing so much about it on the Internet.

I was very, very disappointed that the Sriracha (I learn it's pronounced Seeracha) was quite ordinary, another version of the 'hot and sweet' sauce that most brands in India carry. I thought it would be Something Else! Now I've got a huge bottle (there weren't any small ones) and no appetite for it. Gah! And the noodles? The less said about them, the better. Suffice it to say they tasted of upma!

I attempted my hand at a microwave mug cake. As usual, I plunged in headlong, the recipe a half-baked (pun wholly unintended) affair of vague memories from the Internet and my own callousness of not checking it once more. I used two tablespoons of floor, a small pinch of baking powder and two eggs. I arranged some nuts at the base of the baking dish and poured the batter in. After it baked, I warmed some plum jam with water and poured it over the sauce. It was tough, inedible. I threw it away.

Finally: It's not often that I get to hear of dishes that have been made after reading my blog. Finla of My Kitchen Treasures saw a picture of the fried eggs my aunt had made for me in the US and replicated it with her own choice of herbs and spices.

Here is Finla's picture, which she was kindly sent me. She added chives and Turkish pepper.

And here's my aunt's version, with dill and chives

What have you been making, learning, doing?