Monday, June 27, 2011

A Century old tale, a dollop of parental love and a recipe for Posset

This occurred sometime in the period between 1910-1920 somewhere in the heartland of Tinneveli district (present day Tirunelveli) in South India.

Chembulingam Nadar was a notorious bandit who had gained a cult status as a robin hood like figure. Driven to a life of crime after  tragically losing his wife in a feudal skirmish, he had made it his mission in life to rob from the rich and give to the poor. He still held his standards of gallantry though, never killing women & children, instead pinning their ears together with a lock through their earlobes. No such guarantees for the menfolk, who were at the mercy of his flintlock revolver. His reputation was such that he would apparently send out an advance notice to the house he intended to loot and sure enough, with clockwork precision, strike at the appointed hour. His turf extended from the Western Ghats all the way to Travancore (Present day Thiruvithamgoor in Kerala). In a sense, his threat was the equivalent of the terrorist threat we face at airports today. In those days, the equivalent were bullock carts instead of Boeing jetliners, but the terror factor was still the same. Traveling between the small towns & villages meant playing a game of Russian roulette. One never knew if or when Chembulingam & his gang would swoop down & pillage.

Seetha was a middle aged widow in Tinneveli, embarking on a life altering journey. She was escorting her teenaged  married daughter Bhageerathi  for the first time to her future home and her husband Sundaram, an erudite school teacher.

Seetha had always dared to be different. Bhageerathi was her third & youngest child,  left fatherless at the  age of two. Even as she raised her two older sons to adulthood, she had held on to her baby girl, treasuring her, ensured that she received an elementary education, & enduring censure from society when she had waited for her daughter to reach the ripe old age of twelve before marrying her off. The median age for marriage for Brahmin girls in those days was about eight.

When Bhageerathi was about eleven, Seetha had chosen a semi literate groom whose dowry demands were within her means.  Although she was relatively better off than the average brahmin family, there was a higher price to be paid for an educated boy, which would have set her back more than what she was comfortable with. As soon as she had bethrothed her daughter & sent over a generous set of silver pots and other appropriate offerings, her sharp ears picked up the buzz about the  boy''s family reputation. "Oh you'll be seeing your daughter soon enough, she'll be harrassed and sent back... in a box". That was it, she ordered her sons, Bhageerathi's older brothers, to march there & inform them that the engagement was off  , would they please return the stuff she'd sent them!!! Never gave a hoot to the ensuing wave of wagging tongues. She then paid a visit to Sundaram's family, accepted their demands & gave her daughter away in marriage.

Now that her daughter had crossed the threshold into womanhood, the time had come to escort Bhageerathi to her new home. Seetha's sons were  in Ceylon, in the quest for new business opportunities and it fell upon Seetha to undertake this journey alone. She hired an ox cart, piled it up with all the gifts & provisions she had given her daughter that would be required in a new home, dressed her daughter in fine clothes & set off.

Half way into the journey the ox cart driver turned back to face Seetha. There was no need to say anything. His ashen faced expression & his trembling hands loudly expressed and confirmed Seetha's worst case  nightmare scenario..  Chembulingam & his gang were in the vicinity.

Her limbs trembling, she ordered the cart to stop and desperately prayed to her family deity for help. She had come this far and was determined to be a tiger mother. She would protect & fight for her young daughter's safety with everything she had. She nervously shuffled her cargo around & asked the driver to resume his journey.

Sure enough the cart was stopped, the oxen reined in taut by two ferocious looking thugs. As  the others manhandled & roughly shoved the cartman aside, Seetha came face to face with the dreaded Chembulingam himself. As his bloodshot eyes scanned her possessions, she pleaded for her life..'Vayasaana Paati appa, karunai kaati vithudu' (I'm an old woman, please have mercy on me & let me go). Chembulingam paused, gave the cart & her belongings another quick scan  and dismissively replied 'Elaaiy.. motta kelavi varkattai eduthutu povudhu, viddu ley' (Colloquial tamil, roughly transalated as 'YO, its an old tonsured widow goin' somewhere with brooms, lets go').

Needless to say, the poor oxen were taxed to fullest and galloped out of there as fast as their legs would carry them.  When they reached their destination, Seetha handed the cartman his fare and proceeded to unload her belongings. After this she  bent down and stuck her hands into a little compartment built into the cart for storing feed for the animals. She then yanked out her darling daughter,  flicked the straw from her hair and escorted her inside, all adorned & decked in about 100 sovereigns (~ 1 kilogram) of  gold jewelry. The quick witted woman had looked the dreaded bandit Chembulingam in the eye, lied through her teeth and gotten away with it!

Chembulingam went on to plunder many others and give away his loot to charity. He met with, and was greatly influenced by the 19th century Irish missionary Amy Carmichael and even entrusted his daughter to be raised by the missionaries at the Dohnavur fellowship. He was eventually hunted down and killed by the British, but tales of his legendary exploits still live on in present day Tirunelveli a 100 years later.

As for Seetha, her mitochondrial lineage & legacy lives on through her female descendants in the United States a 100 years later, and will continue through her great-great grand daughters, two beautiful cousins, one a beautiful, intelligent & talented doctor in the making, and the other, a cherubic, bright eyed, mop topped toddler with a penchant for chomping ice cubes and offering giggle inducing sound bytes like 'Mamm Mamm say cheese' when I, Seetha's great-grand-daughter, set up my latest recipe creations to photograph for this blog.

Bhageerathi, Sundaram Iyer  & 2 of their kids, circa 1920s

Stories of courage, determination & love abound within all our families. I recently came across a poignantly beautiful article from, published recently, symbolizing a father's love & support for his daughter, written by well known culineer & cookbook author Raghavan Iyer as a tribute to his late father. The masala milk described in the article combined with a surefire formula for posset by Mrs Larkin yields the inspiration for this weeks recipe.

Posset is a custardy pudding that traces its origins to medieval England. The original versions were simply boiled spiced  milk curdled with ale or wine. In present times, it is a silky velvety custard (minus eggs) with a hint of tartness from the lemon juice used to curdle the cream.

My version of posset uses Palm jaggery (panam karupatti in Tamil), in a nod to this yummy sweetening agent used commonly in Tirunelveli even today. Please feel free to substitute with regular jaggery.

For the Posset, you need:
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup Jaggery
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/4-1/2 tsp powdered cardamom
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Combine the jaggery with 2 tablespoons of water and melt in a microwave till completely dissolved. Strain and set aside.
Heat the cream with the cardamom,  and jaggery. Taste to determine sweetness & add the confectioners sugar, a tablespoon at a time to required sweetness. Stir to completely dissolve the sugar. allow  the cream to come to a boil. Take care to ensure that it does not boil over.
Remove from heat and add lemon juice stirring the mixture. Allow to cool for 15 minutes.
Strain & pour into individual ramekins and allow to set in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
Garnish with pistachio shavings and serve chilled.

Bon appetit

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tea, Tikkis & Tiffanys: A Review of Monica Bhide's 'Modern Spice'

Image Credit:

 This exercise may remind you of that memorable scene from the  movie 'A time to Kill' but bear with me..
Close your eyes & picture yourself as a child visiting a friends house for tea. Try to think of something that your friends mom served that was so delicious & mouthwatering, something you never had at home. A  taste so unforgettable, you longed for the time you could enjoy that treat again.. just let yourself swim in those memories....' SNAP OUT OF IT'!

Question:  During this self imposed daydream, did it ever matter to you which part of the country your friend was from? Did you care if the food served was Tamil, or Gujrati, or Bengali or....? (applies to readers who grew up in India) All that stood out was that it was unforgettably delicious. At that moment of time, the food being analyzed by your taste buds & nose was for all practical purposes, just Indian.

 Even as we chafe under the (partially true) global perception that Indian food is primarily of Punjabi (or at-least northern Indian) extraction, some of us (& I count myself in this set) tend to overcompensate by specifying the origins of the dish by geographical markers. The unintended consequence of doing so, is that rather than generate an interest & willingness to try a new dish, it may intimidate. As much as we like to claim that we are Indian first and Gujrati, Bengali, Maharashtrian next, it seldom shows up in cuisine. The first bite of any dish should gustationally scream 'INDIAN' not Parsi, Goan, Malayali.

 As I write this, there are Indians rejoicing in reflected glory about Chef Floyd Cardoz's victory on Top Chef, and in particular, that his prize winning dish was the humble South Indian Upma with the usual semi derogatory connotations about its origins. Chef Cardoz's brilliantly elegant Upma Polenta was Indian in every sense of the word, and it is this spirit that I would like to discuss Monica Bhide's book  'Modern Spice: Inspired Indian flavors for the contemporary kitchen.

There is an entire generation of Indians who have grown up to primarily recognizing two names in cookbooks, viz, Tarla Dalal & Sanjeev Kapoor, The former is a diva of regional cuisine, divided statewise, and the latter, a demi god with a contagious passion for all Indian food. Their contributions are priceless in preserving the old school & traditional recipes, but if Indian cuisine has to take its rightful place alongside other great culinary traditions, it has to be an integrated cuisine. Indian food, as opposed to  East, West, North and South Indian.

Monica Bhide is quite possibly one of the brightest rising stars in the Indian culinary horizon. She is as much at home rubbing shoulders with culinary giants such as Jose Andres & Sanjeev Kapoor as she is fielding questions and comments from a slew of over enthusiastic bloggers via her facebook page and her website. An engineer by academic training, she is the author of three successful books and writes extensively about food, traditions & culture for major publications.

Modern Spice is one of those books that takes its time to sink into, and when it does, completely enchants you into falling in love with the stories and recipes contained within. Its a beautifully balanced set of  essays and anecdotes from the author's life, interspersed between a collection of about 120 unique recipes.
At first glance, some of the recipes may well elicit a comment of  "oh this, c'mon its so simple/humble, I make it practically every week" . And yet, it escapes us that this very simplicity is what makes it so delicious & memorable.

The recipes contain a collection of day to day simple yet memorable dishes that we live on & look forward to at an intimate family dinner or a gathering of friends. The thoughts and words and (some) recipes are those of a wife, a mother, a nervous graduate student rather than an established author, and Ms. Bhide excels at communicating this in the book. Just as the reader warms up to the fuzzy home made creations, the creative streak of the author becomes evident in such novel dishes as the savory cheesecakes (baked in phyllo pastry shells) paired with a red pepper and tomatillo chutney. And I've not even begun to describe the array of delightful offerings in the beverage section such as the guava bellini and Tamarind Margarita, attributed to Chef K.N.Vinod of Indique Heights in Chevy Chase, MD.

The essays speak to, and relate on a personal level with the reader. Reminiscences of the author's childhood in New Delhi, of her 'dadi maa' lovingly crushing rotis before feeding her children & grand kids at dinner, or one of my favorites (something I completely identified with personally), her love affair with 'chaat masala', and the quest to locate and retain for the long term, a suitable 'supplier'... of ready made rotis in the US! The quirks that everyone of us is endowed with, and makes us human.

We may choose to brush aside day-to-day fare with the notion that its just something cobbled up, (as the author's friend Vrinda, -- the source of the dish "V's P's"--  does) or take pride in its simplicity and ability to nourish us physically and emotionally, for that is real cooking. Chef Cardoz & Ms. Bhide recognize  it and its time we all do.

Taking a leaf from yet another essay in the book about mismatched mugs, I'd like to conclude this post with a lovely pick me up tea time offering from the book: Potato-Peanut tikkis

 served with a side of store bought Tamarind chutney (a.k.a Maggi Tamarina sauce) and Chaat masala!

and a cup of ginger tea.. Served up in my best mugs, a gorgeous set that I had picked up 12 years ago from Tiffany & Co (and never ever use!)

 Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen is available in the US thought and  the Indian edition is available at bookstores though out India.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cilantro biscuits

Aah summer... one week into the 80 F weather & I'm already complaining about it! Having said that, the heat is simple one of the many many aspects of what characterizes summer. Summer is the time for vacations. Growing up in India, It meant making good on those railway reservations that fathers had made in early march, (I'm NOT getting into the inefficiencies of the Indian Railways in the 1970's..), or if you were one of those privileged, yet solidly middle class kids like me..taking your chances on the 'subject to load' staff passes that Air India generously offered its employees.

For about 4 hours, you were pretty much pampered in luxury, beginning with the 'maharaja' lounges at the airports (accessible to managerial executives with business class privileges) where they'd start the feeding process with finger foods such as cream cheese sandwiches with chutney, tiny samosas & those delicious savory  puff pastries..IF & ONLY IF there were empty seats on the flight, which was a 50/50 possibility given the heavy summer traffic.  One had to take into account that you could be making multiple trips to the airport and even (thankfully remote) offloaded the airplane after you were buckled in, simply because a fare paying passenger had rushed in 2 minutes before the counter closed & had to be given an upgraded seat because economy was full!...I remember breathing sighs of relief only after the wheels lifted off! & then the feeding began...Elegant service using linen,  real silverware & fine  porcelain!

Believe it or not, airline food was something to look forward to in those days and still is relatively quite pleasant on most Indian carriers even today..quite unlike the horrendous 'greyhound buses on wings' that fly the skies here in the US of A. And yet, ' airline - bashing' is a national pastime for a lot of people from India. The very same individuals would probably smilingly accept the worst non reclining seats (32 B, E or a higher number on a non wide body aircraft) seated next to an absolute ***(take your pick of your least favorite co-passengers in this category) for a cross country red eye & wouldn't let out a peep, traveling on carriers from other countries (oh yeah... you know who you are!!)!

Back to food, there was almost a separate genre of food prepared for train travel. The  basic specs for these were that it had to keep well for at least 2 days and had to taste the same or better yet improve with age. This category eliminated most cooked dals and semi liquid  curries, relying instead on dry vegetables to be paired with deep fried breads (which remained moist through the journey) , or chutneys & 'thuvaiyals' (if you were of south Indian extraction) with rice well seasoned with sesame oil.

Fast forward a decade into the 21st century, as much as a number of us travel to India for vacations, we also have our parents traveling to the US to spend  precious quality time with us. For the more traditional & vegetarian set, it often is a challenge to find suitable food while traveling to some of the beautiful destinations across the US. At times, even as one gives in to pure decadent junk food at Denny's & IHOP, a tinge of guilt creeps in when you see your In-laws or (especially) your own parents, nibble on a piece of dry toast with country crock, and reluctantly force themselves to finish the side of hash brown you so enthusiastically ordered.. ("just add some pepper amma, its exactly the same as potato curry"), yeah right, and all the while they know for a fact that the griddle was frying a juicy strip of bacon just before their potatoes landed on it!

Its often at times like these that one wishes that some of the beloved staples such as muffins and biscuits could be ordered in  Indian flavors (and eggless to boot) . I had been toying with prototypes for this idea for a couple of months now and a breakthough came about when Food52 posted this simple and elegant recipe for cheese biscuits. The original recipe calls for the use of a stand mixer (which I've yet to invest in), so tried to mimic the technique manually with good results.
It involves no eggs (except for the egg wash that gives the biscuit a shiny finish on top) which makes it perfect for a South Indian adaptation. The cheese in the biscuits is replaced by home made coriander 'thuvaiyal'.

As we all know coriander, that Indian kitchen staple is the first to turn into a slushy slimy compost sitting in the fridge. The minute the leaf is blended into a chutney, it starts losing its vibrant green color unless an acid such as lime or tamarind is added. and even then, its probably the condiment with the shortest shelf life. To extend the shelf life, the leaves were sauteed prior to grinding to reduce the water content and then ground to a thick pesto along with toasted urad dal, mustard and tamarind (remember using citrus would be adding extra liquid, so that is out!)

For the Cilantro pesto ('thuvaiyal') you need:

3 cups cilantro leaves packed (the stems tend to be fibrous and does not lend well to the biscuit's texture)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 tablespoons dehusked split urad dal
2 dried red arbol chiles, broken into pieces
Salt to taste
1/2 a pod of dried tamarind pulp or 1/2 -1 teaspoon tamarind extract
A pinch of asafetida.

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a skillet and add the mustard seeds and Urad dal. When the mustard seeds pop, add the dried chiles and asafetida. Stir till the urad dal turns a deep golden brown. Remove & transfer to the crinding jar of a blender. Allow to cool.

In the same skillet, add the remaining oil and add the cilantro leaves and allow to wilt completely (the leaves will turn a dark shade of green). Lower the heat & keep stirring the leaves around to prevent them from getting burnt (~ 3-4 minutes). Transfer to the blender jar. Add salt & process till you obtain a smooth paste.
Transfer to a glass storage container and allow to cool completely before sealing the container (to avoid condensation).

For the Cilantro biscuits (technique adapted from Merill Stubbs recipe for cheese biscuits) you need:

3 1/2 cups  all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
2 tablespoons baking powder
2  teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/4 stick cold unsalted butter cut into small cubes
1/4 cup cilantro pesto
1 1/2 cup buttermilk.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Mix the flour salt and baking powder and chill the mixture in a fridge for about 30 minutes. Add the butter and cilantro pesto/thuvaiyal to the flour mix. Rub between your fingers to incorporate till there are tiny pea sized pieces of butter dispersed evenly in the flour. Add the buttermilk and mix till the dough just comes together.

Transfer to a floured board and knead gently with floured hands. Pat or gently roll to make the dough into a rough circle about 1/2 inch thick.

Cut into 3 inch (I used a 2 inch biscuit cutter) circles using a biscuit cutter. transfer to the lined baking sheets and bake for 20 minutes (turn the trays half way through the baking to ensure evenness.) till the tops are golden brown. (the finish will not be as glossy as in the recipe for cheese biscuits since there is no egg wash brushed over the biscuits). Remove from the oven & allow to cool. Serve warm with a pat of butter.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tambram Comfort food: Vetha kuzhambu & Usli

One of the more memorable dialogs (very euphemistically put) I remember between my parents, growing up went something like this:

Appa: 'I almost always end up being fed 'vetha kuzhambu' & 'chutta appalam' whenever we visit your mother'
(try to imagine the indignation rising within my mom on hearing this)
Amma: What were you thinking?, you keep eating all that garbage at every station that the train halts and ruin your stomach..  And you expect to be fed Payasam??

This happened every year up until my grandmother passed away. Every summer vacation, we'd fly down to Madras (present day Chennai) and board the Tirunelveli express for a day long trip, Appa had this encyclopedic knowledge of the signature food items that were sold in each & every stations, be it  fruits, baby cucumbers, coffee, masala vadai, or Poli (a sweet dal stuffed bread). What made it all the more exciting was that, eating out was one sin short of blasphemy amongst the Tambram community in those days, and that too buying from the vendors... woah, unspeakable!!

And so Appa would arrive in Tirunelveli in less than optimal shape and my grandmother would quickly whip up (you really could not make faces and roll your eyes at the son-in-law, although I'm willing to bet she probably was thinking.. 'Here we go again'..) a soap stone pan referred to as a 'kachchatti' (or kal (stone)  chatti (pan)) and cobble up this amazing gravy using dried preserved veggies, tamarind & finished with EVSO (Extra Virgin Sesame Oil, also known as 'chekk yennai'), I'd hope that appa wouldn't polish it all off, since this delectable treat only got better with time!

Vetha kuzhambu is a tamarind based gravy almost exclusively reserved for near and dear ones. In fact, in many homes, its a faux pas to serve this to guests. Etiquette requires that guests are served gravies like sambhar & rasam with dal. and this is especially true when the revered sons-in-law come to visit!!
The reason behind why this may be regarded as unsuitable for guests is that it is made with ingredients that probably have more in common with preserved pickles. Tamarind is acidic and any veggies in it are of the salted preserved kind.

This 'poor mans gravy' doesn't offer too much in the nutritional department, its forte is taste. Tart, spicy, redolent with the heat of peppercorn and a touch of sweetness from jaggery, that cuts through the acidity of the tamarind. Its often paired with mashed spinach or amaranth greens and served with rice.

why do I bring the guest aspect?  lets see....In this one year of food blogging, one of the most delightful discoveries has been the exposure to so many other food bloggers, a lovely supportive set of individuals whom I've never laid eyes on, an anonymous support system encouraging, advising & goading one another to put their best food forward! Some of my offerings here have been posted for the specific purpose of sharing on other blogs (like the artichoke dishes on, or the cranberry rasam for D at Yet again, its D who's been instrumental in encouraging me to share this recipe, based on a casual conversation on Chefinyou's Facebook page. In theory, one should never be dishing out dal-less gravies for such a fabulous supporter, but that's exactly what I'm doing in the virtual sense..D' if we ever meet face to face, I owe you a fabulous 'Saddhi chaapadu' ( a full 3 course festive  meal). Until then its vetha kuzhambu, panfusined of course.

The discussion that started it was this gorgeous dish that D had created, Butter beans with tomatoes using thyme as the defining spice. One comment led to another & D had convinced me to share this with everyone. Its been a keeper dish at home for quite a while now.. Thyme & Sundried tomatoes, two  Mediterranean outsiders taking center stage in this traditional Tambram gravy.

It's paired with a Rapini Usli.

Rapini is a common vegetable in Southern Italy and is most commonly prepared by lightly sauteing in oil with crushed garlic, salt and pepper.

For the Thyme & Sun dried Tomato Vetha Kuzhambu you need:

4-5 pieces sundried tomato, cut into strips
2-3 sprigs Fresh Thyme
2 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp Ajwain seeds
1 dried arbol chilli broken in two
1 pinch asafetida
1 large marble sized lump of tamarind pulp
1 tbsp Sambhar powder
Salt to taste
2 cups water
1/2 tsp powdered jaggery (or sticky brown sugar)

In one cup of water, soak the tamarind pulp till soft, squeeze to extract the pulp and discard fibrous residue and seeds.
heat the oil in a pan. When almost smoking hot, add the mustard, Ajwain seeds and red chilli. when the mustard seeds sputter & pop, add the sun dried tomato strips and the thyme leaves (stripped off the stem).
Saute till the tomatoes appear to brown and then add sambhar powder and asafetida.
Stir well to incorporate and then pour in the tamarind pulp.
Add salt and the remaining water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add the sugar/jaggery.
Cover pan & allow to simmer for about 5-10 minutes.

Transfer to a serving dish.

Rapini Usli.
1/2 cup tuvar dal
1/2 cup chana dal
2 dried red chillies
12-15 curry leaves
1 pinch asafetida
Salt to taste
3 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp dehusked split urad dal
1 bunch Rapini greens

Soak the Dals in warm water for ~ 1 hour
Wash the greens, remove the buds & the tender leaves, chop & set aside.
 Drain the dals, add the red chili, curry leaves, asafetida and salt. Process to a coarse paste in a blender.
Transfer to a microwave safe dish. Rinse out the blender jar and add the water (~ 1/2 cup) to the paste.
Nuke in the microwave for about 5-7 minutes till the paste cooks into a solid mass. Allow to cool and crumble the lump of par cooked dal.
Heat 2 tbsp oil to smoking hot in a large wok. add the mustard seeds and urad dal. When the dal turns golden, add the crumbled dal and stir fry it till it starts crisping up and changing color.

Simultaneously, heat the remaining oil in a skillet and toss in the rapini greens to wilt.

Transfer the greens into the wok, stir to combine the dal & the greens well.

Lower heat & allow to cook till the flavors blend. Transfer to a serving dish.

Serve with plain rice. Bon appetit!


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