Saturday, August 27, 2011

Waterfall showers & spices

Ask any South Indian about Courtallam & the first thing you'll hear is getting soaked under a waterfall. Yes, growing up, the teenage years brought forth raised eyebrows & wisps of condescension about a crowd of people getting drenched under falling water fully clothed, but then one really has to experience it to form a truthful opinion, and chances are that it would be a positive one.
The day trip to Courtallam was a reward for the young 'uns for patiently bearing with us for the previous days temple visits. (which is material for a separate post, coming up in the next couple of weeks).
Packed a brunch for the kids, while setting off early morning from Tirunelveli , risking the possibility of venturing into unknown street food territory in an unfamiliar little town. Boy, did that end up almost  being the highlight of the trip!
The village of Courtallam lies nestled in the shadow of the Deccan plateau range on the border between the Southern Indian states of Kerala & Tamil Nadu. The main attraction is the multitude of gorgeous waterfalls that cascade down from the mountains, In fact the name Courtallam is synonymous with the waterfalls. We picked the one named 'five falls' to let the kids loose & it was delightful. Pure, clean, crystal clear rainwater cascading over rocks & onto ones head... Jacuzzis can take a HIKE. It did not take much persuasion to hand over the DSLR to the car driver & dive in... Fully attired (which seemed to be the dress code, In fact, my 2 yr old drew plenty of attention to herself outfitted in swim diapers & a tiny swimsuit, stuck out like the proverbial Yankee tourists!). It is mandatory to scream at the top of ones lungs, simply because that is the only way to breathe. The cascading water is pretty forceful!

The only negative aspect about the otherwise delightful experience is the tendency of the  visitors to use this landmark as a communal shower!, They come armed to the teeth with massage oil, shampoo & soap (despite plenty of signs posted to refrain from doing so)! net result, the downstream turns into a murky disappointing sight.
As with most tourist sites there are a profusion of shops selling deep fried goodies & plenty of fruit vendors. One of the most delightful (& healthy) brunches that I've ever enjoyed. A true picnic...

Freshly Pickled & 'porcupined' mango

Toddy palm kernels (served in an eco friendly boat made from palm fronds), Add a cup of the fruity, floral & sweet toddy palm sap, & you're set for the day. fabulous start to a unique breakfast!

Thats the entire shop...a huge basket with a large pot of toddy palm nectar known as Neera
huge bunches of toddy palm fruit & an evil looking sickle to cut them open, all loaded onto a motorbike..

Weighing out 1/2 a pound of fresh Rambutan!

The sweet sour & extremely tannic wild  rose apple..resulting in a  purple stained tongue at the end of the pigging out session. thats the pit of the wild fruit on my palm.

Hungarian wax pepper... before (above)

and after (below),
Now that would have been a great contribution to Food52's chili pepper themed contest!

Deep fried lentil vada

Pickled Malay gooseberries..(as puckeringly tart as it gets, the salt & chilli pepper do nothing to stop the extreme face scrunching induced by biting one of these!)

Pickled mango (Above) & the non stinky cousin to the durian.. the Jack fruit

 & the star attraction... The ever present, thieving Coutallam monkeys!!

Coming up... The spice market!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Faith, Fritters and airline food reviews,

This has been my first extended trip since I started this blog and the first thing that one notices is the sudden change in a routine that revolves around food. The  advantage ,is that the destination is India with its glorious cornucopia of food offerings and its a delight to see food at every turn! The flip side is that one can't decide what to focus on. I'm settling on  a "little bit o' this, a li'l bit o' that".

  Nice flight to Mumbai on Air France via Paris.

 Lesson #1: It doesn't matter which airline you fly, chances are that  the asian vegetarian meal  will most likely consist of an entree with cumin flavored rice, a yogurt based dumpling curry & Stir fried okra. Seriously, been on 3 different carriers and each time this has been the standard offering on the EWR- Europe leg! The Orzo pasta was tasty but had a texture somewhat resembling raw rice flour!

The first leg ended on a stop at a remote bay and when I say remote, I swear,  the plane was parked in the next  town, it took 10+ minutes to be bussed into the terminal.

The next leg had non descript food uploaded from Paris, a biryani that tasted like it was cobbled up with yesterday's leftover rice. Air France's selection of wines is pretty decent.

The breads, good to eat (it was WAAY better than the polythene sealed mass manufactured stuff you get on most Americal carriers), better to look at , but hey, its cattle class fare, you get what you pay for!

Spent the next 4 days in Mumbai battling jetlag & getting my bare bones basic kitchen up & running. Its a weird feeling when the home is soo familiar, and yet you have to get everything up & running from scratch. it invariably takes you back to  pangs of loss, the painfully sharp realization  that Mommy isn't around anymore to go back home. And yet, the innate foodie  within is already looking for ways to make the best of whats available. Rounded out the week with a religious ceremony celebrating Varalakshmi, he goddess of prosperity. Adorned my right wrist with a yellow sacred thread and cobbled up a simple offering of lentil fritters (recipe follows)

The flight to the southern city of Chennai was on Kingfisher Red, The discount arm of Kingfisher airlines.
They do not have a meal service, but do sell food on board. The vegetarian offerings: 

1. Kathi rolls 

  This was basically a grilled wheat tortilla / roti wrapped around a curry.  The filling was a vegetable dish consisting of cauliflower, carrots, potatoes & onions with a tomato base and a strong spice note of cinnamon. It tasted like something one could whip up at home easily. but there is no way a home made version of the kathi roll would tolerate a chewy leathery texture of the roti. One can just as well see this filling in a cylindrical strip of pastry dough, which would probably retain its flaky texture at 30,000 ft!

2. Paneer Hariyali.

A trio of grilled offerings falling victim to the trend of adding vernacular tags to the name, that have very little descriptive value with respect to the dish. The red part was grilled pineapple chunks and paneer, marinaded in a spicy red chili based marinade. The sweetness of the pineapple paired very well with the spicy chili and the paneer was soft & chewy. I would not mind ordering this in a restaurant!.

The middle section was a 'what were they thinking??' thought evoker!  Stir fried cabbage flavored with cumin stuffed inside a roomali roti & grilled. The roti covering was chewy & the cabbage was not an optimal pairing.

The grilled Hariyali (green) paneer part was quite satisfying. The paneer was well marinaded in a yogurt based marinade resulting in  soft chewy chunks that paired well with green peppers (which were a touch too soft).

 The desert of rice pudding was well left alone.. sweetened wall paper paste!

Lentil Fritters:

you need:

1/2 cup rice
1/4 cup split Urad  dal
1/2 cup Split mung dal
1/4 cup dried pigeon peas (tuvar dal)
1/4 cup chana dal
Salt to taste
1 sprig curry leaves
2 dried arbol chiles
2 cups oil for deep frying.

Soak the lentils in warm water for about 2-3 hours till soft. Add the Salt,  curry leaves and the chiles and grind to a coarse paste in a food processor.

Heat oil in a wok. When hot, drop spoonfuls of the batter into the oil & fry till golden brown. Remove the fritters onto paper towels to absorb excess oil. Serve hot with your choice of chutney & a cup of steaming hot masala tea.

Bon appetit!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Agni's Flames & Creamy peanut Butter pie - A tribute to Jennifer Perrillos husband, Mikey.

When I had listed this weeks post  as 'something new' this was the last thing on my mind. To be honest, I no longer remember what I was going to post.

We bloggers secretly vie with each other for posting the most chirpy sounding pieces of writing, overflowing with happiness simply because a happy post spreads cheer, Soft focus photographs of food and the drool inducing descriptions thereof. It is seldom that we want to touch a topic such as loss. The first time I saw a food related article that talked about death was Chef Raghavan Iyers tribute to his late father in the food magazine Gastronomica. Food related to funerary events are seldom discussed in blogs, and not many have the courage to post these, and I'm no exception. It is a HARD topic to discuss gastronomically.

Food52 has a regular monday feature called Jenny's in the kitchen, by Jenny Steinhauer, a LA based correspondent for the New York Times. The details of the dish she highlighted are fuzzy, (her choices are usually fabulous, like the Feta, basil & Mint Pesto that I had posted a couple of days ago) what stood out was the heartbreaking news that a fellow blogger Jennifer Perrillo had lost her husband to a sudden heart attack.
Jennifer Perrillo is a Brooklyn based recipe developer & Food blogger. One of her memorable recipes posted, for fresh homemade ricotta, is what I instantly associate her with. It looked good enough to dip a finger & scoop out of the screen! Her way of paying tribute to Mikey, her late husband, was to make his favorite peanut butter pie. Her recipe (which is vegetarian) can be found on her blog link. This recipe is adapted from hers, although I did take enough shortcuts.

Cardamom & Saffron flavored Peanut Butter Pie.

You need:
1 readymade8 inch  frozen Pie shell
1 bar Godiva Dark chocolate with mint
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup plain full fat cream cheese
1/2 cup condensed milk
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds
10-12 strands saffron
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
Chocolate curls for decorating (mine were rather straight)

In 300 F oven bake the frozen pie shell till its golden brown.
Melt the chocolate bar (break it into little pieces first) along with the butter (microwave in a glass bowl for ~ 1 minute). Using a silicone brush, brush the chocolate onto the bottom & the sides of the baked pie shell. Place in refrigerator, while you prepare the filling.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the peanut butter, cream cheese & confectioners sugar till smooth. add the condensed milk & cardamom powder & mix to combine well.
Combine the saffron & the heavy cream in a separate bowl & whip using a beater till stiff peaks form.
Add about 1/3rd of the whipped cream into the peanut butter mixture & fold in. (it makes incorporating the rest of the cream easier). add the remaining cream. Ladle the mixture  onto the cold pie shell and refrigerate at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.

As I take Panfusine across to India for the next month, I'll be thinking of you & your girls Jennie, and saying a little prayer for your family at each temple I visit. Thank you Jenny Hartin, Shauna Ahern & Food52 for bringing out the human, the empathy & caring in each one of us bloggers.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Something old....

Its that time of the year gain, the heat, humidity & the general enervation that goes hand in hand with summer. But, as tiring as the heat can get, Lets face it, we do not have to resort to the freezer for vegetables & that is always a good thing.
I've resolved that I'm going to treat myself to fresh produce as far as I can & fortunately, I found this awesome place, Hillsboro farm that grows & sells uber fresh veggies and its incredible to rediscover what a fresh homegrown tomato tastes like. Incomparable! So, for the time being the cans have been canned in favor of Fresh.
Of course, its no use talking about fresh if you don't have a recipe to do the flavors justice, for starters, take a look at this article from the New York Times by Mark Bittman on  Proper ways to treat an Heirloom. And, fortunately there is no dearth of applications for how to dress a tomato!. The first is  a traditional Italian recipe for a simple Tomato sauce,  and the other,  a traditional (well, as traditional as a Panfusine recipe gets anyway ;-)) South Indian tomato 'thokku' or relish, spiced up with roasted jalapeno.The point to note is that the techniques for both these almost stem from an identical starting point and yet, the end results are a culinary world apart.  Just take a look at this video from food52.

I came across the first recipe on Its an unbelievably simple recipe for a tomato based pasta sauce with exactly three ingredients (not counting the salt). This was the first time, I confess that I heard the name Marcella Hazan, but she's rightfully regarded as the ultimate authority on Italian cuisine.
To give you a brief idea of the person behind the dish, here's an excerpt from Craig Seligmans review of her book Marcella's Italian Kitchen from

Who wouldn't be a little bit intimidated by Marcella Hazan's revulsion at "the pallor of deep-freeze counters, those cemeteries of food, whose produce is sealed up in waxed boxes marked, like some tombstones, with photographs of the departed"? By her dismay at the "undiscriminating condemnation" of that "vital substance," salt? ("When I try something new, even after I have seasoned it to my satisfaction, I sprinkle a touch more salt on a separate biteful.") By her wholesale rejection of cold pasta? ("If I had invented pasta salads I would hide.") By the exuberance of her disdain for innocent cinnamon? ("I loathe cinnamon, so the less said about that the better.")
For more than 25 years now Marcella Hazan has been goading, browbeating, hectoring, shaming and, not incidentally, inspiring her readers into preparing Italian cuisine the proper way, which is to say, according to the traditional methods of the Italian kitchen. I use all five of her books all the time, but my favorite is her third, "Marcella's Italian Kitchen," in which she starts to break away from the wrist-slapping classicism of her groundbreaking early volumes, "The Classic Italian Cook Book" and "More Classic Italian Cooking," and lets her imagination play a little.

Image credit: Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter: (

In the interest of full disclosure, the measures used were strictly approximate, I'm sure Marcella would approve!

1 kg ripe tomatoes
~ 6 tbsp butter
1 large onion, cut in exactly 2 pieces (bisected)
Salt to taste.

Heat water in a large pot & bring it to a boil. Drop  the tomatoes, piercing them with a knife. When the skin splits, remove them carefully, allow to cool and peel. Add to a blender & puree.
In a large saucepan, combine the tomato puree, butter, salt and the onion. Simmer until the  puree is thickened to the consistency of sauce and the butter floats up in little droplets. (stir it  back in). Remove the onion halves (which are spectacularly delicious, just smooshed up with left over rice). Serve over pasta.

Tomato relish with smoked jalapeno & arbol chile

In the true spirit of nothing ever should go to waste, my thrifty grandmother would buy up the less than perfect 'yesterdays' tomatoes from the vendor, striking up a good bargain, & invariably, this haggling session would be followed by a heavenly aroma of tomato chutney brewing from the kitchen in the afternoon. The tartness of the tomatoes is complemented well by the smokiness of the toasted arbol chiles. In addition to the dried arbol chiles, my variation includes roasted jalapenos in the mix for an extra kick. I pair this with anything from toast to mixing it with plain rice. Although this would work with a can of crushed tomatoes , nothing compares to making this with ripe heirloom tomatoes fresh from Hillsboro farm around the corner from home.


3 pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes
4 Jalapeno peppers
4 dried arbol chiles
1/2 cup Canola oil
1/2 teaspoon Asafetida powder
1/2 teaspoon Turmeric powder
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
2 sprigs curry leaves (~ 20-24 leaves)
1.5 teaspoons brown sugar
kosher Salt to taste (~ a tablespoon) 
Set a large pot of water to boil. When it comes to a rolling boil, add the tomatoes, allowing for the skin to split. Remove the fruits carefully using tongs and cool down enough to peel the skins off. Remove & discard the top scar from the tomatoes. Set aside.

In skillet, toast the arbol chiles till they just begin to brown, Set aside. Add the fenugreek to the same skillet and allow to toast to a reddish color. Lower the heat and add the curry leaves. these should curl up & dehydrate without browning. Set aside to cool. When cool combine the fenugreek, curry leaves & the arbol chilies & grind to a fine powder. Set aside.

Roast the jalapeno over the stove top till the skin blisters. Drop into a paper bag (ensuring that there are no smoldering ends!) to cool & rub off the blistered skin off. Cut, de-seed, chop and add to the blanched tomatoes. Blend the two into a puree in a food processor.

Heat the oil in a skillet. When smoking hot, add the mustard seeds to sputter. Carefully pour the jalapeno/tomato puree and stir in the asafetida, salt & turmeric. Boil off the liquid from the paste until the oil starts oozing from the mixture. (the consistency will be that of a thick paste) Add the sugar and the arbol chili spice blend (adjust as per taste & heat tolerance) and mix to combine.

Cool & store in clean glass jars in the refrigerator. The heat from the chili peppers tends to mellow down overnight. Given the variations in jalapeno heat, I'd advise starting with two  & adding more half way through the cooking process if you prefer. 
Serve with just about anything.. (I love it on toast!)

Bon appetit!

Next week:  Something New!

Monday, August 1, 2011

660 curries & Paneer Chettinad

I'm willing to bet that there is a significant percentage of the New York born & brought up folks who've never visited Ellis Island & the statue of liberty. Ditto with Mumbaikars who've never taken to boat to Elephanta Island or the Prince of Wales museum (I count myself in this category) or Delhiites who've never seen the Qutb Minar up close!
Its a lot like that with food & cuisines as well. Leave alone cuisines from different regions of India, there is a significant variety to be found in the use of ingredients & techniques from community to community & chances are, while someone would have sampled a wide array of dishes from a cuisine far from their native set, they would have no clue about flavors from other communities within their own!

I've always considered my self extremely fortunate in that there were no restrictions whatsoever to tasting different cuisines and street foods (vegetarian of course) growing up. My fondest memories of childhood include outings with Appa for the sole purpose of noshing on chaat & other street foods. Amma would tag reluctantly behind, enjoying the family outing, but still tempered with a tinge of Tambram (tamil brahmin) guilt at openly pigging out on food prepared by 'outsiders'.. in other words, non kosher stuff!
As extensive as my exposure was to North Indian cuisine, food from other South Indian communities like chettinad food  was something I seldom had a chance to eat, leave alone make. Perhaps its because the cuisine includes meat & fish, something that is taboo in traditional brahmin cooking & hence the whole idea of making  food from other South Indian communities at home is sidelined to the backburner.  It has been only in recent years that I've come to appreciate other south Indian food such as Chettinad cuisine & boy, do I love it!

 I believe the right recipe is required for an initiation to any new cuisine & boy!, I may have just found one of the best recipe books ever for such a task. I'm referring to 660 curries by Chef Raghavan Iyer. If ever there is a book that will make you fall head over heels in love with food that you've been eating all your life & taken absolutely for granted, this would be one of them. I ordered this a month ago with a view to posting a review, but  got so enchanted by just reading individual recipes & the delightful head-notes preceding them that I'm finding it hard to be objective. But yes, I plan to post the review in the next couple of posts. Till then I'll sign off with a recipe NOT from the book, a  recipe for Chettinad Kozhi (chicken) which so caught my eye that I just had to find out for myself what the combination of flavors would yield. The poultry is replaced by paneer.

This is  not the first recipe for paneer chettinad & it certainly will not be the last. but given that Paneer is not an ingredient used in Southern cuisine, it makes for a beautiful fusion of flavors & textures. In essence, a dish just simply & elegantly Indian!

Paneer Chettinad (adapted from 660 curries by Raghavan Iyer):

You need:

1lb slab Paneer cut into 8 rectangular wedges (stab the pieces with a sharp screw driver a few times to allow for the marinade to soak through, yeah yeah, go ahead, vent on the paneer ;-))

For the marinade

2 tbsp Chana dal
1/2 cup plain yogurt
2 tsp black peppercorns
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
3 cloves garlic
Seeds from 6 cardamom pods
2-4 Dried red Arbol chiles
2 inch piece cinnamon

For the gravy:

4 tablespoons oil,
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 red onion, sliced thin
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves
2 green chiles, slit

1 tsp tamarind paste
1/2 cup shredded coconut

Toast the chana dal in a skillet till they turn reddish brown & begin emitting a nutty aroma. Combine with yogurt, peppercorns, salt, turmeric cardamom, red chiles, garlic & cinnamon in a blender jar and grind to a smooth paste.

Pour into a wide dish and immerse the pieces of paneer into the marinade. Cover & refrigerate for about 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a non stick skillet and setting the heat on high, gently place the pieces of marinaded paneer to brown well on both sides (Shake off extra marinade prior to searing the paneer. the residual bits marinade will turn brown as well, but does not affect taste as long as the residue is removed). Reserve the marinade.

While the paneer is browning, Heat the remaining oil in another pan till smoking. Add the mustard seeds, allowing them to pop. Lower heat and add the sliced onions curry leaves & green chiles. Saute till the onion begins to turn golden brown around the edges.

Add the pieces of browned paneer ,

and the marinade to the onions. Cover & simmer for about 8-10 minutes.

Dilute the tamarind paste with 1 cup of water and add to the gravy, and continue to simmer for a further 10 minutes till the flavors combine.

Remove the paneer pieces and arrange on a serving dish.

Increase the heat and reduce the sauce till it gets thickened (~ 3-5 minutes). Stir in the coconut, and pour over the paneer.

Serve hot with a side of plain rice or biryani.

Bon appetit!


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