Making sense with sunflowers

I turned a year older last week. But that is of little consequence. There are people who won’t, there were people who didn’t, turn a year older this year. There are lives, half-lives and still-breaths under skies riddled with missiles. The same blue skies from which planes fall and smash into bits of DNA. Snakes and ladders; that’s all it seems to be sometimes. If you can dodge a bad dice, you might be lucky enough not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time – born on that cursed strip in Gaza, seated on that plane flying over Ukraine, or walking down an empty road filled with daily dangers. And then, and then – you get to have a birthday.

So I look at sunflowers. When things don’t make much sense, when the news is a constant flow of abject misery, I look at sunflowers. Sunflowers make sense. Their orbs are filled with positive, yellow purpose; you can see why the world would need them. And you can see why a man who cut off his own ear, and later shot himself dead, needed to paint them. Sunflowers are made of hope.

As I look at them now, I can see three layers of petals around that dark brown centre. The petals are smooth and shiny like the insides of my wrist. They’re artlessly innocent in their brightness. The dark brown centre, however, is not so innocent. The dark brown centre is spiky, more deliberate. Textured for attention, for touch. Together, they make magic.

Each yellow whorl of my sunflowers sits slightly skewed, like a pile of mismatched china plates, so the rim underneath can show through. An artsy disarray; just the right amount of messiness. I can imagine nature putting the first sunflower together like an installation art, working to a haphazard jazz riff, whilst blowing smoke circles into dusk light.

Sometimes, you need the uncomplicatedness of cliches. And you need evolution to create flowers that clone the sun. So that whenever there is an eclipse of human nature, you’d have sunflowers to look at. In a white vase, in a safe room, where most things make sense most of the time.

If you’re lucky, you’d also have good food on the table, and family around it. Food that is familiar, comfortable, and as uncomplicated as strong stalks of sunflowers in clean water.

Today, everyday, I’m grateful for that.

Coconut & Garlic Chicken Broth

This is a simple recipe that I first cooked up many years ago in Calcutta; one of my kitchen experiments. It was an experiment that stuck. I have cooked it many times since, and it’s always as good as it was all those years ago. If you love coconut and garlic, you will love this as much as I do. You can, of course, replace the chicken with fish or vegetables, as I often do.

Ingredients

1 kg chicken
1.5 cups of freshly grated or dessicated coconut
1 white onion, thickly sliced
1 tomato, chopped
7 cloves of garlic, minced
2 green or red chillies, chopped
A bunch of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 dry red chillies
2 tbs vegetable/sunflower oil
Salt

Boil the chicken in water with salt and 2 mashed cloves of garlic.
In a pan, heat 2 tbs of oil. Add the peppercorns and dry red chillies.
When the peppercorns start to sputter, add the onions. Stir for 2 minutes, then add the tomatoes. Give it one stir and take pan off the heat.
In a blender, whizz the coconut and remaining garlic into a paste with a sprinkle of water and 1 tsp salt.
Take the boiled chicken off the heat, and put it in a serving bowl.
Into the chicken broth, spoon in the coconut paste, the onion and tomato mix, coriander leaves, and chopped chillies as needed.
Stir it all in. Serve with steamed rice, or on its own.

  

 

The windows are open

I think I can say it now. It’s summer.

IT. IS. SUMMER.

It’s summer because my toenails are blue.

All my socks are in the drawer.

Chotto-ma went to school in her pyjamas and bedroom slippers today (It’s Pyjama Day)

Our clothes are drying on the clothesline instead of the radiators

Everyone’s eating on pavements. And smiling at strangers.

Our room is all happysillysummery.

The evenings look like mornings.

We decided to move house. (Yeah, it’s our summer thing)

D has a heat rash on his neck (A heat rash. Hear?)

We spent an hour at the V&A, and the cool felt good. (Cool? Good? In England?)

 We had ice-creams and beers by the Serpentine. That felt good too.

We’re sleeping with the windows open at night.

There’s jazz in the park, and hampers on the grass.

And the most that I have cooked lately, are things that cook by themselves.

Sujoc spiced chicken & summer vegetables

It’s a one-dish, so all you do is put it in the oven and let it cook. You read a book. You watch the light outside go from four-o’clock-yellow to six-o’clock-white. And then you take it out. And you sit in the morning-like-evening, with a bottle of chilled Pinot. And you tuck in.

Summer makes me hungry for more. Of everything.

. . . . .

Ingredients ( I used vegetables I had in my kitchen. Feel free to add the ones you have in yours.)

4-6 chicken thighs
8-10 slices of chorizo
2 carrots, diced diagonally
2 potatoes, diced in circles
6-8 plum tomatoes, whole
6-8 shallots, whole
6 cloves garlic, crushed
A sprinkle of raisins
A drizzle of white wine (about 2 tbsp)
1 tsp sujoc (Or, soujok/soujoukh is available in most Middle Eastern shops. If not, the spice is a blend of fenugreek, cumin, garlic, black pepper, paprika, red chilli)
A few springs of basil (I used the fragrant, small-leafed Greek Basil)
Sea salt

Pre-heat your oven at 180 degrees C.
Put everything into an oven proof dish, and mix. Turn the chicken skin-side up. Tuck the chorizo under the vegetables.
Cover with foil, and put it into the oven for an hour-and-a-half.
Take off the foil, and put the dish back into the oven till the chicken is done, and the skin is crispy.

Leave me the leftovers

I’ve always liked leftovers. They would nudge me to be creative, to look for possibilities. To make whole old nothings. When leftover pieces of fabric are turned into a patchwork blanket, it becomes the best blanket your linen cupboard has ever seen. The blanket that you keep.

This spring, I enrolled for an art course. And it turned out to be a masterclass in leftovers. We met in a big room, next to the river, with a high ceiling that peaked in the middle. Exposed beams of old wood. A long wooden table battered by years of art. Shelves and drawers that spilled over with paints, brushes, scalpels, lethal liquids and things that you would (wrongly) assume had nothing to do with art. The room’s pièce de résistance was a large window, which let in sumptuous natural light, views of the water and of lunchtime joggers. In that room, and around that table, sat an odd assortment of twelve people, including an author of crime fiction with a deep interest in tulips. Our teacher, a lovely woman with a passion for the Incas, started the first class with a simple instruction. Don’t draw, don’t paint. Explore and research. Surely an unexpected turn for an ‘art class’? We looked at one another, each hoping the other knew what to do.

But soon we were dipping twigs, wires and feathers in ink, swirling toilet paper in PVA glue and brushing varnish on a savoy cabbage. At home, things which earlier would’ve been binned, were kept aside for the next class – leftovers from a sheet of bubble wrap, apple peel or egg shells. I looked at everything and saw TEXTURE. I would have an orange juice from the market stall, then ask for the peel and pulp.

Finally, by the end of the art course, the odd assortment of people, had created an odd assortment of beautiful things, while inspiring, and often humouring, each other.

I made ‘tea’. With bits of gauze, used teabags, red lentils and anything else within arm’s reach. Here’s my imprint of leftovers from the room by the river.

But in the kitchen, my love of unfinished bits and bobs is no secret. At the end of a meal, my mother-in-law would often watch me put away leftovers, with trepidation written large on her face. Because, leftovers from four dishes would not be stored in four separate boxes, but one.

I could literally taste what they could become when put together. Fill a frittata? Bake in béchamel? (stop with the alliteration already!) Anyway, the taste would in my head long before it was on my tongue. Soon, my mother-in-law began to enjoy the surprises that the little leftovers brought to the table. Her shoulders stopped tensing when I packed food away. She would just smile with a little shake of her head – here we go again.

Here’s one of my favourites – my ‘Everything Stew’. Perfect for the day when all you have left are leftovers, and very little time. So go on, scavenge! You’d be surprised what your fridge and wine cellar can come up with at short notice.

The Everything Stew

Ingredients

Apart from the red wine, which you do need, this list is really yours to make. It depends on the vegetables you have at home, the meat in your fridge, throw in some tofu or halloumi, or paneer if you have some. Make it vegetarian if you want. Use whatever you need to finish off, whatever is closest to their expiry date. This is what I had on hand:

6 cocktail sausages
4 chicken thighs
3 strips of bacon, sliced into smaller strips
6 brown chestnut mushrooms, halved
8 stalks of tenderstem broccoli
½ cup peas
100 gm halloumi, cut into cubes
1 onion
1 large tomato, cubed
4-5 cloves of garlic,  lightly crushed
1 bay leaf
Small bunch of parsley, chopped
1 cup dry red wine (I used a Pinot Noir)
1 cup water
1 tsp pepper, coarsely crushed
2 tbs olive oil
A pat of butter (optional)

Heat oil in a heavy wok or saucepan, which has a lid.
On medium heat, sauté the halloumi till lightly browned. Spoon out of the oil and keep aside.
Add sausages and bacon to the oil. Brown them on all sides. Spoon them out and keep aside.
In the same oil (add some more if you need) add the onion, garlic, pepper and chicken. Sauté till the chicken is lightly browned.
Add the tomatoes, the cup of water and the bayleaf.
Adjust the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 8-10 minutes.
Add all the vegetables, Pour in the wine. And add half of the chopped parsley.
(Since I used vegetables that cooked quickly, I kept them for the end. But for something like florets of cauliflower, brown and soften them in oil earlier in the cooking process)
Gently simmer, without the lid, till all the vegetables are cooked.
Take pan off the heat. Stir in the halloumi, sausages and bacon. Add the butter if you’re using it.
Put the lid back on and let it stand for a few minutes, so that all the flavours soak into the broth. Transfer into your serving dish, garnish with the remaining parsley, and serve with pieces of crusty bread.

Serves 4