The promised bread

So here it is, the bread I promised last week. It’s a bit of an odd bread, this. In fact, it might not be much of
a bread at all. Maybe it should be called a loaf. It’s a bit undecided, even in its disposition – not wholely sweet, nor stubbornly savoury.

But in that I-don’t-really-know-who-I-am demeanour, the unsureness, lies its real charm. I am still talking about the bread.

This bread is a quirky one.

I like things quirky.

Quirks make me feel comfortable. Like a patchwork blanket where the squares don’t perfectly meet. Quirky blankets, quirky bread, quirky people. They are who you put your feet up with. Even if your sock has a hole. Hell, sometimes it’s all about the hole.

I can make my daughter happy just by cutting a hole in a piece of paper, and having her look through it. Suddenly, the world looks a little bit quirky, a little less regular. And it makes her giggle and giggle.

And, I am still talking about the bread. The loaf. The loafy bread. Oh, call it what you will, but I promise it will make you put your feet up like quirky things do. And it’ll surprise your mouth with bits of sweet pear and salty cheese and crunchy seeds.

It’s odd in such a good way. It’s the bread that thought outside the bread box. Square loaf in a round hole.

Yeah, I know it’s not really square.

Cheesy pear and pumpkin seed bread

This bread is gloriously good straight out of the oven, when the pieces of pears are folded up in gooey, melted cheese, and the pumpkin seeds are all toasty and crunchy. I chose cheddar because I wanted a no-frills, robust cheese cosying up to the sweet pear. But you can posh-up the bread by replacing the cheddar with gorgonzola, or any other blue-veined cheese. That works wonderfully too.

The other thing we discovered with this bread is that it tastes great a day later, when toasted in a flat pan till lightly browned on both sides. Buttered, or not.

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups plain flour
2 soft pears (3 if small), peeled and cubed
1 cup grated cheddar (or gorgonzola cut into small pieces)
2 tbs pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tbs butter melted
1 tsp olive oil to grease the bread tin
1/2 cup cold milk
Some grated cheese to sprinkle on top

In a big bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and sea salt. To this, mix the pear, cheddar (or gorgongola) and half of the pumpkin seeds. With your hands, or a wooden spoon, mix them in well.
In a separate bowl mix the eggs, olive oil and melted butter. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well. Add a bit of cold milk if the mixture feels too tight.
Grease your bread tin. Spoon the mixture into the tin. Sprinkle the remaining pumpkin seeds on top. 
Bake in the oven, at 160 degrees C, for 45 minutes. Then take it out of the oven and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Put it back in for another 5-10 minutes. 
Insert a knife in the centre of the bread. If it comes our clean, the bread is baked.
Slice, and enjoy!

 

You, at three

I can’t quite remember the little details anymore, Chotto-ma. When I see a newborn baby, it’s hard to imagine that you were ever that tiny. But you must have been.

Mamma had knitted two pairs of booties, one in lemon and another in peach, and parcelled them over from India. They came with matching cardigans and baby bonnets. And they arrived before you did. That first winter, you were either all peachy pink, or all lemony yellow. Little feet, flailing in little pastel booties.

Now, your shoe size is seven. And I need to remember the Chotto-ma you are today, in these shoes.

So, here’s who you are, at three.

This is your current favourite book:

Your favourite movie is The Wizard of Oz. And the first movie you saw in a theatre, on a big screen, was The Lion King, last month.

You have an elephant’s memory. You remember things in astonishing, photographic detail. Things that happened when you were a year-and-a-half. Places. People. What they were wearing at the time. Details of things you had in your room, in ‘The Blue Door’, the house we used to rent when you were in nappies.

Your most important ritual is a ‘group hug’ when Ba leaves for work in the morning. You also screech like a banshee and run like the wind when he rings the doorbell in the evening.

Today, while sitting on the kitchen worktop, watching me cook, you said “Look Ma, the smoke is going up, to say hello to the ceiling”.

The line above is a translation. Because, you always speak in Bengali. Unless you’re having a conversation with Peter Rabbit or Benjamin Bunny, since it’s quite clear that they don’t understand Bengali. ‘Ora to English lok’ .

When you grow up, you ‘want to be a writer; and live in Paris’.

You hate water on your face in the bath. Nothing bothers you as much.

You like to draw. A lot.

You are thoughtful beyond your years. You will talk in whispers when Ba has a headache. Keep even the smallest piece of chocolate to share with us. And ask to call Kolkata to check on Mamma and Dada every day if you hear they’re unwell.

You ask for a dream every night before you go to bed. ‘Aajke aami ki dream kori?’.

You ‘read’ in bed long after Ba and I have left your room.

This is your room, now:

Yes, you have your own kitchen, but you much prefer mine.

 
You are convinced that Ba and I will become babies when you become a ‘big girl’. You plan to buy us essentials like shoes and ballet dresses (yes, even Ba). And drive us around, after strapping us into our car seats in the back.

After Ma and Ba, the third most important member in this house is your teddy. Whose name is Teddy. Also sometimes called ‘Teddzabilly’.

 
You smile a lot. Talk a lot. You give lots of hugs. And are being trained to give a mean shoulder massage.

And your favourite food is a pancake. You eat pancakes for breakfast on Saturday mornings. But given a chance, you would eat them every day.

Apple & Cheese Pancake

The filling first:
3 – 4 apples, peeled and grated. 
A sprinkle of brown sugar 
200 gm cheese, grated 
(I used a strong cheddar. It’s bold, salty flavour combines well with the sweetness of the apples)
Mix them in a bowl, and keep aside.
Now the pancakes:
1 cup plain white flour
A pinch of salt 
2 eggs 
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1 tbs melted butter

Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre, and crack in the eggs.
With a wooden spoon, whisk the eggs and flour in regular circles till it starts making a thick batter. Then slowly start mixing in the milk, a bit at a time. Keep whisking as you add.
When all the milk has been mixed in, add the water. And the butter. And give it all a good stir. 
You should now have a batter with the consistency of thin pouring cream.
Now choose a ladle that holds just the right amount of batter for your pan.  About 1/4th cup is right for the average pan. 
Heat the pan, and oil it lightly. Pour in the batter, and turn the pan in circular motion to evenly coat the surface.
When the batter becomes opaque, spoon in the apple and cheese mix onto one half of the pancake.
Cook the pancake for a minutes, till lightly browned on one side. Then fold, and press lightly. Cook for another minutes. This will make the cheese melt into the apple.
Slide onto a plate, and serve. With or without cream
This recipe makes about 8 pancakes.

Thank you.

Oh, you super, super bunch of people.

What. Can. I. Say.

You made my day, my week, with your responses to my last post. So, here’s a whopping big thank you. For all your comments on the blog, your emails, your tweets, your messages on Facebook. You’ve pushed me full steam ahead.

My Little Handmade Business couldn’t have started on a better note. And my blog and I couldn’t ask for nicer faithfuls and friends. 

And just for that, I give you this chicken. Also known as The Best Chicken You’ll Ever Cook.

I rarely follow recipes. And I read cookbooks more for its stories, than for its ingredients. But, years ago, I came across this chicken in a book called Cooking from Memory – A journey through Jewish food. It is a beautiful collection of stories and recipes, collected lovingly from Jews settled in different corners of the world. This recipe is for Paprikás Csirke or Chicken Paprika, one of Hungary’s most popular dishes, and comes from the kitchen of Katalin Tyler. She was born in Hungary in 1924, and has had a rich, moving life. And she, like me, doesn’t like to cook from recipes.

But today, I’ll cook from hers. It’s one that I’ve cooked many times, for family and friends. And it really
is the best pot of chicken you can put on the table. I’ve been meaning to blog this for a while, but it needed a special occasion. And then you said all those lovely things last week. So, here you go.

Also, before the chicken starts cooking, would you please look to your right? See that new Facebook button there? It’s another way to spread the word about My Little Handmade Business. If you liked what you saw last week, do click on that before you leave the building. Facebook tells me that once I have 30 ‘likes’, the world will become a better place. That flowers will bloom. Everyone will sing in tune. And the sun will shine.

Katalin’s Paprikás Csirke, or The Best Chicken You’ll Ever Cook

1 chicken, skinned and cut into eight pieces
3 tablespoons oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 red capsicum, finely chopped
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp sweet paprika powder
Salt

Wash the chicken and pat it dry with paper towels. Heat the oil in a saucepan and saute tha onion, garlic and capsicum together untill they soften. Add the chicken, salt, pepper and paprika, and stir until the chicken is browned. Lower the heat, cover the saucepan and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the chicken is soft and a sauce has formed.

Serves 4 (I usually serve it with steamed, white rice. Or rustic bread.)

And, before I set the table – Thank you, Radhika (of the stunningly gorgeous Just Homemade) for choosing me for the Versatile Blogger Award. I’m very honoured, and grinning silly. This post above might not be in sync with your utterly beautiful vegetarian cooking. But the ‘thank you’ on the post is very much from my heart.

Ishiguro, and an egg

You can call us The Flu Family. Without coughing up the gory details, let’s just say, it’s been a ghastly fortnight. Apparently, when your body’s temperature reaches absurd new heights, you not only lose your appetite. You also lose your mind.

In the most bizarre, sleepless night I have ever spent, I found myself plagued by something very strange. A name. Stuck in my head. Floating around, repeating itself. All night. Over and over.

Ishiguro.

Ishiguro. Ishiguro. Ishiguro. Till it came to a point where I saw the letters, thin and flat, like a thing. Sitting next to me. And in front of my eyes, Kazuo Ishiguro’s mugshot from the back cover of When we were orphans. I love his work, but this was a bit much. In the midst of a midnight fever and incessant bouts of coughing, there was me and D. And Ishiguro. It was the most harrowing ménage à trois.

After your body and mind have travelled through the twilight zone, there is just one thing to do. Eat an egg. Yes. Come morning, you must sit up, shake off the night, and eat an egg. Or two. Or three.

There’s something very reassuring about a fried egg. The wobbly yellow in the middle. White around. The smell when it sits on the heat and crinkles around the edges. It’s predictable. A good predictable. This is exactly what a fried egg looked like on Sunday mornings when I was five. And when I was fifteen.

A fried egg never lets you down.

Now, you’re thinking this – what could she teach me about a fried egg that I don’t know already. Keep faith, and read on. This is divinely different.

This egg has a layer of crunchy, brown sesame seeds stuck to its crinkly, fried underside. The sunny side is sprinkled with chilli flakes, drizzled with garlic olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt.

Fried egg with sesame seeds, garlic olive oil and chilli flakes

1 egg
1 tsp sesame seeds
2 tsp olive oil
1 clove garlic
Some chilli flakes
Sea salt

Crush the garlic into with 1 tsp olive oil. Then fish the garlic out and keep the garlic-infused oil aside to be drizzled in the end.
Heat a small round pan. I have one just the right size for frying eggs. but any small round pan will do.
Add oil, and into the hot oil, sprinkle the sesame seeds. As soon as the seeds begin to brown, gently crack an egg over it. Let the egg brown and crinkle around the edges.
Slip it onto a plate. Drizzle with the garlic oil. Sprinkle with chilli flakes and sea salt.

My old winter

There was no snow at the door where I grew up. My memories of winters are very different from the ones my daughter is collecting now. Hers and mine are separated by 32 years, and continental drift.

Her winter looks like a stick-armed snowman. A row of buck naked trees. A line of little lost hats. And night-like mornings.

Her winter sounds like a group of blue-lipped carol singers, Silent-Nighting. And wood in the fire, crackling and spitting.

Her winter smells different too. Like wet clothes on a hot radiator. Like a cake in the oven. The heated upholstery of a car.  Chestnuts roasting on street corners.

The winters of my childhood bear no resemblance with hers. They look different. Smell and sound different. When we were growing up, winters in Calcutta were sharper than they are today. And as it approached, thick quilted blankets would be dug out from the depths of deep drawers, and sunned on the verandah. Skin would be oiled before a bath, and sunned on the verandah too. Just like the quilts. Often next to the quilts.

My old winter looks like a taxi-driver in a monkey-cap. It looks like Park Street on Christmas Day. Like a foggy breath; the one that you waited for all year, and pretended was a cigarette.

When I was young, winter was an Anglophile. It demanded picnics in Victoria Memorial. Dickensian musicals on every school stage. And chicken stew with toast. Ma had a red, velvet hot water bag – made in London, and filled up before bedtime. And my brother and I would be dressed in smart sweaters, with diamond patterns, gifted by relatives who lived in the West.

The winter of my memories sounds busy, loud. Like a house full of guests, the clink of whisky glasses, Baba’s anecdotes and a room spilling with raucous laughter.

It smells like Ma’s maroon shawl, and the Diorissimo she would spray on her wrists before going out for a dinner party at Calcutta Club. It smells like a roadside bonfire, lit with newspaper and kerosene. Like fresh flowers from Gariahat Market. And a seasonal table.

In those days, people had a more patient palate. They waited for winter to cook a cauliflower. And to chop fresh, green coriander leaves. And I waited for some of my favourites from Ma’s winter kitchen. Like bhaja mung dal – roasted yellow lentils. Cooked with shrimps, coconut and green peas.

Roasted mung dal, with shrimp, coconut and green peas

The vegetarian version of this recipe is lovely too. Just skip the shrimp.

Ingredients

1 cup mung dal (yellow lentils)
1/2 cup shrimps. peeled and cleaned
1/2 cup green peas
1 tomato, chopped
2 tbs dessicated coconut, or 3 tbs freshly grated
1 inch ginger, finely chopped
1 bayleaf
1 stick cinnamon
1 cardamom
1 clove
1 dry red chilli
1 tsp cumin (whole)
3-4 cups water
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbs oil
Salt

In a pan, dry roast the lentils till it’s a beautiful golden yellow. Pour water, add the ginger, bayleaf, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, tomato, pinch of turmeric and salt. Boil, then simmer till the lentils are cooked.
Now add the coconut, peas and shrimp. Simmer for a few more minutes till the peas and shrimp are cooked. Remove from heat.
In a separate pan, heat the oil. Add the cumin and dry red chilli. As soon as the cumin starts to brown, tip the oil, chilli and cumin into the cooked lentil. Give it a stir.
Transfer to your serving dish, and garnish with chopped coriander.
Serve hot, with steamed rice.

A house in a bowl of sea soup

When Chotto-ma was just 6 months old, we bundled her up one night, boarded a very rickety plane and flew to a bowl of sea soup. It’s also called a caldera – the Greeks pronounce it with a soft ‘d’, a long purred ‘r’, and a voice drizzled with olive oil. The caldera had once been a thirsty volcano. It had greedily sucked in some of sea, and now had boats and fish swimming in its mouth. Our little whitewashed house was in this caldera; stuck inside the belly of the bowl with magic Aegean glue. There was a thin strand of old windblown steps to take us up to the bowl’s rim. A little blue-white town flapped around this ancient rim, held in place by giant, invisible clothes pegs. The town was called Oia. Perched on the island of Santorini.

Nothing prepares you for the absurd beauty of the Greek islands. Not the movies. Not Lonely Planet. Nor the glossy posters behind the glass of hungry travel agencies.

In April, the islands are as quiet as a secret. The locals go about their business; their walk unhurried, their smiles as uncomplicated as the white light bouncing off the rough white walls. A few Japanese hold hands with their tripods. And donkeys clip-clop up and down the winding steps.

You walk into a restaurant that is full, only to realise that it’s full of the family that runs it. Sisters, brothers-in-law, uncles, cousins, pet dogs, they all sit at the tables, eating and drinking and laughing loudly with their heads thrown back. Then we’d walk in, and they would take a break to serve us what they had in their kitchen – fresh fish caught that morning and grilled in the wood-fired clay oven, creamy mushrooms, tomatoes smothered in olive oil, little parcels of feta and bowls of lemony, green olives.

When you take a boat, float away from Santorini and wash up on one of the other islands, life looks even more unhurried. In Ios, the streets were empty, except for a handful of people who hadn’t given in to the afternoon siesta. Amongst them was a village girl who led us through an armful of alleys to a taverna where we had one of the best meals we have ever eaten. Everything was cooked by the owner’s old mother, and served on family crockery. George, the owner, sat with us at our table, ladling food on our plates. Talking to us about the Lamb Kleftiko while it fell off the bone, about the pan-seared cheese, and the secret recipes that his mother guarded like gold.

On the islands in Greece, the sun melts one day into another. And you forget how long you’ve spent floating from one island to another; or walking down long, empty country roads. The sun shines into your eyes, then warms your back, and finally sets into the sea in an immodest show of colour. Like a carnival dancer in long, loud feathers.

The salty taste of the Greek islands stays on your tongue for a long, long time. They follow you back, and start living in your kitchen. And sometimes, when you’re missing the house that hangs precariously above the Aegean soup, you cook yourself something that takes you back a little.







Peppers stuffed with spicy feta

Ingredients

12 small peppers
150 gms feta, crumbled
A small bunch of parsley, chopped
1-2 green chillies, deseeded and chopped
A pinch of cumin
2 slices of brown bread

Mix the feta with parseley, chillies and cumin.
Cut the tops off the peppers, empty out the insides, and stuff them with the feta, leaving a little space on top.
Tear off a bit of bread, and stuff it into that little space on top of each feta-filled pepper. This stops the cheese from melting out.
Put the heads back on each pepper, and put a cocktail stick through each to keep them from opening up.
Put then into a pre-heated oven at 200°C for 15-20 minutes.
Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.

Some old, some new

The old

We often go out to buy a dozen eggs, or a pair of socks, and come back with books instead. So now, there are books oozing out of the cracks in the walls, and out of the floorboards. The end of the year is a particularly bad month – Santa Claus brings us a lot of books. And then comes D’s birthday, which was yesterday. This is what I got for him.

Chotto-ma has her own burgeoning collection, which can no longer be contained in the bookshelves that we have downstairs, and have been demanding a space of their own. We had a battered old bookshelf lying in the shed, which I had bought from a thrift store last year. It was standing there, relegated to a dark corner of the shop. Old and scratched, and with nails rustier than my French. But it was £5, so it came home with me.

D dug out the bookshelf from the musty, murky depths of our shed, while I went to look for the right shade of paint. I have a shelf  under the kitchen sink where I keep my collection of paint cans. I am known to buy acrylics, emulsions and eggshells on a whim, just like one might a pair of Muji shoes. And now own a healthy collection of cans – some Farrow and Balls, a few from the Little Greene Paint Co. and some from Fired Earth.

I chose a rich, foresty green for the shelf. Painted it, then distressed the paint till patches of the wood showed through. I wallpapered the inside of the top shelf, and sewed a curtain to cover the lower shelf.


 Here’s what is looks like now.

Chotto-ma loves it – her very own bookshelf. And seems to have found many uses for the curtains – sometimes it makes a theatre, sometimes a kennel, a room, a hidey-hole.

 

The new

And I discovered a new vegetable this week. When I first saw these knobbly brown lumps in the market, I thought I was looking at a kind of yam. Wrong. They were called Jerusalem artichokes. Apart from my need to try most things unfamiliar, I would’ve bought it just for its name. And I did.

An hour later, I was standing in the kitchen staring at my purchase, without a clue about what to do with it. So, instead of opening my spice cupboard, I open Wikipedia. A bit of reading tells me that Jerusalem Artichokes have nothing to do with Jerusalem. Neither were they a kind of artichoke.  

A root vegetable with an identity crisis – I loved them even before I cooked them.

Cumin-spiced Jerusalem artichokes with chorizo, garlic, bay leaves and peppercorns

As it turns out, Jerusalem artichokes have a wonderfully earthy and nutty flavour, and a sweetness that combined beautifully with the salty, spicy kick of the chorizo. This recipe is adapted from one by Jamie Oliver. He doesn’t use chorizo, so for a vegetarian version, that’s a lovely option.

Ingredients

5-6 Jerusalem artichokes, sliced round
3-4 inches chorizo, sliced round
4-5 cloves garlic, peeled
3-4 bay leaves (I used dried bay leaves)
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
A pinch of cumin
1 tbs olive oil
Salt

Heat olive oil in a pan, and add all the ingredients, except chorizo. Chorizo can become quite tough when sauteed too long. Cook the Jerusalem artichokes for about 20 minutes, lifting the lid once in between to give them a stir. Uncover, add the chorizo, and stir for a 3-4 minutes will the chorizo is done. Serve hot.

Serves 2

The same pavements, only different

We started the first day of the year with an early morning walk, and warm Pain au Raisins and steaming mugs of coffee at our favourite cafe. On the pavements were signs of a long night. Broken bottles and lost shoes. Remnants of a New Year’s Eve, now out of place in the clean morning light.

But every now and then, we would walk past something, a bit of nothing, which would make me stop. Odd little things with an accidental beauty.

A rose.

A house with fluffy clouds above.

Mountains in the summertime?

Maybe a superhero clinging on to a rock face?

Pavements can take you places. Sometimes, even to a different continent.

On winter walks, when I burrow into my coat and walk with my head bent low, all I can see is many minutes of black, tarred ground. It’s easy to imagine, then, that I’m back in India. If I said ‘footpath’ instead of ‘pavement’, the black, tarred ground could well be Calcutta.

I could be walking down Ballygunge Circular Road. Past the tiny Post Office with just enough room for three employees, one old wooden table, a pot of lumpy homemade glue and two pens tied to the table’s unsteady leg. Past the loud, lanky students smoking their cigarettes in front of Science College. Past the stray dog, and the lamppost that stands at the narrowest part of the footpath. Straight down to the busy main road, which is divided down the middle by a tram line, and a temple. From here, and depending on the year I’ve been transported to, I could take the trundling tram to my school in Park Circus, hop on to Bus 206 to Jadavpur University, or walk across to Bondel Road to the ad agency where I worked.

I could be anywhere. The pavement under my shoes today looks no different from the one in Calcutta. But the biting cold, and the wisps of conversation of people passing by, remind me that I am still where I am.

So, I came back home from my walk, and I cooked something out of my Calcutta repertoire. I didn’t realise I had a repertoire, but there seems to be a handful of recipes that I repeat. Strangely, almost all of them smell of nostalgia. Doi Chicken is one of them.

It is such a simple dish to cook, but so gloriously good. The white gravy has the tanginess of the yogurt, and the rich smell of cinnamon, peppercorns and green chillies. And unlike most Indian dishes, the chicken is cooked in unfried minced onion and garlic.



Doi Chicken

Ingredients

1 kg chicken (de-skinned, on the bone)
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
2 onions
4-5 cloves garlic
A 3-inch stick of cinnamon
1 tsp black peppercorns
3 tbs oil
1/2 tsp sugar
5 green chillies (this is essential for its smell, not heat)
Salt

In a blender, blitz onion, garlic and one green chilli together till pulped. (Leave out the chilli if you can’t stand heat.) Mix the pulp with the yogurt, then smother the chicken with this mix. Add salt and sugar.

Heat the oil in a pan and add the black peppercorns and cinnamon. When the peppercorns start spluttering, add the chicken. Give it a good stir, then lower heat to medium, and cover. After about 10 minutes, give it another stir, so that the chicken are turned over to a different side, then cover again and let it cook till done.

Remove from heat, add the whole chillies, and cover. Let it sit for 10 minutes before serving. This gives the dish a lovely smell from the green chillies.

Serve with steamed rice.

The end of a long eat

This is the season of sins. Yes, there’s good cheer and all that, but there’s gluttony, and there’s greed. And I’m guilty of both. The last few days have been an exercise in excess. Friends, who are fiendishly good cooks, fed us far too much. And we didn’t put up a fight. Now, like all sinners, I’m dressed in black. It’s a colour that hides many a meal, most of which are now resting somewhere in the mid-regions of my body.

But I’ve never been one to cry over wasted waistlines – if it’s for good food, it’s for a good cause. It’s just that I won’t be able to look a liqueur-soaked cake in the eye for a few days. I might even balk at the mere mention of baking. And avoid the slightest whiff of sweet, spiced wines.

There’s something else that I avoid at this time of the year. The Boxing Day Sale. It’s a day that marks the end of the Christmas spirit. No more opening doors for old ladies. No more letting go of parking spaces. No more small talk and warm smiles. It’s dog eat dog. It’s a fight for the last pair of skinny jeans. A red clutch. An electric kettle. A thesaurus. It’s rigor mortis by retail.  

This year, I decided to venture into the war-zone for the first time in many years. I wanted to watch shoppers from the sidelines. Their frenzied focus, the crazed look in their eyes as they prowl through the discounts. As they step on others’ toes. As they swipe their cards thin.

It really is theatre.

When we got back home, we were tired and hungry. But not for anything fancy. Christmas was over, Boxing Day had ended, and all we wanted to do was sit and watch a movie, and eat stew.

This stew cooks itself. You throw things into a pan, and walk out of the kitchen. You walk back in only the when the house fills up with the beautiful smell of meat, vegetables, bay leaves and peppercorns. This is my wholesome, end-of-excess stew.

End-of-excess lamb stew

Ingredients

750 gms lamb, on the bone
3 stalks of celery, chopped into 1-inch pieces
3 carrots, peeled and each cut in three pieces
1/4 of a small white cabbage, cut in big cubes
3-4 medium sized potatoes, each cut in two
2 bay leaves
1 white onion, cut into 8 pieces
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp green peppercorns
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
Salt

In a big pan, put the leg of lamb and cover it with water. Add salt, the bayleaves, peppercorns and garlic. Bring to the boil, then lower heat, cover the pan, and let it cook for 2-3 hours.
Then add the potatoes, carrots, cabbage and celery. Add some more salt. Cover and cook till vegetables are cooked. The lamb, by now, should be falling off the bone at the touch of a spoon.
Serve hot, with a blob of butter if you like.

Parsnips and old ladies

Let me tell you why parsnips remind me of old ladies.

Parsnips and I didn’t know each other a few years ago. We both lived in different countries. Moved in different social circles. And preferred different weather conditions.

The first time I met Parsnip was in the vegetable aisle of a nondescript English supermarket. It looked like a carrot who had just received a shocking telegram and lost all it’s colour. The bleached brother of the carrot choir.

It also looked distinctly uncomfortable, sitting there between the red peppers and the dark broccoli. And I was looking for something familiar in a new country. So, I moved on to the cauliflower. The parsnip and I parted ways that day, and our paths didn’t cross again for another two years.

Then, in the autumn of 2008, Chotto-ma was born. And one cold, windy day, as I was walking around town by myself, with a 3-week old baby tied to my torso, I felt like having soup. So I walked into a cafe, on a Tuesday afternoon, and ordered Soup-of-the-Day. It was ‘Spiced Parsnip’.

As I awkwardly made my way towards an empty table, one hand supporting my newborn’s wobbly head, and the other hand balancing  a bowl of parsnip soup, I realised that the cafe was filled with old ladies, and the occasional old gentleman. There were mops of grey hair at every table. Some were meeting friends, or catching up with family. Some were reading their newspapers. Or savouring their soups, one slow spoon at a time. Some were just catching their breaths. But they all looked happy. The sun shone on their neat white hair and carefully ironed clothes. The air was filled with their perfumes – a heady mix of musk and flowers. Their wrinkled faces smiled.

They had done their jobs, grown their children, paid their mortgage. Now, while the rest of the world was busy with chores, they were free to sit with friends, and have hot parsnip soup on a cold, windy day.

Spicy parsnip, apple & cashew soup

This is my adaptation of that soup I had three years ago. It is a beautifully warming soup, with the natural spicy, buttery flavour of parsnips, the sweetness of apples, the nutty creaminess of cashew and the heat of a chilli.

Ingredients

4 parsnips, peeled and diced
1 apple, peeled and cubed
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 green chilli
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 cup cashew nuts
2 cups milk
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp aniseed
A pinch of turmeric
A pinch of paprika
1 dried red chilli (this will not add any heat if not broken, just a deep roasted flavour)
Salt

Heat 1 tbs of olive oil in a pan, add the parsnip, onion, apple, 1 tsp of the chopped garlic and saute on medium heat for 3-4 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water, cover and cook till the parsnip and apple are soft. Put the cooked mix into a blender, along with the cashew and chilli, and blend into a smooth paste.

In a small pan, heat the remaining olive oil, add the aniseed, remaining garlic and red chilli. Remove from heat when the aniseed and garlic are lightly browned, and add the turmeric and paprika. This gives the oil a beautiful colour.

Transfer the blended paste into a deep pan or wok, sprinkle with garam masala and salt, and add milk to form the consistency you want for your soup. Heat the soup and ladle into serving bowls. Now add some of the roasted garlic and aniseed olive oil to each bowl.

Serves 2-3