I can change my mind

I haven’t written another post on Provence. I sat down to write it, not because I wanted to write it, because I told you I would. But my heart was not in my fingers, they hovered above the keyboard; seagulls over dry land. And then I remembered something I often forget: I can change my mind.

I can change my mind.

It’s strange how we’re wired to not see that option. How years of conditioning teaches us to plough on, keep our word, see things through, finish every bit of food on the plate. Of course, there’s a fear that creates, and arches over, that absolutism. The fear that if we gave our children the freedom to change their mind, we would turn them into fickle creatures, quitters and drifters. We would teach them how to give up too easily. They could grow up wasting their time looking for utopia and other silliness, instead of setting up the tent called Real Life, which of course stands on a few ‘essential’ pegs – a career, a spouse, a child (ideally two), a house of one’s own, and money in the bank.

A departure from those essentials puts parents in a difficult position. Of having to present the anomalous lives of their adult children to the rest of the world. They fumble if one or more of the essential pegs are missing: if a daughter is successful but single, if a forty-five-year-old son lives in a rented apartment, if their children decide to travel the world on odd jobs instead of a steady one, if their healthy, fertile, married daughter decides not to have children. Or, god help them, if their child decides that they’re attracted to people of their own sex. The poor parents’ post-retirement plan is sorted – to spend their days explaining these inconsistencies to friends and neighbours the best they can. And that, is the fear. That these drifters could be products of a freedom, which gave them the license to change their mind.

Why then do I always tell Chotto-ma that her mind is hers to change?

Because, you see, the other side of the coin is far scarier to me. That she might spend endless days doing something her heart is not into. That she might not listen to the voice that comes from her belly. That she would be too proud or worried or scared to say ‘I was wrong, and I’d like to change my mind.’ I’ve seen people waste years studying for the wrong degree and then working in the wrong job, because changing their mind would seem like giving up. I’ve seen people who knew a year into their marriage that they’d made the wrong choice, but stayed on for another decade, because once you’ve told your family you’ve found the love of your life, you don’t change your mind.

Now, what if you drifted for a while? A physical drifting can actually tether you in wonderful ways. And what if you didn’t take the pegs and put up that tent? What if you walked off the road and explored and got a little lost and found your way again? Feeling settled inside has nothing to do with being settled on the outside, of that I’m sure. Finding that still point in yourself – where you know you’re in the right place, with the right people, in the right skin – has little to do with being still on the outside, having a permanent residence and a planned life. The older I get, the less time I spend doing things that don’t feel right. Time feels precious – something to be reserved for people who matter, doing things that add to my day. I change my mind as soon as my belly asks me to, for rarely has that voice in my gut led me astray.

When I start writing a blog post, I never know where I’m going to go. The only way I seem to be able to write is by drifting. Drifting is the way I’ve found most good things; or the way they’ve found me.

This post was supposed to be a travel guide around Provence, and I couldn’t have strayed farther away on the map. I also had no plans of sharing a recipe today, but I changed my mind.

Peach, Mozzarella & Black-Eyed Bean Salad

I wrote the post over this salad lunch. And the salad was very good, so I made another plate just to take pictures and share it with you. It tastes like summer.

Ingredients

2 peaches, sweet and ripe
100 gms fresh mozzarella
1/2 cup black-eyed beans, soaked overnight
Fresh basil
1tsp whole black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
Handful of cashew nuts, roasted in a pan till lightly browned (or almonds if you prefer)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt

First, boil the beans with salt till soft. Keep aside to cool. (I usually have some boiled and stored in the fridge.)
The rest is all about assembly:

Slice the peach and lay it out on a plate. Tear chunks of mozzarella and dot them around. Next goes the basil. Sprinkle this layer with salt (optional) and the coarse pepper. Scatter in the beans. Top everything with the cashew nuts. Drizzle with olive oil. And voila!

On repeat

When I like something, I like it and like it and like it till I can’t bear to look at it. Or listen to it. Or eat it. My brother could tell you how many times I can listen to the same song. In a row, in constant repeat. We grew up sharing a bedroom and Simon and Garfunkel must haunt him still.

My taste in music changed. House changed, climate changed. But that old habit, I kept.

When D and I were dating, we used to go to a hole-in-the-wall Tibetan momo place in Calcutta. It had light bulbs so dim you could barely see the food, or indeed, each other. These dim bulbs were red, they bathed everything in an eerie red light. No matter what food you ordered, it came with a red glow. Red momos, red noodles, red faces, red teeth. The food was served on red plastic plates. (This wasn’t the light; the plates were really red). There was also a red chilli paste on the side, which you couldn’t tell since it was the same shade as the plate. This little momo joint was next to a government hospital in front of which metal stretchers clanged constantly, wheeling in a steady stream of ailing. The road was divided into two smells: momo and medicine.

We loved the momos. We ate it obsessively for months. Every other day. Sometimes, every day. Till the thought of momos started making me feel slightly nauseous. Then we stopped. A few years later, a friend dragged me there, and the sweet man who used to serve us enquired about D. ‘Dada? Bhalo?’ he asked gingerly. Is Dada well? He shuffled, unsure if our relationship had survived those torrid months of red-hued momo lunches. Steamed, deep-fried and pan-fried, with a side of clear soup. It had, I assured him.

You’re thinking I’m headed towards a momo recipe, aren’t you? She’s going to ask us to make a momo any minute now, you fear. But no. I’m headed nowhere near a momo. I’m going left. I’m going off the road, down the dirt-track. I’m going to Rhubarb.

Rhubarb is where it’s at right now. I’m repeating rhubarb like it’s going out of season. Oh, hang on – it is going out of season. But before it does, do me a favour, do you a favour, and get your hands on some rrrrhubarb. I sang that, yes. I’m writing to music. (I’ll tell you about that too in a minute)

So, get the rhubarb, the ru-ru-rhubarb, because I made the most sensational rhubarb pickle a few days ago that you cannot not make. It’s not pickled rhubarb, mind you. It’s an achaar, a very Indian pickle; tangy, garlicky, spiced with turmeric and mustard seeds, kicked by chillies, screaming good. It also has the most un-Indian ways: I’ve smeared it in a ciabatta stuffed with avocado and bacon, piled it on polenta, stirred it into mayonnaise for a magnificent dip. I can’t sell it any more – just go get some rhubarb!

And listen to some Mulatu Astatke while you’re at it; that’s the music I’m writing to. Ethiopian jazz, terribly good. Listen to this, and listen to this. Mulatu’s my man, and he’s on repeat like rhubarb. He goes well with this pickle too; neither pulls any punches.

Indian Rhubarb Pickle

This was Ma’s idea. We were talking about rhubarb, and my rhubarb soup, and it’s green-mango-like tanginess, when she said: Ah, achaar! And there you have it.

Ingredients

2 rhubarb stalks, trimmed of leaves, cut in small pieces
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, sliced thin
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 level tsp turmeric
1 level tsp paprika
1/2 tsp asafoedita (optional)
1-2 red chillies, sliced
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 quarter of a lemon
Salt
Sugar

Heat oil. Lower the heat and add the asafoedita (if using) and the mustard seeds. As soon as the mustard start spluttering, add the fenugreek seeds.
Add the rhubarb, then the garlic. Sprinkle in the turmeric, paprika and a very generous amount of salt. Add three tsp of sugar. Stir. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes.


Open lid, it should be a nice saucy-mushy consistency now, with bits of rhubarb smothered in.
Add the chillies, squeeze in the lemon. Stir well. Taste; add more salt and sugar as required.
Cook for another minute to get the right pickle-consistency if needed.
Take it off the heat, and let it cool completely.
Transfer to a clean, dry jar. Store in the fridge.

Stalk

I did not grow up where rhubarbs grow. I hadn’t seen a single stalk of it till we lugged our life and luggage to England. Then, suddenly there they were, lying in their market stall. These lounging, stretching, graceful stalks. Pink and slender and as foreign as flamingoes. So, I admired their beauty, and skirted around them the way one skirts around beautiful, foreign things.

But when you live in this country, rhubarb will find its way to you. Rhubarb in ice-creams, rhubarb in pies, rhubarb with its feisty kick aimed at the corners of your jaw. Who’d have guessed? That this slender thing in its pink cocktail gown could kick like a ninja.

I loved it. I loved the coy exterior and the tart within. Rhubarb has personality. It is what it is; you either like it, or you don’t. It’s Marmite vegetable.

And to me, it’s as English as Marmite too. In my technicolour rhubarb-imagination, I can see it’s delicate stalks stewing on an AGA in an English country kitchen, then put in a pie and served to a lady, who, as the camera zooms in, I see is Beatrix Potter putting the finishing touches to Tabitha Twitchit’s prickles.

But what if you invited this English Rhubarb into a different kitchen, into my kitchen? I bought six pink and well-mannered rhubarb stalks last week. D and Chotto-ma used half of the stalks to bake me a lovely cake on Mother’s Day.

And I had my way with the other half.

Rhubarb & Red Lentil Soup with Ras-el-hanout

This soup! It’s a very, very, very fine soup. We’ve had it on a loop for a week. It’s a great example of why rhubarb needs to be thrown into savoury recipes more often. The recipe was inspired by a tangy dal we had growing up – a simmered mix of red lentils and raw mango. This soup has the same tart edge, balanced by the natural sweetness of carrots. The ras-el-hanout, which we carried back freshly ground from Morocco adds a beautiful North African moorishness. (You can, of course, buy ras-el-hanout, as well as the turmeric in the recipe, in almost all supermarkets and Middle-Eastern grocers.)

Ingredients

250 gms red lentil, washed
2 stalks of rhubarb
2 carrots, chopped into small cubes
1 medium onion, also chopped small
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp coarse black pepper (crushing a few with a pestle is even better)
Bunch of parsley, chopped (or coriander – both work well)
1 1/2 tsp ras-el-hanout
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbs olive oil
Salt

Cut off the head and tail of your rhubarb stalk; the leaves are toxic, so must always be trimmed off. Not cut your stalks in 1-inch pieces. (Usually, I leave my rhubarb unpeeled and pink, but for the soup, white looked better than the final watered-down pink, so I peeled the stalks. Feel free to leave the pink on with rhubarb that is very fresh and firm.)
Heat the olive oil in a deep pot. Throw the onions, garlic, carrots in together. Stir for two minutes, then add 4 cups of water.
Add the lentils, rhubarb, half of the parsley (or coriander), ras-el-hanout, bayleaf, pepper and salt.
Cover and simmer till the lentils have split evenly. Add more water if needed.

Taste for salt, simmer for a minute more giving it a good stir.
Serve hot garnished with the rest of the chopped parsley (or coriander).

COMMENT CAVEAT: Many of you have written to me saying that comments you leave here are often not published. So, a little note: if you don’t see your comments here in 24 hours, please know that they have not reached me at all! Blogger can play up, and I hate to think that words you’ve taken time and care to write down have vanished. So please, email me your comments if you find them missing, at peppercornsinmypocket@gmail.com, and I promise to post them them here, and write back.

Nothing

I sit down to write a post, but I realise I have nothing to write about. So I tell D I have nothing to write about and D says why don’t I write about Nothing.

Who’d want to read about Nothing? Who’d want to read about a nothing kind of week? With exactly seven days, each day with exactly the same name: Tuesday right after Monday. People un-upsidedown. Duvets in duvet-covers. My washed washing still in the washing-machine. Four cows in the Common chewing on their grumpiness and that fine grass. Pooing as they walk, pooing as they eat. Terrible table manners under absurdly good sunsets. River, rowers, ripples. Goddamn alliterations. And autumn.

Nothing that trumpets. Or tells a story. And that’s the thing about Nothing, see. It doesn’t care. It doesn’t want to be. Doesn’t want to make a point. I watch Chotto-ma blow at a dandelion, scattering seeds to wind, till there’s nothing left but a green stump. But in that Nothing is contained one deep breath. Held. Released. Sending scores of seeds parachuting to its soil, sprouting into a hundred beautiful weeds.

I like Nothing. I like stories that say nothing, and tell something. I like questions that ask nothing, and walks that go nowhere. I like cul-de-sacs. And pointless conversations. And silence. And empty hours. And blank paper. There’s nothing quite like Nothing.

I had nothing much in the kitchen on Friday. I came home to a few stalks of celery, four carrots, a bunch of forgotten spring onions, some dried chillies and a couple of potatoes. And wine, for there is always wine.

Something good came out of that. Something good always comes out of nothing much.




Carrot, Celery and Chipotle Soup

Ingredients

1 cup chopped celery
2 cups sliced carrots
1/2 cup chopped spring onion (white onion will also do)
3 potatoes, halved lengthwise, then sliced in thick-ish semi-circles
1 chipotle chilli (this is what gives the soup its lovely smoky flavour)
1/2 cup dry white wine
A knob of butter
2 bayleaves
Coarsely-ground black pepper
Salt

Heat butter in a deep pan. Add the celery, carrots, potato, onion and a pinch of pepper. Stir for a couple of minutes on low heat.
Add about 6 cups of water, salt and bayleaves. Cover with lid and simmer till the vegetables are halfway cooked.
Add the wine and chipotle chilli, then continue to boil with the lid off till the vegetables are cooked and tender.
Serve hot.

PS: Don’t go by the soup’s plain appearance. Inside, it is a thing of great beauty.
PPS: We had the leftover soup the next day with a grilled sausage dunked in.

Backwards and forwards

Can one walk backwards and forwards at the same time? Or do the two actions negate each other and make distance disappear, so that you stay in the same place like a tree: torso moving with the wind, toes digging into earth? I have a feeling, a good way of staying centred is to pretend you’re riding a unicycle. One-pedal-forward-one-pedal-backward; it’s what you need to do to achieve fine balance. To  find your centre-of-gravity. Your rootedness.

Rootedness so often has its root in movement.

My friend Sia, is moving from England, back to India, with her husband and little son. They’re going back the way they came; walking in reverse. But towards family and old friends. Towards familiar roads and a well-known rhythm. Towards home. Backwards and forwards.



When Sia asked me to write a guest post for her blog, I had to google ‘guest posts’. I’ve always avoided them; I balk at the responsibility of writing for someone else’s space, about someone else’s life. But I couldn’t say no to this. This is for a very special family; for three people who’re headed to a country I too call home. So here I am groping in the dark. Stay with me.

Some of you, many of you, might know Sia well. She’s the loving hand behind Monsoon Spice, a blog that is filled with everything its name suggests. A downpour of spices and smells. The clatter of an Indian kitchen. Wisps of nostalgia. And of curry leaves and rain-soaked courtyards. Sia had carried these with her from India when she came to England many years ago, and now, as she, her husband and her lovely boy prepare to pack life into boxes and move back, I wonder if it’s her box of red and yellow spices that give her the courage to make this move. If it’s the nostalgia which tugs her back; urges her to give her son the taste of a life she grew up with. As she said to me “Time will tell if we’ve made the right decision”.

Yes. All any of us can hope for is to do is what feels right for our lives, right now. 

So, to three very courageous people – for it takes courage to give up your job, sell off your home, say goodbyes and start from scratch – here’s to being brave enough to change your course. Of going backwards and forwards at the same time, till you find your balance. Of riding life like a unicycle. So that, no matter where you are, you are rooted to the life that matters to you the most.

Something from back home

As  Sia carefully packs up her kitchen, wraps her spice jars in bubble-wrap, I thought I’d cook her something that, to me, smells like home. This is a dish most Bengalis have grown up with – I certainly have. It’s called Panch Mishali-r Torkari: a mix of five (panch) vegetables cooked with a sprinkle of five whole spices (panch phoron). And like all things I cook, this is my version, so puritans, stay calm. It’s a very simple dish, usually cooked at the end of the week, when you need to use up the vegetable left in the kitchen. It also makes my home smell of Calcutta, and of my Ma.

Sia comes from the south of India, whereas I come from the East. Our spices are quite different, and so are the smells and taste. So, here’s a little piece of my home to take back to hers. Safe journey, Sia. A whole new, wonderful life awaits.

For the recipe, and photographs, of my Panch Mishali, hop on over to my Guest Post on Sia’s gorgeous blog. There’s no better place for vegetarian and vegan Indian food.

The promise of music

We now have a piano in the house. It arrived a few days ago, this gleaming black thing, filled with the promise of music. Promise, because none of us can play. But we have a little girl who’s eager to learn; she had her first lesson today.

The house sounds wonderful – off key, off pitch, off to a new start of some kind. As Chotto-ma and the piano get to know each other, the teacup rattles on its saucer. But there’s something in this early tunelessness that makes me glad. The house is writing its own song. There’s D playing his guitar, Chotto-ma tinkering with the piano, sunlight fumbling on the sofa, and me groping for words. Flimsy things that leave such a definite impression on the mind. There’s nothing like it – the three of us at home, feeling around, filling our own spaces, feet touching.

This morning, Chotto-ma’s frenetic bout of ‘composing’ on the piano resulted in two pieces, one of which she called ‘Walking through the forest’. The piece starts with the quiet trickle of a stream. The hop of a bunny. Leaves crunching. Deer scampering. And then it all takes a terrible turn. The growl of a lion. A loud, breathless chase. Crescendo, crescendo. And finally – utter, deathly silence. Dhang! 

Yes, I might need ear-plugs soon, but for now, it’s all good. There’s that promise of music. A tune blinking in the distance. The possibility of beauty in a row of black and white keys. A seed has been planted, and our spring is beginning to sound like a piano.

We went to the market today. Everything’s ablaze. The English spring is an extravagant creature. The stalls are reeling with colour and smell and a circus of seasonal produce. The flowers and fruits are showing off. The tomatoes are ridiculously red. We got some ridiculously-red tomatoes home, and I charred a few on an open fire, and made a sauce that tastes like our spring.

Ablaze and strong and full of feisty music.

Hot Charred-Tomato Sauce

This packs a punch. It’s very garlicky, it’s extra-spicy, and for me at the moment, it beats sriracha hands down. It’s the simplest thing to make, especially during a barbecue. We add it to everything nowadays – in soup, in a burger, as a dip, dolloped into pasta, as a marinade or in a sandwich. It’s gloriously good, with a personality to boot.

Ingredients

1 large, red tomato
2 cloves of garlic
2 green chillies
Salt

Char the tomato on a barbecue, or an open flame. I held my tomato above a hot hob with tongs, turning it this way and that, till the skin blackened.
Peel some of the skin off, leaving some charred bits sticking on. It gives the sauce a fabulous smokiness.
Put the charred tomato, garlic and chillies in a processor and blitz.
Add salt to taste.
Done. Smear.

(We had ours with courgette fritters today) 


So good.

Continuations

I have a couple of hours before I leave for work. Chotto-ma is at school. D and I dropped her off, then came back home for a coffee before he left for work. We do that whenever I have the morning free. We drop her off, and sneak back home. I don’t know why it feels like sneaking, but it’s fantastic.

We sit on that brown sofa, our legs stretched out and crisscrossing like rivers; and as liquid. We drink our coffee and talk. Today, we also had these slivers of orangey chocolate crisps – addictive little critters – that a friend introduced us to recently. The crisps crunch between our teeth, and that’s the only sound we hear. If I open my ears wider, there’s a chik-chree-chik of a winter bird I cannot name, the ticjk-tock-ticjk-tock of a clock that’s running seven minutes late, and the sounds of our floorboards stretching like old bones. I’m in love with this quiet, with this time, this tangle of limbs.

When we were walking Chotto-ma to school earlier, something caught my eye at the window of the thrift shop we pass everyday. My feet faltered, stopped, for there behind the shop window stood the coffee table I’d been waiting years for. Angels sang. It was old, tiled, used, perfect. But the shop hadn’t opened yet, it was too early in the morning. By the time it opened I’d be at work, and the whole day would’ve passed. I knew the table wouldn’t stay that long; it was a very busy shop, business was brisk, the table was just £20. I stood there, I fretted. D walked to the back of the shop; the cleaner was opening one of the shutters, but then the cleaner wasn’t allowed to sell anything. Chotto-ma was getting late for school, I was getting late for work. And so, I walked away. I told myself that if it was meant to live with us, the table would stay. And if it wasn’t, well, it was meant for someone else to keep their coffee on.

The table waited for us. The world had passed by its gorgeous tiles, its sturdy legs, its throwaway price, and yet, no one had taken it away. And that’s the way most of our home has gathered itself over the years. Pieces, old and used, from here are there – the big armchair, the dining table, the odd chairs, the blue china cupboard which we painted and wallpapered, my desk, the footstool my feet now rest on.


Unlike new furniture, these come with stories. They have a past, they were loved and left, or passed down from those who had passed away. Adopted, orphaned wood. I like the way they bring in bits of other lives; imprints I can only guess at. I like to think of them as continuations.

Many months after we bought our dining table, while cleaning crumbs from the floor, I discovered that the table had something on its underside. A painted heart with the initials A + L next to it.

– – – –

And here’s another continuation: do you remember this? Well, it’s been sitting by the window for a while now, and I’ve watched it change from a bright yellow to a deep, dull yellow. I’ve watched it settle and sink into its own juices, skin softening, ageing. I’ve opened the lid to sniff, dipped in a finger to taste, and I can’t wait any longer.

Butter with preserved lemon, roasted cumin & coriander


Ingredients

A good salted butter
Preserved lemon peel, finely chopped (don’t use the pulp, just the peel)
2 tsp whole cumin
Fresh coriander leaves
Chilli flakes

Keep the butter outside the refrigerator to soften it.
Lightly dry-roast the cumin in a hot pan, stirring constantly. Take it off the heat and coarsely grind it with a pestle.
Mix all the ingredients together. And your butter’s ready.

You can use it on anything – spread it on toast, smear it on a grilled fish, tuck it into warm rice. It’s all good.