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How to be a culinary show-off

How to be a culinary show-off
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First Published: Sat, Nov 07 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Dec 28 2009. 04 47 PM IST
Someone asked me once the question so favoured by lifestyle magazines: If there was one food you had to eat every day, what would it be? I think because I didn’t have an answer, or because I have always been so spoilt for choice, I answered: Cyanide.
Like many others in my generation, I was fortunate to travel—first on work, then for pleasure. Friends with good jobs abroad would find exciting eating options, or cook flashy meals. In time, we learnt what we liked to eat, where you could get it and, about the time google transformed from noun to verb, how to cook it.
Even in the 1990s, a dinner party menu could be a geography lesson gone wrong—it would include Russian salad, chhole, gobi manchurian, mutton do piaza, Chinese chilli chicken, Prawn Malay Curry, pulao, puri, rabdi, caramel custard and shondesh, all of it cooked at home (desserts from the halwai) by the earnest hostess, as eager as anyone today to show off. Size really did matter.
These days, style is substance. During the week, most people meet for a drink as dinners are too intense—both for the host who may have to cook, and the perpetual dieter. Drinks is easy—local booze shops are now flush with a wide range of spirits and wines, but when it comes to the eats with the drinks, we just open a packet of chips or peanuts. Or we order India’s favourite cocktail snacks: chicken reshmi kebabs or gobi manchurian.
But opening packets doesn’t always have to lead to peanuts. Off packets, I have been eating bhakri (baked Gujarati biscuits) and Boursin (creamy cheese available everywhere these days) with sliced aam papad as part of cheese platters. This is simple to put together and rather original. Or there are the easy and super elegant steamed shrimps (available shelled and deveined) dipped in Japanese soy sauce, to slightly labour-intensive, but most marvellous beef and lettuce-wraps.
The big entertaining happens over weekends. I believe in playing to the gallery with flashy cooking—the kind that generates envy. I also believe in working less, so these dishes really make an impression with minimal effort. I like the spectacle of one attention-grabbing main course, supported by a salad or a side dish.
Adventurous guests these days seem to enjoy the surprise of a confident menu and like to eat in big, hearty amounts rather than pick at too many small, nondescript and common dishes. A Pork Raja Mirchi with Boiled Vegetables or Cold Sesame Noodles is statement cooking. When you serve Khowswey, it’s the victory of the idea over the food (which is fab too). What’s not to like when guests stand around the table and stare at the food in admiration, then go on to polish off bowls of it in a steamy blur?
Flash in the Pan, a guide to what to cook, and how, by Tushita Patel will be published this month by Westland Books.
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Khowswey (SERVES 6)
This is my style of cooking—if there is such a thing. A one-dish dinner with little effort and immense wow factor.
Ingredients
1kg skinned and cut chicken
1 tsp gram flour
3 cups of thin coconut milk
250g egg noodles
Marinade
3 tsp garlic paste
1 tsp ginger paste
3 tbsp oil
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tsp salt
Toppings
12 cloves finely sliced garlic
1 cup picked and chopped coriander leaves
1 cup finely chopped spring onions (optional)
6 diced hard-boiled eggs
3 tbsp chilli powder
4 quartered limes
200g potato straws (commercial)
Method
Combine all the marinade ingredients in a bowl and marinate the chicken for up to 6 hours. Aim for at least an hour. Heat a heavy-based pan and add the chicken with all its marinade. Stir and cook till the marinade starts bubbling. Turn heat down to moderate, cover and cook for 15 minutes. By now, the chicken would be half done and cooking in its own juices. Stir in the gram flour and the coconut milk. Cook on moderate heat, uncovered, for another 10-15 minutes. The chicken should be done, but not coming off the bone. This is important, as it will need to be kept warm through the dinner period. Once the chicken cools, it’s critical to taste this dish. Remember it will be eaten with bland noodles, which will play off the spices from the curry. It should be well salted, spiced and giving off some heat.
To serve
Cook noodles according to the instructions on the packet. Arrange the toppings in individual bowls. Place the noodles on a platter, the steaming chicken curry in a bowl, and the smaller bowls with the garnishes on the table. Guests should take some noodles, ladle some hot chicken curry and top off with all the garnishes.
I serve this in soup plates or bowls, as it’s too runny for normal dinner plates.
Vegetarian Khowswey (SERVES 6)
The vegetables that taste good in this curry are those which provide a bit of a crunch, but because the dish is rich with toppings, I have settled on broccoli and tofu. Carrots, French beans and baby corn also work well.
Ingredients
2 tsp oil
2 tsp garlic paste
K tsp ginger paste
K tsp chilli powder
N tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp gram flour
2 cups coconut milk (as for the non-veg dish)
1 tsp salt
1 head broccoli cut into florets
250g cubed tofu
2 packets noodles
Toppings
As for the chicken Khowswey
Method
Heat the oil in a pan on moderate heat, add garlic and ginger and sauté for 2 minutes. Sprinkle in the spice powders and cook for a minute. Stir in the gram flour, followed by coconut milk and salt, and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the broccoli, cover pan and cook for 5 minutes. Open the pan, add tofu, give it one last boil and switch off. This is blander than the chicken Khowswey and has a gentler, satvik appeal. Serve it in the same way as the chicken Khowswey.
(A note about the coconut milk: My coconut milk comes straight out of a tetra pak. I pour the contents of the carton into a bowl, fill the carton with water, give it a good shake and pour into the bowl. I like a thinner consistency of the coconut milk as I think this makes the curry light, not smothered by the richness of the coconut milk.)
Naga-style Pork Raja Mirchi and Soupy Greens (SERVES 6)
The first time I had Naga-style cooking was at the Naga stall at Dilli Haat in Delhi. I was blown, not just by the novelty of the Naga thali, but because of the heat the raja mirchi used in this dish generated. Raja mirchi, one of the hottest chillies in the world, is found only in Nagaland. While I am a raja mirchi fanatic, for my friends I have toned it down and used Kashmiri and normal red chillies. This dish is perfect for a wintry or rainy day. The red heat of the meat, the bland white rice and the cool shades of greens make a rather enticing picture.
Pork Raja Mirchi
Ingredients
1 tsp oil
1kg pork, not too bony, with at least 25% fat, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 raja mirchi or 3 dried red chillies
4 dried red Kashmiri chillies
8 cloves of garlic
1 tsp salt
Method
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based pan that has a tight-fitting lid. Once the oil warms up, add the pork and stir on high heat for a minute till the meat loses its pinkness. Add the chillies and garlic, but don’t stir this too much. The idea is to lightly cook these in the pork juices, before extricating them from the pan to make a paste. Cover the pan. After 10 minutes, fish out the chillies and the garlic, ideally with tongs. Place these either in a blender jar or in a mortar, along with the salt. Grind coarsely. Open the pan and stir the chilli-garlic paste into the cooking meat till all the meat is coated. Cover the pan, turn heat down to moderate and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring every 7-8 minutes. This shouldn’t have gravy—the chillies should darken with the cooking. If you want a bit of gravy, add a cup of warm water and cook for 5 more minutes. This makes it easier to eat with rice. I often use more than one lethal raja mirchi for this as an occasional endurance test for guests.
Soupy Greens
Ingredients
1 tsp salt
6 trimmed beans
6 roughly torn cabbage leaves
6 roughly torn bok choy leaves
Method
Put a large pan with 2 litres of water and salt on high heat to boil. Once the water is bubbling, put in the beans, followed by the cabbage and bok choy. Leave for 30 seconds and turn off the heat immediately. Cover and set aside. This is excellent diet food—I often have it as dinner during the week. The vegetables should be eaten/slurped out of soup plates. Ladle in some rice and the vegetables with the cooking liquid. Add the meat.
Chicken Tea Soup (SERVES 6)
This is a marvellous dish—as easy as making a cup of tea. Its appeal lies in its simplicity and the explosion of flavours that follows with almost no effort at all.
Ingredients
1 whole garlic head
1 large onion
2 plump stalks of lemon grass
800g whole chicken with skin
2-inch piece ginger or galangal
10-12 kaffir lime leaves
2 tsp salt
200ml coconut milk at room temperature, straight from a tetra pak
3 chopped bird chillies
100g rice noodles (optional)
Method
Take the entire garlic bulb and cut it into half along the equator. Do the same with the onion. Trim off the dry bits of the lemon grass, and smash the fat root with a blunt instrument. Put 3 litres of water in a pressure cooker. Add the garlic, onion, lemon grass, the whole chicken, ginger or galangal, lime leaves and salt.
Pressure-cook for 40-50 minutes on low heat. After the cooker reaches full pressure, remove from heat and let it cool naturally till the pressure subsides.
Just as you would for tea, strain the contents of the cooker by pouring it into a colander placed over a deep bowl. Keep the chicken aside and discard everything else in the colander.
Quickly skin the chicken, and shred about one-third of it. Save the rest for some other purpose. In individual soup bowls, put about 1 tbsp or more of shredded chicken and pour in a portion of the soup. Add the coconut milk according to preference, like you would for tea (make sure the coconut milk is at room temperature, to avoid curdling). Top it off with K tsp of chopped bird chillies, which bleed into the heavenly whiteness of the hot and lemony soup. To add a bit more substance and make a meal of this soup, put some rice noodles into the bowls along with the chicken. The noodles get cooked when the hot soup is poured in.
It’s important to stick to rice noodles or vermicelli—anything stronger like egg noodles or wheat noodles distracts from the taste and texture.
Wintry Sausage and Mustard Pasta (SERVES 4)
This is quite a posh meal on a winter evening, with a glass of robust red wine, perhaps a rocket salad and a warm dessert like a chocolate mud pie and ice cream (with candied orange peel, of course). For serious eaters, not fussy dieters.
Ingredients
200g small pasta—orecchiette or penne at a crunch
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove of minced garlic
100g fresh basil leaves
400g sausage, chorizo, other Italian sausages or masala sausage
1 tbsp Coleman’s mustard or kashundi mustard or a blend
200ml cream
Chilli flakes (to add taste)
Method
Boil the pasta in 1 litre of water and salt. Heat the oil in a pan, add garlic and half the basil, stir-fry till the garlic changes colour and the basil turns crunchy. Take it out with a slotted spoon. Chop the sausages coarsely so that some of the meat is out of the casing and some within. In the same pan used for the garlic and basil, put in the chopped sausage and let it cook on moderate-low heat, giving out juices, for about 4 minutes.
Stir in the remaining basil, the mustard and the cream. Stir and cook on very low heat till it is bubbling. Turn off the heat. Drain the pasta, saving 1-2 cups of the boiling water. Add pasta to the sauce. Blend in some of the pasta water to thin out the sauce. Spoon into individual bowls or plates. Top off with some of the fried garlic and basil, and some chilli flakes.
Chicken Stew, Rice and Papad (SERVES 5)
When I talk of the one-dish dinner party, I think of a hot stew, something crunchy like a papad and comforting basmati rice in the wee hours of the morning, which gives second wind to the party.
I find the Kerala stew quite showy. The heat from the pepper, the sweetness from the coconut milk and the onions and the big burst of flavours from the other spices make this dish very posh.
Ingredients
3 large onions
5 shallots or 1 small onion
2-inch ginger piece
2 medium-sized potatoes
3 tsp + 1 tbsp oil
4 green cardamoms
4 cloves
2-inch cinnamon stick
2 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tsp plain flour
1kg skinned and cut chicken
1O cups coconut milk (see my note under the recipe for Khowswey)
1 tsp salt
6 slit green chillies
2 sprigs of curry leaves
Method
Slice the 3 large onions lengthwise, and chop the shallots or small onion. Cut the ginger into matchsticks. Peel and cut the potatoes like French fries. Soak them in cold water. Heat 3 tsp of oil in a kadhai or wok. When hot, toss in the whole spices and give it a stir. Add the sliced onions and ginger and stir and cook till the onions turn translucent. Ensure they do not brown, as this will darken the pristine white stew. Stir in the flour (to prevent the coconut milk from curdling). This should not take more than seconds.
Add the chicken and stir on high heat. Pour in the coconut milk. Once the milk is in, add salt, cover and cook on moderate heat for 15 minutes. Open the pan, add the potatoes and chillies, cover and cook for another 15 minutes.
Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a small pan. In Kerala, the oil that is most commonly used at this stage is coconut. If you don’t have the stomach for it, use your normal oil.
When the oil heats up, put in the chopped shallots or onion and the curry leaves and fry till brown. Turn off the heat. With a slotted spoon, transfer the fried shallots or onion and curry leaves into the bubbling stew. Most pleasurable hot, with rice and crisp-fried papad.
Variation: Vegetable Stew
This stew is lovely with vegetables too. I use potato, carrot, beans, broccoli (1kg in all). After frying the onions and spices and adding the flour, pour in the coconut milk. Cook the carrots (cut in long sticks), potatoes and beans with the pan covered for 15 minutes. Five minutes before adding the curry leaves and shallots/onion, add the broccoli. All the vegetables should have some bite to them and not be overcooked.
Mustard Fish 101 (SERVES 6)
This is such an exotic dish with so many variations that I had to, absolutely, include it.
Ingredients
1 cup mustard seeds
1 tsp + K tsp salt
2 + 2 + 1 green or red chillies
1kg fish (ideally river fish)
K tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp + 1 tsp + extra to taste mustard oil
Method
Soak the mustard seeds in 1K cups of water, with 1 tsp salt and 2 chillies for 20-30 minutes. Drain and pulse grind. If the fish is large, cut it into pieces about K-inch thick and 2-inches long. If the fish are to be kept whole, and are about 3-4 inches long, just trim them. Wash the fish and pat dry. Coat fish with K tsp of salt and the turmeric and let it marinate for 15 minutes. Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a pan. When hot, fry the fish in batches, on each side for a minute. The idea is not to make crisp fries, just remove the rawness. Remove the fish from the pan and set aside. Add 1 tsp of oil to the pan and heat. Slit 2 chillies and add them to the pan. Dilute the mustard paste in water, and holding a strainer over the pan, filter it through. This I do to keep the rough mustard skin out and make the gravy smoother. Once it starts bubbling, lower the heat and put in the fish. Cook for 2 minutes and turn off the heat.
To serve, pour the fish and the gravy into a dish. Swirl a little oil on it for a sharp kick. Split the remaining chilli and place it in the dish. This should not be runny like a curry, but just the fish coated in the mustard.
Aubergine in a Garlic-Yogurt Sauce (SERVES 4)
About 10 years ago, I came across Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of India where she gives a recipe for baingan ka boorani from one of the aristocratic families of Bhopal. Slices of fried aubergine, a quirky sauce of coriander, garlic and turmeric, a soothing layer of garlicky yogurt topped with crunchy fried onions—the sight, the smell, the taste—classy, exotic, delicious. I make variations of this where only the aubergine and the garlic-yogurt are constant.
Ingredients
1K kg large, round shiny aubergine
K tsp + 1 tsp salt
1 cup oil
3 large, finely sliced onions
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp coriander powder, home-made recommended
1 tsp + K tsp garlic paste
1 cup yogurt
Method
Slice the aubergine into half-inch pieces. Sprinkle with K tsp salt and set aside. Place the oil in a pan for deep-frying on moderate heat. When hot, add the onions in batches and fry till they turn golden. Remove on paper towels to drain. Once the onions are fried, drain out most of the oil, reserving just 3 tbsp and put it back to heat.
Pat dry the aubergine slices and place them in the hot oil, turning after a minute to evenly brown both sides. Remove in a bowl, mix the turmeric, coriander powder and 1 tsp of the garlic paste with K cup water and make a paste.
Fry this paste in the same pan for about 2 minutes on moderate heat—to get rid of the rawness of the garlic and the spices. Beat the yogurt with the remaining garlic paste and 1 tsp salt. At the time of serving, spread the fried aubergine slices on a serving platter. Spread the paste of coriander, turmeric and garlic evenly over them. Pour the garlic yogurt on top. Sprinkle the fried onions and serve.
Illustration by Jayachandran / Mint
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First Published: Sat, Nov 07 2009. 01 15 AM IST