Thursday, February 27, 2014

Paprika:Travel of the chilly … Mathania and beyond

               Being a chef in hotels has a lot of perks, one of them being that the latest food trends and “in” ingredients come to your doorstep via keen purveyors. it helps the hotel chef keep abreast of the latest “power ingredients “ that are moving or will soon enough move the market . 
Of late various forms of paprika seems to be that power ingredient coming in various shades and spiciness. Hungarian Paprika has made good Inroads into a country that produces the most chilly in the world .The Rising Star Award however has to go to the “Spanish” Smoked paprika or pimenton , a sweet deep flavor that gets enhanced by the smokiness imparted during smoke drying as opposed to sun drying.
Yet this is not about Spain or Hungary , this is about a small village 30 Kms outside of Jodhpur on way to the Osian Desert, the village of Mathania . I was introduced to the beauty of the Mathania chilly by Mot Singh , a cook to the Royal Family of Jodhpur . While making Laal Maas he used Mathania chilly paste and bet with me that his laal maas would be redder and sweeter than mine (I was trying it with the Kashmiri degi mirch). Needless to say I lost the bet but gained a lot of respect for this small village. Mathania mirch is indeed the reddest  and the sweetest chilly that I have cooked with In India . One could easily replace the “Half sharp Hungarian “ paprika with this fleshy and low scoviile chilly from the desert.
Oh and here is another reason why you should only use Mathania red in your laal maas – According to a report by Central Arid Zone research Institute , Mathania chilly is on the verge of extinction . The best way to keep it alive is to use it, and trust me you will be amazed with the results.
Considering that Chilly came to India through the Portugese only in 1498 and either travelled upwards from Goa or Eastwards from the middle east to Reach Rajasthan ….. How dated does that make the laal maas ? .. another conversation for another time I guess
Here’s a really cool way to use the Mathania red
Mathania Chilly – strawberry - chocolate mousse
100g/3½oz milk chocolate, chopped
01 strawberry chopped
01 fresh Mathania red chilly deseeded and minced
300ml double cream, whipped to soft peak.
Chocolate glaze to coat
Place the chocolate into a bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water and heat, until melted.
Stir in all of the chilli and strawberry. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly.
Fold the melted chocolate into the cream in a large bowl, then spoon into a bombe . Chill until needed.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Jicama …. The one that survived

       I was shooting for a travel show in Kolkata recently when I came across a hawker selling peeled diced Shankhalu with black salt. The moment I got one for myself a small boy immediately stood next to me asking for a piece. The sight and situation took me back to when I had just returned to India in 2011 after a long stint in the States and was doing food trials with exotic ingredients, I grabbed a pack of jicama from a supermarket for a salad and introduced it as a south American tuber only to be received by giggles from a few of my staff telling me that they had been eating it ever since they were kids in Kolkata as Shankhalu. Jicama lost some charm there and left me with some questions that needed to be answered.
This conch (shankh) shaped potato (aloo) that was offered to Maa Saraswati on pooja is actually the only non poisonous part of the legume that developed poison as a means of survival, humans found out the trick soon .The question still remains how did it travel to the old world from the new. There's a widely accepted theory that talks about the “Columbain Exchange” of crops; a trade that helped the Portuguese bring Chillies and the British bring potatoes to India, the Spanish however could only come as close as Philippines and from there it spread to south asia and Eastern India. That’s the travel, now for the benefits and the uses, this Mexican turnip is high in anti oxidants, vitamin C and minerals. It's extremely beneficial for diabetics and weightwatchers.
Food business is full of surprises and fond memories. As much as Jicama humbled and surprised me with its “Indianness” in 2011, in 2014 it gave me fond memories of a great chirpy team that would just say how they felt and make each other better along the way.

For salad 
½ cup overnight soaked and boiled soyabeans   
1 cup juliennes of jicama
½ cup chopped red bell pepper   
1 tsp chopped dill leaves   
For dressing 
¼ cup chopped coriander    
1 tbsp oil   
1 tsp chopped garlic   
½ cup curd   
For plating 
3 thin slices of cucumber 

To prepare salad in a bowl add boiled soyabean, juliennes jicama , chopped red bell pepper, chopped dill leaves and mix well. 
To prepare dressing in a blender add chopped coriander, oil, chopped garlic, curd and blend well. 
Mix the dressing in the salad and add salt to it. 
For plating make rolls of the cucumber slices. Stuff the prepared salad in the cucumber roll and keep the roll on the plate. Make such more cucumber rolls. 

The Gritty Grits family

    These days cereals from the west ,like grits, oats and quinoa (the next super grain) are abundant in super markets.
                       Let us pick up this good looking vacuum packed pack of grits today. Hominy grits as they are commonly called in the south of US are made from alkali treated hulled corn which is crushed coarsely to a grade thicker than polenta. Grits are used as breakfast porridge but the combination of shrimp and grits has caught the fancy of many American chefs, making it a culinary icon in the Corn Belt. Grits add a wonderful element of crunch and creaminess to any dish.              

               In my travels to Gujarat, Rajasthan & parts of Maharashtra, subconsciously looking for this crunch and creaminess, I developed a lot of respect for the lesser known old Indian grains specially the wide variety of millets and their multiple uses. In greater India, variants of wheat and cereals have been dated to 8000 BC with millet production in Mehrgarh around 6000BC. An old underdog is the finger millet or Nachni, as its commonly known in Gujarat and Maharashtra where it's used for porridges, bhakris and rotlis. High concentration of methionine makes nachni a valuable grain. In fact the porridge-like use of amaranth, nachni, ragi and the panicums mixed with ghee and/ or milk lend a creaminess and an unforgettable texture, to die for!!!!
   This humble cook would like to put forward two requests here :
1. To the homemaker - to soak the millets overnight to allow easy cooking.
2. To the food processing industry - to create semi processed and fast cooking versions of these Indian grains to get them the much deserved place in an urban Indian kitchen.

Nachni and Grits-coated onion rings

Ingredients :
Onion rings 1 ½ onion
Refined Flour 3 tsp
Oil to fry
Salt to taste

For the batter :
Finger Millet Flour ¼ cup
Soaked grits 3 tbsp
Grated Coconut 2 tbsp
Salt : to taste
Red Chili Powder 1 tbsp
Curd 2 tbsp
Baking soda 1 tsp
Oil 1tbsp


1. For the batter in a bowl mix finger millet flour, grated coconut, salt , red chili powder, curd, water, refined flour and baking soda. Then add some oil and keep it aside for 10 to 12 minutes.
2. Apply salt and refined flour on the onion rings.

3. Coat the onion rings in the prepared batter and fry them in hot oil. Serve hot.

Friday, February 7, 2014

what recipe books never tell you

Few tips and tricks every cook in the kitchen must know. 

1) Always keep space for residual cooking
Food keeps cooking even when it is taken off the flames. The same has to be kept in mind so as not to overcook any dish.
2) Always keep a spoon with you:
Keep tasting your food at regular intervals for 2 reasons;
A) You can fix it before it goes horribly wrong.
B) If it comes out really good you will know at what stage you made the difference.
3) Never use tea spoons/table spoons while putting ingredients to cook :
Our hands give the best estimate to cooking. Also, in a lot of recipes, quantity of spices simply can't be multiplied by themselves but we gradually need to reduce the quantity per recipe for a consistent taste.
4) Use a lots of gadgets
Modern chefs use a lot of gadgets for mixing, grinding, pulverising, blending for 2 reasons
A) It saves time.
B) It gives a much better finish and mouthfeel.
5) When in doubt strain
Whether we are making sauces, soups, stocks and gravies. This allows for better texture and the cleaner flavour.
6) Oven temperatures are mere guidelines
There is always hot and cold parts in any oven; hence using baking temperature as the rule of the thumb generally adversely affects the products.
7) Cooking is not about speed, it's about control
It is important to be on top of the cooking process all the time. If we can manage doing that for five dishes or one is secondary.
8) Fresh is foremost
The ingredients that you use when you cook have to be the freshest possible at all times. Whether it's the cut veggies or meat or pastes and powders. The fresher the better.
9) Be confident... Let it "be"
If you are looking, you are not cooking. This holds good especially for slow cooking and barbecue type foods. You have to be confident and let the food be. Let the heat do its job. If you keep opening the lid it's only gonna delay and inversely affect the process.
10) In the end it's about the palate
Food is as good or as bad as it tastes. Behind any complicated foreign recipe lies an inherent taste that the recipe brings . Feel that taste in your mind and start.

Pandan …. The superflavour

These sugarcane leaf like leaves of which Fresh is preferred but frozen is plenty in supermarkets has quite a story to reveal.
Pandan leaves have many uses , of which the most preferred  ones  include steaming it with fish and meats in it and flavouring rice preparations with knots of these leaves .
In my recent trip to lucknow I met with a unani hakim who introduced me to the leaf of the kewra tree and told me that it goes well in biryanis and rice preparations when steeped in the Yakhni or the broth . I smelt the leaf and my food memory trasnported me to Singapore where I had a Pandan cake10 years ago.
Lo and Behold ….. Pandan wasn’t alien anymore, it was a just the leaf of our kewra plant , a relationship was immediately established. Its scientifically proven  that the flavour giving compound of basmati and pandan are actually the same .. surprised ? so was I when I found out . But there’s more to the story . Pandan is grown all across south east asia and many other parts of the world, yet nobody else but us Indians thought of using the flowers for Ittar that can be used in food all the way from Delhi to Hyderabad through Lucknow . Another trivia to keep it interesting and keep you connected to pandan: pandan flowers and leaves were thrown in wells to mildly perfume the drinking water.In the mango belt , whole sacs of mangoes used to be dipped in these wells to infuse them with this perfume to impress the Taluqdars and Nawabs. The use of science of infusion at its best …right?
So next time just take the leaf of the shelf and boil it with your rice it will be a great introduction to a wonderful ingredient .To make the deal more interesting-  Pandan solves skin problems , arthritis issues and strengthens gums .Now ready to try the recipe?

Pandan steamed fish with a red thai sauce
Pandan leaves                                           5 nos
Fish fillet cut into 100 gms cubes               01 medium
Finely Grated coconut toasted                   50 gms
Red Thai curry paste                                 2 tbsp
Coconut Milk                                            1 cup
Lime leaf and coriander leaf chopped         ½ cup
Tomatoes quartered                                   1 nos
Lemon juice                                               ½ cup
Jaggery                                                      1tsp
For the fish, marinate with salt-pepper, lemon juice ,1/2  chopped herbs and toasted coconut .
Wrap in Pandan leaf and steam till cooked
For the curry sauce , dry broil the curry paste and add the remaining ingredients along with water .
Cook on slow and remove the tomatoes after 3-4 minutes
Serve the tomatoes as an accompaniment and the sauce on the side