Category: Vegetables

Vegetables as star ingredient

Methi Malai Matar

I was the poster child for introverted, preferring always the company of the imaginary characters in my books and looking for a quiet room to read in for them to come to life. Celebrations like festivals, weddings, pujas generally placed me squarely out of my element. I would have liked nothing better than to have been left out of all of them entirely. Inventions of fictitious homework and illnesses only went so far before my mother made it her life’s mission to make me a bit more sociable. I grabbed a couple of books and resignedly went along, consoling myself with the thought that at least there would be fancy ‘celebration’ food.

All Indian events have two things in common. The first is people. Hordes of people. Uncles and aunties coming out of the woodwork. Extended family, family friends from distant places, people you only see at these functions, who come up to you and pinch your cheeks and ask you if you remembered them. There were women dressed to the nines in Kanjeevarams and Paithanis and Benarasis, the glorious sheen of the heavy silks competing only with the sparkle of the gold & diamond jewellery. They would bustle about, sharing the gossip of absent friends and neighbours as one does in rare meetings. Laughter and lilting voices rose from tightly scattered groups. The scent of the rajnigandha would fill the air vying for attention with jasmine perfume and the redolent waves of spice. My nose followed that spice to where the warming bowls stood lined up on the buffet.

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Pumpkin & Brinjal (Eggplant) Stew

It started out so well. The city enjoyed a bright and sunny weekend. Blue skies; gorgeous golden light. Away from home, the SF Giants swept the World series last evening.

Then came the night. It all went to hell pretty quickly.

Reports started to emerge of “Celebration rioting” across various neighbourhoods in the city. People tweeting about fires and getting hit in the face with beer cans. Rabid fans trashing cars and dumpsters and public transport. People aggressively searching for fights in the street, looking to trash anyone who didn’t look as jazzed about the win as they were.

I come from a country where rioting expresses public outrage. The frustrations of living in a country with many races, vast economic differences smoulder just beneath the surface. It takes but one unhappy spark to ignite the tinderbox. Riots occur as an outlet, when the common man is past endurance, out of fear and unhappiness. They stem from anger and long-seeded frustrations. When one is unhappy, one lashes out at anything for any reason. You want the world to feel your pain.

Why would anyone riot as an act of celebration? Wouldn’t happiness want to spread with acts of kindness and generosity? Why should happiness be so destructive? I can find no explanation.

The next morning dawned cold and grey. Gone was the sunshine of the weekend. The city seemed moody, as if confused by the conflict. The news of the East Coast hunkering down for one of the biggest storms possible did nothing to alleviate the nameless fears that had held me captive in my nightmares the previous night. As the day wore on, the storm began wrecking havoc along the coast. I prayed for friends and family on there, wishing them cover and warmth. I looked to Twitter for updates, hoping all was well. That was a mistake.

As great as social networks are, misinformation abounds. At times like this, for someone who is already terrified and powerless to help, too much information just feeds the fear. Then there are those clueless or callous few who just don’t know when to keep away from social networks. And there are others who are just waiting to heap scathing vitriol on such pitiable fools. Retweet after retweet, cursing each other out.

Few take the high road anymore. Few focus their abundant energies mainly on prayer and faith that those they care about will pull through. Precious few are concerned about curbing their negativity instead of putting it out there in the world in a time of crisis. In the real world, people were irritated and tense today. It is like the fog has taken a grip on our collective psyche.

My mind, it had had enough. I left work when the day was done and took a few long, deep calming breaths. I focused my thoughts on the few good interactions of the day, on good advice from a trusted colleague, on smiling compliments from another, forcing myself to forget all other unworthy exchanges. As I stepped off the bus and walked home, the mist hung low and clung to me like a cloak, threatening to wrap the dread around me once more.

Then I heard it. A joyous sound. The uninhibited laughter of a gaggle of children.

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Kashmiri Paneer with Spinach

Even though the rains are slow in leaving us this year, it is well and truly spring. In fact, it seemed like spring was here in early February. The weather was nippy and grey, but it didn’t matter really. Not when there were cherry blossoms softly blooming all over the city.

It is ethereal how these trees blossom in what seems like the depths of winter, a sure signal of the coming spring if there ever was one. Dull, dead branches magically unfurl gentle pink buds. Chancing upon one for the first time will take your breath away and leave you marvelling at this majesty of nature.

The first time I saw this tree I was lucky enough to see an avenue of them, covered in blushing pink blossoms, no leaves in sight. Ahead and beyond, there were hibernating trees, brown and withered with nary a leaf. They stood there, graceful, delicate pink blooms fluttering down with every cold gust of wind, a resplendent symbol of awakening life. I will never forget that scene. Every year since then, I look forward to the cherry blossoms blooming all over the city. A harbinger of seasonal flux as sure as the changing colour of leaves in the fall.

The plum blossoms soon follow. They aren’t as readily found but as just as pretty. We found a whole row of them up in Napa last month. Just as elegant a sight to behold.

The cherry blossom blooms last but a couple of weeks before the dark, velvety red leaves sprout and take over for the rest of the year. They signify change and are celebrated. Those few weeks are enough though, to lift a gloomy city’s grey mood. These annual events provide much needed nourishment to the spirit. Best of all, they are simple and accessible to anybody.

Good food done right can be as much of a nourishment to the soul as to the body. Most often, it will be the simple dishes that provide the most comfort. Shallow on your effort and your time, with a satisfaction quotient inversely proportional to either. Some of my favourite foods are the ones that work this way. A steaming bowl of hot dal, this potato vegetable rolled up in a chapati, or this one over some couscous. This fried rice topped with a gently fried egg. Or this soul-satisfying paneer dish.

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Annie Somerville’s spicy corn with tomatoes, chilli and cilantro

Did not mean to stay away for long but time has really zoomed on by here, what with all the packing, moving and unpacking I’ve been doing since I last checked in with you. This moving thing, it really is as annoying, niggling and downright disruptive as others say it is.

You may wonder how I didn’t know this before. Surely, you might think, a girl who had to move all the way over here from a whole other country must have encountered this before. To answer that; not really. I moved to this country carrying my life in three large suitcases. The one soul-splitting decision I had to make then was which books to bring along. I dealt with that by avoiding the decision and bringing all of them over; that I had to leave most of my clothes behind to do this, is another story. The only other time I moved was from grad school in Texas to San Francisco. In two years, the glorious salary of a grad assistant hadn’t gone very far in adding to my original possessions. I tackled with this move by allowing the postal service to do the heayy lifting, first shipping off said previous possessions to my sister and once I got a job in San Francisco, to Amey, who was already here. I found an apartment and moved possessions into it. Then I just stayed put, adding a few odds and ends to the tally – mostly other books.

It wasn’t planned to be that way. We were supposed to move when we got married. My limerick-sized apartment with its haiku-sized kitchen was barely enough for one. It fairly exploded when Amey moved his things into it. We assured each other this would only be temporary, while we found a larger apartment that we liked, but time had its way with us. Before we knew it, we’d celebrated four anniversaries in that apartment.

So here we were seven years since I originally moved into the place, finally working on moving out. Up to that point we’d been congratulating ourselves on how well we’d managed to live, not buying more than would fit into the place. recycling stuff, purging before buying. Based on this and my previous moving experience, I’d thought this move would hardly be more irksome than before. Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d paired canary yellow shoes with a shocking pink outfit. Or put bacon in my chocolate. *shudder*

Patient reader, this move has drained us to the very core. The act of trying to pack up the contents of a small apartment while still living having to live in it is as aggravating as trying to put seven terriers in a Mini Cooper. They will all get in eventually but they will then proceed to make a nuisance of themselves and get in your way every time you need to do something essential, like grab a tissue for your nose, which is running freely from all of the dust you’ve been kicking up. There were boxes of all sizes at every turn. We stacked and sidled, but there was no way around it. Going to work was sweet joyful relief, despite the crazy deadlines we were facing that month. For a while, all you had to do was walk up to Amey and say ‘packing’ and he would glower and start hurling invective like a wet dog shaking off water. All this and we were only at packing.

We managed to move in somewhat one piece, something that sadly cannot be said of several of my ceramic dinner plates. This move involved quite literally blood, sweat and tears. In my typical clumsy fashion, I’ve cut, scratched and bruised myself in every imaginable fashion as I’m wont to do in any situation that requires physical movement on my part. As you can imagine, there hasn’t been much time to really cook anything new, mostly stuff that was quick and ready in as little time as possible. That was on days that we could cook, there weren’t many. Most days we were just grateful for the concept of takeout.

Before we moved from our old apartment; the one that managed to be aggravating yet wonderful at the same time, I had cooked this as my last post from there. I never got to it while I was there but here it is now. There is corn to be had and while it’s still around I urge you to try this side dish that could very easily be a whole meal. It was for us. It will not take up too much of your time. You redeem some ears of corn of their kernels, cut a scallion or two and dice up some jalapeno. Shake everything into a pan with some oil and cayenne pepper. Then you take it off the heat and shower a cupful of ruby red cherry tomato halves into it. A dash of vinegar, some lime juice, a sprinkle of cilantro…voila! That’s all there is to a light dish that makes your stress disappear, be it from a day at the office or wrestling with prodigious quantities of duct tape.

Spicy corn with Tomatoes, Chilli & Cilantro
adapted from Annie Sommerville’s Field of Greens
Serves 2-3 as a salad and 4-6 as a side

Corn kernels – 4 ears or 2 cups
Jalapenos – 4, de-seeded and diced or slivered
Champagne vinegar- 1 tbsp
Lime juice – 1 lime
Scallions – 2, white and green bits, sliced thin
Cayenne pepper – a couple of pinches
Cherry tomatoes – 1 cup
Cilantro – a couple of sprigs, finely chopped
Olive Oil – 1 tbsp
Salt and pepper to taste

– Heat the oil in a pan on medium low heat until it shimmers, then add the corn, jalapeno and scallions.
– Add the salt and cayenne and give the contents of the pan a good stir. Let heat for 8 – 10 minutes.
– Add the vinegar and lime juice and toss the veggies in it. Move the dish off the heat immediately.
– Pour the contents of the pan into a bowl then add the cherry tomatoes and cilantro while the corn is still warm. Mix to incorporate.

Makes a great side dish or accompaniment for chicken, rice or any number of things. Makes a great salad with some crusty bread thrown in and oh, it is a quick and fabulous Cinco de Mayo side! Though you may need to thaw some frozen kernels then. 

Cook’s notes:

The rules contained in this recipe are more like guidelines. You cannot go wrong here no matter how you change up the steps. Throw the tomatoes into the pan with the corn for example, or toss the lime juice and vinegar in once off the heat (actually this is what the recipe instructs. I always forget to and throw them in the pan – no problem.) It makes little difference to the general make-up of the dish. Add as much or as little jalapeno as you want. Personally, a de-seeded jalapeno tastes like bell pepper to me, so I use 4. I like the soft crunch it brings to the party.The cayenne pepper will help you turn the heat up or down so use according to taste.

The sweetness of the corn mingles so well with the acid and heat of the other ingredients to create a dish that is quite gratifying. We had this as a salad with some crusty Ikea cardamom toast and tea. San Francisco was cold and foggy that day but the sun broke through the fog just as we sat down to eat. I’m sure the meteorologists have an explanation. I prefer to think it was the power of suggestion from this simple meal.

Annie Somerville’s Spring Vegetable Salad with Meyer Lemon vinaigrette

“To make a good salad is to be a brilliant diplomatist – the problem is entirely the same in both cases. To know how much oil one must mix with one’s vinegar.”
– Oscar Wilde

Beets were used in the previous citrus and beet salad

What truly makes a good salad anyway? How do you tell if you are in the presence of a good one? More importantly how do you make one that is excellent?

In my opinion, what differentiates a good salad from a passable one is a couple of things; the harmony of tastes and textures you fold together under an unctuous drizzled coating of flavourful liquid and the ratio of the liquid to solid ingredients. These two are key. Get it right and the salad could be sweet, sour, bitter, spicy or any combination thereof and it will still work.

There is then, a secondary tier of things to remember. It is important that you source your greens well. There is a case to be made for pillow packs of greens; if you’re in a hurry, have no access to anything else and more importantly, intend to use the packet within a day or so of buying it, by all means, go ahead and use one. However, if this is what you use all the time, then you’re missing out on one of life’s simple pleasures; the first, cool, crisp bite of leaves that are new to your taste buds. Those convenient vacuum sealed packs only have a set variety of leaves and I don’t know about you, but to me a mixture of three different kinds of lettuce is not much different from just one kind of lettuce. I like a good Caesar salad as much as the next person (well, may be not as much. The next person here and now is my husband. His insane devotion to Caesar salad confounds me) but there is so much more joy to be had in the peppery bite of arugula or the spicy snap of cress or the salty tang of an unusual leaf. Such greens I would never have discovered in pillow packs.

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