Tagged: appetizer

Lamb Shami Kabab

I’m a guest writer on Rasa Malaysia! It’s one of the most comprehensive and wonderful food sites on East Asian food there is. Needless to say, I’m beyond thrilled!

There I was dreading the inevitable demise of yet another weekend when I received an unexpected message. It was Bee of the amazing Rasa Malaysia asking if I’d like to write a guest post for her wonderful blog. Oh my! Are potatoes my favourite vegetable? (Or something else to which the answer is a more obvious YES!) What an honour! After a quick discussion, we decided my post would be on kababs.

Kababs were the way I first ate any meat as a child. Not because that’s how my mom wanted it, but because up to that point I had steadfastly refused to eat meat. The smoky flavours and spicy one-bite poppers were what convinced me to try my first chicken tikka. (This was tikka as a kabab, simply unadorned & roasted meat, without any of the gravy that makes it chicken tikka masala), I was hooked from the first bite and have never looked back. I grew from strength to strength with lamb botis and mutton seekh. A smorgasbord of kababs that then taught me to enjoy meat in other forms.

Read the rest of the post at Rasa Malaysia!

Annie Somerville’s Polenta in a Gorgonzola cream sauce with Walnuts

Today, I woke up to a cat. Not my cat. I don’t have a cat. I wish I had a cat. Or a dog. I’m not particular on that point. I just wish I had a pet.  You may be wondering “Why is she making a big deal out of this? Cats, they’ve been around humans for millenia, haven’t they? It’s not like she came face-to-face with a dinosaur!” (That would have been some conversation starter, wouldn’t it? “Today, I met Barney. The real thing my dear! And you know, he’s more vivid mauve than purple, positively fuchsia!”)

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, on with the tale. As I was saying, on waking today, I came face-to-face with a cat. The sighting at close quarters was strange for a couple of reasons. First, I’d just woken from a strange dream involving Superman, the Incredible Hulk, the Cheshire cat and the Mad Hatter cooking together (I suspect this had something to do with watching too much TV and consuming some questionable leftover pie much too late last night, but I’m always glad when Johnny Depp shows up in my dream life, especially since he will never be there in the waking one…sigh). The last elusive image I had in my head was a cat grinning over a steaming pot, just before I woke from my weird shallows of slumber. I stumbled drowsily into the kitchen for a warm cuppa and rolled up the window shades to see a calm, grey tabby just sitting there, staring at me with perfect equanimity. As you can imagine, the feeling was surreal. Second, this would be an absolute first cat sighting for me in the environs of my apartment building. I’ve seen them sitting at windows as I pass by other places in the city. But, to my chagrin, these places are never around me. Not one person in the vicinity has ever had a cat as far as I can see. (I live around some pet-hating landlords.) Yet here was this one, an honest-to-goodness, fluffy grey cat with white socks, pale green-grey eyes and a lovely grey-white-black tail curled comfortably around her.

We stared at each other for a bit, motionless and silent. The cat kindly let me get a hold of my scattered senses; she seemed to have decided that any sudden moves might send me over the edge. Then slowly, deliberately, she lifted her paw in a half-greeting and then proceeded to give it a thorough washing. When she was done, she looked up and seemed a bit miffed that I still hadn’t moved. Her feline gestures seemed to suggest a slight impatience with the human. She got up gracefully, stretched in that mind-bogglingly flexible way that only cats can, and padded her way on silent paws to the edge of the lobby roof where she sat, giving me a reproachful look and a plaintive miaow. “Here I am,” she seemed to say, “out in the cold at your window and you won’t even offer me some milk! What would your mother say?” (My mother, while assiduously denying animals room and board, is nevertheless a famous feeder of stray cats. Famous. Ask any of our neighbours.) That look jolted me right out of my stupor. It was reminiscent of my nephew when he was younger and was told he couldn’t have any chocolate. Just so woeful. I looked about for some milk for her, but realised that if she had it, then me and Amey would have to do without. Telling my husband this early in the morning that he can’t have any milk (“because the cat asked for some”) might cause him to look about on how to get me committed. He’s a bear when he hasn’t had his morning coffee. So in the interest of my well-being, I tentatively offered her the last bit of the questionable pie.


She sniffed at it with suspicion, then proceeded to consume it with a rather browbeaten air, as will a guest when his hostess insists he try something he can’t stand, but is too polite to refuse. The deed done, she licked her whiskers clean and then proceeded to chew her tail in a gentle, abstracted fashion for a few minutes. Then, quite suddenly, with the air of the end of a performance, she stretched with an athlete’s commitment and took off, gracefully jumping onto a tree from the roof as she proceeded to make her way to the ground. Then, with a slow blink of those green eyes, she was gone, quite as suddenly as she had appeared into my life. No forwarding address, no P.O Box Number. Disconsolate, I could only hope she made her way home safely before the traffic picked up for the morning. This early morning event left me craving something warm, comforting and nourishing for a meal. With daydreams of having my own cat (or dog) someday, I thumbed through the books for inspiration. That’s when I spied this little recipe for polenta.

Polenta came into my culinary horizon fairly recently. There was a grilled version of polenta I ate as an appetizer at Greens restaurant that I fell head-over-heels in love with. The way you feel when you meet the one and wonder where they’ve been your entire life. Polenta is made rather easily from cornmeal and has a way of firming up as it cools down. This porridge is then sliced and browned on a skillet or toasted in the oven until its outsides crisp up a bit. It tastes of mushed up corn and is a blank palette for any number of flavours that you can throw at it. At Greens, I ate it with some mushrooms and it was one of the most delectable things I’ve ever eaten. This recipe was different. It called for the gentle poaching of ingredients in cream while you cooked, cooled and grilled the polenta. Some gorgonzola cheese and walnuts rounded out the flavours. A warming gem of a dish. It leaves you with the same contentment you get from having a warm and purring cat sitting on your lap.

Polenta and Walnuts with a Gorgonzola and herbed cream sauce
Adapted from Annie Sommerville’s Everyday Greens
Serves 3 to 4 as an entrée, maybe twice as many as an appetizer

For the polenta:
Water – 4 cups
Cornmeal – 1 cup
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Parmesan cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
A quick two gratings of nutmeg and cardamom
Salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce:
Half-and half OR skimmed milk – 1 cup
Cream – 1 cup
Red onion – 1/2, sliced fine
Garlic cloves – 3 to 4, smashed with the flat of a knife, paper skins left on,
Bay leaf – 1
Fresh Thyme sprigs – 2
Fresh oregano sprig – 1
Sage – 3 leaves
Gorgonzola cheese – 3/4 cup, crumbled
Kasseri or Fontina cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
Walnut pieces – 1/2 cup, toasted
Basil leaves – a half-handful, chopped into a chiffonade

To make the polenta:
– In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Salt the water, then add the cornmeal. Lower the heat a bit to gently cook the polenta until it smoothly thickens, about 20 minutes or so.
– When the polenta is cooked, take it off the heat. Stir in the pepper, nutmeg, cardamom and olive oil.
– Pour into a 9″x15″ dish and allow it to cool. Upon cooling, slice the polenta into  six or eight squares (which can be cut into triangles if the dish is to be an appetizer).

To make the sauce:
– Combine the cream, milk, onion, garlic and herbs in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer the sauce. Allow the sauce to reduce slightly, cooking for about 15 minutes.
– Strain the cream sauce, then return to the saucepan. Add half the Gorgonzola cheese to it, whisking it in to melt, over low heat. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

To assemble the dish:
– While the sauce is cooking, pour a little olive oil onto a skillet. Lightly crisp the polenta slices on the skillet until golden brown. Alternatively you could place the slices with some olive oil into a pre-heated oven at 325°F for 15-20 minutes.
– Place a couple of square (or a couple of triangles) on a plate . Sprinkle some Fontina (or Kasseri) and some of the reserved Gorgonzola on the slices, then ladle over some of the sauce. Sprinkle with some of the walnut pieces and a generous amount of basil. Enjoy right away!

Cook’s notes:
I like lots of basil. So I didn’t didn’t bother with a chiffonade. Annie Sommerville suggests plating the polenta on a plate of arugula. I might have used it if I had it, or I would have used some watercress. Turned out I didn’t have any, so I just made up for the lack of it with lots of basil. (After the pictures, the dish went all green). The cooking of the sauce threw me a bit. I’ve never poached onions in cream before…to be frank, I’ve never poached onions in anything before. I’ve always browned them in oil or had them raw. The poaching here gently brings out the essence of the onion, herbs and the garlic. Sure, it all gets discarded but it has passed some of its soul onto the cream. It leaves behind a very luxurious, fragrant sauce that’s a real treat with the crisped polenta.

This is certainly a rich dish, but satisfying and very good with just the salad. As an appetizer, I would serve small individual portions to ensure that my guests save some room for the main course. A couple of pieces stacked together should do. The polenta can be made a day ahead, sliced and placed into the fridge. When required they can then be crisped on the skillet before assembly. One bite of this takes you to a warm, happy time. Mine I imagine, would be curled up on a sofa, with a book and my cat, if I had a cat.

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Tyler Florence’s Herbed Focaccia with caramelized onions and goat cheese

Baking was something I didn’t really get to think about when I was younger. Bread was something you got pre-sliced from the market or from the pav walla (travelling bread seller) who made his rounds on on his bicycle in the mornings; cake was best left in the hands of the experts. Sure I’d been making making the dough for chapatis (a staple Indian flat bread) since in my teens. And there were the rare puris and parathas, but that was it really. Then I came to this country; kitchens here came equipped complete with oven, and people around me discoursed on bread baking and the wonder of warm loaves coming out of the kitchen as part of normal routine. Friends in grad school baked as means of stress relief and down in Texas, everyone knew how to bake their own biscuits and pies. It made me feel like a bit like I did on the first day of architecture school, lost and completely out of my element. Sure, I could wield a frying pan with the best of them but I had less of an idea what to do with a loaf tin. Antithetical ideas like sweet potato pie made my mind spin (a sweet vegetable pie? really?)… And biscuits, why on earth would someone call those heavenly savoury light bread-like creations biscuits? Biscuits come out of a tin or packets of butter paper and are sweet! It was a whole new world!

I was extremely ambivalent about trying all this on my own. First, it sounded a bit tedious and very easy to mess up (working the flour just right, bread dough different from pastry dough, all the mixing and measuring, cold butter, warm water…argh!); secondly, I was really not looking to make cooking more pulled out than I make it. I’m not one of those people who finds cooking therapeutic and relaxing. I’m downright nasty in the kitchen if you try to interfere with my weird work method. Cooking to me is adventurous and exciting; there is wonder in seeing things come together. But adventure and relaxation do not mix. A picnic in the park, it is not. So more years went by, with me standing in the sidelines as far as baking was concerned, cheering away at the accomplishments of others but very undecided about trying it for myself. I predicted disaster and so kept putting it off for other things I knew I could attempt successfully. My sister though, urged me to give it a shot. “Start with something simple…” she said, “like a box cake from the supermarket.” I decided it couldn’t hurt to try. If I messed it up, I’d chalk it up to experience. Good thing too, because the experience went very well. Those Betty Crocker boxes are genius, even belligerent cavemen could turn out cakes like cordon bleu chefs. There was warm comfort in a pan with that cake. Even though all I did was add some oil and eggs to it, there was a feeling of serious accomplishment when I pulled the fluffy chocolate cake out of that oven. It was the kind of euphoric feeling I’ll never forget, the nudge I needed to dive headlong into this well-heated world. I grew from strength to strength; mixing and stirring and ladling things like a happy little baker. There were cakes and brownies and cookies, even pies. There were some misses but also there were hits, hits that roared up the charts. (My favourite compliment was relayed to me by my elder sister a year ago. She told me my nephew refuses to eat commercial apple pie, claiming the only one he liked was the one his aunt made…er..that’s me…my nephew likes my apple pie best, isn’t he the sweetest little munchkin?? Wait, don’t tell him I said that. He’s fifteen now, he won’t like being called the sweetest little munchkin, w-ell, at least he’ll never acknowledge it.)

The one thing I still felt unsure around, was bread. All the talk of ‘starters’ and feeding the starter and being concerned about its well-being and mucking about with yeast; yeah, all that  just seemed like too much work. But you have to try something before you knock it. I was nervous about trying this culinary adventure without some guidance from experience. So many questions! So I signed up for a bread making class at the Tante Marie Cooking school in San Francisco, a school, I discovered, that I had lived nary a block from, without knowing it for almost five years! (Such is life no?) The instructor for the day’s class was a wonderful chef called Jim Dodge, who made the class fun and educational. He taught us about starters and blooming yeast and different kinds of bread. More importantly to me, he painstakingly worked with me to break my set-in-concrete habit of kneading dough into tomorrow, like I would for chapatis. Chapati dough can take a lot of beating ..er..kneading. Bread dough, I learned, is more gently kneaded and sort of shaped at the same time, with not as much heavy pressure as I’m used to wielding. Ok, no pressure at all really, you do as little kneading as possible after the dough has come together. We also learned the importance of letting the dough rest and rise, scoring the loaf (to give the bread some expansion paths so it doesn’t crack elsewhere) and the lovely hollow thunk it produces when it is perfectly baked and you knock on it. All this was in the wonderful home and garden of the lovely Tante Marie herself, Mary Risley. I made some lovely new friends and was richer in not only in experience, but in sourdough starter from Jim Dodge’s mother lode, several recipes and two of the loveliest loaves of sourdough bread you ever saw. My very own, very first, baked breads. Warm and crackly and smelling of herbs and heaven!

Still I was right about the amount of work. I forgot all about feeding my starter and it died a tragic death alarmingly soon. I have no stand mixer and realised I was very tense about working the dough entirely by hand once I was on my own. The recipes I’d so happily acquired sat forlornly on my kitchen counter, with me still a bit nervous about trying them out. A few weeks ago though, Amey gave me a good talking to. What is the point of taking a class and not even trying to do it on my own? My pointing out lack of kitchen equipment didn’t work either. I was sternly reminded that man didn’t come out of the primordial soup armed with stand mixers, and that bread had been around almost since then. Finding myself unable to argue with that bit of logic, I turned to my trusted cookbooks for an easy recipe I could try without fear of assured disaster.  And there it was, tucked away in Tyler Florence’s beauty of a book, this recipe for focaccia. What immediately appealed to me was the complete absence of a starter. Several authors assure you that bakers are happy to hand you some of theirs. I was in no mood to test out this theory. And then, there is the fact that this is focaccia. It is my favourite kind of bread. I love the soft yielding bite and slightly dense texture of this bread. The recipe seemed pretty doable, armed with my fairly new knowledge of bread as I was. I’m glad I tried it. This one’s a hit that will stay on the charts a lo-ong time.

Herbed Focaccia with Caramelized Onion & Goat Cheese
Adapted from Tyler Florence’s Stirring the Pot
Makes 8 slices/servings

For the dough:
Unbleached all-purpose flour – 3 1/2 cups
Dry active yeast – 2 tsp
Honey – 2 tsp
Salt- 1 tsp
Fresh thyme leaves – 1 tsp
Dried oregano – 1 tsp
Ancho chilli powder – 1 tsp
Olive Oil – 1 tbsp
Warm water – 1 cup

For the topping:
Red onions – 4, medium, cut into slivers
Goat cheese – about 2 oz
Parmesan cheese – 2 to 3 tbsp, shredded
Balsamic vinegar – a turn of the pan
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Salt and pepper to taste

– Dissolve the honey in the warm water, then gently stir in the yeast. Place aside for 5 to 10 minutes. If the yeast are active, there will be some foam on the surface of the water.
– Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Add the thyme leaves, dried oregano and ancho chilli powder.
– Slowly add in the warm water with yeast, stirring to combine together. When all the water has been incorporated, knead the mixture into a sticky dough.
– On the counter or on a base, sprinkle some flour. Pat the dough onto the surface and knead well, until the stickiness of the dough reduces considerably. Knead the dough for a bit until smoothish to the touch. Then add a tablespoon of oil and finish kneading the dough to develop a smooth surface. Punch the dough to flatten a bit, then fold it onto itself loosely.
– Place the dough in a bowl. Cover with a towel and keep in a warm place for about an hour for the dough to rise.
– Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a large pan on medium heat. Toss in the slivers of onion and toss to coat.
– Season well with salt and pepper. Mix well and then let the onions caramelize to a rusty gold, then to a deep purple. This should take about 30 minutes. About 10 minutes before they are done, pour in the balsamic vinegar and toss with the onions to coat.
– Check the dough at about an hour. It should be considerably larger, about twice its original size.
– Layer some parchment paper onto a baking sheet and rub it with some olive oil. Put the dough out on the pan and push it out to the edges with your fingers to flatten it out onto the pan, about 1/2” or so thick. Dimple the surface of the dough gently with your fingers.
– Cover the flattened dough with plastic wrap, then the towel and set aside for 15 minutes.
– Set the oven to heat at 400°F.
– Uncover the dough. Spread out the caramelized onions out to cover the surface of the dough. Crumble the goat cheese over the onions. Sprinkle the parmesan cheese over the entire surface.
– Place into the heated oven and bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the bread goes golden brown.

Serve by itself or with a side salad.

Cook’s notes:-
This is the kind of bread recipe that is totally geared towards the novice bread baker. Even though I’d done something this once under supervision before, I believe someone who doesn’t know the first thing about bread baking can do it, as long as they have the initiative and some amount of patience. I switched out the sugar for some honey and messed around with herbs and ancho chilli powder, but it all really worked in the recipe. The house smelled warm and inviting and I saw so many passersby glance at the building windows as I sat reading there while the bread baked. We really had a hard time waiting for this one to cool down because our senses kept demanding we try the bread right way. The bread bakes nice and golden and the entire thing is like a very thick crust pizza, totally amazing and very delicious. The cheese melted in fluffy little puddles all over the burgundy onion and was a wonderful tart counterbalance to the sweetness of the onions. There was just a bit of heat in the dough from the chilli powder, which worked very well with the key flavours of cheese and onion.

The texture of the bread is dense and yielding. My technique, or lack thereof, didn’t seem to have mattered one way or another, since whatever I did seemed to have worked. This is the kind of recipe you work at as you sort through other stuff on the weekend, cleaning out a closet, doing laundry or some such thing. As you get done with your task, the bread comes out of the oven and a meal is ready. Watch out for burns as people try to grab pieces before the bread has time to cool. If you manage to get slices on to a plate, this would go really well with a leafy salad, maybe with some walnuts (which I think might work really well sprinkled on the bread too). It does quite well by itself too though, it is quite filling. This would make excellent picnic fare. We ate it standing in the kitchen over the baking sheet, dropping crumbs everywhere. Not one piece made it anywhere near a plate!

Unlike me, give this one a try sooner rather than later. You will be mighty pleased with the results. With the advent of autumn, your kitchen will appreciate the warmth as well. I was glad the bread baking experience was a successful one. At a point in the process, when the bread was in the oven and the aroma enveloped me like a hug from my mum, I took a deep breath, sighed and realised that cooking can be, well and truly, comforting. That is even better than it being relaxing.

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Buttermilk (Takachi) Kadhi

You know that hole-in-the-wall you love? The restaurant that’s smaller than the MUNI bustop? You know that lovely yellowed curry it serves? The one that’s smoky (or not) and tart (or sweet?), the kind you put up with sardine-can seating for, because you love it? Remember how when you’re done, your napkin, the tips of your fingers, heck, even the plate just goes completely yellow? Enough to make you nervously wonder about maladies that mess with your vision? Congratulations, you have had a swift, yet definitive introduction to turmeric. (And oh, that stuff that turned your fingers red that other time? No, that’s not chilli powder, that’s just the red food coloring additive in chilli powder. Very different. We’re talking apples and potatoes here. Even though the French call them both pommes, but I digress…)

Turmeric has been turning everything yellow for eons. This stuff was around even before the Romans decided that anyone who turned water into wine was really cramping their style. But it didn’t begin its culinary journey as anything connected with cooking. What it was used for, first and foremost, was as a dye, especially for holy robes.

Turmeric has been mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Hindu sacred texts. It was associated with purity and cleansing. Even today, orthodox Hindu households will use turmeric water to purify everything from themselves to objects in the house and the house itself before a religious event. Along the same lines, Hindu brides and bridegrooms have a ceremony called ‘haldi’ (the Hindi word for turmeric and also the name of the ceremony), just before their wedding day.

This yellow-orange rhizome (that is a relative of ginger) is also credited with tons of medicinal uses. It is used as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory agent. When a classmate in school cut her finger during a cooking class, a well-meaning friend promptly threw some turmeric on her finger. Good move as far as providing an antiseptic, but bad for the bleeding. As it turns out, turmeric is also an anti-coagulant. (No permanent damage done, it was a very tiny cut. Nothing that the band-aid that followed couldn’t take care of.) Studies show that curcumin, the main flavoring compound in turmeric, is also an anti-oxidant.

Turmeric imparts a rich, ochre yellow to anything it is included in. The mustard so popular on hot dogs gets its color and part of its distinctive flavor from this golden spice. Turmeric is famous for its inclusion in curry powders. Marco Polo noted the following of turmeric when he came across it in 1280 “There is also a vegetable which has all the properties of true saffron, as well the smell as the color, and yet it is not really saffron.” This isn’t entirely true. Turmeric and saffron can both turn things yellow. The similarity ends there. Saffron is fragrant and enchanting, its flavor elevated and floral. Turmeric smells a bit acrid; Its flavor is earthy, reminiscent of ginger and mustard. One should never be used in lieu of the other. The dish in question would absolutely not taste the same.

Turmeric in Indian cooking is used primarily in its dry, ground form. Small quantities are used when called for in a recipe but they are more than enough to convey the ginger-peppery flavor. In some parts of India, turmeric leaves are used to wrap dumplings before steaming. There is a milder flavor and flowery aspect associated with the leaves that is different from the stem which supplies the powdered spice.

Forming the base on which several dishes can be built, turmeric, along with asafoetida and mustard seeds, feature in countless recipes from the Indian sub-continent. Lentils, vegetables, meat and fish, all do well with a seasoning of turmeric. One of the simplest dishes featuring turmeric is also the most satisfying. Called kadhi, different regions of India have their own versions; it tends to be of a thinner consistency in the south as compared to the north of the country. It can be plain or made with chickpea dumplings (pakoras).

Buttermilk Kadhi
Serves 3-4

2 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup chickpea flour (besan)
1/3 tsp asafoetida
1/4 tsp turmeric
3-4 green chillies, split lengthwise (Serrano or Thai chillies)
1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp sugar
Salt to taste
Cilantro for garnish

For seasoning:
2 tbsp clarified butter (ghee) or canola oil
5-6 curry leaves
1 tsp asafoetida
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp mustard seeds

– In a pot, combine the buttermilk, chickpea flour and 2 cups of water. Stir together to dissolve any lumps.
– Add sugar, salt, turmeric and asafoetida and mix.
– Move the pot onto the stove on medium high heat and bring the mixture slowly to a boil, stirring constantly. Add more water to thin it down if the mixture is still too thick. (The ideal consistency would be like that of tomato soup).
– When the buttermilk comes to a boil, add the green chillies and ginger.
– In a separate small pan, heat the ghee or oil to prepare the seasoning. Add mustard seeds (which should begin to splutter if the oil is hot enough) followed by cumin, asafoetida and curry leaves. Continue to heat gently for a few seconds to season the oil or ghee.
– Pour the spiced oil into the buttermilk mixture. Stir everything to incorporate.

Garnish with some cilantro and serve.

Cook’s notes:
Keep stirring the mixture as it comes up to a boil to avoid any possibility of the buttermilk curdling and separating. Once it has reached a boil, the thickening of the chickpea flour keeps everything together and you needn’t worry about it anymore. Though oil can be used here, try and use ghee if you can. There is a voluptuousness of flavor that it brings to the party. Also, if using oil, make sure it is neutral tasting like canola or peanut oil. An oil like olive oil would be too strong and would disrupt the other flavors.
Though traditionally served on steamed rice, kadhi can also be served with chapatis or enjoyed just by itself. It is rare to find this dish in restaurants. This is home-cooking at its most basic. You could try variations by including some carrots or peas in it. Served with rice and an Indian spiced pickle or papad, you have a simple, nutritious meal, a tiny bit of comfort on a plate.

Spiced Tomato – Coconut Soup

Tomatoes. Fresh, luscious, straight-off-the-vine. glistening and full of flavour!

The actual association of tomatoes with physical summer has come about more for me after moving out of India. Back there, not only are good tomatoes available all year round, the sunshine is more or less always there too. But here, one waits till summer to have the truly tantalizing tomatoes. The rest of the year we make do with what we can get. They are certainly better than no tomatoes, but not a patch on the summer freshness of the pomme d’amour in season.

There’s nothing more alluring about summer than the tomato. They are everywhere in the markets, ripe and ready, simply there for the taking. You slice one up and inhale the heady bouquet. There is sunshine all around you even on a cold day in July. Yes, you heard that right. Cold day in July. I’m not talking about the southern hemisphere either. While the rest of the country is sweating it out and bitching about heatwaves (as a friend of mine up in Seattle so delicately puts it), we are having shivery days under thick blankets of grey-white fog. While I do love the cold and am not too crazy about heat, I do miss the sun. I’ll take it where I can find it, and nothing delivers like new seasons’ tomatoes.

It is strange how much I love the nightshade family of vegetables (though some are technically fruits). Maybe I dabbled in poisons in a past life? At any rate, the potato, the chilli peppers (self-evident how I feel about those) and the tomato; poisonous they are not. What they are, is tops on my list of favourites. There is no better sandwich than a good tomato, cut into thick steaks, on good white bread with some cheese, salt and pepper. For me, there wasn’t a better sandwich for years. Tomato, bread and cheddar, that what I demanded for lunch every time I had to take a packed lunch; to school, for the school picnic…or simply because it was Tuesday.  There is something inherently comforting sitting with that tomato sandwich, the piquant juices oozing into the bread and running down your fingers. You experience an unexpected lifting of your spirits. It is like metaphorical sunshine for your soul.

It was also here that I discovered the heirloom tomato. Ever since, I’m torn between the scarlet red tomatoes and the rich greens, yellows, and purples of the heirloom variety. Also the ridiculous shapes crack me up. They are the funniest looking veggies around, unless of course, there’s some ginger around. (What can I say! I’m an architect! We respond to form.:)) Sometimes I end up with quantities of both. This is a major no-no in my tiny apartment, which can look like it is drowning in tomatoes even if I only have a couple of dozen or so on the counter. Tomatoes are best stored out of the refrigerator. This is exactly where I found myself after a recent trip to the market. Fortunately, I also have this recipe for a sublime tomato soup.

Given the recent weather in San Francisco, a soup is completely apropos. This recipe is essentially one for a saar, a thin type of curry eaten over rice. But many dals and curries make a comfortable transition to soup, just like that of a sauce. This is another of my mother-in-law’s gems, a genius recipe for a cold summer.

Tomato soup with a twist

Tomatoes – 6, medium to large
Chilli powder – 1 tsp
Peppercorns – 4-5
Coconut milk – 3 tbsp
Honey – 1 tsp
Chickpea flour – 1 1/2 tsp
Canola oil- 2 tbsp
Curry Leaves – 4
Asafoetida – 1/2 tsp
Cumin seeds – 1 tsp
Cilantro for garnish

– Put the tomatoes in a large pot. Pour enough water to cover the tomatoes. Bring the water to a boil along with the tomatoes. (about 15 to 20 minutes).
– Pick the tomatoes out of the water and plunge into a bowl of cold water. This should loosen the skins which you should remove.
– In a blender, add the skinned tomatoes, peppercorns, coconut milk and chickpea flour and puree until smooth.
– Pour back into the pot and add salt, chilli powder and honey. Bring the soup to a boil over medium heat.
– In a small pan, heat the oil. Temper the oil with cumin, curry leaves and asafoetida.
– Pour the tempered oil into the heated tomato soup.

Ladle into bowls to serve and garnish with cilantro.. and a few croutons, if you like.

Cook’s notes:
The tomatoes shine through brilliantly in this soup. It looks a bit like a light cream of tomato, but is infinitely healthier. The little bit of chilli powder you add, coupled with the peppercorns give the soup a deep heat that rise up on your tongue just behind the piquant sweet and sour taste of the tomato and honey, rounding off the flavour nicely. Wonderful as this is served over rice, as a soup it acquires an unadulterated dimension, the tomatoes singing in your mouth with each spoonful. The coconut milk gives the entire thing a silky smooth finish, barely there as it is. I worked my way through two and a half bowls without pause. It was impossible to put down the spoon. Amey was over the moon as he worked his way through the rest of it, mopping up remaining splashes with the piece of bread we didn’t bake into croutons. I’m sure this would taste just as great served cold.

It may be a real summer where you are. Even so, if you find yourself in possession of a few tomatoes and at a loss of something new to do with them, give this recipe a try. Summer tomatoes are so rarely turned into a soup, even though they do very well as one. This recipe celebrates it as well as your favourite tomato standby. It will not disappoint.