August 26, 2011

Of Trains, Time-Pass And Pazham Pori (Ripe Plantain Fritters) - A Guest Post For Shulie of Food Wanderings

T
hese past 3 years of blogging, Facebook and Twitter have introduced me to many food bloggers and their blogs. Most of these bloggers live in different countries, even continents and come from culturally diverse and different backgrounds from mine. However our love for good food and desire to explore and discover this beyond our comfort zones and cultural boundaries is what keeps us cooking and blogging.
Some of these bloggers have become good friends of mine and though we haven’t met (yet) we often have long virtual conversations, mostly centred on food, and many a time beyond that. It’s fun to log into Twitter (and Facebook), even after a short break and take up conversations with friends, from where we had last left off.
Shulie Madnick of Food Wanderings is one such friend I met on Twitter. I don’t remember how we first got talking but we did and I found that apart from our love for food we had India in common. Shulie can trace her roots to the Indian Jewish community though she grew up in Israel and now lives in the US. This shows up in her blog where her posts are an interesting mix of the East and the West, accompanied by her beautiful food photography.
So when she asked me to do a guest post for her as part of her India series, I jumped up and said “Yes!” Then came the matter as to what to write about. After some discussion with Shulie, I decided to post about Pazham Pori, a dish of batter fried ripe plantains that are somehow very quintessentially Kerala (the southern Indian state that I belong to).
Even today, it is usual to find at least a couple of banana plants (along with a couple of coconut trees) behind most houses in Kerala. And just in case you don’t have the fruit in your back yard, there is always the corner store to supply you with some. It is not really surprising that in Kerala plantains and bananas feature in many of our dishes. We use the raw fruit, the ripe fruit, the banana flowers, the stem of the banana plant and the leaves make for eco-friendly and disposable plates!




Ripe plantain fritters and I go back to my childhood days. In those days, we lived in Africa, where my parents worked. We used to come to India on a 2 month long vacation once every 2 years and this was something we looked forward to. It usually meant we landed at Bombay (Mumbai now) and, over the course of 2 months, travelled across to the south to Calicut (now Kozhikode) and back while stopping at various places to visit immediate family.
I’m talking about the days when a train journey from Mumbai to Calicut took 3 days and 2 nights, there were no air-conditioned coaches and we kids didn’t have i-pods or music players, laptops, electronic games and other paraphernalia to keep us occupied. At the most we had books, but mostly we used our imagination to play games and watch the passing scenery to while our time away.
Yet I know that we had more fun on those train journeys than kids these days because, for us, a train journey was an adventure. It was setting forth to distant places, the bonus of not going to school, lots of food that was made specially to last the journey and the anticipation of meeting family at the end of the journey. As children, we would spend the time by making up strange games, singing songs until told to keep quite by our parents, waving at strangers walking along the paths as our train sped by and gazing at the wondrous fare (food and otherwise) being hawked at the stations our train would pull into!
When we were kids, eating out or even food that was not cooked at home was considered a no-no. Elders were worried about where food served on the train was cooked, but fresh fruit was considered alright and occasionally we were treated to snacks.
A very popular food to eat on the train was boiled or roasted groundnuts (peanuts). It was mostly roasted groundnuts but during the season, if one was travelling in the parts of Northern India we would get freshly harvested and boiled groundnuts which were sweet.
The groundnut seller would sell them wrapped up in small newspaper bundles or cones and just about everyone on the train would invariably buy some. Shelling them was half the fun and took a bit of time, which one had plenty of on these train trips, and these groundnuts were referred to as “time-pass” on the train. I still have memories of groundnut sellers with wicker baskets half-full of boiled groundnuts announcing their wares with cries of “time-pass, time-pass”. A train compartment floor littered with groundnut shells was a definitely a sign of much time passed by and the end of a long journey!




Another favourite of mine on train trips to Kerala was the “Pazham Pori” which translates to English as “Plantain Fry”. As the name implies, Pazham Pori (also called Ethakka Appam in some parts of Kerala) is batter fried ripe plantain. The best Pazham Pori on the Southern Railway routes could be found at the Shoranur station in those days, but ..................

For the rest of this post and the recipe for Pazham Pori, please see this post on Shulie's blog - Food Wanderings. Thank you.

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August 18, 2011

Everyone Needs A Little Fudge In Their Lives - Easy Spiced Chocolate & Nut Fudge (And The Winner Of The Giveaway Is……….)

N
o sweet tooth can resist fudge but we’ve got some Fudge here that will appeal to even the staunchest of sugar haters. The only thing is this Fudge isn’t food!
Fudge is our five month old cocker spaniel and his name suits him perfectly, as our daughter keeps reminding us. He’s a beautiful golden, almost caramel, colour and is soft and sweet just like the real deal.
I haven’t had much time to actually sit down and write any posts for this blog recently, and my draft folder is empty of posts. A couple of days back, I was wondering what to blog about and my daughter suggested some fudge to celebrate Fudge (the puppy) and it did seem rather apt.
I have also had two cans of sweetened condensed milk sitting on my kitchen shelf for about 6 months now and while it wasn’t close to expiry, it was about time I used it up. Fudge is somewhat like the Indian burfi but I have never made burfi with condensed milk.  Some research on the net led me to a lot of fudge recipes that involved adding sugar to sweetened condensed milk! I thought the whole idea of sweetened condensed milk was to avoid sugar but then, what do I know?


It also made me realise that fudge apparently is a comparatively recent invention, at least as it is known today. I always thought the milk and sugar being cooked till thick and set was something that had been around for ever. Fudge is supposedly an American invention with stories claiming that sometime in the 1880s, someone messed up a batch of caramels allowing the sugar to caramelise resulting in the first ever batch of fudge!
The first recorded mention of fudge seems to be in a letter written by a Vassar college student saying her cousin’s fudge was sold for money. Subsequently that cousin’s recipe was used to make fudge to raise money for that college and other colleges leading to the first set of “original” fudge recipes.
The perfect fudge is supposed to be smooth and creamy which means precisely following recipes regarding measurements and cooking sugar at the right temperatures. Adaptation of the original recipes with different ingredients has made it much easier to make fudge at home.


This recipe is really easy and makes a creamy textured fudge that is slightly soft at room temperature(in my warm tropical monsoon temperatures) which sets perfectly on refrigeration. All it involves is cooking together the condensed milk, chocolate and some butter till thick. You can add whatever else you want to, like nuts and spices, even dried fruit. I used cinnamon and a bit of chai masala to spice things up a bit, and added pistachios, chopped hazelnuts and almonds to mine.
I used a mixture of dark chocolate and milk chocolate for my fudge. Milk chocolate might be a good idea if you’re making this fudge for children. Dark chocolate would be a better option for a fudge more appealing to adult tastes or for those who like their fudge a little less sweet.
Easy Spiced Chocolate & Nut Fudge


Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups nuts (hazelnuts, pistachios, and almonds), toasted
2 (400gm) cans of sweetened condensed milk (Milkmaid)
2 cups dark chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate
1 1/2 cup milk chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate
50 gm salted butter
1 1/2 to 2 tsps powdered cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp chai masala


Method:

Line a rectangular 12” by 8” tin with aluminium foil or parchment paper.
Put the condensed milk, chocolate chips and butter in a large thick walled pan. Place the pan over another pan of boiling water such that the bottom of the first pan doesn’t touch the water. Stir the milk-chocolate-butter mixture well till the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.
Take this pan off the pan of boiling water and place it on the stove, over low heat. Add the cinnamon and chai masala and stir frequently till it thickens a little and appears to be coming away from the side of the pan (about 5 minutes at the most).
Take the pan off the heat and fold in the toasted nuts. Pour the fudge into the lined tin and level the top. Place in a cool for about 4 to 6 hours or overnight to set well. To unmould, turn the pan upside down over a board and peel off the foil or parchment paper. Cut into about 1 1/2” squares.
Store in a container, stacked in layers separating each layer with a sheet of foil or parchment paper. Refrigerate till ready to serve.
This recipe makes about 24 fudge squares (1 1/2” squares).
This not exactly material for a food blog but just in case anyone would like to see the Fudge that inspired this post here's a picture of him.





And The Winner Of The Giveaway Is………
I’m happy to announce that the winner of my cookbook giveaway of a copy Anni Daulter’s book “Ice Pop Joy (Organic.Healthy.Fresh.Delicious)", courtesy Sellers Publishing, is Varshini Sudarshan. Congratulations! Please e-mail me your mailing address for your book.

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August 10, 2011

Black & White Wednesday : Kohlrabi


K
ohlrabi (German Turnip)or the Knol-Khol as we call it in most parts of South India, is not exactly one of the better liked vegetables in our home. It is a rather bland tasting vegetable not to mention its almost alien looking Kraken-like appearance. Its blandness lends itself well to cooking since you can mask its appearance with spices and ingredients of your choice.
But for someone (like me) looking at it at close quarters, or even from a bit of a distance, through the lens of a camera, this vegetable shows great promise.



This picture was taken some time back when Kohlrabi was in season here. My vegetable lady, who brings vegetables fresh from the fields to my door, had brought me a bunch of them so fresh that the soil was still clinging them. They made excellent fodder for my camera.

This particular shot goes to Susan for her Black & White Wednesdays, a weekly post showcasing black and white food photography.
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August 6, 2011

Spiced Saffron And Cardamom Biscotti


I’m sure most people have certain recipes which they are hesitant to re-approach for the fear of almost definite failure. Some such recipes are scary just to look through, because they’re so complicated that if one is successful it would seem to be by fluke! Then there are others which are very deceptive because at first (and second and even third) glance, the recipes seem so simple one cannot begin to understand how anything could possible go wrong.

I’m no different have a few such recipes that I’m quite hesitant to approach. From personal experience, I have also learned that never judge recipes by appearance. The simplest of them all could be the reason for one’s ultimate downfall!

Take the case of macarons. Really speaking they’re nothing more than some egg whites, sugar, almond meal and a lot of air! If you have tried making them, you will realise they can more temperamental than you could imagine, but then macarons are a bit of a hit or miss thing.




One of my kitchen nemeses has been the biscotto (plural – biscotti). Biscotti are somewhat elongated, thick crunchy and somewhat hard Italian cookies that are eaten dipped in wine or coffee. As their name suggests, from “bis” meaning twice in Latin and “cotto” which comes from “coctum” meaning cooked/ baked, making biscotti involves baking the dough twice to make them dry and crunchy. Biscotti can be made with and without butter, depending on the recipe so this makes this a great think to snack on with coffee, especially if you’re watching calories.

Biscotti are supposed to have their origins in early times when the Roman empire was dealing with the likes of Visigoths and Vandals! Apparently, unleavened finger-shaped dough was baked and then further baked once more so that they dried out and would not spoil. This meant they could be carried by travellers on long journeys and by the Roman soldiers during wars. Pliny the Elder seems to have claimed biscotti could last for centuries which probably what it felt like considering the Roman soldiers of those days seemed to be at war for ever!

However, biscotti as we know them today originated in Tuscany (Italy) and were made with almonds from Prato hence their more proper name “Biscotti di Prato”. I believe, in Italy, biscotti generally refer to any crunchy biscuit/ cookie and these are actually known as “Cantucci di Prato” and traditionally served there with a sweet dessert wine called vin santo. Biscotti are quite hard and need the “dunking” to make them soft and comfortable to eat, unless you have teeth on par with Jaws, piranha or a Tasmanian Devil!




So what’s the difference between biscotti, cantucci and cantuccini?
Turns out the biscotti generally refers to any biscuit/ cookie that are “twice baked”. Cantucci are twice baked biscuits/ cookies from Prato and always contain almonds. So biscotti, even one you’d like to say came from Prato, apparently cannot be called cantucci but remains biscotti if you’ve decided to put other stuff like chocolate, or fruit and what-else-have-you! And cantuccini are small single bite-sized cantucci.

One can also find crunchy and hard-enough-dip biscuits/ cookies in other countries across Europe. Jews make Mandelbrot , the British make Rusks, Germans bake Zwieback, the French like Croquets de Carcassonne, Russians love Sukhariki and the Greeks bake Paxemadia and Biskota.

So when some of us decided it was time to get back to baking together, biscotti seemed to the perfect thing to make. The past couple of times (a very long time ago) that I tried baking biscotti, all I had to show for my trouble was a huge mound of half-baked crumbs.




I did want to bake my biscotti when Arundati and Arundathi (same name, different spelling, and different people) did but my biscotti project got delayed by a couple weeks. I used a recipe I had book-marked from Saveur sometime back. I stuck to the recipe by and large as I didn’t want to tinker with it and once again tell myself, “That’s the way this cookie crumbled!”

Of course, I couldn’t resist adding some cardamom and spicing it up a bit and in my excitement I also forgot to sprinkle my biscotti with pearl sugar thought this did my biscotti no harm. Guess what? For the first time, I could bite into my biscotti rather than spoon in mouthfuls of crumbs!
There's also an interesting video which shows how to make biscotti, if you would like to see it.
Spiced Saffron And Cardamom Biscotti

(Adapted from Saveur)



Ingredients:


1 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp chai masala

3 or 4 pods cardamom, powdered

1/ 2 cup sugar


2 tbsp salted butter, at room temperature

1/2 tbsp grated lemon zest

1/2 tsp saffron

1 egg

1/8 cup warm milk

1/4 cup mini chocolate chips



Method:


In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, chai masala and powdered cardamom. In a small bowl put the saffron strands and the warm milk, mix together and keep aside for the colour and flavour to develop.

In another larger bowl, beat together sugar, butter and lemon zest with a handheld mixer on medium speed, until pale and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Add the eggs and beat well. Now add the saffron-milk mixture and mix until combined. Add the whisked ingredients and beat on slow speed until just combined. Mix in chocolate chips and transfer dough to a work surface.


Divide the dough into two halves and shape each into a log about 11” by 1” and place on a parchment lined baking sheet leaving some space between them. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Bake at 170C (325F) for about 25 to 30 minutes till the logs look dry and start browning at the edges. Take the baking sheet out of the oven and place on a wire rack. Let the logs cool for 15 minutes.

Place each log on a cutting board and cut into 1” thick slices with a serrated knife. Place the slices on the baking sheet, with the cut sides facing up and bake the biscotti for about 15 minutes or so, until they are a light brown in colour. Remove and cool completely on a wire rack. Serve or store in an airtight container.

This recipe makes about 20 to 25 biscotti.

Some tips that left me with biscotti instead of crumbs –


- Do not overwork your dough

- To make working with sticky dough, lightly flour your hands before shaping the logs.

- Lining your baking sheet with parchment paper is a GREAT idea. It makes shaping the logs and removing them easy.

- Use the baking times in your recipe as a guide and watch them to make sure you get them out just when they’re done.

- Use a serrated knife and cut the once baked biscotti in a sawing motion rather than pressing down (VERY IMPORTANT if you prefer slices to crumbs). Also let them cool before slicing them.


And just a reminder that I'm giving away a copy of Ice Pop Joy by Annie Daulter and if you would like to try your luck at winning, please leave a comment with your link at the post. The giveaway is on till the midnight of the 7th August, 2011.
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