February 29, 2012

Bruschetta With Basil Pesto, Crumbled Paneer And Tomato + An Exercise In Photography!

ou might have seen my post last month on Cauliflower Soup which was not just about food but also an exercise in photography.  As part of the Donna Hay monthly food photography and styling exercise, this time Simone picked a recipe for Bruschetta With Arugula Pesto from Donna Hay’s book “Seasons”.
Simone said she thought she would pick an easy one this month but this photograph presented its own problems for me. I don’t know that it was easy for me because it was all about improvisation starting with substituting for unavailable ingredients like arugula and bocconchini/ fresh mozzarella to turning the recipe vegetarian. Then it was about looking for halfway reasonably close-to-the original sort of props.

[Photograph details : Shot handheld with a Canon 55-250mm f/4-5.6  (focal length 65mm) at Aperture -f/ 4.5, shutterspeed – 1/ 20s and ISO – 640. Used software to crop a bit, increase brightness and a bit of contrast.]
The photograph that accompanies the original recipe in the book is by food photographer ConPoulos.
From what I could make out, the original photograph was taken in natural light coming from the upper right side. The Bruschetta is on a plate on a table with a bottle and glass holding some liquid (water, I think) with a chair right at the back.
There began my first problem. Our dining room opens out into a lovely balcony but the direct sunlight never hits it. While this creates a nice cool ambience for dining, it is not the best thing for natural light photography which is why I rarely ever use the dining table for photography. This time, the dining table it had to be!

Con Poulos’s photograph from the Season’s cookbook (Courtesy: Simone of Junglefrog Cooking)
The next thing was finding somewhat similar sized props. Well I did the best I could. Looking at the original photograph, I found the knife on the plate a bit distracting. Somehow my eyes keep going there rather than just to the Bruschetta which should be the “hero” of the photograph. Why would you need a knife there anyways?
I also didn’t like the way the napkin was folded (looks lumpy, sort of), and found it very difficult to balance my plate after I had folded my napkin like that. I had to put some green pea pods (invisible) underneath to balance the plate!

Once I had the composition more or less as close as I could to the original, the sun suddenly disappeared behind the clouds, so all I could do was push the ISO up a bit to get some light in. Getting the bottle and glass to blur to the extent with the lenses I have was next to impossible.

I initially tried using a 100mm lens and then the 50mm/ f1.8 lens but then my composition wasn’t working right. I finally decided to use my 55-250mm lens (f/4-5.6) and got my composition right but it meant I couldn’t go below aperture f/4.0 which limited the “blur” I could achieve in the background.

I wasn’t much happier with the result this month than the previous time. I feel that both the bottle and the glass seem to be vying for attention with the Bruschetta. This could have been avoided if I had a smaller glass and a slimmer bottle, or I had been able to blur the background with a shallower DoF which I couldn’t manage somehow.
I think by cropping the bottle a bit (the photograph on the right below), I managed to make it a bit inconspicuous. On the whole, I think the main problem with my photograph is that my plate, the size of bread on it and the glass and bottle were not very proportional, size-wise and that comes through very clearly.

I wanted to try a slightly different arrangement while trying to keep the photograph simple, without adding too much to it. And I got rid of that knife that was bothering me, the napkin from under the plate and the saucer under the glass. I liked this version better of both my photographs but I still see a lot of scope for improvement, especially with the lighting. I don’t particularly think the colour of our dining table lends itself to the photograph!
And now on to the recipe.
Bruschetta is an Italian dish and an antipasto (or appetizer) that is usually served as the first course. The name comes from “bruscare” meaning “to roast over coals” and traditionally Bruschetta was made by toasting sliced country bread, rubbing it with garlic, then drizzling it with olive oil and seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.
Today the Bruschetta has evolved and is usually topped with a variety of ingredients ranging from simple and fresh vegetables or meats to the unusual like grilled or roasted vegetables.
A Pesto is a green herb sauce from northern Italy that is usually eaten with pasta. Traditionally it is made by crushing together basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, and then blending in Parmesan cheese and oil to a thick and coarse paste. In fact, the name “Pesto” comes from the word pestâ/ pestare, which means to pound or crush.
Pesto can also be made using tomatoes or other greens, but for me Pesto means basil leaves. If you cannot find pine nuts you can use walnuts. Pesto can also be made with almonds or even cashewnuts but the taste will differ somewhat. Toasting the nuts before using in the Pesto will bring out the flavour of the sauce.
Below is my adaptation of the original recipe from the Seasons cookbook.
I chose to use garlic bread instead of rubbing the bread with garlic before toasting it. I don't get arugula so I used only basil leaves, and crumbled paneer instead of boconcchini/ fresh mozarella . You can also use Feta cheese. I had run out of pine nuts so I used wlanuts instead.
For another variation on Bruschetta, check out this post of mine.

Bruschetta With Basil Pesto, Crumbled Paneer And Tomato


For The Bruschetta:
8 slices garlic bread, toasted
extra virgin olive oil (for sprinkling)
200gm crumbled paneer (Indian milk cheese)
3 to 4 medium sized tomatoes, sliced thin
1 medium onion, sliced thin
 Salt and crushed black pepper to taste

For The Basil Pesto:
1 handful basil
1/4 cup walnuts (or pine nuts), toasted
4 tsp grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 garlic clove
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
A pinch of salt

To make the basil pesto, put the basil leaves, walnuts/ pine nuts, parmesan and garlic into a food processor and puree roughly. While the motor is running, slowly add the olive oil in a drizzle and let the pesto grind into a thick, slightly coarse paste. Season lightly with salt to taste.
To assemble the Bruschetta,  spread some pesto on the toasted garlic bread slices. Top with crumbled paneer, slices of tomato and onion. Lightly drizzle with some olive oil and finish off with salt and crushed pepper.
Serve immediately. This makes 2 portions of Bruschetta each for 4 people.
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February 27, 2012

Remembering Raji (Miri of Peppermill) And Her Birinji

iri. Of the blog, Peppermill.
Interesting and catchy, and her name matches her blog name!
That’s what I remember thinking when I first came across her comment at one of posts. It never struck me then that Miri, the Hindi word for black pepper, could be a pseudonym.
She stayed in my mind as one of those fellow bloggers who left thoughtful and meaningful comments on my posts.
Much later, I came across Raji on Facebook, where she and I kept crossing each other frequently in discussions we used have there on the “walls” of mutual friends.
Until one day, she sent me a friend request with a note saying that since we knew each other from so many common discussions perhaps it was time we became friends.
I remember smiling at that. That was also when I discovered that the Miri of Peppermill and the Raji on Facebook, with whom I shared so many enjoyable conversations, were one and the same!

(Photograph: Courtesy of Manisha)
And then on the morning of the 13th of February, I got a  message on from another friend saying Raji passed away that morning and she thought I would want to know. 
For some reason, the fact that she is no more with us doesn’t seem to leave me.  Is it because she is the second food bloggerfriend to pass away unexpectedly in the past one year?
Or was it that both of them were too young to go and still had a lot of living to do?
Maybe it is that I am once again reminded of how little control we have over some aspects of our lives? Perhaps it is a bit of all this and more.
I wasn’t close to Raji and knew her in the way many of us know each other through our blogs, or social sites like Facebook. Whatever we discussed in our virtual conversations told me I’d get along with her and gave me a glimpse of her cheerfulness, friendliness, warmth and concern and of course, her passion for food. I had hoped to meet her couple of months down the line but that was not to be.
I did not know that she had been unwell for quite some time though I now understand from a couple of our common friends that she had been fighting her illness for quite a while and she had known for some time that the prognosis wasn’t too good.
In the last few months of her life she wasn’t even able to eat much, yet she seemed to have made her peace with her situation, blogging about food, and connecting with people in her warm and cheerful way.
Raji has touched me more than she will ever know, perhaps even more so now that she is no more. There’s a lesson to be learnt in the dignity with which she chose to deal with her adversities.
I will miss her thoughtful comments on my posts and our vitual conversations. She will always come to mind as one of the people I know who chose to be remembered with a smile on her face no matter what.
She will also come to my mind every time I cook Birinji/ Brinji!

Raji was known among some of her good friends for her Birinji, which was something they raved about. I had never till then heard about Birinji which was supposed to be a well-known rice preparation from Raji’s home state of Tamilnadu. 
We’re originally from that part of India yet I had never come across this dish. When I did finally check her recipe for Birinji, it turned out to be a sort of fusion of the of the South Indian style Biryani with the flavour of a cocout base korma.
A Birinji is a delicious Biryani (a sort of Indian rice casserole that’s cooked on the stove-top) made with vegetables and rice cooked with a spiced cumin-mint-green coriander/ cilantro paste and coconut milk. Serve it with yogurt and a fresh tomato salad or raita, and pappads/ chips for an immensely satisfying meal.
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February 22, 2012

Cardamom Flavoured Marmalade Cake With Macadamia Nuts

ne of my daughter’s favourite stories as a small child was called “The Squirrel Nutkin”. Now Nutkin was a young mischievious little guy and a bit of a free-spirit as squirrels go and would spend his days having loads of fun. He would sing, dance, and poke fun at Old Brown, the resident owl on Owl Island, just about escaping from the owl's wrath without most of his his tail. While the other squirrels were busy collecting acorns and nuts to store for the long winter, Nutkin would enjoy himself and laugh at all the hard workers.

What got me thinking of Nutkin and squirrels in general was how they stash away acorns and nuts for times when food is scarce. Well, I can be a bit of squirrel myself at times. Living where I do, quite a few food items used in baking are not available in my stores. So when family or friends who come down from abroad bring me such stuff, I tend to jealously guard and hoard such stuff in my freezer! Sometimes this gets so bad that you will find me hanging on stuff like dried blueberries, cranberries, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, etc. for months on end because I cannot bring myself to use them up. I tend to get a sense of satisfaction knowing that they’re there should I need them. And who knows when I will get my next supply to stash away?

I’m sure many fellow bakers and bloggers living in India are like me when it comes to hoarding “precious” food stuffs! Luckily for us, many of these things are now becoming available in India. I’m also very lucky to have some very good friends who are always happy to send me “care packages” of these on and off. I have been thinking for a while now, that I should use up my stash before it became totally unusable, and make way for fresher food items to “squirrel” away.
That’s when Madhuli wrote to me saying that she had seen Macadamia nuts at a store near her so we could stop stashing those away. She suggested we take a first step towards diminishing the “stash” by baking something with them. After looking at a few recipes we finally decided to bake this cake that we both liked because it didn’t have buttercream, and also because we both like marmalade.

I had started out thinking I would make it with eggs, but when I finally got down to making the cake, I had run out of them so my version turned out to be eggless! So I adapted the recipe to make adjustments for the lack of eggs. I also felt cardamom would be a great addition to this cake.
The result was a somewhat sticky, crumby and sweet cake that had a sort Middle Eastern flavour. I personally feel this one would taste even better served with ice-cream on the side. I would suggest making this with eggs if you eat them.
Cardamom Flavoured Marmalade Cake With Macadamia Nuts
(Adapted from the Australian Macadamia Society)


3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup semolina
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup ground almonds
150g butter
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup buttermilk
4 to 5 cardamom pods, powdered
1 cup marmalade
1/2 cup toasted and chopped macadamia nuts


Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl. Add the semolina,  ground almonds and the powdered cardamom and lightly whisk to mix. Make a well in the centre.
In a separate pan, melt butter and sugar over low heat. The sugar need not dissolve completely. Allow to cool slightly and then pour the mixture into the well made in the dry ingredients.   Add the buttermilk.
Stir to combine and pour mixture into a greased and lined 15cm x 25cm x 4cm lamington/ rectangular tin, or a 7” or 8” round tin.
Lightly heat the marmalade in a bowl until warm and slightly runny. Stir in the toasted and chopped macadamia nuts.  Spoon this marmalade mixture over the surface of the cake. If the marmalade is too hot, it will sink into the cake mixture.
Bake the cake at 180C (375F) for 30-40 minutes or until golden on top and a skewer comes out clean when inserted in the centre. Let the cake cool in the tin. Cut and serve or store in an airtight container.
This recipe makes about 24 cake squares of 1 1/2” by 1 1/2".

 Note: You may substitute the marmalade with another jam of your choice. This cake will keep for up to two weeks stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
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February 14, 2012

Strawberry & Chocolate Shortbread Sandwich Cookies

I did not remember that it was Valentine’s Day till my husband called early this morning. The excitement of my morning chores and making sure the daughter had her breakfast and reached her classes on time tends to drive things like this out of my mind till later in the day.

But there’s no escaping Valentine’s Day with gaudy pink and red hearts and oversized cuddly teddy bears in shop windows, ads and articles in the papers and the February issues of a lot of glossies. There’s even a Valentine’s Special movie line-up on various television channels and there a couple of movies there that I’m going to watch. And of course, the food world and all food blogdom has been taken over by heart or non-heart shaped chocolate confections and lots more Valentine’s Day fare.
We don’t do Valentine’s Day like a whole lot of people around the world. For one thing, it’s not something we grew up with, and for another thing what probably started out as a good thing has become a bit of a commercial circus.

I like the idea of a celebration and have nothing against anyone who celebrates Valentine’s Day, but I find it difficult to come to terms with celebrations being less about the spirit of celebrating and more about how much is spent on it.
Still, I thought it would be nice and a bit of fun to give in gracefully to the spirit of celebrating and enjoy the moment in my own way with some shortbread cookies.
Cookies for Valentine’s Day? Well, why not? Today is just like any other day, cookies are nice with tea/ coffee, I had a little time to spare and shortbread cookies are easy enough to make. My husband has a sweet tooth and our daughter is a fan of all things shortbread. Add a hint of chocolate and a tinge of red, and my cookies are good to grace a celebration. To be honest though, I was just looking for an excuse to make some cookies, inaugurate some cookie cutters afriend gave me and try out something different!

I got the idea of shortbread hearts from this month’s BBC Good Food magazine (the Indian edition). The magazine had featured shortbread hearts with cherries. Cherries haven’t yet put in an appearance here and we don’t particularly like glace cherries but strawberries are aplenty right now, so I’ve got a lot of freshly made strawberry preserves. I also have a small cache of dried and candied strawberries carefully stashed away and this seemed a good time to bring them out.
I have adapted the recipe a bit and my version follows.
Strawberry & Chocolate Shortbread Sandwich Cookies
(Adapted from BBC Good Food Magazine, February 2012))


1/2 cup icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 3/4 to 2 cups all-purpose flour, and extra for dusting
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup ground almonds
200 gm butter, soft at room temperature
1/4 cup dried and candied strawberries, finely chopped
1/4 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Strawberry jam
Melted chocolate to drizzle (optional)


Sift together the icing sugar, 1 3/4 cups of flour, salt and cornstarch together into a bowl. Stir in the ground almonds, the chopped strawberries and the chocolate chips. Add the soft butter and the vanilla and rub into the flour, then rub in the butter until it all comes together as a dough. If the dough feels sticky add a little more flour (not too much) until the dough is soft but no longer sticky. Do not over work the dough.
Shape the dough into a ball and flatten out into a disc. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for about 20 to 30 minutes. Divide the dough into two and work with one portion and keep the other refrigerated.
Roll out the portion on a lightly floured surface till about 1/8" thick, dusting lightly with flour if necessary, and stamp out cookies using round or heart shaped cutters. Cut out the centres of about half these cookies with a smaller round or shaped cutter.  Repeat with the second portion of dough.
Keep re-rolling the trimmings until all the dough is used. Carefully transfer the cookies to ungreased or parchment lined baking trays lined with parchment. It is a good idea to have all the cookies with centres cut out together on a tray.
Bake at 170C (340F) 12 to 14 minutes till the cookies are just pale golden. Let them cool on the trays for about 10 minutes. Then cool the cookies completely on racks.
Dust the cookies without centres with icing sugar, or drizzle them with some melted chocolate. Place a little bit of strawberry jam (or chocolate ganache if you prefer) on the whole cookies and lightly sandwich with one of the cookies dusted with icing sugar/ drizzled with chocolate.
This recipe makes about 40 (2  1/2”) cookies and 20 sandwich cookies.

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February 4, 2012

Spiced Fig And Pear Preserves With Honey, Ginger And Sesame Seeds

s many of you would know, India is a huge country and though it mostly enjoys a tropical climate in reality we actually have six different major climatic zones! So while those of us in the south live in a hot humid climate and have never seen snow here, those who live in northern most parts of India have a clear summer and a winter when it snows.
In my childhood, vacations back home to the south of India bring back memories of fruit like mangoes, bananas, jackfruit, guavas, papaya and stuff like apples and pears existed only in our picture books. I never even dreamed that these were growing well and being eaten in the northern states of the same country that we were in.
Much improved storage and transport systems today mean that Indians in the south now routinely enjoy fruit from the north and vice versa. Forget about fruit grown in India, locally grown fruit jostling for shelf space with imported fruit is a routine affair in our markets.

I always thought of figs as exotic fruit from the Middle-East or thereabouts for a long time. The first time I met a fig, I didn’t even know what it was. Which wasn’t surprising since what I saw was a brown, chewy, funny tasting square which left me with a crunchy-gritty feeling in my mouth.  When I asked what this sweet was made of, I was told “Anjir” which left me no wiser. I later discovered that “Anjir” was figs, usually the dried variety which came as brown and chewy discs strung together on rope/ cord.
I was just reading something which probably points towards figs having come into India from Turkey or thereabouts. This is just surmise on my part and  I haven’t seen anything to back this up so far. It turns out that they make a green fig (unripe ones) jam in Turkey which is called “Incir Reçeli” which is pronounced as "in-jeer reh-CHEH-lee. So now I know where the word “Anjir” which is Hindi for figs, comes from!

I saw my first fresh fig about 3 years ago when they started making an appearance at my market. For some strange reason, I’m the only one in our home who likes the fruit. I understand that figs have two seasons a year but they’re available here only for a very short 3 weeks or so every January-February though dried figs are available in shops throughout the year.
I cannot resist buying figs, so when the season arrives I tend to look for ways not just to disguisethem so that my family will enjoy them too but also ways to preserve them. Figs are fruit that don’t keep too well anyways and so need to be used very quickly.

I first made this preserve during last year’s fig season but never got around to blogging about it. At that time, I also had some pears that needed to be used up so I made this preserve with figs and those pears and some spices. I like my preserves to be something beyond fruit and sugar and so my hands always reach for whatever spices I have on my kitchen shelf, which would go with whatever I am preserving.
The Lebanese typically make a fresh fig murabba/ m’rabba  (In India too, we refer to fruit preserved in a sugar syrup as murabba!)) by adding walnuts and toasted sesame seeds for a delightful nutty flavour. I left out the walnuts but decided to add the toasted sesame seeds to my Fig and Pear Preserves too. 

Fig And Pear Preserves With Honey, Ginger And Sesame Seeds


2 green pears chopped into 1/2” pieces (about 2 cups)
8 to 10 fresh figs, chopped into eights (about 4 cups)
3/4 cup Demerara (or white) sugar
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1 cup unsweetened orange juice
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp flaked red chillies
2 tbsp chopped ginger
1 vanilla bean, split and cut into 4 pieces
1 stick cinnamon
5 pods cardamom
1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted*


*To toast the sesame seeds, put them in a pan and place o medium heat. Keep stirring constantly until the sesame seeds just start turning golden and give off a nutty aroma. Take of the heat and immediately remove them to a plate. Do not brown the sesame seeds.
To make the preserves, put the sugar and water in a largish heavy bottomed/ walled pan. Keep stirring until the sugar dissolves and the syrup comes to a boil. Now add the honey, orange juice, salt, chilli flakes, ginger and the spices to the syrup and stir well. Let it boil for a couple of minutes, then add the chopped figs and pears.
Stir, bring to a boil and then let it simmer. Stir whenever necessary until the fruit is cooked and the preserves thicken to required consistency. Remember the preserve will thicken further as it cools.
Once the preserve has cooled down till it is just warm, add the toasted sesame seeds, and mix well. Remove the vanilla beans and the cinnamon and discard, if you wish.Let it cool completely and then transfer to sterilized and airtight jars. Refrigerate. This recipe makes about 2 1/2 medium sized jars of preserves.

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