Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Cherry Friands

The advantage a local, family-owned small shop has over the supermarkets is the  personal relationship it builds with its customers. They know exactly what you want, how you want it and won't waste your time introducing products they know you couldn't be bothered with.

Like the guy at the fruit shop. I am just one of the many who frequents his shop but he knows I am only interested in the fruit of the season. So no persuading me about mangoes in February and watermelons in October. He's also figured out that I am particular about where my fruit originates from. He does not know why but he knows better than to sell me Washington State apples and South African pears. All he knows is that the fruit I buy has to be 'desi'. And if you are wondering why, its because I am firm believer in eating local produce. The more miles your fruit travels, the less beneficial it is for you with all those chemicals pumped into it!

So, its strawberries from Mahabaleshwar, lychees from Dehradun, mangoes from Ratnagiri and these plump, red, juicy cherries from Himachal Pradesh. A whole box full of them were whipped out and as my eyes lit up, ever the salesman, he said, 'these are the best cherries that have come into the market in the past 5 years!!' I needed no convincing and every day, I have enjoyed a bowl full of them, all by themselves, with no frills.

But, I couldn't let the season go by and not do a post with them. I first thought of a cherry clafoutis but yours truly, has STILL not bought a cherry pitter. So, instead I turned my attention to these friands, a very popular recipe from the book, 'What Katie Ate'. I know the uber talented Katie Quinn Davies and her fabulous blog, after which her book is named, need no introduction. But, if you are one of those rare people who haven't yet seen her work, head over to her fantastic blog. Words don't do it justice! Katie makes them with raspberries and I thought they would adapt perfectly to the cherries in question.

Friands are little French cakes, made from egg whites and almond meal. I could have called them frangipane muffins but it is so much more dainty and pretty to call them friands instead. Traditionally, they are baked in a special friand tin which is essentially a muffin pan where the moulds are oval rather than round. Needless to say, I made do with a simple, muffin pan!!

Once your mise-en-place is done, the batter gets done in a matter of minutes. Then, all you have to do is pour the batter into the moulds, sprinkle the cherries and bake. And you will be rewarded on the other side with these beautiful, light, golden brown cakes, perfect for tea time.

The almond meal makes them special although the opinion was divided on their sweetness. I found them a tad too sweet but the rest had no problem with the level of sugar. That's why for me the cherries made all the difference. Their freshness that had a slight edge of tartness was the perfect foil for all the sugar action. And the portion size is just enough for one person!!

These friands are a charming tea time treat that can be rustled up in no time. Try them and tell me what you think of them.  I think you'll like them!! And anybody else want to tell me why the rains are being such a tease??

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Greek Salad With A Visit To An Organic Cheese Making Farmstay in Coonoor

Towards the end of May, my family and I managed to get away to the mountains down South, Coonoor and Ooty specifically, for a few days. Ma wanted to go back to her boarding school, fifty years after she passed out from there. The brother-in-law had to attend his 25th School Reunion and my sister, nephew and I were just glad  for an opportunity to escape from the heat. Now, if you've visited any of India's popular hill spots, you know that tourist season is never kind to them. The crowds, traffic, and chaos are enough to make you question the whole point of your trip. Or, you can be like us and choose a farmstay that lets you enjoy the charm of the mountains as it should be.

Across India, farms and homes are opening their doors to travellers who are looking beyond impersonal, standardised hotel accommodation for something a little more informal and with character. For our part, we zeroed in on an organic cheese making farmstay in Coonoor, Acres Wild.

I love the mountains, I really do! It all starts when you leave the heat and dust of the plains behind and drive up the long, winding mountain roads. As you go higher, the temperatures drop, roll down the windows, feel the breeze in your face  and breathe in the crisp, mountain air, barring the occasional blast of diesel fumes from the buses on the way. And in this case, as you approach your destination, the air gets infused with a faint whiff of eucalyptus.

A little travellers tip, do make a midway stop at Burliar and have your fill of exotic fruits, more likely to be seen in South-east Asia,  like mangosteen, rambutans, green peaches, passion fruits and plums that are grown locally in the forests around. Taste the fruits as nature intended them to be and not the insipid, exorbitant variants that you get in Khan Market!

Secluded, at the edge of the property, overlooking the valley and surrounded by the mountains, our cottage was all that we were looking for our stay. There is a steep climb to the dining hall that might find favour with you or not, but will ensure that post-holiday weight gain is not an issue. It is a place where you hear the birds in the morning and you can count the stars at night. Of course, the occasional bus horn and blaring loudspeaker from Coonoor town will remind you that civilisation is never too far away!

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Brigadeiros - Brazilian Chocolate Caramels

In a few hours, the Football World Cup kicks off in Brazil. It is a time when even non-converts like me get converted to the game. And no, its not because of the hunky footballers! Even though, India is not much of a sporting nation, there's something about seeing a sport being played at the highest level that captivates me. With the high stakes involved, the athletes raise their game which itself is a study in perseverance, determination, concentration and excellence. It is not just personal goals and ambition at stake but the hopes and dreams of the country they represent.
So, the lacklustre response of the local population to the World Cup as being reported by the media seems ironical. After all, this is Brazil and football is its unofficial religion. I suspect as soon as the first whistle is blown, all will be forgotten. The scepticism and the criticism will melt away and be replaced by the strongest and fiercest sense of patriotism and loyalty! That is after all the beauty of sport!!

For the next few weeks, all eyes will be on Brazil. So, as an ode to the country that has taught the rest of the World how to party, I thought I give a go at making Brazil's favourite party candy, or so I am told.
Brigadeiros are chocolate bonbons where chocolate caramel is rolled into balls and then coated with chocolate sprinkles, nuts or even cocoa powder. They were created somewhere in the 1940s. The story goes that when Brigadier (Brigadeiro) Eduardo Gomes decided to run for the Presidential elections, his wife as the typical politician's wife, reached out to the people at fund raisers with these candies that she had personally made. While the Brigadier was unsuccessful in winning the people over, his wife's candy did just the opposite. Everyone and anyone wanted the 'Brigadier's candy' and thus, the Brigadeiros were born and till date their popularity remains unrivalled!
It barely takes ten minutes to make the caramel. The messy bit is the rolling of the caramel, especially when you are trying to do it with the horridly, humid weather that we are experiencing right now. Else, there is nothing too complicated about it.
And there's nothing not to like with these candies. I mean, it is chocolate caramel rolled in chocolate sprinkles... do you really need to be convinced about it ?? Goes without saying that children will love it and as for the grown-ups, you are never too old for a candy that is so unabashedly obvious!!
So, who are you putting your money on this World Cup?? I supported Spain through the 2006 and 2010 World Cup and still remember Iniesta's winning goal in the dying minutes of the Finals in Jo'burg. But, this time.. there is a certain romance about Brazil winning the World Cup in Brazil that has me thinking....

Monday, 9 June 2014

Coco Mango Sago

Many moons ago, work sent me to Hong Kong for a period of three months. Blame it on the insane work hours that I never got round to exploring the city in depth. Instead, I left with a kaleidoscope of contrasting images. For every banker rushing across to the next meeting was an elderly Chinese person patiently practising the slow and fluid movements of T'ai chi. For every high fashion store that would empty out your bank account was its counterfeit counterpart at one-tenth the price and you would never know the difference.
For every brightly lit, neon coloured billboard dominating the landscape was the sheer simplicity of Chinese calligraphy. For every Michelin starred restaurant where you struggled with the menu was a little hole in the wall, where also you struggled with the menu. For every crowded, 'packed like sardines' heaving street in Central was the tranquillity and vast spaces of the Outlying Islands. For every brash, in-your-face display of commerce was the exquisite, subtle beauty of Chinese art. There are many more that come to mind.. I only wish I had more time to form a definitive opinion on the city.
And yet, one food memory has endured. When I landed, I did not know a single soul in the city. Luckily for me, a close friend's mother happened to be visiting at the same time. She baby-sat me that day and took me out for lunch. When it came to dessert, she ordered what was hers and whole family's favourite dessert in town. It was simply called 'Coco Mango Sago'.

If I read it on the menu, I am not sure I would have ordered it. So, thank you Manju Aunty for insisting on it. It is essentially a cold dessert with the consistency of a soup that is packed with sago and mango pieces. Light yellow in colour and you can taste the mango as well as the subtle undertones of the coconut milk.

This summer, I thought I try and recreate this dessert. I adapted the recipe from a variety of sources on the Web. It is all straight forward, although I must confess I don't think I managed to replicate it cent per cent.
My version was a bit thicker in consistency than the original and moreover, the robust Indian mangoes resulted in a much richer colour and taste. But, the verdict from the loyal family was still very favourable. They found it light and right for the weather of the moment. It reminded them of the Indian dessert, sabudana kheer, albeit with a South-east Asian twist.
It is a soothing dessert that would be a perfect end to any East/South-east Asian meal, as the flavours of this dessert, specially the coconut milk, would complement the dishes of those cuisines.
I await an opportunity to re-explore Hong Kong at a more leisurely pace. Till then, do you have any enduring food memory that you will always associate with a city??

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Summer Coolers - Bael ka Sharbat / Chaas / Vietnamese Iced Coffee

I am melting. I am wilting. I have simply stopped functioning. Yes, every summer I sound the same. No matter how much I try, the heat always seems to triumph. Every year, the summer seems worse than the last year and this year was no different. It's been brutal and unforgiving as ever!
The traditional Indian almanac has a period of nine days called 'nautapa' which are said to be the hottest nine days of the year. This period, I am told, ended on Monday and if you ask me, the heat only seems to have intensified since then. While everything around me seems overpowered by this searing white light of the Sun, my own mind and body have been overpowered by this lethargy where even the simplest task seems Herculean!! I know I sound melodramatic but believe me, none of it is exaggeration.
This explains my absence from the blog. The only time I am lured out of my air conditioned cocoon to venture towards the kitchen is to get myself another bottle of chilled water from the fridge.
Okay, maybe I exaggerate a bit. I do step into the kitchen but it is for the shortest time possible and only to make myself something that will help me deal with the weather. The appetite has dwindled and snacking between meals has given way to cool liquids that make me feel a wee bit better!
These three drinks that I share with you have been extremely popular in our kitchen, this summer. First up is a traditional Indian drink to beat the heat. 'Bael ka sharbat' is one of those traditional Indian food traditions that seem to have got lost in today's world.
Google informs me that 'Bael' is known as 'wood apple' in English. It might not be easily available and you might have to ask your local vegetable vendor to source it for you.  I was introduced to it by my mother who has a special fondness for it. It is a hard shelled fruit whose apricot-peachy coloured pulp inside is said to have miraculous cooling properties.
Next up is India's most popular yoghurt-based drink in the summers. We call it 'chaas' but it is also known as 'mattha'. Yoghurt is diluted with water and then flavoured with cumin powder, rock salt and in my case, with some ginger-green chilli paste. But, everyone in India like their chaas in their own unique way. It is up to your discretion how you flavour yours but the cumin powder, I believe, should not be missed!
And the last one is of my love for iced coffee in the summer. I was introduced to Vietnamese Iced Coffee last summer and I even did a panna cotta inspired by it. For those not in the know, it is finely ground roast coffee individually brewed with a small metal filter that drips the brewed coffee into a cup containing sweetened condensed milk and ice.
There is something about watching that filtered coffee drip, drop by drop on the ice and condensed milk that seems to speak to the lethargy that seems to have overtaken me. Once tried, this version of iced coffee will trump any other that you make at home.
As we countdown to the rains, how are you dealing with the heat??
Post note: And just as I get ready to publish this post, are those black clouds that I see on the horizon?? Could it be ...dare I hope? Fingers crossed!!

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