Saturday 25 June 2011

Leave me the leftovers

I've always liked leftovers. They would nudge me to be creative, to look for possibilities. To make whole old nothings. When leftover pieces of fabric are turned into a patchwork blanket, it becomes the best blanket your linen cupboard has ever seen. The blanket that you keep.

This spring, I enrolled for an art course. And it turned out to be a masterclass in leftovers. We met in a big room, next to the river, with a high ceiling that peaked in the middle. Exposed beams of old wood. A long wooden table battered by years of art. Shelves and drawers that spilled over with paints, brushes, scalpels, lethal liquids and things that you would (wrongly) assume had nothing to do with art. The room's pièce de résistance was a large window, which let in sumptuous natural light, views of the water and of lunchtime joggers. In that room, and around that table, sat an odd assortment of twelve people, including an author of crime fiction with a deep interest in tulips. Our teacher, a lovely woman with a passion for the Incas, started the first class with a simple instruction. Don't draw, don't paint. Explore and research. Surely an unexpected turn for an 'art class'? We looked at one another, each hoping the other knew what to do.

But soon we were dipping twigs, wires and feathers in ink, swirling toilet paper in PVA glue and brushing varnish on a savoy cabbage. At home, things which earlier would've been binned, were kept aside for the next class - leftovers from a sheet of bubble wrap, apple peel or egg shells. I looked at everything and saw TEXTURE. I would have an orange juice from the market stall, then ask for the peel and pulp.

Finally, by the end of the art course, the odd assortment of people, had created an odd assortment of beautiful things, while inspiring, and often humouring, each other.

I made 'tea'. With bits of gauze, used teabags, red lentils and anything else within arm's reach. Here's my imprint of leftovers from the room by the river.

But in the kitchen, my love of unfinished bits and bobs is no secret. At the end of a meal, my mother-in-law would often watch me put away leftovers, with trepidation written large on her face. Because, leftovers from four dishes would not be stored in four separate boxes, but one.

I could literally taste what they could become when put together. Fill a frittata? Bake in béchamel? (stop with the alliteration already!) Anyway, the taste would in my head long before it was on my tongue. Soon, my mother-in-law began to enjoy the surprises that the little leftovers brought to the table. Her shoulders stopped tensing when I packed food away. She would just smile with a little shake of her head - here we go again.

Here's one of my favourites - my 'Everything Stew'. Perfect for the day when all you have left are leftovers, and very little time. So go on, scavenge! You'd be surprised what your fridge and wine cellar can come up with at short notice.

The Everything Stew


Apart from the red wine, which you do need, this list is really yours to make. It depends on the vegetables you have at home, the meat in your fridge, throw in some tofu or halloumi, or paneer if you have some. Make it vegetarian if you want. Use whatever you need to finish off, whatever is closest to their expiry date. This is what I had on hand:

6 cocktail sausages
4 chicken thighs
3 strips of bacon, sliced into smaller strips
6 brown chestnut mushrooms, halved
8 stalks of tenderstem broccoli
½ cup peas
100 gm halloumi, cut into cubes
1 onion
1 large tomato, cubed
4-5 cloves of garlic,  lightly crushed
1 bay leaf
Small bunch of parsley, chopped
1 cup dry red wine (I used a Pinot Noir)
1 cup water
1 tsp pepper, coarsely crushed
2 tbs olive oil
A pat of butter (optional)

Heat oil in a heavy wok or saucepan, which has a lid.
On medium heat, sauté the halloumi till lightly browned. Spoon out of the oil and keep aside.
Add sausages and bacon to the oil. Brown them on all sides. Spoon them out and keep aside.
In the same oil (add some more if you need) add the onion, garlic, pepper and chicken. Sauté till the chicken is lightly browned.
Add the tomatoes, the cup of water and the bayleaf.
Adjust the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 8-10 minutes.
Add all the vegetables, Pour in the wine. And add half of the chopped parsley.
(Since I used vegetables that cooked quickly, I kept them for the end. But for something like florets of cauliflower, brown and soften them in oil earlier in the cooking process)
Gently simmer, without the lid, till all the vegetables are cooked.
Take pan off the heat. Stir in the halloumi, sausages and bacon. Add the butter if you’re using it.
Put the lid back on and let it stand for a few minutes, so that all the flavours soak into the broth. Transfer into your serving dish, garnish with the remaining parsley, and serve with pieces of crusty bread.

Serves 4

Tuesday 21 June 2011

We'll barbecue up some summer!

This is June. June.

Summer.    Summer.    Summer.

If I repeat it a few more times, I might even believe it. Or I could do what everyone else is doing. I could pretend. Just like my daughter pretends to cook chicken for her toy duck, I could pretend that it's summer. For all we've really had are a few 'sunny spells', and in the past week - dreary drizzles and jaw-locking winds.

So, you pretend. You decide to defy the weather.

You commit your first act of defiance as soon as you smell spring. You vacuum-pack those winter clothes. Pack up your furry boots. Go on a low-carb diet.

So what if the weather is still the opposite of warm.

Soon, the shop windows change. Out with the coats, and in with the cottons. It's nautical stripes,  yellow and duck-egg blue this year.

Then the restaurants join in. Light, summery salads. Sorbets. Some even throw in a picnic hamper.

The weather is still not taking the hint.

So, yesterday, on my walk around town, I see people in their lovely, crisp cottons and pastel flip flops, but with shoulders shrugged against the cold wind, arms crossed over their chests. Eating ice-cream, but eyeing soup.

Some even check out John Lewis' table top fans.

Everyone seemed to be willing the weather to change. Willing June to be as June should. So, this weekend, we decide to do our bit to shake up summer.

We barbecue.

We had a full house, with friends who had driven many miles to spend the weekend with us. Now, there are friends for whom you cook, and their are friends with whom you cook. You can only cook with your closest. There is something  very intimate about sharing a kitchen, chopping, stirring and slicing together. Or standing around a barbecue, one fanning the coal, another skewering the meat. It's reserved for those you are most comfortable with.

We could not have had better company.

As we nudged and aired the hot coals to life, everyone cast furtive glances at the sky. It was slowly changing from a fairly healthy blue to an ominous shade of grey. But we couldn't give up now! We had summer riding on it.

Just as the kebabs began to cook, it began to rain. And that's putting it mildly. Within minutes, the rain became a downpour, the downpour became a hailstorm. (And I do not exaggerate for the sake of a story.) There we were, gathered around the tenderest meat, with umbrellas, attacked by tiny pebbles of ice.

Summer.     Summer.     Summer.

The food cooked itself under an improvised canopy of umbrellas and raincoats, with us scampering indoors, every now and again, for respite. The children splashed in puddles with shrieks of "ooh, cold!"

Finally, the skies did behave. Lunch was served late, very late. But there was plenty of good food, and nothing damp about the humour.

Today, we woke up to a spotless, blue sky and sunshine, and I thought to myself, we might have just cooked up a summer!

Menu for the Barbecue - everything is very easy to marinate, and simple to put together

. Lamb Boti Kebab
. Galouti Kebab
. Mushrooms with Fennel Seeds
. A fresh green salad with a simple olive oil and balsamic dressing  (balsamic vinegar pairs really well with spiced, grilled meat)
. Bowls of chopped sweet vine tomatoes
. Potatoes fried in round slivers and sprinkled with grated parmesan and pepper

The Marinade - a base used for both the Boti and the Galouti Kebab
A kebab completely depends on how well the meat is marinated. Once that is done, and for long enough, all you need to do is put them on the grill and leave them alone. Lamb kebabs in India are always marinated in raw papaya. And it really is a magic ingredient! Raw, green papaya has an enzyme called Papain, which breaks down the tough fabric structure of meat, just like a mallet would.


1 small raw, green papaya (if it's not available fresh, you can order papaya powder online)
2-inch piece of ginger
5-6 cloves of garlic
1-2 green chillies (optional)

Put everything into a mixer, and blitz. Divide the mix into two portions.

My version of the Boti Kebab


1 kg diced lamb, preferably from the shoulder (lean meat does not barbecue well)
1/2 of the prepared marinade
3 tbs strained yogurt
1 heaped tsp cumin powder
1 heaped tsp coriander powder
1 heaped tsp paprika
A sprinkle of turmeric
1 tsp pepper
Salt to taste

Massage all the ingredients into the meat for 5 minutes. Cover and refrigerate the day before the barbecue.
When you're ready to barbecue the following day, skewer the meat, smeared in marinade, and put on the grill. Turn skewers occasionally.

Serves 6 or more

My version of the Galouti Kebab

This kebab was first prepared in Lucknow, India, for an aged Nawab whose teeth were too weak to chew meat. Hence a kebab so soft, it melts in the mouth.


500 gms minced lamb
1/2 of the prepared marinade
250 gms ricotta cheese
1/2 cup chopped coriander (cilantro)
1 tsp pepper
Salt to taste

Mix everything together, and refrigerate the day before.
Next day, shape the mix into small balls, and then flatten them. You can then put the flat, round cakes on the grill, occasionally basting with oil/butter, or shallow fry them in a pan.

Serves 6 or more

Mushroom with Fennel Seeds

500 gms mushrooms, closed cup or button
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs fennel seeds, coarsely crushed
2 tsp pepper powder, black and coarse

Mix everything together, and place mushrooms on the grill. Depending on the heat, they should be done in 5-10 minutes.

Serves 6, but finishes incredibly fast.

Sunday 12 June 2011

A Sunday breakfast

When I walk into a cafe for my midday caffeine shot, I try to find a table that's far away from pre-schoolers and from large groups of new mothers. The first because I get my fair share of pre-school chatter at home, and the second because I have reached a stage where I can no longer bear conversations about nappies, weaning and how "fast their fingernails grow!" In the supermarket, whenever I see two new mums, deep in conversation, I quickly move to a different aisle. Even if it's 'Canned Soups'.

At this point, I need to repeat an annoying cliche - it's not personal. I really have nothing against new mothers. In fact, I know their lives only too well. A couple of years ago, I was knee-deep in the very same conversations. Like sleep-deprived sadists, D and I would be drawn into long chats with parents whose 3-week olds were already sleeping through the night. And everyday, I would groggily trudge to playgroups to catch up on the latest brands of baby food. By the end of year one, I had had enough. Now, I break into a rash every time I hear 'nappy'.

So yesterday, at the Waterstones cafe, I became slightly concerned when the table next to me filled up with a mother, her 3-year old daughter and 9-month old son. Pre-schoolers have no concept of volume. They speak very loudly in quiet places, and whisper when you need them to be heard. This lovely little girl was no exception, and the quiet cafe was soon privy to her every word.

Mum (spooning mash into her son's eager mouth): Sarah, eat your ham sandwich please.
Daughter (loudly): I don't like ham.
Mum (utterly confused): You LOVE ham!
Daughter: I love ham everyday except Sat-ur-day.
The mother turns her head away, willing patience in public, and continues feeding the little boy, who fortunately can't speak yet.

Yes, my coffee-hour could have been quieter, but this little bit of conversation made up for that. It made me grin into my black Americano, this litle girl's utter conviction about ham on weekends. The mother had all my sympathies, but I understood exactly what her daughter was saying.

At home, we have a mix of muesli, milk and fruits everyday for breakfast. But never on a Saturday. Or on a Sunday. It just doesn't feel right. Everything about the weekend needs to be different. Less ordinary.

So today, even though we needed a quick breakfast before going out for the day, it couldn't be muesli! It was Sunday.

I made an old favourite - an open sandwich that Ma would often make for us on weekends. She calls it 'Corn on Toast'. It's quick, it's simple, it's delicious. And it reminds me of Sundays in Kolkata. Ma's version was harder work, because the fresh bhutta, or corn on the cob, would have to be boiled, the corn scraped off, and then cooked. My corn came shamelesly frozen, in a packet.

The sandwich was followed by fresh strawberries with honey & almond creme fraiche. A good start to a Sunday.

Ma's Corn on Toast

The corn is cooked in White Sauce, a simpler version of the B
échamel Sauce. There's the classic way of making White Sauce - melting the butter, sauteing the flour, then stirring in the milk, very slowly, a bit at a time, so that no lumps are formed.
And, there's my cheat-version, for those days when you have no time to stand and stir.
For me, it's almost always the latter.


1 1/2 cup milk
2 tbs flour
1 tbs butter
Coarsely ground black pepper
A sprinkle of chopped parsley (tarragon is a lovely alternative)
1/2 cup grated cheese (I used a mix of Cheddar and Gruyere)
2 1/2 cups corn
Salt to taste
Wholegrain bread to toast

Take the flour in a bowl, mix it with a few tbs of water and make a smooth paste.
Heat the milk in a pan.
When it's hot, but before it has boiled, pour in the flour paste, and stir as the milk quickly thickens. Add the frozen corn. Add salt (remember the cheese will add some salt too). Stir occasionally till the corn has cooked, maybe 3-4 minutes. If you want to thicken the sauce further, add some more flour mixed with water. Take pan off heat.
Sprinkle in the cheese, pepper and parsley (or tarragon). Add the butter. Give it a good stir.
Pop bread into toaster or oven. Time the toast well. It should be golden and crisp.
Spoon the corn on the toast. Sprinkle with paprika, and serve immedietely.

Serves: 2-3

Fresh Strawberries with Honey & Almond Cr
ème Fraiche


3 cups of strawberries, all halved
1 cup cr
ème fraiche
2 tbs honey
1 tbs ground almond
1 tbs brown sugar
Few sprigs of fresh mint

Sprinkle the strawberries with sugar and refrigerate for 10-15 minutes.
Mix the cr
ème fraiche, honey and ground almond, stirring it all into a nice, smooth paste.
Divide the strawberries into bowls or cups, and top with the creme fraiche.
Pretty it all up with a sprig of mint.

Serves 2-3

Monday 6 June 2011

Chicken pox pie

This week, we have two ‘firsts’:

My daughter has the cluck-cluck pox. (That’s ‘chicken pox’ for you) This, of course, is a first and a last, since you get it only once.

And here’s the second first - I baked a pie!

I live in Pie-a-Doo-Daa Land. The British love their pies. They’re baked in different shapes and sizes, eaten hot or cold, packed in a hamper, served on the table. Anyone with an English childhood of any consequence, you would have had pies. Whipped out of mum’s busy Aga, either when all was well, or when nothing was right.

There’s something about mothers and pies. Look at Mother Goose. She's been spreading the word for years! Little Jack Horner ate it. Simple Simon wanted it. Four-and-twenty blackbirds were baked in it. And when six little kittens lost their mittens, they weren’t sent to the ‘naughty corner’; they were sent to bed without pie.

Apparently, even kings bow before the British pie. In the 1800s, whenever Emperor William I of Germany visited Queen Victoria of England, his favourite pie was put on the royal table. It contained a whole turkey stuffed with a chicken, the chicken stuffed with a pheasant and the pheasant stuffed with a woodcock.

My pie had much less bird. And was baked not for royalty, but for a little girl who was speckled, itchy and feverish, but still smiling; or at least, trying very hard to. She deserved a pie.

The thought of baking a pie came after a chat with our neighbour. He told us that when they were growing up, chicken pox was quite welcome in the neighbourhood. If a child in came down with it, neighbourhood mums would make a quick queue to the pox-house with their own children. It was a chance to get over with it! They would bring along some home-baked pies to share. And there you have it - the chicken pox pie.

After that story, a pie was just begging to be baked.

So, bake I did. A Chicken,  Blue Cheese & Pistachio Pie, followed by my Speedy Apple & Walnut Cake. Our neighbour’s three lovely daughters came over. They’d all had chicken-pox before, so the only thing that was shared was the food. And I had a happy little speckled girl with her own little pox-party in the garden.

Chicken, Blue Cheese & Pistachio Pie, with a salad of pea shoots & flowers.

Ingredients for the pie:
500 gms chicken
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 stalks of celery, roughly chopped
1 cup cold milk
2 tbs plain flour
A dab of butter
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
A slab of stilton, or any other blue cheese
1cup pistachio
350 gms puff pastry
1 egg
Fresh ground pepper
Salt to taste

Put the chicken, together with the onion, garlic and celery, in a pan. Add a cup of water and salt to taste. Bring to the boil.
When it begins to boil, lower heat and put the lid on. Simmer till chicken is cooked. Then take pan off the hob.
Fish out the cooked chicken from the stock and shred. Then put the shredded chicken back into the stock.

Take the plain flour in a bowl, and slowly add the cold milk a little at a time, stirring it into a smooth mix.

Put the chicken back on the hob. As the stock starts to bubble, pour in the milk and flour mix, a bit at a time, till it all reaches a nice, thick consistency. Now stir in the butter, the mustard and some pepper. Check seasoning.

Dry roast the pistachios in a pan. Keep aside.

Divide the chicken in equally in 4 small pie pots. Top with crumbled blue cheese. And sprinkle with pistachios.

Roll out the puff pastry. Brush the rim of the pie dishes with egg. Cover the top the dishes with pastry, trim edges and press the edges down firmly with your fingers. Brush the pastry with beaten egg. With a fork, prick a set of holes on the pastry.

Heat the oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6. Bake for 25-30 minutes until puffed and golden.

Serves 4.

Salad of Pea Shoots & Flowers


200 gms pea shoots
A handful of any edible flower
1 1/2 tbs olive oil
A squeeze of lemon
1 clove garlic, grated
Salt to taste

Toss everything together in a bowl and serve immediately.

Speedy Apple & Walnut Cake


2 cups plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup sugar (raw is great)
1/2 cup sunflower oil
½ cup softened butter
2 eggs
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
2 apple, chopped (I keep the skin on)
1 cup chopped walnuts

Sift flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together. Keep aside.
Mix sugar and butter with electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add the oil and mix for another minute. Add the eggs. Keep mixing.
Add the flour and mix for a couple of minutes more. Add the milk and mix again till it’s all nice and smooth.
Keep away the electric mixer.
With a spatula, stir in the apple and walnut into the cake batter.
Pour into a springform pan and bake at 160°C, 350°F for 45 minutes.
Cut, serve warm with a drizzle of single cream.

Enjoy! We certainly did.