Wednesday 27 July 2011

A foreign fruit

When we moved to England, we moved away from all things familiar. It was a different piece of land, which grew different things. The smells in the air were more quiet. The sounds on the street were better behaved. The weather was cooler. People paler. Voices softer.

I loved the newness. My first year passed in a blur, exploring as much as I could, as quickly as I could. The first thing I did when I woke up every morning was call Ma and Baba in India, and once that was done, I didn't miss much else.

But I miss India now. And often with a suddenness that stops me short. I could be crossing the street, when I'm hit with an intense need for an egg-chicken roll. These needs have absolutely no sense of timing.

I miss the impatient honk of a car. I miss clothes delivered by the dhobi on Sunday mornings, starched and ironed, the whites a little blue. I miss dusty window panes that you can scribble on. I miss newspapers at the door every morning. I miss haggling. I miss sitting around food, with friends. I miss the rush and the rudeness of the streets. I miss loud laughs. And colour.

Reds. Yellows. Oranges. They remind me of India. Nectarines, apricots and plums lying next to each other in the market stall remind me of India. A few years ago, fresh apricots and nectarines were as foreign to me as I was to this country. But we met halfway, the fruits and I.

Here they are, comfortable in a cold Indian broth. Stewed sweet, with cinnamon, star anise and black peppercorns. It's the perfect end to a summer meal - sweet and cool, light and fruity.

Stone fruit stew


1 apricot, cubed
1 nectarine, cubed
1 plum, cubed
(There was a strawberry lying around, so I threw it in too)
1/2 cup demerara sugar
1 1/2 cup water
1 tbs lemon juice
1/2 tsp whole black peppercorns
1/2 tsp crushed black peppercorns
A 2-inch stick of cinnamon
1 star anise

Mix the water and sugar and put it to boil. When it starts boiling, add the cinnamon, star anise and the whole black peppercorns.
Let the syrup reduce to half, then take it off the heat.
Add the lemon juice and the crushed peppercorns.
Then add the fruits, and cover.
When it cools completely, put it in the refrigerator.

Serve cold at the end of a meal. Or enjoy on its own.

Serves 2-3

Saturday 23 July 2011

Everything is something else

Each year, we grow a little older, and our eyes see a little lesser. Oh, the eyes above the nose are in fine working order. I'm talking about the other pair. The one that's in the mind. The one that can see more than the obvious. An imagination's eyes.

When I see a small red car on the road, I see a car that's small, and red in colour. My daughter sees a giant ladybird running past. When the moon becomes a thin, curved sliver, I see a moon that is a thin curved sliver. My daughter sees a "happy moon" because it's curved into a smile. 

Her imagination knows no bounds. she's always traveling to faraway places. Yesterday she took a train and chugged up a rainbow, right to the top. Why? Because the lines of a rainbow look like a railway track, of course!

The best part is, every time she travels, I get to hitch a ride.

Her senses record the smallest things. A few days ago, we woke up to a gloomy English sky. There was no rain, but the clouds were like dark grey puddles in the sky. She looked up at the black clouds, and suddenly started doing a mad little tap-dance all over the floor. Aami brishti, she said in Bengali. I'm the rain!

She was a year-and-a-half when summer turned to autumn. On a walk through the park, she pointed to the trees and told me that the green leaves were wearing brown jackets. Just like that. Like an offhand observation, said in a second. But, for the rest of my life, that's how I'll remember autumn - green leaves in brown jackets.

Last week, she did a drawing of me on her blackboard, then called me into the room to show me the artwork. "Look, it's you!" I clapped, gave her a kiss and went back to my work. After a few seconds she called me in again, and showed me the blackboard. This time, there was nothing on it. Just an empty, black blackboard. "Look, you've gone to the shop!"

There are so many of these moments, every day. Too many to remember. To her, even the alphabets are alive. An 'e' is like a 'c' with an eye. And 'f' is like a kitchen tap. Everything is something else.

I became a year older yesterday. Older and wiser, they say. But for now, I'll swap whimsy for wisdom and hop onto a train with Chotto-ma and chug to the top of a rainbow.

For my birthday, we decided on a cake that the three of us - Chotto-ma, D and I - could make together. A No-Bake Raspberry & Basil Cheesecake. It was messy-play at its best. 

The cheesecake is an adaptation of one of Nigella Lawson's recipes. Her's, however, was a Cherry Cheesecake, and you can find her recipe here.

Here's mine.

No-Bake Raspberry & Basil Cheesecake

For the cheesecake:
125g digestive biscuits
75g soft butter
300g cream cheese
60g icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250ml double cream

For the topping:
400g punnet raspberries
25g icing sugar
A few basil leaves

Chocolate powder for dusting

For the topping, mix the raspberries, sugar and basil leaves in a bowl and crush it all together with your hands. Make sure you bruise the leaves, so the scents and flavours all seep into each other. Refrigerate.
Blitz the biscuits in a food processor until beginning to turn to crumbs, then add the butter and whiz again to make the mixture clump.
Press this mixture into a 20cm springform tin; press a little up the sides to form a slight ridge.
Beat together the cream cheese, icing sugar and vanilla extract in a bowl until smooth.
Lightly whip the double cream, and then fold it into the cream cheese mixture.
Spoon the cheesecake filling on top of the biscuit base and smooth with a spatula. Put it in the fridge for 3 hours or overnight.
When you are ready to serve the cheesecake, unmould it and spread the raspberry and basil mix on top.
Serve with a dusting of chocolate.

Serves 6-8

Monday 18 July 2011

Eating New York

The book in my bag this week is Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte. It's the kind of book you don't want to finish off in a hurry. So, just like the dark chocolate in my kitchen cupboard, I treat myself to a little bit of the book every day. It's about good food, and family, and friends. In New York.

In my mind, New York is intrinsically linked with family, and with food. We landed in JFK not with a Lonely Planet, but a scrap of paper with a list of all the places we wanted to eat in. That's how we discovered New York. We ate through its length.

Nothing detered us. There we were, D and I, hauling a buggy and a baby, up and down the stairs of subway stations, traveling from a breakfast to a lunch to a dinner. There is not single photograph of us anywhere near Ellis Island.

But we know the Upper West Side, because that's where Zabar's is; and Sarabeth's. We explored Midtown, one Vendy-winning-cart at a time. We walked through the rain for Balthazar. We tracked down John's of Bleecker Street. Queued for the best arepas in East Village. And my brother and sister-in-law, who live in the Upper East Side, provided yet another list of local recomendations, along with their babysitting services.

We ate New York.

And Amanda Hesser brought it all back for me, with Cooking for Mr. Latte. Midway through a chapter, I decided to take one of her recipes into the kitchen. I made the Linguine with Meyer Lemon Zest, Creme Fraiche and Parmesan Cheese. It was as beautiful as I thought it would. Simple, and so full of summer flavour.

But I'd made too much of it, so I was stuck with leftover linguine, which is far from exciting. The next day, the leftover linguine met some fresh fish. And they got along like a house on fire.

I called it my Hesser Messer Pie. All you do is mess up all the ingredients in one big bowl, top it all with cheese, and send it to the oven. The lemon-zesty pasta paired beautifully with the fish. And what started out as an attempt to save leftover linguine, became quite a dinner.

Amanda Hesser's wonderful recipe for Linguine with Meyer Lemon Zest, Creme Fraiche and Parmesan Cheese can be found in Cooking for Mr. Latte (page 197).

The Hesser Messer Pie is just my attempt to save the life of a good linguine.

My Hesser Messer Pie


3 cups of leftover linguine, from the Amanda Hesser recipe
2 fillets of cod, cut into cubes
1 cup prawns, peeled
1/2 cup milk
1 cup peas, frozen or fresh

1/2 cup shredded white Cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup shredded Gruyère cheese
1 tsp crushed blackpepper 

A bunch of grapes

Pre-heat over, 160 C.
Mix the three cheeses in one bowl, and divide into two equal portions.
In a big bowl, mix together the linguine, cod, prawns, peas, milk, pepper and one portion of the cheese mix.
Once it's all tossed up, transfer to a baking dish and sprinkle the remaining cheese mix on top.
Bake in the oven at 160 C for 25 minutes.
Serve hot, with some grapes on the side.

Serves 2-3

Tuesday 12 July 2011


I wanna hang a map of the world in my house. Then I'm gonna put pins into all the locations that I've traveled to. But first, I'm gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won't fall down.

I wish I’d said that, but Mitch Hedberg did.

I like corners. Corners are comfortable. They hug you in.

In our house, we each have a corner. We marked our territories early, when we first moved it. And once we’d found our corners, the new house didn’t feel so new anymore. We sat down in our corners, put our feet up, and settled in.

I don’t quite know if we chose the corners, or they chose us. It might have been the latter.

D’s corner is by the corner bookshelf. My corner is diagonally opposite, on one end of the big brown sofa. And chotto-ma’s ‘corner’ is right in the middle of the room. Ever since she could crawl, her corner has always been the centre. When there’s a singing-circle at her playgroup, she’s the only one standing in the middle of the ring. She made me realise that one’s corner of comfort need not be a corner at all.

When we were growing up in Kolkata, my brother and I had a deep alcove in our bedroom. It had a wooden seat built into it, piled high with colourful cushions. We called it the Cosy Corner. It was a large room with pale mint walls and many windows. The bed was on one end of the room, and the Cosy Corner on the opposite wall. When we first moved into the house, my brother and I would sneak out of our big, comfortable bed at night and curl up in the cramped little alcove like two little mice. The bed was too big, and too new. But the Cosy Corner was just right. It eased us into our new house.

Our old bedroom is still the same, just like it was all those years go. But the Cosy Corner isn’t there anymore. The alcove has a built-in wardrobe now, to store all the things that the house has collected over the years. I miss our Cosy Corner. It’ll always be my favourite corner; and one of my favourite memories of me and my brother when we were little.

Do you have a special corner? A corner of your house? Your local cafe? The corner of another country?

Now, the last one can sometimes be cooked up. Just a herb, a spice, an aroma, and suddenly you're in a different corner of the world. This summer, we have no far-flung travel plans, so I’ve been cooking up a lot of these corners lately. Tunisia is on the menu today.

Pan-fried fish with chermoula, spiced butter beans & grilled courgettes

Chermoula is a rich, spicy North African sauce. There are many variations of it - with onions and without, with harissa and without. Each kitchen's chermoula is different from the next.  Here's the one I made.

For the chermoula fish

1 cup chopped coriander
1 cup chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp paprika
A pinch of chilli flakes
1 tsp cumin
A few threads of saffron
2 - 3 tbs olive oil
1 tbs lemon juice
2 fillets of sea bass (I had haddock at home, so that's what I used)

Put all the ingredients, except the oil and the lemon juice, in a blender, and blend. Once it's done, mix in the olive oil and lemon juice. Your chermoula is ready.
Heat some olive oil in a pan, and slip in the fish fillets, skin side down. Pan fry on high for 5-6 minutes without disturbing the fish. Then turn over and fry the other side for 3-4 minutes. Put aside on a plate.

For the butter beans

100 gms canned butter beans, drained and rinsed
1 large tomato, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 small onion chopped
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp black pepper, coarsely crushed

Heat the olive oil in a pan, and saute all the ingredients together for 7-8 minutes on medium heat.

For the courgettes


1 courgette, cut into long slices
1 tbs olive oil
A sprinkle of black pepper

Pre-heat grill. Brush the courgette slices with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and grill for 3-4 minutes on each side.

Serves 2.

Thursday 7 July 2011

All things purple

My daughter had a pair of purple shoes, and those shoes made me realise something. Purple is a colour that sits well with almost everything. Think of any primary colour, then throw in a purple. Green + purple. They clash, in a great kind of way. Red sofa + purple throw. Focal point, there you go! With a blue, an orange, even a brown - purple works. Yes, it’s a bit of a snob, and it refuses to blend in quietly. But that is its raison d’etre. To be the one that didn’t quite match.

I avoided purple for the longest time. It reminded me of Cadbury wrappers, and those don’t look very nice. I also didn’t like aubergines for the longest time; well into my twenties. It didn’t have much going for it. It was purple. Uninteresting. And it made my mouth itch. The last complain, I borrowed from Ma. She had a mild allergy to aubergines, so as a child, I decided I must have it too.

Like the aubergines, and all other things purple, love bloomed late. It caught me by surprise, as most late loves do. Contrary to what I believed, aubergines were incredibly interesting. They could be curried, roasted, char-grilled, mixed with tahini, tossed in oyster sauce, cooked in coconut milk, buried in moussaka. An aubergine combines beautifully with everything. It stands its ground, even with meat. Not blending into oblivion, nor overstating its presence. Just like its colour.

It's summer now, and there's purple everywhere! Here are some of my favourites this year.

Lavender. Heady clumps of purple perfume! I have them growing in our garden next to the rosemary. It's in the soap I bought from the farmer's market. It's in my cupboard, in little gingham pouches. And in my cup of tea this afternoon.

The 'ding dong' flowers. Everyday, we cross these purple bell-shaped wildflowers on our walks. We call them the ding-dong flowers. Chotto-ma stops to give the bells a little shake, says hello to the bees inside, and then we walk on. It's one of our many daily rituals.

Purple pancakes. I found my daughter cooking a very well-balanced meal for her stuffed animals today. Pancakes, tomatoes and green beans. The tomatoes were red, the green beans were green, but the pancakes were purple. Her first purple pancakes, made on the very day that I was writing this post! What are the odds.

And aubergines. Stuffed with minced lamb, pine nuts and feta. If you haven't made friends with an aubergine, do it with this dish. I've come across many variations of this recipe - Lebanese, Greek, Turkish. This is my adaptation, with very moorish spices. 

Aubergine stuffed with minced lamb, pine nuts & feta


2 small aubergines, halved lengthwise
250 gms minced lamb
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tomato, chopped
1/2 tsp cinnamon powder
1/2  tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp black pepper
Salt to taste
1 tbs olive oil
1/2 cup chopped parsley
3 tbs pine nuts, roasted
100 gms feta cheese, crumbled

The lamb stuffing:

Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the onion, garlic and lamb. Saute on high heat for a few minutes till the lamb and onions are slightly brown. Lower the heat.
Add the tomato, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, black pepper and salt. Give it a good stir. Cover and cook till the lamb is done. Increase the heat for a couple of minutes to dry up the juices, if there is any. 
Take the lamb off the heat. Stir in the parsley and half of the pine-nuts.Cover and keep aside.The stuffing for your aubergine is ready.

The aubergines:

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/356°F.
Drizzle the halved aubergines with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
Place the aubergines on a baking tray and bake for 25 minutes, till soft.
Take the aubergines out of the oven, and carefully scoop out the flesh. Dice the flesh very coarsely, and mix it with the cooked lamb.
Now fill the aubergine 'shells' with the mix, top with feta and the remaining pine-nuts, and serve.

Serves 4

Friday 1 July 2011

A weekend in the country

Quiet green villages filled with birdsong and clean air make me claustrophobic. Oxygen is overrated. And I can't really hear myself think in too much silence. It's all very good for a weekend, but I must have that 'end' in sight.

In one of my parallel lives, I do have an alter-ego living in one of these quiet green places. The other Pia, who fancies herself a bit of a farmer. She is out there now, plucking apples from her orchard, and making chutney. She lives in a house straight out of Country Living, and cooks in a kitchen with an Aga, a Smeg refrigerator, a butler sink and many copper pans.

She's the country mouse, I'm the city mouse. We meet sometimes.

But a few weekends ago, me, the city mouse, was so charmed by a village that I almost saw myself living there. Almost. Almost.

Burnham Market sits close to the stunning north Norfolk coast, and is a village that you pass on the way to busier seaside towns like Wells-Next-The-Sea.

But don't pass on by.

Be the mouse who found the Cheddar, because this tiny strip of a village really is a delicious little find. Art galleries. Independant shops full of beautiful, handmade things. Friendly, cosy tearooms. Bookstores. A little cottage selling designer clothing. Award-winning local cheese. Fresh, fresh fish. An old wineshop that makes you stop in your tracks. And a 17th century coaching inn, now a plush hotel, with a Moroccan-themed courtyard restaurant.

A shop that I found particularly hard to leave was Norfolk Living. It's an Alladin's cave of a shop, filled with seashell soaps, vintage perfume bottles, jars of jam, white linen, rugs and cushions, candles and crockery. Room after room of beautiful things.

I ended my window shopping for a good cause - lunch at The Hoste Arms. It was al fresco eating at its best. The sun was warm on my back. A glass of chilled Chardonnay in front of me. A Peroni for D. And a meal that could not have been cooked better.

That was our lunch.
~ Mushroom soup, served with an open sandwich of mushrooms in truffle oil.
~ A salad of watermelon, feta cheese, parma ham & pumpkin seeds, mixed baby leaf, mint dressing.
~ Sautéed smoked paprika squid, dressed rocket, piquillo pepper, chickpeas & chorizo, tahini dressing.
~ Pineapple carpaccio, fresh pomegranate, malibu, lime & mint jelly, mini meringues & pina colada ice cream.

And along with each course, we had conversation, because a little girl slept right through lunch. D and I grinned at the utter, cunning perfection of our timing. We had managed to sneak a date into our day!

We left Burnham Market feeling like we'd been given a treat.

I'm still a city-mouse, and I think I always will be. But every now and then, I like traipsing around pretty villages looking for some good local cheese.