Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pepper N Spice N All Things Nice

That's what this girl's made of! Ahan! Yea! Wooo!

Err ... sorry about that. Got carried away. I'm in the middle of reading "Fool On The Hill" by Matt Ruff, and the story revolves around Cornell University and the characters who frequent it. It's a pretty good read, and since I tend to get very involved in my books, I feel as if I've already attended tons of frat parties and consumed copius amounts of alcohol. So I feel a wee bit of a fake buzz, plus it's late in the night as I'm writing this (hey, anything past 10pm is late for me these days, ok?!).

Reading this book reminds me of my own time in college. In particular, I remember the college food that was the daily feature of my life. Oh how far I've come! To think there was a time, years actually, when a slice of greasy cheese pizza, folded between the sides of a flimsy paper plate, and a can of Mountain Dew were my most frequent lunch options. No, wait, sometimes mushrooms made an appearance on the aforementioned pizza. Mushrooms are good for you, right? Huh, I guess those weren't the 'shrooms my friends were talking about .... *lost in thought* .. oh! Right ... where was I? College food - got it! Ahem, so apart from good 'ol pizza, sometimes I would treat myself to a calzone. And it would honestly feel like a treat - something special and crave-worthy. Then there were the really wonderful times when I had a few extra bucks left over at the end of the week, which I would happily plunk down on the counter of the ubiquitous Tim Horton's. I do still love my Timmy's! My fellow Canadians will know what I'm talking about. It was a day of celebration for all us friends when they first came out with their creamy iced cappucino. To this day, I get a nostalgic pang in my heart whenever someone mentions it (or is that my blocked artery?).

My most favorite spices in the world!

Back then I would never have enjoyed the complex flavors of my South Indian Pepper Chicken. Too fancy-schmancy for my then-retarded tastebuds. Now though, the blend of spices used in this dish makes me swoon! It's the kind of dish where you'll definitely be licking the plate at the end of the meal. So no, not exactly a 'first date' dish - more like 'third date'.

South Indian Pepper Chicken (I give all credit to my favorite Indian chef, Suvir Saran and his excellent cookbook "Indian Home Cooking". Did make a few adjustments though.)
Serves 4-6

1 whole chicken, cut into small pieces
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Marinate the chicken with the above ingredients for about 30 mins - 1 hour.

14 fresh curry leaves (kadi patha)
2 tsp black mustard seeds (rai)
1 tsp cumin seeds (zeera)
1 tsp fenugreek seeds (methi dana)
1 tsp black peppercorns
6 whole cloves
3 green cardamom, whole

Roast the above ingredients in a non-stick pan over medium heat, for about 2-3 mins. Keep swirling the spices around so that they don't burn. We just want them to release their oils.
Let these spices cool down a bit, then grind them up together. Set aside.

Stick your nose in that and take a good long whiff!

3 tbsp canola oil
1 tsp black mustard seeds
2 whole dried red chillies
4 green cardamom, whole
1-2 hot green chillies, chopped
12 fresh curry leaves, torn
2 tbsp unsweetened shredded coconut
1 13.5oz can thick coconut milk

1. Combine oil, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, dried red chillies and green cardamom over medium-high heat till then seeds begin to pop and darken.
2. Add the chopped green chillies and the curry leaves. (step back - this will splatter!)
3. Add the fragrant ground spice mix and quickly stir it about for 30 secs.
4. To this, add the shredded coconut and stir it as well for another 30 secs.
5. Saute the marinated chicken pieces in this mixture for 5 mins, making sure they're all well coated with the spice mixture.
6. Add the entire can of coconut milk now, with a 1/2 tsp of salt. Bring to a boil, then let it simmer for 25 mins, till the chicken is done and tender. This dish goes really well with rice or roti.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Basic Pasta Sauce For All Seasons

I'm not going to lie to you, readers. I've been feeling like crap lately. Emotionally and physically. There's no need for me to bore you with the details, because like most things, this time too shall pass. Y'know, I suppose it's the peaks and valleys in one's life that make a person's time on this planet more interesting. Although I'm sure many of you will agree that when you're mired knee-deep in the quick sand of your own personal valley, you wouldn't mind if things had turned out a little less interesting ... boring even! *sigh* But at the end of the day, it would be a shame if all of us were content with mediocrity.

One thing that cheered me up last night was watching Top Chef, my current favorite reality TV show! Drama and comedy. Drama and food. Drama with food. Delicious stuff! This show was destined to be a success with all foodies! I can't even remember which season this is, but last night sure got juicy! For those of you who don't watch the show, I won't poke fun. I won't feel sorry for you either. You probably have "better things to do", right? Especially for that one late hour on Wednesday night? Ahan. Suuuuuuuuuuure you do.

For the rest of my fellow Top Chef fans, what did you think of this season's Restaurant Wars? Did you think, like me, that the food was a little boring? I was hoping for something more daring and new. Judge Tom's reaction to most of the dishes was "cooked well" or just a "good" with a shoulder shrug that said "meh" (by the way, that's now an official word in the urban dictionary ... yes, I live to impart such valuable gems of knowledge upon you). Stefan's desserts really did seem to be the only foodie highlight of both sets of menus. That's all he needs, another ego boost. I can't believe Carla got away with two desserts that failed miserably. Not that Radhika was any better - trust me, I was tearing my hair out with her poor leadership and front-of-house skills. And let's not even get started on the Leah-Hosea soap opera! What I fail to understand is - do these people forget that every move they make is being filmed?! I'm no psychiatrist, but I think deep down these two wanted to get caught.
You know what makes me feel like a Top Chef? This simple spaghetti with red sauce dish. A handful of basic ingredients, and it results in the perfect pasta sauce for all seasons. And so versatile! I got this recipe from the food-loving Biology teacher over at The Teacher Learns to Cook, and I can't thank him enough for sharing this with the rest of the us. Check out his photos for this post. If you've got kids, this is definitely a winning dish. It's perfect for adults too, because of the spicy kick from the pepper flakes and the addictive saltiness of the parmesan. It easily serves 4-6 grown-ups, so call over your neighbors and have a pasta + Top Chef night!

Spaghetti With Simple Tomato Sauce (the 'twist' is in the way it's prepared)

1 35oz can of whole plum tomatoes (not plum-like), preferably San Marzano

3 oz extra virgin olive oil (the best you can find in your grocery store)
1/2 or 1 tsp of crushed red pepper flakes
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
8 large fresh basil leaves
Upto 1/2 tsp salt
1 cup grated fresh Parmigiano Reggiano (not the pre-grated stuff this time, sorry!)
1 lb spaghetti, cooked al dente in well-salted water
Garlic bread (optional, but sooooo desirable)

1. Heat the oil and the red pepper flakes over medium heat for 3-4 minutes.
2. Add the chopped garlic and fry for 1 to 2 minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant.
3. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Keep it simmering for 10-15 minutes.
4. Turn off the heat and stir in salt and fresh basil.
5. Puree the sauce with a handy immersion blender until smooth, for a good 5-8 mins. The sauce emulsifies, making it look and feel divinely creamy, even though not a drop of cream has touched it. This step is a must for me, because otherwise you have the oil separating from the tomato sauce.

6. Add in the cooked pasta, stir well and serve immediately with generous toppings of the freshly grated parmesan and big chucks of garlic bread to sop up that creamy, dreamy sauce.

(Variations: (1) Make your own meatballs, searing them off in a separate pan, then finish cooking them in the simmering sauce. Remember to take them out when you need to puree the sauce, then put them back in before adding the cooked pasta. (2) Marinate 1 lb of boneless chicken pieces, in bite size chunks. I use a little bit of balsamic/red wine vinegar with salt + pepper as my quick marinade. Then fry them in the same oil you are going to use for the red sauce. Once the chicken is cooked, take it out, and add it back once the sauce is pureed and ready).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Giving Out An Award On A Snow Day!

There are some things that I would venture outside to brave the freezing temperatures (that we've been having here in the Northeast recently) for. Visiting good friends is one of them. Going to Manhattan is another. So imagine my excitement when I knew that we were combining both yesterday! Yippeeeee! All in all we had a great time. There was lots of fluffy white snow to trudge through, belly laughs with friends, the communal sipping of hot tea, wonderful Manhattan views, our great hostess Asyah's scrumptious samosas (could you send me some more, Asyah? Pretty please?!), and her precious daughters to play with. It was relaxing yet stimulating at the same time. And there are very few things I find more blissful than walking outside during a proper snowfall - so serene, and quiet. And yes of course I stuck my tongue out to catch those snowflakes! You should've seen the size of those babies!

View of downtown Manhattan from Newport, NJ. The water is mostly frozen - those seagulls are standing on it!

The view from outside my window this morning. Hypnotic, no?!

All this has put me in such a great mood, that this is the perfect time for me to pass on the cute little award given to me by Trisha from The Zest. Here is what this award means:

This blog invests and believes in PROXIMITY - which is nearness in space, time and relationships! These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in prizes or self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers!
I firmly believe that the following super-bloggers should get this award:

  • Jennifer from Use Real Butter - because of her culinary and photography skills, her fierce personality, her adorable pup and the amazing place she calls home.
  • Lisa from Spicy Icecream - because her food photography inspires me every single day!
  • Meena from Hooked On Heat - for unknowingly introducing me to the wonderful world of food blogging, and she just happens to be from my hometown in Canada!