What to Cook: Distressed over Dinner

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

Every now and then I emails from readers requesting me for a particular recipe. Some I’m quite familiar with and readily try and post about. Then are those requests of dishes that for the life of me, I had no idea even existed. I especially love these email where I get a chance to learn about something new. And then there are a few mails wherein I’m asked to help plan a party, with a fully designed menu. Now these are mails that I especially enjoy! That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate those lovely thank you notes I get from fabulous readers who’ve tried my recipes and taken the time to send me feedback. You all have a special place in my heart, so keep ‘em coming folks! And just in case you have this silly notion that I don’t value what you have to say since I haven’t responded to your email/comment, then please don’t think that way. All I can say is that it’s hard for me to juggle all the things I tend to do at the same time. Most times I have more on my plate than I can conviniently handle, due to which I have to miss out on responding to your lovely words.Now, getting back to those emails on menu planning, yes, I just love those! Part of the excitement must come from my obessively complusive behaviour to always host the perfect party, and the rest I’m sure derives itself from my need to entertain on a regular basis. Yes, as Hubby Dear has time and again stated, I have a disease. And the only way to live with it is to accept the fact that I need to have frends and family over on a regular basis who I can feed and smother with goodies from my kitchen.

One such request arrived a few days ago from a regular reader of mine. This young lady always has something smart to discuss on food, and I’ve always enjoyed the conversations that we cultivated through our web correspondence. So I was highly surprised to see this frantic email from her sitting in my inbox:

Dear Meena,

Me and my girlfriends get together every month for our Book Club Meeting. Each month, the selected host designs a meal inspired by the book we are currently reading. This month, the task of hosting the dinner has come on me. We have been reading Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss, and I’d really love to serve a simple meal of everyday Indian food that you would serve to family and friends on a regular basis. While I’m used to making the customary party food like Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka, this time I wanted to go for something more wholesome and comforting. I’ve promised the girls a meal they’ll remember forever and now I’m practically kicking myself for doing that. The meeting is in a week’s time, and I have no clue where to begin. HELP!

- Distressed over Dinner

 

Dear Distressed over Dinner,

I know sometimes cooking a simple meal for friends may seem appalling. No matter how hard we try, we always seem to go a bit overboard when entertaining our dearest friends. Maybe it’s the desire to impress them and keep them coming for more. Or maybe it’s our need to show a little flair and style that’s easily missed in our everyday meals. But that surely doesn’t mean that we have to torture ourselves over the stove, cooking a 3-course meal. Sometimes, the simplest food can also be the best and most appreciated. I’ve designed for you a menu which I think would simply floor your guests. Each dish is simple to prepare and a delight to eat. Trust me, lay all this out on the table and watch them lick their fingers. And I promise, the next time you host a party, they’ll surely want to be a part of it.

- Meena

The menu I’ve designed for this Book Club Meeting consists some of the classic favourites of every Indian home. The preparation methods are simple, cooking times are quick, and most if not all of them can easily be done a few days ahead of time. I’d suggest leaving the rice for the very last minute to ensure a wonderful aroma to fill your home, but of course, you could always have it ready before hand and re-heat in the microwave.

There you go DD, hope your friends will love this one! I would definitely go very light on appetizers, maybe just chips and dips, since you’ll want to save enough of space for the main meal. For dessert I’d suggest a tub of traditional Indian ice cream called Kulfi, which can be easily picked up at any Indian grocery store, and from what I recently noticed, many of our regular ones as well.

Anyone else out there need help planning a fabulous Indo-inspired meal? Well then, what are you waiting for, drop me a line!

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Cooking with Bollywood…

Hot & Sour Fish Curry

As I sat through my umpteenth screening of the esteemed love triangle, I felt a sudden pang hit me. No, I could swear it wasn’t butterflies in my stomach as Shahrukh and Kajol romanced around trees. It was something much greater, much more dignified. A quick glance at the clock, and my fears were confirmed. Yes, hunger pangs, that’s what they were! But I was too into the better half of the movie to trot into the kitchen and make myself a bite. Then, like any miracle that never fails to take your breath away, I heard the all-too-famous tune crop up in the background. Yes! The two love birds were about to break into a song-and-dance number. Thank goodness for good ‘ol Bollywood movies where love is not love until the fat lady (or in Bollywood’s case, anyone) sings!

Okay then, so I had myself five minutes to fix me up a meal or worse yet, work through one, considering how long it would take the two to declare their love through sweet melody. With only a few minutes to spare, I had to pace myself well. Whatever I was going to do had to be fast, and with the use of as limited ingredients as possible. A quick peek into my fridge and I knew just what I wanted! It was perfect. I was sure I could wing it. I would do the chopping as the fish sat in a quick marinade. Then I would let it rest and do it’s own thing until the next song, which as per my calculation, should come up in the next ten minutes. Perfect. Just perfect.

Speaking of perfection, this Malay-inspired fish curry is definitely one of my favourites. So much so, that it was sure to be on the menu when ever I would come home for the holidays during my days in college. With just a few ingredients, and even lesser of an effort, it’s amazing how wonderfully delicious this dish is. Trust me, you’ll want to make extra since no one, and I mean NO ONE, can resist asking for seconds!

Coming back to the meal at stake, just as expected, I was about to sprint back into the kitchen after 10 minutes and continue with the cooking process. Another movie break while it simmered, and by the time Shahrukh broke into another jig, I served myself a big bowl. Now, who ever said multi-tasking was hard to achieve, definitely never tried it my way!

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For the love of Food: Edible Cigars

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

For as long as I can remember, I have always been a muncher. You know, the kinds who can nosh through meal times over little bites of delicious finger food. Growing up in a home where tea-time was treated with the greatest pleasure must have had something to do with it, I’m sure. I clearly remember warm summer afternoons, or even cold winter ones for that matter, where we would often substitute our dinner for a platter of the most guilt-ridden snacks. Lovely fritters deep fried till crisp and drowned in a tangy chutney, smokey char-grilled tikkas and kebabs, scrumptious sandwiches with the most amazing toppings, and of course, my personal favourites of deliciously spiced street foods.As I grew older, my love for noshing grew wider, incorporating in it varied flavours, from every cuisine I ever had a go at. Friday nights for me meant junk night – wherein, strictly avoiding a proper 3-course meal for dinner, I would instead opt for a plateful of wings, fries, or on many occasions, samosas. It was the only way I knew how to have a Friday night meal. Anything else seemed totally hideous.

When I first met Hubby Dear, my excitement knew no bounds to find that like me, he too grew up in a household where good food, and especially noshing was of high priority. I’ve heard of many stories from friends on how marriage makes one change ones habits and adapt to the other’s way of life. For me, it was a matter of simply combining the two. It wasn’t hard for me to fuse my love for all things spicy with Hubby Dear’s undying addiction to all things edible. Truly, matches are made in Heaven, but I’d like to believe that ours was cooked up in a 5-star kitchen filled with all things a culinary goddess could only dream of having.

And while our friends and family could happily attest to how different we are from each other, our Friday nights would easily prove otherwise. For in a home where one finds it hard to understand how the other can own a few dozen purses, and still find the need for more, the large platter filled with bite-size crispy treats is always something the two will always look forward to.

On the very note of food, I’m glad to announce that for those living in the GTA area, you will now be able to get my Indian 101 series right at your doorstep. Yes, as crazy and wonderful as it sounds, I now have my own column in the Mississauga News’ monthly food supplement, Nosh. Unfortunately, for those of you eagerly waiting for my next installment on the series, I apologise for the delay. While I already have the next part fully planned out, I will have to restrict myself from putting it up here until it gets published in my column. But fear not, just a few more weeks, and I’ll be back with the next part. I sincerely thank all of you wonderful readers without whose support and encouragement, my work would not have gotten the recognition it has. And for those of you far away and not able to subscribe to the paper, don’t feel left out. The series will surely continue on this site as well. Thank you all again, and happy eating!

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Rain, Rain go Away…

Spiced Lamb Pilaf
Spiced Lamb Pilaf

With the snow finally melted all around me and the cold wave falling to a bearable low, you would think that I’m finally at peace with the weather. But I can only disagree ever so slightly. Now, I’m not much of a difficult person to please, except of course that one particular time when… Ohh, let’s not get into that now, shall we! Sometimes I wonder if change in preferences defines the epitome of growing older. Well, in many ways, I’m quite sure it does. As I write this, calmly seated at my desk overlooking the big windows in my study, I can’t help but feel nostalgia creep up as I watch the rain pour down.My fondest memories of rain is of this one particular season, when as a rebelious adolescent, I snuck out of my Mom’s watchful eyes, and armed with a bright pink umbrella, tip-toed into our terrace. Terraces are a wonderful gift of many classic Indian houses. With the open space perfect for sun drying large bulks of laundry, it’s also a wonderful go-to for those lovely late night parties with an open feel. Children, and adults alike can easily be spotted lazying on cool mats, soaking in the warm sun on fresh spring and summer days. A boon, those open terraces, especialy for people like me who love to escape with a bright pink umbrella on a rainy day, if only to dance! And dance did I!

That day brings with it the fond memories of me being soaked despite the umbrella, of Mom catching me doing my jig in the rain and pulling me back into the warmth of our living room, and especially of the aromatic comfort food laid out on the dining table ready to be gorged on.

It’s funny how every fond memory I have of my childhood always has some connection to food. But what’s even more surprising is my craving for particular food at any given time. And while I write this post, looking out the window at the rain washing whatever little is left of the snw on the ground,  I can’t help but feel the warmth embrace me through the aroma coming from my kitchen. Yes, it’s almost lunch time, and I hear my plate calling.

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Sisterhood of the Travelling Recipes: Coconut Chicken Curry

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

The year I turned 15, my Mom decided it was time I learnt the basics of cooking. If nothing else, she figured I could at least make myself breakfast without having to yell for her when I’m hungry. Starting with the classic rule to making the perfect hard boiled egg – where the yolk is firm, yet still melts at the touch of your tongue, I gradually moved on to more complicated things, like making perfect plain boiled rice – not mushy, not hard, but just right.During the years since, I’ve played around with many of Mom’s classic favourites. Food she would only let us indulge in on special occasions, or when she was feeling slightly more generous. Everytime I experimented with one of her classics, trying my best to add my own touch to it, I would keep note of the alterations I made. The next time we spoke, I would tell her of my experiments, only to get more tips on what else could have been altered and in what way. I would then go back into my kitchen and play around some more until I had it perfect to my taste. It would taste nothing like hers, but it wouldn’t be bad either. If I like it enough, I make it a part of my own collection – a stash of my tried and tested favourites that I always turn to when I want to please those I intend to feed.

Over the years, many of these recipes have featured over and over again at my dinner parties. Some, for the same group of people who always request it when they come over. With time, I’ve shared many of these with close friends, who succeeded in bribing me enough to persuade me to part with my secrets. Likewise, they never fail to let me know when they try it out, and especially when they’ve experimented and made changes to it, only to come up with something better suited to their tastes. As the recipes move around, being part of many alterations and tests, one thing always remains the same. It’s the circle we share, a cult of kinds, membered by those who love nothing more than a plate of good food and won’t stop till they get it. And so, the sisterhood grows.

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One-pot Wonders

Coconut Fish Curry
Coconut Fish Curry

Even though I would like to think of myself as a highly organized person, the fact doesn’t seem to hold true in every aspect of my life. No matter how many times I update my to-do list, or how many post-its I leave around every unexpected corner in my home, I still have to deal with unpaid bills, unanswered emails, and missed deadlines. However, one area where I always seem to excel as someone who would have ‘organization’ as their middle name, would be in making sure my fridge, freezer and pantry are well stocked. This would surely have something to do with the fact that I may be a compulsive list maker. Yes, I love making lists. In fact, I make so many lists within the span of one day that I sometimes even have to make a list of the lists I’ve made. Confusing? Tell me about it!

Though I may not seem to be most successful in crossing out everything on my day’s schedule, my grocery list is one that can be easily counted on. I always have a freezer stocked with a few pounds of chicken, a huge bag of fries and a couple of packets of frozen veggies. My fridge never runs out of eggs, bread and milk, and not mention the staples like veggies and fruits. And my pantry, oh what can I tell you about my pantry, except that if ever we were locked in our house with no way to getting out whatsoever, I could easily survive with three other people for an entire week, with a couple more days added to it! Yes, my husband does comment on the size of my pantry, but hardly ever do I see him complain when I dish out a perfect meal after he refuses to head to the grocery store in the midst of a huge snow storm!

When it comes to wanting a wholesome, no-fuss, quick and easy meal, I always turn to my pantry for comfort. Like the long lost friend who always brings a smile to your face and warm joy to your heart even after seeing them after what seems like ages, my pantry serves me well. I always make sure I have enough of rice, flour, and a few different kinds of pasta to serve me when I call for them. I also stock on various sauces, lentils and beans. And it’s in times like these where I can happily fall back on my tried and tested stack of recipes. Most of them can be made within a few minutes with ingredients entirely coming from pantry staples, while a few may need a little help form something fresh or something frozen.

Speaking of frozen, I like to have a pack or two of some of my favourite seafood always on hand, and fish is definitely one of them. I like buying them pre-cleaned and pre-cut, which then only leaves them the need to defrost and cooked to my liking. Take for example this curry. It’s simple and quick, with only a handful of ingredients. And if that’s not good enough, it’s all made in one pot. Now what could be better than a one-pot meal left to simmer by itself while you tend to a few emails?

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Conquering Demons: Ginger-Chilli Shrimp

Recipe for Ginger-Chilli Shrimp taken from www.hookedonheat.com

When it comes to cooking, I hardly ever follow a recipe. I often give it a quick read, making a mental note of the spices, and then just play by instinct. But baking, now that’s a whole different post altogether! Coming back to cooking, apart from my daily ritual of pouring through endless mounds of paper scattered all over my floor, I also make time to decide what would be on the day’s menu. Some days, I plan in advance, like say the night before, while most other days, I go by my mood.

Take today for instance, I woke up craving for shrimp. While I don’t often cook seafood, I do however, have tons of recipe ideas for them. And today was just the day to try one out, I thought. As I sipped my morning cuppa and went through my regular rounds of email, I heard a little voice in my head – “Ginger… Chili… Shrimp…”! As I read an email from a fabulous lady requesting me to review her latest cookbook, I heard it again – “Ginger… Chili… Shrimp…”! Half an hour later, drooling over an episode of Ina’s where she made the most delicious looking lemon loaf, there it was again – “Ginger… Chili… Shrimp…”! By the time it was mid-morning, I could take it no longer and set off to cook myself some lunch – “Ginger… Chili… Shrimp…”! There it was again!

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Quite the Contrary

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

If I told you that I whip up amazingly gourmet meals at the drop of a hat for my everyday dinners, that I’d have to be lying. Truth be told, I seldom ever cook something that would have me whisking away for hours on end. Except of course, when I have company coming! Now that’s a whole different story altogether. Even then, I’m not spending all those hours on one single dish, but instead, I’m actually going nuts fussing over a minimum of five main courses. Yes, I get like that while entertaining. But the diligent licking of everyone’s fingertips and perplexed weight-watching souls worrying over whether to go in for seconds (thirds, actually) more than makes up for all the effort.

When it comes to feeding family, I like to go more easy on myself. It’s not that I don’t enjoy feeding loved ones with rich palate pleasing favourites, but I’d rather spend my time with them enjoying simple, yet equally delightful food made in minutes. A recent email from one of my readers posed a question I have been subjected to many a times. This compelled me to come all out talk about my regular at-home meals. She writes,

All your recipes appear as if they leaped out of glossy magazines. While many them are quite easy to follow, it’s hard to imagine myself cooking lavish meals every night. Do you really cook all these wonderful looking food on a daily basis?

Well, dear reader, all I can say is yes. Well almost. You see, most of my recipes, no matter how elegantly sounding, are actually very simple and wholesome; and ones that I turn to on a weekly basis. While it may seem daunting to someone not so in tune with Indian cuisine, it’s not at all that hard. Most dishes can be made in a matter of minutes, whereas others, that seem to call for bucketfuls of spices, may just take a tad bit more time. But yes, sometimes even an adventurous cook like myself, wants to take a break and reach out to the nearest pack of instant noodles. And it’s often in times like these that I faithfully turn to my repertoire of quick fixes. And these, I assure you dear reader, can be whipped up real quick. Literally in minutes!

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Domesticating the Dilemma: Dahiwali Chicken Curry

Recipe for Dahiwali Chicken Curry taken from www.hookedonheat.com

When it comes to simple everyday meals, I find it hard to succumb myself to the traditional Indian daily routine of Dal-Sabzi, translated, simply meaning a lentil and vegetable preparation. A simple Indian lunch would mainly consist of a lentil and a side of some vegetable, cooked in different variations everyday. These are then relished with warm rotis, rice, a dollop of pickle, and some fresh yogurt. demanding palate.

Often, when I talk to people on the topic of curries, the most common concern I get confronted with is the amount of time, and not to mention effort that comes with it. I for one, beg to differ. For me, a curry is nothing but a smooth blend of flavours brought together to highlight a star ingredient. True, you can spend hours toasting, pounding, and grinding spices to form the smoothest of pastes; you can spend days marinating and chopping to achieve the most delicate blend possible; and you can also lose yourself in a cloud of spices and herbs that would fill your kitchen and your home with an aroma almost so ambrosial, you would think you woke up in a foreign land. But then again, you could do what I do on days when all I have at my disposal are a few measly minutes at the brink of lunch-time with a rumbling tummy to cater to.

As I see it, curries are not something one should be afraid of. Neither are they something to look at with such cynicism or vengeance. A curry is a curry, and like any other can be easily tamed to suit ones tastes and preferences. I like mine to be quick and robust with flavour, and I don’t stop till I find my way with it. Jump to the Recipe »



When in doubt…

Pic taken from www.hookedonheat.com, visit site for recipe details.

… I make stew!

There are only so many days in the dreaded Canadian winter when the white blanket of snow is lovingly caressed by the intense warmth of the sun’s rays. It is often on days like these, which if accidentally fall on a weekend like today, that all I wish to do is have endless cups of hot cocoa and surround myself with the many sections of the bulky weekend newspaper. It is also on days like these, where I bitterly sulk over Hubby Dear’s absence due to his frequent business trips. And that too just a day after returning from our fabulous vacation filled with sun, sand and laughter. Need I add how much I miss him already? And it’s just been a measly few hours since we bid adieu!

While my appetite tends to take a downward stroll while Hubby Dear is away, I still can’t quite refrain from spending most of my time in my kitchen. The time spent in prepping, visualizing and finally creating the meal is what enables me to unwind and reflect on my thoughts. I love listening to the sharp crunches from chopping an onion, the sizzling of chopped garlic in hot oil, or the whistles of the pressure cooker; each of which can be easily substituted for any form of melody in my mind.

By allowing myself to sleep in today, and waking up to a wonderfully warm sunny afternoon, the idea of a lunch that would summon me to stand over a hot stove didn’t quite make an inviting prospect. But good food on a day like this was something I was desperately craving for. So I took the slow and easy way out. The thought of having my lunch slowly simmer on the stove was tempting enough to compel me to get my lazy self into the kitchen and prep for it. And that’s all I needed to do. The rest as they say, will take care of itself!

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