Friday, February 29, 2008

Beyond borders: Couscous from Morocco

As I was walking towards the computer ready to type this recipe out, I heard an enthusiastic cook on the TV saying over a bean salad "one of the best ways to enjoy cultures is through food". I can't agree more with that unknown cook, the ingredients used, the methods of cooking and the way in which the food is served all hint at unique cultural traits.

Couscous is a very versatile semolina product, made by coarsely grinding the semolina wheat and then coating it with fine wheat powder. This cereal is the staple food of North africa, and can be used in many ways, as a main dish served with meat or vegetable sauce or as a dessert. It goes back to the Berber people, and has been mentioned in a 13th century cookbook as a recipe known all over the world. I first came across this dish at a Moroccon friend's place. She served it with a full-flavored meat sauce on a beautiful large platter, and six of us gathered around the platter and ate from the same platter with our hands moving over the food in harmony.Even more than the fluffiness of the grain or the soft buttery vegetables in the sauce, it was that act of eating out of the same dish that fascinated me. Eating from a single plate is very common in the African and middle-eastern cultures irrespective of relegion even to this day, with the entire family gathering around the large platter for the main meals everyday. I was aware of this custom in islamic culture, and can recollect seeing old photos of wedding feasts, called supras, from back home in India where biriyani is served in large platters and groups of people sit around each dish and eat from it. In my country we have lost this tradition, and coming from a place where food touched by someone's hand is considered as unfit to be eaten, I did feel hesitant to dig into the food with all the hands moving around it. Midway through the meal, I noticed how all the butternut squash pieces in the sauce had silently walked over to my side of the dish after I mentioned that I loved its buttery taste, and that undid all my self-conciousness.

couscous served in a pretty Moroccon platter

Meat or chicken and vegetables are stewed in a large pot over which the couscous is placed to steam absorbing the flavour from the sauce. To get the grains fluffy , it is taken out of the steamer twice, cooled down, rubbed with oil and water and then placed back on the steamer. Precooked couscous which requires considerably less time is available in most of the middle eastern and meditteranean markets in the US. I used my keralawala steamer meant for adas and idiyappams, using the base which is meant to boil water in as the sauce pot.

Shall we try?

couscous: 3 cups
one whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces
tomato: 5
carrot: 4
butternut squash: half of a squash
zucchini: 2
quarter of a cabbage
turnip : 2
parsley, chopped : 1 cup
cilantro, chopped : 1/2 cup
olive oil : 1/2 cup +2T
turmeric: 1/4 tsp
cinnamon powder: 1T
freshly ground black pepper: 2 tsp
ghee: 2T
grated fresh ginger: 2 tsp
Brown the chicken pieces in a pan and set aside. (Alternatively, you can omit this and broil the chicken in the end to give them that roasted look). Chop the onions into large pieces. Crush 4 tomatoes , and cut the remaining one into two halves. Cut the zucchini , squash, carrots and turnips into halves.

In the bottom part of the steamer, mix together the browned chicken pieces, onions, crushed tomatoes, grated ginger, parsley, cilantro, turmeric powder, pepper powder, cinnamon powder, salt, 1 table spoon ghee, 1/2 cup of olive oil, and salt. Place the pot on the stove and cook uncovered.Meanwhile , in a large tray mix couscous with half a cup of cold water and a table spoon of olive oil. Work up the moisture thoroughly into the couscous with your hand. Arrange the top part of the steamer on the sauce pot, and place all the couscous in the top part. Let it cook uncovered till you see a steady steam coming out through the couscous- about 15 to twenty minutes. Give the couscous a stir just once ir twice during the steaming.

Now remove the couscous into the tray and quickly sprinkle about half a cup of cold water and salt and mix well with your hand. Let it cool down for a few minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables to the sauce. Mix one table spoon of olive oil into the couscous and place it back over the sauce pot for the second steaming. Cook for another fifteen minutes.

In the serving platter, layer the couscous evenly.Then pour half of the liquid over it.Place the chicken pieces in the centre, and the vegetables around the chicken. Pour the remaning liquid from the sauce into a bowl and serve along with the couscous. This makes around four generous serving. Live, give and love!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Red-red pineapple chicken

I like to imagine the hot oil whispering to the red chilly powder " I would like to do to you what spring does to the cherry trees" and the chilly powder blushing to a deeper red while I cook this curry, well atleast on days I can afford the luxury of thinking of Neruda and all while trying to keep pace with a fast growing 10 month old. The rest of the days I make this curry because it is bold enough to make an appealing meal paired with roti or rice with no other sides, and also because it's just easy. There's a wee little too much oil used in this curry, and that's where it gets it lipsmacking taste.You can use fresh tomatos instead of the paste, but it's the tomato paste along with chilly powder sauteed in oil that gives the dish the deep red color.And with the tiny bursts of sweetness from pineapple bits every now and then in the fiery curry, you might be inspired to create poetry of your own.

chicken breast, cut into small pices: 1 lb
a quarter of an onion, sliced
ginger-garlic paste : 1 tsp
red chilly powder: 2 heaped tsp
tomato paste: 3 tsp
oil: around 5T
cilantro, chopped: 1/4 cup
pineapple cut into tiny pieces: 1T

Wash and drain the chicken. Heat oil , and add the red chilly powder and salt, and let the chilly powder cook until it gives out a deep red colour, this should take around 45 seconds to a minute. Keep stirring to prevent the powder from burning. Add the onion, ginger and garlic paste and saute till it is golden brown. Now add the tomato paste, cilantro and chicken , mix well, cover and cook on low heat until the chicken is done. Make sure you stir it now and then to avoid burning.Once the chicken is done, add the pineapple pieces , mix and serve.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tuna balls stuffed with cheddar cheese

Like tuna? Looking for an easy appetizer? Here's something that might work for you. Deep fried tuna balls with fresh herbs and a touch of golden cheddar cheese in the centre, and when arranged on your favourite platter with a dipping sauce, they are a visual treat too. Perfect to win over your guests right away. The hardest part of these tiny balls is in shaping and stuffing the balls so you can roll the balls a day or two ahead and dip and fry them on the day of the party. I use cheddar cheese because i love it, and also because i love it and so on. Actually, since very little cheese is used as stuffing a strong tasting cheese is needed to stand out amidst the taste of herbs. You can also choose to do away with the cheese stuffing and simply have tuna balls.

One six ounce can of tuna
green chilli: 2
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
an inch piece of ginger
1 egg white, lightly beaten
half a cup of bread crumbs or more.
1 slice of cheddar cheese
shape, stuff, roll, dip- having fun
Grind together all the ingredients except the tuna, and then add the tuna and pulse it three or four times. Now for the shaping and stuffing. Cutting the cheese into tiny cubes will make them easier to work with. Take a lime sized amount of tuna mix and shape into a small circle on your hand, place the cheese bits on the center and fold over from all sides covering the cheese completely. Gently shape into a ball, dip in the egg white and then coat the crumbs all over the ball. Deep fry and serve with your favourite dip. One can of tuna will give you roughly about 8 to 9 stuffed balls and 10 to 11 tuna balls without stuffing.

Tuna balls with rava coating

I replaced the bread crumbs with rava or sooji once just for the heck of it. The result was a very crisp coating. Rava doesn't do a good job of covering up the tuna balls well and oil swept into almost all of the balls. Not a pretty sight, the coating however was crisper and stayed so for a longer time than the bread crumbs coating. My favourite? If you plan to eat them within an hour or so definitely go for bread crumbs. If you want them to stay crisp for a longer time and don't mind the extra oil sweeping into the fish try the rava coating. Either way, these tiny balls are delightful.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Mango-avocado chutney

Avocado brings in its richness, while raw mango gives it its sourness, jalapeno and cilantro livens things up while small onion adds a zing.Guacamole with raw-mango in it or chutney with avocado in it- choose any label you want for this tangy mix of food cultures, you might find yourself making it often. Pair it with upma or crisp dosa and it becomes a creamy rich chutney, dip a chip into it and it turns into an interesting guacamole and to top it all it is just so easy to make.
Blend to a fine paste half of a firm raw mango after peeling off the skin , half of an avocado , half of an jalapeno pepper, an inch piece of ginger , one small onion , 1/4 cup chopped cilantro , a squeeze of lime and salt . Enjoy.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Semiya Biriyani

Thin strands of vermicelli delicately curling over tender chicken pieces and sending up wafts of spices- does that interest you? Try semiya biriyani as a snack or as a meal. This must be the most loved snack in our home, it marked all our special days, and turned many ordinary days into special ones.

Thin roasted vermicelli : 200 grams
Chicken breast halves, cut into fairly thin strips: 4
Onion, sliced: 1
Tomato, cubed : 1
Green chilli, crushed: 4 medium seized
Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tsp
Chilly powder: 1 tsp
corriander powder: 2 tsp
turmeric powder: 1/4 tsp
garam masala powder: 1/2 tsp
cinnamon: 1 inch stick
clove: 3
cardamom: 1
cilantro, chopped: 2T
oil: 3T
ghee: 2 tsp W
Water : 1 cup

Heat oil in a large pot, add onions, crushed green chillies, ginger-garlic paste and saute till the onions are transparent.Add all the powdered spices, mix well and fry them up till they give you all their flavors. In goes the chopped tomato, chicken strips, and salt and cook till the chicken is done. Pour a little hot water if needed.

Meanwhile heat the ghee in a thick pan or kadai and add the cinnamon, cardamom and cloves to it. Pour a cup of water and when it gets to boil add the vermicelli one handful at a time stirring carefully to prevent the vermicelli from getting too mushy. Once its cooked gently stir in the vermicelli to the chicken masala and garnish with cilantro and serve hot.

You can spread out the cooked vermicelli on a tray and let it cool for a while before adding to the masala. This helps them from getting too mashed up.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Mellow yellow curry : Pumpkin in yogurt curry

The basic mooru kaachiyathu recipe goes like this. Beat the yogurt well and keep aside. Make a tadka of a sliceof onion, one clove of garlic sliced, jeera, one or two dry red chillies, curry leaves, a pinch of turmeric. Add the tadka to the beaten yogurt with a little salt and mix. Alternatively you can pour the yogurt into the tadka while it is cooking, and heat up the yogurt . Make sure you reduce the heat to low before adding the yogurt to the pot to prevent the yogurt from curdling. Today, I tried pumpkin with this basic curry and was surprised by the result. The mild sweetness of pumpkin really goes well with the sour yogurt, and coupled with a spicy eggplant curry, the meal was a treat for the tastebuds.
For pumpkin mooru kaachiyathu : cut the pumpkin into small pieces and boil in just enough water to cover the pieces,with a crushed green chilli and a pinch of turmeric. Make a tadka as above and pour into the pumpkin. Then add the yogurt too and mix well. A sweet-sour seesaw for your tongue is ready.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Moong bean with raw plantain

This is a thick curry , which usually plays the side role on our lunch plates back home, with a thinner fish, dal or yougurt based curry as the lead star. Nothing fancy about this wholesome curry, be it in the ingredients or in the cooking. I think 'rustic' would be an apt word to describe it.

One raw plantain, cubed
1/4 cup moon beans , soaked for half an hour
Shredded coconut, 2 T
2 green chillies
Jeera , 1/4 tsp
Garlic , 1 clove

Put the plantains and moong beans in a pressure cooker and pour enough water just to cover them(soaking the dal is not necessary, but it makes the dal a whole lot softer). Pressure cook on medium to high heat until two whistles and then cook on low heat for 15 minutes. Grind coconut, chillies, jeera and garlic coarsely, and add to the cooked dal and plantain with enough salt, and bring it to a boil. There, your very rustic plantain-dal curry is ready.

If you are a fish-fanatic like me, you can add some small fishto this curry. Back home, my mom usually adds cuttle fish or sardines, and it simply lifts up the curry to another level. Clean up the fish and place it on top of the plantain-dal in the cooker and cook as explained above. After cooking, carefully take out the fish and remove the flesh from the bones , discard the bones and mash up the fish into the mixture nicely. I used canned sardines this time to cut off the picking fish part. All you have to do is to mash the canned sardines with a fork and add to the cooked curry .

Sunday, February 03, 2008

What is Indian curry leaf doing in Chinese Chilli Chicken?

Curry leaf and Chinese- I know the words by themselves look odd when put next to each other in a sentence. But seriously, how long can you stick to a recipe without adding something of your own to the dish? My mother's version of chilli chicken has plenty of curry leaves swimming in the gravy, and yes, these aromatic leaves make the curry all the more exciting.

12 small pieces of chicken
One large onion, chopped
Green chillis, 5 or6 , slit lengthwise
5 or 6 plumb cloves of garlic , sliced
an inch piece of ginger, minced
curry leaf, 2 sprigs
chopped spring onions, 1 T
freshly crushed black pepper, 1 tsp
soy sauce , 2 or 3 t
corn flour mixed in a little cold water, 2 tsp

Let's get to the stove now.
Place the chicken pieces in a pot, and add enough water to cover. Add two tablespoons of soy sauce , cover and cook until the chicken is just done. Take out the chicken pieces from the liquid , and reserve the liquid. Heat oil in a kadai or wok, add the chicken pieces (be careful, the water in the chicken and hot oil together will give you some drama here) and let them brown nicely. Remove the chicken from the wok, and add the garlic and ginger. Once the garlic turns soft, add the green chillies , onions and curry leaves,and cook on high heat. Once the onions and chillies start to wilt , add the spring onions and pepper powder. Bring the browned chicken pieces back to the wok, stir fry for a minute or two and then pour the liquid. Once it starts to boil, reduce heat to medium pour the cornflour mix and let it cook until the gravy is thickened. This not-so-chinese curry goes well with fried rice and plain rice and even roti.