Monday, January 29, 2007

Pumpkin gives all – leaf, flower, fruit, seed

In some regions of the world, every part of certain animals killed for food is eaten. In parts of rural Eastern Europe, for instance, nothing from a pig is wasted. Apart from the meat, almost all organs are eaten.

Offal is an acquired taste, but how about vegetables that yield every part of them in every stage of their lifecycle? Hats off to them, for they surrender themselves totally to human consumption.

One such example is the humble pumpkin. In Bengal, every part (except the root) of the pumpkin plant and its fruit, including seeds, is eaten. (I learned only recently from a recipe that pumpkin seeds are eaten in America, too). In Bengal, the leaves are eaten as “shak,” which is a generic term for edible leaves cooked simply with few spices.

I have never been a big lover of pumpkin, except as a Halloween symbol. But one part of pumpkin that I really like is the flower. In fact, I like pumpkin flowers more than the fruit. The way Bengalis eat pumpkin flowers is to make fritters of them.

They make a batter of besan, or chickpea flour, seasoned with chilli powder and salt. For texture, a little bit of khaskhas, or poppy seeds, is added. Some cooks add some rice powder for extra crispness, but this is optional.

Here is the recipe:

Ingredients

10 fresh pumpkin flowers (only petals)
2/3 cup besan
½ teaspoon chilli powder (or paprika, if you prefer mild)
⅓ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon poppy seeds (available in Indian grocery stores)
⅓ cup water
Oil for deep-frying

Method

  1. Remove the calyx and the centers of flowers, keeping only the petals.
  2. Make a batter of all the ingredients, except the flowers.
  3. Heat oil.
  4. Dip each flower into batter, shaking off excess, and deep-fry in batches.
  5. Serve hot, with ketchup or mustard.

Serves 2-3

Try this, and let me (and others) know how it turned out. Until then, bon app├ętit.

Monday, January 22, 2007

From Bengal to Boston and beyond

This post is prompted by a reader comment. The anonymous reader says I seem to lack nationalistic pride in Indian cooking.

This blog is about cooking Bengali food, but it’s also about cooking in general, and, to me, cooking knows no boundaries of country or region. True love of food and cooking embraces many cuisines, for food, as an art, benefits from wide knowledge. A healthy curiosity about global cuisines is a hallmark of a good cook, I think.

Today, so many chefs are experimenting with world cuisine: They borrow techniques or ingredients from other cuisines to come up with their own special creations. See how appetizing exchange of culinary knowledge is?

In a later post, you will see how my long stay in America has helped a frail, 70-year-old Indian woman who has never set foot outside her country learn about American food in her home. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

In search of the classic marinara

In my last post, I mentioned marinara, one of the basic Italian pasta sauces. Spaghetti with marinara is a staple in many American homes.

I wanted to replicate that dining experience recently in my Calcutta home. I bought imported Italian spaghetti and fresh Indian tomatoes – I haven’t so far seen canned Italian tomatoes in Calcutta. And, I made the marinara from a recipe by acclaimed Italian chef Lidia Mattichhio Bastianich, but it wasn’t the same as I had tasted in America several years ago. The marinara ended up too dry and chunky; so much so that it didn’t quite mix with the spaghetti as other sauces do.

Here is my recipe for the classic marinara, as adapted from Chef Bastianich:

Ingredients

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1½ pounds fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
Salt, to taste
Crushed red pepper, to taste
5 fresh basil leaves, roughly torn (or ⅓ tsp dried basil)

Method

  1. In a medium-size, non-reactive saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Add the garlic and cook until lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
  3. Carefully add the tomatoes and their liquid (Because I didn’t have canned tomatoes, I tried to catch as much of the juice while processing them, using a strainer).
  4. Bring to a boil and season lightly with salt and crushed red pepper.
  5. Reduce the heat to a simmer, breaking up the tomatoes with a whisk as they cook, until the sauce is chunky and thick, about 20 minutes.
  6. Stir in the basil about 5 minutes before the sauce is finished (I cheated here – I used dry basil.)
  7. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.


After I finished step 7, I had an extremely chunky and dry sauce. It tasted fine. It had the nutty flavor of browned garlic and of the blend of tomato, basil and olive oil. I realize that the sauce is expected to be chunky, but, as I said earlier, my creation was too dry to mix with the pasta well.

What went wrong? Was there something inherently wrong with the recipe? Is 20 minutes too long for the simmer? I do know from Internet research that some chefs use tomato puree instead of, or in addition to, chopped tomatoes. Post your comments.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Winter’s bounty a delight in India

At no other time does God’s hand in what we get to eat seem more apparent in India than in the winter. This is the season of plenty. This is the season when vegetables are freshest and juiciest – and cheapest. When I lived in America, I used to shop for vegetables in supermarkets, also called grocery stores. Every vegetable seemed available all year round.

But, in India, certain vegetables, until a few years ago, appeared only in winter – tomato, cauliflower and green pea, for instance. Now, thanks to hybrid varieties and advanced farming, some of these vegetables are available all year round.

In any case, though, never are they cheaper and prettier than in the winter. I go grocery-shopping in Central Calcutta on Saturday mornings. Although, there are now several supermarket-style grocery stores in Calcutta, they don’t match the freshness of produce found at farmer’s market-style vegetable “stalls,” which are merely heaps on emptied jute bags laid on the ground. The vegetables make the street come alive with bright colors.

I buy from a sabziwala -- or vendor -- I have known for the past several years. He brings his fare from rural Bengal. The eggplants he sells are huge and purple or green with red streaks. Both varieties are wonderful – soft and mildly sweet, never astringent. In the winter, especially, they shine in the morning sun in all their purple or green glory. The cauliflowers are white, firm and hefty. And, the tomatoes blush in their scarlet best. The desi, or indigenous, variety is orange, and has notches running down – they aren’t perfectly round and beautiful, but, as Ashok, my sabziwala tells me, they are juicier. True, they are. Once I tried to make the classic marinara sauce with them. That’s another story; I reserve it for the next post. Until then, dear reader, I have a couple of questions for you. If you live outside South Asia, are certain vegetables seasonal in your country? Do you buy vegetables from supermarkets or farmer’s market-style vendors?

Monday, January 01, 2007

New year resolution

Today is New Year’s Day. Wish you all a happy and appetizing New Year.

New Year is a time for eating, drinking – and resolutions. Last night, as the year drew to a close, I made one: to write and keep this blog updated. As the clock struck midnight and crackers went off in my neighborhood, I had a pen in hand and a notebook under it.

True, I had a drink by my side, but that was merely a glass of white wine, and I was writing, all by myself, because, as family lore has it, you would be doing all year long what you would do on the first day of the year.

I wrote in my journal: “This year, let the beginning be calm and solitary … Let 2007 be one long night of writing …”

So, keep coming back. And, above all, post comments.