Oct 26, 2009

Hindi Bindi Club and delayed kheer

Towards the end of Monica Pradhan’s The Hindi-Bindi Club, Meenal Deshpande shows her daughter Kiran her list of ‘Things I want to do before I die’. One of the things on the list is her wish to write a novel. Her daughter requests her not to write a “Life’s-a-Bitch-and-Then-You-Die” novel. Meenal assures her daughter she will write a story that’s ultimately uplifting, about survivors of hardships and of resilience of the human spirit.

Pradhan attempts to write just such a novel and it is easy to see where she draws her inspiration from -- The Joy Luck Club and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. But it is fair to say these books were just inspirations and Pradhan thankfully tries to make the story her own or about the three set of mothers and daughters.

The story of the six women is told in first person and first half of the book draws the reader into their personal lives in a very reality-TV-like way. And even though they are from the same country, the cultural diversity of the three (Bengali, Maharashtrian and Punjabi) is well narrated and explained for the non-Indian reader. But then, like the average reality show, these stories too start to falter, stumble and fall apart at the seams; especially, that of Saroj and her daughter Preity and Uma and her daughter Rani. It is not hard to see why.

When you are attempting to voice six strong women and their mother-daughter bond, not to mention their past and present and future, it can become daunting not to mention challenging. Ms. Pradhan’s easy way out was to chop the stories just when they got interesting.

For example, suddenly out of nowhere we find out Saroj is having an extramarital affair with her old flame. Except for her husband’s less than satisfying performance in bed, we get no hint of why, when or how she started her affair.

We know everything about her daughter Preity’s first love affair and her desire to find closure in the face of an abruptly ended affair. But the built up is deflated just as suddenly with a hand delivered letter and a few tears.

Recipe for how plain vegeis are transformed into delicous side dishes 

Uma’s estrangement from her father and her special bond with her daughter is poignant and touching. Her attempt to translate her mother’s diaries gives us a glimpse into the archaic customs and prejudices of Indian families but it is just that, a glimpse. I would have loved to read more translations of her mother’s diaries and how it helped her decipher her daughter’s asthma as just misaligned chakras.

Her daughter Rani, struggling with an artist’s block and a husband dealing with the loss of his start up, in a matter of few pages, has suddenly everything working out for the best for her.

Meenal Deshpande's chicken curry

But more than the choppy stories and abrupt endings, it was the pontification that bothered me the most. It was out of place to the point of being ridiculous and unbelievable at best. I mean, seriously, who launches into a discussion with first time guests over how women should be put in charge of Indo Pak diplomacy and how politicians are to blame for all the world’s problems (True) and regular citizens do not hate people from other countries. Or when Meenal lectures Kiran, a family physian, on the hazards of smoking!

May be Ms. Pradhan should have worried more about fleshing out the story and less about Indo Pak relations or statutory warnings.

That being said, the characters are totally relatable and the mother daughter father bond/tension spot on. The lament of Indian parents at the loss of culture, language and respect for elders is reminiscent of discussion I have at Indian parties in the US. The recipes are as authentic as can be. I loved the reminder “Under no circumstance use curry powder’.

Here’s my reminder, “Under no circumstance buy the book if you can rent.”

This book review is for our monthly book club – This book makes me cook, started by Simran. Other members who reviewed the book are Ann, Simran, Aqua and Aparna. If you would like to join out book club, drop a line to Simran and she will get back to you with details.

My version of Meenal's vermicelli kheer
I made Meenal’s vermicelli kheer (porridge) with pistachios and golden raisins and delicately flavored with cardamom pods. However, this post has run long enough for the purpose of this blog so kheer recipe in the next post, promise.

Ann, don’t take any points off like the last time. It counts if I made and ate the kheer and post it a day later.

Oct 21, 2009

Mom Song

Ok, before you click on the play button, let me clarify that my almost four year old is still manageable in terms of getting dressed, eating his food or taking a bath. But I know I am getting there soon when I too will be singing the MOM SONG.

Oct 19, 2009

Baked karanji for Diwali

I know Diwali is come and gone, but indulge me with this and the next post. I did make the kranji and the savory shankarpali, just never got around to posting it before Diwali. I had a busy week making the faral (snacks or munchis, mostly fried, like this one), cleaning the house and cooking for five families for the weekend Diwali bash. Not much time left for posting or visiting a lot of blogs.

After the high of instant coconut barfi, I decided to google baked karanji and found a recipe here. The brilliant lady had used frozen Pillsbury Pie Crust to make the casing for karanji. Karanji for the uninitiated is half moons of falky dough, stuffed with delicious sweet filling of coconut, sugar and nuts and deep fried in ghee. In the interest of heart healthy goodness, I did not want to deep fry my karanjis in ghee, so I was all for baking the pie crust dough.

For the filling:
1 cup fresh coconut, grated (frozen is fine too)
1/2 cup sugar
4 – 5 cardamoms, crushed into powder
A few nuts like cashews or almonds, roasted and coarsely chopped
A handful of raisins


In a heavy bottom kadhai or a non-stick pan, roast the coconut and sugar on low heat till the coconut starts to turn a little red and the sugar melts.

Turn off the heat; add cardamom powder and the nuts. Let cool.

Unroll the pie dough on a lightly floured surface and roll it thinner.

With a cookie cutter or the lid of a ricotta cheese container, cut rounds. Save the scrapes, wedge them and reuse to cut some more circles.

Place a teaspoon of filling in the center of each circle, run a finger dipped in some milk around the edges, fold the circle in half and seal the edges shut.
Keep aside on a cookie sheet, covered with a moist towel. This takes a little time so if possible keep the prepared karanjis in the fridge till you are ready to bake.
Preheat the oven to 350 and place the karanjis in the oven. Bake for 10 – 15 minutes till they start turning golden brown.

Take out and let them cool before eating them.

Note: The dough is a little salty to pass off as authentic karanji but apart from that the crust is as flaky and crunchy as the original.
The dough gets softer after a lot of handling on account of the amount of butter it has. Try to make this in the day, when you don't have to switch on the overhead lights.

Next time I will try it with Puff Pastry Sheets rolled thinner to avoid a lot of flakes.

Oct 15, 2009

Instant coconut barfi (naralachi vadi)

Diwali is to Hindus what Christmas is to Christians. And though I have been a big fan of Diwali, it lost its charm when I came to US about eight years ago. It is just not the same without friendly neighbors who visit each other and exchange snacks and pleasantries. The neighborhood brightly lit with diyas (clay lamps) and electric lights on the rooftops; the ubiquitous rangoli adorning every threshold and front yard; cousins and friends bursting firecrackers and little children lighting sparklers.

Growing up, I never liked to get involved with making sweets of any kind, especially ladoos. I found the process of making ball after ball of sugary dough tiresome. I enjoyed eating them, nevertheless. But it was after the Diwali was over that I looked forward to my mom’s naralyachi vadi or coconut barfi (fudge). She would receive a lot of coconuts as she went for haldi kunku and after all the Diwali sweets were over, she would make the barfi.

I didn’t mind grating the coconut or watching over the milk as it boiled in the heavy copper vessel for hours. When the milk had reduced to almost one third, mom would toast the coconut and add it to the milk along with sugar. The whole mixture would then be boiled down to the consistency of mawa, and then set in plates greased with ghee. The delicious diamonds of goodness tasted like biting into a kalakand/ milk cake/ mava cake laced with coconut and lightly flavored with cardamom.

I am tempted to make it every year but chicken out thinking about all the stirring and cooking it involves. This year Google, an encyclopedia of brilliant ideas and shortcut recipes for lazy cooks like me, came to the rescue. I found this quick recipe for kalakand at Bong Mom’s Cookbook and a light bulb went off somewhere in the lazy front of my mind. Coconut plus kalakand equals coconut barfi. So here’s my instant version of my mom’s coconut barfi.

14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk
15 oz tub of ricotta cheese
1 cup sweetened flake coconut
4-5 cardamoms (elaichi), crushed into powder
1 tsp of ghee (optional)
1 microwave proof shallow baking pan or casserole dish

Notice how crumbly my vadi is. That is because I did not wait for it to cool down before taking the knife to it.

Combine the condensed milk and ricotta cheese in the casserole dish. Zap it in the microwave for five minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a heavy bottom kadhai or a non stick pan and add the coconut to it. Turn the heat to low and roast it till the coconut turns golden brown in color. Keep a close watch on it or the coconut will burn in two seconds.
Take the casserole dish out after five minutes, stir the c.milk and ricotta and zap again for five minutes. By now, the aromas in the house are that of boiling milk. The ricotta and c. milk should be changing color to a pale white and homogenizing. As this cycle ends, mix in the coconut and cardamom powder. Zap for another five minutes.
The vadi is almost there with ricotta turning a grainy texture and getting darker in color. Now, keep zapping every minute for another three to four minutes and checking in between for a not too dry and not too wet consistency. Add the ghee at this point if you so desire.
Once you are satisfied with the consistency (I prefer it on the dry side) spread the mixture evenly in the dish and smooth it down with the back of a spoon. Wait for it to cool down before cutting it into squares or diamonds. If not, you risk getting a crumbly vadi.
Garnish with almonds, pistachios or in my case with dried cranberries.

While not exactly rich in taste like my mom’s vadi, these tasted pretty good for about 20 minutes of intermittent zapping in the microwave.

T’s comment, “This tastes like milk cake with coconut.” Mission accomplished.

Oct 11, 2009

The fun theory

Would you rather take the stairs instead of the escalator?

T sent me this You Tube video, which just might go viral, so my apologies if you have already seen it in your inbox or as I just found out on Manisha's blog Indian Food Rocks.

Oct 9, 2009

Seductions of rice and Maurice Sendak

I have always had a love hate relationship with rice. I didn’t mind it much growing up. My diet consisted of two rotis with dal and sabzi and a handful of rice to finish off the meal.
The hating began when I started living in a working women’s hostel in Bombay. Every day dinner consisted of rice and a ladle of watery gravy with some scraggly vegetables thrown in. I subsisted on the monotonous meal for a few months before it hit me that I could afford to sneak in a restaurant bought gravy to eat with my rice. It did not in any way diminish the fact that I was forced to eat rice every day and rotis were a weekend luxury at a cousin’s house.
After moving back home and then subsequently getting married, I stayed away from rice as much as I could. Not till I set up my household and got in the grind of every day cooking did it dawn on me how simple the process of making rice was compared to that of making rotis. The first dish I cooked in the microwave (having never used it before coming to the US), was rice.
I was shown by T how easy it was to cook a cup of rice in 15 minutes flat.
Wash the rice 2-3 times in water, pour two cups of water and zap in the microwave for ten minutes, uncovered and another minute or two covered. Boom… the rice was ready.

From Top to clockwise: Wild Rice, Basmati, Parboiled Rice, Ponni Rice and Brown Basmati

Not till I started blogging and exploring the wonderful world of food blogging that I realized how many different varieties of rice were out there. Above is the five types of rice I have in my pantry.
Recently, we acquired Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid’s ‘Seductions of Rice’ and were blown away by their years of research and accounts of varieties of rice from all over the world. Here’s an excerpt I found particularly interesting and amusing about the way people in the South and the North of India eat their rice:

One last word about rice in India and that has to do with eating it. Most people in India eat rice with their right hand, though there are different styles used. People in the south of India joke about how people in the north eat so politely with the ends of their fingers that they look as if they are afraid of getting a grain of rice up past their second knuckle. People in the north think that the people in the south, who eat their rice fingers, palm and all, look crude.”
This is what they say about eating the south Indian way:
The most important thing to remember when eating rice with your hand is to loosen up and have fun. Here, you can be a kid again. In Southern India, it’s perfectly fine to mush your food around, to make piles of rice and add little bits of curry and pickle and crispy chips or pappadum. When you have the tasty pile just the way you want it, pick it up in your palm and shake it back and forth as if you were about to roll dice at a craps table. This helps the form the pile into a ball, about the size of a gold ball. And then, with a turn of the wrist, pop it in your mouth. This is the way it is done in South India; the secret is in the wrist, in keeping a loose wrist.”

If that way of eating rice doesn’t sound appealing (can you tell I am from the north?), here’s a children’s song by Maurice Sendak, guaranteed to get your kid to eat some chicken soup with rice. He is one of the most acclaimed children’s author and illustrator in the States. But growing up in India, I had never heard of him till a friend gave my son ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ book for his second birthday. He loved it so much, I was reading the book six times a day for two months straight. I am not kidding! By the end of two weeks I could recite it in my sleep.
Wild Things led us to Sendak’s other works and ‘Chicken Soup with Rice’ has since become another favorite bedtime book. Instead of writing the whole rhyme, here’s a you tube video of the song. Also check out his ‘A Alligators all around’, ‘One Was Johnny’ and ‘Once there was a boy name Pierre’.

I am sending off these seductions of rice and chicken soup to Sra’s The Write Taste event.

Oct 6, 2009

In pursuit of perfection

I am not a perfectionist by any stretch of imagination. I strive to be one but end up looking more like a bumbling, multitasking, frazzled hair girl/woman of thirty something years. So recently, when T found this cool food blog, Chow, I was in nirvana heaven. All you foodies out there on the blogosphere who have ever dreamed of making/eating the perfect tortilla and more, head on over to Chow and check out how to achieve simple perfection in everyday food. These are two of my favorite clips they have on their cool website.

Perfect tortilla or works of art? You decide.

Organic, simple ingredients combined with a love for food and hospitality make this delicious handmade pasta and fresh pesto. Perfect pesto on perfect pasta? I think we have a winner.

It will take me years of patience and honing the art of cooking to achieve this kind of perfection. Meanwhile, I live vicariously through Chow. Sending this pursuit of perfection to Sra’s The Write Taste event.

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