Monday, August 29, 2011

Ramadan Kareem, Part 2/Herbed Grape-and-Cheese Panini.

Ramadan is drawing to a close. I'm going to miss sleeping for long hours, nights spent in prayer and frantic Eid shopping. I'm going to miss dusk spent around the dining table, the sweetness of the first date after long hours of fasting and being given a free pass to laze around work/chores. And being a seasoned foodie, missing out on my daily dose of nombu kanji comes as a big blow.

Amidst the flurry of last-minute activities, it's hard to cook up a decent iftiari. This leads to a lot of deep-fried food being bought and on Day 28, I've long exceeded my grease quota. I can't face another soggy samosa that has been twice-cooked in its own steam in the takeaway foil-box.

To prevent a mini-fight (fight is the wrong word, really, since that leads to an invalid fast) of sorts, I tend to make a lighter dish that everybody says is unnecessary or claims to not want, but gobbles up along with their samosa-vada-cutlet, any way.

This is one of those classic raid-your-fridge sandwiches. Good, crusty, wholegrain bread. A hunk of good cheese. A handful of plump, sweet grapes. You've got yourself a sandwich.

I can't extol the virtues of a panini maker enough. Enough praises have been sung/spoken on this blog, but please, please get one.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to be a little bit of a bread snob and say that you can skip this recipe if all you've got is white Modern/Wonder bread. In that case, I'd toast my white bread and spread jam on it or make french toast. Not this panini. I've completely adapted this from Jamie Oliver's pizza recipe, and you know it's sacrilege to use trans-fat/mass-produced/plastic food in a Jamie Oliver recipe.

Also, the cheese can be anything except sliced pre-packaged American cheese. Feta, good. Cheddar, good. Parmesan, good. Pecorino Romano, great! The salty cheese holds it shape, and contrasts beautifully with the sweetness of the honey, the herbiness of the rosemary, the crustiness of the bread and the grapes were a hot, yummy mess at the end of the grilling. Whew.

Herbed Grape-and-Cheese Panini:


8 slices whole-grain bread
4 tbsp honey (I used saffron honey)
1 tsp dried rosemary
1/3 cup crumbled Pecorino Romano cheese
24 grapes
Olive oil or butter, for greasing


Cut the grapes into half. Deseed the grapes and keep them aside.

Take two slices of bread and butter them on one side. I skipped this part. On the unbuttered side, arrange the sliced grapes, cheese. Drizzle with honey, sprinkle with rosemary.

Close the sandwich with the other slice of bread. Pop it into the preheated panini maker until the sides are golden brown. Repeat with the remaining slices of bread.

I used Extra Virgin Olive Oil for greasing, because I wanted a more savoury sandwich. The others however, liked their sandwich, pancakes-style, with a pat of butter and some more honey.
This should ideally be served steaming hot.

And rest assured, I'll be making this in different forms; on a cracker (post-gym food!), as bruschetta and as Pizza (the way Jamie intended it to be).

Get some water boiling for the tea, grill these babies and wrap yourself in a blanket. Nobody can fight/be unhappy with butter and honey and bread in their system. Tested and true.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms, Lemon with Chilli-Garlic Shrimp

Fact: I shed all apprehension and made a gourmet dish. Contrary to my expectations, it was a winner!

As a child, I did not like rice. It seemed like everything I ate had some form of rice in it.

Mornings would start off with mum coaxing me to comb my hair, apply kohl on my eyes (to a strict "convent" school, that too) and eat two fat idlies (that would invariably find their way into my lunch box, as well.) Coming back home, she'd have a plate full of white rice, mixed with greens and sambar and chicken curry and whatnot waiting for me along with the Arabic master (hazarath).

I find it depressing that I got fat on food like that, but c'est la vie.

However, I discovered rice in other avatars: the fried rice (Nasi Goreng Ayam) I had in Indonesia is definitely one of the best things to have entered my mouth and soul; the Kashmiri Pulao at Tandoor with Rogan Josh made my month and this sweet Basmati rice saffron kheer that makes its appearance at Muslim weddings completed me. Oh, and Koji rice!

While organic and raw is all good, try looking beyond Basmati/Zeera Samba and Ponni. Beyond fried rice and biryani. For example, a great risotto, may be?

Risotto gets a bad rap it does not deserve. It is the Quickstep/Kiss of Death ("So You Think You Can Dance?") for Masterchef Australia contestants. People who try it at restaurants (even at Tuscana) give it a thumbs-down. And the harder it is to get my hands on something good, the more I desire it.

You've heard this line before, but make it yourself.

If you're in Madras, this might be something you want to bookmark and try after a couple of years when exotic ingredients stock up on our grocery shelves. Unless, of course, you have a few kickass friends/relatives or a job that takes you on a jetplane.

Dad came back from Italy with a Duty Free bag full of ingredients from a painstakingly formulated list I sent with him. Porcini mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, Extra virgin Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar, Arborio Rice and the like.

Risotto. The ingredients were begging to be made into a risotto.

Mum had some gorgeous fresh prawns that she wanted me to use up, so I sauteed some of it in chilli-garlic paste and popped it on top of the risotto, but this could easily be made into a gourmet vegetarian dish. I don't know if any rice other than Arborio or Vialo Nano could be used, but since Arborio travels and keeps really well, order it online or call a foreign-settled relative/friend. Fresh mushrooms and mushroom soup can be used, but Porcini mushrooms give out such a delicious depth and saline quality to the dish. This easily is the best Umami dish I've knocked up.

The Mushroom Risotto made its way to the table at iftiari/breaking of the fast time. The rains were pouring outside, thunder punctuated our conversation and this steaming hot risotto was finished in record time. A touch of lime cut through the creaminess of the risotto... the only source of creaminess being the Parmesan cheese and starchy rice itself. Not a bad deal, eh?

And minus the shrimp, it makes for a smashing vegetarian dish. Unless you think mushrooms aren't vegetarian (this I've heard too many shocking times), in which case tofu or cottage cheese makes for a kick-ass substitute.

Citrus and Mushroom Risotto with Spicy Sauteed Shrimp:

Recipe source: adpated from Man Eat Food (originally Food and Wine magazine)


3 dried thai red chillies (I used Kashmiri lal mirch)
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cups fresh button mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup dried porcini mushroom
1 cup boiling water
1.5 cups arborio rice
6 cups chicken/vegetable stock
1 small onion, chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
zest of a lemon
200 g shrimp/prawn, deveined and peeled
1/4 cup chopped parsley (I used mint)
1/4 Parmesan cheese, grated
1 tbsp Unsalted butter
3 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive oil.
salt and pepper, to taste


Prepare the stock. I dissolved Vegetable Bouillon cubes in about 1.5 litres of water and reduced it down. A little extra stock is OK, because you can never tell how much stock the rice is going to soak up.

Pour the boiling water over the dried Porcini mushroom in a small bowl. Close the bowl with the lid and let it steep for at least one hour. Drain the liquid through a fine sieve to take out any muddy particles. Chop up the mushrooms into little bits.

In a pan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil. Saute the fresh mushrooms until the mushrooms are softened and let out the delicious mushroom liquid. Keep aside.

In a big pan, heat 1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until softened, not browned.

Throw in the arborio rice. Keep sauteeing until all the plump grains of rice become transclucent.

Add in the porcini mushroom stock and cook until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed.

Add in the stock, one cup at a time. Keep stirring, so the bottom doesn't scorch. After you've added about 5 cups of the stock, take out a few grains and check to see if it's cooked al dente. If it has add in the mushrooms (both soaked-dried and fresh-sauteed) and some more stock and stir. This process should take around 20 minutes to half an hour.

Check to see if the rice grains are tender and the sauce creamy. If not, add some more stock/hot water (depending on the saltiness and the flavour). Remove from heat, add in the lemon juice, lemon zest, parmesan. Taste and add salt, pepper and butter to taste, and cover.

This risotto should ideally be served immediately.

Chilli-garlic shrimp:

For the chilli-garlic paste:

Blitz the chilli and garlic in a food processor/mortar and pestle until roughly chopped.

In a non-stick skillet, add 1 tbsp Extra virgin olive oil. When hot, add the shrimp, season with salt and pepper and sautee over high heat until the shrimp turn almost pink.

Add the chilli-garlic mix and cook for around a minute and remove from heat. Add in the parsley/mint.

Overcooking the shrimp will lead to a rubbery texture, so be careful. My sister-in-law suggested marinating the shrimp in the chilli paste with a little salt for 15 minutes, ensuring that the shrimp soaks up the flavour and doesn't taste bland on the inside.

Stir the risotto. Serve in bowls. Add the shrimp, oil and all, top.

Serve with some shavings of parmesan, a wedge of lemon and some more chopped herbs. Moral of the day: homemade scrumptious posh food = not an oxymoron.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dulce de Leche Cheesecake/Challenge completed.

Next time you pay nearly hundred bucks for a slice of chocolate cake, don't crib. Any cheaper than that, it isn't cake; some brown-coloured concoction made with vanaspati (margarine), more like.

I'm going to do a list (for enriching our collective General Knowledge and Awareness), just like our current CM did during the previous rule. To show you how much more expensive it is to make pastry, than it was 2 years back, since the CM skipped those items and chose to focus on kerosene and paruppu instead.

Cadbury's cocoa powder: Rs. 150 (now), Rs 80 (then)
Amul fresh cream: Rs. 30 (now), Rs. 13 (then)
Bourneville Dark Chocolate: Rs. 85 (for 80 g, now), Rs. 20 (for 45g, then)

I don't have to go on and on about walnuts, butter, condensed milk and so on. And the VAT on "luxury" items. God.

So cheesecake is out of the question, right? A 8-ounce (230 g) pack of Kraft's Philadelphia cream cheese costs about 500 bucks. The rest of the ingredients aren't a bread-and-milk affair, either. I don't mean artisan bread and almond milk in this context.

Three things compelled me to make this cheesecake, though:

1)Britannia now makes cream cheese! Rs. 150 for a 180 g pack.

2)I've been craving Dulce de Leche and I imagined it'd be lovely in a cheesecake.
3)I was challenged by Spica and my Stinson-ian beliefs behooved me to.

I'll just take you through a pictorial play-by-play on the cheesecake, and my method of making Dulce de Leche, which saves a lot of LPG (which has also skyrocketed, price-wise). Oh, and how to make a mock springform pan that you'd ideally need to make an intact cheesecake. To finish it off, how to make a perfect graham cracker crust with Digestive biscuits.

Cheesecake for the Indian Kitchen. Yes. It's possible. Believe in it.

We start off with a gorgeous tin of Nestle Milkmaid condensed milk. I can wax nostalgic for hours on how we all used to eat it by the spoonful, neat. Just like my other love, Nutella.

Pierce a small hole on top with a knife and pestle. Or a clean nail and hammer. This step I chose to do, because I'm scared of unopened cans bursting open and giving me sugar burns and life long scars.
A small amount will ooze out, but it's OK. The chef gets to eat that.

Put the can in a rice cooker or a pan filled with simmering water, the water level being 3/4th of an inch below the top of the can.

Let it simmer on for 3 hours. You'll have to keep replenishing the water levels. Check on it every 15 minutes or so. Once the condensed milk leaking out of the hole you popped is nice and thick, take it off the boiling water. Let it cool down to room temperature. Pop the can open. DONE.

 I left mine on for about 4 hours and this is what I got...

Dulce de Leche. Also known as Liquid Love. Milk Jam. Confiture de Lait. I'm in love. And always will be.

Give it a good stir. There will be lumps, but it just needs some whisking in the hot dulce to dissolve and form a smooth caramel.
Save a spoon for tasting. The rest of it goes into the cheesecake!


Pound the digestive biscuits to a fine powder using the rolling-pin-and-bag method. Add in the butter and powdered sugar. Alternatively, you can use a food processor for this.

Mix until you get that wet beach sand consistency.

Press the crumbs into the prepared cheesecake tin (instructions follow)
Bake for 10 minutes until golden brown. Cool before using!


You know how cheesecake needs a cool pan that you can clip off on one side and remove, thereby preserving its wobbly goodness? Turns out you CAN'T find it anywhere in Chennai.

So I googled long and hard and came up with this.

Line the outside (sides and bottom) of the pan with foil. This is the part that will come in touch with the water bath in the oven.

Line the tin with aluminium foil, the size of the foil being much more than the area of the pan covered, so you can have a foil overhang/excess at the sides that enables you to pull out the cheesecake en masse.


The base ingredients of eggs, the milk/gelatin mix, cream cheese and salt get blended together.

Empty the prepared Dulce de Leche. Beat some more.

The batter goes into the prepared graham cracker crust.

And the cheesecake goes into the water bath, and then on to the oven.

After baking for about 40 minutes, it still might not be done even though the top might look all nice and bruleed. Make sure it goes on the middle rack.

The cheesecake should be cooled, uncovered for 2 hours, at room temperature. It then goes into the refrigerator for 6 hours or so, covered, and gets chilled.


Make this two hours before you want to serve the cheesecake.

In a double boiler/bain marie, all the ingredients for the glaze go in:

Keep stirring for some smooth chocolate loving.

With as much self-control as you can achieve, do not eat the whole thing. Instead, pour the glaze over the chilled cheesecake. Smooth the entire thing over the top.

Chill for around 2 hours. Using the foil overhang, lift it out.

Dulce de Leche cheesecake. Told you to believe in it. It'll have crinkly edges because of the foil, but that adds to the rustic charm, I think.

Cut into bars, and eat! I meant, serve.

Dulce de Leche Cheesecake squares:

Adapted from Gourmet magazine:

For crust
  • 3 1/2 oz graham crackers or 100g Digestive biscuits, crumbled (1cup)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar (powdered)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
For filling
  • 1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin (Baker's Halal gelatin)
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 8 oz (240 g) cream cheese, softened
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup dulce de leche (from one Milkmaid tin)

For glaze
  • 90 g dark chocolate (I used Bourneville Rich Cocoa), coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 2 teaspoons light corn syrup (I used Dabur honey)

For the crust:

Prepare the tin with foil as directed in pictures. Preheat oven to 325 F or 180 C.

Grind the crackers with sugar and melted butter in a food processor. Or use your hands to make the crust. Press it into the bottom of the tin. Bake 10 minutes, then cool for 5 minutes on the rack.

For the filling:

Sprinkle gelatin over milk in a small bowl and let stand 2 minutes to soften.

Beat together cream cheese, eggs, salt, and gelatin mixture in a bowl with an hand mixer at medium speed until well combined, about 2 minutes, then stir in dulce de leche gently but thoroughly.

Pour filling over the cooled crust, smoothing top, then bake in a hot water bath in oven until center is just set, about 45 minutes. Cool cheesecake completely in pan on rack, about 2 hours. Chill, covered, at least 6 hours.

Glazing the cake:

Heat all glaze ingredients in a double boiler or a small metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth, then pour over cheesecake, tilting baking pan to coat top evenly. Chill, uncovered, 30 minutes.

Just make sure you wipe the knife after each cut, so that each of pieces will have clear tricolour demarcation: the crust, the heavenly cheesecake and the chocolate glaze. The good people of Gourmet magazine tell me that the cheesecake (minus the glaze) can be stored covered and chilled, for three days.

This was a well-received iftiar dish, which was polished off by the guests. Make it. It really isn't as complicated as it looks.

Challenge completed. *Smugface*

Friday, August 19, 2011

Spicy Tomato-Mango Salsa.

Something I find really hard to come across is a good bowl of Salsa. Or a good Mexican restaurant for that matter, here at Madras. Ketchup and loads of water and chopped onion does not a salsa make. Really, truly, that's up there on my list of food sacrilege.

I think I should add at this point that watered-down yogurt should in no way be named sour cream, but there is a limit to the number of things one can crib about!

So fold up your sleeves, and make yourself a hugeass batch of spicy tomato salsa. And before you do that, hunt for the last few mangoes of the season... they don't have to be super sweet, like mangoes that go into dessert have to. A little tang and juice heightens the salsa to bowl-licking glory.

It was just what I needed on one of those Ramadan late-nights, when I couldn't face another Unidentifiable Deep-Fried Object.

This salsa was light, spicy, and punchy all at the same time. And I know posh tortilla chips cost a bomb (any where from 200 bucks upward for a packet), so settle for some pretty decent Senor Pepito's Jalapeno flavoured tortilla chips.

Or go down the healthier, cheaper route: a chapati cut into triangles (like the spokes of a chakra), sprinkled with some cumin and paprika and cheddar cheese and baked at 180 for 5 minutes. Delicious.

For such a simple recipe, that is uncooked and eaten fresh, you have to-have to-have to pick up organic, fresh, seasonal produce. Or bookmark this recipe until you can lay your hands on some.

I clearly doubled the recipe.

The paprika and jalapenos, you can pick up at Nilgris and slightly upmarket groceries. As for the onion/garlic powders, I suggest you give Spice Route a try.

Spicy Tomato-Mango Salsa:

2 big whole jalapeno peppers (I used tinned, seeds and all)
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 large fresh tomatoes, chopped and deseeded
28 ounces can tomato (my substitute works better!)*
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 yellow onion, coarsely chopped (I used regular)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves
1 medium mango, chopped
juice of one lime

Taco seasoning:

2 tbsp cumin, toasted
1/2 tsp paprika
3 dried red chillies
Red chilli powder, sea salt and pepper, to taste
garlic and onion powder to taste (I skipped it for this recipe)

*Instead of the canned tomatoes, I blanched around 900g of fresh tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds, took it out and shocked it in a bowl of ice water, peeled them, drained them completely of the water, halved and deseeded them.


In a mixie, pulse the jalapenos and garlic until they are minced into fine little bits.

To make the taco seasoning:

Powder the toasted cumin, chilli flakes, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper to a coarse texture. Store in an airtight container and use as desired.

Add in all of the other ingredients except for the mangoes.

Pulse in short pauses, and keep checking to see if they've reached your desired consistency. Some like it chunky, some not so much.

Don't let it get any more watery than you see in the photo above! It tends
to dilute over time!

Taste the salsa, adjust the seasoning according to your palate.

Stir in half of the chopped mango. Don't add it all, as it tends to macerate over time and I like a few pieces to have a bite to them and add it at the last minute.

Pour the salsa into an airtight container and refrigerate for 2 hours minimum, so all of the flavours sink in.

While serving, the remaining mangoes and some more fresh mango pieces.

Source: adapted for the Indian kitchen from Annie's Eats

Oh. I made every component of the taco you see below. I cite unavailability and horrendously expensive "exotic" ingredients as reasons. 

The refried beans, the sour cream, salsa, shrimp and even the corn tortillas (without masa harina!). One of the most from-scratch and satisfying meals of all time. If only I had followed it up with churros or a can of Dulce de Leche.

Mmm. Dulce de Leche. Challenge accepted!