Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Something About Shukto On A Dark, Dismal Day…

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I was supposed to be a cookbook-writing Bengali. I was supposed to have my own cooking show. I was meant to sign my cook books. I was supposed to look all fab, and flaunt my manicured nails while chopping onions on television. I was meant to look like a Bengali version of Goddess Nigella, in lal-parer sari and sindur’er teep.

But here I am. working 8:30 to 5 pm.Taking the subway home each day from the financial district of TO. If I am lucky, I can get into the first train that arrives on the platform while I am waiting. Waiting with the hundreds of people on the downtown subway station. Everyone looks the same. In a hurry. Dressed in black. Tired. Withdrawn. Like workdogs, who are only trained to well…work! I have become one of them. I am one of them.

I dress in black, not because it looks classy, but because its easy to dress in. And it also makes me look slim.

Its another thing that three-fourths of my wardrobe is black.

And then I see color peeking through the dark clouds and the dark clothes all around me. Vibrant, luscious, beautiful colors in the ingredients of Shukto. Green, white, purple, yellow, and some more green.

Shukto or Shuktoni is a medley of fresh vegetables. It has the perfect balance of bitter, sweet and savory. A food very sophisticated and time taking to cook. Its always made from scratch in Bengali homes. Its a starter for many memorable meals. This dish is made to be mopped clean with rice. Eat the shukto and rice with your hands and experience manna-like experience down here on Earth. Incredibly enough, the Shukto is personally satisfying and it has been on my agenda to share it with you.

Its a pretty engaging recipe with several vegetables and ingredients. But the key ingredient for traditional Shukto is bittergourd or karela and a whole spice blend we call paanch phoron - fenugreek seed, Nigella seed, cumin seed, celery seed and fennel seed in equal quantities. Apart from the usual ginger paste, posto paste and yellow mustard paste.

 

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For this dish, Bengalis typically use easily available vegetables in the Summer season. I have used uchche (bittergourd), sheem (broadbeans), shojne data (drumsticks), begun (Oriental eggplant), alu (potato), potol (parwal, sorry I do not know the English name!), lal alu (sweet potato), and mulo (radish).

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On another day, if I do not find any of the green vegetables in the Bangladeshi store, I’d replace it with borboti (longyard beans), or kanch kola (green banana). But uchche is a must! Anyone cooking THE Shukto without bittergourd is not really a Shukto.

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Ingredients for Shukto

1 large bittergourd, cut lengthwise into two inch pieces

1 large white potato, cut into two inch large sticks or Batonnet

1 medium size sweet potato, cut into Batonnets

Handful of fresh drumsticks, cut into two inch pieces

1 plump Oriental eggplant, cut lengthwise into two inch pieces

Handful of broadbeans, halved if large

Handful of longyard beans, cut into two-three inches

1 small radish, cut into Batonnets

Handful of potol, cut into two inch pieces

2 tablespoons poppy seed/posto paste (Start by dry grinding posto seeds and then add water little by little to make a smooth but thick paste)

2 tablespoons yellow mustard paste (Follow the process mentioned above)

2 tablespoons ginger paste

2 tablespoons roasted panch phoron powder (dry roast the panch phoron on low-medium heat and make a coarse powder)

1 and a half tablespoons whole panch phoron

Handful of bhaja bori (I did not have it, and hence skipped adding)

2-3 bay leaves

Sugar

Salt

Ghee for cooking and garnish

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Start by heating ghee in a kadai/thick wok/pan. Add the bittergourd pieces and shallow fry for a 3-4 minutes till they get coated with the ghee, remove with a slotted spoon and keep aside. Now add each type of vegetable in no particular order and shallow fry them and keep. Do not be lazy and mix all of them together for shallow frying. One at a time. That’s how Grandmothers and Mothers made Shukto! Even the ones who worked outside.

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Once all the cut vegetables have been shallow fried, mix all of them in the same wok and cook together for 3-5 minutes with sugar and salt.

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Now add the posto-ginger-mustard paste and coat all the vegetables nicely. Let the vegetables cook on medium heat in their own juices. Add very little water if the moisture is drying up. The consistency of Shukto should be makha-makha, or thickish. The three different paste used eventually make the dish quite thick. Check the taste, and adjust sugar and salt. The vegetables should have cooked through but not mushy.

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In a small butter pan, heat ghee and add the bay and the whole panch phoron. Once the seeds crackle, add the garnish to the vegetables cooking. Mix everything well and turn the heat off.

Just before serving the Shukto, add the dry roasted panch phoron powder and the (already fried) crushed bhaja bori.

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Serve warm with gorom bhaat/rice to start a traditional Bengali meal. I usually sit there with a smug look on my Nigella Lawson-like face as I see my guests savor the delicate flavors of a traditional Shukto, often asking for seconds. I am pretty pleased with my Shukto outcome - juggling between a job, a kid, the kid’s dad, and living in a country called Cantartica!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pots of Gold in My TO Balcony

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A two-dollar sectional wicker tray used for my marigolds. The tiger clay is hand-painted.

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A view of one of the corners. Its usually, clay/terracotta, wood, stoneware, shells, etc. which I use for my balcony decor.

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Yesterday, LMN and I finished our herb box project. The wine crate came free from a liquor store. And I filled it up with oft-used herbs – Mint, coriander, flat and curly-leaf parsley, sage, lavender, Thai basil, sweet basil, and rosemary.

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There is even a baby bay plant in there to make my pulaos fragrant!

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I must confess, this year, I have created an abundance of marigolds in my fourth floor garden. Their warm and inviting colours remind me so much about the festivities back home.

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But there are some days I also like zinnias. And gondharaj/gardenia.

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We are enjoying a blast of Spring and our pots of gold. The next project to do for LMN and I is to plant some gondhoraj lebu/fragrant lime seeds we have saved into the richness of potting soil and wait…

For more pictures and updates from my sunny balcony, click here.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Uthapa Aunty’s Coorgi Murgi

Mrs Uthapa was my mother figure during my short life in Bangalore. She lived in the apartment next door and worked in a bank. She wore neatly pleated cotton sarees, and fresh Mallige (jasmine) flowers braided in her wet hair. She rode a Kinetic Honda to work at the State Bank of India.

“Aunty”, as you’d address any elderly lady in urban India, soon became quite friendly with me, and would even discuss things like her two sons’ careers and higher education with me. We would also exchange bowlfuls of freshly cooked food. I would give her a taste of my North Indian cooking fare, while she mesmerized me with her Pandi Curry and sometimes this Coorgi Chicken Curry.

The only thing I did not like was when she came with Bevu Bella (Neem and jaggery) during Ugadi. The neem from her hands brought out my extreme dislike of bitter. But she put a gun to my head and made me eat it and pretend I enjoyed it! My Mama would have been so pleased, because never in her life has she been able to make me eat neem-begun.

Anyway, here is how I made Uthapa Aunty’s Coorgi Murgi.

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Ingredients for Uthapa Aunty’s Coorgi Murgi are:

1 chicken, cut into curry pieces
1 large red onion, finely chopped
1 four inch piece of fresh ginger
6-7 tablespoons of freshly grated coconut (I used the frozen variety, Deep brand)
5-6 green chilies (Aunty’s recipe does not have them, but I do add them)
2 tablespoons tamarind extract
Handful of coriander, leaves and stems
5-6 cloves
2 pieces of cinnamon
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1 tablespoon black pepper powder
Cooking oil
Salt

Start by heating the oil in a pressure pan. Add the chopped onions and sauté till they are lightly browned. Add the chicken pieces. Make sure there is no moisture in the chicken. Mix well and cover and cook till the chicken has turned brown.

Meanwhile, finely grind the cloves and cinnamon. You could use whole coriander seeds and dry grind them with the cloves and cinnamon. But I used store-bought coriander powder instead.

Add the powdered cloves, cinnamon, coriander, turmeric and black pepper powder to the chicken and coat the pieces well. Season with salt. Cover and cook for 5-6 minutes on low heat.

Now wet grind together the ginger, fresh coriander, and green chilies. Add this mixture to the chicken and cook for 5-6 minutes, covered. Add enough water to cover the chicken and spices. Cook till done, or you see oil releasing from the chicken and bubbling on the sides. Add the grated coconut now. And mix well. Let it bubble with the chicken for about 5-7 minutes. The coconut adds natural sweetness to the dish and thickens the curry.

Finish the Coorgi Murgi by adding the tamarind extract. Do a taste test and add more salt if needed. Serve with plain rice or with appams. And think how wonderful your life is to be getting your hands to such recipes which are family specials from faraway Bangalore. Thank you, Uthapa Aunty.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mutton Saagwala for the Popeye of My Life

Its summer here. Which means we have an abundance of everything. Including spinach. But before that, take a look at the more colorful summerlicious moments I managed to see with my lenses.

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Gondho Lebu PreeOccupied

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Now for the recipe for Mutton Saagwala, loosely translated as mutton (a generic term in India for goat meat) cooked in spinach. A healthy, delicious meat curry most often cooked in winters in India by many North Indian families. It has strange resembles to Palak Paneer.

Well, my two cents are that this dish could possibly be palak paneer for the hardcore mutton lovers.

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Ingredients for Mutton Saagwala are:

1 kg goat meat/mutton (I buy the shoulder portion with enough marbling from my butcher lady)
400 grams spinach, cleaned, washed, and chopped coarsely, stem and leaves, and pureed with little water
1 small can of tomato paste
1 large, juicy red tomato, pureed
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons freshly ground cumin powder
2 tablespoons pureed garlic
2 tablespoons pureed ginger
2 tablespoons green chili paste
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon garam masala powder (black+green cardamoms, cloves and cinnamon)
3-4 tablespoons ghee
Julienned ginger for garnish
6-7 dry red chilies for garnish
A few shavings of (frozen) unsalted butter for garnish
Salt

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Start by heating the ghee in a large pan. Once it is really hot, add the onions and sauté till lightly browned. Add the meat. Make sure there is no moisture/water in the meat. This will help you get a nice, brown color to the mutton.

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Add the green chili paste, cumin and garam masala powders to the meat and let it cook on low heat, covered all the time for 10 minutes.

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Now add the pureed ginger and garlic, season with salt (I use sea salt), mix, cover and cook for another 10 minutes.

Scrape the spices and onions from the bottom of the pan and let them cling on to the mutton.

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Add the pureed spinach, red chili powder and turmeric to the meat and mix. Crank the heat up to medium and let the pureed spinach bubble for about 10 minutes. Once you have spinach splinters attacking you, add the tomato paste and puree and cook covered for 10-15 minutes on low heat.

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You will see the change of color in this dish – from a bright, green to a moss-colored. Slowly, but surely a thin line of oil will appear at the sides of your cooking pan. At this point, you have a choice of adding your work-in-progress Mutton Saagwala to the pressure cooker to cook through the mutton. I did that and waited till two whistles went off to cook my mutton.

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Transfer the Mutton Saagwala to a serving dish and garnish generously with shavings of unsalted butter, julienned ginger and dry red chilies. You can add some green ones too for added heat and color.

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Serve Mutton Saagwala with warm chapatis and salad. A meal like this should be consumed by keeping quiet, and listening to your own chomps and burps. Meals like this also make a family less cranky and more happy. I have proof. My almost-two-year-old sealed my Mutton Saagwala with her stamp of approval by saying “nice” and “wow”, all in the same breath in between her dinner.

Enjoy! 

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ghar Ki Murgi with Methi Greens

This is one of those recipes where everyday, boring chicken can be made into something interesting. We have been having an abundance of methi/fenugreek greens here at this time of the year. Perfect picker upper for an otherwise mundane chicken curry. And its so easy, you can sneak it into your dinner even on a crazy work day.

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My Mum used to make Methi Chicken as well during winters in India, when she was sick of rolling out theplas. We would eat this thickish chicken in fenugreek greens curry with hot, fluffy chapatis. The sauce would most often be clinging to the pieces of chicken, the methi leaves emanating a strange, bitter smell. Bitter in a good way.

You can grow your own methi (microgreens) right in your balcony. Here is how! This is how my Ma-in-law grows her methi in Delhi.

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And this is how my Mum buys her methi greens in Jamshedpur.

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While I buy my tiny bunch of methi for $1.99 here from a supermarket, then meticulously pluck the leaves off the stem to finely chop them and prep them for this curry.

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Ingredients for Methi Murg are:

600 grams chicken, skinless please!
1 cup of finely chopped methi/fenugreek greens
5 tablespoons plain yogurt, whisked with one cup water
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons ginger paste
2 tablespoons garlic paste
5-6 green chilies, finely chopped
1 small piece of ginger, julienned
4-5 tablespoons mustard oil
Salt

Heat oil in a large, flat pan. I used my clay/terra cotta pan. Sauté the onions till they are lightly browned. Add the chicken and green chilies and brown the chicken on both sides.

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Next add the pureed ginger and garlic and cook on low-medium heat till the chicken starts to release its juices.

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Now add the methi greens. Coat the chicken with the chopped greens and gradually turn the heat up.

After about 4-5 minutes of cooking the methi greens with the chicken, turn the heat off. Let the chicken cool down a bit.

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Now add the whisked yogurt, and a little water if necessary. Mix well. Turn the heat to low-medium and cook until chicken is tender and the sauce is thick. Also, the sign to look out for is to see if the chicken releases a thin line of oil at the sides. You know then that the spices have cooked through.

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Season with salt and garnish with the julienned ginger. Your everyday chicken has now attained the prestigious title of Methi Murg and is ready to be served with soft, fluffy chapatis and salad.