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Bhunaoed spinach

This week I want to share a dish made with spinach.

Spinach is so versatile whether it be palak paneer, or saag murgh, or saag gosht, or . . . and most chefs can cook these dishes and make them taste good (this comes with practice).

A few chefs can even cook these dishes and make them smell good, too (this comes with even more practice and some procedure).

However, it is only a fraction of chefs who are able to retain the color of the spinach (this comes with lots of practice, great process and deep knowledge about the ingredients which are being added)!!

So, even our simple spinach dish belies a lot of experience and knowledge to raise it from being an acceptable green side dish to something fresh tasting, vibrant and totally delicious!

In a good restaurant, great results are achieved by using a simple technique called bhunao which you do to the saag. [Bhunao means to cook, uncovered, over a constant heat to remove any excess moisture. Keeping it at the same temperature means the purée cooks without getting a ‘shock’, as it were, and thereby it cooks evenly and retains an ‘even’ colour.]

This is a simple, yet very effective process that keeps the colour of the puréed spinach so that it remains bright green for at least a week! (Yes, that’s right! It’ll keep its colour for that long, if it hasn’t already sold out because it’s so good and looks so fresh.)

Don’t worry about the bhunao, the taste and smell will always be good!!

So, let’s take a closer look at this simple, yet flavoursome, dish:

“bhunao palak”

Ingredients:

1. 2 bunches of English spinach, washed and stalks removed, approx. 400 gms

2. Plenty of water to cook the spinach (a.k.a blanching)

3. A pinch of Alleppey turmeric

4. Ice-cold water to cool the spinach (a.k.a arresting the cooking of the hot spinach)

clockwise from left to right: ice-cold water, turmeric & spinach

Method:

1. To blanch the spinach, in a large, wide pot bring water to a boil.

boiling water in a wide pot

2. Add a pinch of Alleppey turmeric (Alleppey turmeric has a bright yellow colour and helps bring out the colour of the spinach; it also acts as an anti-oxidant).

add a pinch of Alleppey turmeric

3. Add the washed spinach leaves and bring the water back to a boil.

add the spinach

4. In a strainer, drain the leaves immediately and plunge into the ice-cold water for a few seconds to cool the leaves. Do not rinse in running tap water as this will discolour the leaves.

plunge the spinach into ice-cold water for a few seconds

spinach leaves in ice-cold water

5. Remove from the iced water and lightly squeeze to remove any excess moisture.

remove the spinach from the iced water

squeeze well and lightly

the spinach is now ready for the food processor

6. Place in a food processor and blend to a fine paste.

blended spinach

7. Refrigerate immediately.

Bhunao:

1. 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2. 1 teaspoon brown cumin seeds

3. 1 tablespoon crushed garlic

4. Salt, to taste

5. 1/2 teaspoon Madras turmeric (you may use Alleppey if Madras turmeric is not handy)

6. 1 fresh green chilli, chopped (retain the seeds)

clockwise from left to right: vegetable oil, cumin seeds, crushed garlic, Madras turmeric, salt & fresh green chillies

To bhunao the pureed spinach:

1. In a pan, heat the oil until it is just about to smoke (this makes the oil light and helps it rise to the surface easily).

heat oil in a pan

2. Remove the pan from the heat and crackle the cumin seeds.

add cumin seeds and let crackle

2. Add the crushed garlic, as soon as possible, and fold. Then add the salt (adding the salt helps to caramelise the garlic without burning it).

add garlic

add salt

3. Add the Madras turmeric (this has a very earthy smell and goes well with spinach).

fold quickly before adding the Madras turmeric

add the Madras turmeric

4. Now add the chopped chillies and fold.

add fresh chillies

5. Return the pan to the heat and add the puréed spinach to this ‘infusion’.

add the puréed spinach

6. Cook over moderate heat, folding regularly, and let the oil rise to the surface.

folding & cooking spinach

cooking the spinach, always over moderate heat

7. Once the oil has risen to the surface, remove the spinach from the pan. Let cool and then refrigerate.

the spinach is almost ready, just waiting for the oil to rise to the surface

yummm…the spinach is ready to go!!

portioning the spinach for a “rainy day”

refrigerate or have it now, this is pure “green gold”!!

A great and simple way to use your ‘bhunaoed’ spinach is palak paneer . . .

And remember to do all the little things right. Yes, that’s right. Every single little detail, no matter how tedious it might seem. If you get the small things right the big ones look after themselves. So, whether it’s cooking spinach, or boiling rice, or even frying pappads, follow every little rule.

And it is this that I call ‘consistency’!!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhaava!!

A stock without any bones, but loaded with flavour!!!

In 1983 after I completed my training in Madras, I was offered a job in the Taj Group of Hotels as a commis in their new project in Bangalore. This was a dream come true for me.

I had always wanted to work for the Taj.

I had worked with the Taj Group previously as a trainee and a part-time cook but this was a full-time Job (with a capital ‘J’).

So, now that I was going full-time, there wasn’t going to be any more peeling onions or potatoes by the bagful. I was past that stage now. This was going to be a full-time job with responsibility!

When we reached Bangalore we were informed that the opening of the new hotel was postponed by about a year and that we were to go to Taj Palace in Delhi for specialization in different key areas of the kitchen.

Super!! That was fine by me. I had always wanted to specialize in handi cooking and making rotis in the tandoor.

This situation was perfect as I knew that the Taj Palace had Chef NP Singh looking after the restaurant, which was aptly named “Handi”, and that NP was a great teacher himself.

So, with great anticipation Deepak Rao, Annadurai and I reach Delhi and promptly report to the executive chef, Ruhaina Jayal, possibly the first female chef of a 5-star hotel at that time.

Chef Ruhaina then asks us to report to Mr Arvind Saraswat who was the corporate chef. Now, Chef Saraswat wasn’t just any other chef, he was the Big Chef. No, he was the Very Big Chef [upper case intended!]. For back then the Taj Bangalore was under his command, along with other hotels in Rajasthan and Madras.

Being under the ‘command’ of such a big chef made me nervous as this was not a part of the original script.

In the lines we’d learned in past performances, we usually just reported to the executive chef and that was the end of the matter. Not, however, any more. I mean, we were no longer apprentices and it was expected that we were to take up responsible positions on our return to Bangalore so we had to report to the Big Chef himself!!

We are summoned, one at a time, into Chef Saraswat’s office. In this office each of us is handed an envelope and asked to move on. “Yes Sir!!” we salute mentally as we’re drilled into action.

As we each open our envelopes we lean excitedly to see what the other is going to be doing.

Deepak gets to specialise in the “continental” kitchen.

Annadurai gets the handi kitchen and I. . . well, I do a double take in disbelief as I get to specialize in the “soup” section.

“What?!!” I think to myself and then say out loud. I’ve never heard anything like that before.

What in the world am I going to tell my Dad, my friends? . . . I am shattered. This wasn’t what I had expected at all!!

I want to quit, but then I calm myself and acknowledge that I don’t want to work for the Oberoi or the ITC or any number of other hotels that are just not in the same league!!

So, I decide to wage war against my inner feelings and I settle down with the idea of becoming the best chef de potage in the world (but I still can’t stop, literally and metaphorically, shaking my head from side to side thinking, “Bl…y h..l”!!).

Soup indeed!

And it’s right here, at the soup section folks, that I learn my first lesson in cooking and in life. And it’s quite a simple one: don’t have any expectations in life or you will be disappointed. Instead have hope and work damn’d hard for it.

So, I knuckle down and I start my specialization as a soup cook with Chef John.

Work starts at 6 a.m. every day, six days a week and it finishes at 3 p.m. every day.

Soups are made for the entire hotel, around 20-22 different kinds, and they are then delivered to each ‘satellite’ kitchen. I work my a.. off.

But I am not happy. I don’t belong here. Chef John, who is a master craftsman and also a mind reader, though he had no real qualifications to speak of, was a genuinely kind-hearted man for which you can’t gain any qualifications, it has to come from the heart.

“Son,” he says to me “you can always work in any kitchen after you have finished your shift here in the ‘soup kitchen’. You can work in the Indian kitchen, if you wish, or you can work in the garde manger.” As we all know, the garde manger is an unpopular starting point so what do I do?

Well, I opt for. . .

Both!!

And it’s here that my specialization begins! I am all pumped up even though I start my day at 4.30 a.m. in the morning and finish by 9 p.m.

And guess what? Yes, I love this! I wanted to specialize in the handi and rotis but I am now getting trained in the soup and larder as well.

Which leads me to the second lesson of my cooking life (and life in general!): expect the unexpected!!

Now that my mind is unclouded and I am working hard and long in such a variety of jobs, I am learning a lot much sooner. One of the lessons I’m learning very fast is Chef  John’s simple philosophy.

He believes that food cooked in, or with, water is bland and has no shelf life. Instead of water he likes to cook with a stock. He calls it Ganga jal, holy water, and he uses a different stock for every soup that is made in the kitchen. For example, he uses a mild fish stock for all the fish / shellfish soups. He uses a light chicken stock for all the Asian-style soups, and he uses a vegetable stock for all the shorbas.

Now all these stocks were out of this world!

He could be heard screaming in the kitchen, “Betae, Pan pakadne se pahle Chaku Chalaana seekho, Khaana banaane se pahle ‘stock’ banana seekho.” (Which means, “Son, learn to use the knife before you think of using the pan, and learn how to make a stock before you think of  cooking a proper dish.”)

Which brings me to a third simple lesson in cooking (and in life): get the basics right before you think of playing the ‘big shots’!

It is here that I learn to make some simple but fragrant stocks, a practice followed to this day in my desi kitchen!!

This week I want to make a simple vegetable stock that will be used to make a simple vegetarian (or vegan) dish…

To make a vegetable stock, or vegetable Ganga jal you simply follow the instructions below. What could be easier?

Ingredients:

1.  2 tablespoons moong dal or mung lentils

2.  2 tablespoons masoor dal or red lentils

3.  1 tablespoon black peppercorns

4.  2-3 bay leaves

5.  3-4 cloves with bud intact

6.  1 tablespoon coriander seeds

7.  1 small piece of ginger, roughly chopped

8.  1 small green chilli

9.  fresh coriander stalks with roots intact, washed thoroughly

10.  6 lts of cold water

ingredients from left to right: mung lentils, red lentils, bay leaves, peppercorns, fresh ginger, green chilli, cloves, coriander seeds & fresh coriander stalks (centre)

Method:

1. Place 3 litres of cold water into a pot along with the mung lentils [moong dal].

add cold water to a pot

add the mung lentils

2.  Bring the water to a boil, add the masoor dal and the remaining water. Bring to a boil. Allow the liquid to ‘slow boil’.

add the masoor dal after the water comes to a boil

add the remaining water

3.  Skim the scum off the surface of the water at regular intervals.

bring the stock to a ‘slow boil’

skim off the scum frequently

keep the stock at a ‘slow boil’, skimming often as the water boils

4.  Add the bay leaves followed by the peppercorns.

add the bay leaves

followed by the peppercorns

5. Then add the cloves followed by the coriander seeds.

add the cloves

add the coriander seeds

6. Then add the ginger.

add the fresh ginger

7. Followed by the green chilli.

add the green chilli

8. Finally, add the coriander stalks with the roots attached.

add the coriander stalks and roots

9. Cook till the stock has reduced and is ‘clear’.

cook till the stock is reduced

the stock should be clear

10. Strain the stock and let cool. Then freeze, or refrigerate, till required.

strain the stock

refrigerate or freeze and use as required

Some simple, but important, points to remember when making a vegetable stock:

1.  The stock should never be allowed ‘simmer’ or it will turn the stock ‘cloudy’.

2.  Add the spices one at a time, as in our images. This small procedure allows the volatile oils in each spice impart its specific ‘character’ or flavour. Remember, cooking is like a building. You start with one layer and gradually add another on top, in stages!!

3. Add the herbs without crushing them too finely. This allows the flavors to come out gradually.

4. Skim off the scum from the surface at regular intervals. (A full-proof way to do this is to carefully tilt the pot to one side of the flame (heat). Tilting the pot one way means the scum on the surface of the pot will move to the opposite side, making it easier to skim off the surface! Try it, you’ll get the hang of it.)

5.  Reduce the stock till the liquid has reduced by about a third, which should give you approximately 2 litres of pure Ganga jal.

Now for the dish.

Well, before we make the dish, tune in next week when we use this Ganga jal to make a simple, but totally flavoursome, vegetarian dish.

Until then,

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

The gradual demise of the fine art of cooking ‘paththar ka gosht’

In December way back in 1980, I was on a training course at the Banjara Hotel in Hyderabad when my friend Pramod invited me to attend a nikaah in the old city near Charminar.

This was a wedding where I knew neither the bride nor the groom but I attended nevertheless as a ‘guest of a guest.’ Pramod invited me knowing I was interested in learning about Hyderabadi Muslim weddings: the ritual, the ceremony and, more importantly, the food that is served on these auspicious occasions.

Hyderabadi Muslim weddings are very unique, or at least they were back then.

For one thing, at that wedding the bride and the groom wore no gold ornaments. Instead, it was all silver and pearls. Yes, silver and pearls took precedence over gold. Even the bride’s wedding dress was totally white without even a hint of any ‘gold’ thread or shimmer.

It was an entirely white wedding!

Once the ceremony was over, it was dinner time and I was really looking forward to this.

The daawat was amazing. There was lukmi, shikampoor . . . zamin ki machchi, murgh ka shahi qorma.

The KGKB [Kache Gosht Ki Biryani] was sublime and then there was this khansama making something I had never seen anywhere else in India.

The khansama had the most amazing way of cooking thin slices of marinated meat on a stone. This stone was being heated by live embers beneath it.

I couldn’t stop watching this dish being cooked and the end result was perfection!

The desserts included nimish, seviyan ki kheer and much, much more. . .

The bride and groom departed, the guests dawdled and lingered and I left a happy ‘guest of a guest’ as I learned the name of the dish.

I was told it was called, yes, you guessed it folks, paththar ka gosht! (For those of you who might not know, this means literally meat cooked on stone.)

paththar ka gosht

Well, let’s leave the wedding guests and the couple for now and fast forward to 2012.

The city is Bangalore, the place a 5-star hotel.

I am visiting India after a few years.

Every time I come back to this once, appropriately, named ‘garden city’ I see more and more concrete structures in the form of 5-star hotels and high-rise apartments take over the beautiful gardens.

These huge properties with mega lobbies and many bars/lounges house multi-cuisine international restaurants.

However, ironically, the one thing missing is an ‘ethnic’ Indian restaurant – the kind that will showcase the local cuisine of the region.

I mean, I do wonder why one would go to India and then avoid, okay, avoid the street stalls, but in the swish hotels, why not showcase our diverse cuisine?

Anyway, let’s get back to the big hotel where I’m meeting my old friends.

There are seven of us at the bar and we all belong to the hospitality industry.

After a few drinks, when the music starts to sound like a ‘cacophonous’, we move to the open-air restaurant so we can hear one another talk. We’re older guys now, remember!

Anyway, more wine and more snacks appear. The snacks are beautifully presented and perfectly cooked. We have a paneer dish, a chicken snack with pepper and fenugreek followed by a serving of prawns with a sweet and hot and sour dipping sauce, just beautiful.

But where is the local food? How about some Mangalorean style snacks to go with my French red wine?

I ask my friend, who is a senior teacher at the catering college, if the young generation of chefs graduating from the college are training in ‘ethnic’ cuisines and her smile  says it all.

“Ajoy,” she says dipping a prawn into the sweet sauce, “No young chef wants to cook, or learn about, the fine art of cooking local Indian food.” She pauses, reaches for her wine and adds, “It is just not ‘sexy’ enough for them to take it up! They believe it takes them nowhere on the professional front, and certainly there is no glamour about cooking Mangalorean food or Andhra food or Gujarati food or for that matter Hyderabadi food.” She sips her wine and looks at me as if to say, ‘Well, what do you expect?’

Well, what can I say?!

How very ridiculous and absolutely blockheaded this approach is!! No wonder this cuisine has remained where it is, right at the bottom of the pecking order in the world of cuisines, when in fact it should be right at the top as it contains more diversity and richness than any other cuisine the world can imagine!

But unfortunately that is not how it is.

Every region has its unique style of cooking not seen anywhere else on this planet.

When most chefs in the world are trying to create dishes, we in India have food that has never been explored, all we have to do is recreate it and present it in a modern way, just look at Mr Vineet Bhatia.

You don’t know this man?

Okay, well he is the chef of the world-renowned Rasoi restaurant in London and what a marvellous job he is doing. I am sure there could be many more Vineet Bhatias in India if only there was a desire to succeed, and more importantly, the ‘passion’ and ‘pride’ in presenting Indian food exquisitely whilst maintaing its heritage. Here is the man himself:

“Oily and greasy food was the face of Indian cuisine in UK which was aggressively macho, illogically hot and spicy. I looked like a rebel waging a war against this falseness with no benchmark to set myself against. So I set my own trend in Indian cuisine minus messing up its authenticity.”

He says it how it is!

In my 30 years, or so, of cooking Indian food I have yet to come across an Indian chef who has a Michelin star cooking French, or Italian, or Mexican food (the list of other food nationalities is long but my space is short and I’m sure you get the idea!) but I certainly have seen a fair few Indian chefs cooking their desi food who are at the very top of their game. All these chefs have at least one, and sometimes two, Michelin stars amongst them: AV Sriram from Quilon restaurant, Suvir Saran from Devi, KN Vinod from Indique restaurant, Atul Kochar from Benaras and Alfred Prasad from Tamarind restaurant, the youngest chef to get a Michelin star, to name a few!!

It’s getting late in the day, but it could be worse if we desi cooks don’t wake up now and realise what a jewel of a cuisine we’re sitting on and letting go to waste as we’re not sharing its richness! Believe you me, there is plenty of room at the top, it’s not about replacing one cuisine with another but sitting alongside other cuisines.

The world is waiting for us to make the first move!!

Try and instigate change. Do it in small steps, with your family and friends. Even if you fail once, twice, or many times it is so important to educate.

As someone once said, “Remember the two benefits of failure. First, if you do fail you learn what doesn’t work; and secondly, the failure gives you the opportunity to try a new approach!!”

Well folks, here is my pocket-sized contribution towards this cause:

This is the complete recipe of paththar ka gosht from Shuruat. This is just the way we make it in my restaurant for our ‘Chef’s Tables’, and we are cooking on a paththar, of  course!!

Step 1

1. Prepare the stone. [Check below for points on seasoning and looking after the stone.]

preparing the stone (see notes below about ‘cracked’ stones)

2. The stone must be seasoned before it is used as a BBQ plate.

3. Light the fire and place the stone on top of the fire.

4. As the stone starts to heat up, increase the heat gradually.

5. Once hot, put a drop of water on the edge of the stone. If the water sizzles, the stone is hot and ready to use.

stone is hot & ready when the water sizzles

6. Lower the heat to moderate and maintain at that temperature.

Step 2

Ingredients for the PKG (Paththar Ka Gosht):

1. 8 lamb cutlets or chops, fat trimmed and bone ‘Frenched’ (this means it has been cut into long, thin slices)

2. 1 teaspoon black peppercorns

3. 2 pieces of cassia bark (cassia buds are generally used, but are not available in Australia)

4. 4–5 cloves of garlic peeled

5. 1 small piece of ginger, washed

6.  4–5 fresh green chillies

7.  Salt, to taste

8.  Juice of 1 lemon

Ingredients for the salad:

1.  1/4 bunch mint leaves

2.  1/4 bunch fresh coriander leaves

3.  Salt, to taste

4.  1 medium red (Spanish) onion

ingredients for the gosht (clockwise from top to bottom): garlic, green chillies, ginger, cassia, peppercorns, salt & lemon juice, plus lamb cutlets (centre)
ingredients for the salad (on the left): mint leaves, coriander leaves, red (Spanish) onion

Method:

1. Following Step 2, set aside the lamb cutlets in a bowl.

2. In an electric blender, grind all the remaining ingredients to a fine paste.

dry ingredients for the marinade in grinder

fresh & dry ingredients for the marinade

add the lemon juice before grinding

ground marinade

3.  Apply the marinade on each cutlet, return to bowl and cover with cling wrap. Refrigerate for about 1 hour.

applying the marinade on each cutlet

try to apply the marinade evenly on each cutlet

marinating cutlets

cover with cling wrap & refrigerate for 1 hour

4.  Following Step 3, in a clean blender mince the coriander and mint with the salt. Chop the red onion, then wash in cold water and drain. Set aside.

chopped & washed onions and ground mint & coriander with salt

5. Mix the mint and coriander ‘pesto’ with the chopped onion and set aside to serve as an accompaniment.

onion salad ready for the lamb cutlets

6.  Remove the marinated cutlets from the fridge and gradually place them on the seasoned, hot paththar (stone).

marinated cutlets ready for the stone

place the cutlets on the stone, one at a time

lamb cutlets cooking on the stone

7.  Cook the cutlets on each side till the marinade is crisp and the chops are medium-well cooked.

turn the cutlets over

marinade should be nice & crisp

cook evenly on both sides

paththar ka gosht ready for the plate

8.  Serve with the onion and ‘pesto’ salad.

serve with the onion salad

So, there you have it, folks. This is the simplest and best way to make this dish and then you can serve it in a ‘contemporary manner’.

a dish fit for the nizams – paththar ka gosht

No, this is not a ‘contemporary’ recipe but it is an ancient recipe shrouded in a lot of history and then served in a ‘present-day’ style. A fusion, if you will, of ancient and modern.

As for ‘contemporary’ food, well, let’s leave it to those who don’t . . . well, you know!!

And before I finally sign off, here are some

Points to remember when seasoning the stone for making PKG:

1. Season the stone by heating it gradually sprinkled with salt. As the stone gets hot, gradually increase the heat. The salt starts to cook and ‘cleans’ the stone.

getting the stone ready

seasoning the stone with salt

2. When the salt turns black, reduce the heat, remove the blackened salt, wipe the stone and allow to cool. The stone is now ready to be used as a BBQ plate.

salt changing colour

salt turn brown to black after a while

wipe off the blackened salt off the stone

3. If the stone cracks during the seasoning, it could be because it is not heavy enough for its size and it may have an air pocket. A cracked stone can still be used as long as it is not washed.

4. The stone does not need any oil as it renders the fat from the meat as it cooks and thereby keeps the meat moist and tender.

5. Any meat cooked like this on stone is ready to serve as soon as it’s ready, i.e. it needs no ‘resting’ as is the case when you grill on ‘metal’ plates.

6. Never use any detergent to clean the stone as it is porous and will absorb the detergent.

scrape off any bits of food from the stone after cooking

add salt & leave till the next time

7. Cooking on stone is fun and kids just love it, ask my son. He wants all his meat dishes ‘stone cooked’. It’s so easy, all you need is a stone for each protein!!!

Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!

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