Posted in Food, Stories Around the World

Flavour to the Season

“Cocoa, chocolate, candy sticks, raisins, nuts, sprinkles, glaces cherries….(something’s missing though..oh yes) and “marshmallows (three extra large packs)”….”

The above dialogues were a part of the conversation on the drive to the larger town for the purchase of this season’s must haves. With free hours, this sudden impromptu plan needed an emergency list, for visits to the nearest metro city was almost like going for a short tour to the nearest hill station, thanks to the present global scenario.

Essentially a confectionery made of sugar, a whipping agent (aerator) and water mixed with air; marshmallows have a history that goes as early as two millennial before the anno Domini ear. As the records go, the Egyptians were believed to be the first to make them. Surprisingly the first marshmallows were prepared from the roots of Althaea officinalis, a mallow plant species wherein the pieces of root pulp was boiled with honey till a thickened mixture was formed. This mixture was then strained and cooled before being added to the various preparations; both as a medicine to soothe coughs and sore throats or to the recipes of those days.

Towards the mid 19th century, the simple marshmallow reached the French confectioners to be remodeled into a fluffy candy mould, the “Pâte de Guimauve” which was made from whipping dried marshmallow roots with sugar, water, and egg whites into a white spongy desert. Later these mallow roots were replaced with gelatin to create more stability to the marshmallow. The present ropy or cylindrical marshmallow, a must-have for the winters and holiday seasons, was the brainchild of the Greek American confectioner Alex Doumak. In fact, no two brands (homemade or commercial) or varieties of marshmallows give the same flavour. Whether it be the difference in the concentrations of egg whites or gelatin (some include agar) or the ratios of sucrose, corn syrup or invert sugar, combined with the special flavours like vanilla or lemon juice; the marshmallow often lends a unique twist to the regular, especially the season favourite of hot chocolate.

All said and written, there’s something about the marshmallow that gives that little extra zing to the simple preparations or exotic ones like crazy snack pie, mini fluffernutter brownie cups, panini or even the s’mores latte. So into the cart, goes three extra large packets of them, for this season’s holiday cooking.

Posted in Daily, Food

Whole and Toasted

Warm, toasted and sizzling; there’s something special about experiencing it. In fact, one of the best parts of the recipes of today, is that they can be blended to make a bit of the “old and the new”. Which is why for a quick snack, quesadillas have undergone a recent kitchen experimentation, though of a more outdoorsy nature.

Originally as per the Mexican cuisine, a “quesadilla” is a tortilla (flat circle of cooked corn masa) warmed, softened, folded in half and filled with the typical Oaxaca cheese, cooked on a comal till the cheese is melted and gooey. Usually cooked without any oil, had with green or red salsa or chopped onions; these days the fillings can be as varied as own choice. From cooked vegetables, like potatoes with chorizo, mushrooms, epazote or even different types of cooked meat (chicharron, tinga of chicken or beef or cooked pork) or even as simple as avocado or guacamole, chopped onions, tomato, serrano chiles and cilantro. In essence, a quesadilla is simply a turnover food, or a “special Mexican version of the portable pie”.

Modifying the quesadilla with pizza toppings to make the “pizzadilla” or even desert quesadilla with chocolate, butterscotch, caramel, candied fruits and the like, are just an eye-opener to the versatility and ease of turnover foods. Likewise the breakfast quesadillas are also made, using ingredients such as eggs, cheese and bacon. Trying to modify the recipe to a bit of the local Indian cuisine, the tortilla was substituted with a roti (wheat) and stuffed with paneer(Indian cottage cheese) and shredded chicken.Alternatively certain recipes substitute the wheat base with chickpea flour or even a combination of all-purpose flour and rice flour.

Making a blend of the Old World tradition and New World foods; these recipes bring not just a feeling of goodness with the meal, but also a wholesomeness to it. Somewhere along the lines, amateur food experimenters, too have added their little bit to the food culture around the world. And that brings a feeling of content, warmth and happiness, along with satitey; an experience which brings a pleasant feel to the end of any day.

[1944]
“Quesadilla (Tortilla Stuffed with Cheese)
Take fresh tortillas (bought in a Mexican store), place generous piece of Monterey cream cheese (or American cheese) in the center, and fold it over as you would a turnover. Pin top with toothpicks to hold. Place in hot, ungreased skillet and cook lightly, turing often until cheese is melted. Delicious with refried beans.” Elena’s Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes, Elena Zelayeta [Dettners Printing House: San Francisco] October 1944 (p. 35)

Posted in Food

Crisp, Light to Thick, Buttery

Being in the phase, where the quiet routine prevails; shaking up things a bit is required every now and then, to prevent the monotonous run. Which is when the flour along with a couple of eggs and a pack of butter with other staples and add-ons come to the rescue. To add a change to the regular, few recipes around the world were trudged and substituted a little, when being made.

Most of our childhood is stored not in photos, but in certain biscuits, lights of day, smells, textures of carpet.” Alain de Botton

Sticking to the basics, first was the attempt to make homemade biscochitos. Also known as bizcochitos, these crisp butter (or lard) based cookies, are made from the traditional biscuit dough, flavoured with cinnamon and anise. With minimum handling, the dough is rolled and cut into the traditional shapes of stars and crescent moons, and then baked. Served with a fine icing of sugar and sparkles, these were brought over to the New Mexico area from the first Spanish colonists centuries ago. For a change, one can cut into the dough and filled the cavity with homemade jam, making it a little like a tart.

Alternatively, these cookies, or even the regular cookie can be given “an apple cider finish”. To make a change to the regular batch, the usual cookie dough can have a little of apple cider added to the typical ingredients of flour, brown sugar, butter, spices and baking soda. For an added “apple touch” one can put in dried or chopped apples along with dates, nuts and a little of vanilla essence to bring a touch of varied flavours. For those who just want a subtle feel of the apple or keep it to a minimum, apple cider can be used as a glaze or icing to he baked biscuits or cookie. To get a more chewy feel to the regular biscuits, one can substitute a share of the wheat flour by almonds crushed, powdered to make the traditional Turkish “Acıbadem kurabiyesi” or a version of the traditional Italian amaretto cookie. Preferring to keep the taste of almonds on a lighter note, a touch of the almond essence gives an almost similar effect.

“The symmetry was perfect, each triangle a perfect replica of its neighbor. Cashews, hazelnuts, and blanched almonds peeked out of their baptism in caramel jam, a sea of creamy browns punctuated by green pistachios. The tart shell formed a precise circle of pastry around the caramel and nuts.” Kimberly Stuart

Interestingly, biscuits made are not all baked. Originally from the Central Asian, Mongolian and Middle East cuisine, the ” boortsog or bawïrsaq” are a type of fried dough food that gives a feel similar to the tea-time biscuits. Made from flour based dough, simple to a sweeter crispier version, the latter is flattened and cut into pieces. In some areas, these pieces are bent and knotted into various shapes, from triangles to spheres or decorated with crisscross patterns, before being fried. Not simply as a tea-snack, but also as a dessert, boortsog can be had as a dessert eaten with sugar, butter, jam or honey. Though similar to doughnuts, they are dipped into tea and are an essential tea-time accompaniment.

Another traditional recipe is that of ” Reshteh khoshkar”, a Persian cookie made from the rice flour along with wheat flour, sugar, almonds, walnuts and cinnamon. What makes it interesting is the way they are prepared. This rice-flour based batter is poured into a sieved container such that the rice batter runs out of it as a fountain Making a pattern on the hot skillet with rice batter running through, a thin patterned sheet of rice pastry is made. Then a filling of crushed walnuts, sugar and other toppings are placed inside the pastry, rolled securely and then fried in oil.

“Powdermilk biscuits: Heavens, they’re tasty and expeditious! They’re made from whole wheat, to give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.” Garrison Keillor

Making cookies is always something special. A fresh batch of cookies always brings to mind the childhood memories of staying with grandmother in the kitchen, sneaking up into the jar for the occasional biscuit and the feel of being a child all over again. The best part is, the biscuit dough with all its’ different shapes, can keep the young hands busy for sometime. With plenty of indigenous and local recipes at hand, the regular can be spiced up with a little experimentation whenever the mood strikes for the same.

Posted in Food, Stories Around the World

A Little of all, or More

With all at home, attempting their hand at “a little something”, especially in the kitchen arena; there was an assortment of sorts for dinner. With the leftovers from lunch, the cookies of last weekend and a little of the experimentation (definitely edible) left from the past two days in the refrigerator, supper was more like a picnic meal, of sorts.

Laying down the table, reminded one of the college days, wherein the complete meal was more or less, like garbage plate. One of the first life lessons on managing college life and the budget at hand, was to make do with a “garbage plate”. Originally started off at Nick Tahou Hots, a restaurant based in Rochester which had featured their signature dish of “the Garbage Plate”. With the crowd consisting f mainly college students, the dish was concocted to meet the demand of a meal with a little of everything on it.

“What is the famous Nick Tahou’s Garbage Plate™? We start with a base of any combination of home fries, macaroni salad, baked beans, or french fries topped by your choice of meats and dressed to your liking with spicy mustard, chopped onions, and our signature Nick Tahou’s hot sauce. Each plate comes with two thick slices of fresh Italian bread and butter.” (2010, Archived from the offical website

Though other records state that the first original plate was concocted from two hamburger patties with a choice of two sides, from home fries, macaroni salad or beans, laced with a heavy layer of ketchup and hot sauce. Despite the high carbohydrate laden meal, this dish stayed quite popular, even in the present college campus.Maybe the fact that this plate accounts for a little comfort in every bite, a reminder of our home makes it one of the “at least once must haves”, during college days.

Bringing it down to a more simpler or tone version, plate the salad (macaroni, pasta, baked beans or even greens) and then add the next layer of homemade french fries (or any fries, vary it with baked beet-fries). Still adding on, the next layer is for the protein with grilled, fried or baked patties (meat, fish, chicken, hamburgers, hot-dogs or maybe soya-keema and paneer for the vegetarian version). The final touch is made by the sauce slathered over it and then being topped with the classic garnishing of chopped onions, yellow mustard and not forget to add the tomato ketchup to the lot. Ranging from the hot sauce (meat, chilli and hot) to a toned down vegan chilli, the final plate can change with every serve, though the basic ingredients may remain the same. Also not to miss out on the side dish, choose the pick from traditional garlic bread, rolls or even roti and naan to mop out the sauce,

Trying to recreate a similar version didn’t work out in the typical “garbage plate manner”. Though the next attempt, to go heavy on the carbs is on the agenda. The dinner of “bits and pieces” had some other weird food combinations like the tuna and spaghetti, rice with beans, soy and chopped meat or cheese and chocolate and the running favourite for now, two slices of bread with aloo bhujia ( an Indian potato snack), butter, sugar and sprinkles between them, to list a few of the experiments when the chefs run amok in the kitchen. Also not to forget the latest invention of pancake batter with slices of all berries, bananas, essence of maple syrup, crushed nuts with whipped cream on top. Cleaning out all the leftovers (best though weird), the supper of these ” odds and ends” (little higher on the carbs) wasn’t the typical garbage plate but, oddly an interesting combination and completely satisfying.

Posted in Food

Of Basics, Simple and a little Salsa

Still in the stay-at-home (literally includes work-eat-sleep-dine-exercise and so on) phase, the availability of doing a little of the sudden whims do happen; unless it happens during the clocked in work-hours. Which is why, when the mood strikes, the entire brood gets to indulge in the experimentation. After setting the pace for the morning till noon to go smooth; the extra time towards the evening was used to add a little spice to the known recipes. Though the spice later blended to the little salsa mix that was there at home, it was fun trying tot improvise two of the Mexican dishes to the Indian tune.

One of the easier recipes to try at home, was the Chilaquiles. The typical recipe basis are the corn tortillas cut into quarters and lightly fried. To the crisp tortilla triangles, the salsa (green or red) is poured over and the mix is simmered until the tortilla starts softening. To spice up the mix, one can add pulled chicken is sometimes added to the mix. Commonly garnished with crema (cream and buttermilk), crumbled queso fresco (white cheese), raw onion rings or avocado slices; the chilaquiles is usually had with refried beans, eggs (scrambled or fried), beef and guacamole as side dishes. Twisting the traditional recipe a bit, one can used a bit of wheat or maize tortillas, while adding a little of diced vegetables (saute them earlier if desired) and just had like that.

Next in line was the Chalupa. This specialty dish is made by pressing a thin layer of masa dough around a mould to create a tiny boat like (concave) container. These shallow corn cups are deep fried and filled with various ingredients such as shredded chicken, re-fried beans, cheese (classic), salsa, chopped onions, pepper and lettuce toppings. For the home version, one can experiment with wheat or maize (or chickpea flour) and just add on the mix of choice to be served in the “boats”.

Modifying these two simple and basic Mexican recipes was fun. With the added advantage of them being simple, one can recreate varied versions of the same with whatever ingredients are available at hand. As the craving for a little change strikes hard, that bottle of salsa is definitely going to add the much needed spice to the regular dishes.

 

Posted in Food

Of Bread, Soupy and Homemade

Staying at home, meal hours have been shifted earlier with the children demanding a bit of variety from the regular meals. The catch is to keep it simple, nutritious and wholesome without using sugar as a lure. Which is why when there is an excess of bread going dry, soon added to the menu is bread soup.

As the namesake goes, “Bread soup” is essentially a simple soup mainly made of bread (stale preferred, white or brown) with the base being either as a meat or vegetable broth and the bread being either cut into pieces and then into the broth, or those little pieces being cooked with onions and spices in a broth and pureed. While scouring for new recipes, it was interesting to note that there were plenty of varied styles depending on the country and the local cuisine. While the origin may be traced to the Lenten days, it is no longer confined to them or even the cold winters. Bread soup is a welcome add to the menu, for quick dinners or light repast.

One of the famed bread soups is the, Acquacotta. A hot broth based bread soup with primary ingredients of water, stale bread, onions, various vegetables, leftovers and olive oil which came into the early local cuisuine of Maremma (southern Tuscany and northern Lazio). Records mention of agresto (juice derived from half ripened grapes) used in the earlier 1800s, till tomatoes took their place in the recipe.

Another famed Tuscan bread soup is the Ribollita. Originally dating back to the Middle Ages, this soup was originally made by reheating the leftover minestrone or vegetable soup from the previous day. Later on, this hearty pottage was made with leftover bread along with cannellini beans, kale, cabbage, carrots, beans, chard, celery, potatoes, onions or other vegetables of choice. For all those who love tomato in any form, there is the “Pappa al pomodoro” literally translated as tomato mush. This thick bread soup is prepared with fresh tomatoes, bread, olive oil, garlic, basil and various other fresh ingredients, served hot or chilled.

Bread soup per se, can include the addition of bacon, egg or cream. Millefanti, an Itlaian variation uses egg and Parmesan cheese. Certain recipes include wine and more rustic version, include addition of malt or beer. One of the specialities of Portuguese cuisine especially in the Alentejo region, is the Açorda. Made typically of thinly sliced bread with garlic, lots of finely chopped coriander, olive oil, vinegar, water, white pepper, salt and poached eggs. First a mashed coarse paste of garlic, coriander, salt are mixed with olive oil and vinegar; then poured over the bread. The poached eggs are then placed over the bread with the salted water used poured over with chicken stock added. Left to steam for a few minutes, the final dish may have a bright green touch. Other variations include the açorda are the açorda de marisco or camarão (made with shrimp) or açorda de bacalhau (codfish).

While one can go with the exotic touch for bread soup, keeping it simple gives its’ own rustic flavour. With the purchase of groceries being limited in the present locked down state, stretching provisions with inventiveness is the need of the hour. Which is why in the hunt of simple new recipes, sprucing up old ones and keeping to home grown ingredients get an upper hand. With all these in mind and the summer fruit slowing coming through, inventiveness and resourcefulness help to give sparkle to the stay-at-home days. For these occasions give photographic memories and moments for the next generation, realized in retrospection over the span of time.

Posted in Food

Of Crunch or Munch on a Stick

With summer slowly climbing it’s peak, school on vacation mode and indoors being stifling, impromptu midday lawn picnics followed by the noon siesta is what cools down the hot days. While packing for picnics, the whole concept is to keep it simple, less messy, wholesome and in own backyard. When almost every other day, mid-day becomes a family picnic or tree house lunch for the kids, getting innovative is what makes lunch hour fun for them.

Up the tree house, where plates and cutlery are out of question; it will be something dry, in bite-sized pieces or filling but in neat pieces which can be had at one go and less mess. On days like these, one can borrow plenty of ideas from the favoured street vendors and summer stand owners. From the caramels pops to candy apples on sticks, corn dogs, funnel cake swirls, hot dogs on sticks or swirls of saratoga chips on sticks. Fusing a bit of common ideas with their favoured list of foods or snacks; the mid-day picnic basket contains plenty of surprises.

From waffles on sticks (stuffed or plain), bite sized peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on sticks, solled pizza slices, marshmallows interlaced with crackers and cinnamon squares melted on the stick or corn dogs with pieces of hot dogs or bacon in between, assorted fruit salad or vegetable pasta salad, donuts and rolls in bite-sized servings to the more elaborate “nuggets on sticks”; these are just few of the many ideas that can go into the menu for “food on sticks”. The most recent addition to the kids’ recipe book was “macarons melted in chocolate, dipped in sprinkles and a small stick at the base”. From toothpicks to full or half sized skewers, one can go into the full blast of creativity.

Interestingly the concept of using sticks or skewers can be dated back to the prehistoric years of the Lower Palaeolithic Era. Archaelologial excavation have unearthed stone “fire dogs” used in the early 17th century BCE. Writings of the Greek classic Iliad mention the obeliskos, a small spit or skewer with pieces of meat roasted on it. Legends and tales often passed over the centuries, mention of medieval soldiers especially Middle Eastern, who cooked meat skewered on their swords. In fact, one of the most well loved skewered foods, the shish kebab may well have an evolution of the earlier skewered meat. As per the records of Mahmud of Kashgar (11th century), the shish (Turkish şiş) was used as a skewer and ‘tool for arranging noodles’. As the years progressed, wars fought, mixing of cuisines, modernization and social revolution leads to the occasion of small to large scale celebrations, leading to the need of a set of recipes with minimal fast, large scale access and widespread acceptance as far as taste and ingredients are concerned. Which is maybe why the social gatherings of today, have their special set of “food on stick” recipes.

While these ideas have always made their entry into cocktail parties and cookouts, bringing them into the family picnic menu with minimum work is what makes cooking and experimentation fun. Even better would be to try something new, exotic or wildly different taking the special national “Food on a Stick” Day (March 28th) into consideration. As all foodimentarians believe, sustenance isn’t for mere existence, but is an art to the eye and creative buds, beyond the wildest imagination.