Monday, January 26, 2015

A lasagna for sunny noons and rainy nights

The last time I made a lasagna, I didn't know that lasagna sheets needed to be cooked, like they say al dente, in hot salted water! I put them right in to the oven along with the chicken and what-nots, and what emerged after 20 minutes was, to say the least, not very desirable. So, this time around, I was somewhat apprehensive because it was for the Sunday afternoon shenanigan and friends were coming over. But the box of lasagna sheets had been sitting in my pantry long enough, and the long inviting weekend, thanks to the Indian national day, seemed to be the perfect opportunity to finally layer it up. Thankfully my guest, R, has gradually evolved in to an adventurous non-vegetarian, a far cry from her veg-food-only days when I first  met her in college. After confirming that she does enjoy the occasional sausage/salami/ham, I got down to work. Italian food seems to be the new Chinese in the capital! In the nineties, there were Chinese restaurants everywhere. If you wanted to go out for dinner, Chinese was it. Nowadays, folks have evolved from enjoying Indianized Chinese food to authentic Asian food. But, pastas have taken the place of the chowmein. They are being whipped out at every nook-and-cranny takeaway promising authentic Italian food in the capital, wedding menus must have the 'live' red/white sauce pasta counter today, and of course ready-to-eat packaged pasta is now available at the neighbourhood grocery stores. Maggi Masala almost gave way to Maggie Pazzta! I mean, seriously, how difficult could it be! When I was in Italy, I never ventured to try Italian food at even the so-called bistros because when you convert the Euro into the Rupee, everything is way too expensive, and especially when you are in the continent for a six-week long trip! Instead, I soaked in Venice, Florence, and Rome walking the cobbled streets, enjoying the grand old structures, visiting the occasional museum, but prudently heading to the nearest supermarket for my meals. But that's another story, for another day.

Here is what you need:


1 broccoli head, small to medium size
2 bell peppers, red and yellow
4-5 smoked sausages 
100 gm ham
200 gm lasagna sheets
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, grated 
Olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

Tomato sauce:

   3 ripe tomatoes, large size
   1 onion, small, sliced
   4-5 pods garlic, sliced
   1 tbsp tomato ketchup
   1 large pinch baking soda
   1/2 tsp basil
Right out of the oven
   100 ml white wine

Mushroom cream sauce:

   200 gm mushroom, sliced
   50 gm butter
   1 cup milk
   60 gm cheddar cheese
   1 tbsp cornflour
   2 tbsp thick cream
   1 tbsp olive oil
   1/2 tsp parsley
   1/2 tsp Italian seasoning

How to:

  • Chop up the broccoli into small pieces, about an inch or so. Then, de-seed the bell peppers and cut them into chunks. Slice the sausage into 1 cm thick pieces. Now place all these in a baking tray, with a tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper. Season well and toss them in olive oil. Preheat your oven to 200 °C, and bake for about 20 minutes. The broccoli should be slightly crunchy but cooked through and the sausages done.
  • While the oven is at work, you can prepare the tomato sauce. I prefer to skin my tomatoes before adding them to the sauce. To do this, insert a fork in the tomato and hold it over the gas stove, turning it from time to time. For the skin to burn and blacken, it takes about a minute for each tomato. The skin will peel off easily. Once the peel is out of the way, roughly slice up the tomatoes and put a pan to heat.
  • Once the oil is hot, add the sliced tomatoes and garlic in olive oil and saute till soft. Now turn up the heat and add the tomato ketchup. After frying this for a minute, pour in the white wine. Once the alcohol from the wine has evaporated, throw into your sliced tomatoes. A trick I learnt while making pizza sauce, which is very similar to this tomato sauce, is to add a pinch or two of baking soda to the pan as the tomatoes are getting cooked. This cuts through the acidity of the tomatoes and ensures that the sauce is not too sauce. I found this tip very helpful because a sour base sauce can mean definite ruin of an otherwise heavenly pizza!
  • Add the parsley and salt and allow the tomato sauce to simmer for about 10 minutes. I prefer to keep the lid on at this time otherwise the sauce tends to thicken too much. Then, turn off the heat.
  • In a dry hot pan, add about two tablespoons of butter. Throw in the mushrooms and fry till browned at the edges. Keep aside.
  • In a bowl, mix the cornflour with a tablespoon of cold milk. (There should be no lumps at all!) Add this to the remaining cup of milk and mix well. In the same pan that was used to fry the mushrooms, add the milk and cornflour mixture. Turn up the heat slightly and keep stirring. After a minute, add the rest of the butter, dried parsley and sir in the cream. You might want to take the pan off the heat before adding the cream; else, stir well after adding cream. If you like to make the sauce richer, you can add grated cheddar cheese. Keep stirring the sauce till cheddar melts away. Now add the mushroom and give it all one good stir.
  • Once both sauces and the roasted vegetables are ready, heat a large sauce of water with about a teaspoon of salt. Once the water boils over, throw in the lasagna sheets. It took me about 5-7 minutes for the pasta to get cooked just right. As I learnt, al dente is the way to go! This means cooking the pasta till its cooked through but still nice and firm when bitten.   
  • Now that all the elements of the lasagna are (finally!) ready, it is time to layer up! In a baking dish (I used a 6 x 10 inch ceramic dish). Layer up the sliced ham at the bottom, after which add a layer of the roasted veggies and sausages. Then spoon a layer of the tomato sauce, followed by one layer of lasagna sheets, topped with some mushroom sauce. Keep layering and top it with a thick layer of the mushroom sauce on top. Finally sprinkle the grated mozzarella and Italian seasoning. I omitted this step, the essential mozzarella (sigh), probably not ideal but Countess Calorie raised her ugly head... and there is really no arguing with her!
  • Bake the lasagna in a preheated oven at 180 °C for 0 minutes or till the cheese turns to a delicious golden colour. Yum! Yum! Yum! 

All plated up


Monday, January 19, 2015

The global Village: Tuna in Tahini & a Chickpea salad

Celebration time!!

Marshall McLuhan was indeed a visionary man. I am not sure how much I agreed with him during my college days when everything textbook-ish seemed to be drab, but now it all makes sense to me. It is a global village we live in today, isn't it? Things are flying from east to west and from west to east, north south and everywhere else. Cuisines and culinary cultures of the remotest corners of the globe are today understood and appreciated millions of miles away, probably better than ever before. That was how I first came across Tahini - in a Lebanese-serving restaurant tucked away in the Indian capital. Honestly! What were the chances if it weren't a global village?

For the uninitiated tahini is, broadly speaking, a paste or a spread made from sesame seeds. Growing up in a Bengali household, sesame was commonplace, typically used in a number of sweet and savoury dishes. Of the all the preparations that used sesame, I recall vividly the 'til-er naru', which are basically sweet balls of roasted sesame and jaggery. It is customary as a religious offering and honestly not one that piqued my taste buds, then or now. And thus it was to be. I gave up on sesame for most of my teenage years, never knowing the secrets it held within, until that day ten years back when I first ordered a plate of something with hummus! Ah! It was like my gustatory cells came alive to that rich smooth nutty flavour of hummus. But those weren't the days of smartphones or free WiFi and I had to wait a couple of days before I could look up the recipe for hummus, and there I found tahini.

My love affair with Tahini begun then and has continued ever since. So, when I was mulling over the menu for my father's birthday lunch I thought of cooking one of our favourites - Tuna fish in tahini along with a chickpeas and sausage salad. Looking back at the afternoon, I can happily give myself a pat on the back. A three-hour long lunch under the winter sun with bottles of champagne, a perfect way to spend a Sunday indeed!     

Tuna in Tahini

500 gm fresh Tuna, cut into slices
1 tsp Olive oil
3-4 tbsp Tahini paste
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp lime juice
3-4 tbsp yogurt
4-5 cloves of garlic crushed
Salt, to taste
Chopped coriander, for garnishing

How to:

  • Pat fish dry and sprinkle some salt on both sides of the fish slices. Keep aside for an hour or so.
  • Preheat your over to 230 °CWhile the oven heats up, prepare a paste with the tahini, yogurt, garlic, lime and lemon juice, and salt. Mix this well and keep aside.  
  • Now grill the fish pieces for 10 minutes. I used heating on both the upper and lower rods. The fish at this stage should be almost cooked through but still slightly soft and juicy. Over-cooking tuna hardens it. (I learnt this the hard way!)  
  • Once you have grilled the fish, transfer it on to an oven-proof dish and spoon the paste over it. Rub the paste gently on the fish slices and put it back in the oven for another 10-12 minutes. Leave both rods on for the first five minutes then turn off the lower rod. The sauce will brown slightly after 10 minutes or so. Turn off your oven, garnish with coriander, and your tuna is now ready to eat under a bed of fluffy lemony tahini sauce!

Broccoli and sausage salad

Chickpea and sausage salad

Here is what you need:

1 cup chickpeas (soaked in water overnight, and boiled with a little bit of salt)
1 broccoli, florets separated
4 sausages, i used pork, sliced
3/4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 large pinches of thyme, dried
Squeeze of lemon

How to:

  • Boil your chickpeas with salt till just cooked.
  • In an oven-proof dish, put in the broccoli florets and sliced sausages. Add a dash of pepper, and the rest of the seasoning. Mix well with the olive oil. Top with grated cheese. Bake for 15 minutes at 200 °C.
  • Mix with the boiled chickpeas and serve.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The beginning of Busy: Quick-fix red curry fish

The last of the so-called ‘holiday season’ swiftly came to an end, bringing with it a general sense of haste in my life. Getting back to a 9–5 routine is never easy and waking up early for work in winters is most definitely a herculean task. Whatever happened to the ideals of the slow easy-going life? I often wonder, why must we always rush and run through everything? And at the risk of sounding like a terribly dull person, I must confess that when it comes to speed, I am a complete goner! In keeping with the spirit of an easy-going life, I must confess that I am a terrible cook when under pressure. I can toss up a perfectly delicious plate of pasta or roast a whole chicken to perfection when there is really no constraint on my time. But, sadly, my life does not allow for such luxuries every day and I have learnt the hard way that it is absolutely essential for a career woman to master the precise art of speed cooking.

This reminds me of one of my favourite quotes of all times. It is from a novella I had read during my graduation (a decade ago! Horror!) called ‘Slowness’ by one of my all-time favourite authors, Milan Kundera. That good ‘ol Czech certainly knew how to write!

Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars. Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that descries their easy indolence by a metaphor: "They are gazing at God's windows." A person gazing at God's windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.

So, it was last Sunday around noon that I opened my fridge to see what lay inside. My hunger pangs were beginning to get uncomfortable and I had a very small window to decide what lunch would be. I saw a bowl with three pieces of uncooked fish staring back at me. Promptly, I reached out and placed it on the counter. After about two minutes of quiescence, I had my moment of epiphany!

I like Thai food, both eating and cooking. As a result, I mostly have a lot of basic non-perishable Thai ingredients in my pantry. But never had I tried improvising Thai recipes: usually I solemnly follow procedures, taking down careful measurements and ensuring I had the correct ingredients as far as possible. But on Sunday I decided to stay lazy. I whipped out my jar of red curry paste and the milk jar from the refrigerator, prepared to take on the red curry by the horns! Luckily for me, the outcome was delicious and I made it one more over the week.   

Here is what you need:

1/2 tsp red curry paste
3 pieces of fish 
2 tbsp oil
100 ml milk
salt and chili, to taste

How to:

  • Heat oil in a flat-bottomed nonstick pan. Add the red curry paste to the oil and fry the paste for about 2-3 minutes or till it has somewhat dissolved in the oil. There would be some lumps of course but this is okay, just ensure that these bits do not burn.
  • Now add the fish and fry on both sides along with the curry paste. This should be done for a couple of minutes.Sprinkle salt on the fish, and chili powder, if desired. I used Rohu here, but it would taste even better with others such as Basa.
  • When you think the curry paste is beginning to burn, add about a tablespoon of milk and stir it in quickly (otherwise the milk may curdle). Keep adding the rest of the milk until the fish is cooked through and browned on both sides. The fish should now be coated in a thick red gravy.
  • Your Quick-fix red curry fish is now ready to eat! You can squeeze in a bit of lemon juice if you wish.