Category Archives: Book review

‘Flavors First’ by Vikas Khanna, – A review.

 I'm going through one of those phases where I have a million ideas for recipes buzzing in my head,
and in a contradictory way, that IS the problem ,since I'm at a loss to decide on what to make, when to make it and trying to figure out what it was about the set of ingredients that drew me to it in the first place. ..Net result.. Bury myself browsing through the Internet searching away,  for something I cannot even  quite define. Simply had to take a week's  break to get back into a routine.

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James Herriot revisited – A review of Suvir Saran’s new cookbook ‘Masala Farm’

I can’t ask for a better subject to cap this wonderful year of blogging, Chef Suvir Saran’s new book. Masala Farm. Taking a break from life in the Garden state, sipping a piping hot cup of coffee, looking out on Crescent lake in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, with family. The entire setting takes the memory cells on a nostalgic trip, of country life, meandering pathways, cows, horses grazing in pastures, tales & anecdotes straight out of Alf Wight’s beloved classics.

For those of you unfamiliar with  Alf Wight, he was a country vet from Yorkshire, England who wrote a series of delightfully quirky classic books about country life, animals and his career as a country vet, under the pen name of James Herriot. A bevy of four legged characters and their humans with their strengths & failings, their individual personalities, ranging from elegant to right down eccentric. Its a beautiful ode to country life in the 1940’s onward.

Fast forward to the 21st century, it seems that such an idyllic scenario is all but impossible in this fast paced life, but believe me, it does.. Most definitely in a bucolic setting in the far reaches in Washington county, New York State,bordering Vermont. A beautiful oasis called the American Masala Farm.
My first thoughts at seeing images of Chef Suvir Saran’s Farm, was that it reminded me of Enid Blyton & James Herriot. Turns out, I wasn’t totally wrong. The farm stories in the book take you back to a comfort zone of good food & conversation.

 Chef Suvir Saran is  the owner & executive chef of the Michelin rated restaurant  Devi, as well as the author of several well known books such as Indian Home cooking and American Masala. In his latest book, Chef Saran invites readers into the heart of his home/farm, to a sumptuous table filled with about seventy classic, comforting, ‘stick-to-your-ribs good for you’ recipes. The proverbial sprinkling of  masala (spice) is provided by heartwarming farm yarns about the myriad goats, a coop of heirloom variety chickens, each with their individual personalities, predatory ravens, coyotes, and the occasional oddball visitor offering a joint in return for egg samples!

The book also offers a glimpse into the responsible practices of modern farming and community involvement. Chef Saran takes the effort to include relevant information about food related enterprises in the area, not just about the wonderful services offered, such as Gardenworks, a pick-your-own berry farm.

The recipes in the book stand out in sharp contrast to the slick, upmarket offerings that Chef Saran creates for Devi. This is a collection of down to earth hearty fare, a delightful set of classic family oriented dishes from Suvir Saran’s childhood in India (with endearing & warm credits extended to the family cook, Panditji) and traditional American dishes from co-author Charlie Burd’s family (Notably Grandma Burd’s recipe for Pasta Primavera, redolent with fresh picked herbs) and other lip smacking contributions from friends & colleagues.

The book has ample goodies for vegetarians in terms of recipes. (I’ve already cooked my way through three dishes with many more on the list.). The recipes are simple and easy enough to follow for the average home cook, and are meant to be made & shared with family. For the more health conscious types out there, many of the recipes do call for generous amounts of butter and oil, but can easily be made just as delicious with much less.

Masala Farm is available through Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and other book stores.

I had previously made a  rice & lentil offering from the book, ‘Birbal ki Khichdee’. I’m following this up with a fabulous dish.. Farmhouse crispy creamy potatoes from the book. The technique of parboiling the potatoes prior to roasting ensures a dual texture, a crisp shell enveloping a dollop of creamy & fluffy perfectly cooked potatoes. Disclaimer: I cut down heavily on the recommended amount of oil, and added cracked black pepper for a hint of heat (for the family’s Indian palate!) which did not take away from the divine taste. Chef Saran recommends serving these alongside fresh baked bread, I say scarf it down with a spritz of lemon or lime juice.

Farmhouse Crispy – Creamy potatoes: 

You need:
1 lb. medium sized red potatoes (quartered)
1 tablespoon Kosher Salt (& a good pinch of sea salt)
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup Canola oil
2 tablespoon EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive oil)
12 Sage leaves
2 sprigs Thyme
2 sprigs Rosemary
A generous sprinkle of fresh cracked peppercorn
1 Head Garlic with the top 1/3rd sliced off

 Preheat oven to 350 F.

Salt  a large pot of water with 2 teaspoons of salt & bring to a boil. Add the potatoes and herbes de provence, Lower to a medium heat once the water begins boiling again, and cook until the potatoes are soft enough for a paring knife to easily sink in (~ 15 min),  Drain & set potatoes aside in a large mixing bowl.

 Melt the butter in a cast iron frying pan and add the Canola & EVOO. Add a sprig each of rosemary & thyme and about 8 sage leaves. When the sage just begins to wilt, Pour this mix over the par boiled potatoes and toss to combine. Return the potatoes to the frying pan and place the pan in the oven for 30 min.
 Pull out the frying pan after 30 mins and place the sliced off garlic head in the center along with the remaining rosemary, thyme & sage. sprinkle with the remaining salt and cracked peppercorn. Return to the oven & roast for another 45 minutes until the potatoes are crisp & browned well and the garlic is soft enough to be squeezed out of the scaly pods. Allow to rest for about 10 minutes & serve with a wedge of lemon alongside.

Thanks so much for all the support from all you readers out there and the motivation you’ve given me through the year. Looking forward to your continued support going into the New Year!

Wishing all of you a HAPPY, PROSPEROUS & DELICIOUS 2012!!

Tea, Tikkis & Tiffanys: A Review of Monica Bhide’s ‘Modern Spice’

Image Credit: Monicabhide.com

 This exercise may remind you of that memorable scene from the  movie ‘A time to Kill’ but bear with me..
Close your eyes & picture yourself as a child visiting a friends house for tea. Try to think of something that your friends mom served that was so delicious & mouthwatering, something you never had at home. A  taste so unforgettable, you longed for the time you could enjoy that treat again.. just let yourself swim in those memories….‘ SNAP OUT OF IT’!

Question:  During this self imposed daydream, did it ever matter to you which part of the country your friend was from? Did you care if the food served was Tamil, or Gujrati, or Bengali or….? (applies to readers who grew up in India) All that stood out was that it was unforgettably delicious. At that moment of time, the food being analyzed by your taste buds & nose was for all practical purposes, just Indian.

 Even as we chafe under the (partially true) global perception that Indian food is primarily of Punjabi (or at-least northern Indian) extraction, some of us (& I count myself in this set) tend to overcompensate by specifying the origins of the dish by geographical markers. The unintended consequence of doing so, is that rather than generate an interest & willingness to try a new dish, it may intimidate. As much as we like to claim that we are Indian first and Gujrati, Bengali, Maharashtrian next, it seldom shows up in cuisine. The first bite of any dish should gustationally scream ‘INDIAN’ not Parsi, Goan, Malayali.

 As I write this, there are Indians rejoicing in reflected glory about Chef Floyd Cardoz’s victory on Top Chef, and in particular, that his prize winning dish was the humble South Indian Upma with the usual semi derogatory connotations about its origins. Chef Cardoz’s brilliantly elegant Upma Polenta was Indian in every sense of the word, and it is this spirit that I would like to discuss Monica Bhide’s book  ‘Modern Spice: Inspired Indian flavors for the contemporary kitchen.

There is an entire generation of Indians who have grown up to primarily recognizing two names in cookbooks, viz, Tarla Dalal & Sanjeev Kapoor, The former is a diva of regional cuisine, divided statewise, and the latter, a demi god with a contagious passion for all Indian food. Their contributions are priceless in preserving the old school & traditional recipes, but if Indian cuisine has to take its rightful place alongside other great culinary traditions, it has to be an integrated cuisine. Indian food, as opposed to  East, West, North and South Indian.

Monica Bhide is quite possibly one of the brightest rising stars in the Indian culinary horizon. She is as much at home rubbing shoulders with culinary giants such as Jose Andres & Sanjeev Kapoor as she is fielding questions and comments from a slew of over enthusiastic bloggers via her facebook page and her website. An engineer by academic training, she is the author of three successful books and writes extensively about food, traditions & culture for major publications.

Modern Spice is one of those books that takes its time to sink into, and when it does, completely enchants you into falling in love with the stories and recipes contained within. Its a beautifully balanced set of  essays and anecdotes from the author’s life, interspersed between a collection of about 120 unique recipes.
At first glance, some of the recipes may well elicit a comment of  “oh this, c’mon its so simple/humble, I make it practically every week” . And yet, it escapes us that this very simplicity is what makes it so delicious & memorable.

The recipes contain a collection of day to day simple yet memorable dishes that we live on & look forward to at an intimate family dinner or a gathering of friends. The thoughts and words and (some) recipes are those of a wife, a mother, a nervous graduate student rather than an established author, and Ms. Bhide excels at communicating this in the book. Just as the reader warms up to the fuzzy home made creations, the creative streak of the author becomes evident in such novel dishes as the savory cheesecakes (baked in phyllo pastry shells) paired with a red pepper and tomatillo chutney. And I’ve not even begun to describe the array of delightful offerings in the beverage section such as the guava bellini and Tamarind Margarita, attributed to Chef K.N.Vinod of Indique Heights in Chevy Chase, MD.

The essays speak to, and relate on a personal level with the reader. Reminiscences of the author’s childhood in New Delhi, of her ‘dadi maa’ lovingly crushing rotis before feeding her children & grand kids at dinner, or one of my favorites (something I completely identified with personally), her love affair with ‘chaat masala’, and the quest to locate and retain for the long term, a suitable ‘supplier’… of ready made rotis in the US! The quirks that everyone of us is endowed with, and makes us human.

We may choose to brush aside day-to-day fare with the notion that its just something cobbled up, (as the author’s friend Vrinda, — the source of the dish “V’s P’s”–  does) or take pride in its simplicity and ability to nourish us physically and emotionally, for that is real cooking. Chef Cardoz & Ms. Bhide recognize  it and its time we all do.

Taking a leaf from yet another essay in the book about mismatched mugs, I’d like to conclude this post with a lovely pick me up tea time offering from the book: Potato-Peanut tikkis

 served with a side of store bought Tamarind chutney (a.k.a Maggi Tamarina sauce) and Chaat masala!

and a cup of ginger tea.. Served up in my best mugs, a gorgeous set that I had picked up 12 years ago from Tiffany & Co (and never ever use!)

 Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen is available in the US thought Amazon.com and  the Indian edition is available at bookstores though out India.