cooking

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Delicious Memories

Rice with a heavenly fragrance of unknown spices and herbs; garnished with semi-fried onions (ah, that charred taste…), brown-roasted cashewnuts and succulent raisins. A spicy chicken-thigh, hidden inside the rice with the masala. Hard-boiled egg, partially dipped in the centre of the rice as no biriyani is complete without the egg. A deep-fried papad; a piece of fresh lemon pickle and a bowl of raita.

Masala Chai is served after the biriyani but we kids often sadly let go the offer. Not because we have lesser appreciation for the nice hot spicy tea made with cream and sugar but the heavy lunch does not allow us from imbibing the luxury drink. We never ever said no to the Gulab Jamun that followed.

Such was the dear memories of Chicken Biryanis prepared and served back home when most of the people were taller and wiser than me. Visiting relatives and a festive season were inevitably linked with the dish. Happy memories, still refusing to fade away after many years of constant petting and caring, adamantly and comfortably clings to mind just as the four-year old child awaken from the bed with much reluctance, perches on her Dad’s arms, refusing to budge.

As a kid, Biriyani was a complete mystery dish.

Why it takes so much time to prepare the Biryani with so much of cleaning and chopping?

What are the secret ingredients that went into the dish other than rice, onion and chicken?

How did they manage to get that unique aroma rising in the air filling not just the kitchen or the entire house, but the whole neighbourhood?

In spite of serving the dish with just a raita and a papad and may be a lemon pickle, how it tasted so great?

After many summers… and festive seasons.

Did some research on Biryanis in an attempt to recreate that delicious memories one more time at home. Hyderabadi Dum Chicken Biriyani [Note: Long-grained rice (usually basmati) flavored with spices such as saffron, layered with lamb, chicken, fish, or vegetables cooked in a thick gravy. The dish is then covered, its lid sealed on and cooked on a low flame.] was chosen to be the star.

Surprisingly simple to make in just three steps.

1. Cook rice.
2. Prepare chicken.
3. Garnish.
4. Assemble and serve.

Some tricky in-between operations ensure that the biriyani could come out as close as the memories of yester-years. The magical taste was all about those in-between operations.

So this is not about any dish, let alone Biryani, but about the reliving of those wonderful years amidst noisy cousins and loving, kind relatives and parents, back home. Come with me, dear readers, on that exciting journey.

Deciding the rice was the first part. Long-grained Basmati or Wayanadan Kaeema. Kaeema was chosen.

Then the cook gets up early on a Friday, sacrificing the prerogative of a get-up-as-you-like week-end day and drives to the supermarket for the freshest chicken and herbs. The summer sun is already up and the temperature is a cool 35 deg C already. Herbs are just waiting in their racks… Cilantro & Mint for the Biriyani. Parsley for baked fish and Dill for Chicken Kofta, later. Some Chives for French Omelette. Now to the meat section: thighs of Chicken, bone-in. Fresh not Frozen. The recipe called for some chopped pineapple. Cashew nuts and black raisins (kish-mish) for garnishing. Saffron for mixing with creamy milk diluted with warm to add that wonderful golden-yellow colour to some rice.

Fresh eggs. Papad, a rice flour and urad dal wafer, served deep-fried. There is lime pickle and then yogurt for raita (Cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, green chili chopped and sliced served in yogurt seasoned with salt and Sumac).

Almost all spices are available at home so did not had to purchase.

Always the responsibility of the daughter to check and ensure all items required by the recipe is available: in the shelf, cabinet or refrigerator. Hope she had done a great job.

  1. Rice washed and soaked for 20 minutes.
  2. Chicken thighs marinated in chili powder, turmeric powder with some sea-salt.
  3. Chopping board. Onions, ginger and garlic. Indian garlic preferred though not-so-good looking as their Chinese friends. But more potent and difficult to handle.
  4. Mix rice in ghee in a pan on medium heat while water boils.
  5. Bay leaf, cinnamon stick, clove, star anise goes in with a couple drops of pineapple flavouring and rose water.
  6. Boil rice using lightly salted water in the ratio 1: 1.5, till rice absorbs all water. Remove from flame while the rice is almost cooked al-dante. Let it cook bit more on the colander/sieve.
  7. Sauté onions, for the chicken. Add all the spices and fry till the raw smell is gone. Add chicken and cover and cook.
  8. Fry onions for the garnish. Roast cashew nuts and raisins in ghee.
  9. Chop fresh mint and coriander leaves.

Take a deeper breath now and rest a while. The cooked food gets some time to settle. You will be amazed at the magical flavours that had filled the kitchen as you re-enter.

Pre-heat over to about 345F. Assemble the biryani in a glass bowl.

Chicken, rice, chicken, rice, chicken, rice. Garnish with 1/4 of a pineapple chopped small, fried onions, cashew nuts, raisins and finally coriander leaves. Cover bowl with an aluminium foil and bake for 10-15 minutes.

Some lessons learned:
1. The flame needs to be adjusted often as the food is being cooked through various stages.
2. Get only the best ingredients for the dish.
3. Thighs with bone-in is most suitable for this biryani.
4. The mistake made by choosing white onions instead of red onions proved to be a near disaster.
5. Prefer small garlic compared to large, perfectly-white ones.
6. Use pineapple flavour (essence) sparingly as it could easily overpower other subtle flavours.
7. Use not more than 1/4 of a medium pineapple.
8. After all is said and done, getting the rice cooked to that perfect point seemed to be the hardest part.


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Harissa

Roses are red.
Fragrant, too.
Roses can touch your heart.
They convey deep feelings.
Sometimes even make you cry.
So is Harissa (həˈrēsə).

The words Harissa dances and flows in the mouth quite effortlessly.
It brings many cherished images to the mind.

But what is Harissa?
Harissa is a fiery hot condiment and seasoning from North Africa and the Middle East. It is a paste of dried red chilis, garlic, and olive oil, with other spices such as ground red pepper, caraway, cumin, caraway, coriander, fennel and mint. It is most closely associated with Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. Makes Tabasco and Sriracha take a distant second and third places when it comes to a chili sauce contest.

[Recipe for Harissa cannot be more simpler than this…

About 50gm dried red chilies
2 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon dried mint leaves
Salt
Olive oil

Mix all together].

But the fiery red sauce is not for the faint-hearted.
Not even for the moderately-brave.
It takes a real courageously-daring one to even attempt to even think about making Harissa paste at home.

Therefore
I decided to make the recipe at home amidst all the usual naysayers.
“Can’t be done”.
“Not for Indian cuisine”.
“You need special ingredients… secret ones… how will you find them”.
“Why bother yourself when you can just add chili powder?”.
“We got SriRacha in the fridge”.
“Since when did you started experimenting with North African cuisine”.
So on.

First things first.
How many types of chilis are there in the market?
A few.
Wrong.
Many many.
Wanted to learn all about them before deciding which one to buy.
World of chili was so exciting that the first learning was that it might take longer than a weekend to learn.

So decided to choose
a dark, long one,
a reddish-brownish medium one and
a cute, round one.
(The intended ones were Pasilla, Guajillo & Cascabel. Must learn which is which).
Also used four different types of chili powders: Cayenne, Paprika, Red chili and Kashmiri chili.

Soaking the chilis in hot water was easy.
But the deseeding and destemming part took a toll as a not-so-easy burning sensation on the face.
Food-grade gloves and medical-grade face mask were used.
Not to mention industrial-grade eye-glasses.

While the chilis were soaking, garlic was de-skinned and crushed.
Coriander, cumin, fennel, caraway seeds were ground using pestle and mortar.
The four-chili paste was prepared.
Dried mint leaves kept aside.

From now on, it must be a breeze. So I thought.
Soaked chilies, drained well, went to the food processor.

Warning: The first buzz will fill the kitchen with the volatile component of the chili oleoresin that one must expect and take precautions.
From mildly uncomfortable runny nose and eyes to uncontrollable sneezing could occur.
So please be forewarned.
(Note: Harissa preparation will make onion slicing chore feel like a seventh heaven).

Having survived that grinding to paste stage, spices and mint were added and mixed.
Some balsamic vinegar was added to the paste. Lemon juice, if you so prefer.
Finally, the food processor was run at very slow speed while a stream of Olive oil was mixed in the emulsification process. The processor was stopped once the mixture achieved the desired consistency.

Due to the watery-eyed environment, many photo opportunities were missed.
But the few that were taken can be found here.

In short, the home-made sauce was a real unforgettable experience in the kitchen.
But if you ask em if I would repeat the experience, I would not reply without a bit of hesitancy.

While the runny-nose tells me no, the beyond-the-words taste of Harissa in fish and chicken urges me “you must”.


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Poached Eggs in Spicy Tomato

Poached Eggs in Spicy Tomatoes or Shakshouka

Scrambled eggs in tomatoes is quite common for breakfast or dinner.
Mostly with dry chapatis or khubooz.

A recipe got from a friend recently took the dish to a completely different dimension.
A bit of ground Cumin and a few Chilies made the difference.
The recipe originally included the delightful Harissa* paste.
Since the home had a stock of Cayenne Pepper, Sweet Paprika, Red Chili and Kashmiri Chili, thought of replacing Harissa with the chili powders.

(Harissa: a hot, spicy condiment made from mixing dried chilies soaked in hot water and roasted- or sun-dried tomato paste, widely used staple in North African and Middle Eastern cooking).

Chopped onions were sautéed on medium heat with minced garlic in Olive oil.
Diced green bell pepper is added.
Once softened, all the spices were added ensuring that the raw taste is gone with frying.
Care was taken not to burn the delicate spices.

Chopped, ripe tomatoes were then added.
Season with sea-salt flakes and crushed black pepper.
Pan was covered on medium heat and cooked for 10-15 minutes.
The contents must be stirred a few times to avoid burning in spite of seeing enough water in the pan.

Small indentations (actually they are “wells”) are made as the number of eggs.
Eggs are cracked raw into these wells.
Cooking for another 10 minutes would just see the eggs settle from being runny to semi-solid.
Garnish with fresh Cilantro and the dish is ready to be enjoyed.

The next week-end project?
Shakshouka with the best-ever home-made Harissa paste.


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Casual Skewers

Grilling must be the most healthiest way to cook meat.

Most fun comes from the charcoal grill outdoors.
Once in a while, it can be emulated indoors.
Family love it. Friends love it.
Above all, the chef loves it.

It all begins with pre-soaking the bamboo skewers in water.
And the grill pan scrubbed and washed with no soap.
Then comes the marinade.
Finally, the preparation of meats.

Tandoor-prawns.
Tandoori Masala could be brought from the store.
But only a few would dare to make their own Tandoori mix from scratch.
And that’s what happened.

Chicken thighs were chosen over breast.
A sharpest boning knife made the job of separating the meat from the bone enjoyable.
In grilling, the marinade is most crucial for the taste.
In this case, both the prawns and the chicken were marinated for between 4-5 hours in the refrigerator.

Mildly flavoured meat (could be sea-food) threaded in soaked bamboo skewers.
Seasoned cast-iron grill pan heated to over 420 deg F on a stove-top.
Quote If it does not sizzle, then you are not grilling unquote.
Thrill of the sizzle awaits.

Time spent on seasoning the grill pan paid off well.
No sticking.
No panic.
Grilling was never been so easy.

There is a secret
to grilling: oil.
Sparingly use oil to smear the grilling pan surface,
occasionally.

Another secret…
is to let the meat char a little.
This must be done extra-carefully
as the chances of meat getting dry is high.

Prawns were the most tricky.
So much easier to turn them into rubber-washers (from the chef’s own experience)
than to get them just-succulent-right.
But for someone who got an innate ability to cook, all comes naturally.

Skewers were all arranged in the plate.
The sight was indeed impressive.
In our house, the food does not last till plating process.
Skewers were all emptied in a blink.

Grilling indoors is tiring.
But when you see the food vanish at the speed of lightning,
that magic itself is enough to make you go through the hardships again,
and again.

Cooking is rewarding.