Monday, 24 March 2014

Neem Begun / Stir fried Brinjal with Neem leaves
It is that time of the year. Winter is gone ... not going, going ... but gone. Fully, completely, well and gone. For good.
At least for a good eight months or so.
And it was not even the mid of March when the temperature hit 32 degrees.
Yes, Pune will burn this summer.

The trees are bare and the roads are lined with yellow leaves. Rather, the roadsides are. The roads are clean.
As is the sky. Bright blue. With a brighter sun. And a dry, hot wind.
Even the large Peepal standing erect and proud is devoid of its covering.
In a few days, the tips will have tiny leaves sprouting, that, with time, will slowly unfurl, revealing their shiny red baby leaf colour.
And then will turn into a shiny, fresh baby green. Then move on to its original dark green.
All the while shimmering brightly in the early summer sun.

The bird bath needs to stay filled. Always.
What with the dry weather, it dries up every two hours now.
Early morning, the Bulbuls come.  And the sparrows.
If the bird bath is empty, they make big noise. Persistant chirping fills the morning quiet.
And if they find water, there will be much noise too ... but happier, chirpier ... as they drink and enjoy playing in the water.
A little later in the day, it is the turn of the pigeons, crows and swallows. Sometimes a couple of parrots too.
They are quieter ... do not demand out loud for water. So I need to be extra vigilant, making sure the bath is filled all the while.
By noon, when all is quiet in the intense sun, the insects come.
Yes ... the wasps especially. They settle down quietly just near the edge of the water and take a long drink.

We mortals are swinging from "Oh, is it hot today!" to " Wow! this breeze will help cool down the weather!"
"This summer is going to be one scorcher".
I had reached for that cold bottle of water for exactly three days in a row before I started going "atisshooo!".
For the last two days.

Yes, it is that time of the year when we can't decide if it is still winter or spring, or well into summer.
The woolens lying around  insist it is still winter.
The calender says it is spring.
And the daily temperature says it is summer; surely, confidently, without a doubt.

In our childhood, we used to abhor this time as it would mean the inclusion of the much dreaded Neem to the daily menu.
Apparently it is good for the immune system that needs a boost during these confusing days.
While Bengali meals always start with something bitter ... usually the karela fry or the Gima shaak, this time of the year, when the Neem flowers and breaks into baby leaves, it is the neem on the plate.

So, the lunch plate would see the very innocent looking, small dark green pile on the right, at the very begining. We would eye the other dishes ... the Macher jhol or maybe a mutton or chicken dish and the tauk too.
But no ... we could not reach them until we had waded through that small pile of unspeakable bitter.
Quickly we would mash it up with a little rice, make balls and gulp them down as fast as we could ... sometimes with the help of a glass of water, wipe the plate clean to get rid of whatever bitter is left, rush off to wash our hands and come back to a tastier meal. 

Today, I have developed a taste for the very same bitter neem. With a little extra salt and green chilli added to the mash, I actually enjoy it.
The leaves used have to be from the very tip of the branches ... very soft and slightly reddish in colour.
Combined with the sweetness of the brinjal, it turns into a good, tasty fry.

Need :

Fresh neem leaves
Brinjal / Begun - cut into small cubes
Salt to taste
Oil to fry

How to :

Pick and wash the neem leaves and dry well on a kitchen napkin.
Heat a kadahi. When properly hot ... not smoking hot, switch off heat and let in the neem leaves.
Stir them well till they shrivel and dry up.
Keep aside.

In another pan or kadahi, heat a little oil.
Let in the brinjals and add salt.
Cover and cook till the brinjals are done.
Remove cover, add the fried neem leaves and mix well.

Serve with plain rice at the begining of a meal, usually lunch.
Enjoy good, healthy food.
Stay well; don't reach for that cold drink or ice cream; don't use the a/c to pretend you are in Antartica; don't sleep with your hair still dripping wet; don't ....

Someone say Gesundheit! ... pleeese.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Pabda Maacher Jhaal / Pabda fish in mustard sauce

 It has been  a good while since I cooked fish last. I know, I know ... this one line is becoming common in almost all my posts on fish. But it is true. Much as I'd love to, I don't cook or eat fish as regularly any more.
Reasons are numerous ... yes, not one, not two, numerous. But they are of no import.

A few weeks back, when I had stopped by the fish shop to pick up a Rohu ... groaning inwardly "again :-(", I saw some good sized, fresh Pabda lying in a corner. Just a few ... around five pieces, were left.
It is not everyday, or month, or even a year, that I get good Pabda. Tyangra ... I do get often. But not the Pabda.

So, very happily, I skipped the Rohu and brought the Pabda home.
And the only thing that comes to mind on seeing a Tyangra or a Pabda is the Jhaal!
Spicy, with the sharpness of the mustard paste and slightly tangy from the fresh winter tomatoes with a dash of coriander leaves, the Jhaal seemed the perfect dish for that winter afternoon.
While I do not, usually, add fresh coriander leaves to dishes, I do that in winter for nostalgia.
Back home,winter is the only time when we got fresh coriander leaves. And adding them to dishes like the jhaal, the Begun pora, the simple Aloo bhate,  and salads, gave a fresh flavour.
Today I do it, only during winter, to relive those flavours of childhood.

I love the jhaal most when it is made of small sized fresh water fish like the Tyangra, Pabda, Parshe, Puti, etc.
They are packed with more protien, hence flavour, than the big sized Rohu or the Kaatla.
Ma always fries the fishes on high heat to crisp the skin. And I love them that way.
After soaking up the gravy, when you peel a piece off, you get the slightly crsip yet gravy soaked outer side along with the soft inside.Absolutely lovely.

Thamma would sometimes add a few pieces of raw mangoes to the jhaal. Or amchur. Or at other times, a little tamarind. Tasted heavenly with hot rice.
I stayed with the fresh tomatoes, the round, desi ones that actually have flavour and are slightly tart too. Perfect for that little sourness the jhaal needs.

Need :

Fresh Pabda - 2 pieces (cleaned, marinated in salt + turmeric, and fried in mustard oil)
Mustard oil - 2 tbsp
Kalonji / Kalo jeere / Nigella seeds - 1 tsp
Fresh green chillies - 2, broken
Onion - 1 medium, sliced 
Tomatoes - 2, medium, chopped
Turmeric powder -a pinch 
Mustard paste - 2 tbsp ( I use black mustard +  white mustard seeds in equal quantities ) 
Salt - to taste
Fresh corinader leaves / Dhone paata - 2 tbsp, chopped
Simmering away

How to :

Heat the oil.
Add the kalo jeere + green chillies.
When they start to splutter, add the onions and fry well.
 Add the turmeric powder. Fry till the onions are soft.
Add the tomatoes and cook till they turn mushy. 
Now add the mustard paste, fry a little and add the water.
Add salt, cover and bring to a boil.
Lower heat, add the fish pieces, cover and cook on low heat.
When the gravy reaches desired consistency, add the coriander leaves and remove from heat.

Serve hot with steamed rice.

Here's my Pabda Macher jhaal, soaking up a little winter sun.

Some other Jhaals (mustard paste based curries) on Kichu Khonn 
 Peyaj kolir ( Onion stalks ) jhaal ( veg )

Shojne daatar ( Drumsticks ) jhaal ( veg )

Dharosh ( Bhindi/Lady's finger ) er jhaal  (veg )

Chaatur ( Mushrooms ) jhaal ( veg ) 

Rui Maacher jhaal  ( Rohu fish )

Shorshe Chingri  ( Prawns )

Shorshe Katla

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Mirchi Ka Achar / Pickled Green Chillies

 I have been noticing in the last few months that the post on Kuler achar / Ber ka achar has been getting the most hits. People from Indonesia to Japan to the UK  to our good ole Kolkata, even Chattisgarh, have landed on the page searching for "how to make kuler achar". I have no idea if the recipe has helped anybody at all ... nobody bothers to leave a line these days ... but that is understandable.
I must confess that I have never been a fan of achar/pickles. And that one post was done one an impulsive,  self congratulatory mode ... the intention more of a record of my achievement than to actually help anybody with the directions of making achar.

As a child, I remember the uthon/courtyard  filled with different kinds of jars and earthen wares filled with numerous kinds of achars, all made by Thamma. I was never interested in them, tart and spicy things that made your mouth burn and made you gulp down glasses of water to return to normalcy.
And since they did not interest me much, the fragrance of those mysterious looking pots would be enough to make me turn back into the house if I ever ventured towards the uthon in the afternoons.

It was a different story altogether for the rest of the brood ... read cousins.
When the huge house went quiet in the afternoons, and Thamma and the rest of the Kakimas had retired to their respective rooms, and the helps would doze off in different corners of the house, the children would quietly get up and tip toe out ... but only after making sure their mothers were in deep sleep.
Very quietly, they would open the door to the dining room and then the one that led out to the uthon .... hushing each other, stiffling giggles and making sure that the squeaks from the door hinges made very,very little noise.
And then, they would raid the achar pots.
Run the mustard and nigella seeds in the mixer
The bhaarar ghor / store room and the kitchen stood adjacent to each other, on the long verandah above the uthon. The whole room smelled of different kind of spices and oils and achars. Numerous things were stored there. Among them were two huge tables that were joined together just to keep the jars of achars. The room was dark and cool. And a good hiding place too.

Didi was the gang leader and gave all the directions. The cousins would break up into pairs and each pair was alloted a day.  One would keep watch while the other raided the bharar ghor, pick up fistfuls of achar from which ever pot was nearest at hand and quietly make an escape. This scheme worked well with all the pairs except for the youngest lot ... the pair of  S and L.
And it was this pair that brought the downfall of the brilliant plan of achar chori.

It was just another weekday and the family had retired for the post lunch siesta. It was a hot, summer afternoon  and there was a quiet all over. S and L went quietly downstairs to do their job, with strict instructions from Didi.
L was younger, so was given the job of the lookout. She was to call out "Meeow", if she happened to see anybody approaching. And by anybody ... all they had expected was one or two house helps.

After S entered the store room  and was going about picking fistfuls of achars, she heard footsteps  outside.
Quickly she ducked under the huge table and went very quiet. Someone came up to the door and stopped. And she heard a muttering ... "The helps are no good ... have left the bhaarar ghor open. What if a cat comes in?"
Our eldest uncle had not gone to office that day! But as usual, we children were oblivious of  everything. So ... with some more mutterings, Jethu reached out and shut the huge doors of the store room and walked away.
Mix the chillies + masala + salt
S sat trembling under the table, inside the huge, dark room. Filled with numerous things of all shapes and sizes, it was a terrifying place to be all alone. And that too with the burden of guilt.
L, who had scampered away the moment she had heard Jethu, was meanwhile explaining to a furious Didi , who kept on repeating that all she had to do was to meeeeooow! , just how life threatening it was for her to stand by S.The house helps, she could have managed; but Jethu was a different case altogether.

Now came the point of how to rescue S. The store room was not opened in the evenings at all ... unless it was to get rice or coconuts out.
Hence trying to convince the elders to open it was a huge task.
So they decided to convince Thamma to open it.
"But why?"
"Because there is cat inside."
"A cat?! In my bharar ghor?!"
"Yes, Thamma, a big cat. What if it destroys your achar pots?"
"Tobey re ... awww Suro, aan toh jhaata ta!!"

Add some vinegar
The very thought of swiping poor S with the broom was even more distressing to the already upset gang.
But no ... that is the only way Thamma would open the room.
So ... armed with the biggest coconut stick broom, Suro, our house help, stood guard while our four feet high Thamma reached up to open the store room, signalling Suro, to give a big thwack as soon as the cat runs out.

As soon as the door opened, the cousins started to scream of "Don't run, don't run!" ... meaning to save S from a tremendous thwack. But on hearing the screams, Thamma jumps back, the door swings open and Suro keeps on beating the ground with the broom ... thwack, thwack, thwack.
And poor S ... in all the commotion, jumps up and scoots out, banging head on into Thamma.
"Orey chor, chor,chor!!!" ... Thamma screams.

Jethu, who, along with the rest of the family, had reached the uthon, to see what all the noise was about, reaches out and grabs S in one hand and holds her up to see the chor.
Seeing S dangling from Jethu's arm, the cousins break up and scramble away in all directions. 
And Thamma keeps on screaming "Chor,chor,chor!" and Suro, in his attempt to get the cat out,  kept on banging the broom ... thwack!, thwack!, thwack!, ...

Pour in the mustard oil
I don't remember any more achar chori stints after this episode.
But the story has stayed on to bring out the loudest laughter at every family gathering henceforth.

I made this Mirchi ka achar a few months back. A call out on FB and Soma, Sayantani ,and Anjali gave me the links to their versions. I took all their versions and made mine.
It is way too easy. Just ensure that you have the spiciest of the chillies ... they lend a beautiful fragrance to the achar.

Set in the sun for a week

Need :

Green chillies - cut into small pieces
Mustard oil - enough to drown the whole lot of chilles
Mustard seeds
Kalonji / Nigella seeds
Hing / Asaefotida

How to:

Run the mustard seeds and the nigella seends in a mixer ... just a couple of spurts ... and make a coarse powder.
Mix the chillies with this powder, salt and vinegar.
Heat the mustard oil ... the quantity depends on the consistency you want ... I wanted more of the fragrant oil so used a lot.
When it reaches smoking point, remove from heat and add the hing.
Pour into the chilli mix.
Let it stand in the sun for around a week.


I enjoyed the oil on hot steamed rice. And the achar goes great with any kind of parathas.

Some other Achars / Pickles that I have, successfully, tried my hands on  : - 

Aam Ka Achar  

Ber Ka Achar / Kuler Achar

Tel Kopi / Pickled Cauliflower  

Kanji Vada ( not exactly a pickle, but equally tangy and tasty )