Monday, October 16, 2017

The Eternal City

Soaking up some gelato goodness. At Termini, Rome.

Our (vicarious) connection to Italy started early in life. How? One may ask. I studied in a Catholic school, a convent run by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Mission. So Rome and the Vatican City somehow cropped up in tones of reverence. As I went on a city tour by bus and saw the grandeur that Rome was I couldn't help thinking about Father Bianchi and other missionaries who came all the way from Italy to our town, in the middle of nowhere then, in a remote part of north-eastern India. And the work that they did for education has a lot to do with the development in our corner of the world.

The last leg of the tour.  And we were in Italy on a sunny morning. As soon as we got out of the airport the sight of these pine trees took my breath away. It looked as if all the trees had been pruned. Later I googled and found out that these are known as umbrella pine, stone pine or parasol pine. The botanical name is Pinus pinea and the tree is native to the Mediterranean region and is also to be found in Southern Europe, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Much of Europe's pine nuts are from these stately trees. These trees have been cultivated for their nuts for over 5,000 years and harvested from wild trees for much longer. The Swiss pine/Pinus cembra is also used to a small extent.

The hotel we stayed in, Des Artistes, was a five-minute walk from the busy Termini area. Breakfast at the hotel had an array of baked goodies and fresh fruits. Julietta, the front desk executive, was very helpful. Since we wanted to eat the best Italian food, we started with pasta at Trattoria Dell O'mo. Within walking distance from our hotel, the owner, Antonio was gracious and helpful and when we walked out of his restaurant we were happy souls! The restaurant is packed and had it not been for Julietta we wouldn't have been able to taste such wonderful food!

The Trevi Fountain where we tossed coins and made a wish. This was the only picture I could get as the place was absolutely crowded. It was interesting to learn that the coins are collected and used for charity work. You might be interested in reading about it here.

The Colosseum as seen from the bus. Walking isn't my strongest point so a view like this was good enough for me.

The Church, Castel Sant'Angelo.

The Tiber river.

Wild flowers on the edge of a busy road in Rome.

Don't you love this trellis?

The smell of roasted chestnuts in Piazza Venezia.

The Pantheon.

An assortment of the food that we had in Rome. The thinnest focaccia bread, seafood pasta, tonarelli pasta, ravioli, arancini, fritters of zucchini flowers and so on.

Risotto...both delicious. And mushroom gnocchi with duck slices,

Our last tour was of The Vatican. Having heard so much about the Sistine Chapel, it was such a joy to see it for real. However my pictures do not do justice to its beauty. Which is why I am not adding them here.

St. Peter's Square.

The Pontifical Swiss Guard in their flamboyant uniforms.

Yellow begonias blooming in full glory in Vatican City.

And finally, the haul that I got from Italy along with fresh fennel bulbs! There are so many photos and many more monuments but it's going to be much too long. It's overwhelming to take it all in. At every turn there's a fragment or part of Rome's glorious past. The Eternal City will always have a special place in my heart.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

My European Trip

Eiffel Tower at night
My recent trip to Europe went very well and we were in three places in three countries. Paris, Brussels and Rome were places that I had only dreamed about. Each was so beautiful and I hope I can visit a few more places in Europe before I die.:)
When I said 'yes' to the trip I was so excited about visiting Europe that I momentarily forgot about my knee pain. A quick visit to meet my mother in August made it worse. But a month's physiotherapy really helped and I feel blessed that I could walk like the others in the group. Except for dragging my right leg on a visit to The Pantheon, everything went all right.
Wine & cheese tasting in Paris

So happy to see these fruits
In Paris, we gorged on the local fruits still in season. Although the supermarkets in Delhi store these fruits (I see them on my occasional visits) I hardly buy them as they are frightfully expensive. The memory of gorging on fresh raspberries and blueberries in a busy Paris street will forever remain. 

First sight of the Seine from the tour bus.

Sweet temptations in a French bakery
With my craze for pies and tarts, I tried out many different kinds. The peach tart was to die for (pictured in the collage below). Unfortunately, our peaches turn acidic when cooked or baked. There they remain as sweet as ever. By the time we got to Italy, I was done with tarts. And although the hotel had an array of sweet baked goodies, I went for the savoury ones.

Some of the many meals we had in a bistro in Paris
Except for the peach tart, the rest were taken at the two bistros we visited in Paris. Food was wonderful. Although I have had snails before, the French style of cooking takes it to another level.

View of Paris from the second floor of Eiffel

One of the most famous statues in Brussels, Manneken Pis. There are many myths about the origins of this statue. One says that the boy was lost and was found by his father a couple of days later urinating on the spot where the statue now stands.

Waffles. There were so many kinds with various toppings. I opted for the plain one and it was delicious!!

There were quite a few shops selling runners, table cloths, doiles and other lacy stuff. I spent some time talking to this cheerful lady. She had just returned from Rome and we were to leave the next day so the conversation was all about Italy!
A street in Brussels

Geraniums and other blooms in Brussels

Not much of buying but a lot of window shopping.:) Leaving you with the shot of some beautiful jewellery. Next stop, Rome. Including the same here would make the post too long. I hope you enjoyed going through the pictures!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fennel & Chicken Quiche

Fennel & chicken quiche
I got back from Europe a few days ago and am in the process of using the ingredients I had bought in Rome. There were so many pictures and I have started posting them on Facebook. Europe was a wonderful experience and the fact that I have been able to go there makes it all the more 'possible' for future trips.:)
Making gnocchi or pizza at home but actually having them there was a different thing. Unlike some who went looking for Indian food, I stayed away from what we usually eat and it was a trial of different kinds of pasta, risotto and breads for me. One ingredient that I brought back was fennel. Although fennel seeds are widely used used in cooking, I have only seen the bulbs on cooking shows. At the moment, I do have fennel plants in a pot but I had scattered the seeds in order to use the dainty leaves as a garnish for my baked goodies.
Fennel bulbs

a).The shell before hitting the oven. b)Egg-washed & baked again c) Ingredients for the filling d) The braided embellishment e) The filling goes in...the wet ingredients were added later  f) Out of the oven.
The crust was blind-baked while I got the vegetables ready. I used one bulb of fennel and that was sliced vertically and they went into the oven for about 20 minutes. A drizzle of olive oil, some salt and ground black pepper were also added. The onions were fried in a bit of oil to which I also added the sliced carrots. The rest of the ingredients like boiled and shredded chicken, eggs, cream, grated cheese, a touch of salt, more pepper and fennel leaves were all added to the blind-baked shell. 

A slice of the quiche. This served ten people. I had taken it to my sister's and the slices went off fast. More people in her house. Everybody loved the taste of fennel. As for the photos of the trip I shall be uploading them in my next post.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Suji Phirni/Dessert Made of Semolina

With the festive season already here, it's time for some milk-based desserts and phirni made with semolina is quick and so easy. This is what I made yesterday. I have been saving my home-grown rose petals and put them to good use. There's a bit left in the little jar and I'll be finishing them off the moment I get back from my trip.
I am going on a short trip to Europe, and this is going to be my first time. This will be more of a culinary trip with like-minded ladies and we are all looking forward to being in places like Paris, Rome and Brussels.
Phirni is a popular North-Indian dessert made with rice flour, milk, and garnished with nuts. This variation with semolina is also equally delicious.

Suji Phirni (serves 4)

1 litre milk
A pinch of saffron
A pinch of cardamom powder
Sugar as per taste
1 heaped tbs suji
1 tbs vegetable oil
Sliced pistachoos
Some dried fragrant rose petals

Place a heavy-bottomed pan on the flame and add a bit of water to it. Then pour the milk into it. This ensures that the bottom does not catch easily.
On a medium flame let the milk get reduced to half. Stir from time to time.
Take about a tablespoon of the hot milk in a bowl and add the saffron to it. Crush with the back of a spoon and put the contents back to the milk pan.
Add the pinch of cardamom as well.
In another pan, pour the oil and toast the suji till it turns golden and the raw smell disappears.
By this time the milk will have reduced to half. Pour the toasted suji in the milk and continue to stir. Gradually the mixture will start to thicken.
Cook till it is thick enough but still of pouring consistency.
Remove from the flame and let it cool.
Before serving in individual bowls, scatter the rose petals and the sliced pistachios.
P.S. I could have used ghee for toasting the suji but some people do not like ghee hence the oil. Personally, I prefer ghee.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Patishapta With Rabdi Filling

Patishapta with rabdi filling & a scattering of pistachios and rose petals
Sometimes to rectify one dish another needs to be created. This was what happened to me. I made rabdi yesterday but it turned out to be a little too sweet. Instead of using a spoon. I poured the sugar from the packet and more than what was intended went into the thickened milk. Sigh! And patishapta seemed to be the answer. I could use the sweet filling without a sweetened batter!

Patishapta, is a term in Bengali for crepes made of a mix of all-purpose flour and semolina. The filling is usually of sweetened coconut or rice pudding. A delightful dish which is widely consumed during the winter months. In this case, I added rice flour too as I had some left over and I wanted to finish it off. The only ingredient I didn't use was sugar to the batter as I needed to balance out the sweetness of the filling.
I made the rabdi with 1 litre of milk. This was left on a low flame and stirred from time to time so that the milk would not catch at the bottom of the pan. Towards the end I added sugar and a pinch of saffron. You could add cardamom but I left it out.
For the crepes.....
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 tsps semolina
3 tsps rice flour
Milk as needed
Oil/butter/ghee to fry the crepes
Rabdi made from a litre of milk
Generally the flours are mixed together to a smooth paste with milk. But since I had the larger granules of semolina, I decided to soak it in milk. I also added the rice flour and mixed it well before placing the bowl in the fridge. I added the all-purpose flour the next morning before making the crepes.
Mix all the flours to a smooth paste by adding some more milk. The batter should be thick but spread-able.
Heat a non-stick pan and drizzle it with oil.
With a round ladle, scoop up the batter and pour it in the pan.
Swirl the pan around so that the batter spreads and takes the shape of the pan.
Let it cook for a few minutes. Add the filling in the middle. I used three tsps of rabdi for each crepe.
Fold on both sides and let it remain for a couple of minutes before you remove it to a platter.
Repeat till the batter is used up. In my case the outcome was four crepes with a bit of the filling left over. This I slathered on the crepes before eating. 
Before serving, scatter the sliced pistachios and rose petals on the patishapta.

Our breakfasts are never this festive. But it's September and we are looking forward to the cooler months and this seemed like a good start.:)) And the balance of sweetness with this combination was just right! The rose petals I used here are home grown.
Happy September!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Cream Cheese Muffins

The frequency of baking cakes has come down to a certain degree in my kitchen. But since my older son loves muffins, I do bake them once in a while. And sometimes pack them off for his colleagues at his office. He's a content writer in a medical company. I'm happy he's based here as of now. The future might be a different story.
Recently, I went to Haflong to visit my mother. She's 75 years old and even with bad knees but plenty of physiotherapy, she has started working on her vegetable garden. There's always something to pick, eat and even wonder at the things that grow.:)
One portion of the garden where beans & gourds grow
And when I am at my mother's, I can never resist taking food shots in the backyard. There are coconut and betel nut trees, guava, banana, jackfruit and so many more. The sight of the blue hills is always such a joy to behold. 

Here's an early morning shot of freshly-made musk melon juice taken in my mother's backyard.
200 grams cream cheese at room temperature
2/3 cup caster sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
11/2 cups flour (I used half and half of all-purpose and whole wheat flour)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup melted butter
Fresh from the oven

Preheat the oven to 180 C . Sieve the flour with the baking powder and set aside.
In a blender, mix the wet ingredients.
Pour in the dry ingredients and mix till homogeneous.
If you feel that the mixture is a bit too dry, add about a tablespoon of milk.
With the help of a spoon, transfer the batter to lined muffin moulds.
Bake for 20-25 minutes till golden brown.
Remove and cool on a wire rack.
And the dried rose petals came from this rose that I plucked yesterday.
These muffins are wonderfully soft and so fragrant. I doubt whether they will see the light of day!!:)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Guava Curry

Most acidic fruits like elephant apples, Indian jujube, green mangoes, Indian olives and star fruits, to name a few, are cooked in a sweet/sour kind of chutney but we have always had guavas without cooking. Guava curry is more popular in the western and drier regions of our country.
Guava is one of the most common fruits of summer and they are nutritious. It is said that one guava contains four times the amount of vitamin C as an orange. Tropical fruits always remind me of my childhood as we had so many trees and summer afternoons were spent amid those trees and the fruits they bore. Some trees bear fruits during winter too but winter harvests are never as bounteous as the one in summer.

Yesterday's harvest. I left out the semi-ripe ones from this photo. The brown patches look a little unsightly but does nothing to the taste!:) My yard has three trees. The first one came from my parents' garden. I had dug up a sapling that grew next to a guava tree of the pink variety. I was so sure that it would produce pink fruits too. Three or four years later, I can't remember exactly, I was disappointed to see that the pulp was creamy white. But the taste was so sweet that I didn't really keep on thinking about pink...

Coming to the recipe, it's from an old magazine that used the pink variety.

1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
10 -12 curry leaves
2-3 green chillies, scored lengthwise
A pinch of hing/asafoetida
1/2 cup curd, beaten
2 tomatoes, chopped
5 semi-ripe guavas, deseeded and diced
3 tsp, grated jaggery
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp garam masala
Salt to taste
Chopped herbs of your choice (I used serrated coriander)
2 tbs mustard oil

Heat the oil in a pan. When it's hot enough, add the fennel, cumin and mustard seeds.
Once they sputter, add the curry leaves, green chillies and hing.
Add the chopped tomatoes and cook till they turn mushy. This will take about 10 minutes.
Stir in the beaten curd and give the mix a good stir.
Add about 1/2 cup warm water and the diced guavas. Simmer for another 10 minutes or so till the guavas turn soft.
Add the jaggery, garam masala, lemon juice and salt. Check and make adjustments, if needed.
Take it off the heat and garnish with the chopped herbs,
This goes with either rice or with puris.
Pink guavas from my mother's garden
I loved it. Although my boys weren't keen on it, I'm glad I tried this dish. Particularly with home-grown produce.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Fritters Made Of Water Lily Stalks

The wide plains of our state is rich in aquatic plants. And during this season, water spinach and water lilies with their extra long stalks are widely sold. Our regular vendor who comes each morning in his bicycle with baskets laden with banana flowers, lemons, chillies, and various leafy greens had plenty of water lilies yesterday. Now with flowers that look like these, who can resist them?
I usually ask the vendors how they like to eat/cook the vegetables they sell. In this case, he said that they taste really good when you stir-fry the stems with some garlic. But I had done that before and quite liked it. These stalks are mild in taste and need very little cooking time.
A basket of water lilies
 The pretty flowers were drowsy in the hot sun and I simply couldn't take my eyes off them.

Water lily stalk fritters:
Recipe adapted from here.
Water lily stems
Chick pea flour
Rice flour
Chilli powder
Nigella seeds
Turmeric powder
Salt to taste
A dash of sugar
A pinch of baking soda
Oil to fry

Remove the flowers and wash the stalks. Peel the skin. It comes off easily in long strips. The action is the same as stringing beans or removing the skin from colocasia stems. You could cut the stalks into four or five parts to make it easier. Cut into even-sized pieces.
Wash and drain in a colander.
Take a toothpick and skewer the cut stalks like a small raft. I used 6 pieces for each 'raft'.
Keep doing so till all the prepared stalks are used up. 
In a bowl, mix the flours. No measurements are given here as with fritters we usually go by eye. The proportion is that there should be two parts chick pea flour and one part rice flour.
Add the seasonings and the nigella seeds. Mix well. Add water and make a thick batter.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan.
Dip each 'raft' in the batter and fry in the hot oil. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
The toothpicks can be removed but I left them on.

Instead of making regular chutney. I made a tzatziki dip with...
1 cup of strained yoghurt
1 small cucumber, peeled and grated and the water squeezed out
Salt to taste
2 cloves of garlic peeled, crushed and chopped to bits
Freshly grated black pepper, as per taste
A drizzle of extra virgin olive olive oil
Mint leaves as a garnish
Combine all the ingredients except the last two, till homogeneous. Drizzle the olive oil on top and garnish with a few mint leaves/sprigs.

The reddish colour comes from the use of chilli powder. I loved the fritters. With the rest of the stalks, I'll be trying out another recipe soon.