Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Breakfast Should Be Hearty

Mama (your maternal grandmother) was 86 when she passed on, and she used to have an egg everyday for breakfast. From fried eggs and bacon up until she was in the seventies, she bowed to exclamations of horror from her doctor and settled for a half-boiled egg with bread, butter and tea every morning.

Now you can have anything you like for breakfast. Since an egg is the focal point of mine I learned early how to test if an egg is fresh. Here's how you do it.

Fill a deep bowl with water and lower the egg into the water. If it sinks to the bottom and lies on its side, it is very fresh. If the narrower end touches the bottom of the bowl with the broader end pointing to the surface the egg is not very fresh but edible. If the egg is floating freely in the water and does not touch the bottom of the bowl at all, get rid of the egg at once and for God's sake don't break it to check, it will stink like the blazes. On the other hand, it could make an excellent assault weapon.

First set your frying pan on the fire. Let it get hot. You need a hot pan to fry anything properly, else it will stick. Drop a drop of water in the pan; if it sizzles immediately and vaporizes, the pan's ready for action.

Drop a small quarter teaspoon blob of butter and a half teaspoon of oil. Let both mingle together, turn down the flame to medium. Once the butter has melted, swirl the butter-oil mix to spread all over the pan evenly.If it does not swirl since it is such a tiny amount spread it around with a wooden spatula or the back of a spoon.

Now hold the egg in your left hand, take a butter knife and striking with the edge, give the widest part of the egg a firm thwack. Put the knife down, hold the egg over the pan. Insert both thumbnails into the crack you made and gently pull the shell apart. The egg will drop into the pan. Take a spatula, which is a flat spoon and gently spread the white of the egg outwards. It makes the egg look larger and it helps cook the egg more evenly. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the egg and when the edge of the white gets slightly golden, slide the spatula gently under the fried egg, loosening any part that may be sticking to the pan with the gentlest of touches. Lift the egg up and onto a waiting plate. That's a Sunny Side Up fried egg for you.

If your nerves will not allow you to actually break the egg into the hot oil, cos you are paranoid about splatter, you can break the egg into a small bowl and slip it into the hot oiled frying pan.

Sometimes the yellow egg yolk breaks and you don't like the yellow running off in different directions. Lepers' pus is what Christopher used to call it and got an hour long nag from your father. You can take the spatula, gently spread the broken yolk around on the white of the egg, when the edges get firm, slide the spatula under the egg with your right hand, holding the butter knife in your left hand as a guard to guide the egg as you carefully turn the egg over in the pan. Let it cook for two minutes on a low flame and there you are!

If you want a tasty but unhealthy breakfast, strips of bacon go very well with a sunny side up fried egg. Bacon comes with its own fat, so don't go putting oil in your frying pan. It would be a good idea to fry the bacon first and then the egg in the bacon fat that is left in the pan.

To fry the bacon properly, heat the pan first, when hot place the strips of bacon in the pan. The bacon will curl up, but if you want your bacon strips flat you can place a steel plate on the bacon strips so that they don't curl, fry them for three minutes on one side on a medium flame, remove the steel plate, turn them over, replace the plate to lie on them. Another three minutes and the bacon is ready. If you like your bacon more crisp, keep it on for two minutes longer on both sides.

Separate the sausages. Sometimes they come joined to each other. Heat the pan until a drop of water sizzles and disappears. A half-teaspoon of oil and a tiny blob of butter goes into the pan. Swirl to spread it around. Don't be too enthu about swirling, you may end up with a lightly fried chest. Using a spoon place the sausages in the hot oil of the hot pan. Later you will be able to put them in the pan using your fingers, be quick, be fluid, and don't drop them from a height or you will be splashed. Turn the sausages so that they are evenly browned. You can prick the sausages with a fork to quicken the cooking process. The sausages are ready when the skin starts bursting. Lift them from the pan and place them on paper to drain the excess oil.

Boiled potato is always handy to keep in a refrigerator. So the day you plan to have mashed potato put another four or five potatoes into a pressure cooker with half a glass or cup of water. Close the pressure cooker, place it on a high flame, when the whistle sounds, turn the flame on low for 15 minutes. Let the pressure cooker sit for five minutes then lift the vent until the cooker stops hissing. Open it and empty the potatoes into a colander. Take one or two place in a shallow bottomed bowl chop them, peel off the skin and mash them with a fork, add a pinch of salt and some pepper along with a blob of butter, mash, mash, mash until it is smooth. Chic chefs add milk or cream. I like adding a little cheese, but that's up to you. The mashed potato with salt, pepper and butter is great by itself.

The best thing to do is follow the directions on the box. If you are using sojee or rava, heat milk, add sugar, two teaspoons to a cup of milk and a tiny pinch of salt. When the milk boils, turn the flame down to the lowest and sprinkle a tablespoon and a half of the oats or sojee. Stir gently until the oats or sojee gets soft enough to eat. Yeah you have to keep tasting whatever you cook. If it is too sweet add more plain milk.

This should get you sorted out in the morning. Unless you hate eggs and cannot eat pork. Then keep some bread handy, toast it, or just heat it, butter, jam, or cheese, or sandwich spread. You can stock up on cornflakes too. Or play safe and warm up some leftover curry or veggies and eat it with toasted buttered bread. If it's meat or veggies, add some grated cheese or cotmir and chopped onions. A few drops of lemon juice and yay.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The trick of storing groceries

The first thing you do when you get your stuff home is handle the perishables first.
Put the eggs, bread, butter, cheese and milk in the refrigerator. Keep the meats and fish near the sink.
The oil goes into a cabinet or shelf. Empty the fruit into a colander and run water over them, wash 'em and let 'em dry out in the colander itself.

You can roll the fresh green coriander tightly in a newspaper or paper towel and stow it in the veg tray of your fridge. What I do is chop off the roots, though there are some great cooks who like using the coriander roots for cooking. I don't. I find it eeky. So, off with the roots and the stringy stems. The tender ones i break off and dump into a box with holes for air to pass through. I always place a folded newspaper at the bottom of the box so that the coriander leaves at the bottom don't get blackened. Every time you use coriander leaves for cooking or garnishing a finished dish toss the remainder in the box so that the top leaves go to the bottom and vice versa.

These should best be washed cut and cooked immediately, but if you don't have the time or inclination, wrap each bundle tightly in newspaper or paper towels and bung it into the veg tray in the fridge for a day at the most. I'm talking of spinach, methi, red leafy vegetable that we call tambdi bhaji in Goa, spring onions or leeks. Wrapped in newspaper, spring onions last for four days even.

You get these neat nylon knit bags with draw strings on the top for storing vegetables. You should get about a dozen of these; each holds a different type of vegetable or fruit. French beans, runner beans, ladyfingers, carrots, capsicums or green peppers - each species in its bag. Brinjals, cabbage cauliflower separately. The heavy veggies go to the bottom of the drawer, tomatoes and capsicums at the top. The rest in between. Segregation is the name of the game in a veggie tray.

The trick is have a place for everything and put everything in its place. Saves a lot of time.

Trim the meat first if you haven't already done it at the cold storage or butchers. Then cut the meat into half kilo sections if you are cooking for four, or quarter kilo sections if you are cooking for two. You can cut one section into chunks, another into slices, a third can be kept as it is for a roast.
Apply salt, ginger-garlic paste (max two tablespoonfuls), two tablespoons of curd/yoghurt (curd is a handy item to have in the house, healthy and tasty); it's the easiest thing is the world to make your own curd. Take a spoonful of good firm curd not the runny type that has given up its fight. Curd is a good life lesson actually. Making proper curd is like parenting. Good parents using a fair amount of warmth get good children. If you have the 'parent' start-up curd of good quality, you get good quality curd. If you have a poor weak runny and not firm start-up curd, you get this awful baby up-chuck stuff whether you apply the right kind of heat or not. Step 1: Take a spoonful of good firm curd, place it in a stainless steel bowl. Step 2: pour half a litre of milk into it without smashing up the curd. Step 3: Place it on a very low fire until the milk becomes warm not hot. Too much heat will ruin the curd. Just like parenting see? Do it last thing at night and it's ready for you in the morning.

But back to the meat. You have salt, ginger-garlic, curd. You can add a tablespoon of meat sauce like barbeque sauce or Bancal's sauce available in Goa, a tablespoon of soya sauce and any powdered spices of your choice. Massage the mixture into the meat thoroughly. It's great for releasing tension. Imagine it's your current bully's face. Take a fork, stab the meat viciously all over so that the marinade can seep into the meat and not stay on top. Or you can take a sharp knife and score diagonal lines all over the roast piece. Of course you don't need to do any stabbing for the chunks or the slices. The slices can be pounded first then the marinade applied.

Once that is done, pack your portions of prepared meat into clean plastic bags and stash them in boxes in your freezer. When you need it pick what you want and cook it.

If it's chicken or duck, you can get it cut in pieces at the cold storage itself, or you can cut it yourself. Take the cleaver grab the leg and feel for the joint, place the cleaver on the joint, make sure you take your finger away and press down, or chop. Then go to the joint between the thigh and the hip, chop. Place the bird on its back and chop off the bottom area. I find the idea of cooking chicken bum disgusting, though there are some people who would kill for that piece. Then hold your cleaver sideways and slide it between the ribs and the back and slice upwards until you reach the shoulder. Keep your hand away from the blade. Do the same on the other side. Separate the breast from the back. Now slice the breast into pieces you like; you can have two four or five pieces.
Make the same kind of marinade for the chicken or if you want it bland just use salt, ginger-garlic paste, lemon and pepper. Pack it into plastic bags and store them in boxes.

You can get fish cleaned at the fish market itself or at the cold storage. If you can't -- no big deal. Place the fish on its side.Grab the tail with one hand and with the other hold a sharp knife at an angle against the body of the fish and scrap the scales off upwards. Flip the fish over and scrap off the scales on the other side. Take your kitchen scissors and snip off the fins and the tail. Or you can take the cleaver to the tail. Then you can do the easy thing, cut off the head of the fish and scoop out the organs from the stomach cavity. Sprinkle a little salt on the fish, and lemon juice, pack it in plastic, box it and bung it in the freezer.

You can get plastic, aluminum or steel boxes for your freezer. You can pack different parcels of seafood in one box, poultry in another, and beef, pork, mutton in their boxes. I use stainless steel boxes for storing cooked food in the freezer. Apartheid again but it makes life so much easier.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Stocking up your kitchen

They say you should not go shopping when you are hungry 'cos you end up buying stuff you don't really need. You shouldn't buy too much stuff because firstly, it occupies precious space, secondly it could rot and rotting food is very stressful. Puts you in a bad mood, which is something you don't want in a kitchen.

The safest thing to do is have a meal, then get a pen and paper and make a list. You may need many things for different rooms and purposes, but we are concentrating on food here. Kitchen stuff.

I find the easiest way to get a groceries list done is to work it by meals. Breakfast. If you eat a heavy breakfast, get eggs, porridge, milk, cheese, salt, pepper, butter, bread, tea, coffee, cocoa, juice, sugar, cold meats, fruit and oil for cooking. Its smart to keep eggs in your fridge at all times, they come in handy for a quick omlette any time of the day or night. The rest can be bought by the pack with maybe a kilo of sugar and salt and half a kilo each of tea and coffee.

Then make your list for lunch and dinner. If you eat rice, buy a couple of kilos. If you eat chappatis or rotis buy a couple of kgs of flour. A balanced meal would need a portion of carbohydrates rice or chappatis or bread. Bread is convenient but not very healthy. A portion of meat or fish. A vegetable. A fresh salad. Dessert. Fruit.
You will need ginger-garlic paste for your meat dish, powdered spices, cloves, cardamoms (elaichi, bay leaves, pepper, red chilli powder, coriander (dhaniya) powder, cummin (jeera) powder. Once you get adventurous in the kitchen buy whole spices which you can roast and then grind and cook. YOu will need some herbs like curry leaves, green coriander and green chillies. Lemons are a good idea. A little fresh lime squeezed into a meat or veg dish just before taking it off the stove gives it that extra special lift. When you buy any meats, whether it is beef or pork or chicken, buy it from an outlet which has a quick turnover. Check the quality of the meat to see that it is fresh. Chciken should be pale and plump, firm to the touch, if the skin is wrinkled and has a grey tinge return it with thanks. Beef and mutton should be red and firm, liver should be a dark burgundy, pork should be pink and firm. Use your finger or any blunt implement. If you press down on the meat it should slowly spring back into shape not stay depressed.

You have to be careful while buying fish. Check that the eye of the fish is not sunken in. Lift the gill flap of the fish and check that the gills are a nice rich red colour. Fish with pink and grey gills are to be avoided.The freshest fish is when you hold it by the head with the tail straight up. If the body of the fish remains erect, it is fresh. If it flops limply it is stale. Prawns should not be limp and should not have an unpleasant smell. Crabs should never be bought during the full moon. Remember this rule: When the moon is full the crab is empty.

Vegetables. Never mind if it is not brightly coloured or shiny. They say those are the ones that are treated with chemicals and even polished with oil. In fact veggies with caterpillars they say are good for you. Not that you are encouraged to eat caterpillars. Look on any resident caterpillar in your cauliflower or ladyfinger as your personal food taster. If the veggie has not killed the caterpillar, then there's no chemical pesticide on it and it definitely won't kill you in the long run. Just gently place the caterpillar on a bush and let it carry on with its activities. Vegetable should be firm and fresh. That's good enough.

To cook most veggies you will need a base of onions, a touch of garlic, tomato, powdered spices, a couple of green chillies, some fresh coriander and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Dessert. Icecream and or fruit is the easiest. Fruit should be firm and not bruised.

Once your shopping's done my next post will be all about storing your groceries and meats. If you store your stuff properly, it makes life so much easier. Later we'll get round to cooking. With each recipe, I'll also impart some of the hard lessons I've learned in the kitchen and some of the cosmetics one can use straight out of the shelf.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Organizing your kitchen

If it’s a small kitchen or a large one, the less you have the better. The first thing you need to look for in any kitchen is storage. Some closed cabinets, hooks, open shelves to discourage the creepy crawlies, a large sized refrigerator, three trays one each for garlic, onions and potatoes, an easy to clean sink and drain board with a plate rack preferably above the sink. A window is necessary and an exhaust fan yes. A counter top of granite which is the easiest to clean, a two burner stove, a mixer, maybe an oven and a toaster. I have been cooking for family and the odd houseguest for the last 30 years and still don’t have an oven or toaster. Why didn’t I get these? Because they mean more work and more to clean. My few pots and pans are enough. That’s what you need in terms of infrastructure.

One large 4 cm deep frying pan, two pressure cookers (one 5 litres and one 6 litres), two saucepans or vessels with fitting covers. One saucepan for making your beverage of choice, one small saucepan for making sauce of course, and an iron tava. One aluminium or stainless steel handi with lid for cooking boiled rice. You need a measuring cup, a set of mixing bowls, one large, one medium, one small; crockery and cutlery of your choice, a butter dish, and a jug to store your cooking oil with a long handled spoon that hangs on its rim.

Check the size of your storage space in your kitchen and fill it with containers, plastic or metal – four large ones for rice, flour, snacks, spices; four medium sized ones for storing a kilo of sugar, custard powder, tea and coffee; six or ten small glass jars for storing your masala powders turmeric, pepper, cumin (jeera), coriander (dhaniya), red chilli powder, garam masala which are the essentials on your masala shelf, whole mustard, whole cumin and any other ready mix masalas that may take your fancy.

Don’t let anyone fool you; a large double door fridge is a must. It saves you money and time because you can shop till you drop once in a blue moon, cook large amounts, divide the cooked food into meal sized stainless steel containers and stow them in the freezer. Then you don’t have to worry about cooking or shopping for a long time. You will have to buy some storage containers for your freezer check the size of your shelves and the storage space in the freezer door too. You can get a set of water bottles and some Tupperware or glass ware for storing jellies and puddings and other goodies.

Whatever works for you is what I say. You need a sink with a drainboard preferably below a plate rack, a window with an interesting view, a long enough work counter; preferably L-shaped if you have a small kitchen. A stove and a refrigerator. Storage cabinets withn reach with minimum stretching. You should be able to move easily from the sink to the workspace to the stove to the refrigerator and the cabinets. Open shelves beneath the counter are ideal for vessels that are used daily. You need space for your gas cylinders. Avoid placing things directly on the floor, except for the gas cylinders of course. Your lowest shelf should be at least six inches off the floor so that every corner can be cleaned properly.

After you know what should go where, you can pick out a colour scheme, pop some herb planters on the window sill; get pretty spice bottles, whatever. So when you go out shopping for stuff, have a clear idea of the colours you want in your kitchen and buy pretty stuff. After that have a place for everything and everything in its place. You can get decorative rails with hooks to hang your knives, ladles and spatulas from, decorative hooks to hang your mugs and cups from.

Your counter should be as empty as possible. Just the stove, the mixer, the toaster, a jug for oil and nothing else. This will be easy to keep clean and will keep the ants and roaches away.