For at least three years now, the Critic has been telling me he wanted to invite his boss to dinner. In fact, over two years ago, his boss ceased to be his boss. Then in December we realised we were working across a firm deadline as the man was leaving Paris in January. So last Friday, we finally arranged the long-awaited dinner party. As the ex-boss and his wife expressed a preference for curry over goulash (the two contenders in our menu planning) I pulled out my three curry cookbooks and started research. When you are planning an important dinner party, it's always a good idea to concentrate on things you know how to make and feel you can make well under pressure. (There's nothing like Inviting the Boss for Dinner to make you feel like a 1950s housewife under neighborhood scrutiny.) So much of the menu was composed by researching the archives of Too Many Chefs: vegetable samosas (which are easier to make than you might think), chicken makhani, and a distinctly un-Indian cheesecake. Then I started adding things I haven't made before, the theory being that I had a solid base of things I knew would turn out and so could afford to experiment with the rest of the meal. Just as well I had that solid base, as my success rate on the experiments was about 50%. Solidly in that 50%, and one of the real hits of the evening was the platter of mixed pakora I prepared.
I am a huge fan of mixed pakora, those deep-fried Indian vegetables. To be honest, this is despite them being fried as I'm not a huge fan of fried foods and even less enthusiastic about cooking them myself. But in a good Indian restaurant you can find an interesting mix of vegetables that are tender and full of flavour and a little crispy on the outside. My main complaint with the nearest Indian restaurant to our apartment is that they only have baigan (eggplant) pakora. Admittedly, of all the vegetables I like eggplant the best. But still, it's even better with a good mix of different vegetables. My platter would not be so uninventive.
For a recipe, I turned to Dharamjit Singh's Indian Cookery. To be honest, I'm increasingly dissatisfied with the recipes in Floyd's India; the more I read and consider, the more I believe that a) he doesn't actually like Indian food all that much and b) his editors convinced him to do the series and book against his better judgement. And my third curry book, Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible, while a very good cookbook, is more of a Curry Around The World book than a guide to classic Indian dishes. So old reliable Singh stepped in and gave me a very good recipe, albeit in need of a slight tweak in the proportions.
Mixed Pakora (serves 8 as a starter)
a variety of vegetables, such as: eggplant/aubergine, carrots, onions, slightly spicy peppers, sweet potato, potato, celeriac (ah ha! I found something interesting to do with it after all!). You could also try sweet bell peppers cut in thin strips or green beans - anything that suits your fancy really, providing it isn't so small as to make the process impractical (e.g. peas).
10 oz/280 grams gram (chickpea) flour
1 1/4 pints/600 ml water
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 litre vegetable oil (I used sunflower)
Beat the water slowly into the flour with a whisk, taking care to beat out any lumps. Beat in the spices and salt and whip until smooth. You may need to use less or more water, depending on the humidity in the air and the grade of flour used; the above amount of water was less than the recipe called for and still very nearly too much. You want the batter to be slightly thicker than heavy cream, a bit like a good pancake batter. Set it aside to rest for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, slice your vegetables in thin pieces. The will only have a few moments in the hot grease so they need to have a large surface area to cook quickly.
Bring the oil up to a nearly smoking heat in a small deep saucepan. When you hold your hand a few inches over the pan, it should quickly feel uncomfortably hot. Prepare many sheets of paper towels to drain the vegetables, and a warm oven if you'll need to keep them warm until they are all done. Dip the first vegetable in the batter, let the bare minimum of batter drain off and slide it into the hot oil. Let it cook for about two minutes and then flip it over and continue for another minute or so. It should be nicely browned on both sides and may start to smell "done". Pull it out, drain it and continue with all the vegetables. It will take a while. If you are in a hurry, you could increase the amount of oil and use a larger pan, allowing you to cook more pieces at a time. But one of the reasons I hate deep fat frying is the amount of oil it wastes and so I prefer to use less and take my time.
Once they vegetables are all done (and to have them at their best, you should probably start serving them before you finish all the frying so they are as fresh as possible), serve them piping hot with a variety of chutneys and pickles.
A note on the celeriac: it worked beautifully, tender and nutty and surprisingly good with the slightly spicy batter. Don't tell the Critic but I'm going to use them again. One of the many joys of mixed pakora is that it allows you to effectively disguise your vegetables in amorphous shapes. Heh, heh, heh...
Sorry for the lack of photos, but I was running against the clock when I made them and so didn't have time to search out the camera.