January 25, 2007
Mixed Pakora

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.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 3:25 PM | Comments (5)
January 18, 2007
Celeriac revisited: Gratin de céleri rave au bleu dana

celeriacgratin.jpgCeleriac is a very ugly vegetable. It looks like a turnip's country bumpkin never-had-a-date cousin. Why else would it take me nearly two years to give it a second chance in my kitchen? It's not that I disliked it the first time around and the post I wrote garnered a number of good suggestions on other things to do with it. I just...forgot. And when I saw it in the market, there was nothing exciting (bright healthy green leaves or a glossy red skin, for example) to attract my attention. But we are reaching the Dead Zone of the vegetable world (and don't even talk to me about fruit!) so last week I reconsidered the humble celeriac while I was waiting in line at my favourite vegetable stall at the organic market. And I bought a nice firm medium-sized head.

Once home, I turned (as one does) to the Internet for ideas on what to do with the knobby head. The recipes I found could be summed up as follows: 75% mashed (tried that last time and found it uninspired), 20% gratin and 5% some variation on a remoulade. It would seem that the blogosphere no more inspired than I am about this vegetable. I'd like to say that I came up with some clever idea of my own for the celeriac, but I'm still working on that. In the meantime, I decided to go with the most interesting of the gratin ideas: one with a blue cheese topping. And it was surprisingly tasty and predictably satisfying and filling. Celeriac does not have the overpowering flavour that its cousin celery has when cooked. It remains fairly subtle and a bit nutty, the perfect balance to a salty blue cheese. From start to finish it took only about 15 minutes preparation and 25 minutes in the oven, which also makes it a very useful recipe for a busy mother. Providing your little ones like blue cheese. (I'm working on that.)

Celeriac Gratin (Gratin de céleri rave au bleu dana)

I bought the Danish blue cheese for this recipe at the market too. It looked creamy and enticing and although pregnant women are not supposed to eat blue cheese my doctor tells me it's fine as long as the cheese is cooked in a dish. (I love my doctor.) I had a hankering for the forbidden cheese and this recipe was also a way to satisfy that craving. You could substitute any mild blue cheese - creamy Gorgonzola would also work very well.

1 small celeriac head (about 400 grams)
1 cup milk
1/2 cup crême frîche
1 large egg
75 grams Danish blue or other mild blue cheese
pinch of salt
Butter for gratin dish

Wash peel and slice the celeriac in thin (1/2 cm) pieces. Butter a small gratin dish and layer the celeriac in the dish. Beat together the milk, cream and egg and pour over the celeriac. Crumble the cheese in small chunks and spread over the top of the dish. Bake in a hot (200c/400f) oven for 25 minutes or until a sharp knife easily runs through the tender slices of celeriac. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving.

Note: if the top of the dish starts to brown, cover with brown paper or tin foil. Blue cheese can turn very acidic and sharp if it cooks too much and will overpower the delicate celery aroma of the dish.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 2:54 PM | Comments (13)
January 15, 2007
Ach, du Liebezeit!

potatopancake.jpgWhen I first moved to Europe some 15 years ago, I lived in Munich for a year. With a maiden name like Liebezeit, on the surface I fit in pretty well. Pizza delivery places weren't thrown by my name and everyone knew how to spell it without any confusing ee-zee-tee sounds. I asked a few people if the name had a special significance aside from the obvious "love (liebe) time (zeit)". Did it mean a particular season, or a concept? None of my friends had any light to shed on the subject and eventually I stopped asking. I had all but forgotten it until the first time I crossed the border into Austria. "Ach, du Liebezeit!!" the border patrol guide called out with a broad smile when he saw my name on the passport, and he smacked himself on the forehead. Apparently, the only common use of the phrase "liebezeit" (unless it happens to be your name) is when you have done something foolish. Oh you idiot. Or maybe a better translation would be yokel? In any case, it was a source of great amusement to my friends.

Actually, my roots are Austrian rather than German. My grandmother's name, Ifkovits, was much more typical of the Burgenland region from which she and my grandfather hailed. So my two favourite dishes that she made were goulash and creamy duck soup, neither of which is at all typical of German cooking. However, there is one recipe which has passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me which is completely German: her potato pancakes. The recipe is so simple that I'm almost embarrassed to put it down here. That said, I had to call my mother the other night to verify it. I knew that if I just guessed she'd be sure to pick up on any mistake and I'd have an "Ach, du Liebezeit!" moment. So here it is: great with sausages (we had Nürnberger sausages) and applesauce or a roast or anywhere, as long as it's hot and salty and a little greasy. (Note for the lazy: there is a stall at the organic market in the 17th which sells pretty good ones. I've seen my friend Clotilde write somewhat disparagingly of them, but the boy and I are fans...)

Authentic Potato Pancakes

Note: the proportions are more or less correct here, but there is a lot of leeway. I have never measured any of the ingredients, aside from this time - when I plopped the potatoes on a scale to see how much they weighted. Makes 8-10 medium pancakes.

Special equipment: a grease splatter guard is useful and you'll also need a stack of paper towels to drain them as they cook.

about 1 lb (450g) potatoes, grated. You can leave the skins on if they are thin, for example on young red potatoes
2 small onions or one large, grated
2 heaping Tbs sour cream or creme fraîche
1 heaping Tbs flour
1 generous tsp salt
oil - something neutral (I use sunflower)

Mix all the ingredients except the oil. Pour enough oil to generously cover the bottom of your frying pan and heat until not quite smoking. When you add the batter for the first pancake, it should immediately splatter and begin cooking. As soon as you have two medium dollops of batter in your hot oil, use the spatula to spread it out thinly. The thinner the pancake, the easier it is to cook it through without over-cooking it. After 4-5 minutes, peek under the pancakes to see if they are nicely browned. Your nose will be as useful as your eyes in judging when the pancakes are done as they will start to smell delicious. Once they are medium brown and crispy, turn them over and cook another 3-4 minutes. As soon as they are done, remove to a paper towel and salt them generously. You can keep them warm in an oven while you finish the rest or - even better - serve them hot as they come off the fire. You might want to delegate the sausage-turning and plating to someone else while you concentrate on this essential task, so that everyone gets his or her portion crispy hot and ready to be devoured.

Guten apetit!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 11:52 AM | Comments (3)
January 10, 2007
Parsnip and Turnip Soup

Most winters, I'd be soup mad by now, but we've had an unusually mild season this year. It was over 70 in Baltimore not two weeks ago, with the Christmas tree still up (OK, we STILL haven't taken it down, but we're busy, dagnabit). That's just not right and certainly not soup weather.

On one of the days when it WAS chilly, I made a bowl of this root soup for dinner. Getting acquainted with the various vegetables that grow underground is best done when the ones that grow above ground are harder to find.

It's not that peas or aspargus or artichokes are necessarily superior to potatoes, carrots, parsnips or turnips, but root veggies do tend to lend themselves to heartier, heavier, warmer dishes like this soup that are best eaten with snow on the ground and boots in the hall.

If you're not familiar with parsnips, think of them as carrots with a touch of anise and parsley flavor. They're more complex than that, but they definitely have a carrot-family flavor. Turnips are more difficult to describe and seem to me to belong to a family all their own. They add great flavor here.

With all the flavor in the soup, I didn't feel the need to add any herbs here, but you can add some tarragon if you like. It goes well with the parsnip flavor. It won't take you long - this is a simple soup of the cut and boil variety.

Use a commercial or home-made vegetable stock with low sodium and serve with bread and cheese.

Parsnip and Turnip Soup
1 onion, peeled and diced fine
2 cloves crushed garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 parsnips, peeled and diced into 1" pieces
1 carrot, peeled and diced into 1" pieces
2 turnips, peeled and diced into 1" cubes
1 stalk celery, cut into 1" pieces
1 large potato, peeled and diced into 1" cubes
4 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper to taste

In a dutch oven or soup pot, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the garlic, celery, and onion and sautee for about 60 seconds. Add the rest of the vegetables, cover, and sautee over medium-high heat stirring fairly frequently until the vegetables soften up and are easily pierced by a sharp knife, about seven-ten minutes. Add the stock and cook for 20 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring and scraping the bottom to get any vegetable fond that has stuck to the bottom into the soup.

Taste and adjust salt and pepper. Blend with an immersion blender and serve.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at 7:50 AM | Comments (7)
January 3, 2007
NOT a Christmas Present

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The Critic is really one in a million. He's an incurable romantic who likes to surprise me with big Christmas gifts that make me go "WOW". Ideally, they have to be fun gifts and completely unrelated to mundane tasks like cleaning. He felt he was walking a thin line last year when he gave me a gorgeous cherry red Kitchenaid, but I was delighted. Cooking and baking are not a chore to me (duh) and the only negative feeling I had about THAT gift was a guilty conscience for requesting - and getting - something so extravagantly expensive for Christmas.

This year, he mentioned several times that he was disappointed because he hadn't found a gift with the "WOW" factor for me at Christmas. I pointed out to him (and it shut him up) that it was thanks to his insistence and generousity that I was able to say goodbye to my father before he died, and that this might be considered a more precious gift than anything else he could buy. But it must have still been bothering him at some level. Or maybe he just got tired of fighting with a sink full of soaking dishes every time he wanted to fill the water filter jug in the kitchen. Whatever the reason, he went out a few days ago and bought me a magical, wonderful machine: a dishwasher that actually works.

WOW.

The Candy machine (a.k.a. "That Useless Waste of Space in the Kitchen"), which we bought three years ago, required you to soak and scrape the dishes to the point where you could have just about skipped the machine entirely, if you wanted dishes to come out clean. Even then, if you foolishly forgot to properly prepare one dish in the load, little bits of half-washed food from that one dish would miraculously (think the miracle of the 40 loaves) spread over every single dish in the machine. Of course you couldn't just run the load again. No, at that point, you had to take out the entire load, soak everything (it had dried on the dishes by then), scrub again and start over.

But now I have a Bosch. It has a beautiful brushed chrome finish. (Ignore the blue in the photo: I was advised by the delivery men to leave it on the machine for 24 hours before peeling it off or some of the residue glue would stick to the machine.) The first test load included dishes that were scraped but not even rinsed, some of which had been waiting for over 12 hours to be washed - and at the end I had a machine full of sparkling clean dishes. I'm in heaven.

The thing is, a good dishwasher is as much a cook's tool as a KitchenAid. Without it, you are constantly cramped and messy - dishes piling up everywhere waiting to be properly prepared for the machine. With a good machine, you can just load as you go, clearing counter space as soon as you've finished with any utensil. By making my life easier, it will make my cooking more pleasurable.

I'm reminded of a comment made to me by a very hip woman I once worked for in Munich. She was very glamorous, a photographer's model and an actress, and, as it happened, the mother of the three children I was paid to look after. One day she drew me into the kitchen and showed me her mammouth American washer and dryer. "These are my most prized possessions!" she proudly told me. Young fool that I was, I just stared at her, at a loss for words. But now I know. I know the sorrows of washing machines that can't dissolve caked on mud and only hold a half a laundry basket of clothes. I know about dryers that can heat an entire apartment for 24 hours without actually succeeding in drying a single pair of jeans. (I insisted on a good quality washer and dryer when we bought.) And I know about dishwashers that increase instead of decreasing your workload.

And now I know the heaven that is A Dishwasher That Works.

Thanks to a husband in a million. And he won't even let me count it as a Christmas present or an anniversary present. Truly priceless.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 3:34 PM | Comments (6)
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