What I miss about making vadaams and other community food projects

I always know that all is well in my household whenever vadaams (various forms of rice, wheat, sago and potato crispies, to be fried and eaten) are being made in the summer. For a long time, due to her fragile health and multiple open heart surgeries, my mother had lost her mojo (and so had the entire family as a chain reaction) and we relied on store-bought things, whether it was tomato ketchup, mango jam, idli batter, various preserves and chutneys and podis (the dry chutneys). Technically, I knew how to make them, but it was always a community activity and it wouldn’t have been fun without my mother involved. So I didn’t. But every time we were at a lunch or dinner and hot crisp vadaams would be brought out as accompaniments, I thought wistfully about our vadaam days. I also noticed that we had grown apart slightly as a family when we stopped doing these things together.

This summer is different though. I now live close to my mother, and out of the blue, asked her one day, “Amma, why don’t we make vadaams anymore?” Her eyes lit up. “You want to?”, she asked. I said yes, and then we were at it almost at once, planning and getting things ready. The house seemed happier already with our little summer project.

Since there was no muscle power available (some of the vadaam variants involve stirring together kilos of batter, slow cooking them on fire and neither Amma nor I had the strength for it), we chose an elegant, yet easy option: The elaivadaam.

These are rice crispies, made by soaking and grinding rice to a fine paste, adding water to a dosa consistency. This is then delicately flavored with salt, heeng, black sesame seeds and a green chilli concentrate (made by grinding green chillies and straining the juice). The vadaams are then doled out like mini dosas on vadaam plates which are stacked up on a vadaam tray and steamed for 5-7 minutes.

A trip to childhood: making vadaams

A trip to childhood: making vadaams


Peeling and air drying the steamed vadaams is the next step. When we were kids, this was usually assigned to me (and still is) as I was the only one who could be trusted with these half-cooked beauties (they are delicious). Also, I was neat and organised and patient (things I am not much of now). My brother was usually the chief crow watcher, as the vadaams were then dried on our terrace and crows would make off with them in minutes. Till my mother realised that he was the biggest crow, and was happily trading them for marbles with his friends. She then adopted the tried and tested way to ward off the crows: tying a black cloth to a mast, creating a scarecrow of sorts.

As I peeled the vadaams and dried them in rows on a sheet, Amma kept steaming newer ones and handing them over to me, as if in assembly line. We chatted, got nostalgic, shared vadaam stories and before we knew it, the batter was over. The clock had moved four hours. And my mother and I had bonded like the old times. I suddenly felt cocooned in her warmth and confident in the knowledge that she would always have my back. The energy was infectious and Re wanted a task too, and he was appointed chief counter and duly noticed that one vadaam had gone missing (eaten by yours truly)

In a few hours of air-drying, the elaivadaams curl upwards, almost threatening to levitate. It reminded me of when babies start walking and then you have to watch their moves, for they are ready to wander off.

The dried vadaams have a mind of their own

The dried vadaams have a mind of their own

But there are still miles to go before you sleep. The next day, the vadaams have to prepare for a tougher journey, go out into the outside world, face the harshness of the sun, and become tough and firm, ready to face the world. It reminded me of what school is to children.

After all that work, and two days gone, the yield was a hundred vadaams. It might make one wonder, “Was it worth it for all the effort? Can you not just buy it off the shelf?” Perhaps you can. But for me, it was two days of intense conversation, laughs and giggles with my mother and my child. And that, as MasterCard would say, is ‘priceless’.

Two days' work: a hundred vadaams

Two days’ work: a hundred vadaams

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 4th May, 2015)

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A for Aloo, B for Basil

Midday Feature

Ever since Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Kylie Kwong, Curtis Stone, Master Chef and some set foot in our homes, food has somewhat morphed from the dal-chawal-roti-sabzi  routine to assume new avatars on our plate. Food is less about hunger management and more about ‘plating up.’ I noticed this even more after I became a mother— I began to explore a whole new relationship with food as I was trying to introduce my son to the world of flavours and textures. I certainly wanted to graduate from baby-food as I found it quite demeaning. He thought so too, and made it amply clear right from the start.

It all started from his squeal of delight at purple-stained palms with beetroot puree at age six months (instead of the more recommended staid pumpkin), his grabbing of a soup-stick, his dousing idlis in molagapodi from my plate and chomping a whole one in three bites, his helping himself to a mixed lettuce salad with vinaigrette dressing, all before he turned one. I knew I had birthed a foodie and I raised the bar for myself.  Post the beetroot rhapsody, much foodie adventures have happened and still continue, with our recent escapades with Nigella’s linguni with pesto (which, incidentally, he has patented a very unique way of eating) . While I go about working on my culinary art, to please my more demanding palate (and his too), Re potters about with his pots and pans—he has an Ikea kitchen set, complete with colanders, saucepans, cookie cutters, ladles, rolling pin, and even a gas range.

So here’s some food that soothes our visual senses as well as our taste-buds.

 1.     Baby potatoes in thyme

A for Aloo is probably what they should teach at preschool, since a child’s relationship with potatoes is far deeper than that with a certain fruit of sophistication that, even in season, is as dear as 100 rupees a kilo. Aloo was also Re’s favourite vegetable of play, with him tossing them around in real cauldrons (mine) and pretending to stir fry, sometimes pierce them with a fork, ready to bake (clearly I have no issues with cutlery),even pour them. My rendering of them was still limited to aloo parathas, a crispy aloo sabzi or an aloo raita. Mashed potatoes were not good looking enough, hash browns needed an accompaniment, roasted potatoes are great but difficult to master consistency with and dum aloo somehow lacks the dum and frankly, is messy and busy.

Then one day, a bag of baby potatoes arrived and he looked at them suspiciously, perhaps wondering, “Mommy! Who shrank the potatoes?” I pretended that just like human beings, cats and dogs, aloos could also have babies and they often ended up looking cuter. It took him a while to get friendly with the babies though—he still preferred their more robust, adult versions. The trick was to find a stand-alone baby potato dish that could win him over, qualify as finger food, be appealing to the eye, and that I would enjoy as much. My baby potatoes in thyme won on all counts. Simple, non-messy, non-fussy and extremely elegant with no extra work at all (it would help to choose evenly sized potatoes but not imperative).  And it is still the one thing I always make when we have friends over (his or mine). It looks good, and it sure does make me look good.

 

Ingredients:

One packet of baby potatoes (or 250 gm)

One tablespoon butter

Dried thyme, pepper

Salt to taste

 

Boil the baby potatoes enough to be able to peel them, and set aside.

In a shallow pan, throw in the butter. Heat enough to melt the butter, then throw the thyme and pepper powder and then the potatoes.  Add salt to taste, but remember that the butter is already salted.

Toss it all around to mix thoroughly and roast on a slow flame will the potatoes are evenly brown.

 

2.     Nigella’s Linguini with fresh Pesto and Beans

Nigella's Linguini with pesto and beans

Almost every afternoon, Re and I stare wistfully, sometimes in awe, at Nigella Lawson in Nigella Kitchen  (we have a bank of recorded ones as the real show is way past his bedtime). We watch her transforming the mundane into the seductive in the kitchen, in a manner that only she can. Her lazy, effortless way of cooking is something that I am trying to adopt, although I don’t have her persona  and definitely don’t sound as convincing when I say, “When I am in the kitchen, I’m happy”.

Pasta was always a favourite for Re, ever since I saw a strand of spaghetti making its way from my plate to Re’s mouth at age nine months. It was a tomato-based sauce with bell peppers, mushrooms, and aubergine, and he picked out the yellow and red bits and ate them too. He was ready for world cuisine, I thought, and there was no looking back.

But Nigella’s Linguini with pesto, potatoes and beans! Our collective eyes lit up. Now we were talking! Somehow a green pasta with oodles of texture and hidden beans seemed like an exciting visual break from our regular red (both of us are not fans of white, cheesy sauces). Off I went shopping and set up a play date with Deeya, the screechy girl next door who for once called me auntie, instead of my name and said, “I really like this. I really like you!” Re signed off the performance with a  Nigella impersonation of eating the linguini with both hands, sinking it into his teeth as if it were dental floss, and pulling it on either side. It’s a classic! I love you, Nigella.

Box:

250 gm linguini

A medium sized bunch of basil (or two packets from the supermarket)

Parmesan (100 gm)

Extra Virgin Olive oil – one tablespoon

Two medium sized potatoes

100 gm French beans, destringed (around 15-20 beanstalks) and halved (or whole, if small)

Four cloves of garlic

Salt to taste

 

Method:

For the pesto sauce:

Blend the basil, the parmesan, the garlic and the olive oil to a coarse mixture with a little salt. You can add some of the pasta stock (water in which pasta has been boiled) to the blend to make a good puree.

 

For the pasta:

Chop the potatoes and add them to a large pot of water and bring to boil, adding a little salt.

When the potatoes are half done, add the linguini to the same pot, mixing well.

Five minutes later, add the beans (whole, preferably) to the mixture, mixing well to ensure the potatoes, the pasta and potatoes are evenly cooked.

When the beans are cooked to a crunch, switch off and drain the pasta.

Transfer the pasta to a large bowl and mix the pesto with it. (You can use some of the pasta boiling water to the pesto to give it a better pouring consistency). Mix the pasta with the pesto well with a large fork. You will notice that the potatoes would crumble in, adding further texture to the pesto sauce and ensuring you get an even mix.

 

3. Tabouleh salad

Midday Feature

I often give Re real vegetables to play with, usually onions, potatoes, beans, peas or lady fingers. It makes him feel like a real chef, like he is making some important contribution to the daily spread. One afternoon, he set his hands on a box of cherry tomatoes in the fridge and set about using them to create something. As I watched him, he first bit into every cherry tomato and threw it into another pan. Some, he just ate. It actually reminded me of the iconic “thoda khao thoda phekho” from Jaane bhi do yaaron.

Very soon, there was a small heap of half-bitten tomatoes staring at me and the thrifty me couldn’t let it go to waste.

I decided to teach him the art of creating something out of waste. I couldn’t think of a better medium than couscous. So the much insulted cherry tomatoes found salvation in a Tabouleh salad.  We also play a little game where we each have to find the tomatoes/olives in the salad and get a clap every time we do.

 

What you need:

One cup cous cous (or burghul wheat, or lapsi)

One packet of cherry tomatoes

Small bunch (3-4 stalks) parsley

Two spring onions (with leaves)

One tablespoon olive oil

Salt, pepper/paprika to taste

Juice of one lemon

5-6 black olives, sliced

 

Method:

Take the couscous (or lapsi) in a shallow bowl, pour enough just boiled water over it to cover it, and let it sit.

Chop the olives, and the cherry tomatoes into halves. Also chop the spring onions and parsley fine.

When the couscous has absorbed all the water and swollen up and looks dry, break it with the help of a fork, clearing lumps if any, so that you get an even, powdery mass.

Add the tomatoes, olives, parsley, spring onions, lemon juice, paprika (or pepper), salt and olive oil, mixing well, breaking any lumps.

 

 

4. Tsatsiki

Tell-tale tsatsiki

Tell-tale tsatsiki

 

When I was still wondering whether Re was really ready for adult food, began the attack of the Tsatsiki. It was a house party where Tsastiki was served up as one of the dips  on a platter with lavash and soup sticks.

Initially, he was excavating the Tsatsiki with a soup stick, but he soon decided to abandon the soupstick and dig in with his fingers. Soon he was wearing a tsatsiki mask and my guests were staring open mouthed as a nine-month old displayed his refined palate.

“Is he ready to eat dips?” They asked.  He bloody well was. At least much more than he was ready to eat baby food out of a tin.

Tsatsiki was the first sign that Re found baby-food and its mushy, gooey avatars demeaning and disrespectful to his sensibilities. He was ready for the real thing, real interplay of flavours, real textures, real subtleties.

I also realised that dips were such a great way to legitimise the frequent snacking habit. All you need is some crackers or lavash or baguette slices or pav or carrot and cucumber sticks, a bowl of tsatsiki or hummus or guacamole, and you can dig in, any number of times a day. Sometimes we even use it as a sandwich spread.

I am not really into ready-to-eat snacks or processed food and you’ll seldom find me with a packet of biscuits or a bag of chips. But yes, a bowl of tsatsiki and brun pav? That would be us!

 

Recipe box:

Two small cucumbers (or one large one), grated

One medium tub (400 gm) of dahi

One small bunch of dill (3-4 stalks) with the stalks removed

Juice of one lemon

One tablespoon olive oil

4 cloves of garlic, chopped fine

One small teaspoon of paprika (you can also use pepper)

One teaspoon of honey (optional)

Salt to taste

 

Method:

Hang the curd till all the water drains off. Set aside.

Grate the cucumber, add some salt to it and set aside. The salt will exude all the water from the cucumber which you can then squeeze dry and set aside.

In a bowl, mix the curd, the cucumber, the garlic, the lemon juice, the paprika, the honey.

Add the olive oil and more salt if required and mix well.

 

6. Date and Nut roll

My mother always ensured I had regular consignments of her Date and nut rolls while I was pregnant. A nutrient-packed, easy to eat (or hide in your purse, if you are in a multiplex), fully organic snack, it was her version of the granola bar that kept me going through my constant hunger pangs. It does even now.

I got the recipe from her and started Re on them when he had a few teeth to reckon with. I am not a biscuit and chips mommy, although I encourage plenty of in-between snacking. It is our on-the go snack, there is always a box of it in the car, in the fridge, by the bed and in his toy basket. He fondly calls them ‘cookies’ and I haven’t bothered correcting him. It’s his anytime snack, sometimes a breakfast cereal, sometimes a dessert, and at other times a meal on the go. So if you want energy and want it soon, pop a couple of these. Also makes for a non-fussy, yet elegant dessert for those of you with a sweet tooth.

 

Recipe

Seedless dates – 250 gm

Almonds – around 15

Cashews – around 15

Walnuts – around 10

Ghee- one tablespoon (you can also use butter)

Marie biscuits – 3-4

Method:

Chop the nuts and dates into fine bits. In a non-stick pan, add the ghee/butter. When it is suitably heated, add the dates and nuts, and mix well till it all blends well.

Switch off the gas and mix in the crumbled Marie biscuits, mix well.

When the mixture is cool, transfer onto an aluminium foil and roll into a cylinder with your hands. Wrap the roll in the foil and refrigerate for two hours.

Remove the cylinder, slice evenly and serve.

(This post first appeared in Midday on 21-08-2011)

Kook Kook hota hai: Little Chefs whip up a mango-kiwi tiramisu shot and some…

Circa 2009: It was tsatsiki that made me realise that I had given birth to a foodie. And molagapodi. Yes molagapodi. There can never be too much molagapodi per mouthful of idli for Re, and we never think it’s cool to count our idlis. I always budget for at least three servings (yes, of the teluun (oil) also).

photo

Since I have outsourced cooking for the time-being and since it’s too hot to bake, our culinary adventures at home have been far limited, but every time Re goes to my parents’ home, my dad, the head chef would put him on the job. Shelling peas, stringing beans, sorting methi usually constituted his portfolio and Re is eager to get into the tougher ‘vegitabuls’ like yam, pumpkin, aubergine and the rest.

cookingwithtaatha

Our food journey reached a new high when we put out this spread for a lovely lady from a newspaper two years ago. Yes, it was when we had our tsatsiki and ate it too! Food has always been a great factor in our relationship, both the eating of it and the making it. It was Re who made me overcome my fear of baking.

I remember someone asked me how to get her child to eat, and I asked her what her relationship with food was. She started blank-faced. I then told her it was time to start her affair with food.

So recently, when my friend and gastronome, Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal invited us to Little Chefs – a cooking workshop for kids by Mumbai’s popular world food chain, Godrej Nature’s Basket, I was super excited. For once, Re would cook for me, and I would have my mango-kiwi tiramisu and eat it too, as I soon figured.

Rushina will also be having more kiddie-cooking sessions at her super-sweet APerfectBite Cook studio in Powai and you can find details here

It was so cute to see young aspiring chefs, joined by their parents, tossing up interesting recipes, tearing lettuce, layering lasagna sheets, spreading the cheese and tomato sauce, and lining up veggies in layers, and adding dollops of cheese. There was a little girl who was eating the ingredients as she was cooking them, and she so reminded me of me. Rushina decided to feature mangoes in her recipes, so we started with a Mango basil salad and ended with Mango Kiwi shots, with a lasagna layered in between (no pun intended). Re of course had to taste the raw materials and the finished product, so it was like he was doing a Shabri on me. (I will tell you that story later). He also refused to wear the apron and pose for a class photo (so I can’t share that with you:()

 finishing mangoshotshottasting

Those of you that missed it, classes will be organized at Godrej Nature’s Basket stores all over India throughout the year.  Celebrated chefs like Kishi Arora, Saransh Goila, Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal and Monika Manchanda will ensure that these little chefs master their culinary skills and some great techniques too. Each class will be 60 to 90 minutes long and organized on weekends. The budding gastronomes will carry back a goodie bag with yummy recipes that they toss up in class, a little Chefs apron and an interesting Little Chefs memento. Whats even more exciting is that the classes have been nominally priced at only Rs 750 per child per session.

So what are you waiting for? Television Chef, Saransh Goila will conduct a class on Fun with Mangoes on the 10th of May at Godrej Nature’s Basket, Bandra store.  To register, call on call on -22-26425050 / 1122

And don’t forget to collect your doggy bag!