No, I am not a white broccoli

One of the things I told Re when he turned four was that the cauliflower was not a white broccoli. I thought it was about time the cauliflower earned its own identity, although I nodded vigorously when Re designated it thus two years ago. Broccoli was then an object of affection, and I figured, anything goes, as far as more vegetables enter his repertoire. But now that the cauliflower has assumed a place of its own in Re’s life, I thought it was time to tell the truth. It went well, I am happy to report.

To be born a cauliflower is an elegant thing in itself—it’s like what can possibly go wrong with a Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie offspring? It will have the looks, the body, and of course the bite to go with it.

Having said that, the cauliflower’s natural beauty is perhaps one thing that gets in the way while trying to cook it. Mutilating it like the South Indians do in their poduthuvals is close to criminal, dousing it with coconut, chilli and garlic gravy like the Maharashtrians do is sacrilege. I for one always have issues about ‘deflowering’ this thing of beauty, rendering it leafless, almost bald. With such reservations, transforming it into an out-of-world experience is a daunting task. As Aamir Khan said in Dil Chahta hai, “Perfection ko kaun improve kar sakta hai?” (how can you improve perfection?)

I must say the north Indians have cracked this. Like they have totally figured out that only-ginger-no-garlic is the way to go for this flower. Or that less is more (so roasted and crushed jeera and a whole chilli are perhaps the only things that pass muster). They have also figured out the slow cooking is the only way to get your gobhi right, even if takes close to an hour. And that there is a colour palette while frying onions that moves from white to pink to green to brown and that green is the shade we want. As someone with limited patience, exaggerated by the inability to stand over a flame and watch something cook for more than five minutes, I am definitely not the candidate.

I have had the most simple, yet most amazing aloo-gobhis at my childhood friend Tina’s house, where her mother, Mrs Sahni, served them up for us with hot rotis wrapped in a towel, and released just before they reached your plate.

Recently, at a dinner table conversation with a Punjab-da-puttar, my interest in this species of vegetable was rekindled all over again. It’s been a while since I ate a good aloo-gobhi and Tina has moved to San Francisco and evolved into a shockingly bad cook, while her mother is nestled somewhere in Greater Kailash II in Delhi. So right now, the Punjab da puttar my only hope and I do hope he reads this and invites me for a meal soon.

I attempted doing it the Punjabi way, but my patience wore out, so now, I do the occasional cauliflower soup (which I am good at), throw it into a vegetable stew (it works) or make a quickie pulao with chunky pieces of it in a tomato and ginger-garlic gravy. But I still yearn for a good gobhi-matter or aloo-gobhi or just plain gobhi-ki-sabzi.

And then, one fine day, I learnt this recipe from my buddy Deepa (an amazing cook and equally fun to be with) in which she just buttered a whole cauliflower, dunked it into an oven and garnished it with pepper. It was the most divine one-pot meal I had ever eaten.

Baked cauliflower with thyme and pepper

1 medium sized cauliflower

Salted butter

Crushed pepper

Dried thyme

Method:

1.Wash and clean cauliflower if necessary and wipe dry (avoid buying the slightly mottled ones)

2. Take a dollop of butter (as much as you are permitted to have or dare to) and slather it all over the cauliflower, making sure you smear enough in the grooves and hidden parts.

3. Now sprinkle some thyme and pepper (just pepper will also do if you don’t particularly fancy thyme) all over (don’t forget the parts between the florets) and dunk it into a microwave for 4-6 minutes (850W) or bake in a regular oven for 20 min at 180 degrees.

4. Mop up the excess butter in the dish with a baguette, and dig into the whole cauliflower with a fork and knife. Or just tear it to shreds if you give two hoots about elegance.

Rehaan ka Dabba in the world of Maggi

Re has just entered the fascinating world of the dabba. I should say school, for it sounds more politically correct and milestone-ish, but no, dabba it is. No, he is not one of those children who ‘Doesn’t do food’, much as moms these days seem to display it as a feat. Re digs food and all the credit goes to me (thank you!). The OPU will just about eat to live, although sometimes I have heard him make appropriate sounds while eating (if I am awake at that unearthly hour).

For the first two weeks of school, I hung out with Re in class (no, I didn’t choose one of those Nazi schools where they don’t let you step beyond the threshold) and watched the proceeds unfold, and was equal party to it, with my own little snack and thermos of tea. I have now been relegated to the garden area, where I have my tea under a tree and write (yes, it’s all getting very idyllic and Ruskin Bond-ish and I love it).

By day three, Re figured out that the dabba was indeed, an exciting part of his day and a great reason to go to school.  Of course he was pushing it when he asked to eat his dabba within half hour of entering school, but I managed to convince him to wait for the appointed hour. “Else what will you eat when others are eating?”, I asked. He saw my point and agreed.

On day two, I began to eavesdrop on other dabbas. I always do that. Have always done it. I judge people by their dabbas. Go, judge me.

The dabbas were of course, all nice, colourful, attractive, in sizes ranging from the microscopic to the gargantuan, shapes from basic squares and circles to  houses, ships, pigs, phones and butterflies. Some with 3-D images on their tops, some with multiple layers, matching cutlery and water bottles.

What was inside the dabbas left much to be desired though. Here is what I saw. Chivda. Chips. French fries. Biscuits. Kelloggs chocos. Maggi. Bread jam. Maggi. Bread-cheese. Farsan. Potato smileys. Kurkure. Maggi. Cheese balls. Little hearts. Kurmura chivda. Biscuits. And yes, the occasional idli or chapati roll or cut fruit, the only things that smelt of home.

I thought of my mother ever so fondly and how exciting she used to make my dabbas. For as long as I can remember, going to school was always about ‘What’s in my dabba?’ Mine was a working mom, but my dabba never reflected that.  I never had biscuits or bread-jam in mine. Some days, there were idlis smothered in molagapodi or dosas stuffed with potato filling. At other times, there was the fluffy cabbage upma (my mom’s top 5 tiffin items, write for recipe in comments section), or poha speckled with coconut or shev and coriander, or with lots of peanuts or crispy potatoes or uttapams with stuffings of this and that. There was tomato rice and lemon rice and tamarind rice (again peanuts ruled) and curd rice with grated carrots or cucumber bits. Some days, there were even cutlets or medu vadas (mostly Saturdays, when mom was home). My favourite was still sabudana khichdi, and I loved eating the potato bits and then getting to the rest of it (shockingly, Re does the same).

My zest for the dabba continued through college, through internship, through my moving out of home and cooking for myself, till my last job and is the same even now. What I enjoyed the most about my pregnancy was the legitimisation of multiple dabbas and the fact that I could eat when I wanted, no eyebrows raised. In fact what motivates me about getting Re ready for school is what will I pack in his dabba today?

I still remember in one of my many jobs, I had a dabba partner and we ordered a dabba from this Gujarati lady, Bhavnaben who would send us hot phulkas smothered in ghee, two vegetables, a dal or kadhi, rice and papad for a measly 35 rupees. He was the only man who could match me morsel for morsel, and every afternoon, it was a race for who would get to the dabba first (there was some thrill at getting first dibs at the least perspiring chapatti or the biggest chunks of aloo).

Re and I have a similar race with our food. Sometimes, he robs me of peanuts in my lemon rice, or the crust of my dosa, sometimes it’s the crispy aloos in the sabudana khichdi or poha, sometimes it’s the dollop of butter on my aloo paratha, or the dahi.

On day one of school, Re had hummus with cucumber and carrot sticks. Everyone turned to look at him scooping out his hummus. I wasn’t trying to show off, there was leftover hummus from Sunday dinner, and I figured why not make a dabba out of it? I am not a gourmet cook and do the regular upma, dosa, uttapam, chila, idli (in its various avatars), poha and sabudana khichdi, aloo and sprout chaat. Sometimes, he gets home-baked cake or cookies.

I meet more mommies now than ever before. At school. In parks. In cafes. At brunch.  In parking lots. In elevators. In bookshops. We often get chatting. And they often talk about food as being one of their biggest woes. When mothers whine that their kids don’t eat breakfast, I ask them what did you eat? They mumble something about a glass of milk or cereal or cornflakes. Then I ask them, does food make you happy? They look at me like I asked them about their sex life.

And it’s not that I wake up at 5 am and slog away in the kitchen. I am just intelligent and Nigella about it. A baked cake is dabba for four days. Cookies can go for a week. Hummus and Tsatsiki can be converted into sandwich spreads. And sandwiches are a mommy’s best friend (but you can do better than jam/cheese). Idli/dosa batter is the most versatile thing to have in your fridge. And there is no end to the goodies you can add to an upma or a paratha. Spinach. Carrots. Sprouts. Peppers. Beans. Peas.

Go figure. Food is intuitive. At least that’s how it should be. Try different things and figure out what works for your child. My tip is, make it visually exciting. Make it look good. All you need is colours. So a red and green upma with carrots and peas will score over an insipid gooey mush of a Maggi any day.

This week, we had a strawberry bonanza, so Re’s dabba has gone fruity. Every day, he gets chopped strawberries with one other fruit (it has to be a different colour, else Re says, “Where are my happy colours?”)

Which brings me to the moral of the story. If you don’t have a passionate relationship with food, there is no way your child will have one. So if you want your child to eat well, it’s time to start your affair with food. Size zero be damned. Pre-pregnancy weight be damned.

So stop whining and start cooking. If you can’t cook, surely you can think? Or read books, look up the internet, delegate, get involved. There is nothing cool about saying “I can’t cook”. For your own good, I hope the husbands can.

In any case, a Nigella mom is always sexier than a Maggi mom. And it’s never too late to start.

Carrot soup for the soul

Two days ago, when I took Re for Janmashtami celebrations to a Krishna temple nearby, I decided to go ethnic and wore a salwar kameez with floral motifs around the neck and draped a dupatta. Re was bemused and pleased. It was different from the minimalist, practical dressing I usually resort to. He felt the fabric, touched the embroidery, traced the outline of the flowers and said, “Mamma, nice! Cauliflower!”
I burst out laughing. He had recently mixed up the cauliflower with just about a flower and perhaps thought that the former was a more superior name by which flowers are called. So currently, every flower is a cauliflower.  It is time to make a cauliflower bake with him, cooking from the whole, so that he gets the perspective. Will do that soon.
In the meantime, I am telling him that a cauliflower is the cousin of the carrot (who he is not confused about), hence something we can cook and eat. I haven’t got into the complexities of cooking banana flower, drumstick flower, and so many other vegetables that are actually flowers and can be cooked.
Otherwise, we have a fun time with peas, beans, carrots and potatoes and tomatoes in the kitchen, and recently put together a spread for a newspaper, with five dishes, all co-created. Okay somewhat.
Here is one recipe that was part of the meal, but I just forgot about it. It’s my favourite carrot and celery soup that is the perfect thing for this weather.
Carrot and celery soup

(Serve with baguettes or soup sticks or even toasted bread)

 You will need:

Four carrots boiled and pureed.

Fresh cream – one tablespoon

One stalk of celery, with the leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

How to make it:

Puree the boiled carrots and add two cups of water and bring to boil in a saucepan.

Add the fresh cream, mixing well to avoid lumps, and add the chopped celery, salt and pepper and some more water if required, stirring constantly.

An ode to tsatsiki

Damn this tsatsiki trail!

Re has a unique relationship with dips. It started quite by accident, when I had once served up a huge bowl of tsatsiki to my guests with some lavash bread and some soup sticks. He was ten months then, and attempting to walk. He sensed the excitement on the platter and began to help himself. At first, he used the soup sticks to dig into the divine dip and then later perhaps thought, “Well, let me waste no time and elegance over this, let me just use my fingers.”

Soon, he was wearing a tsatsiki mask of sorts and everyone was like, “Can he eat dip at this age?”

Yes he can. The best thing going for it is that it is not baby-food. And we all know how babies hate baby-food. It is the biggest insult to them. If I were a baby and you served me up some gooey mush everyday, I’d order in (much as I hate ordering in).

I will be writing a lot about food soon, but here is my favourite dip to start with. You can serve it with toasted/plain multi-grain bread, baguettes, rusks, brun pav (sliced), soup sticks, lavash, carrot and cucumber sticks. Your kids will love it. And they will love you a wee bit more for treating them as adults.

Tsatsiki

Well, I got the original recipe from my foodie friend Matthew (who incidentally  is a purist and prefers to chop the cucumbers fine, although I grate them–it’s just easier). Then I added a bit of George to it (from Master Chef) and I am pleased as punch with the result. And so is Re. We normally put our feet up in the evenings, and sometimes polish up an entire bowl of tsatsiki, dipping our favourite bread into it, watching our favourite food shows.

You need: 

Two medium sized cucumbers, grated, or finely chopped

One tub of dahi (400 gm)

A small bunch of dill, with stalks removed

One tsp paprika

One tbsp (actually as much as you like) Extra Virgin Olive oil

Juice of one lemon

One tsp of honey (this is George’s tip)

Five cloves of garlic, finely chopped or grated

Salt to taste

How to make it: 

1.Hang the curd in a sieve or tie it loosely in a cloth and let it drip till it has lost all its water.

2. Salt the cucumber slightly and let it stand for half hour. This will help exude all the water from the cucumbers, which you can then drain/squeeze out.

3. In  a bowl, mix the hung curd, the cucumbers, the dill and the garlic well. Add the lemon juice, the olive oil,  the paprika and the honey and mix well. If you don’t have paprika, you can use some white pepper powder as well.

4. Dig in.

You don’t have to be chef to make this. It takes no time at all, but the above picture is a great reward. Go try and it and let me know what happened. And yes, if you have a dip recipe to share, please do. Coming up are guacamole and hummus, also Re’s favourites.

Bon Appétit!

Help! I have excess baggage

Okay, time for a list. I love lists. I love making them, I love striking things off them with a vengeance, and when it’s all done, I love tearing the piece of paper to shreds and flinging it in the air. The OPU is not amused, as he will be the one picking up the pieces and depositing them in the dustbin, even hypothetically. Thankfully, Re likes order too. At least you can leave some things to genetics.

This list is about travel. Now, travelling with a baby is a huge concern for most mommies, chiefly what to pack, what to feed, what to look for in a resort, how to handle travel dramas. Here are my two-bits, although this is not a comprehensive list, so do not print it out and stick it on your wall as a check-list.

  1. Babies are their banshee-best at 30000 feet, but you have to figure that out yourself. Hell, I would bawl too if I could. I am skinnier and smaller than most people I know, but every time I take a flight, I feel like the word is closing in on me.  Now added to the already existing claustrophobia, the too much skin contact with other passengers, the jostling and the queues and those damn airbuses which don’t make any sense, I have a child on my lap. I vow each time that next time, it will be the train, but the OPU is too high maintenance. So we fly again!
  2.  Somehow, any toy at your disposal in-flight is not the one they want. For me, pretending the laminated diagram chart for safety measures is an Eric Carle book sometimes works. These days, the tiny bottles they serve water/lemonade in is also a distraction (assuming they can’t prise them open). If nothing works, the OPU and I blow into the air sickness bags and pop them. This can be a nuisance to the other passengers, but it somehow distracts the baby. Nursing is also a good distraction, if you are up to it, but somehow, they don’t want to nurse at the recommended nursing time, which is take-off and landing. Also, there is no such thing as discreet, because all shawls and ponchos and stoles will be yanked open, and your girls (that’s what I call them) will be on full display.
  3. Packing. Now I would recommend packing everything in triplicate. I don’t mean to shock, but sometimes, honeymooners seem to walk out with your bag (which just happens to be the same color and size as theirs), and it can be nerve racking tracking it back. This happened to us. So I would just suggest packing at least extra sets of baby clothes, food, feeding utensils, underwear, diapers/nappies and a sheet or some such into every bag that you check in. Just in case.
  4. If the baby is into solids, pack enough grains/porridge/seasoning/veggies /some fruit/ knives/spoons, so you are not running around looking for a market to buy essentials the minute you arrive. Carrots, potatoes, onions, peas, beans stay well for a week at least, and are not messy to pack. All grains/cereals can be packed in zip-lock bags and checked in.
  5. It’s easy to say ‘we’ll order room service’, but in sleepy towns like Goa, room service is still brushing their teeth by the time the baby has his second meal of the day. So make sure you are self-reliant at least as far as the baby’s breakfast and one meal goes. Restaurant food may not always be an option, and you don’t want to spend precious hours supervising someone make a porridge or a khichdi or sautéeing vegetables, do you? Although the staff at Montego Bay, where we stayed in Goa was happy to make mashed potatoes and sautéed veggies for the baby. Which brings me to:
  6. A mini electric rice-cooker. Panasonic or any other model. It’s a real saviour, compact, efficient and can cook just about anything in minutes. Buy one today, and it will be a faithful travel companion at least for the next three years. It’s one-pot cooking, so you can throw in anything and everything, add enough water, seasoning, and it cooks in minutes. I even made a pulao, a pasta, a dal, sautéed vegetables in it. Must have.
  7.  The resort. Pick one that has been researched by you. In the sense that it should have a gradual, undulating landscape and enough room for the baby to wander/crawl about without hazard, and friendly staff that will look out for you and not just appear shadily for tips from nowhere when you are leaving. Montego Bay fit the bill perfectly. Baby-friendly and fun.
  8.  Hammocks can be fun, although they are harder to negotiate than they appear to be. I rolled off one twice, with the baby, but he thought it was a game, so all was well. A mini pool is nice, it gives you and the baby something to do, which you wouldn’t do otherwise. Make sure you have an air pump for any floats, paddle pools that you might carry. Do not forget the baby’s swimsuit and sunblock!
  9. What to order. In case you are eating out a lot (we did at least one new restaurant a day), the trick is to order dishes which have interesting sides, so you don’t have to order baby food separately. This is easier with continental food. So, a grilled meat or chicken dish will come with mashed or roasted potatoes, carrots or grilled vegetables. Perfect finger food for the baby. Pastas worked well for me, as Re loves them, any shape or size. And bread and dips are great too.
  10. And lastly, if you can arrange a baby sitter or have a nanny, use this time to have special dates with the OPU (much needed on a holiday, to bring that romance back).
  11.  If I have forgotten something vital, don’t blame me. It’s Christmas!

Have fun, and happy travelling, you all!

Operation hammock: third time lucky!

Three course meal from sides at La Plage: carrots, roasted potatoes, baguette

Who is walking whom is the question

Eat, play, love

I just found out that my ex-boss has adopted a baby girl. He was venting about having trouble with baby-food and going slightly nuts trying to please his six month-old’s palate. Now, I found this slightly ironical, because he tells the world what to eat through his blog and is never at a loose end for ideas.

When I got thinking, I was reminded of frequent queries posted on a mom-baby network that I am a part of on, “What to feed the child?” and I wondered how this whole baby-food lacuna came about.

The answer stared at me in the face as I saw Re reaching out for the red pepper in yoghurt dip on my plate in preference to his mashed potatoes with carrots at Gaia on our recent Goa jaunt.  He also looked slightly disdainful that I was spooning it with a baguette. He went for it neat, licking his fingers clean. He is all of 17 months.

Babies want the good stuff, dammit. The term baby-food is condescending. I think at some level, they know that we are eating all the good (and good-looking ) stuff  and they are getting all the guck and mush.

Now I’m not asking you to shove a steak or biryani or tandoori chicken or chhole bhature down your child’s throat. All I am saying is, show a little respect for the child. Why shouldn’t its food be good-looking? Would you eat what you are expecting it (I will be saying ‘it’ instead of he/she, no offence) to eat?  Food is all about seduction, and maybe I am watching too much of Master Chef Australia, but what looks good is usually more inviting to eat, so why shouldn’t it be so for a baby?

Yes, I know there is the whole pureed foods phase upon transition from ‘fully breast’ to solids the minute the clock strikes ‘six months’ or the child looks wistfully at your plate, whichever is earlier. And I do know that it would be deemed ‘cruelty to children’ giving them stuff to chew when they have no teeth. But  the minute they have a few to reckon with, go for it. They are ready for the real thing. Your culinary adventures can begin.

Around eight to nine months is when you can start having fun. There are two simple rules really. Colour and texture.  So mashed potatoes or carrots can get a bit of art direction with some green thingees in them, ala peas or beans.  Even a khichdi need not look its traditional bilious yellow and have some shredded carrots, peas, beetroot and bits of palak in it.  Or you can mix different coloured boiled veggies and sautee a bit with caramelised onions instead of feeding a monochromatic mush of kaddu or beetroot or whatever. Idlis can look less boring with speckles of carrot of red pumpkin in them. They could even be green or pink if you blanch and puree some spinach or beetroot into them.  So also with chilas and spring onions. Or you can serve up a bed of baby potatoes (boiled, of course) sautéed in butter and herbs and watch their faces light up. And imagine how empowering it must be to bite into a monster sweet potato?

Dosas are my favourite, because you can almost add anything to the batter, right from carrots to beans to tomatoes to pumpkin to capsicum to cabbage to paneer to cheese. Chapattis can be micro sized, to let the little ones know that you have concern for the size of their plates. And it’s never too early for a simple aloo paratha with just a tinge of spice. Only, don’t ever pre-break their food. Let them tear the stuff apart, it’s part of the adventure.

I am not one for snacking, so it’s mostly fruit in between meals. Or perhaps a bread stick or raisins or dates or dried figs or a once-in-a-while cookie (the less sweet, the better. You don’t want an orthodontist to add to your list of things to do in the next two years, right?). I recently made a kurmura chivda that Re loves to eat and play with. Sometimes a toast with peanut or cashew butter (you can make this at home, will share recipes) or even a nice-looking sabzi could work as a snack.

When it comes to fruit, all that juicing and diluting or pureeing is a whole lot of baloney. Thrust a slice of a bright orange papaya or a luscious musk melon or a slutty watermelon or even a happy yellow mango  in front of them and see how much fun they have. For me, “when in doubt, fruit” has always worked.  As much as they can have, as often as they want to. The earlier you start, the better. Some mothers hold off on giving fruit for really long and then whine about how the child never wants to eat anything healthy. Yes, it’s messy, and yes you have to clean up, and yes, there are flies, but it’s so worth it.

So whenever the question of, ‘What to feed the baby?’ pops up, think of what you want to eat, and work around that so the baby can eat it too.  So if it’s an upma, go easy on the chillies, oil, etc, add vegetables for color, texture, substitute rava for dalia once in a while, and there you are. Your upma is his upma. Ditto for everything else. I hate writing recipes, but hit me for ideas any time. You might find some here too.

The boy was last seen packing a ladle into his ‘going out’ bag. I am secretly excited. I can’t wait to start cooking and baking with him.

Spaghetti with ratatouille at Ku, Morjim made by the effervescent Maria. Re loved it!

Re attacks his aloo paratha with gusto

The quintessential bread stick is an appetiser that also doubles up as a prop

Re’s beetroot adventures, same time last year