Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Return of the Cavalier Cook

For the longest time, food was one of my life's latencies. It undergirded the Industrial-revolution-mandated eight hour day, but never really emerged into the bright light of my consciousness. I ate absent-mindedly with one hand, a novel held in the other. It marked the end of three hours of badminton and heralded the day of mindless rote-learning. (Ironically I loved the descriptions of food in my novel-worlds. At Bertram's Hotel to this day remains one of my favorite books. Watch for the description of an English breakfast on the first few pages.)

It took me a while to traverse the arc from hatred and pooh-pah-ing of all manner of ingestibles (except potatoes and chocolate; and not in that combination) to sheer, unadulterated, visceral love of food. 

I have been cooking since I left the country and moved to the US for graduate school. The motivation was sheer necessity; that and the gigantic pressure cooker that my parents and I gleefully allowed occupy 2/3rds of my luggage.  Also, the incomprehensibility of doctoral degrees can only be combated through the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, which then necessitates good, healthy, home-cooked meals to restore one's stomach linings. It's the balance of life. This really is all that matters. 

So all things considered, I started by being a reasonable, and then later, a pretty good cook. This blog has seen my various levels of food enthusiasm which culminated in a food blogging marathon in 2010 or so. Since then, my performance has dipped. As in, I cook. But I don't write about cooking. Or photograph my every meal. Perhaps these were good changes. 

But today, I feel like writing about shahi paneer. And about my friends who share recipes and make me think of them when I cook and write. Women and men who create experiences, and homes, and worlds. Who make me so happy. Who conjure up smells, and sounds, and flowers, and pans, and sunshine, and possibility. Who freeze time into little packages to be dug out on cold nights. Nice smelling ones at that. 

Kathleen Stewart taught me the value of sensoria-laden lists. So here is one. 

(a) Gouri is a magician. With leftovers, and bits and pieces, and chillies, and wine, and cheese, and coriander, she makes appear chutneys, and treats, and joy. No meal I've shared with her has had any less than five things on the table. With little or no notice often. 
(b) Paul never has a meal that isn't a full one. In the middle of a task-filled day, he can find the time and peace to make sure the table bears a salad, a main course, and something to drink. One then has to wash the dishes and this he supervises with the watchful eye of a Night's Watch steward. Small price because everything he makes is nothing short of fabulous.
(c) Ruchira and I shared an apartment in the early 2000s. Her capsicum paneer concoction kept us going on many an angsty night, when an apartment, a job, and the future weren't nearly enough to stave off the suspicion that the world was wonky. Today, she and I are better at handling this realization and have houses and full kitchens and perhaps a tad bit more spine, but that capsiscum paneer thingie is still pretty damn cool. If you ask me nicely, I will ask her to give you the recipe. 
(d) Shrik and Senti are the geeks par excellence who make eggs par excellence. Ask Shrik uber nicely and he might tell you the tall tale of his special omelette technique - the TOPAZ. In other words, "Tawa Omelette Plate Assembly". Senti is also the master of precision cutting. He was or will be Japanese in another life. Or Bruce Lee. In 2006-07, we all shared each other's homes and kitchens where company, beer, and food were in free flow. It was a good time to be young. 
(e) Madhuvanti makes food the way she does not do other things, gracefully. But one should be so lucky to have a kitchen companion this wonderful and this fun. Mad and I pretty much shared an apartment in a building we called Chaitrabhanjee and peppered our food outings with random bits of work. We even had plans to open a breakfast bar should our respective careers not take off. Today, we are both academics. Don't ask. Yes, the breakfast bar would have been infinitely more exciting. 
(f) Veena's kitchen is like her. Generous, well-thought out, and elegant without being pretentious. Things are always in the right place, and food appears. And it is delicious. And wonderfully healthy. And so layered. She is also rather fruit-insistent. It is a good thing. Because she also cuts them up for you.
(g) My trips to Pune are never complete without a foray into Yashoda Joshi's kitchen. The Joshi home is a cornucopia of crazy good. Amti, and varan, and thecha, and gulkand. And lots of ghee. The tables groan. I, on the contrary, am usually fine. A post-lunch siesta is however usually mandated. 
(h) In Abir's home we congregated. Parties happened. Cocktails were conjured. Soups, stews, and pasta appeared. And to this day, there are always tall mugs of lemongrass chai. Munificent, and surprising. 
(i) My fabulous former roommate Christina is a baker's dream. Our home on Rutledge street would so often seem like a scene out of my imagined American landscape. Warm kitchen, and smells of pastry. With generosity and precision in the same measure, Christina would will the dough to rise, and the muffins to brown. The month of the Mexican chocolate cake was a good one. 
(j) My friend Can once hosted me for a week in Istanbul. It was a week of substances. It was also a week of food. With characteristic panache, Can would juggle eggs, and salads, and bread and condiments. From him I learnt the importance of that one last shake of pepper, that one dash of good olive oil. And of being style-bhai.
(k) And last, but not the least, my mother's cooking is the best-est. 
(l) My father comes a close second. He makes pav bhaji. It's the best pav bhaji in the world. 

(m) And now, onward bound to this day's recipe. Without further ado, (unless you want more ado, in which case we shall a-do), I bring you Sana Aiyar's delicious and badly addictive shahi paneer. 

Once upon a time, Sana and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. In different apartments. Often, actually more than often since we are curmudgeonly and all, she and I would find ourselves collectively asocial only managing to tolerate each other and Grey's Anatomy or the Real Housewives. At such times, I would drive the five blocks and twenty thousand leagues from Willy Street to her beautiful apartment in the vintage precincts (read bad carpeting) of Kennedy Manor. She would cook, and then we would gorge on shahi paneer washed down by enormous quantities of beer. It would often be snowing outside. The comfort of those times is hard to put down on paper. Let me just say that the smell of shahi paneer is now enough to make me feel warm and safe. In these mean times, this is no small deal. 

Shahi Paneer 
Serves Two moderate eaters or one very greedy person

Step One: Make yourself a gin and tonic. This above all else! Toast to Sana. 

Step Two - Gather the following:

(a) Paneer - 250 gms
(b) Spices
-- Cumin seeds - 1/2 tsp
-- Salt - 11/2 tsp
-- Kasuri methi (Dried fenugreek leaves) - 1/2 tbsp
-- Red chilli powder - 1/2 tsp
-- Dhaniya (Coriander) powder - 2 tsp
-- Garam masala -- 1/2 tsp
(c) Tomato puree
(d) Garlic minced fine - 2 tsp
(e) Ginger cut fine - 2 tsp
(f) Green chillies - 2
(g) Fresh cream - 1/2 cup
(h) Whole milk - 1/2 cup
(i) Ghee and/or butter - 2 tbsp (yes, don't be faint-hearted)
(j) Vegetable oil - 2 tbsp

1) Heat oil
2) Add half tsp cumin. Let it splutter.
3) Lower heat. add garlic and let it smell good but not burnt
4) Add half a large can of tomatoe puree (the smoothest puree you can find - no bits of seed and skin), ginger and two split green chillies.
5) Cook on a low-medium heat until it "goes dry" or reduces to half the original size and starts sticking slightly to the pan.
6) Add half tbsp kastoori methi, no more no less unless you want bitter shahi paneer. Stir for a minute.
7) Add the spices: 1.5 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp red chilli, 2 tsp dhania powder, 1/2 tsp garam masala
8) Mix the masalas and let it all cook for about 3-5 minutes
9) Add half a cup of water and bring to boil for a couple of minutes.

10) Turn off your stove, add the paneer pieces and mix.

12) Set the mixture aside to cool. 
13) When serving add 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup cream and heat the mixture on a very low flame. Stir continuously so that milk doesn't curdle. The colour will start changing from deep red to desired colour or pinkish-red depending on how much cream you've added. Heat through and serve and eat. Also in Sana's words, "now fart away." 

On that note folks, I must attend to the business of sleep. And dreams. Goodnight and good luck. Winter is truly coming.