Chorchori

While it is common knowledge that the Bengali cuisine is heavily reliant on the bounties of the river and the sea, many don’t identify vegetarian cooking as part of the Bengali fare. This is far from the truth really, and as my husband frequently loves to say, if it grows, Bengalis will eat!

I am no food historian, but as is common knowledge, two significant things contributed to the wide variety of Bengali vegetarian dishes. Firstly, prior to the Bengal renaissance, widows were treated pretty badly and had strict dietary restrictions. Non-vegetarian items were strictly prohibited, and so, a wide variety of vegetarian dishes were necessarily a part of the diet. Secondly, the Bengal famine together with the forced cash crop production during the British rule, resulted in the use of all scrap material. Stems, leaves, peels and skins were all tastefully incorporated in Bengali cooking to ensure zero wastage. The forced poppy seed production also led to the incorporation of poppy seed paste in Bengali food habits, which is now a delicacy.

While neither of these events were remotely happy, what emerged as a result of this bleak history, was a diverse cuisine, using ingredients and produce, that are not always commonly used in other Indian households. I have grown up eating (and loving) things that are unheard of, including stir fried potato skin with poppy seeds, bottle gourd/calabash skin and water lily stems, to name a few. My grandmothers, aunts and my mother excelled in these recipes and I try to use their methods and to keep the recipes as authentic as possible.

Chorchori is a mixed vegetable recipe, made with the discarded stems of the cauliflower or red amaranth or Malabar spinach. I used my mom’s recipe and slightly tweaked it by adding spinach and turnip. Avid the turnip if you hate it as much as my mom does. This is healthy, delicious and perfect for lunch!

You will need:

  • Cauliflower stems: About 150 gms (cut into three-inch-long sticks)
  • Pumpkin: 100 gms (cut into three-inch-long sticks)
  • Spinach: 250 gms (chopped roughly)
  • Pointed gourd: 100 gms (skin scraped and halved)
  • Turnip: 1 (medium) (peeled, halved and cut into thin wedges)
  • Potato: 1 (medium) (peeled, halved and cut into thin wedges)
  • Indian flat beans: 5-6 (halved)
  • Ridge gourd: 150 gms. (scraped, halved lengthwise and cut into three-inch-long pieces)
  • Panch phoron: ½ teaspoon*
  • Dried red chillies: 2
  • Mustard oil: 1 and ½ tablespoons
  • Sugar: 1 teaspoon
  • Salt: to taste

For the mustard paste:

  • Black mustard seeds (kalo shorshe): 1 and ½ tablespoon
  • Yellow mustard seeds (holud shorshe): 1 tablespoon
  • Green chillies: 1-2

Special appliances:

  • Small masala grinder
  • Medium non-stick wok

*Panch phoron is a Bengali five spice mix. It includes equal parts of fenugreek seeds (methi), nigella seeds (kalo jeera/kalonji), cumin seeds (jeera), trachyspermum roxburghianum (radhuni) and fennel seeds (mouri/saunf). Replace radhuni with black mustard seeds, if not easily available.  

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Grind the mustard seeds (black and yellow), green chillies and a pinch of salt with a couple of tablespoons of water. Add a little more water if the paste is too grainy. The paste should be smooth and thick. Keep aside.

Heat the mustard oil in the wok and add the panch phoron and dried red chillies until it splutters. Add all the vegetables, except the spinach. Stir gently, cover and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the spinach, sugar and salt to taste and cover and cook for another five minutes. Check if the vegetables are almost done at this point. They should be cooked through, and not al dente.

In a bowl, mix one tablespoon of the mustard paste with a tablespoon of water to make a slurry. Add the mustard slurry to the wok, stirring thoroughly and adjust the salt if required. Cook on medium heat for another two minutes and serve.

Serve hot with steamed rice.

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Pumpkin with Sage and Butter

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This makes everything else better. Enough said.

You will need:

  • Pumpkin: 500 gms
  • Butter: 3 tablespoons
  • Sage: 8-10 leaves
  • Pepper: to taste
  • Salt: to taste

Cut the pumpkin into ½ inch cubes.

In a pan, over medium heat, melt the butter and add the sage. Remove the sage leaves as soon as it starts to crisp up.

Add the pumpkin cubes and cook for about 20 minutes, or until caramelized.

Add salt, pepper and crisp sage and serve.

Eat as a side with steak, grilled chicken, tossed with pasta with some olive oil or just about any way you want to.

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Haak

If I had to pick my favourite Indian cuisine I would blindly have to say Bengali. After all, that I what I grew up with and what my grandparents, aunt and parents cooked with great love and care. The difficult part is choosing the second best Indian cuisine, and for anyone who loves regional Indian food, believe me, it’s a tough choice.

Of all the things that this country has to offer, food has got to be one of the best. It is typical that people across different geographies and regions eat different food based on local produce, weather conditions and preferences. Many regions also have a lot of similar food (for instance, you will always find some form of puri/luchi or similar fried breads and some form of vegetable dish, a subzi), but what is difficult to comprehend is, that food is not just limited to minor regional variances, but almost every region boasts of a completely different cuisine with different spices, cooking styles and core ingredients.

After many years of much gluttony, have I decided that my second favourite Indian cuisine is Kashmiri. I am deeply in love (yes, love) with Kashmiri food which is delicate and flavoursome and different! The meat is juicy and fragrant, the fried lotus stems are crisp and delicate, and the greens are tender and fresh!

Of course, as I have often heard from some Kashmiri friends, cooking meat properly and Kashmiri style, requires great patience and skill and I am not sure I possess such skills! So today I decided to give ‘haak’ a try (a super easy but amazingly tasty dish of collard greens), since I scored some fresh haak from my green grocer yesterday. I can tell you right now that haak, with hot steamed rice and a dollop of plain yoghurt can make you very very happy!

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You will need:

  • Haak (collard greens): 1 kg
  • Mustard oil: 3 tablespoons
  • Asafoetida powder: ¼ teaspoon (optional)*
  • Dried red chillis: 2
  • Green chillis: 2
  • Water: 6 cups
  • Salt: 1 teaspoon (or adjusted to taste)

 * You can totally skip this or replace this with ½ teaspoon of dried ginger powder (sonth).

Prepare the haak by removing any yellow leaves and the thick stems (keep only the tender stems connected to the leaves). Leave the leaves whole, wash and keep aside.

Dissolve the asafoetida in half a cup of water and keep aside.

In a large wok, heat the 2 tablespoons of mustard oil on medium heat until is start to smoke.

Reduce heat and add the red and green chillis and fry for 10-15 seconds.

Add the haak to the wok, add the dissolved asafoetida (or sonth), the remaining 5 and half cups of water, salt, increase heat to medium and bring to a boil.

Cook for about 40 minutes or until tender.

After removing from heat, add one tablespoon of mustard oil.

Serve hot with rice. Remember to nap after. You will need it.

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Chilli Garlic Stir Fry

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I haven’t decided if I’m a lazy person yet. I do know however that I am a big fan of 10 minute meals. This is just one of those amazingly quick and scrumptious dishes and a perfect veggie fix.

I believe everyone has their favourite stir fry, and that has to do with your favourite sauce. Some prefer hoisin, some oyster sauce, some teriyaki. I love a good stir fry with chilli garlic – it just has the right amount of zing. Perfect with the leftover bowl of rice or noodles, or just by itself.

You will need:

  • Snow peas: 150 gms.
  • French beans: 150 gms.
  • Mushrooms: 150 gms.
  • Garlic paste: 1 tablespoon
  • Chilli oil: 2 tablespoons
  • Dried whole red chili: 2-3
  • Roasted sesame seeds: ½ teaspoon (optional)
  • Salt: to taste

Halve the mushrooms, and cut the french beans to 3 inch long pieces.

In a wok, on medium heat, add one tablespoon of chilli oil, garlic paste and dried whole red chillis and cook for a minute.

Add the snow peas (whole), beans, mushrooms and salt and stir fry for 5-7 minutes (I cook for lesser time since I prefer my vegetables crunchy. Cook for 12-15 minutes if you prefer them softer).

Remove from heat, drizzle the other tablespoon of chilli oil and sesame seeds (if using) and serve.

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Paneer Narkel Shorshe

Paneer Narkel ShorsheBengalis are mainly hard core carnivores. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we don’t eat vegetarian food, but we try to add a little bit of magic (mostly shrimps) to many of our vegetable dishes.

This recipe is one of my mom’s best vegetarian dishes. All through college, my best friend (who happens to be vegetarian) tried very hard to pursue my mom to make this as often as possible; needless to say, it was never often enough! This dish is paneer (Indian cottage cheese) cooked in a coconut and mustard sauce, a favourite of all Bengalis. Mom of course uses fresh grated coconut and fresh ground mustard paste, while I use my own cheat codes!

You will need:

  • Paneer: 300 gms
  • Coconut milk: 200 ml
  • Mustard powder: 1 tablespoon (made into a paste ½ cup hot water)
  • Mustard oil: 3 tablespoon
  • Sugar: ½ teaspoon
  • Turmeric: a pinch
  • Salt to taste
  • Green chili: 2 (optional)

Cut the paneer into 2 inch cubes (or smaller if you prefer).

In a wok, heat 2 tablespoons of mustard oil until slightly smoky.

Add the paneer pieces and fry gently on medium heat for about a minute.

Add the coconut milk, mustard paste, turmeric, sugar and salt to the paneer and simmer on medium heat for about 6-8 minutes.

Garnish with green chillies and drizzle a tablespoon of mustard oil on top.

Serve hot with steamed rice.

For homemade paneer:

  • Whole milk: 1 litre
  • Juice of one lemon/Vinegar: 1-2 tablespoons

(Makes about 200 gms.)

Keep a large piece of cheese cloth ready.

In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium and add the lemon juice/a tablespoon of vinegar and stir well immediately to incorporate.

With the milk still on medium heat, stir gently and at this point the milk should begin to curdle and the yellowish whey will start to separate (if this does not happen after 2 minutes, add another tablespoon of vinegar or some more lemon juice).

Stir gently until the curds start to float on the top whey becomes almost clear and watery (although it will continue to be yellowish-green).

Line a strainer with the cheesecloth and pour the curd in. (Reserve the whey to use in soups or as marinating liquid.)

Gather the edges together and knot securely or tie with twine.

Keep it in a cool and clean place with a heavy weight on top for 45 minutes to 1 hour (a large flat bottomed saucepan filled with water works just fine).

Remove gently from cheesecloth, cut into cubes and use.

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