‘Cho-co-la’, say it out loud with deliberation. Swirling in your mouth like molten velvet, the word and its very sound, coaxes you to close your eyes and retreat to a secret spot where, in complete solitude, you can lose yourself to the pleasures of the glorious thing that is chocolate.
Today’s post on whole wheat flatbread is inspired by the ‘green lady’. I see her almost every Saturday at our local food market. She’s often brushing away truant grains of soil dusting the table under bunches of beetroot; their darkly glistening, purple-veined leaves nudging fat cucumbers jostling for space with fire engine-red peppadews, jars of fresh horseradish, chilli oil and trays of speckled quail eggs. A ready smile rounds off her robust Russian accent as she greets us and extols the freshness of her 100 percent organic vegetables and eggs. I love digging through the big boxes beside her table for spinach and Tuscan kale, crisp and shiny with health, and also for coriander, dill, parsley, rosemary and thyme, herbaceous and passionately aromatic, tied in neat little bunches. A Rolodex of recipes goes off in my brain and as always, there’s no getting away without buying some. Like invisible, secret spells, these little leaves add lift and nuance to any dish.
It has been a month now of baking my own bread. No more store-bought stuff if I can help it. This means that I have to get myself organised before the day of the baking. I find that early morning is a good time to start because it allows the dough 2 or 3 unhurried proofings, goes into the oven by late afternoon and by sunset it’s sitting on my kitchen counter, spreading its comforting aroma in my home. Last week on my bread-baking day, a mirthless wind prowled outside, bringing the chill and gloom of winter lurking around the corner. “What better day to bake bread”, I thought. My home and hearth needed a warm hug. The kind of hug that would make my boys feel fuzzy and loved when they got home at the end of the day. It called for a cinnamon and raisin bread, a bold and bright contrast to the cold outside. I had this picture in my head of a dollop of butter gently melting on a slice of cinnamon bread….yum! It is entirely possible that the thought of my home redolent with cinnamony scents was the single biggest motivation behind my choice of bread. This recipe is from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread. I have adjusted the quantities and part of the process for what I felt would help me get a better result.
My husband was never interested in cooking. In food, yes but not in how it got on his plate. But he would compensate by making countless cups of tea, an occasional fried egg, doing the dishes and trips to the grocery store, on demand, sometimes for just one or two things. For many years, it continued like this, till he had to live for close to a year in a foreign country where meat and potatoes ruled the roost. Being a meat lover, he was confident that his diet was taken care of, no problem. But, before he knew it, he was craving his daily dal, rice and vegetables. Despite being meat lovers, like most Indian families, our diet is primarily composed of vegetables, lentils and beans and rice or rotis and fresh yoghurt. Freezing winter days and one too many meals of bread, sausages and cheese finally pushed him into the kitchen to try his hand at cooking a simple Indian meal. I remember writing a flurry of emails full of extra detailed recipes with highlighted lines reminding him to, “Wash the dal, rice and vegetables before you cook them” and “ Make sure you don’t drain the rice along with the water!”. But by far, the most challenging part was getting him to identify the dals (lentils) by their names. Arhar, masoor, moong, urad… Every time I mentioned one, he would say, “the yellow one or the pink one?” Now, Indians eat a variety of lentils that are pink, green, white and black, not to mention at least 3 yellow ones. Most of us know the names but yes, there are people who still say yellow dal. We put turmeric in our pink(masoor) lentils and they appear yellow when cooked, so let me just clarify that that ‘yellow dal’ is not helpful when trying to shop for lentils. My hungry husband did finally manage to get the names right and has since then taken his culinary abilities to a higher level.
Baking a good loaf of bread is a challenge at which I’ve failed more than I have succeeded. It is a science, an art and an instinct (I think) that has to be cultivated patiently with hours of practice. It is actually just simple chemistry between flour and yeast but the weather, the quality and consistency of the flour (which varies across brands and countries), the temperature temperaments of ovens and even the altitude of the place decide the character of bread. For me, baking bread is a bit like solving a cryptic crossword. I lick my chops at the thought of filling those blank boxes when I open the morning paper and on a good day, you’ll catch me walking around with a smug smile stuck on my face. With bread my experience is similar. The challenge and anticipation of watching the dough rise, listening for that hollow knock, and beholding that mounded crust crowning a loaf fill me with a sense of achievement like very few other things do. At that moment, all is forgiven – the iffy yeast, the reluctant rises, the dense blocks of brick bread….everything.
Would you believe me if I told you that every time I use lemons, I’m more than a little reluctant to throw away the skins? The need to somehow extract the maximum from these golden globes screams borderline OCD, even to me. To tell you the truth, I literally feel like I’m throwing so much of the essence of the lemon into the bin. Maybe because they seem to still contain so much flavour even when they are spent of juice. Every time I squeeze a lemon, the invisible oils explode on my hands like aroma bombs, filling my head with images of sunny days, white linens, green salads, the reddest tomatoes, the bluest skies and my favourite… lemon tarts.
Finally, a rain-spattered Sunday. Clouds like floating African elephants hang low over my windows, threatening to crash down any moment. Think of a water filled plastic bag, ready to burst. Love it. All summer, burning eyes peeled on the dry blue skies, we waited for the faintest sign of moisture. Exhausted by bright, hot sunshine, spirits withering, we endured the blistering days. So waking up to drama in the sky puts a spring in my step and I make plans to watch the rain with something hot and spicy on my plate. Crispy, juicy chicken wings crimson with chilli paste and sticky with sweet caramelised bits, I know will hit the spot.
On a beach somewhere, sand between my toes, salt on my lips and the sea breeze teasing my hair, I’m lulled into a gentle somnolence by the blue rhythm of the waves. A tall, cold glass and a book keep me company and I don’t know what time it is. Truth is, I’m in the middle of a heatwave, bored by chores, plotting an imaginary escape plan. I do that sometimes, don’t you? When reality bites hard, we all seek a cloud to float away on. But I tire quickly of too many clouds floating away, leaving me behind. The heat, I realise is shutting me down – making me complain about the weather and stifling my spirit. I need a project.
My generation has climbed many a mango and guava tree. Scraped knees and elbows were easily forgotten while biting into tangy, raw guavas hastily wiped on dusty tee shirts and frocks. A sprinkling of salt on the hard, sour flesh gave us puckered lips amid noisy smacking of tongues. Sometimes if we got lucky, our haul would include more ripe fruits than raw ones. White or red inside with crunchy seeds that stuck in our molars, guavas somehow seemed sweeter when we worked hard aiming our sticks and stone missiles at fruit hiding in the trees.