Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Couscous with Spinach, Scrambled Eggs and Pine Nuts

Inside, it was clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild, taking possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down.
Agatha Christie, Chapter 13, The Clocks.

This could very well have been some of my grandfather's rooms filled with his books, chemicals and apparatuses. It could also very well be any house that I have been living in for a couple of years; although in my case, the ‘breeding and multiplying’ is carried out mainly by what will generally be classified as clutter by saner people.
I keep worthless things desperately and diligently in the name of props and photography, though most of them are destined never to come in front of the camera;
I keep bills, out of a curious concern that we will be required to submit them as address proofs for something or the other as it happened once before;
I keep cardboard boxes, bubble wraps and foam boards, based on an unfounded anxiety as to how I will pack if we had to move suddenly;
I save the sparsely filled note pads scribbled with my discordant ideas, in an optimistic hope that someday they will spark inspiration and breathe life into a mostly dead and decaying blog;
I keep pieces of Aida cloth, tricking my mind into a deceptive dream that I will one day do cross stitch work for all my tables and trays;
I keep text books from my postgraduate days, riding on a largely vicious faith that I will someday encounter a miserable student to pass them on to;
I keep my sister's shoes she had left with me that are too evidently large for me, out of a needless forethought that she can wear them while she is visiting;

I collect clutter.

I will stop now and spare you the agony of going through this with me.
On a positive note, January is the month when I do my "Spring Cleaning". As obsessive as it sounds and seemingly varying from the passage above, I go through almost all of our things, clean them up, re arrange stuff and try to throw or give away unwanted stuff.

The throwing and giving away is where I stumble and most of the stuff ends up back where they came from. I have ceased to bother with some things that seem to have made a permanent abode in our home. The Techie's old computer for instance has stood years of my cleaning up, partly because I have no idea how to get rid of it and partly because the Techie for some reason would like to hold on to it. So it sits under a table and gathers dust. Considering my own streak of amassing junk, I can't blame him of course.
This whole endeavour is not without its perks, especially when it comes to the kitchen. That is where I discover long forgotten, but totally welcome things like unopened bags of Couscous and Quinoa, tinned Raspberry pie filling and Anchovies. This time, I also found Horse Gram, Jowar Flour and some suspicious looking packets of various nameless entities on a top shelf. Most of these have a late date fast approaching and I thought it best to use them as soon as possible. Here is where a part of one of the couscous packets went into.

Couscous with Spinach, Scrambled Eggs and Pine Nuts

This is a very simple, fast to pull together dish. I had used baby spinach in the dish as I had plenty of them leftover from salad preps. You can use normal spinach too. 
(Serves 2)


For the Couscous:
  1. Couscous - 1 cup
  2. Vegetable Stock - 1 cup
  3. Red Chilli Flakes - 1/2 tsp.
  4. Lime Zest - of 1 Lime (Optional. Or you can use a small squeeze of Lime or Lemon Juice.)
For the Spinach:
  1. Baby Spinach, torn to pieces if necessary - 4 loosely packed cups. (You can use normal spinach too, in which case you will have to chop them into pieces.)
  2. Garlic, finely chopped - 2 scant tsp.
  3. Salt - As needed
  4. Oil
For the Scrambled Eggs:
  1. Eggs - 2 or 3
  2. Salt
  3. Oil
For the Toasted Pine Nuts:
  1. Pine nuts - 4 to 5 tbsp.

The Couscous:

Take the vegetable stock in a sauce pan and bring it a boil. Take it off the heat, pour the boiling stock over the couscous and sprinkle the lime zest and red chilli flakes on top. Keep the bowl tightly closed with a lid for ten minutes and then fluff the grains with a fork.

The Spinach:

Heat up a pan and add some oil. Add the garlic and once it gets sauteed well - but before it browns, add the spinach with some salt. Mix well and cook the spinach to a point that you prefer. Once done, add the spinach to the cooked couscous.

The Scrambled Eggs:

Beat the eggs well with some salt and scramble them on a hot pan. Add it to the couscous mix.

The Toasted Pine Nuts:

Heat up a pan and add the pine nuts. Toast them, stirring frequently until they turn golden. Add the toasted nuts into the couscous bowl.

Stir everything well together and serve.

  1. You can substitute scrambled eggs with pan seared chunks of cottage cheese, if you'd rather have a no egg meal.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Spice Rack: Black Pepper

The dried mature berry of a woody vine, black pepper is the world's most traded spice. The plant thrives in hot and humid climate and is native to South India, though it is now widely cultivated in countries like Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

Hailing from a state that once held the monopoly in pepper production, it is no surprise that I rarely have to buy the spice from a shop. The vine is something that most people like to have at home. Even the Techie's City-Dwelling-Mummy (She will get a hearty laugh from that description of hers if she ever comes across the blog!) has one at home. My constant supply of black pepper however comes from my generous aunt GA, just like these Green Cardamoms.
The pepper berries are drupes and transitions from green to red colour as they ripen. Black pepper is obtained by simply by drying whole berries, picked while they are mature, but unripe and still green. The white pepper on the other hand consists of the seed alone (just like other drupes, pepper berries contain a single seed) of fully mature and ripe berries. The darker skins of the berries are removed usually by retting.

  1. We come to the end of the Spice Series as I had originally intended it to be. (Curiously enough, the Black Pepper in the wooden pot was the first shot that I did for the series, which somehow got pushed to be published last.) However, I might continue with the series as spices are fun to shoot.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Mangshor Kasha: Bengali Slow Cooked Mutton or Lamb Roast

I had mentioned my hopeful determination to get through my collection of cookbooks one at a time, in a previous post. Considering that the endeavour is a seemingly ambitious one, not to mention it being a ‘susceptible-to-be-dropped-before-I-begin’ campaign, the choice of a book to take the initial plunge was surprisingly easy. The book had sort of settled itself in my mind as an obvious selection right from the time I was toying with this idea. Rinku Bhattacharya’s ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles’ is a book dear to me – it was a gift from Susan (of The Well Seasoned Cook) and is a work that I cherish both for its own merits as well as for Susan’s persistence in trying to get it to me, despite running into some technical glitches with respect to its delivery.

I generally prefer cookbooks that are friendly, conversational and warm, to those that lecture on in a serious, matter of fact, text book like voice. With its Sepia and Maroon toned illustrations and fonts, The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles has an old world charm to it, and Rinku’s style of prose only accentuates this homely feel. Right from the preface where she throws light into her own background and inspirations behind the work, this is a book that says 'come, let’s sit down and chat'.

The book is written with a non-Bengali audience in mind and has an extensive introduction that touches on almost all things Bengali. It shuttles through the state’s formation after the partition, its culinary heritage and the influences brought upon the cuisine by various invaders and traders. The author touches on regional produce as well and draws a vivid picture of how the life and routine of Bengalis are entwined with culture, music and food. This is a great read, even if you are familiar with the region.
Every existence - no matter how simple - is in some way tinged with the myriad flavours of life. This is often a composition of sweet, sour, bitter, savoury, and the astringent, much like the five-spice blend we Bengalis call Panch Phoron
Rinku Bhattacharya, The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.

With a title and cover image that stresses on the quintessential Bengali Five Spice blend, it is only natural that ‘Panch Phoron’ occupies an almost torch bearer status to the sections to follow. A brief account of each of the spices that forms the Five Spice Blend – Mustard Seeds, Nigella Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, Fennel Seeds and Cumin Seeds - are tucked into the book at intervals, implying how important these spices are to the cuisine. I love that the book doesn't take a direct dive into recipes. A whole chapter is dedicated to introducing common pantry ingredients, kitchen tools, basic spice blends, pastes and techniques that are essential to a Bengali kitchen. It also has a section on basic Bengali Culinary terms, which is invaluable to understanding the recipes better. The chapter that follows elucidates on the proper flow of courses in a Bengali meal as well as a few practical menu suggestions.

This attempt at making what might be a fairly formidable ground for non Bengali readers affable and accomplishable continues throughout the book. It is not just a handful of recipes that you will find in the rest of the chapters. Snippets on traditions, festivals and home life are peppered throughout the book. These, along with the notes on ingredients, tips and techniques make this small volume almost encyclopaedic.
The recipes themselves are written in a simple, straightforward way; each of them headed by a note – which at times can be a twist on the recipe, an anecdote or a detail on the origin of the dish. The recipes are manageable and stresses on the authors attempt to bridge the gap between regional Indian cooking and what is practical in non Indian kitchens. And it is to this effect that Rinku offers her own contemporary twists to a lot of recipes as well as practical substitutions for what might be hard to find ingredients, without sacrificing on the underlying Bengali roots and flavours of the dish.

What was revelatory to me was the absence of the five spice blend in a lot of these recipes. Although Rinku says in beginning portion of the book, “It is almost impossible to prepare a Bengali meal without using the Panch Phoron blend”, I found that none of the recipes that I tried used the blend. (Personally, this works great for me as I do not really like the overpowering flavour of Nigella Seeds.) Most recipes instead use one, or a combination of two or more of these cornerstone spices of the Bengali cuisine.

The Tauk Aam Diye Dal (Tart Pigeon Peas and Green Mangoes) that I tried for instance had only cumin seeds in the seasoning. This is a dish that I liked well as I always enjoy the combination of dal with something sour. Doi Begun (Eggplant in Light Yogurt Sauce) was next on my list and we loved the pairing of a well seasoned yogurt sauce with fried eggplants. I tried Moorgir Razela (Chicken in a Creamy Yogurt Sauce) as well, partly because I like the blend of cashew paste and yogurt with chicken and partly because the recipe utilised the Cumin-Coriander Powder and Bengali Garam Masala that I had already had prepared for the Mangshor Kasha (Slow Cooked Mutton or Lamb with a dry Gravy), the recipe of which follows in this post.
The only major criticism that I can draw on the book is the lack of photos. A small bouquet of coloured photos is tucked into the book and that is just about it. I like my cookbooks to have plenty of photographs, although Rinku’s work does carry itself forward through its verbal eloquence. The directions are straightforward enough, and the introduction that comes with each recipe does a really good job at elucidating on what is to come. Of course, this might not hold true for those who are new to Indian cooking.

On the whole, The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles is a book that makes you go back to it again and again and promises to guide and inspire you. Before long, the basic Bengali culinary terms and techniques will become familiar to you and you will be able to mix and match on your own -  and that to me, is the mark of a successful cookbook.

Mangshor Kasha: Bengali Slow Cooked Mutton or Lamb Roast

Adapted from Rinku Bhattacharya’s ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles'.

This somewhat resembles a Kerala Mutton Roast, except of course for the notes of cumin as well as a stronger Garam Masala. But as we took it out on the next day, I found that the spices had mellowed even more. I have reduced the vinegar a bit and substituted Kashmiri Red Chilli Powder for Cayenne Pepper Powder (which itself would have been a substitution for a spicier version of Red Chilli Powder I guess).
(Serves 4)


To Marinate Overnight (in the fridge):
  1. Mutton or Lamb on the bone, cut into rough cubes - 500 gm.
  2. Kashmiri Red Chilli Powder - 3/4 tbsp.
  3. Cumin-Coriander Powder - 1 tbsp. (See Notes.)
  4. Bengali Garam Masala - 3/4 tsp.
  5. Turmeric Powder - A scant 1/2 tsp.
  6. Natural White Vinegar - 1 tbsp. 
  7. Sugar - 1/2 tsp.
  8. Salt - 1 tsp.
For the Roast:
  1. Onions, finely chopped - 1 cup
  2. Garlic, sliced finely - 3/4 tbsp.
  3. Ginger, grated - 3/4 tbsp.
  4. Natural White Vinegar - If needed - about 1/2 tbsp. Taste and adjust.
  5. Water - About 1 and a 1/2 cups.
  6. Salt
  7. Oil

Marinate the meat with all the ingredients specified and refrigerate overnight or for at least about 5 hours.

Heat up a heavy bottomed vessel and add oil, followed by onions and a bit of salt. Cook till they turn brown and add the ginger and garlic. Saute till the raw smell is gone and then add the meat along with any excess marinade not clinging to the pieces.

Sear the meat on a medium high heat until the spices in the marinade get well roasted and oil can be seen glistening on the pieces of meat.

Add the water, bring to a boil and cook covered for about an hour on a slow fire. Check around 45 minutes. Once the meat is done, remove the lid and check for seasoning. Add salt, sugar or vinegar of needed.

Now cook off the excess liquid in the gravy (stirring frequently to prevent the gravy from burning) so that the thick masala coats the pieces well.
Serve with rice or rotis.

  1. You can roast the pieces a bit more than what I have done. I skimped a bit on the oil and just decided to take it off at this texture.
  2. If you want a spicier version, add a spicier Red Chilli Powder in a smaller amount or a combination of Kashmiri Red Chilli Powder and a hotter version.
  3. The Cumin-Coriander Powder used in the book has a 1:1 proportion. However, I made mine with double the quantity of Coriander Seeds than that of Cumin Seeds as I don't like too much Cumin in my curries. See this post for more.
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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

When the Day's Work is Done

"   When the day's work is done,
      I will gently drift off to sleep,
     And dream of the many mischiefs, 
     I have in store for the morrow.   "

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Garam Masala: The Bengali Way

At the time when The Techie and I decided to say ‘I do’, we had barely anything in common. Right from our temperaments (I'm glad about that one.) to hobbies (or lack thereof in someone who walks around with an I-know-only-coding tagline ;)) to four legged creatures that we love (or make us freeze, depending on who we are talking about!) to everything and anything in between, we differed. If it wasn’t for our love of books, we would have formed a perfect Venn diagram with two mutually exclusive circles.
We don't read the same books though – which is quite evident from the contents of the two shelves that we have at home. 'His' is mostly and even predictably so, are all technical with the exception of a few biographies. Mine on the other hand is a confused blend of old classics and other fiction (rarely contemporary), some cookbooks, some odds and ends and even a few on stitching, drawing and painting. This clash of preferences always seems to amuse those who are visiting us at our home for the first time.
Despite his inherent disinterest in the subjects of my collection of books, the Techie cannot resist making wisecracks when it comes to cookbooks. I can detect the sly look that says 'But you are not going to read it, let alone cook from it!' whenever I order a new one. (I must confess that it is true. Except for a couple of them, I haven't completely gone through any of the cookbooks that I own. And, I rarely cook from them!). To break off from this rather unproductive habit of meticulously invading our precious storage space with one cookbook after another, I have decided to challenge myself to read through my books one at a time and to cook at least one recipe from each of them. Though I had no intention of doing so, the first post in the series got so long winded that it now is a sort of review. I'm thinking of doing that for my other books too. Hopefully, it would be fun and more importantly, I would actually sit down and read some of the more serious ones from the likes of Reinhart.
This post is only a prelude to the actual recipe, which is a Bengali Dry Mutton Roast (Mangshor Kasha). The Recipe uses this Garam Masala as well as a Cumin-Coriander Powder. I was slightly apprehensive of making the powders as I wasn't sure if they will get used after that. I was more confident about the Garam Masala though the Cumin-Coriander powder is also surprisingly getting used in some dishes.

Garam Masala: Bengali Style

The Bengali version of Garam Masala is pretty straightforward. It demands only three spices and that too in equal proportions. Cardamom, Cinnamon and Cloves together in their powdered form make a very strong and heady mix. The recipe is basically from Rinku Bhattacharya’s ‘The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles’, which is the same book as I made the Mutton Roast from. However, as I get my spices very conveniently in small packets of 20 gms each, I thought it better to just go by the weight of these spices, rather than follow measurements given in the book.   I have given the quantities in tablespoons in the ‘Notes’ if you’d rather go by volumetric measurements.


  1. Cardamom Pods - 20gm.
  2. Cloves - 20 gm.
  3. Cinnamon Sticks - 20 gm.

Dry roast the spices together in a pan.

Once done, remove them onto a plate and allow to cool. Grind to a fine powder and store in an airtight container. 

  1. Rinku’s recipe specifies Cardamom ‘seeds’ and is probably the reason why they are used in a lesser proportion than the other spices in the mix. However, I rarely bother with removing the shells of Cardamom pods and so decided to go with equal weights of all three spices.
  2. You can make the same quantity of Garam Masala as above by taking approximately 3 and a 1/2 tbsp. each of cardamom (whole pods) and cinnamon (break into small pieces before measuring) and 3 tbsp. of cloves.  
  3. If your grinder can handle even smaller quantities, it is better to halve the recipe as powdered spices lose their strength quite fast.
  4. Note that this is a very strong version of Garam masala. If you are using this in other recipes, start with a much smaller amount than you otherwise would add. You might also have to add other spice powders to account for regional differences. 

Monday, 8 February 2016

A New Year

Looking back, 2015 was one of the most difficult years that I have ever had. The initial months had us losing a couple of dear ones forever, there was always one thing or the other that kept us in touch with doctors through the rest of the year, and I ended it all in style with being admitted for more than a week of hospital stay. In between, some people surprised me with their thoughtfulness, some with their aloofness, some with their care, some with their vindictive spirit, and some with just being there.

Christmas brought forth better fortunes, thankfully. We had a great vacation and it was wonderful to be back in both of our homes.

Hopefully, this year will be a bit more cordial to us!

It is frightfully late. Still,

Wishing you all a Happy and Blessed New Year.
May bygones be bygones, the coming days brighter than the ones left behind, 
And may you find Peace, Health, Goodness and Joy always in this New Year. 

  1. Some of the posts to follow were written last year. I didn't get around to posting them till now. If the introductory part wouldn't make sense at this time of the year, I will just pre-date and publish them.
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