Thursday, July 12, 2012

When I get quizzed on culinary topics!

Button mushrooms are now easily available in the market. Can you suggest some easy ways to make them?

Eat more mushrooms, as they are good for you , considering the total fat  and carbohydrate content  is minimal  and low cholesterol to boot. Do not buy mushrooms that are wet and dark. Store them unwashed in a brown paper bag or plastic containers and in the frig. Do not store them for over two days, they taste best when consumed fresh.

My favourite recipe for 100 gms mushrooms ...

Clean the mushrooms thoroughly and slice them, discarding  the edge of the stalk. Chop 2 spring onions both the white part and the green tender stalk. Fry in a tablespoon of butter, add 1 tablespoon of refined flour and switch off the stove. Work in a cup of milk, reheat and cook till thick. Add salt to taste, ½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper, ½ .teaspoon of mustard powder and 3 tablespoons of grated cheese.  Top on toasted buttered bread, or use them to  make sandwich toasts.

Use sliced button mushrooms to make a pulao, or  just fry them in oil with salt and pepper, or serve them sliced on pizzas with a layer of grated cheese. Make delicious mushroom soup as you would any other vegetable soup, liquidise before serving.

Note: Do not  eat mushrooms before cooking or steaming them, it may be dangerous.

What is the difference between cupcakes and muffins?

They do look alike don’t they?  A cupcake really is like a miniature cake, light and decorated with icing often with a small fruit or nuts and made with refined flour. A muffin is significantly heavier in texture and also in weight. You do add fruit before it is baked, also using nuts or chocolate chips, and as a rule muffins are not iced, and taste like a fruit cake which is not too sweet. Some recipes call for cooking with bran as an ingredient.

I use the Victoria Sponge cake recipe for cupcakes  ¼ kg butter beaten till light and airy with ¼ kg castor sugar. 4 eggs added one by one to the mixture, beaten well with each addition, a teaspoon of vanilla essence for flavour. ¼ kg of refined or all purpose flour sieved with 2 level teaspoons of baking powder and a pinch of salt folded into the mixture. ¼ cup of milk makes the cake lighter. Place paper cups in muffin moulds and spoon the batter into the cups allowing room for the mixture to rise. Each batch would take about 15-20 minutes in a moderate oven 180 degrees. Lift off the paper cups, and start with the next batch. Do not overcook.
Blend 50gm of butter with 100gm of icing sugar, apply over the top of each cupcake when cool, stick a cherry or a pineapple piece and please eat the little cakes fresh!

As with all children, mine reach out for junk food. My son loves burgers. How do you make these complicated things at home?

Not at all complicated if you know how! Junk food commercially sold, often have leftover meat, stale butter and other undesirable ingredients. At home you know what you put in. Firstly prepare the patties at home. Use minced meat, minced chicken or soya granules for the vegetarians. Cook the mince with salt and allow to dry and absorb the water keeping the utensil on low heat. Grind the mince with green chillies, green coriander, a little bit of onion, ginger garlic paste, and bread slices immersed in water and squeezed dry. Sometimes I mix in mashed potato and any other vegetables I have in my refrigerator.  Make balls and flatten them into patties, shallow fry in oil.
Buns commercially available are sliced in half, and  mayonnaise spread over each half. Place a cleaned, washed lettuce leaf, a slice of tomato, a slice of cheese, then the pattie. Close the burger with the other half of the bun, fix with a toothpick and place in the oven just for a couple of minutes,  before serving.

Indian food is  so laborious to make and yet so delicious. Can you give tips on how to make it easier to prepare?

With our current lifestyles crowded and the pace of each day certainly accelerated, we don’t have the time grandmothers did to labour over wood fires, grinding masalas fresh on stone! I believe in short cuts without compromising on the taste.

The ginger-garlic paste for instance without which survival is difficult, if you love Indian food.  Take equal quantities of ginger and garlic, clean thoroughly and grind together.  I prefer grinding them separately, as some recipes call for one ingredient without the other. Store them in small airtight plastic containers, in the refrigerator. Use only clean dry spoons to take out the specified quantity and place the containers back in the frig. This way the pastes can be safely kept for two weeks without spoiling. Mine last! Other ways of ensuring that the pastes keep, are adding a pinch of salt when grinding, or use a few drops of vinegar.

Coconut is an essential ingredient, and I always grate the coconut ahead and store in plastic containers in the freezer compartment of the frig. You may grind the coconut and store the paste, but I do find that this does not work so well. Of course coconut paste and milk are commercially available if you are hard pressed for time.

If you have a lot of cooking to do, onions chopped and stored in airtight containers for the next day work well. But they have to be used up, and it is not advisable to keep them for long.

I keep my spice powder mixed and ready. For our type of cooking, we use chilli powder and dhania powder in the proportion 1:1 ½  I have them ground in a mill and store this in my pantry cupboard.

When tomatoes are in season, puree them and pour into ice trays and place in the freezer. You can straight away use tomato cubes for cooking.

1     .I am always afraid to cook cauliflower, as it has worms  sometimes.  I also find that it gets soggy very easily when I make them. What can be done for this?

You have to be very careful when you cook cauliflower. Buy them when they are fresh and white. Cut them into florets the size the recipe calls for, and soak in a large vessel of hot water with salt. Alternately, place them in a vessel of cold water to which a tiny pinch of potassium permanganate is added. Wash thoroughly after 20 minutes of soaking.

Cauliflower cooks very soon, and is  tasty when crunchy. The best way is to steam them in very little water, and then use them in whatever dish you are making. If you are making a baked dish, there is no need to steam the cauliflower but just wash them thoroughly before you bake them.

2.  Bread always gets leftover, and when it gets mouldy, I just throw it away. How can I use left over bread?

There are many ways you can use leftover bread. You can just sun dry them or warm them gently in an oven, and leave them in a cold oven for a day. The exposure dries out all the water, and the bread becomes hard, after which you can make them into breadcrumbs. You can use the stale bread as a base for making au gratin. Use them in a bread pudding, or shape into vadais, deep fry them and pour beaten curds over them, and add the seasoning to taste.

3. Many recipes call for pine nuts which are not easily available here. What can be used as an effective substitute?

The most effective substitute are walnuts. Gently warm the walnuts before using. Here is a no fail recipe for pesto sauce.

Recipe for Pesto Sauce
Grind to rough paste the seven ingredients below, adding the oil little at a time.
1 heaped cup parsley (substitute with green coriander)
¼ cup pine nuts or hazel nuts (substitute with walnuts) roasted lightly
2     cloves garlic chopped
4     tblspns olive oil
¼ cup parmesan cheese
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper powder

200 gm mushrooms
Chopped red capsicum, yellow capsicum (1/2  each)

200 gm pasta of your choice, preferably fusili (spiral)

Cook the pasta al dente,  in a large vessel of water where a table spoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of olive oil have been added.  The pasta should be soft not mushy, and not chewy. Drain the water in a colander and run cold water over it. Set aside.
Clean mushrooms, slice and cook in a teaspoon of water and set aside. Dice capsicums.

Heat a little oil in a wok or kadai and fry the chopped capsicum and mushroom. Add the pesto sauce and ¾ milk just before serving. Mix in the milk, stirring all the time. Remove from fire. Pour over the cooked pasta just before serving, and mix lightly.

4. These days excess of salt is considered very bad for health.  What do I do when there is too much salt in say a gravy, how can the salt content be reduced so that I can still use it?

All of us maids included have used extra salt at some point.  If your curry is salty, just add a whole potato, skin removed and cut in four into the gravy and boil till the potato is cooked. Amazing how this versatile vegetable uses up all the salt. In a dry fry, add a little water and add pieces of bread to it.

5. I always make excess of chutney and keep it in the frig. But I don’t like to eat it cold. Would heating in the microwave oven spoil the taste?

This is a genuine problem.  The chutney would have lost moisture and becomes thick.  Heat or boil about half a cup of water and stir it into the chutney just before serving. Voila!  You are able to use the chutney at room temperature.


  1. What is the difference between a mousse and a soufflé?

Both are similar in many respects. A mousse is a light soft preparation either sweet or savoury, where the ingredients are whisked,  and then folded in. It is set in a mould and usually served cold. Sweet mousses can have fruit in them and the most popular are chocolate mousses with the addition of coffee and served as a dessert, in tall glasses.
A souffle is rather like a cake but more airy and cooked and refrigerated in baking dishes. This could also be a savoury souffle like cheese, tomato etc or a sweet souffle. A custard is made with egg yolk, milk and sugar and the whites beaten into peaks and folded into the mixture..the flavouring could vary like lemon, strawberry or chocolate with an inclusion of cream. When a hot souffle is required it is baked and served immediately after removing from the oven, so that the whole mixture does not collapse.

  1.  Is there any way of preparing an Xmas cake faster…it is so laborious!

Some things in life do not work with short cuts!  More so in cooking when you take time over a dish and prepare it with love it turns out beautifully.  I always make the traditional Xmas cake a month earlier. It is the preparation of fruit which is laborious. Wash the fruit and dry out with paper towels or. sun them. Then soak in brandy for a few days. This eliminates the drudgery of doing everything the same day

  1. We don’t eat turkey. What is the best way to prepare stuffed chicken instead of the traditional turkey roast?

Buy a fresh  whole chicken.. Clean the insides thoroughly and smear salt.

The stuffing for 1 ½ kg of chicken:
8 slices of bread, 1 apple, 1 bunch spring onions, 1 bunch celery, 1 capsicum,salt and pepper to taste ,½ tsp dry rosemary, 100 gm butter

1.      Crumble the bread, chop the apple and other vegetables.
2.      Melt butter mix in the chopped ingredients, add rosemary and adjust seasoning.
3.      Pack the stuffing tightly into the cavity of the chicken. Insert the legs into the cavity and bind with twine so that the stuffing does not spill out.
4.      Heat the oven to 180 degrees and roast in a baking pan for 1 hour and turn at intervals so that it browns evenly.

The same recipe applies for turkey, whenever you change your mind and want to try it out!

4.  What is a healthy alternative for bread croutons for soups?

It is when you deep fry bread croutons that it packs in the calories.  Cut the bread into cubes and toast them in the oven ….and you have the same crunchy croutons  minus the dangers of deep frying.

5.      Can you use anything else other than white bread crumbs for cutlets?

It is better to avoid refined white flour which is the main ingredient in bread that is usually bought. You can use stale brown bread slices to make the crumbs, but care should be taken when frying as the brown bread crumbs will assume a darker colour and look burnt. A better option is to use fine soojee or crushed cornflakes.

For the December issue one more question

I have heard the term “praline” used, but could never make out what exactly it is?

Praline gives a caramelized delicate flavor or filling to desserts and sweets.
Blanch 200 gm of almonds, remove skin and toast them in the oven to a golden brown. Place ¾ cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a heavy pan and melt over high heat. When the mixture bubbles, add ½ teaspoon of vanilla essence. When the sugar melts and turns brown , add almonds and mix briskly for a minute. Leave to cool and pound praline finely as required.

Praline is also a cake which is layered with the sponge cake and praline butter cream and sprinkled over with chopped almonds.

  1. When we lived in Bangalore, Aapams came out beautifully because my mother used to add toddy to the batter.  Now it is just not available and I am unable to make good aapams in Chennai, could you suggest a substitute?

Yes, nothing works better than the natural stuff. But we do have to learn to improvise!  add grated coconut while grinding the batter. While it is being ground,  add 1 teaspoon of dry yeast to half a cup of warm water, adding 1 teaspoon of sugar. After the batter is ground,  add the fermented yeast mixture to the batter, and a tablespoon of curds.  When the batter ferments overnight, you can make lacy aapams the next morning for breakfast.
Recipe:  1 cup raw rice, 1 cup boiled rice, under ¼ cup urad dal, 1 heaped tsp fenugreek seeds to be soaked together for 4-5 hours. Grind to a smooth paste with ½ cup of grated coconut, add yeast mixture, and curds and salt and allow to ferment overnight.
Serve with vegetable stew and coconut chutney.

  1. What is the secret to making good crisp dosais which are uniformly golden brown?

Dosai making is an art, the aim should be to make golden brown dosais, which are crisp on the outside and soft inside. The batter should not be as thick as a cake batter at the same time not thin as in a pouring consistency. You will determine the consistency with experience. The tawa (cast iron is best) should be warm not hot. The dosai should be poured quickly in swirls, and the heat increased moderately, and kept till it is evenly brown and the heat switched off. If the inside is cooked, there is no need to flip it over. When one dosai is made don’t just pour the next. Test if the tawa is warm, not hot. Use a cloth dipped in water and rub it over the tawa to cool it down quickly. I use two tawas which makes it easier, if you alternate between the two.

And please please, this fabulous dish is called DOSAI   not DOSA!

  1. I have heard the term, “baking blind”  what does this mean?

We bake blind when we prepare pastry cases and flans. Prepare a pastry dough according to the recipe you want to follow. Roll out to a thickness of 3mm. Grease and flour  a 11” flan ring or pie dish, and mould the dough to fit inside, lining it in a way that it stays fixed, pressing the sides and top gently. Do not stretch the pastry. Pass a rolling pin on the fluted  edge  of the flan ring so that extra dough rolls off. Prick the base with a fork, and cover with a greaseproof paper. To keep it flat  sprinkle some dried beans or peas on the paper. Bake in a preheated oven about 180  degrees C for 10 minutes. You can add the filling of your choice after removing the paper, glaze the crust with beaten egg and bake for another 5 minutes.

  1. Is it easy to prepare au gratin at home?

Of course it is. It is a French style of cooking. Once a casserole is prepared with say vegetables and a cheese sauce, it is given an au gratin topping.  Season breadcrumbs with pepper and salt, blend in butter and grated cheese and sprink liberally over the casserole and place under a grill or in a baking oven. The dish is ready when the top turns golden brown and a crust is formed. Even sliced potatoes with béchamel sauce can be served with an au gratin topping.

  1. How do you prepare asparagus for various dishes?

This exotic looking vegetable can seem daunting! Cut off the tips of the asparagus, and discard the portions of the stalks which are hard.  Tie up the tips  which should be about 4 “ long in bundles of 10.Peel the lower part of the asparagus which have been cut  away and chop into small pieces. Boil in water for 4 minutes, then add the asparagus tips and cook uncovered for 8 minutes. Remove bundles and dip into cold water. The tips and the water could be used for soups as garnish or as a tasty dish with mayonnaise or cheese sauce.

What is a quiche?

Quiche is pronounced “keesh”.  It is an open tart originating from Lorraine.  You make a pastry shell, which is baked blind as described in my previous column. Do not bake the shell for a longer period, as the shell becomes hard. Remove when the pastry shell is light brown. You can vary it with fillings of your choice.  My favourite is mushroom with a cheese sauce base, blended with cream, spiked with mustard, salt and pepper. This mixture is poured into the pastry shell, and baked again.

Can mayonnaise be prepared without egg?

Yes. Make a cup of thick white cheese sauce, seasoned with 2 tsp mustard powder, 1 tsp sugar and ½ tsp freshly ground pepper powder. Add oil in a thin stream, very very gradually, till the mixture becomes thick and light cream in colour.  Add the juice of a whole lime, and more if you like the mixture to be tangy.

When you boil vegetables say for poriyal it loses its colour and looks insipid. How can you make it look attractive? Can I add a pinch of soda?

When you cut the vegetables the pieces should be the same size. Boil with very little water..approx 2 tablespoons of water for 1 cup of finely diced veggies. Boil on high heat uncovered and keep on heat till all the water is absorbed. Vegetables should always be crunchy and never overcooked and soggy. I never use soda. If you cook them in the microwave the colour will be retained.

I have seen crisply fried colocasia.  Is it because it is deep fried?

When you buy the vegetable select all the same size. Scrub them clean. Boil water and place the vegetables in the water, and allow cook. Test for being done using a skewer or a fork, and if necessary, remove the ones which are cooked earlier. Peel off the skins, and cut into  roundels less than ¼ inch in thickness. Prepare a marinade with 1 tsp chilli dhania powder, ½ tsp turmeric powder,3/4 tsp salt and 1 tsp thick tamarind juice. Add one heaped tsp of rice flour. Mix it into the cut  colocasia pieces and leave for ½ an hour.

When we visit Kodaikanal or Pondicherry I get tempted to buying loads of cheese. How do I preserve it?

Firstly, don’t buy loads of cheese its not good for you!  Keep out only a smaller amount of cheese which you will use up and the rest should be stored in the freezer in the refrigerator, in a box.  Another recommended method is to cut the cheese into sections and store in an air tight jar in the refrigerator. If you would like the cheese stored whole as it is ideal for grating, wrap it in a cheese cloth moistened with white vinegar, which may be kept outside if you are using it regularly.

What about paneer? Is it better to buy it as an when you need it?

To keep the paneer fresh, a slab of paneer may be  immersed in water in a bowl and kept in the refrigerator. But please remember to change the water every day!

  1. What is the difference between red onions and white onions?

Onions are normally available in three colors: yellow, red, and white. Yellow onions, originally from Spain, are full-flavored and are a reliable standby for cooking almost anything. Yellow onions turn a rich, dark brown when cooked and give French onion soup its tangy sweet flavor. They are mild tender and sweet, and can be eaten raw or cooked.

The red onions have dark purplish red skins and extensively used  in India. The Italian red onion is smaller than its French counterpart and is generally oval in shape and a bit elongated.   In terms of comparisons with other onions like the smaller onions they are mild and slightly sweet. The red onion is a good choice for fresh uses or in grilling and char-broiling.

The white onions are larger in size, with a white skins and are milder than the red and sweet. They are quite tough. They are excellent for salads. White onions are the traditional onion used in classic Mexican cuisine. They have a golden color and sweet flavor when sautéed.

Once peeled onions oxidize rapidly and can become toxic, so peeled or cut onions should be stored in a covered box.

  1. What are the different kinds of tomatoes available in the market and what do we use them for?

Tomatoes are rich in lycopene and ward off cancerous cells. Tomatoes are originally from Peru..the name itself is derived from Aztec (tomatl) Until the 18th century, tomatoes were thought to be poisonous, and were grown as ornamental plants. It was only in the 19th century that it became well established and used extensively for cooking. Most of the Indian recipes 2 generations ago, didn’t have tomatoes in the list of ingredients.

In the market today we have Bengaluru thakkali (higher priced) and naattu thakkali. Lately cherry tomatoes are also available.

The Bangalore tomatoes are large, internationally known as beefsteak tomatoes, they are sweet and ideal for making stuffed tomatoes, because of their firm thick skin. This apart they have excellent flavour.

The medium size tomatoes or nattu thakkali and have all round uses, in curries, stews, salads etc. They are sour and not sweet as the large tomatoes.

The cherry or miniature tomatoes have thick skins and can be used for salads either halved or whole. They can be skewered with kababs or used whole or braised in gravies.

Recipe for stuffed tomatoes
Use firm ripe tomatoes. Cut a circle round the stalk, and remove the seeds with a spoon. Enlarge the hole slightly so that the stuffing will go in. Lightly season the inside with salt and invert the tomatoes on kitchen paper so that all the liquid drains off. Arrange the tomatoes on an oiled baking sheet and warm them for five minutes in a hot oven. Drain again and stuff with ingredients of your choice.
You can opt for mincemeat made as you like, or soya granules prepared like keema but fried dry. Or you could use mashed potatoes seasoned with salt and pepper with cheese, crushed garlic and chopped coriander or parsley. Stuff the tomatoes carefully, sprinkle breadcrumbs on top to seal the opening, dot with butter. Smear the tomatoes with oil and bake in  a preheated hot oven for 20 minutes.

If the stuffing is precooked gently for about 10 minutes the tomato will not collapse when stuffed and baked.

3.What are waffles?

A waffle is a thin light batter which is cooked between two greased and heated plates of a waffle iron. The sandwich toasters you get in the stores have waffle plates, and are made of non stick material.. Popular in the US waffles are served with maple syrup for breakfast.

Sift 500 gm refined flour with two teaspoons baking soda, 4 teaspoons baking powder and 2 teaspoons salt. Add 3 tablespoons castor sugar, 150 gm melted butter, 5 eggs lightly beaten, and 3 ½ cups of milk. The batter should be runny. Heat the waffle plates in the toaster itself. Pour a ladle of butter in one half of the open waffle iron. Close the mould and turn it over so that the batter is distributed equally in both halves. Leave to cook remove waffles, sprinkle with icing sugar and serve.

4.I have heard that you can use flowers for cooking.  Can you give me an example of at least one flower that one can use?

The nasturtium is a good example. It is an ornamental plant with edible leaves, flowers and seeds. They are colourful and look beautiful when arranged in a salad. The leaves are a bit pungent, peppery but the flowers are milder by comparison and can also be used as a garnish, including the leaves.You can pickle the seeds and use them as condiments. The flower buds and seeds  can be pickled, and have similar taste to mustard. The Tuber nasturtium come from Peru, can be used as garnishes for hors d’oeuvre and cold cuts.

5.What is a fondue?

A fondue is a Swiss speciality, essentially cheese, two or three different kinds of cheeses. The cheeses are melted in a pottery fondue dish, and it is flavoured with wine or other kinds of seasoning. It is blended to creamy consistency then gently warmed  over a small spirit lamp. There can be many variations, like the addition of cream, milk or shaltlots. Some prefer adding sliced mushrooms. Strips or squares of toasted bread are forked and dipped into the melted fondue and eaten as an accompaniment to the main dish. Roast meat cubed can also be  dipped into this delicious  fondue and eaten hot.

Then there are vegetable fondues as well. It is a name given to finely chopped vegetables cooked on a slow fire till they become pulpy. Fondues made with carrot, leeks, celery etc can be served as accompaniment or as an ingredient for other dishes.

  1.  There are so many different vinegars available in the market.  Can you describe some of them and what best they are used for?

Vinegar is a sour liquid used for enhancing the fIavour of certain food, as a dressing or as a marinade. It is a dilute solution of acetic acid obtained by  fermentation of wine or any other alcoholic solution. I will  list the commonly used vinegars.

Balsamic vinegar is the most expensive and is a richly flavoured wine vinegar from Modena Italy. It is made from selected grapes which are reduced to a concentration of liquid and fermented for at least a year in wooden casks. Sometimes it is allowed to mature for 10 years and hence is precious and should be used sparingly. It is used as salad dressing, or drizzling over roast meat or vegetables or cheese.

Wine vinegars red and white are used more often, to make vinagarette sauce, salad dressing or marinades. Red wine vinegar is used to flavour red meat and vegetables and white wine vinegar for fish and chicken.

Apple cider vinegar is a milder vinegar and not all that expensive, useful for dressing, and providing the sharp tang to sauces and  drinks also for pickles and cooked chutneys.

Malt vinegar is obtained from malted barley and is slightly milder than wine vinegars. The Brits consider malt vinegar part of the traditional accompaniment to fish and chips.

Rice vinegar is made from rice and the mildest of all vinegars and used in Asian and Chinese cooking.

Vinegar should be kept in tightly closed bottles in cool, dark places, and generally are good for a year then lose their flavour.

  1.  What is apple crumble?

Apple crumble is a dessert made with apple and a crumble mixture and baked in an oven/

1 ¼ cups (150 gm) refined flour, 150 gm butter, 150 gm castor sugar processed in a mixie till the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.Mix in ¼ tsp cinnamon powder or grated nutmeg.Remove the skin of the apples,( 1.5 kg) core them and chop into quarters.  Lay the apple pieces in an oven proof dish and spread the crumble mixture over them, and bake in a preheated oven for 35-40 minutes at 200 degrees C.   Serve with any custard.

  1. What is lemon grass and how is it used?

       This is a special variety of grass which grows in South East Asia with a lemonish smell and flavour, and used for Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian and Vietnamese cooking. You can grow it in pots very easily. It could be used fresh or dried and powdered. The grass should be fried before placing it in curries to get the full flavour, and ideally removed before serving.

  1. How is a sweet potato different from the usual potato?

A sweet potato is also an edible tuber which was first discovered in North America and it reached New Zealand, Europe and Asia besides other countries. It is reddish or violet coloured as opposed to the creamy colour of the potato and is floury and much sweeter. It can be cooked with the skin, baked or pureed and added to desserts, in gratins and even in souffles. Many people confuse this with yam, which is tough and quite different.

  1. What is a good substitute for sour cream? And for cream cheese? So many recipes  call for these ingredients..

      Commercially sour cream is available. But I find that our home made curds make good substitutes especially if you know how to make thick curds. I strain the curds and use the thick portion immediately to substitute for sour cream, blending it first to a smooth paste.  For cream cheese you could make hung curds, where curds are strained and hung overnight. This is firm and can be used for many dishes.

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