Thursday, November 25, 2010

Fruit of the hills

After a Diwali spent bursting 1000 in 1 bombs at 3 in the morning and eating far more than was good for us, our whole family hied off for Yelagiri, a hill station five hours away from Chennai. Armed with the dubious experience of having lived in Himachal Pradesh for three years, I appointed myself authority on hill stations and spent the drive making contemptuous statements about how we call the hills of the south pebbles, up north. My cousins, to their eternal credit, didn't sit on my head.
The road up to Yelagiri wound up the hill, taking a total of fourteen hairpin bends, each of them a novelty and a tourist spot. We made impressive preparations for car sickness, armed with an array of pills, spices and paper bags. Thankfully none were needed and we made it up the fourteenth bend, cheering.
Yelagiri was lovely, with its winding roads and sprays of honeysuckle and romantically decaying buildings. It didn't offer much by way of dissipation; musical fountains and paddle boating across a man-made lake were its star attractions. When we made our way to the boathouse though, we found it very crowded. Every other tourist there had apparently the same idea. So we abandoned visions of paddle boating and elected to walk around the lake instead, pointing out water snakes to each other and poking at touch-me-nots.
Amma and Chitti espied a nursery along the way and rabid plant hunters that they are, immediately made a beeline for it. I followed them and spent my time chasing the nursery cat among the daisies. After making our purchases, we emerged and saw a woman sitting on the pavement, selling wood apples.
I have no childhood memories of eating wood apples. I remember being introduced to them only about five years ago, when Amma bought them at the Sunday vegetable market, with what I considered undue excitement. But after I tasted the pachchadi Amma made from them that day, I understood the excitement, which is why on the Yelagiri hill, I clutched Amma's arm and pointed and nagged.
Amma refused to buy them that day; we were going onward to Coimbatore and by the time we returned to Delhi and our own kitchen, there was a good chance the fruit would spoil. That didn't stop me from throwing a tantrum though.
So imagine my surprise when, on her return from Coimbatore, two days after me, Amma extracted two round little wood apples from the bottom of her bag. She'd remembered my little scene and scoured the city in search of wood apples for me.
Cracking the wood apples in my opinion, is the most fun part. you can be unscientific and throw them hard on the floor till they split, or you can have at them with a hammer. Both are very satisfying. I immediately opened one of mine and proceeded to make a pachchadi, under Amma's directions.
It tasted of the hills.

Velambalam Pachchadi
Wood apple: 1
Jaggery: 2 tbsp
Mustard seeds: a pinch
Fennel seeds: a pinch
Curry leaves: 1 tbsp
Salt to taste
Amma's rule of thumb for selecting wood apples is to shake them, next to her ear. If you can here the insides rattling about, it's ripe and ready to buy. If you can't hear anything, the fruit is probably still unripe.
Begin by cracking open the wood apple and scraping out all the seeds and flesh. Mix in the jaggery till it's as homogeneous as you can make it and add salt by pinches, till you have it where you want it.

In a teaspoonful of oil, pop the mustard seeds, roast the fennel and toast the curry leaves, till fragrant. Mix in and serve.

Friday, November 12, 2010

On cold nights

I spent Diwali in Chennai and then Coimbatore, for the first time in my twenty two years. I spent it playing foozball with my cousins and watching a slasher flick from behind a pillow. At intervals, we lit lamps, learnt how to decorate the floor with kolams from Patti, exclaimed at fireworks and ate a great deal more then we ought. After balmy Chennai, Delhi seems colder than ever. Indeed, all I've wanted to do since I've returned is to curl up under a razai, emerging at regular intervals for food.
And the sort of food I've been craving after my Diwali excesses has all been simple, comfort food. So I made a hearty sambhar one day, soup the next, and of course, chocolate pudding. (What, did you think I'd give up on sweets after three measly days of eating myself silly?)
Now, although I love elaborate desserts with multiple components, I'm painfully aware that I lack both the skill and the tools to create them. Instead, I stick to what I can manage, simple puddings, Indian sweets, and I'm constantly looking for recipes that let me have dessert on the table in under half an hour.
My recent foray into making rice pudding, while intensely satisfing, got me wondering. In the pudding I made, the part I enjoyed best was the silkily smooth custard during the consumption of which the chewy rice grains seemed almost unnecessary. So I figured, why not eliminate the grains altogether and quarter my cooking time in one fell swoop, and thus was born rice starch pudding.
Now I've made cornstarch puddings hundreds of times, in the standard military dessert of custard with fruit, to dress up towering trifles, to make a reluctant and thick hot chocolate and every so often, just for its own sake. If I was going to convert to rice starch, I needed a good reason. So one evening, after dinner, I set out to make them both side by side. I made exactly the same quantity of both, used the same flavouring and attempted to compare textures.
When still warm from the stove, the rice pudding seemed more substantial, it was thicker and more weighty, while the cornstarch pudding seemed a little too insubstantial. No sooner did you spoon it into your mouth before it was gone, leaving just a lingering memory of chocolate behind. That is of course, a great way to go, but at least on chilly winter nights, I like pudding I can swirl around in my mouth and watch as it falls from my spoon in big glops.

The next morning we tasted the puddings again, this time they had both been chilled in the refrigerator overnight. The cold had done wonderful things to the cornstarch pudding, making it thicker, with a dark and shiny skin. It was smooth light, and seemed just cold enough for me to appreciate the winter morning sunshine better. The rice pudding too, had held up well, but in the morning light, its homeliness was working a little against it. Since I had powdered the rice myself, some of the powder wasn't too fine and so formed slightly unsightly lumps on the surface. But they vanished under a grating of nutmeg and provided a certain, not unwelcome chewiness.
On the whole, I am forced to conclude, that rice starch or corn, it's impossible to go wrong with pudding.
Rice starch pudding
Rice: 2 tbsp
Milk: 2 cups
Cocoa powder: 2 tbsp
Sugar: 2 1/2 tbsp
Raisins: a handful
Nutmeg: as much as you like

Begin by soaking the rice for half an hour. Once it has turned from opalescent to white, drain the water and pat the rice dry on a towel. Then powder it as finely as you can and sieve the powder. (I was lazy and omitted the sieving, but I do recommend it. It gives you a far smoother pudding.)
Mix the dry ingredients together in a heavy bottomed vessel, saving the nutmeg and then add the milk. Once the solution looks uniformly if a little dingily brown, place it on medium heat and bring it to a boil, stirring continuously. As soon as the milk boils, the pudding will thicken and turn glossy. To check if it's done, run your finger across the back of your stirring spoon, in a line. If the two walls your line made remain fixed and do not attempt to flow towards each other, the pudding is done. Remove it from heat and serve warm.

For cornstarch pudding, substitute the two tablespoons of rice starch for cornstarch, all other quantities and the procedure remain the same.