Friday, June 26, 2009


Aku Shaak - Stuffed Vegetable Curry
(A Gujarati speciality from South Africa, from Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Bible )

Maybe, if you're not a scientist, you are not aware of this: 2009 is Darwin Year. Without Melissa, over at hecticium, I probably wouldn't know either. Melissa, also being a foodie, had this great idea to start January off with a dish, which would evolve into something slightly different every month. I volunteered for June, and as we're past the longest day now, and therefore half way through the year (frightening, isn't it?), I'm going to take the opportunity to sum up the evolutionary development so far.

In the ancestral ingredients pool were aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, Provencal herbs, olive oil, marscapone cheese, salt and pepper in a layered dish called Baked Provencal Vegetables, made by the initiator herself.
In February, onions, garlic, peppers, carrots, chilli flavoured oil, pesto and wholemeal wraps had been added to the original configuration, and Muireann replaced the marscapone and Provencal herbs with cream cheese and dried basil respectively.
Naomi introduced meat (minced beef) into the recipe, as well as crackers, egg, spinach leaves, soy cream, hazelnuts, mushhrooms, and a handful of mange-tout, while removing the aubergine and peppers, and replaced the wraps with Spaghetti, and the cream cheese with ricotta and quark for March's meatballs with spaghetti.
April, the aubergines (1) made a come-back, while the courgettes dropped out, the beef was replaced by minced lamb, and a whole array of new ingredients were added: potatoes, mint, parsley, oregano, cinnamon, tomato puree, milk, flour, a bay leaf, and red wine for the Hunt family Moussaka by Laura. She also came up with the great term foovolution that I use in the title of this post.
Ricotta proved an ingredient well suited to the environment as it still features in May's recipe by Kira, who took the foovolution to another level: the ricotta went into Ricotta and Dill Bread (adapted from The Art of Handmade Bread by Dan Leopard), and the aubergine went into everything else, a Baba Ghanoush, Baked Aubergines with Coriander Yogurt Dressing, and Aubergine, Halloumi and Asparagus, with Lemon/Oil Dressing, all looking absolutely delicous, see for yourselves here.
New 'traits' to draw from in June were plenty: tahini, coriander, paprika, lemon, couscous, apricots, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, spring onions, natural yogurt, ginger, dry yeast, flour, bread flour, dill, halloumi, asparagus tips, chilli flakes, honey, whole grain mustard.

Now, e
volution is the product of two opposing forces: processes that constantly introduce variation, and processes that make variants become more common or rare. Adaptations occur through a combination of successive, small, random changes in traits, and natural selection of the variants best-suited for their environment.
I have also learnt that natural selection has no long-term goal and does not necessarily produce greater complexity. In that vein, my main ingredients are the ones which have become the most common traits: aubergine, onion and tomato. From May, I will carry over coriander, lemon, ginger, and the yoghurt for an accompaniment. I will also draw on earlier variants for potatoes (new, in season, and therefore an environmental force), peppers and mint. And the nuts, which appeared earlier as hazelnuts and pine nuts make a come-back as peanuts and coconut. There will be no meat or cheese (the environmental force here could be the credit crunch, or it could be the more personal, domestic one of heart disease and diabetes in my family demanding less meat and dairy intake and an increase in the consumption of vegetables), and my spices and my flour will be Indian, because another environmental factor in this house is the fact that my son Ben will eat only vegetables which are heavily disguised or heavily curried.

Madhur Jaffrey recommends using the small egg-shaped aubergines you can get at Asian markets. Living in Birmingham, that is not problem for me. As an alternative, she suggests long ones sold as Dutch or Italian ones. Well, as you can see, I had a 'normal' fat one. I cut one big slice of about 5 cms, which I then cut into quarters, and I used those alongside some of the small ones.

Aku Shaak - Stuffed Vegetable Curry

(serves 8)

You will need a large, deep frying pan for this.


6 small round aubergines, or chunky pieces as described above
4 onions
4 tomatoes for stuffing
255 g tomatoes, grated (or tinned chopped tomatoes)
3 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and quartered lengthways
1 green pepper, cut into squares

for the paste:

4 tbsp chickpea flour (gram flour)
2 tbsp roasted peanuts, ground (I reckon you could just as well use smooth peanut butter and omit the tbsp of oil)
2 tbsp desiccated coconut
1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 1/2 tsp hot green chillies, finely chopped
2 tsp of salt
1 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tsp ground turmeric

2 tbsp of jaggery or soft brown sugar
a handful of coriander leaves, chopped
2 tbsp ground coriander
2 tbsp of ground cumin
olive oil
1 tsp of lemon juice


1 1/2 tsp whole brown mustard seeds
1/4 tsp ground asafetida
4 whole dried, hot red chillies

  1. Put all the ingredients for the paste into a bowl, mix, and add 1 tbsp of oil and 1-2 tbsp of water to get a crumbly paste.
  2. Cut deep crosses in the bottom of the aubergines, or into the cut ends if using chunks. Stuff some of the paste into them. Cut crosses into the tomatoes and onions and also stuff them. Set aside the stuffing that's left.
  3. Fill the frying pan with oil to a depth of 1 1/2 mm and set on a medium heat. Add the mustard seeds, asafetida and chillies when it's hot. A few seconds later, add the potatoes, stir for 30 seconds, cover and cook for 3-4 minutes. Stir from time to time.
  4. Carefully put the onions and aubergines into the pan, cut side up. Cover and continue to cook on medium heat for 7-8 minutes.
  5. Add 4 tbsp of water, move the vegetables about. Put the lid back on, reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes.
  6. Move the vegetables around again, then add the tomatoes, and scatter the pepper pieces.
  7. Add the grated tomatoes to the stuffing you set aside, mix well and pour the mixture over the peppers. Cover and continue to cook for a further 20-25 minutes, until the tomatoes are just done.
We had a raita with this, made from yoghurt, garlic, some grated cucumber, mint and cumin seeds.

Delicious and very filling, if you cook the above quantity and you're just 3! Mind you, it wouldn't be enough for 8 as a full meal.

And here for those who would like to contemplate evolution, natural selection and Darwin's role in this a bit more, a link to an essay in the New York Times: Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live
(1) Did you know that aubergine production is quite concentrated with 85 percent of output coming from only three countries? The UK is No 10 on the list.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dinner and A Movie: Monsoon Wedding

Chicken Tikka

I am a day late with this, but sometimes you just have to let go. I was nursing myself (again!) all day yesterday and simply couldn't do the write-up. A shame, really, because I could have had this ready to go, but as so many things this June so far, it simply didn't get done...

But, without further ado: Dinner and a Movie is the brainchild of Susan at
stickygooeycreamychewy, and Marc of no recipes, and is an event that combines two major indulgences: watching a film and eating a meal inspired by it. This time, the event was hosted by Marc, and the chosen film was Monsoon Wedding. (I think Marc is getting himself a bit of a name here, having chosen a film with a wedding as its theme for the second time running!!)

I hadn't seen this film before, or even heard of it, and I loved it. It's a feast for the eyes in vibrant orange, and I'm not just talking about the abundance of marigolds!

Director Mira Nair, whose debut film was Salaam Bombay!, set her tale of chaotic wedding preparations in New Delhi just before the start of the monsoon season.

The groom,
Hemant Rai, is an Indian who flies in from Texas, and other family members also arrive from distant places like Australia to attend the wedding of Aditi to this man she has known for only a few weeks. Her father, Lalit Verma, is trying to arrange the enormous and expensive wedding with the help of an increasingly more frantic and frazzled wedding organiser.
In the relentless summer heat, five intersecting tales unfold, revealing secrets and hopes, and the crossing of boundaries, not only of continents, but also of class and morality. So when it finally comes, as it must, the heavy monsoon rainfall is a cathartic downpour indeed.

For the best dance scenes, see here, the night before the wedding.

As a linguist, I was particularly fascinated by the use of
'na' in place of the usual English tags such as, "isn't it" (or 'new' English: "innit"), and even 'nee, nee, nee' (pron.: ~ nay) for "no, no, no", both of which sounded extremely 'homely', as those are linguistic features of the region in Germany where I come from - the Ruhrgebiet.

But let's come to the culinary creations inspired by the film! My feeling is that Marc would like us all to think a bit outside the box, in other words, not to be quite so linear and obvious. (He must have been very pleased with Kris's sorbet , prompted by the seduction scene in
The Wedding Crashers...)

In this instance, we should probably have thought of something representing the monsoon rain, or matching up two ingredients that 'don't know each other', as in an arranged marriage, or at least something that represents the clashes of old and new, of cultures, of continents.
But I'm afraid, I'm a predictable Pavlovian dog; one twang from a sitar, and I'm salivating for
Turmeric, Coriander and Green Chillies...

Mira Nair's background is Punjabi culture, and the main
masala (= the mixture of dried/dry-roasted spices, or a paste, combining spices and other ingredients) in a Punjabi dish consists of onion, garlic and ginger. In fact, a lot of the most popular elements of current Anglo-Indian cuisine derive from the Punjab:

Chicken Tikka
Rogan Josh
Tandoori Chicken
Tandoori Fish
Keema Naans

A tandoor is a clay oven the shape of a horizontally sliced pot, so tandoori food is hard to replicate. We have tried before, with the help of a marinade made from ready mix tandoori masala powder and yoghurt, which is nice but only an approximation. I have recently come across a recipe which I might give a go soon, and I'm toying with the idea of making naan bread more authentically by sticking it to the sides of my German clay pot (Roemertopf), but for the time being, on this occasion, I've stuck to Chicken Tikka.

Not only because because it's more orange than tandoori chicken, or because it's easier, and tried and tested. No. The perfect reason is the fact that Chicken Tikka is the starting point for Chicken Tikka Masala: a
hybrid dish (1), which has not only marched to the top but beyond. According to wikipedia, one in seven curries sold in the UK is chicken tikka masala. It is also widely regarded as Britain's National Dish now, and has produced other interesting off-shoots. In the UK, you can find chicken tikka in sandwiches and baguettes, on pizza, or on tagliatelle. For all I know, Blumenthal does a Chicken Tikka ice-cream or granita. Oh yes, cross-cultural merging and melting of cultures indeed.

I won't say: and this is how you do it, for obvious reasons. This is the easiest way:

chicken breasts, cut into cubes
plain yoghurt
Patak's Tikka Masala Curry paste (there is a mild version or a medium one)*

Mix yoghurt and paste in equal proportions. You need enough to cover the chicken pieces completely.
Leave to marinate overnight.

* You can also buy Tikka Masala powder, or if you want to make your own spice mixture, try the following:

Tikka Masala

1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp garam masala (see below)

You may also add some lemon juice and tomato puree.

The next day, thread the meat on to skewers and grill for about 6 minutes on each side, or longer depending how 'charcoaled' you like it.

After that, it's up to you how you want your chicken tikka. You can eat it just like that, hot or cold, with a salad and maybe a yoghurt raita. You can mix the chicken pieces with mayonnaise for tomorrow's sandwiches.
If you want a curry sauce to go with your meat, you could do the following:

Start with oil, and fry onions and garlic. Later, you add ginger, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, paprika, 3 green chillies (if you like it hot), or you could use more of the Patak's curry paste. Then add either passata, or tinned tomatoes and stock. You can also add yoghurt or cream, plus salt if needed.
Garam masala is again a key ingredient.

According to
Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible, there are hundreds of recipes, probably a different one in every family. In the UK, you can easily obtain bags of garam masala, alternatively, it can be ground if you have the following ingredients and a coffee or spice grinder:

Garam masala, for 3 tablespoons:

1 tbsp cardamom seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp black cumin seeds
1/3 of a nutmeg
a medium stick of cinnamon, 2-3 inches, broken up

Grind as finely as possible and store in a tightly lidded jar. (Cf, p. 327, op.cit.)

I decided to serve mine in a curry sauce on Salmon Tagliatelle (Taglione al salmone)!

Here is the round-up by Marc:

And here are some bits and pieces I have found on Punjabi Wedding Traditions.

Apparently, crude teasing songs are part of the celebrations, and incense is used liberally. Henna designs (
mendhi) are painted - most ladies get it done only on their hands but the bride gets it done on both hands and feet.
Before departing for her husband's home, the bride must tap her unwed female friends or cousins with her
kaliras. Kaliras are silver, gold or gold plated traditional ornaments that are tied to a set of red and cream ivory bangles (chuddha) which are touched by all present to signify their blessings and good wishes for the bride. According to tradition, if any of the kaliras fall on her friends' heads, it is believed that those friends will marry next.
Vidaai marks the departure of the bride from her parental house. As a custom, the bride throws phulian or puffed rice over her head. The ritual conveys her good wishes for her parents. Her brothers accompany the bride, and her other relatives throw coins in the wake of this procession.
(1) Madhur Jaffrey says, the idea of folding the grilled cubes into a curry sauce was most likely developed by Indian restaurateurs in the UK; wikipedia states it was invented in the 1960s in a Bangladeshi London restaurant, but they concede that this is hotly disputed, meaning that there are probably thousands of places which claim to be the original inventors .

Monday, June 01, 2009

Flaming June

Flaming June

is the name of a painting by British Artist Frederick Leighton (1830 - 1906), which is also known as The Mona Lisa of the Southern Hemisphere on account of its residence in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to buy the painting in the early 60s, but being only 15 years old couldn't come up with the £50 asking price. He has since offered six million for it but the Puerto Rican authorities will not sell the painting (click on the Webber link to read the whole story). You can currently see the painting at the Prado in Madrid, where it is on loan until June 21st.

June 21st, fittingly, is also the longest day of the year, and the celebrations for the Summer Solstice (Winter Solstice in the Southern hemisphere) or Litha, or Midsummer Night, or St. John's Night take place around this time. (June 24th is the birthday of St. John the Baptist, which used to be the longest day before the Gregorian calendar.)

And, fittingly again, Midsummer's Eve celebrations, pagan as they were in origin, involved bonfires. They were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other evil powers.

The lighting of bonfires is still part of the festivities in many countries, such as Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, and Estonia. In some rural spots, these bonfires are occasionally lit on hilltops, and the ritual of jumping over it in order to guarantee prosperity and avoid bad luck, is also still part of the celebrations in some areas, a pagan fertility rite, which has been accepted into the Christian calendar. How much it has been 'Christianised', can also be seen in the naming of the fires after St. John (for instance le feu de la Saint-Jean; Johannisfeuer), as well as the naming of the eve/day:

St. John's Eve (Britain), Jonines (Lithuania), Jonsok/Sankthansaften (Norway), Noc Swietojanska (= St. John's Night; Poland), San Juan (Spain), Ivan Kupala (= the old Russian name for St. John; Russia), Juhannus (Finland), Sankt Hans Aften (Denmark), Jaanipäev (John's Day; Estonia), Jani (Latvia), Gol-Jowan (Feast of St John; Cornwall)

According to Wikipedia, where I got most of this information, in Finland, Estonia and Sweden, Midsummer's Eve/Midsummer's Day (Swed.: Midsommarafton/Midsommardagen), is considered the greatest festival of the year, comparable only to Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year's Eve.

Some believe that Midsummer is a very potent night, one of the times of the year when magic is strongest, and it has certainly proved inspirational.

Gogol wrote a short story called St. John's Eve (1831), which inspired Modest Mussorgsky to create his Night on Bald Mountain, and Shakespeare gave us Midsummer Night's Dream, which in turn sparked numerous adaptations:

The Fairy-Queen (1692) by Henry Purcell is a set of baroque masques, or semi-operas, metaphorically related to the play.

Felix Mendelsohn composed the incidental music for a German stage production, which includes his famous Wedding March (1842/3).

Carl Orff wrote another piece for the play, Ein Sommernachtstraum (performed in 1939; re-worked '52 & 62), after Mendelssohn's music had been banned by the Nazis.

Ibsen wrote a drama, also called St. John's Eve (1852/3), influenced by the earlier play and the fairy-tale comedies by the German Romantics.

The choreographers Marius Petipa, Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine all created ballet versions. In fact, Ashton's The Dream is being shown this month at the Birmingham Hippodrome as part of a Triple Bill called Love & Loss.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears turned it into an opera in 1960,

and progressive Rock guitarist Steve Hackett, best known with his work with Genesis, made a classical adaptation of the play in 1997.

Then there are the FILM versions... One of them, directed by Peter Hall, in 1968, features a nearly naked Judi Dench as Titania opposite Ian Richardson as Oberon, with Ian Holm as Puck - all of them painted green.

This list is of course not at all exhaustive. For even more information, see here.

If you've managed to bear with me so far, you might be in need of a drink by now, and what could be better than Pimm's on a First of June, which has been flaming indeed.

You have seen it before, I'm sure, but just as a reminder, this is how you make your own version of the alcohol content of the Pimm's:

Cheat's Pimm's

1 part gin
1 part red vermouth
1/2 part Bols Orange Curacao/Cointreau/Grand Marnier

Then use 1 part of it to at least 3 parts of lemonade, plus apples, strawberries, cucumber and mint, and start enjoying the longer evenings! Cheers!