Friday, 31 May 2013

Awesome Autumn

Apple and pear crumble with orange and persimmon sauce 

Photos by Amruta Nargundkar

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,

John Keats nags me thus – voicing my fears that my busy work schedule may not allow me to pen my own ode to the glorious season before it ends today.

Worldly commitments get the better of willful creativity.     

Many eons earlier, John Keats had haunted me, albeit differently. I owe to him the understanding of the significance of autumn as a season.  Keats’ paean evoked finer sensibilities, introducing themes of rich auburn beauty, mellowness, fruition, and hope -emotions I had never before associated with the falling of leaves and the slanting rays of the sun.

How could I?  The only tree I had seen shedding copiously and colorfully during the miniscule winter in arid Hyderabad was the humble but bitter neem. But then, the neem only created a litter of yellowed leaves, a thick tangled mat of long sticks and a shower of bitter slimy fruit plopping on to the ground, spilling their pips in the process.

The medicinal neem also lacked the rich romance of 'the last leaf' that O. Henry’s Johnsy had pinned her hopes on. 

That short story had been another revelation of the magnificence of autumn - in the description of the quaint artists’ village, the frail girl who had almost given up on life, and the kind but gruff artist, Behrman, who never gave up on his dream of painting his masterpiece one day. The story had all the drama my little mind loved. It symbolised hope, sacrifice and the spirit of giving. And most importantly it had a happy-sad ending that I cherish even today.

Over the years, when my own summer was blazing over our business in Melbourne, autumn was often an annoying time. The maple trees lining the street at the front of the office building dumped their leaves like the rakshas Raktabija, who had special powers to make each drop of his blood that fell to earth give rise to another demon of identical size and strength. I regret being the Kali who cursed the dingy dun leaves, the business(like)woman who bought leaf blowers after leaf vacuums after leaf rakes to stem the fall.

But then, my role at the time was to ensure occupational health and safety, maintain the professional presentation of the campus yet cut down the cost of cleaning. Surely it was common knowledge that pollen gave us hay fever, which meant illness in every home, staff absence, and loss of work-man-hours.

Until one day, as I was walking to work, oblivious to the beautiful crisp morning and mindful of the heavy burden of worries, a beautiful leaf came drifting from the hateful maple tree and landed gently on my nose, stopping me in my tracks and bringing me back to my senses.

The leaf was my totem?

How much was I missing out on in life? Seasons came and went, but the only way I was relating to them was by groaning about the leaves that would litter and the extra cleaning it would require dreading that the air conditioning would fail and staff and students would suffer and complain that the roof would leak and the roof gutters would get blocked and cause flooding about hay fever affecting workforce productivity…

Looking at the desiccates with new respect, I marveled at how the trees would know without referring to their Outlook Express calendars that it was time to sprout and time to shed, time to bloom and time to brown; how the winds knew to blow on time and in speed to make all the leaves fall without the need of a project planner and gantt charts; and how the earth knew to rotate and revolve causing seasons without a Global Positioning System… and so on.

When we first came to Australia friends had told us about a little town called Bright in the Great Alpine Region of in hinterland Victoria. Bright is famous for its brilliant displays of autumn foliage and for the annual autumn festival the town puts on. For years I waited to go there.

Finally we got to it this year.

Everything turned out perfectly. The day was as rich and complete as the season. The landscape was brighter than any we had seen. Contrary to what the weatherman had predicted it was the kind of day I love, very sunny and bright, not a wisp of a cloud in sight and at mid-day it was a pleasant 15 C.

The place is aptly named Bright; a whole town resplendent with the glorious colours of the season, mighty maples and tall poplars in hues russet to gold, red to pink to purple, a celebration of life!

We collected leaves, bought eggplants, squashes and coloured peppers from a cute old lady at the local farmers’ market in Myrtleford, and lovely autumnal fruit, Hachiya persimmon, Beurre Bosc pears, quinces and apples. I am grateful that the browning pears bravely clung on to life and the persimmon held its juices until this week, waiting from me to make time to cook them in celebration of autumn.

Almost a month after we returned I am still smiling at the memory of the day. The heavens were truly and very generously conspiring to make this a memorable and joyful day for us. I am also smiling that I got to pen these lines.

After all, as Keats said, a thing of beauty is a joy forever. The poem, of course, is Ode to Autumn.

Apple and pear crumble with orange and persimmon sauce

For the sauce


1 large Hachiya persimmon – skin removed and flesh roughly pulped
1 large orange  - grate the zest and reserve for the fruit filling and use the juice the orange in the sauce
1 tsp lemon juice (only if required)
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp unsalted butter
A pinch of salt
2 tsp corn flour
3-4 tbsp water


In a small heavy saucepan melt the butter and add the sugar to it. As soon as it begins to caramelise add the persimmon pulp and the orange juice. Add the lemon juice, if required, and a pinch of salt and bring the mixture to a simmer on low to medium heat. Stir frequently, and as soon as the mixture starts simmering add 2-3 tbsp of water to the corn flour and mix thoroughly. Slowly pour the corn flour mixture into the saucepan while vigorously stirring the mixture until the sauce thickens.  You may not need all of the corn flour so add slowly, and stir quickly. It should have some body yet pour nicely.

Remove from heat and set aside.

For the crumble


3 large apples, cored and thinly sliced
3 ripe pears, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp brown sugar/sweetener (only if required)
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
 All the zest from the orange mentioned above

For the topping


¾ cup self-raising flour
1 cup rolled oats
½ cup brown sugar/sweetener
¾ tsp powdered cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup cold butter, grated
1 tsp olive oil for the dish


Preheat oven to 170 C. Assemble the sliced fruit in a bowl and sprinkle the lemon juice, orange zest, spices and sugar/sweetener over the fruit and toss to coat. Arrange the sliced fruit in an oiled pie dish.

In another bowl, combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. Add butter to flour mixture and then work the butter into the mixture with your fingers until it is completely mixed. Evenly spread the topping over the fruit, pressing down slightly with your fingers. Arrange the slices on the top in a pattern of your choice.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until fruit is tender, juices are bubbly and topping is crisp.

Rest it for 10-15 minutes.

Pour the prepared persimmon sauce on the crumble and serve warm. You don’t need any cream, but it does taste good with fresh cream or ice cream.

Store leftovers in the fridge and serve cold or warmed.

This not only makes a great dessert, but also a sumptuous breakfast.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Idylls of Idlis

Idylls of Idlis

Nothing pleases the family more than an idli program on a weekend. And on every vacation, whether we are holidaying in Switzerland or Sydney or Solapur my husband has to say, “If only we got garamagaram idli and chutney now, this would be the best holiday ever!”

Even on business trips, while other guests make a beeline for the live station pouring pancakes, I check out the idlis at the breakfast buffet of the hotel– and marvel at how Indian business travellers have spread the “I” word with such a missionary zeal from Ludhiana to Manila.

The idli, I suppose needs no introduction, so I am going to talk about the technique and tips to make the ‘fluffiest pillowy clouds’ of idlis that my daughter recently tweeted about.

Usually made with 2 portions of rice and one portion of urad dal, idlis are made according to jealously guarded family recipes.

Some use a combination of 1 measure each of boiled rice, raw rice and urad dal, others use only boiled or only raw rice and urad dal. I have even read a recipe from a foodie friend, which uses 1 part urad to 8 parts rice.

I suppose the less the urad content, the lighter the idli. Cooked rice or poha are also used to aid the fermentation.

Things have become very easy with the availability of ‘idli rava’, which is coarsely ground boiled rice or cream of rice.

The lightness of the idli also depends on how the batter is ground. In the old days  rice and urad dal were ground in a round ragadao , rubbu gundu or sil batta. The huge batta, almost the size of the crater of the sil would be rolled in a rotating fashion (not pounded), grinding the mixture and aerating it at the same time. This added to the fluffiness of the idlis.

For quite some time now commercial grade and even domestic grade wet grinders have been available.  These run on electricity and have a real stone sil batta inside a metal casing. On my last trip to India, Bharat Bhai (remember him?) almost sold me a tabletop wet grinder!

I said no - who has the time and space for these behemoths?

Especially, if the same effect can be achieved by grinding the batter in a hardy mixer like Sumeet, selecting the four-wing blending and mixing blade that will grind slowly, with the top two blades grinding and the bottom two pushing the mixture above.

Remember, the longer it takes to grind the dal, the more the aeration!

The next factor contributing to the lightness is the fermentation.

Always let the idli batter ferment overnight and if the ambient temperatures are cool, wrap a thermal blanket around the container. Better still, the batter should be stored in a large metal container to allow for the rising  (and not an uprising where the batter may overthrow the lid). This container, when kept in a warm place, will conduct the heat right into the batter. The fermentation will also create its own heat.

Melbourne is cool almost throughout the year, so I preheat the oven to 50 degrees, switch off the oven and keep the covered patila or steel dabba of batter in the oven overnight.  Sometimes I leave the oven light on – this is enough to warm the heart of the batter and allow the fermentation and also the sourness to develop.

The batter is ready when it has risen and you notice hundreds of tiny air bubbles when you stir the batter, which should taste and smell freshly sour.

Another giveaway is the way the container sounds when you place it on the kitchen counter. If it makes a muffled thud, the batter is ready! Open the lid to see if I am telling the truth.

I also am a firm believer that when the batter is ready, you can harvest the idlis for that one occasion only. There is no – “put away any remaining batter in the fridge and make more idlis later”. If you think you can’t use up the batter when ready, ferment only according to requirement and store the rest in the fridge to be taken out to ferment in advance when required.

If you have fermented more than you can use, make it into uttappa or gunta panagulu, or even dosas, but not idlis…

The last factor that will ensure your ideal idlis is the steaming process. Never steam for more than 10-12 minutes and if you are using the pressure cooker to steam the idli plates on a stand, don’t use the weight. Instead, pop a katori or a small steel bowl in place of the usual weight, so that the steam escapes and does not fall back on to the idlis, thereby wetting them.

Traditionally, the idli plates are lined with squares of muslin cloth. The idlis can then be easily peeled off the cloth and their shape can be retained, but more importantly, they remain soft and moist due to the steam-dampened cloth. I have a good mind to try using small squares of baking parchment… but can these idlis get any softer?

Once the idlis are done, leave them to rest for 5-6 minutes before opening the cooker. When they come in contact with cold air outside, you will see the idlis developing holes on the surface before your eyes – thereby incorporating more air.

Best served hot, idlis can be re-heated in a microwave by sprinkling a bit of water and heating covered.

The accompanying chutney is something we excruciate about and can’t compromise on, so we eat idlis only in those restaurants that have a reputation for good chutney! The coconut must not be desiccated, only fresh will do! The chutney can’t be too hot, not too runny, not too finely ground- we’re just too difficult to please when it comes to the chutney!

There are a lot of versions, with the roasted chana dal, without it, with peanuts (famous ‘Vaishali” restaurant in Pune) and yes the dry spice powders like gun powder, mulaga podi, pud chutney. I have served the idlis in the photos with some flaxseed chutney with a drop of sesame oil. 



2 cups idli rava
1cup white split urad dal
½ cup cooked white rice (leftover will do)
½ teaspoon methi
Salt to taste


Place the idli rava in a largish bowl and pour plenty of cold water on it. Stir the rava and let it sediment so you can drain the water gently. Allow the idli rava to bloom (covered) for a few hours.

Pick, wash and soak the urad dal in water along with the methi seeds for about 3-4 hours. Grind the urad dal and methi seeds along with the cooked rice with a little water as in the description above. Sometimes I add powdered methi seeds to the batter before fermenting.

Mix the ground urad dal, rice and methi with the soaked rava. Add salt to taste and mix well. Adjust the consistency of the batter- it should not be too thick, nor too runny. I tend to keep it a little thicker than what I need, and later adjust the consistency by adding warm water.

Cover again and keep it in a warm place overnight. When the batter ferments, spoon it into oiled plates of an idli stand and steam the idlis as described above for 10-12 minutes.

Coconut Chutney


2 cup fresh grated coconut
½ cup roasted chana dal
1 small onion- chopped
1teaspoon fresh ginger
1 tablespoon urad dal
3-4 green chillies (or more)
5-6  curry leaves
¾ teaspoon lemon juice (optional)
½ teaspoon oil
Salt to taste

For the tempering

1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
A pinch of hing


In ½ teaspoon of oil roast the urad dal till golden. Then add the chopped onion and chillies and sauté slightly. Add the curry leaves and ginger. Remove from heat.

Assemble the coconut, the roasted chana dal, sautéed onion mixture and lemon juice and salt to taste in a blender. Add some water and grind it while retaining a grainy texture.

Pour a tempering (tadka) made of the oil, mustard seeds and hing over the chutney and serve!

Friday, 24 May 2013

Leek Unplugged

Leek Bharada Bhaji

Why is it that when we come across an ingredient that is very exotic, we want to use it to create a familiar dish at first.

Just like how babies put anything they are curious about into their mouths in an attempt to explore, discover and learn.

I suppose it is our way of starting from the “known to the unknown” – and now I am harking back to lesson no. 1 from my BEd class.

It can also be a clever camouflage to slip in a zany ingredient past xenophobes.

Very rarely have I bought something I have never tasted before, to make a dish that I have never made before… like with the celeriac that is incarcerating in the pantry, because I don’t want to make a mash or soup as recommended by a neighbour who grows them and haven’t figured out what sort of a bhaji or rassa I should make out of it.

The Chinese choy-sum and the bok-choy I discovered in the Chinese Market many years ago got made into Punjabi saag and a Marathi peeth perleli bhaji and moong dal bhaji.  To this day I haven’t used them in any oriental dish. The very European Swiss Chard I was ignorant of until in my fourth decade, has become completely Indianised into my Marathi mudda bhaji and has even gone into a patra roll, but never into a quiche.

The same is the case with the European/Mediterranean leek- before I even ventured out to make soups and quiches, I had made this leek bharda bhaij which was an instant hit, establishing the hitherto suspect “mutated spring onion” as the new family favourite.

So in leek season now, it’s leek bharada, leek bhaji (pakora) leek varan (dal) leek pithla, leek thalipeeth…

…Seriously, leek unplugged.

To make the chana bharada ( chana dal rava) at home, simply blitz ¾ cup of chana dal in a spice grinder for a few seconds, sift it in a ‘not so fine sieve’. Blitz the larger bits again and sieve again – repeat till you get uniformly grainy semolina like dal crumbs. This sounds complicated, but takes only a few minutes!

Leek Bharada Bhaji


2 cups sliced leeks- both green and white parts (you will have to be very careful in cleaning leeks, as the leafy whorls have a lot of grit hidden in between – that’s one of the first lessons in commercial cookery!)

1 cup of ladu besan flour/chana bharada

2-3 tbsp oil

3/4 tsp mustard seeds

1tsp cumin seeds

½ tsp turmeric

1 tsp red chilli powder (or more)

A pinch of sugar/sweetener to taste (optional)

Salt to taste


In a heavy bottomed flat pan or kadhai, heat the oil and add the mustard seeds followed by the cumin seeds. When the seeds start spluttering add the sliced leeks and sauté for a minute or so. Add the turmeric, chilli powder and sauté for a few minutes.

Add the bharada bit by bit and mix it well into the sautéed leeks. Add salt and sugar/sweetener (optional) to taste. Reduce the heat and place a shallow container or deep dish half filled with water on top of the pan. This allows the bharada to cook without burning and without the need to add too much oil or any water.

Let it cook until the water in the shallow container starts to show some signs of heating. Remove the container carefully, taking care not to burn yourself!

Check the bharada bhaji- if it is letting out white steam, looks translucent and tastes cooked, it’s done!

Serve with hot soft rice and ghee, rasam and rice, dahi-butti or kadhi chawal. Goes well with rotis, phulkas and jowar rotis too!