Tuesday, October 11, 2016

BEYOND WHISKEY IN SCOTLAND


To me Scotland was the Land of Whiskies. My knowledge of Scottish food was limited and I went with an open mind, even to embrace the Haggis, if I could. My travel partner assured me good scallops and excellent companionship and so I embarked on my maiden trip to Scotland, to the Northern Highlands to explore the North Coast 500.

The North Coast 500 is often called Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66. It was launched in 2014 and was soon named as one of the top coastal drives in the world. It was conceived to lure the travellers to the north western corner of the United Kingdom, to enjoy its culture, cuisine and landscape. This route provides a great backdrop for the outdoor enthusiast and the discerning gourmand alike. Hill walkers briskly moving along with their walking poles, bikers whizzing along, a few big boys with their fast and shiny cars, young families and happy campers in their RVs, hillsides dotted with countless sheep and loch after loch is what we encountered on this road trip. Quaint little cafes serving fresh seafood, local small businesses selling smoked seafood, jams, chocolates and fudges, world-class restaurants in heritage properties and whiskey distilleries, kept us well fed and merry along the route.

We started our road trip in Inverness and covered the North Coast loop over five memorable days before ending back in Inverness. We headed west towards Applecross then north towards Durness, to the east to John o’ Groats and finally south back to Inverness. We spent the day hill walking and thoroughly enjoyed the seafood, bread, beef, wine, beer, gin and whiskey, needless to say. Provenance was key and dining establishments proudly named the local sources of the ingredients on their menus. Although I was looking forward to eating lots of Scottish Salmon, I happily discovered new favourites and enjoyed the abundance of what the sea and the land had to offer.

Thanks to a few TV shows, I never had a good opinion on Haggis. For breakfast on day#01, I had the opportunity to try Haggis and I did. With mixed feelings I tucked in my first mouthful of Haggis and I was in deed pleasantly surprised with its texture and flavour. I took an immediate liking to it and it was a regular feature on my plate for breakfast henceforth. I even managed to buy some Haggis at the M & S food hall at the Edinburgh airport to bring some back home for the family.
Langoustines with Lemon butter at the Lochleven Cafe
Fresh scallops and langoustines really stole the show on this trip. One of our first meals on the road was by the quaint and lovely Lochleven Café, not far from Glencoe. This was on a detour we took to see Glencoe before we started out on the NC500 route. The café was set by the shore of a loch and that was enough to know that the seafood was fresh and at its best. We ordered a smoked seafood platter, langoustines with lemon-parsley butter and scallops with a piri piri sauce. We were encouraged to use our hands and a few additional gadgets to get the most out of the seafood. The langoustines were served as whole and I mastered eating the heads and there will now be no looking back. The seafood was ever so lightly cooked and was packed with bags of subtle yet delicious flavours.
King scallops with rice and bacon at the Applecross Inn
Another memorable meal by the water was at the Applecross Inn on the NC 500. With brilliant weather that afternoon many of the customers sat around the tables outside the Inn and enjoyed their lunch followed by ice cream from the truck parked out front. Sandwiches were the most popular but we happily devoured a smoked duck salad with olives, light and fluffy fish pie loaded with salmon and haddock and hand-dived King scallops in garlic butter served with bacon and rice.

We noticed a couple of other exciting seafood cafes that came highly recommended by fellow travellers and locals but due to the lack of time and our itinerary choice, we did not get to dine here. Kishorn Seafood Bar between Loch Carron and Applecross pass and the Gille Bridhe Café in Lower Diabaig are not to be missed if you are ever in their vicinity. The drive from Torridon to Lower Diabaig is stunning and a must-do even though it is not included in the NC 500. There are a couple of blind dips and it does take the driver by surprise, despite the sign boards.
Venison Tortellini at The 1887 Restaurant
The 1887 restaurant at The Torridon Hotel run by Chef David Barnett with its multi-course seasonal menus and spectacular setting by the Torridon mountains needs to be on everyone’s itinerary on the NC 500. Free range highland cattle for beef, in-house pigs for ham and a spacious and well-planned kitchen garden compliment the culinary team in this three rosette restaurant. Venison Tortellini, John Dory with Samphire and the elaborate passion fruit pudding with the setting sun in the backdrop made for a truly memorable dinner. Another meal where the sunset completely stole the show was at the Inver Lodge’s Chez Roux restaurant. Generous and wholesome dishes satisfied our appetites but the sunset in Lochiner on that magnificent evening will be remain etched in our memories forever.
Local pork with Cabbage at the No.1 Bistro
A memorable dinner, with absolutely no help from the setting sun as it was very overcast that evening, was in the No.1 Bistro at the Mackay's Hotel in Wick. Simple ingredients, elegant presentation, clever flavour combinations along with outstanding hospitality are all the factors that went into making that dinner very special.

No trip is complete for me without culinary souvenirs from my travels. And there are plenty of opportunities on NC 500 to collect along the way to take back home. Applecross smokehouse in the Applecross Peninsula and Caithness Smokehouse, not far from John o’ Groats run by friendly folks are great stops to pick up smoked salmon, smoked trout, smoked mussels, smoked cheese and smoked butter. A pack of oat crackers along with some smoked seafood and cheese on top of one of the scenic hills is an easy yet fantastic picnic option. We discovered the Cocoa mountain store in Durness by chance but it sure was a great find. Hot chocolate mix, chocolate bars and barks and gourmet chocolate in this store are excellent picks to take back home.
Smoked seafood at the Applecross Smokehouse
Although not on the NC 500, if you are driving from Edinburgh to get on the NC 500, there are a couple of interesting pit stops for culinary souvenirs. The Lochleven seafood café near Glencoe, has a small store attached it from where one can pick up interesting sauces and rubs for seafood and also crab claw crackers and seafood picks. The Taste Perthshire outlet just off the A9 not far from Perth has an extensive selection of jams, crackers, shortbreads, honeys, cured and smoked meats and seafood, fudges, whiskies, gins and flavoured liquers.

Every day, the experience and scenery on the NC 500 was different. Day after day, it felt more rewarding, just when I felt it cannot get any more beautiful, it did. We were very lucky with the weather, lot more sun than we had expected, we brought back our rain gear unused. The food was uncomplicated and non-fussy yet treated with respect and truly flavoursome.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Chef's Table on Netflix


With Netflix newly launched in India movie-lovers have a lot to cheer for. As a foodie, I am excited to be able to watch movies that revolve around food, for instance - No Reservations, at my own convenience. Another exciting element of Netflix is it's original documentaries. I stumbled upon the "Chef's Table" over last weekend and could not help but watch the first season with six episodes, back to back. I was completely mesmerised with the documentary and I felt enriched and inspired at the end of the TV marathon.  

Each of the six episodes revolve around a world-renowned chef - Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Italy; Dan Barber of Stone Hill at Stonebarns and Stone Hill Restaurant in USA; Francis Mallmann of El Restaurante Patagonia Sur in Argentina; Niki Nakayama of N:Naka in USA; Ben Shewry of Attica in Australia and finally Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken in Sweden. Osteria Francescana, Stone Hill at Stonebarns, Attica and Fäviken featured in the San Pellegrino's Top 50 restaurants of the world in 2015.

Every chef in this documentary is nothing short of an artist, their masterpieces on the plate speak volumes of their creativity and talent in the world of food. They all have their individual styles and they wear their experience and and passion on their sleeves while working in their kitchens.  

Almost all of them come from very humble beginnings and have worked and trained very hard to be where they are right now, the pinnacle of their culinary journeys. Every one of them shared their fear of failure and how they almost gave up cooking before they were discovered by the food critics and the gourmands.  

The episodes flow as narratives by the chef’s themselves supported by a food critic from their part of the world. Another common factor that connects all these chefs is the desire to break away from the rules of traditional cooking and dream of something bigger but close to their hearts. Especially, Italian and Japanese cuisines have such rich heritage and tradition that is almost looked down upon when a chef tries to push the boundaries and expand the palate and imagination. 

Massimo Bottura’s story is very charming and romantic as it draws a parallel between his love life and professional life. The day he opened his current restaurant is the same day he proposed to his wife, Lara. His respect for the Italian Nonnas (grandmothers) is very evident in his cooking practices. 

Dan Barber is a chef who takes the concept ‘Farm to Table’ very seriously. He often works with biologists, farmers and chefs in order to serve local, seasonal and flavourful cuisine to his customers. His duty as a chef does not end with putting beautifully plated dishes on his restaurant’s tables. He wants to support and practice sustainable farming in order to do what is best for the community and the world. 

Niki Nakayama is a brilliant chef who innovates constantly and would never repeat a dish to a returning customer in her restaurant. Petite and calm, she is making a mark for herself in a very male-dominated profession. Niki prefers to work behind a screen so that people do not judge her food because of her gender. Niki's Kaiseki plates have a Zen-like calm and serenity about them. 

Francis Mallmann left home at a very young age to pursue a career in the culinary world. He places a lot of emphasis on the ambiance and also the memories created by food. His cooking style has evolved over the years, rustic and almost charred food is what describes his food now. The landscape and remoteness of Patagonia, where he grew up and now spends a lot of time in, also has a strong influence on his personality and cooking style.  

Some of us remember Ben Shewry from Masterchef Australia when he visited the Masterchef kitchen to set a challenge for the contestants. Matt Preston, who lives around the corner from Attica - Ben's restaurant, is a regular diner on experimental Tuesdays. Ben considers the landscape where he grew up and his family to be strong influences in his life and cooking style.  

Magnus Nilsson, after graduating from cooking school in Sweden, cooked in the restaurant kitchens of Paris and Stockholm. He now runs a three-Michelin starred restaurant which is a destination in itself in Lapland, the far northern reaches of Sweden. His dinners include over 30 courses and are executed with immaculate precision and creative imagination. 

The Chef’s Table is a must watch for anyone who enjoys and appreciates food. Images of those artfully crafted plates still linger in my mind. It has got my creative juices flowing and I look forward to experimenting with our local and seasonal produce in my kitchen very soon. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

HIGH ON FOOD IN LEH

View of Leh from the road to Khardungla pass
The summer season in Leh, Ladakh is in full swing now with foreign nationals and Indians alike traversing the regions to soak in it's spectacular beauty and experience a journey that is unique and second to none. Whether you are traveling across Ladakh on foot, on a bicycle, on a motorcycle, by bus or taxi, there is an element of adevnture around every corner and it makes for an exciting holiday. 
Local women selling fresh greens at the Main market street
Trekking in the high altitudes for a week had dwindled our appetites and we entered Leh hoping to gorge on the warm and delicious momos and Thukpas (Tibetan noodle soup). The streets in the main market are were lined with local women selling fresh greens and vegetables from their gardens to a range of dry fruits, nuts and dried herbs. There is a wide variety of restaurants to choose from and one can be overwhelmed by trying to pick the right place for a meal. Wood-fired pizzas, bakeries serving leavened bread in its multiple forms and Tibetan cuisine are the most popular among travelers in Leh. 
Wood-fired pizza at Bon Appetit
Most restaurants offer a wide range of teas on their menu. Travelers arriving in Leh from lower altitudes are recommended to sip on a lot of tea as it aids in the acclimatisation process. Honey-Ginger-Lemon tea is the most favoured whereas my personal favourite was the peppermint tea. The Open Hand Cafe on Library road is a great place to start your day with a cup of freshly brewed coffee or a cup of tea. They have an extensive breakfast menu and also prepare packed lunches for road trips. The staff here are warm and friendly and my friends took a special liking to the outdoor courtyard seating area at this cafe.
Sabagleb stuffed with chicken filling at the Tibetan Kitchen
One must try the traditional Tibetan dishes during their stay in Leh. Chopsticks Noodle Bar on Fort Road serves good momos, thukpas and tasty Chinese dishes. The Tibetan Kitchen, off Fort Road came recommended for authentic Tibetan dishes by our trek guide. We had to wait for half an hour to get a table for dinner when we visited, which in itself speaks volumes of the food served here. Sabagleb (Tibetan bread stuffed with a filling of choice) and Mutton Shepta (mutton stir fried with onion, capsicum and glass noodles) were delicious at the Tibetan Kitchen. The following day, we dined at the Summer Harvest Restaurant, also on Fort Road to taste a few more Tibetan delicacies. The traditional Tibetan steamed bread, Tingmo and the Aloo Phing Veg (stir fried vegetables with galss noodles) was a perfect combination. The Kashmiri dishes like Rishta and Goshtaba along with naans are also worth trying here. 
Aloo Phing at the Summer Harvest Restaurant
Almost every street in leh has a German bakery or two. These bakeries typically sell cookies, croissants, cinnamon rolls, brownies and doughnuts along with coffee and tea. The All-day Breakfast Cafe, Yama Cafe and the English bakery on Changspa road have a relaxed vibe and one can spend hours reading a book or planning an itinerary for the rest of the trip. My friends and I picked Bon Appetit Restaurant, off Changspa road for our celebratory dinner after completing a strenuous trek. It has a scenic setting overlooking the valley and a limited but delectable menu. The salads, pizzas and Khow suey were memorable and we left the restaurant with full bellies and happy smiles on our faces.
Say YAK CHEESE...
No trip is complete for me unless I shop for food souvenirs to bring back home and share with my family. Ladags Apricot Store at Zangsti, Leh is the perfect destination for food souvenirs. The shelves are laden with apricot jams, dried apricots, semi-dried apricots, Himalayan salt, honey, organic herbal teas and dry fruit bars. Yak cheese from one of the bakeries will put a smile on the faces of the young and the old alike back home. Now that I am back after my trip, I look forward to sipping on herbal tea from Leh and reminisce about my days in Ladakh among the majestic mountains... 

The above writeup got published in The Hindu Metroplus. Use the following link for more:

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dumplings with the men in blue in the land of Down Under

If you are an ardent fan of the ‘Men in Blue’ and find yourself in the land of ‘Down Under’ in the next few weeks trying to follow their prospects in the World Cup and a connoisseur of all things tasty, you are in for a real treat. Every word of what Gary, George and Matt of Masterchef Australia-fame tell us on the show is true, read on to find out more. 

The freshness of the greens and other vegetables is phenomenal. Even in the most unassuming little towns, one can expect to get a healthy and crunchy salad. The reverence with which they treat their meats and seafood is also exceptional. A chef will happily talk about a particular farm from where he sourced his beef or lamb. Or he will point you to the ocean right in front of you and tell you the day's special seafood was caught there that morning. The adventurous at heart should definitely try getting their hands on a Kangaroo steak, Crocodile sausage or some Emu meat.

Stalls in Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne
Melbourne is a melting pot of many cultures and cuisines. Asian cuisines such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Vietnamese restaurants vie for your attention on the busy streets of Melbourne. For a dim sum lunch of steaming heavenly dumplings try the Crystal Jade restaurant or the Shark's Fin Inn on Little Bourke Street. For cocktails and Vietnamese hawker-style food, head to Rice Paper Scissors on Lierpool Street. And for the globally-trending Peruvian cuisine, head to Pastuso, down the ACDC lane. A Peruvian dinner of seafood Ceviches, Quinoa salad and pit-roasted meats will definitely hit the right spot. The bustling Queen Victoria Market (QVM) is a great place to spend a morning browsing through the various produce. Outside food is allowed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground and one can stock up a fine picnic basket at QVM before heading to a cricket match.If you are feeling homesick and craving for some Indian food, head to Chilli India in Melbourne Central for good dosas and piping hot Hyderabadi Biriyani.


Dim sums galore, the tiny treats that stole my heart...
The vibrant restaurant and bar scene in Sydney is a testament to the claim that it is the food capital of Australia. A dim sum lunch at the Banquet dining hall of Marigold restaurant by Hay Market or a Greek inspired dinner by the chef's table at The Apollo restaurant in Potts Point will not leave you disappointed. Dinner by the window at the Sydney Cafe is also a fitting way to take in the Harbour views and the city lights around Opera House. Despite sounding touristy, a glass of Champagne at the Opera Bar in Opera House is a great way to kick start a fun evening with family and friends. A live band and a breath-taking view of the Harbour Bridge adds to the experience. 

For a taste of Masterchef Australia dishes head to Adriano Zumbo's store in Balmain, Sydney and bite into one of the 40 different macaroon flavours. Alternately, make a beeline to one of the six stores of celebrated gelato chef Nick Palumbo's Gelato Messina to taste his cool creations. Kylie Kwong's restaurant, Billy Kwong at Potts Point comes highly recommened for an evening out with drinks and dinner. And for a fine dining experience, make a reservation at Sepia - Restaurant of the year 2015, run by award-winning chef Martin Benn who set a pressure test in Masterchef Australia season # 6.

Although an expensive affair, the dining scene in Australia is second to none. The presence of such diverse cuisines and the freshness of the produce is worth giving your taste buds a whirlwind treat while watching the Men in Blue stomp the opposition.


Monday, November 10, 2014

SWEDISH MEMOIRS

I have always been very fond of Sweden as far back as I can remember. From the time when I was a little girl, my family has had business ties with Swedes. My Dad's friend Sven  is a dear friend of mine as well. When I was about 7 years old, I got a little note from then 8 year old Evelina through her mother Ylva who was in India on work. From then on, we have continued to write letters to each other which then graduated to emails and now whatsapp messages!! Like all friends, we have shared and discussed all things related to pets, books, movies, boys, schools, etc.

And when I was 15 years old, I had the opportunity to visit her for 4 weeks and go to school with her as well. Those 4 weeks as a 9th grader in Sweden during one summer, was a period of enlightenment and change for me. I came back a different person and till date I remember my time there fondly. One of the memories I carry with me was the time I spent in the kitchen with Ylva, my friend's mother. I was her sous chef in the kitchen and enjoyed spending that time with her during the weekends. Ylva, was a warm and caring mother who would churn out delicious meals for the family everyday. I went to Sweden as a scrawny teenager and came back as a plump one!! I gained 8kgs in those 4 weeks I spent with Evelina's family. So you can imagine what a fantastic cook Ylva was and still is!! Ylva has been a strong influence on me when it comes to my fondness for food and cooking.

Since 1995, I have visited Sweden numerous times and have been a big fan of Swedish home cooking. My favourite is of course, the Swedish meatballs. But I must say, that my most favourite are the breakfasts there. I love the different breads, honey, smoked salmon at times, the cream cheese and other cheese spreads!

During my short stay of 3 days in Sweden this October, I got to eat all my favourite dishes and what made it even more special was catching up friends after a long break. I was going back to Sweden after a break of 7.5 years, a lot of things have changed since my last visit there. For starters, Evelina has two little adorable boys aged 4 and 5 and I met them for the first time last month. Evelina put in a lot of effort to make sure that they were delicious dishes on her table for every single meal while I was there. What was very striking for me to know was that she has inherited the dining table from her parents after they moved and it was the same table that witnessed me gain 8 kgs in the summer of 1995. Only fingers crossed this time that it doesn't happen again! ;-)

My very first dinner at Evelina's was a seafood extravaganza. She had to drive to Gothenburg to pick me up from the airport and she used this opportunity to visit a local seafood store and bought a lot of goodies to feed me. There was boiled shrimp which was very flavourful and was served with a spicy aioli. There was also cold-smoked salmon and hot-smoked salmon with gravlax sauce. She had also baked a potato gratin for dinner. Its layers of potato slices baked in cream along with garlic and parsley. Now what can go wrong with something like that? It was heavenly! Although I manage to buy smoked salmon every now and then from the big metros in India, the gravlax sauce is something I miss here in India. I love the sweet, spicy and sour taste of the gravlax sauce and has been unable to recreate the same in my kitchen.

Clockwise from top left - Hot and cold smoked Salmon, Vintage Volvo, boiled shrimp and the grey autumn skies over the Swedish countryside


Evelina and her husband John, live in the Swedish countryside about 3 kms from the nearest town of Gallstad. She has her own hens in a coop and gets fresh eggs from them every day. A week before I arrived, she had a bought a whole sheep from the farmer next door and had it butchered and packed into neat little packages to be tucked into the freezer, to consume over the next few weeks. I made Rogan Josh with some of that lamb and it was a big hit with her family. I also made a chicken curry for dinner one evening and had her little boys running around in circles with their tongues out as they found it too spicy. Evelina made Swedish meatballs for lunch one day when her mother visited us. In no time, she made the meatballs, sauce and potatoes while chatting with us in her kitchen. The meatballs were served with Lingonberry jam which is a classic combination.


Like I mentioned earlier, breakfasts are my favourite in Sweden. With fresh eggs from Evelina's back yard, the breakfasts in her house were very special. As a teenager, my favourite was a layer of butter on any bread and a thick layer of honey. I had to eat that one morning just to relive that summer of 1995. Another day, it was smoked salmon with gravlax sauce and eggs. One of my new discoveries this time is the cheese spread that is available in tubes in a multitude of flavours. The flavours range from smoked shrimps, shrimp and crayfish, ham, blue cheese, chives and smoked reindeer meat with actual bits in it. During one of my visits to the local grocery store I was amazed to find a huge display of these cheese spread tubes. The range of flavours was just mind-blowing!


This was probably my shortest trip to Sweden and the first time I did not visit Sven and his family. Sweden and its people are very close to my heart and I am already longing to go back to Sweden. I hope to make it back to Sweden in 2 years from now with my little boys and share with them the culture and friendship that is very special to me. 


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

NORWEGIAN FOOD ODYSSEY

After landing in Tromso in northern Norway, I was to go on a long ferry ride to reach my final destination, Skjervoy. This was a huge ferry service named 'Hurtigruten' where tourists are known to spend a few days on board traveling along the west coast of Norway watching the northern lights in the winter and whales thorough out the year, if they get lucky. I was all set to witness the northern lights and was eagerly looking forward to a decent meal after the rather insipid meals on long flights.

Above - Hurtigruten and my sumptuous three course meal onboard

The food served on board this ferry was to highlight the produce from northern Norway. The first course was a warm carrot soup served with bits of crispy cured ham. The salty and crisp bits of ham was a lovely garnish to the soup and highlighted the sweetness of the carrots. It was followed by a course of baked arctic char (a close relative of salmon and lake trout) with pickled vegetables (mostly fennel), roasted beetroot, potatoes and a mustard sauce. The Arctic char had been sourced from a nearby port that very morning. The fish was cooked just right and the fennel along with the mustard sauce rounded off the dish very well. For dessert, it was cloudberry from the local region served with sour cream and a crisp and crumbly biscuit. Followed by dinner there was a magnificent display of the northern lights in the sky for me to witness and enjoy for the first time in my life. It was indeed a challenging task to be out on the deck of the ferry to capture the northern lights in my camera to bring back home the images and share with my family. The night was cold and the wind was howling!!!

I arrived at my friend's village in the middle of that night and the next 3 days were filled with memorable meals from the Norwegian and Indian frontiers. It is amazing to have access to such good produce in near zero weather conditions and with just the right planning, I pulled off a couple of great Indian dishes for my special friends too. My friend Elna, grew up in the sleepy seaside village of Skjervoy in the north of Norway, settled in Lillesand in the south of Norway but spent a good part of the last 20 years in Tirupur, South of India. I have known her for 20 years now and I must say that she is definitely one-of-a-kind, in a very nice way.

Day or night, east or west - stunning views

Skjervoy is a beautiful little island along the north coast of Norway, well north of the arctic circle. When Elna was a little girl growing up in this village in the 1950s and 60s, the only way to the mainland was by boat. But today, they have a single lane bridge that connects Skjervoy to another island which in turn is connected to the mainland by a tunnel that goes under the seabed. The population of the island of Skjervoy today is about 2000 and it is largely comprised of the fishing community and a few pensioners. 

I made sure that Elna's fridge is stocked up with Salmon, especially smoked salmon. I was determined to eat as much salmon as possible on this trip, as we do not have access to this lovely fish in India. My lunches were a few slivers of smoked salmon with a green salad and a soft local bread for the next 3 days. The dinners were all home-cooked and very interesting.

Elna's younger son, Thore is a trained chef but had to give up his career due to skin allergies caused from handling fresh food. He is now a full-time fisherman in the northern waters of Norway but still can thankfully whip up delicious dinners while wearing rubber gloves during prep time. For my first dinner in Skjervoy, he cooked a delicious meal of baked salmon in a hollandaise-like sauce along with spaghetti. After devouring a large piece of salmon, I was treated to fresh strawberries (quite unusual for this time of the year as I was told) with cream. To add to this delightful meal, I was also treated to another fantastic display of northern lights right over the village and it looked splendid in spite of the lights from the village.

Diwali dinner and the salmon delicacies

The next day, I decided to cook them an authentic Indian dinner and managed to serve a near original Rogan Josh cooked with the local lamb and served it with rice and a cauliflower subzi. I had taken a few Indian spices along with me and they came in handy with the Indian dishes I cooked in my Norwegian friend's kitchen. As I was in Norway during Diwali, I thought it was only appropriate to take some Indian sweets for Elna and her family. I had a taken a box of Mysurpa from Krishna sweets (a local specialty here in Coimbatore where I live) and they were truly appreciated after a meal of warm lamb curry and rice. The strawberries and wine along with the Mysurpa added a Norwegian touch just to remind me that I was far away from home but in the comfort of my dear Norwegian friends.

Baked salted Cod with the various accompaniments

On my last day in Skjervoj, I was treated to an authentic Norwegian dinner which is usually cooked on Christmas eve. Thore baked a batch of dried and salted cod which his uncle Stan was kind enough to arrange for their visitor from India (me!!!). The baked cod had a rather unusual texture and was served with an array of traditional accompaniments. It was served with boiled potatoes and a pea stew and the garnishes were sliced onion, brown cheese slivers, bacon bits fried in butter and fried bacon fat that popped in one's mouth like popcorn and melted away with all the salty goodness that comes with bacon. Apparently, the brown cheese made from goat's milk is a local specialty and it tasted delicious and reminded me of Kova (condensed solidified milk in India) for some reason. I had cooked some South Indian coriander chicken curry to satisfy my friends and they were indeed thankful for a second Indian dish during my short stay there. The highlight of every evening while I was there was the magnificent display of northern lights in the night sky over Skjervoy. Not for a moment did I miss the fireworks back home in India that were lighting up the sky during Diwali. The key factor to witness the northern lights is a clear sky and I was lucky to get 4 clear nights in a row during my stay.

Although my stay in Norway was rather short, I shared a lot of great memories with my friends over the special dinners we cooked for each other. The nearest Indian restaurant is at least a good two-hour drive from Skjervoy but even they fail to cook up dishes that are authentic enough to satisfy my friend who has spent many a months in India eating home-cooked meals in my folk's place. And to me, a self-proclaimed lover of all things with salmon, it was a gastronomic-fantasy-come-true eating salmon literally for every meal during my stay in Norway. With a heavy heart and a content belly, I said good bye to my friends (as I won't be seeing them for a while) and carried on with the rest of my trip. To be continued with more food stories from other parts of Scandinavia...............

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A FUN AFTERNOON WITH MY FRIENDS

Hosting a lunch for a fun-loving bunch of friends is always exciting. Off late, I find an array of appetisers and a selection of desserts to work better than an elaborate lunch. A heavy lunch is literally frowned upon these days. After a light lunch, everyone can go back to do whatever it is that they need to without feeling stuffed or drowsy. For the health-conscious guests, throw in a couple of salads. The salads can be served in small ice cream bowls or shot glasses to make it look elegant and alluring, at the same time. Here is how I went about planning and executing a lunch that I hosted recently for a bunch of girls.

It is important to know everyone's dietary preferences before planning the lunch menu. Very often there are vegetarians and we need to bare them in mind as well. Surprisingly, some of these vegetarians are partial to seafood, especially fish. I know of quite a few vegetarians who eat fish occasionally. Well, they are not technically vegetarians, are they? I am always happy when a so-called vegetarian eats a piece of fish or prawn, I take it as a compliment and feel upbeat about my food. I feel that my food smells and looks enticing enough for them to change their mind and eat a piece of it.

While planning for the appetisers, I try to keep it colourful and also look for a good mix of protein. For the non-vegetarians, I try and include one chicken dish, one mutton dish, one of fish and one of shellfish as well. I prefer not to repeat the same protein in two different dishes. If there are enough takers, beef and pork should also work well. An appetiser with cheese is generally appreciated but make sure not to have many dishes with cheese in them. Pita chips with one or many dips is also hugely popular. Store-bought pita chips can be served along with a few dips and some of these dips can be made a day ahead. A friend of mine once served pita chips with 10 different dips. I also try to keep the number of deep-fried dishes to a minimum as most of my friends are health and calorie-conscious. If your friends offer to bring food, go ahead and accept the offer as it gives you more time to focus on the dishes you are preparing and on the decor. Hosting a lunch for friends should be light and easy on the host as well.


Clockwise from top left: Vegetable sticks with red chilli pickle and cream cheese dip, Pesto Gnocchi with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, White bean crostini with truffle salt and truffle oil & Corn balls with ketchup


I laid out the pita chips with Babaganoush and Black Olive and Fig dip while my friends were trickling in. The guests can dig into them while settling down and getting to know each other, if some of the guests haven't met before. While bringing out the appetisers one after the other, it is a good idea to alternate between vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. A friend of mine brought Vegetable sticks along with a Red Chilli pickle and Cream Cheese dip. The presentation of this appetiser was very smart and colourful. She also brought Mushrooms with a Cream Cheese filling. It was one of the best appetisers of the afternoon and the serving platter was wiped clean in no time. Some of the other vegetarian appetisers were Mini Corn Balls with ketchup, White Bean Crostini with Truffle salt and Truffle oil, Pesto Gnocchi with Oven-roasted Tomatoes and Vietnamese Rice paper Rolls.

A lot of these dishes were inspired by recipes I found online and from visits to restaurants. Wherever appropriate, I have given the links to recipes. The White Bean Crostini was inspired by a recent meal at the Yauatcha in Bangalore. They have a steamed dumpling that has a filling made with pureed Edamame beans and Truffles. It was a stand-out dish at the restaurant and served as an inspiration for me to recreate a similar taste but with a different texture. Gnocchi with Pesto is an easy appetiser to prepare especially if you use store-bought Gnocchi and store-bought Pesto. I love using Oven-roasted Cherry Tomatoes in my cooking. I love to toss them in salads and in appetisers as a garnish. Cut cherry tomatoes into half and spread them on a baking tray. Drizzle with Extra virgin Olive oil, salt and pepper. Stick it into a 160C oven for about 30 to 45 mins, depending on how roasted you want them. They can be made a day ahead and stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. The Vietnamese Rice paper rolls are loosely based on a recipe by Chef Emeril Lagasse. The sauce that accompanies the rice paper rolls is always a big hit. The Rice paper rolls themselves are very light and refreshing loaded with lettuce, carrots and herbs. The salty soy and peanut sauce that accompanies it is a striking contrast and works wonderfully well.


Clockwise from top left: Shredded Buffalo Chicken in Lettuce cups with Ranch dressing, Bengali steamed Fish, Teriyaki Mutton Ribs & Vietnamese Rice paper Rolls 

Buffalo chicken wings are a firm favourite for many. So when I found the recipe for Lettuce cups with shredded Buffalo Chicken with Ranch dressing on Pinterest, I knew I had to try it for my lunch. As expected, everyone liked it very much. The Bengali steamed fish was inspired by a recipe for Prawn Chingri. I applied the coconut spice paste only on one side of the fish (on top), wrapped it in banana leaf, secured it with a thread and steamed it for about 10 minutes. I removed the steamed fish pieces from the banana leaf it was cooked in and served them on top of fresh banana leaves cut into squares. It made for a very striking presentation. The recipe for the Teriyaki Mutton ribs are from a dear friend. It has a simple marinade of light and dark soya sauce, sesame oil, green chillies, garlic, ginger and brown sugar. I marinate the mutton pieces in the marinade for a few hours and pressure cook them. Then I reduce the sauce until it becomes sticky in consistency. The dish can be garnished with finely chopped spring onion.


Desserts, Clockwise from top left: Flourless Chocolate cake, Yogurt Panna Cotta with Balsamic and Vanilla Strawberries & Miniature cupcakes with Butter Cream frosting

Now for the desserts, the most important part of a meal for many. A friend of mine baked these really cute Bite-sized cupcakes in pink and blue colour with a simple butter cream frosting. It was the perfect size for a cupcake as we could eat one of these cupcakes and try the other desserts too. The kids may not appreciate this size but it definitely is the ideal size for cupcakes for adults. If I am making more than 1 dessert, I always make sure that at least 1 of the desserts has chocolate in it. For this special lunch I baked a rich Flourless Chocolate cake along with the other desserts. The consistency of the cake is much better if its baked the previous day and stored in the refrigerator overnight.

My final and most popular dessert that afternoon was the Yogurt Panna Cotta with Balsamic Strawberries. It is a very simple dessert to make and almost always bowls by guests over with delight. Unlike, many panna cotta recipes I have come across, this one does not have any cream in it. It uses a combination of milk and yogurt. You need to get the right amount of gelatin in order to get a good consistency. Depending on the gelatin leaves or the brand of gelatin flakes you use, you may have to alter the quantity of gelatin to get the right consistency. This may require a couple of attempts but the results make it worthwhile. The same Panna Cotta can be served with other fruit compotes as well. The original recipe for this panna cotta calls for an orange compote but I always serve this with the balsamic strawberries, the recipe for which I found elsewhere on the internet. If strawberries are not in season, any other seasonal fruit compote can be used depending on your liking. I also recommend that you make this panna cotta a day ahead and refrigerate it overnight. That way, you will be sure that it is set and not have a Masterchef moment of 'has it set or has it not?'.

A lot of these dishes were inspired by recipes I found online and from visits to restaurants. The following are links to recipes that served as inspirations to make some of the dishes for my lunch.

Vietnamese Rice paper Rolls - http://www.emerils.com/121508/vietnamese-spring-rolls
Buffalo Chicken in Lettuce cups and Ranch dressing - http://www.ellaclaireinspired.com/2014/01/buffalo-chicken-lettuce-wraps.html
Bengali Steamed Fish - http://www.bongcook.com/2012/06/chingri-or-prawn-paturi.html
Flourless Chocolate cake - http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/jacques-easy-chocolate-cake-recipe0.html
Yogurt Panna Cotta - http://www.williams-sonoma.com/recipe/yogurt-panna-cotta-flecked-with-vanilla-bean.html?cm_src=RECIPESEARCH
Balsamic Strawberries - http://www.passionateaboutbaking.com/2013/04/baking-bittersweet-fallen-chocolate-gateau.html

I hope you enjoy trying out some of these recipes. My friends and I had a lot of fun that afternoon and everybody went home with a full belly and a big smile on their faces. I can't wait to plan my next lunch or dinner for my friends. It is always exciting and fulfilling to cook for family and friends.