Oct 31, 2011

An Italian Affair

I think this will be the first time I will agree with Vir Sanghvi and say “old school dining” needs to make a comeback. His logic states that as the middle class started eating at ‘fine dining’ establishments, it was their (supposed) awkwardness towards elaborate dining etiquettes that made restaurants rethink their service style. But now things are going back to fabric serviettes and spotless glasses, usually changed with every refill. And I saw evidence of that at three places last month, Ummami in Gurgaon, The Westin Coffee Shop in Gurgaon and at the Italian Food Festival in Blooms, Eros Hotel managed by Hilton, Nehru Place, New Delhi. So I suppose he is right to some extent! I get thrilled by little nuances like chocolate coated teaspoons served with the cappuccino at The Westin, how the bread basket at Spectra at the Leela is always fresh and always unique, the peanuts at the Monk, Galaxy Hotel are the best and how silent and subdued Baywatch (versus the show, I mean) at WelcomHotel Sheraton is! For me it’s always the food AND the little things, the finer things. They add meaning to the value of the meal. With so many aspiring and astounding home chefs, people no longer eat out for just the cuisine or the chef, they eat out for the experiential value. Establishments now need to wake up and take note, fortunately some have!

The Italian lunch Blooms, Eros Hotel managed by Hilton, Nehru Place, New Delhi was where I had all these thoughts, it was being helped immensely by the weather God’s, the Al Fresco spread added further charm to already prepped ambience. I love the way glasses sparkle outdoors, I love the way silverware reflects the green and I love the way food looks in natural light. This holds true for me mainly because I have always loved lunches over dinners and the outdoors over dining rooms. Dinner with friends should be a huge selection of drinks and Tapas style eating peppered with amazing conversation. Sitting around a table, lounging over champagne is definitely an afternoon thing to do!

Another thing I love to do is meet the chef, my husband feels it’s a tad much but I really need to see the face behind the food. In that respect, today was special too, the chef had a brief albeit fruitful meeting with the bunch of us. The introduction for his food showed his love for his work and immediately I hoped that passion had permeated the food. Well, it had! The starters rolled in and I was most struck by the rustic plating style that Italians seem to love, the obviously construed yet oh-so-clumsy drops of dressing, the platters looked straight out of Jamie’s (Oliver) magazine! The only problem with pretty food is the rise it causes in expectation levels, fortunately for us, the food lived up to its prettiness. I loved the Bresaola, a first time for me, thin slices of beef rolled over fresh, soft, seasoned cheese. I didn’t expect the slight sweet kick but it was so perfect in there, that I think I smiled through this one! The other stars of the starter selection were the mushroom topped Vol-Au-Vents (though they could have been warmer, I am a big fan of hot/cold foods, so these could have been more spectacular for me!) and the Aurbergine Rolls, oh the aubergine rolls.

How the stature of this humble veggie has elevated, in a cuisine that actually glorifies it across regions and meal courses. They were filled with chewy, flavoursome sundried tomatoes and I was certain this wasn’t vegetarian fare…it was! There was a pretty audible ahhhh when these made the rounds, good to know that most palates know what’s good for them! I loved the presentation of the prawns sitting pretty atop a mini pyramid of rice, corn and veggie salad. I missed the sweetness of the prawn however! The Parma Ham was lovely, fresh and perfect with a chunk of melon, I wonder if a low-on-the-sweet melon was chosen intentionally because it paired well with the salty ham. I was less indulgent with the bocconcini because I prefer the softer variety. All in all, I was a happy camper!

So far the meal was gathering more and more promise. The white wine paired with the starters was perfect and going down a bit too easy coupled with the sparkling wine (wish I had asked which one it was!!), I was ready for the main course. There are two meats in my book that need to flag off a meal that’s meant to be special – lamb or beef. I am okay with the fish and seafood tucked away in the appetizers but please make my main course hearty!

Which is why I chose the Roasted Rack of Lamb to start my lunch with, tender, juicy, needs more sauce at some point but marries the shallots confit wholeheartedly, nice, let’s move on! Pollo al Mattone, not a ‘pollo in public’ person at all but I will give it a go because it had one of my favourite words in the prep – roasted! Chicken for me is home eating on a day when there is paucity of time and no other meat immediately available. This was nice, easy on the palate, good break from the red meat and until I spotted something frightfully green. Going back to husbands sound advice – eat it if it smells good not coz it looks good, I thought “ok Andy, I will” … and boy am I glad I did. The Spinach Flan with the parmesan fondue was a smack in your face dish. Light, airy, how and where did Chef Stefano put all that flavour I could taste and I hadn’t even dunked the flan in the fondue yet, very well done, worth the last bit of food space (dessert space exists elsewhere!) in my stomach. This was getting better by the bite because that wasn’t all! I am surprised I am more exhausted writing this than I was eating ALL that.

The Saffron Risotto, that for me was the magical moment, the moment I ask for the Chef, how can I taste saffron in your Risotto when I can NEVER taste it in anything saffron served here… all he said was ‘be generous’… ‘Be Generous’ …what a wonderfully gregarious statement and so absolutely bang on! The risotto was creamy not sticky, wholesome not heavy and flavoursome not spiced, this was the real deal! I passed on the potatoes because I can’t waste space on frivolities and the Pan Seared Sea Bass passed by me but this meal was as complete as a meal can and should be!

Left with only dessert space I was happy to see martini glasses of Tiramisu, lightly sweetened, fluffy with a mild espresso flavour, I couldn’t have eaten anymore than this. I heard a few people talk about the lack of alcohol in the dessert and personally I have always felt Amaretto sometimes makes the ladyfingers taste boozy in a fermented way, so I didn’t actually miss the alcohol at all.

By now I was in a good place in my mind. The meal was served over an hour and a half of gentle, cool breeze, lush green palm fronds, great company and the buzz that beautiful lunches tend to have. Eating with the chef at the head of the table was a Masterchef-ish moment and it made the meal a little more personal, a little more special. I would go back, I would sit outdoors, I would ask for the same wine and then I would eat… that exact same courses, in the exact same order! As they say in Italy - Mangia bene, vivi felice (eat well, live happy)

Oct 28, 2011

Shirazine Chicken Pot Pies!

I can’t stop talking about simplicity! I keep going back to my old school favourites like Joy the Baker and Smitten Kitchen because the moment I wander into Alton Brown and Rachel Ray and I am smacked with a thousand ingredients to make one wonderful dish. Though it is these guys who inspire me to improvise in the kitchen, work on easier, quicker versions of wonderful foods we sometimes only just read about, I feel a lot of the ingredients are there for the celebrity value of the meal and can be done without!

Chancing upon a recipe is about as exciting as finding the best ever pair of boots and that usually happens to me after a dose of food magazines. This week I have browsed through a dozen magazines, from Bon Appetit to GoodFood UK and they do killer meats, no doubt, meats and desserts. So this whole week has been about lemon squares, apple cupcakes, homemade burgers, shepherd’s pies and fish en papillotes. It was after an order of 4 chicken tetrazzini’s that I found 2 marinated chicken breasts in the back of the fridge, wow 2 days of marinating, this is good stuff! I had puff pastry, the chicken, cream and celery, this could be so many awesome things but I wanted something winter-y, so pot pie was what it turned out to be! I was sure we would miss the mushrooms but you’d be surprised how much celery and puff pastry makes up for!

Shirazine Chicken Pot Pie

Chicken breasts x 2, marinated in worcestshire, garlic, salt, pepper, Tabasco and sugar.

Olive oil to fry chicken

3 tbsp flour

1 ½ cup warm milk

½ cup cream, room temp

Salt & Pepper

2 spring onions sliced

2-3 leaves and 3” stalk celery sliced

6-7 garlic cloves smashed

4 tbsp bits of mild cheddar, small dice

Marinate chicken overnight or 6 hrs +. Make cuts for better cooking and a grilled look. Pan fry in olive oil on high, 4-5 mins on each side, i turn them over just once, i like the pan blackening the meat and i don’t like to disturb the colour. You can take these out when 90% done or so ...coz they will cook again in the sauce/oven and if u plan to reheat leftovers! Remove chicken, sweat the onions and garlic in the same hot greased pan, add the celery, fry for a minute or so, add the flour, use a whisk to gently mix it around to coat the veggies, pour in the warm milk, use a wooden spoon to keep mixing this on low, so it thicken slowly and u can work out the lump situation. Once it is thin custard consistency, add the cream, season with salt and pepper. Cut the chicken into thin slices, add to the sauce, fold it all in, drop in the cheddar bits. Cook for few minutes till it’s the consistency of thick custard, if you use good cheddar you will see the cheese strings in the sauce.

Roll out some puff pastry dough, fold over twice and roll out again, roll to the size of your baking dish or if you use ramekins then its way cuter, you can roll out and use cookie cutters to cut puff shapes for the crust, bake on 180 till the puff’s done, around 4-5 minutes or so. Serve hot!

This is the kind of dish that I want to have when I’m sad and when I’m happy, it’s a total upper for me! Andy is still away and we miss him as the weather turns. This is his kind of dish and he would be the guy wiping off the bowl. So when I look at the leftovers the next morning, I am taken aback by its presence and then I realize why cooking for people is soooo much more satisfying than cooking for the heck of it!

Oct 22, 2011

My French Connection

What is it about bakery’s that draws us to them? Most don’t have a kitchen attached which makes them less fragrant ..Is it the way desserts and savouries look or is it the exotica factor? I wonder this because of an experience I had today. And like most culinary experiences I have had this was one that I was waiting for! I am a big one for scrounging out what I think are the best bakery’s, so when I read about L’Opera in Khan Market, my curiosity peaked and soared ... I would have loved to go with my wonderful and talented friend Avanti, a bakery chef from Culinary Institute of America but I was equally happy going with my hugely foodie pal, Poorna! A fair food critique and lover of all things yum! Khan market was the same lovable packed mess and we found L’Opera placed rather prime in the front corner! Of course the macarons in the window swayed me, petit, pretty, colourful yums always do... did I like the whoopie pie like cakes, not to look at ...no! The inside was busy with an assortment of Indian and westerners, much like these bakeries usually are, that too is no sign of what you can expect. Like the time when the German Bakery at Vasant Kunj was packed with frustrated Europeans hating the baked cheesecake and then I went on to hate it too...so can never say!

I didn’t want anything ordinary and was happy to know there was nothing close to that in this bakery. Besides their signature desserts they had a beautiful looking lemon tart, flat, like they should be ...not puffy and filled with godawful custard, cream or worse still, sponge (cake)!! It has four petit peaks of meringue and a wafer thin square of chocolate, promising! The next thing I picked was the Baba (the Rhum part was missing?!) ... a dessert I had read a lot about, made once and never had outside of India. I could smell the citrus and the fruit looked great but a tad minimal and the filling was a buttery version of homemade fresh custard, or their version of pastry cream, nice ...less flavoursome than I feel it should be! I knew these guys were brioche kings, so this one had to be not just good but great! And then I picked my all time favourite, a French heart ...another one of my sweet-salt balance foods, the kind I love! This was going to be dinner! The thing about French pastry is how delicate it is, so when you look at the amount of dough/batter going into a wonderfully fluffy dessert, it is never a lot. The whole deal is technique, exquisite ingredients and balance... making it very special!

It was 7 pm when I opened the box to enjoy my dinner. I had tried the French heart with Ally a while earlier and though the crunch was perfect, they were a tad salty for me... the ones in Defence Bakery in Defence Colony are better and 1/3rd the price! Maybe I ought to have started with the ‘baba’ but the lemon tart had sat a while and that was affecting the taste every passing minute. I dug in, the meringue was lovely...creamy, soft, mild tender crust...fun! The tart was perfect shortbread but the lemon curd, of the lemon curd, not lemony enough and too sweet. It had the colour and texture but it was also throat scratchy sweet...sad! The ‘baba’ was enjoyed an hour later with lemon palate and the want of something more... that something more came and went in a breeze. The cake was perfect in texture and bounce, the flavours were way too mild and I thought, if this is the real thing, it’s not for me, where ..where was my syrup? I wouldn’t write this place off, not at all, that is never the intention of talking about an establishment, it’s a perspective, maybe I have unreasonable expectations but at Rs. 450 for all that, shouldn’t I?

I am blessed to know Avanti... the first thing I ate that she made was Petit Fours and they were everything I had read about, expected, every flavour founds its way into my brain and even  my 5 year old was going gaga. Ditto for her Madeleine’s, drageed almonds (OMG), the biscotti ...of the chunks of solid chocolate that are somehow the exact colour of the biscotti are such little surprises, frequent and just when you miss them! I could go on! Maybe I will because the Opera dessert she sent us for Diwali was yet another magnificent treat. Every layer was neat, precise, individualistic and entwined, connected ...yet in a flavour spectrum of its own! The Opera dessert from what I had read was a dreamy combination of delicate almond biscuit, chocolate ganache, coffee buttercream, and chocolate glaze, a very refined and decadent layer cake.  Thank you Avanti for introducing us to a whole new world of ‘desserts’!

This disappointment had to be defeated ...

(To be continued....)

Next week – the return of the ‘Brownie’!