Balconies and Baked Yoghurts

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It’s the first night it’s been warm enough to sit out on the balcony. The city lights shimmer in the distance, a deceptively calm façade to the Friday night revelry within. To the right, the single red glow atop the harbour bridge winks in its rhythm, in conversation with its twin that adorns the tip of centre-point tower. To the left of the nightscape is the distinct neon green squiggle of the holiday inn, a fluorescent stairway to heaven that is another reference point. The lights merge into a softly shimmering veil on the water of the harbour, now still without even a moving boat to disturb its surface.

From across the road, a wall of jasmine sends tendrils of sweetness over the railing, a comforting reminder of spring.  Below, a couple enjoy an evening stroll, elderly dog pottering on a lead before them. Diffuse puddles of light created by street lamps briefly illuminate the tops of their heads as they make their way down the street. Somewhere in the distance, base notes of dance music are scattered into the neighbourhood breeze from a house party. It’s loud enough to remind me that someone, somewhere is on a dance floor, but far enough away to leave me glad that it isn’t me.

There are worse ways to spend a Friday evening.

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This dessert, if you get it right, is like scented silk.  The recipe’s simplicity is almost deceptive, and it almost seems unfair that something so divine can be so easy. It is an Indian dessert, but one I didn’t grow up with so when it was first made for me, I was in awe. While it is simple to make, it does take a little planning due to the hanging of the curd, baking, and chilling before it is ready to serve. Its’ texture is not unlike pannacotta if you get the baking time right. If you over-bake it, it will be a little coarser and more reminiscent of a cheesecake, and still lovely.

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Indian Sweet Baked Yoghurt with Cherry Vanilla Sauce

Makes 6

Get:
1 ½ cups full fat Greek yoghurt
1 tin sweetened condensed milk
¾ cup full-fat milk
Seeds of 6-8 cardamom pods, roughly powdered
Seeds of ½ a vanilla bean or ½ tsp vanilla paste
A few strands of saffron
Crushed nuts to serve

For the sauce:
200g pitted cherries, fresh or frozen
2 tbsp sugar
Squeeze of lemon juice
Seeds of ½ a vanilla bean or ½ tsp vanilla paste

Make:

Place the yoghurt in the centre of a piece of cheesecloth (for those in Australia, a clean Chux cloth works well). Tie the opposite corners together and suspend the curd from a low height where the whey can drip out. Try the faucet or a wooden spoon laid across the top of a bucket. Allow to hang for 1-2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 180 C.

If using saffron, warm a couple of tablespoons of the milk and add the saffron. Set aside for a few minutes. Place the thickened yoghurt, condensed milk, vanilla and cardamom in a large mixing bowl. Whisk or beat with an electric beater on low speed until combined. Add the milk and saffron milk (if using) and beat again until combined.

Divide the mixture between 6 ramekins or glasses. Place these in a deep oven dish and pour water into the dish and around the glasses so that the water level is ½ to ¾ to the level of yoghurt mixture. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the yoghurts are set but still wobbly. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.

To make the cherry sauce, place the sauce ingredients into a thick-bottomed saucepan with the vanilla bean husk if you used a bean. Add a splash of water (about ¼ cup). Bring to the boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer on low heat for about half an hour, or until the cherries are easy to break down. Allow to cool, then discard the vanilla bean and blitz the mixture in a food processor until it is a rough puree. Spoon the mixture into the glasses on top of the chilled baked yoghurt. Top with crushed nuts just before serving.

Cucumber Raita

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I’ve been dabbling in a spot of scuba diving. A surprise to myself as well as those who know me. Being painfully un-athletic and colossally uncoordinated (who put that wall there?!), I never saw myself in a wetsuit, 20-something metres underwater, breathing from a tank and incredibly, not freaking out!

Being a serial over-thinker is something I’ve had to push aside. Because really, if I allowed myself the luxury of thinking about it……………..I am underwater, people!! Breathing from a tank!! With compressed air in my lungs!! Air that can diffuse into my bloodstream and form painful bubbles if I come to the surface too quickly!! This is not natural!! Humans were not supposed to breathe underwater!! What was I thinking?? Why would I jump out of a perfectly good boat or walk off a perfectly good shore to breathe through a tank underwater?!?!

So as you can see, my usual over-thinking habit has no place here. Instead, I am learning to quiet my mind and enjoy the peace and beauty of the underwater world. The stillness and slowness and floatiness of it all makes it a beautiful, almost a meditative experience.

If I’m lucky, I’ll see something awesome to distract me when my mind wanders to unwanted places. A gorgeous school of fish, zebra-striped with fluorescent green dorsal fins, engaged in a perfectly coordinated dance. An underwater flash mob.  Or will it be a baby shark, hiding under a soft coral, biding its time until it is big enough to survive the big bad ocean?

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Raita has nothing to do with scuba diving. Nothing whatsoever. There is nothing unnatural about this refreshing yoghurt dish, a standard side in every Indian restaurant. It is the cooling element to any Indian meal. This is the way I like it, with a base of smooth yoghurt, sans cream and sugar which seem to feature in many restaurant versions.  Ginger and some light spices give it depth but keep it light and refreshing. Finally, tempered cumin seeds add a crunch that makes you want to interpose them between your front teeth just to enjoy it.

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Cucumber Raita

Get:

2 cups loose/watery plain yoghurt OR 1 1/2 cups yoghurt and 1/2 cup water
2-3 cm ginger, finely grated
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/4 tsp mild paprika (optional)
Salt to taste
1 telegraph cucumber or 2 small lebanese cucumbers, finely diced (peeled or unpeeled)
1/2 small red onion, finely diced (omit this if you dislike raw onion)

For the Tempering:

1 1/2 tsp vegetable/canola/sunflower oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
4 or 5 curry leaves
2 dried red chillies
Small handful coriander, roughly chopped

Make:

Place yoghurt (or yoghurt + water) in a large bowl with ginger, cumin powder, coriander powder, paprika and 1/2 tsp salt. Stir with a whisk until well combined and smooth. Taste and add more salt if needed- the mixture should only be salty enough to neutralise the tartness of the yoghurt.  The mixture should be no thicker than a pancake batter, so add a little more water and stir through if needed.

Add cucumber and onion and stir through gently.

In a small non-stick pan, heat the oil. Turn the heat down to low-medium and add the cumin seeds. Once they have popped, add curry leaves and dried chillies. Fry for a minute or two until the leaves are crisp. If using fresh leaves, you may need to step back or use a lid to protect yourself from oil splutter (see my post on tempering here).  Add the oil mixture to the Raita and stir through.

Garnish with coriander and serve as a side dish.

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Curry Leaf Thambuli

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My parents are farmers, of sorts.

Not really, but in one corner of the garden is a curry leaf tree of grand proportions.  It towers above the hibiscus, overshadows the quietly achieving chilli plants and puts the tiny basil crop to shame.  The slender, lustrous leaves caress the fence and carpet the garden bed, softly making their presence known.  They tickle your face as you walk past, filling the nostrils with their subtle but unmistakable scent.

It is quite common for Indian families to have a curry leaf plant.  The herb is a staple in South Indian cuisine, most dishes bearing a scattering of the deep green leaves.  That they aid digestion is well known, but curry leaves are also packed with iron, buzzing with antioxidants and help regulate blood glucose levels.

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Couple that with the fact that a small package of shriveled leaves, their fragrance but a distant memory, will set you back at least four dollars in most Australian supermarkets, and growing your own just makes good sense.  My parents’ version however, is one of mammoth proportions that surpasses what is dictated by that good sense.  It turns out that this particular Indian has taken a liking to Aussie climate and soil.  This piece of urban foliage could probably supply a small Indian city or a large Indian town without too much trouble.  It certainly does supply a sizable sector of my parents’ friends circle on a regular basis and anyone who dares to ask for a few curry leaves is usually bombarded with an overstuffed shopping bag of vegetation that will suffice for the coming year or so.

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The tree’s offspring have been adopted out to various friends and colleagues in the past and are now thriving like leafy teenagers in pots and backyards.  When it begins to flourish out of control, Dad has been forced to prune the tree back lest it completely destroy their pergola and invade the garden, engulfing the house and possibly even the entire street.

This Curry Leaf Thambuli sees the leaves blended with fresh coconut and yoghurt to make a spicy cold soup or condiment.  This is another recipe from my cousin Chaithra, you know, the one who brought you that delicious ivy gourd and coconut dish, Thondekaye Sukha.  You will have to make a trip to the local Indian store for this one, and a good food processor is important.  Eat it on its own, stir it through rice or even drizzle it onto a piece of grilled, Indian spiced fish.  Should you find yourself in possession of a large overstuffed shopping bag of these leaves, this is a fabulous way to use them up in a healthy, nutrient-rich way.  If you do not have access to such a bounty, well then the investment is probably worthwhile.

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Curry Leaf Thambuli

Serves 2-4 as a side dish

Get:

2 tsp ghee
70-80 curry leaves (or the leaves from 4 sprigs)
1/3 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut
1 cm ginger
1-2 hot green chillies (I used frozen ones), to taste
1 tbsp + 1/4 cup Greek style yoghurt
Water
Salt, to taste

For the tempering:
1/2 tsp ghee
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
1 dried red chilli, broke into pieces
Pinch asafoetida
2 tsp urad dhal

Make:

In a small saucepan, melt and heat 2 tsp ghee.  Add the curry leaves.  If they are fresh, they will splutter, so stand back.  When they are browned and crisp, take off the heat and allow to cool a little.

In a food processor, blitz the ghee/curry leaf mixture, coconut, ginger, green chillies 1 tbsp yoghurt and a couple of tbsp water.  When it is a slightly coarse paste, add it to the remaining yoghurt in a bowl.  Add 1/4 tsp salt and stir through.  Taste and add a little more salt if needed.  The mixture should be spicy and slightly sour.  The salt serves to balance out the sourness of the yoghurt.

In a small saucepan, on medium heat, melt and heat the ghee.  Add the mustard and cumin seeds and when they are popping, turn the heat down to low.  Add the other tempering ingredients and stir until the urad dhal browns a little.  If it is browning quickly, take the pan off the heat and just stir the hot oil mixture.  Add a few more curry leaves if available and stir until they are crisp.

Add the tempered mixture to the Thambuli and stir through.  Serve with rice or as a sauce.

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Spiced Apple and Ginger Relish

A good relish recipe is something we should all have in our condiment repertoire.  The store-bought ones tend to be loaded with sugar and preservatives, and there is something so satisfying, so hard-core about making condiments at home.

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This one takes a little grating and a blending of spices.  Then it’s just stewing, covered, while the fruit’s juices fuse with the slightly feisty ginger and the spices weave themselves in amongst it all.  It is best if you ignore it for a day or so, then enjoy it when the spices are allowed to develop their flavours and settle into the sweet, tart mixture.  Spread it on toast over some good butter, or on crackers with a sharp cheddar or creamy soft white cheese.  Dollop it onto a piece of meat or fish, or generously into a burger.  Nibble on slices of toasted haloumi with this relish smeared over it for a protein-filled snack.

I used the new Greenstar apples, which, interestingly are so packed with Vitamin C that they do not brown for hours after they are cut.  Other green apples such as Granny Smiths would also work, but I would lessen the amount of apple cider vinegar you use as they tend to be more tart.

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Spiced Apple & Ginger Relish

Get:

1 tsp coconut oil
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
3 green apples, grated
5cm ginger finely grated
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4-1/2 tsp chilli powder
1/4 tsp powdered cinnamon
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp rice syrup or honey
1/2 tsp salt
Water

For the Spice Mix:
1/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
4-6 fenugreek seeds
The seeds from 2 cardamom pods

Make:

In a non-stick pan, roast the spice mix on low heat until they are fragrant.  Grind to a powder.

In a large non-stick saucepan, heat the oil, then reduce to a low heat.  Add the whole cumin seeds and once they have popped, add the spice mix, turmeric, chilli powder and cinnamon.  Fry, stirring, for a couple of minutes.  Add the ginger and fry for a minute or so.

Add the grated apple and increase to a medium heat.  Stir to coat the apple in the spices and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Add syrup, vinegar and salt and stir through well.  Pour in 1/3-1/2 cup water, stir and cover.  Cook for 5-7 minutes until the mixture is reduced.  Repeat this twice more (adding water and cooking covered), until the apple is very tender.

Store in an airtight, preferably sterilised jar in the fridge for 2-4 weeks.

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Dessert Wontons with Sweet Dipping Sauce

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It’s not quite a recipe, really.  More like an assembling of things to be steamed, dipped and devoured.  It all started when I was invited to a Chinese themed High Tea at Four Friends, and I started to wonder what I could contribute given my very limited Asian dessert repertoire.  The thought that lingered in my mind was one of dessert wontons.

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You see, us Indians make a steamed rice parcel stuffed with coconut and jaggery that if done right, will fall apart in the mouth leaving behind a puddle of seductively melted brown sugar and chewy coconut.  How I went from contemplating modakam, and onto deciding to stuff my wontons with peanut butter, chocolate and coconut is probably a function of my ever tangental mind.

If you don’t have a bamboo steamer, you could use a metal colander sprayed with a little oil or lined with grease-proof paper, in a large covered pot with water in the bottom of it.  However you make them, they are best eaten fresh and dipped generously in the sauce.

Oh! And speaking of sweets…..if you live in Sydney and are of a sugary inclination, don’t forget to enter the giveaway to win tickets to the Cake Bake and Sweets Show March 21 – 23 here.

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Nutty, Chocolatey Dessert Wontons with Coconut Dipping Sauce

Makes about 15

Get:
75 g dark chocolate
1/3 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1-2 tbsp rice syrup or honey

Wonton Wrappers

For the dipping sauce:
1/3 cup coconut cream
2 tsp rice syrup
Few strands saffron (optional)

Make:

Blitz the filling ingredients together in a food processor until a coarse paste forms.  Start with 1 tbsp syrup and add more if you prefer it sweeter.

Fill the wonton wrappers.  I used about a tsp of mixture per wrapper, placed it in the centre and folded the edges together.  I used a little water around the edges to make them stick.

Sprinkle the wontons with water and steam them for about 20-25 mins, or until the wrappers are cooked.

Make the dipping sauce by whisking the ingredients together well.

Serve the wontons with dipping sauce for dessert.

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Quick Mango Pickle

“It’s a bit industrial”

My Irish friend said, spoon in one hand, plate piled high with rice, rasam and pickle in the other.

“But I like it!” 

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The first taste of Indian pickle to the unaccustomed palate must be akin to the initial experience of India to the first time visitor.  A little too much of everything, all at once.  Pungent. Industrial. A cacophony of noise, each note seemingly competing with the other.  Car horns and auto-rickshaw toots. The cries of hawkers, beggars and babies. Bollywood music and giggling school girls. Smells……the hunger inducing ones like fresh pakoras fried at a roadside stand mingling with that of diesel fumes from passing trucks and dung from more slowly passing cows.  Dust clinging to skin with the cloying humidity.   The sun’s unrelenting blaze reflected from every metallic surface.

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It is the saltiness that registers first, which goes some way to balance the tartness that follows.  The spices sing their soprano notes and for a moment the tongue is seized up with the too muchness of it all.  A soft, yielding flesh made so by its’ weeks to months of steeping in acidic juices.  The liquid gold gravy with its’ many-layered flavours coats the tongue and finally electrifies the back of the throat with a flash of heat.

An assault to the senses and chaos to a first-timer, but one where everything, somehow, just works.

This is a cheat’s mango pickle, but one that delivers all of the palate stimulation that properly pickled pickles do.  A chop and stir fry later, you have in your hands a spicy, sour condiment that can be eaten traditionally with rice, spread onto a sandwich or relished however you please.

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Quick Mango Pickle

Makes about a cup

Get:

2 raw green mangoes, flesh diced into 1-1 1/2 cm pieces
3 tbsp vegetable, sunflower or canola oil
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp asafoetida
2 1/2 tsp rasam powder
1 tsp chilli powder
2-3 tsp salt

Make:

In a large, non-stick fry pan, heat the oil.  Add the mustard seeds and reduce the heat to low.  Once they have popped, add all the other spices except for the salt.  Stir gently and fry on low heat for about 1 to 2 mins.

Add the diced mangoes, then 2 tsp salt and toss to coat the mango pieces in the spices.  Cook on medium heat for 1 minute.  Taste and add a little more salt if the pickle is still very tart.  Toss and cook for another few seconds or until the mango pieces are tender, but not falling apart.

Store in clean, dry, airtight jars and refrigerate for up to a month.

Notes:
Raw green mangoes and the spices, including rasam mix are available at Indian grocers.  The more green and tart the mangoes are, the better.
You could probably use coconut oil if you wish, but that will impart its own flavour to the pickle.

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